Left of Place
Review by Ciara Healy
The photographic images of empty lecture theatres, hallways and seminar rooms in Mary MacLean’s Left of Place engage with new spatial representations and allude to the interface between knowledge and power using titles drawn from Foucault’s essays. Each incomplete image suggests that the world is not an unalterable state which crushes us, but a contradictory mixture of permanence and change.
This idea is clearly visible in Administrative Measures (2012), a shuffle of black and white photographs leaning on a long narrow shelf. Here, the backs of chairs, edges of tables and the corners of rain spattered windows collectively represent the still fug of rooms where meetings have taken place, where too-strong coffee has gone cold, where a presence still hovers even in absence. Presented as parts of a whole, the image is forced to remain perpetually in transition.
A certain kind of poetry can be found in these liminal realms. Often regarded with suspicion and anxiety, the non-places MacLean portrays are in fact spaces of ‘becoming’, where identities undergo change or transformation. The temporality of ‘Non-Coincidence’ (2012) in particular represents that state of becoming most successfully because of the multiple locations and perspectives it occupies: a glimpse of silver birch in winter fog cut through with a slice of institutional green window frame overlaps a wooden veneer rectangle from a corridor floorboard. All these elements are partially present. They rub against each other, making inside and outside mutable and interchangeable. Each trace is connected to a site of learning but never fits together completely.
Creating a composition using such a fragmentary approach means many of MacLean’s images develop painterly characteristics. Let’s Say, to be clear (2012) and Infinite Space (2012) are two configurations that make a route through time, evoking a St. Ives landscape in bruise-grey mauve and chalk-dust white. Hanging on separate walls and at different heights in the intimate Five Years gallery, they are actually photographic sections of large Jean Brodie style roller blackboards from a classroom in Scotland. Their horizon lines have been positioned on the gallery wall at a height that corresponds exactly with the location in which they were photographed. This creates a kind of displacement where one place almost exists twice, as a representation and as a reality. MacLean seems to be suggesting that disparate regions, and possibly ideas therefore might be connected, becoming sites of disappearance and reappearance.
Outside the gallery evidence of this shifting slippage reverberates around Hackney as allotments, streets and walkways are transformed and developed into new Olympian manifestations. But MacLean’s images remind us that no interior or exterior landscape is barren, that every space is cultured with story to some extent, that an apparent absence can also become an expression of presence. The abandoned institutional clutter she captures is reality’s lost-self reflected in another space. How we navigate our way through it is unclear, but we do so everyday without realising. We locate ourselves relentlessly.