Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh, Old College, South Bridge, Edinburgh, EH8 9YL

Fabienne Hess: Hits And Misses (from the archive) | Part of the Edinburgh Art Festival Programme 2015

Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh

31 July - 3 October 2015

Review by Alexander Hetherington

An analysis of the properties and conduct of research, accessibility to and use of collections, and the contexts for systematised information form a pairing in Talbot Rice Gallery’s summer exhibitions. The late German artist Hanne Darboven features in their principal spaces while in TRG3 - a smaller gallery space dedicated to emergent practices - is the Swiss-born, London-based artist Fabienne Hess.

Lengths of printed fabric enfold the gallery’s oval space. They feature a mass selection of digitalised images from the University of Edinburgh’s academic collections. Among the drapes, and set against a wash of black and parchment beige, are uniform miniature images of scores, musical instruments, pressed flowers, architectural details and clusters of sepia-toned portraits. Prominent images are those set principally in primary colours: an alert red book jacket, vivid blue pottery, an abstract print in dominant yellow. The remainder coalesce in a visual jumble; encouraging the mind to seek for patterns, repetitions or the appearance of human faces.

Meanwhile, a second small room in the gallery hosts two high-definition screens. Each plays a slide show of isolated high-resolution images, annotated by the number of its online viewership - the number of times a reader has called up the image for scrutiny. A Japanese woodcut from the eighteenth century boasts 200 views, while an Eadweard Muybridge film frame showing men on horseback in canter gathered none. All offer experience by proxy, giving dimension to objects, celluloid and papers too sensitive to be present themselves.

Images of texts - writing, letters, law documents or illustrated manuscripts - remind us that these are descriptions of reading, and point to its internal processes. Musical instruments and their scores are objects for sound and hearing, while images of action - gestures, sports, people in movement - are all physical records. These documents are of things where vision is not necessarily the dominant sensation. Hess brings to our attention the fact that images are portraits of, and for, all living senses.

Most acute in Hess’ project here are images as acts of interpretation, perception and recognition. She considers their existence in the University’s collection, the properties of acquisition, validation and worth. Seeking to subvert these conditions, an online element to Hess’s project curates the collection into sequences of sub-sections with arbitrary titles like ‘a person raising an arm’ or ‘an image containing a triangle’. The results are a collage of similarity and vague association.

An interpretative gallery text describes the show as ‘exploring our disorientation and bewilderment in the face of vast quantities of digital information’. Hess easily disputes this claim. Both artist and viewer luxuriates in these dense fields of imagery, navigating this multiplying terrain with ease, acting with acuity and armed with digital apparatus. What I think is sought here is an intermission, a point of rest from the unbalanced consumption the gallery text alludes to, the opportunity to pause and observe the attention that we give each image. The action of its capture, its conjuring, its secured storage, its embedded worth and status, its availability and its passing. To see Hess’ project in this way makes this work about the operations and solidity of institutional memory and the fragility or unreliability of personal memory, of its human timeline, decline and death. The exhibition’s most potent statements then are in ‘nothing’ images - blanks, white pages, things not viewed, the disappeared, images at their most minimal and most dormant.

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