Esther Windsor

Sarah Dobai

Short Story Piece

7th October - 6 November 2005

PV 8th October 6-10pm - open Mon-Fri. 12 - 6pm

1000000mph project space

59 Old Bethnal Green Road, London E2 6QA

Curated by Esther Windsor

Mental Events are like the pearls on an invisible chain, a chain largely invisible precisely because so many of the links are unconscious. (Freud 1915 in Gay 1995: 572)

Short Story Piece originates from the artist’s immersion in the short stories of Tennessee Williams, Raymond Carver and Carson McCuller, concerned with intimacy in an alienated twentieth century American landscape. Reminiscent of Chris Marker’s La Jetée, it is a film made of stills, projected shimmering into the darkness of the gallery and also dealing with consciousness and memory.

The utilitarian, austere and sober style of people and spaces in Dobai’s film, make explicit an understanding of subjectivity to the conditions of material life, evoking an emotional repertoire, that is both strange and familiar to us and sometimes feared. Intimacy, isolation and longing, are expressed in the stylistic motifs of a post war twentieth century, literary genre, expressing the alienation felt from relationships, work, family, place. This is chosen to echo an imagined contemporary experience. Consequently the evocation of a banal, dark and stifling environment adds to the intensity of characters, often sharpened by flickers of light from glass and mirrors.

The portraits and narratives within the work are fictitious and of the artist’s and audience’s imagination. The images were shot over a long period of time, on constructed sets within the same studio, with a cast of hired actors, providing character development and unwritten script. The fifty-six stills making up the film, are edited and shown in three different ways further reinforcing the narrative as unfixed.

Much could be made of the seeming realism of Dobai’s work and its relation to photography. The explicit, almost cruel scrutiny of the camera’s gaze and unrelenting intimacy, attention to period details and colours may appear as the aesthetic of realism or documentary. However it is the artificiality of photography, the carefully constructed sets, reference to film stills, orchestration of time and space, the use of actors, that gives the capacity for storytelling central to this work. The genre of stories and narratives work though, by our recognition of the narrative, rehearsed in ritual and repetition in cultural life.

Thus the scenes of the kitchen table; the couple lying on a bed; a girl standing at a sink; a father’s hand on a boy’s shoulder as he reads: the family and domestic life are all familiar to us from film, TV and our own experience. Sekula (1975) in On the invention of Photographic Meaning, introduced the idea that the perception of images was determined by discourse and the discursive situation within which they were made and presented. Thus undermining the idea of individual and private creation and emphasising the need to read photographs as cultural messages.

After all photographs interpret the world and interpolate us into being. It is no coincidence photography emerges at a time of uniforming social relations in the industrialisation of the nineteenth century and that it is used widely to inscribe the institution of the family. As Susan Sontag suggests the representation of the family is often all that remains of it. The family becomes more than a cultural entity, it is a signifier and a cipher for stability, an imagined innocence, and bedrock of security.

However it is the disruption of this narrative and aesthetic of realism that gives these photographs their power and allows for the real work of the image, that of fantasy and delusion. We recognise the story, but close scrutiny reveals something else.

So while we see women seated around the kitchen table, with lank hair, eating colourless food, against green walls with bored lines of resignation and routine etched on their faces, we then see in a separate image, one lift her skirt and hold an ice cube to her naked leg. Under the table, eroticism, relief or pain break the monotony. Elsewhere a bedroom scene of dark wood and wallpaper is illuminated by the creamy bare flesh of a couple embracing on top of the bed, his hands on her neck and buttocks pull her to him. Her modest slip, sturdy bra and functional knickers are all seen through a cameo mirror, in lighting that indicates daytime. This and a narrow bed belie a brittle sexual union of uncertain privacy and uncomfortable voyeurism. In another, a woman gazes shocked and stunned into a bathroom mirror. Incongruously another image shows an external scene of a recognizable London east end back street, complete with graffiti, taxis, run-down terraces and brooding sky. A technique further reinforcing the internal space and suggesting the menace or comfort behind closed doors.

We could talk of the alienated experience of the body and emotion from the real conditions of material existence and this echo of Tennessee Williams would be accurate to an observation of contemporary life. However the explicit ideological workings here are constituted in signs and unconscious processes.

While photography puts together pictures and tells stories, psychoanalysis disassembles the signs and symbols of the image, and unpicks the story. Freud observes that in any given moment consciousness includes only a small content, so the greater part of what we call conscious knowledge must be for considerable periods of time, in a state of latency, of being psychically unconscious. He asserts that the mind, which appears chaotic and contradictory is ruled by inexorable laws, making mental events like pearls on an invisible chain. (Freud 1915)

Twisted limbs, looks that linger too long, intense self-scrutiny, tenderness tinged with suspicion, dark moods with redemptive possibilities, uncertainty of absence or presence, all disconcert the narrative and pleasure of looking. The illusion of the family portrait is interrupted, the picture reversed, and the possibility of reassuring structures that hold emotion and memory in place are open to delusion. Our imagination of the character’s private histories and fantasies, collapse into our own.

This capacity of photography to both conceal and reveal has been observed in photography itself and the application of psychoanalysis to the image. Roland Barthes (1980) in Camera Lucida most famously describes photograph’s power to prick. Barthes reflects on a photograph of his mother and the relation of photography to death and loss of time. He explains the photo he picks out produces in him something like an internal pressure and excitement of the unspeakable that wants to be spoken. He is referring to the punctum, the prick of the photograph, which disturbs the formal reading. He realises that there is some kind of knot between photography, madness and the pangs of love and that society is concerned to tame the photograph, to temper the madness that keeps threatening to explode, by containment within art or banality in domestication.

Dobai’s evocation in Short Story Piece allows the prick, the knot, the excitement of mental images. Like pearls linked on a chain, reflecting and sparkling, in trapped light of ice, mirrors and glass, but burning into consciousness in the darkness of the gallery. No more or less real for their relation to realism but real in the drama, urgency and realness of delusion.

Barthes R., (1984) Camera Lucida, Flamingo, London
Freud, S., (1915) The Unconscious, in Gay, P., (1995) The Freud Reader. Vintage, London,
Sekula, A., (1975) On the Invention of Photographic Meaning, London
Sontag, S., (1977) On Photography, Penguin, London