The Ever Present Eye
Essay by Peter Timms

The Ever Present Eye, Plimsoll Gallery, Tasmanian College of the Arts, Hobart, 2015


The Indecisive Moment

Anyone with an interest in photography will know about the ‘decisive moment’. For the French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, a candid picture, taken at that intuitively judged instant when all the elements of a scene coalesce, is capable of telling an entire story.

But what about all the other moments? What if we are less interested in stories than in fleeting impressions? What if we don’t feel any need to prioritise our experiences? Sometimes, it’s the non-event that makes the greatest impact.

For instance, although we might return from an overseas holiday with breathless accounts of the Taj Mahal or the Colosseum or Angkor Wat (things that connect to all kinds of stories), what we will best remember, at times of quiet reflection, are intimate and apparently incidental impressions: the look on a woman’s face as she passed in the street, the play of light on water, reflections in a shop window. It is because we are in a foreign country, open to wonder, that those moments impress themselves so powerfully on our imaginations and seem to distil the character of a place.

Greer Honeywill’s deceptively simple-looking photographs and videos tease out those fleeting moments which are normally the background noise of daily life. She seeks to replicate, not so much the moments themselves (being so subjective and unpredictable, they can hardly be replicated), but something of the glow they leave in their wake, the sense of wonder and strangeness they can evoke. The foreign country of a darkened gallery provides the perfect setting, opening us to wonder.

Our first encounter as we enter that dreamlike environment is with a straightforward photographic image that amounts to a kind of manifesto: the artist herself stands before a mirrored background, pointing her camera directly at us. It is playful but confronting. We will be the subject of this exhibition, it says: we, the observers, will be under observation.
If we find this unsettling, it is because it reveals the flipside of wonder, reminding us that CCTV, iPhones, computers, and even television sets are keeping tabs on us, whether we are of interest to anyone or not. Security cameras not only record hours and hours of nothing happening, their very aim is to prevent anything from happening.

Coming and Going and Walking the Dog (and other things) play with this conundrum. A view of a quiet suburban street is paired with its mirror image. Some people come into view, stopping to chat before wandering off again. Then a delivery van pulls up and a man with a parcel gets out; a dog sniffs at a gate post; a couple stares off across the street at something offscreen. What’s disorientating is that, although the left-hand view is an exact reversal of the right, there is a time lapse, so what happens in one does not appear in the other. Our natural instinct is to try to link these disparate events into some kind of story, to give them significance. That’s what art is supposed to do, isn’t it? But life, of course, is not like that. By drawing attention to arbitrary details, these videos break down a narrative.

Once we accept that the incidents are random, connected only by the fact that they are occurring in the same street over an indefinite period of time, they take on a curious poignancy, not least because the players are unaware of being watched, let alone of being included in someone else’s frame of reference. The simple act of walking a dog or getting out of a car has been rescued from transience and given a certain poetry, not because it represents any decisive moment, or because it is part of a story, but quite incidentally and purely for its own sake

Greer uses a smartphone to research locations and record light conditions, but the ramifications are, of course, wider than that. The smartphone has democratised photography in a way that would have astonished previous generations. No sending your roll of film to Kodak and waiting a week for your prints to be delivered (those were the days when having to wait for things was part of the thrill). Now anyone can take pictures of anything for virtually nothing, and multiple copies can be sent across the world in an instant. The result is a deluge of images – good, bad or indifferent, it hardly matters – most of which will barely be glanced at before being deleted. By blithely registering everything, the smartphone makes photograph humdrum. And the result of that is indifference.

Faced with this surfeit of stimuli, the artist’s problem becomes how to overcome indifference – how to give the ordinary significance.

Flaubert, celebrated for his obsessive attention to detail in his depiction of everyday life, (by which means he created the illusion of reality), said that everything is interesting provided we look at it for long enough. By essentially ‘bracketing off’ her iPhone videos in the enchanted spaces of the art gallery, thus depriving them of context, Greer exhorts us to take that longer look, and thus to revivify our jaded senses. Instead of moments (decisive or otherwise), she chooses natural phenomena that are ongoing and apparently eventless – light playing through trees, reflections on water, foliage swaying in the breeze – the sort of things we encounter all the time by barely notice. We are free to create our own moments.

Some complex games of perception are being played here that call into question our ability to separate reality from artifice and the observer from the observed. For example, all the images in the exhibition are presented to us at more than one remove, as shadows, reflections and replication. While Coming and Going and Walking the Dog (and other things) are mirror-images of the one scene, in Reflections (after Bruce McLean), actual mirrors reflect the scenery back on itself in a way that cleverly raises doubts about our own position as spectators (this work is, moreover, an imaginative restaging of an earlier work by another artist). Arcadia is a suite of video recordings of reflections of natural phenomena, as distinct from the phenomena themselves, while Et in Arcadia Ego (the title, of course, is borrowed, and richly suggestive), by inserting foxes into Tasmanian landscapes (safely dead and preserved), stages an elaborate fiction in which the apparent verisimilitude of the photograph is used as ‘proof’ of the animal’s existence (we might recall the dead body in Antonioni’s film Blow up, which apparently did not exist except in photographs). An enlargement of one of these arresting images was installed on a city billboard during the course of the exhibition, and thus boldly removed from the enchanted space of the gallery, to muddy the distinctions between art and advertising, seduction and coercion, truth and lie, the personal and the social.

Greer Honeywill’s teasing images celebrate nothing more or less than the act of seeing. They teach us self-awareness and discrimination. In an age that is constantly bombarding us with visual stimuli, they serve as a warning against the loss of our sense of wonder and delight in the world around us. When the mundane, for no apparent reason, suddenly strikes us as strange and marvellous, our perceptions are transformed. These works show us how we might make ourselves more alive to such transformations.

 

Peter Timms 2015