Vanishing Point opening address by Isobel Parker Phillip
Hazelhurst Regional Gallery April 2018
An island is defined by its circumference. Encircled and enclosed, it is a distinct and self-defined site. As such, it is often conceptualised as existing at a remove. It is a place apart, seen from a distance.
All too often, our conceptualisation of an island presumes and privileges a viewpoint that is located on the mainland – whatever or wherever that may be. It is a view that looks out towards and at but not from an island. It sees the island as a disconnected mass.
To focus on perspective and point of view in this context is both imperative and instructive, because the cultural image or idea of an island that we have inherited – an island as an oasis, as a paradise, as exotic (to use that fraught term) – has been formulated from a point of remove. It is a colonial fabrication and a tactic of othering. Because an island is only an island in relation to something else. No matter where you’re standing, irrespective of geographic scale, isn’t the ground under your feet the mainland? When you’re in Europe, Australia is an island, when you’re in Sydney, that designation is given to Tasmania. It follows, then, that to define something as an island is to define it as other, as over there.
An island is both an optical and an imperialist conceit. It is a way of regarding and classifying something as remote, as foreign, as unfamiliar.
For an island to adhere to our existing expectations of it as a site – to expectations that have been shaped by western literature, western films, western pop culture – it must remain unfamiliar and unknowable. The islands that occupy our cultural consciousness exist outside ‘society’ as it has been construed within a civic space; they are inhabited by strange and surreal creatures; they are dark and dangerous. They are places in which we get lost and in which we may lose ourselves. Jurassic Park, Gulliver’s Travels, the TV show Lost, Lord of the Flies, Shutter Island, Robinson Crusoe, Eat Pray Love. Islands are places where things come undone, where the real begins to erode.
They are - by nature and by extension - a kind of mirage. How then do we ‘image’ an island? That question, I feel, is the pivot point of this exhibition. Having been called upon to respond to the show, I must attempt to offer my own answer. I must push at the edge, as it were, of the subject in question. This address is going to be appropriately circuitous. Please bear with me as I indulge a narrative tangent.
While we are spoilt for choice when searching for an allegorical illustration of the island as other – as alien – it is in the novella The Invention of Morel, written in 1940 by Argentinian Adolfo Bioy Casares, Jorge Luis Borges’ close friend and collaborator, that we find a concise explication of the island as a kind of optical illusion. As a mirage.
Bioy Casares’ novella centres on the plight of a self-exiled protagonist seeking refuge on a secluded island to escape imprisonment for an unidentified crime. The island is unoccupied, its terrain allegedly infected with a virus that eats human skin. Undeterred, the protagonist makes himself at home. But the island isn’t uninhabited. A group of people, dressed as if they were living in the 1920s, appear suddenly one day and populate the once empty buildings. Tea for two is played over and over again as the insipid backdrop to their seemingly endless garden party.
At first, the protagonist hides and observes these unexpected guests from afar. He notices a woman – Faustine – who returns each evening to a rocky outcrop to watch the sunset. He falls in love with her.
When the protagonist finally plucks up the courage to introduce himself, she looks straight through him. They all do. None of his island companions can see him. They cohabit the same space but not the same time. Their worlds do not bleed into one another. He does not exist in their narrative.
We soon learn the mechanics of this temporal intransigence. His fellow island dwellers do not possess corporeal bodies, they are mere projections.
Many years ago, a scientist – Morel, also in love with Faustine – developed a recording device capable of transcribing sensory data in its totality. It was a camera that also records tactile form, sonic data and olfactory output.
To quote Morel:
With my machine a person or an animal or a thing is like the station that broadcasts the concert you hear on the radio. If you turn the dial for the olfactory waves, you will smell the jasmine perfume on Madeleine’s throat, without seeing her. By turning the dial of the tactile waves, you will be able to stroke her soft, invisible hair and learn, like the blind, to know things by your hands. But if you turn all the dials at once, Madeleine will be reproduced completely, and she will appear exactly as she is… sounds, tactile sensations, flavors, odors, temperatures, all synchronized perfectly.
Morel lured his friends to the island and secretly recorded their activities for a week. Ever since, their simulacral counterparts have been re-enacting these events on a loop. Through his virtual double, Morel can spend eternity with Faustine.
Bioy Casares’ protagonist, the interloper, is thrown into this projected reality. Those with whom he shares his space – now long dead – are trapped in a pseudo-cinematic trance. Their lives have become a loop of celluloid caught in a projector.
Here, the island becomes a filmic (or photographic) site. It is a place where reproductions live, where the image is immaterial.
In Bioy Casares’ text, I would like to propose, we can locate something of prelude to this exhibition. Like the text, the show attends to the island as an ‘othered’ site – as a space outside and apart, as it is so routinely diagnosed within the colonial narrative – by presenting the island as a fantasy; as pure simulation; as the projected image of ‘other’. But then it poses a counter proposition, asking how the colonial narrative can be inverted and seen from the other side.
What Bioy Casares’ text anticipates in this exhibition is not simply a neat allegory. It is an understanding of the slipperiness of photography – the way the show positions photography as artifice; as deception; as partial hallucination.
This exhibition delivers us images – moving images, static images, abstract images, images made purely of light, images made by incisions in Perspex – but then just as swiftly takes them away. Forms are phantom-like and indistinct. We are made to question what it is we are looking at. These works are somewhat impenetrable by design. This isn’t photography as exposure or direct document. It is photography as a means of concealment. It is photography that holds its subject at bay – at a slight remove or at a distance.
We look at these images from the same vantage point that we look at islands. From afar; from a position of unfamiliarity. We look at them as we would a mirage.
As in The Invention of Morel, the image islands we are surrounded by here, in the gallery, are inhabited by ghosts. These are the kind of ghosts that populate all photographs, insofar as a photograph – any photograph – is an index and a record of time past. Because that’s the thing about photography – it belongs to ghosts.
All photographs exist in a similar state to the people trapped in a cinematic loop in Bioy Casares’ text. Within the frame of a photograph – within its circumference (its island-like edge) – a projected and immaterial image of the world is preserved for posterity. A world that we look at but not from. A world we see through the optics of the ‘other’ or ‘over there’ – for once it has been taken, a photographed moment can never be re-lived. It becomes like an island itself. Inaccessible, unfamiliar.
If any photograph is an island, then what do we have here? In this room? In the material at hand?
In this show about islands and how we see them – or rather, how they slip from view – we have a meditation on the medium itself. A meditation on photography as a means of isolating and othering its subject. As a means of plucking it from the world and making it present but also making it inaccessible; unfamiliar; and unknowable. As a means of making things vanish even when we can see them. When they hide in plain sight.
This exhibition attempts to ‘image’ an island and, in doing so, attempts to unpack the very nature of the image itself.
Isobel Parker Philip, April 2018