Grail and Wail

Susan Fereday, Grail

Sherry glasses hanging by thread.  A spotlight casts their shadows onto the wall behind. Each glass casts a shadow of its form, like a negative. Each shadow sparkles from within: the refracted light from the lens of the glass stem. These are the elements of Susan Fereday‘s Grail, part of her PhD exhibition, Light Out of Darkness, at Monash University in late 2009.

The exhibition explored two of the foundation artefacts of photography, Joseph Niepce’s Point de Vue de Gras of 1826 and Henry Fox Talbot’s Latticed Window of 1835. These were probably the first photographs ever made, photo-chemical experiments that initiated the revolutionary new medium. They are mythical objects.

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Henry Fox Talbot, negative and positive of Latticed Window, 1835

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Fereday’s approach is what I call “photography by other means”, creating photographs which are not photographs, making images or objects that are about photography, but are not made by photography. Gerhard Richter is someone to look at in this regard, making paintings that investigate the condition of photography. Fereday’s work has often been about de-mythologizing (there’s a 1980s word) photography, deconstructing its supposed transparency and truth-telling capacity. In a 2006 conference paper, (I am) the Ghost in the Image: Photograph as Mirror, Window, Veil, she responded to John Szarkowski’s Mirrors and Windows thesis by proposing that photography should be considered, metaphorically, as a veil: “…what appears in the photographic image is a ghostly trace. The photographic surface is implicitly a Veil, a screen for the real, at once covering, and calling attention to – the absence of the Subject.”

In Grail, the pattern of Talbot’s window is suggested in the arrangement of sherry glasses, an emblem of the Victorian social sensibilities which he embodied. Photography is founded on the transparent medium of glass in the lens which lets light into the camera and focuses it on the film. It is a sort of window. At the back of a camera, the image is composed on another piece of glass, the viewfinder – another sort of window. Thus the notions of windows and transparency are the essence of photography. But a window is also a barrier, and it is a framing device, and it has its own materiality. And so, by analogy, is photography itself: a medium that promises transparency (“the camera never lies”) but brings its own kinds of deceits and obfuscations.

Talbot’s invention is founded on a paradox. When his camera captured light it turned it into darkness. The silver nitrate in his film blackened upon exposure to light: day became night, white became black  – it is a negative of reality. The process has to be repeated to turn the world back again and make it positive. There is a Manichean element to photography that troubled some god-fearing people in the early years. Fereday’s sherry glasses enact this light-in-darkness scenario, casting shadows of their form but focussing highlights within them.

The title of the exhibition refers to the search for Christ’s cup, suggested by the form of the sherry glass. The clarity, purity and transparancy of glass is the metaphorical grail, the impossible, unattainable quest for the same qualities in photography. The slowly turning glasses cast moving images, the lights sparkle and the forms change. “The images they produce are unstable and shifting, as impermanent as they are fascinating. Photography is an elusive as well as illusive medium, latent with meaning, leaking code.”

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Susan Fereday, Grail (detail)

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Fereday’s Wail, which accompanied Grail, is a screen of small paper balls, hanging in a pattern that also resembles Talbot’s Latticed Window. The screen is lit by a spotlight which projects its shadow onto the wall behind. This time the objects are opaque, the pattern of the window can be made out in the dyed paper but the shadow behind is just rows of dots, like code. The image of the window is the negative version, where the clear glass and sky is represented in solid black. The paper balls are doubly opaque because they are the shredded remnants of Fereday’s client notes, gathered in her work as a counsellor. They presumably contain the records of shared secrets, but give nothing away even under the spotlight.

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.Susan Fereday, Wail

Wail’s opacity answers Grail’s transparency, but both use Talbot’s momentous photograph to say something about his invention. One work points to the faulty notion of its semantic clarity, the other to its obscurity. “Against photography’s identity as a medium of instantaneity, precision and stability, I argue that photography has a powerful capacity to encode multiple, latent, and occult meanings.”

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