Elizabeth Price: SUNLIGHT
Focal Point Gallery, Southend
30 September - 28 December 2013
Review by Sophie Risner
Discussing the work of Elizabeth Price is akin to an archaeological dig, there’s the first touch of the spade, the careful dusting, the minute study and the evaluation process. The context of Price’s work is resplendent, with many layers of meaning and research into and around the subject matter. Price appropriates imagery from cinema, advertising, fashion photography, from propaganda, traditional lecture/power point and TV-style investigative documentary as well as a plethora of musical influences. This is not to say that it is in any way musty or suffocating, or that it is fetishistic of an archival aesthetic. Price’s ability to re-present the past through a seductive visual prism is both witty and absorbing; her use of the familiar is at odds with the sheer density of the work. Her ability to phrase what could be seen as a fairly esoteric investigation as pure ontology makes her ‘stuff’ so thrilling.
SUNLIGHT (2013) at Southend’s Focal Point Gallery sees Price pitching her research to the viewer by introducing history as a cast of characters, discussing its arrangement by a re-imaging of classical taxonomy. Price often uses architecture, an institution or a location as the starting place for the work; SUNLIGHT (2013) - the first part in a trilogy - comes to us through the research which Price undertook whilst on residency at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. Here Price choreographed a film using thousands of glass-plate slides of the sun created between 1875 and 1945. These images - possibly some of the earliest technical images of the sun, photographed in a mysterious ‘K’ light of high temperature - bear witness to the star’s caustic and chaotic surface. It is here that Price begins her story anew.
The detail of Price’s investigations highlights an obsessive quality to her work. The viewer is visually drenched in the atmosphere of the item or area of knowledge in question. In both ‘User Group Disco’ (2009) and ‘The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979’ (2012) Price hauntingly and sometimes aggressively reminds the viewer of the voice and history of objects and the dramaturgy of the archive. Alongside this comes a fierce narrative, unforgiving yet incredibly informative - to the point that it overwhelms the visitor, manipulating their encounter.
In SUNLIGHT Price occupies a feverish ontological universe; using the torrid slashing surface of the sun as a backdrop or springboard, from which she deploys several items. The links between the items on screen and the work’s genesis seem sordidly ostentatious: a pot of yellow nail polish, a rotating ‘K’-Zildjian cymbal, and finally several images of hosiery models shielding themselves from the apparent rays of the sun, which is cast as the film’s ultimate protagonist. All of these stories act as a way to suggest that our thoughts and judgments are bound up in our experiences - we are ultimately at the mercy of our own individualistic impressions and interpretations.
Throughout SUNLIGHT Price re-focuses the audience’s attention with dramatic asides - her (now somewhat iconic) finger snap or click halts the narrative, and as the music reaches a zenith Price re-addresses what really is at stake. The finger click, which I first witnessed in The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979 (2012), demands that the audience, lulled into a semi-hypnotic state, wake up and concentrate - this dichotomy of direction holds the viewer in a uneasy limbo state of unrest.
We are, perhaps, subconsciously aware that the relationships being played out on screen might be arbitrary; consciously though we’re more than happy to pull together our own reasons as to why Price displays what she does. A ‘K’ Zildjian cymbal’s shiny metallic surface might represent the haunting ‘K’ light captured in the glass plates of the sun: we desperately impose our own narrative(s). Price presents her scientific investigation as an alternative mythology - both the object and its referential framework as a hallucinatory reality.
This process draws upon our relationship to ideologies; ideologies that are essential yet completely alien. The commodification and study of our solar universe is still in its infancy yet already we have allowed our relationship to it to become open to suggestion. When we see a yellow nail polish of course we are assured of the hot summer’s days ahead - but how is this taxonomy worshipped and sold to us; what trance has the viewer been under before Price snaps her fingers’ Do we still need to wake up, and to consider how not everything is as it seems, that our seemingly unique individual universes are victims of definition and over identification’ Maybe it’s time to re-write the past as we attempt to categorise the future.