It is a sacred place. A site visited by pilgrims and tourists, both reverentially hushed. But by the side of the dusty road there is inevitably a line of tables, each covered with the same objects: small figurines of the holy relic in a range of sizes, postcards, picture books. One has a basket filled with small, 2-inch plastic cameras: through the tiny viewfinder is an aerial view of the surrounding countryside. Looking up towards the sun with the machine over my eye, a button turns through a dozen hypercoloured, grainy images, clicking through a quick snapshot tour of the area’s highlights: seemingly deserted postcard views and panoramic shots that give away only a sense of scale, and possibly good weather depending on where I point the toy.
Giving the imitation shutter button a delicate half-push, I get the excited shudder of making the view settle on the black ‘V’ that separates one picture from the next. Half of a green valley can be seen on one side, on the other an abandoned port, the dark no-space sitting uneasily between them. Like thinking about your own blinking, its normally thoughtless and automatic process becoming slowed and intentional, it is unsettling and revealing. It is a boundary, the limitation of how we see what we see; but this image of the material of the picture slide itself is also another view, another location, another entity. It is this liminal space, its uncertain dominion and hazy substance that is explored in the work of Niamh O’Malley.
The drawings, sculptures and installations of her exhibition ‘Island’ are a labyrinth of crossed perspectives and expectantly empty spaces meditating on visibility. Confronted with the monolithic presence of Glass (water) (2010) sitting at a slight angle, the tops of the gallery walls and the roof’s vaulted ceiling are reflected on its dark surface, while we can see through to the rest of the gallery space behind the tinted glass. Hovering between these, though, is an opaque, uneven rectangle. It is only when we walk around the other side an image reveals itself, a painting on the downturned reflective side of the two-way mirror of a rippled surface of water, a hazy white circle piercing the middle like a retinal burn. In the corner, another large sheet of glass is propped against the wall, that at first appears like a another white circle painted onto a mirror; but on approach we can see through this shape to the shadows of the mirror on the gallery walls, a space where the mirror’s reflective coating has been scraped away. Two adjacent sheets of paper hold hard, silvery strips of liquid metal that only in close scrutiny can be recognised as dense, meticulous pencil drawings depicting swathes of paint.
With these reluctant revelations, O’Malley leads us to encounter a set of enigmatic, unfolding obstructions and absences; even the images we do see are surfaces that we might see behind, but they don’t yield anything more than shades of inscrutability. This room of holes and doubled mirrors could suggest a fractured distance that cannot be breached, a mark of the tragic impossibility to find a whole view of the world outside ourselves. But this Lacanian reading of the work would also imply casting it as the stern arbitrator of some external order, controlling and anxiously imposing. On the surface, the pieces appear final, fixed and certain. Among the fractured and doubled reflections of the walls, columns and glimpses of our own bodies, though, they disclose an instability, and enable a reinterpretation of that same mirrored moment. The experience unfolds again as a more open-ended process; each piece holds a multiplicity of viewpoints that brings not only a self-awareness, but also an equal sense of the look of others. Here, as it was for Merleau-Ponty, Lacan’s claimed moment of looking in the mirror is not about the detracting misrecognition of external hierarchy, but about the affirmative realisation that the subjective body can be perceived from both without and within.
This revelation of bodily consciousness extends and expands throughout O’Malley’s film work. Her short film loop Island (2010) is, on the surface, a black and white silent documentary. Through a series of eight tracking shots moving slowly left to right, we are given an even portrait of the eponymous island, the camera running along its edges and textures like a finger calmly tracing the lines in the palm of a hand. Through clear winter sunlight we can see snow in the distant hilltops, as we pan along the walls and courtyards of an archaic worn and lichen-crusted stone fortress-like structure. It is expectantly empty, like an unused film set. The camera follows the rushes at the water’s edge, an overgrown wall behind which three crosses suggest what might be a cemetery.
Mediating and interrupting these equanimous observations, however, is a series of fourteen black wipe-action edits, a set of horizontally panning frames that take over the screen and turn the film into a sort of animated slideshow. These frames are both punctuations as well as transitions, in some cases temporarily blocking out the moving camera’s view, in others providing the cut between scene locations. Their rhythmic punctuations leave the audience in pitch black before revealing the next image, creating a procession where the nebulous gaps assert themselves as just as much part of the film as the imagery. In one key shot, the camera follows the silhouette of a church, a gnarled bare tree in the foreground. As we move, the thick trunk of the tree eclipses the church’s tower for several seconds, emerging again framed by branches until shortly after both are swallowed by the onsetting wipe. With this simple incidence, O’Malley highlights the analogous function between the content and form of her film. The wipes effectively are an object in our extreme foreground, an intervening shape.
In its weighted silences and patient emptiness, the film hints at a latent symbolism. Its tone and camera movements carry echoes of other filmic moments—the slow circular panning of Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), the final 9-minute single take from Andrej Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (1983) as we slowly follow Gorchakov in his three attempts to carry a lit candle across the drained pool of St. Catherine. Island also bears a striking structural resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), a thriller depicted in ten long takes which were edited so as to appear as one long shot that lasts the course of an evening. In keeping with the protagonists’ attempts to conceal a dead body, the majority of the edits of the film are disguised as momentary disruptions of our view by an actor’s back or the open lid of a chest. Island does the inverse of hiding its editing mechanism, but, like Rope, it uses an incorporated edit that transforms what is technically a disjointed montage into the illusion of one durational continuity, the appearance of real time. In a scene late in the film, Jimmy Stewart’s character narrates hypothetically what he would do if he were committing the murder; the camera follows his voice as if by command, moving around the empty apartment to each location and object he describes off-screen. The shot’s empty set has a latent sense of possibility and anticipation, but it also highlights the camera’s role as a perspectival storyteller.
Its similarities suggest a corresponding narrator hidden behind Island’s wanderings, an owner for the slideshow in preparation for an impending event. But the film gives us nothing but surfaces and textures in constant motion. Island manifestly lacks the formal and narrative elements film theorists have used to explain what draws us in and how we engage and invest in the screen’s world. But, remarkably, the piece still creates a sense of empathy amongst its many facades. The idea of suture is classically thought of as the way we inscribe ourselves into the characters and gazes within a film, a process, as Slavoj Žižek described it, “producing the effect of self-enclosure…[Where] traces of the production processes, its gaps, its mechanisms, are obliterated, so that the product can appear as a naturalised, organic whole.” In the uninhabited Island, these traces are extended, the gaps almost swallowing the images. Devoid of narrative, or any apparent subject, we find in the open disclosure of its own edits that the materiality of the film is placed on the same level of engagement as the water and stones. Its rhythms and interjections become a familiar character of sorts with which we come to interact. Here, filmic space is physical space, the film itself is a body with which we are coming into intimate contact.
Standing on our own among the film and objects of ‘Island,’ we are surrounded by clouds, bodies of water, walls. But with these silent surfaces and mute objects there remains the heightened sense that we are conscious of other consciousnesses, that we are interacting both within and beyond ourselves. Merleau-Ponty was describing the interaction between two people when he wrote that, “there is woven between us an exchange, a ‘chiasm’ between two ‘destinies’…in which there are never quite two of us, and yet one is never alone.” As the multi-layered works push at both their and our own limitations of what we are able and aware of seeing, these words echo in a new light. O’Malley foregrounds the issue that an image, a glance, a look, is always already framed, a look from a particular perspective. ‘Island’ reminds us that the image is already a subjectivity, a corporeal entity which mutually intertwines.
This essay was commissioned by the Centre Culturel Montehermoso, to accompany the exhibition ‘Island’, May – August 2010