Visual art exhibitions and events with a platform for critical writing
Ideas? Technical issues?
» Feedback to a-n
Millais Gallery, Southampton 19 October 1 December
Reviewed by: Rosemary Shirley »
Through this photographic series of rockfalls from tidal cliffs, river mouths, estuaries and landlocked ponds, Jem Southam presents us with a geological sense of duration which is difficult to conceive. The images of rockfalls bring together two vastly different timescales recording evidence of a split-second event the fall itself and suggesting a millennia of water particles moving through the cliff's strata to eventually cause the fall. Southam combines this time shift with representations of the regular movements of the tides redistributing the fallen rocks, at once cleansing and eroding. The photographs are largely absent of specific social traces making it impossible to place them in any particular time or year. The only evidence of human activity is found in the river mouths series where fragile breakwaters have been constructed in an attempt to interrupt the process of erosion.
In comparison to the monumental scale of the cliff face or limitless smooth space of the ocean, Southam's images of ponds seem like dimples or pockmarks on the landscape. Again the timescale shifts, the ponds are manmade remnants from pre-industrial society and as such can be pinned down to within our short linear concept of time. Yet their sharp outlines contrast with the rolling landscape giving them the same sense of removal felt when looking at a prehistoric stone circle.
Southam's photographic process is itself inherently involved with time. He uses an eight by ten plate camera which demands long exposure time, patiently recording incredible detail. Every grain of sand seems visible, while the movement of the currents caught in a single exposure gives the sea a milky appearance as if some chemical reaction is occurring on the shoreline, illustrating the real instability of the solid rock we take for granted.
Southam's process derives from the early developmental photography of the Victorian era, a period whose mania for quantifying and classifying led to a re-evaluation of the Earth's age, revealing a long pre-human history and barely imaginable timescales. The photographs seem to lie between formalism and documentation. Visually, they are minimal, often featuring only bare rock faces or the horizontals of sea and sky and titled only with the location and date. The dates never seem to conform to a regular pattern, two photographs are taken on the same day, then no more for a year, a site is visited for three years consecutively, a year is missed and then the pattern resumes; the images never settle into a chronological survey. The missed dates themselves seem to point to a parallel narrative and highlight the performative nature of the work.
Rosemary Shirley is Interface editor, she writes about art for magazines, websites and galleries, she teaches at Goldsmiths, Birkbeck and University of Sussex.
No one has commented on this article yet, why not be the first?
To post a comment you need to login