Book, Schilt Publishing

Cig Harvey: You An Orchestra You A Bomb

Schilt Publishing


Review by Selina Oakes

We are lost in an ocean of images which no longer speak of a single, riotous moment; we seek to document everything, rather than experience tenderness at its peak. ‘You an Orchestra, You a Bomb’, Cig Harvey’s third monograph, throws its viewers headfirst into the beauty and darkness of modern living. A personal, pivotal event – a car collision – is a catalyst for disruption of the ordinary. Grief ensues, as depicted in Harvey’s journaling and an image of Scout, her daughter, caught in a blizzard. It’s a brutal beginning, but one which pairs the savageness of mortality with the wonder of these impermanent moments.

As in ‘You Look at Me Like an Emergency’ and ‘Gardening at Night’, Harvey’s personal life remains a foundation for her practice. What differs about ‘You an Orchestra, You a Bomb’ is its comparison between the interior and exterior worlds, and its heightened awareness of life’s fragility. Harvey harnesses a vibrant and elaborate pause in her human subjects, who linger on the verge of these two worlds. Figures are diligently caught between light and shadow, and perspectives are captured from both within and outside of vehicles.

Soon, we are transported from concerns for our own wellbeing to the safeguarding of the natural world. Harvey’s quintessential themes of identity, family and home are balanced by a new message: to be mindful of our relationship with the planet. The first image we lay eyes on, prior to the car crash episode, is a portrait of Scout surrounded by colourful taxidermy birds. Despite its vibrancy, the scene exposes both our delight and disrespect of nature. Elsewhere, bright butterfly specimens pinned to cardboard in a luscious meadow, fallen bees laid limp on paper, and a fox caught in car headlights, remind us of life’s fleeting condition.

Her aptitude for colour and detail seizes its temporal potency. We can almost feel the texture of a Cedar Waxwing’s red-tipped feathers, the sheer power of a flock of Icelandic terns, and the softness of a five-day-old’s hand resting upon her mother’s skin. Refreshingly, Harvey does not shy away from the rawness of touch: a child wraps a rouge thread around their first wobbly tooth, emphasising the brutality of loosing a part of one’s anatomy at a young age. An ensuing note about Scout wishing all her teeth gone “so the fairies will come,” reinserts childhood magic into a scene of raw maturity.

Scout’s playful presence pairs relief and risk together. Harvey herself describes mixing up science and magic as she sits with infants at a science-themed party. Like magic and science, her images flit between colour and sobriety: magically monotone, snow scenes of Maine are fueled by the science of climate change, while a scarlet sky lantern is made magical by the physics of air density. We’re petitioned to engage with these juxtaposing moments of wonder and devastation, all of which are temporary.

Harvey reminds us that the camera shutter suspends only what is fleetingly in front of it: “We are only this moment, the length of a photograph.” This paradox, due to the longevity of a photograph, pairs beautifully with the bittersweet theme of ephemerality, which is both ‘Orchestra’ – creative and joyful – and ‘Bomb’ – destructive and fearful. In the last pages, a man glows red in front of a blazing bonfire and two boys point a toy gun at the viewer. It’s a mature and sobering terminus; one in which we are reminded that, inside and out, we are all orchestras and bombs.

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