I always look with curiosity at how things – artworks, books, films – are titled. A title is meant to indicate an important aspect of the work – the subject treated, the medium used, an emotion involved, a message to be conveyed. A good title implies a provocative gesture: having revealed, it also says ‘see for yourself’.
I am on my way to see ‘Breather’, the latest exhibition at Laura Bartlett Gallery, London. I walk down Herald Street, find the door, walk up the stairs, enter the gallery – and then ...
I breathe in …
the light shining from the photographs. Sarah Dobai’s works juxtapose translucent layers to planes of matte colour, achieved by Dobai’s singular use of the camera: that is, a disruptive use. Her aim is to unsettle rather than represent what lies before the lens. In ‘Bobigny’, the man standing before the hairdresser leans forward, yet he seems to fall into the background as the spectre – his own self? – emerges, a dark presence becoming increasingly clearer. The two realities coexist, briefly, as the line circling the shadow brushes against the man’s temple.
When we inhale, our diaphragm contracts and moves downwards. The space in the cavity of our chest increases and our lungs expand; air enters through our mouth or nose. ‘Scraped Body Void’ reminds me that this happens every few seconds but that we never think about it. Brie Ruais made the work by standing up still. The middle of the ‘void’, empty, shows marks where she stood and turned to spread the clay on the floor around her, bending to smooth it out. The resulting crater, with its moulded sides, its edges left mid-height, implies that a physical effort was involved in making this work and draws our attention to its bodily, corporeal dimension. This resonates as it relates a deeper message – it is a physical effort that, every few seconds, keeps us alive.
So I stop to concentrate; I really feel the air that I breathe; I feel my shoulders lifting. Every movement is distinct and completely distorted. The more I think about breathing, the deeper my breaths become. My shoulders reach higher and the whole process goes slower and slower. Of course, usually, this happens in no time at all, each motion is so small you can’t even feel it. I wonder whether something like breathing, essential and easily forgotten, is actually meant to be remembered. Alex Olson’s ‘Mind’s Eye’ finds an answer to this question. The careful brushwork that sculpts each colour plane in the first half of the artist’s diptych tells me that nothing within the abstract canvas was left to chance. The rounded yellow sinks gradually downwards, the blue spirals between a purple cascade and an interfering red. To paint the second canvas, then, the artist closed her eyes and trusted her memory of this first perfect landscape. This would explain why the spiralling is no longer neat, the untidiness of the circling line, how the purple and red are dirtier. Yet the title ‘Mind’s Eye’ suggests there may be more to this scene – underlying it was, perhaps, the intention to depict an inner, intimate view. If we read the diptych in the opposite way – from right to left – the mind’s eye may come into sight. The confusion of the second canvas may be seen to reflect the intricate way in which our mind works. To paint it, Olson allowed her brush to follow, instinctively, the winding course of her thoughts. Then she untangled them, to lay them out, clearly, on the first – where her mind’s eye is no longer at work. When you stop to think about breathing, you actually do something else.
It is hard, almost impossible to pinpoint the moment when you stop breathing in and it’s time to breathe out. The two opposite actions are in one flow, complementary in a continuous process. Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili grapples with a similar challenge, stilling each stage in the life of a flower. The narrative in ‘Sister Rose’ is broken into pieces: the blossom, the rose half-open, then in bloom, the flower ageing and at last the wrinkled petals stand isolated, placed in sequence. The scratches cutting across the photograph deepen the feeling of fracture. It is through this kind of fragmentation that one distinguishes the complexity of a process: each step can be understood alone but makes sense in terms of what came before and what comes next. Simone Forti is another artist who turns a procedure into the subject of her work. ‘Cloths’ entails a performance during which materials are thrown over a frame and left to hang in layers; the choreography was recorded by the filmmaker Hollis Frampton. The actions are repetitive and natural. In their simple monotony, they may well be taken for granted yet it is this spontaneity, precisely, that generates beauty. Everyone should see ‘Breather’ – to take another breath, yes, but one which is breath-taking.