‘Solar breath’ is a 60-minute projection of a curtain blowing in the wind. Captured at the artists retreat in Newfoundland, it depicts an idyllic scene of a peaceful hideaway, the feeling of isolation exacerbated by the fleeting glimpses of a solar panel outside, presumably powering the camera we see through, as the curtain billows into the room. The viewer is invited to sit on a simple wooden chair, a continuation of the rustic atmosphere, the darkened room focussing the eye on the mesmerising, yet uneventful, window of video projected onto the far wall. The soundtrack is simple too, the sharp sound of the curtain slapping against the window pane and the faint sounds of an unknown person, presumably the artist, working in the background.
There are two ways to consider Solar Breath. One is scientific, a natural phenomenon known more commonly as Solar Wind, consisting of particles thrown by the Sun out into the galaxy which, when strong enough, can affect the Earths atmosphere and cause blackouts and phenomena such as the Northern Lights. This is perhaps not the most simple way to discuss the work, although the mystical nature of these events leads to what might become a far more convincing argument as to the use of the term as a title.
In druidic tradition, the Solar Breath is celebrated weekly. It is considered to be significant, the way that the Sun breathes its life into our world. The rhythm is likened to an in breath and out breath, a gentle warming of the planet by this life giving force. This, in turn, is comparative to the notion of Prana, or a spiritual breath similar to the Christian Holy Spirit or the Taoist Qi, a life force within the world. This presence of the supernatural within nature suggests a leaning towards explanations of events and phenomena prevalent to belief, just as scientists seek to explain these happenings through theories and particle structures.
Yogic tradition involves the taking in or inhalation of Prana. The act of breathing is used as a form of meditation, to steady and control the body, to bring relaxation and healing. One exercise involves drawing the life force into the Manipura, or solar plexus – Solar Breath. This chakra is said to control, amongst other things, spiritual growth. This meditative consideration of the power of the sun, might form a more grounded critical basis for discussing Snows installation, the ideas of respect and awe for the spiritual side of nature alongside a desire to gain knowledge of how and why things occur underpinned by the necessity of involving oneself and using the perceived forces might begin to shed light on the purpose of such a quiet, understated work.
Because that’s what this is. Breathing. The viewer is asked to concentrate on the irregular regularity of in and out. The slap of the curtain punctuates the stillness, its sharpness falling short of violence, instead more like the crashing of waves. Concentration on breath is effectively concentrating on life. It is this internal look that Snow seems to be encouraging, a metaphysical questioning, through the stillness, of how we interact with the world. Meditation. The window as inlet and outlet, the wind as life, the curtain as the medium that notifies us of its presence and us, the viewer, as the inhabitor of the environment.
It is the occasional shuffling or coughing of the unidentified figure in the background that disturbs this. His presence is a reminder that we are not alone, and that we in fact inhabit his world. We are guests. Questions to what is happening might abound, who is this, what are they doing, why are they here? It is an obvious assumption to imagine that it is Snow himself we hear working away, this becomes a studio visit; yet we are not observing the artist at work, but his environment and what we can assume is his inspiration. We might wonder if he is watching us as we watch his work. We are involved, central to the work; no longer is the viewer passive, the expanded cinema concern reflected in our active role as centrepiece to this projected environment.
The window itself as an artistic engine introduces the idea of the frame, the window framing what is a painterly, still life subject. That choice to frame with a window what is then framed by the lens invokes a sensation of observing a painting, the idea that the lens becomes the eye, and the following removal from the scene through our own eyes creates more distance from the subject; however in this case we appear to be drawn closer to the action, invited in rather than excluded as a viewer. The experience of being in this room at that very moment rather than observing a record of events, the video stalling time so that the phenomenon can be re-lived time and again brings a new aspect; this is not soap opera or newsreel, this is first hand evidence of an occurrence.
The curtain slaps against the gallery wall, not the window, the outside is a forgery playing on our imagination. We are observing the white cube wall lit up by a projection; in looking through the window we are looking closer at the wall, the video is an illusion, we are fooled. It is this dichotomy which might puzzle; whilst we are observing a phenomena and an idyll, we are also drawn to the gallery itself. The outside may have been brought in, but how much can the white cube space be changed? Maybe altered is a better word, or re-imagined. Here the wall becomes a window; the space is transformed rather than changed temporarily becoming a different environment. This is a re-staging of the easel painting, the video becoming like ‘a portable window that, once set on the wall, penetrates it with deep space.’ (O’Doherty B, 1999, pg 18).
Snow cleverly draws us into his meditative environment, providing us with insight into his world and provoking thought about the phenomena and its deeper suggestive appeal. He does it with a footnote concerning the space we are in and asking us to reconsider how the white cube operates, not as a display space, but as a theatre for re-imagined and restaged happenings.
http://www.zoence.co.uk/festivals/solar%20breath.h… [accessed 15/02/09]
http://www.bfi.org.uk/whatson/bfi_southbank/exhibi… [accessed 15/02/09]
http://www.newfrontier.com/nepal/pranayama.htm [accessed 15/02/09]
O’Doherty B, 1999, Inside the White Cube, The Ideology of the Gallery Space Expanded Edition University of California Press, Berkeley