‘Frank, Peggy and Gertrude’
Cairn, Pittenweem, Scotland
Sunday 16th July 2-5pm and by appointment, until 20th August
‘The soothing thing about history is that it does repeat itself’ – Gertrude Stein
Hans Christian Andersen suffered from a powerful fear of being buried alive; at night he would sleep with a handwritten note by his bedside bearing the words ‘I only appear to be dead’. If we empathise with Andersen’s anxiety we must conceive of a world in which reality is to be grasped afresh each morning; where the lurid possibilities of the imagination blur the boundaries of appearance and essence so that he might have written ‘I only appear to be alive’. These two statements sit side by side in the gallery alongside the words: ‘The invisible is real’ an aphorism from the contemporary artist Walter De Maria that Andersen might have had some sympathy with.
These works are displayed in the casual format of a fold-out poster, marking a departure from the painstaking delineation of Whittlesea’s previous painted texts. What remains constant though is the impact each statement has upon the space, creating a powerful reverence in the viewer for the histories referenced. The words make us pause in meditation as if we are gazing at an epitaph, or as if the posters are a blown-up version of the carefully folded note that Hans Christian Andersen kept by his bed while he slept.
The ambience of the installation is anchored in the video piece ‘Everyone’ which pays homage to Gertrude Stein, Peggy Guggenheim and poet-curator Frank O’Hara. A separate DVD is shown for each of them on which appears a chronological list of everyone they ever met in their lifetime. The series of names are projected in white in the daylight of the gallery space. Each name fades up slowly over five seconds, pauses and fades down to a period of blank rest before beginning again. These lists include roughly five hundred names and are not intended to be definitive but rather an on-going project to which the artist adds every time he finds a fresh biographical snippet. Such extraordinary protagonists as Elizabeth Taylor, Emma Goldman, Salvador Dali and Yoko Ono sit next to family members and little known colleagues.
While the lives of Stein, O’Hara and Guggenheim inhabited a particular orbit in space and time the vivid patchwork of their connections rolls far back and forward in history, their concentric circles often overlapping. The names of these acquaintances also function as a memorial, a jigsaw of memories and relationships from which a life might be partially reconstructed or as Whittlesea puts it, that the list acts as a ‘spell to conjure them up’. The arrival of every name is tinged with a glow of personal experience in which each character ‘appears to be alive’.
In contrast to the frenetic pace at which these lives were lived, the film is sequenced in a loop to a calm rhythm reminiscent of slow breathing. To watch the cycle of names appearing and disappearing is to experience a lullaby of absence, simultaneously wounding and soothing. Since the piece is projected in daylight the effect is subtle often obscuring the content altogether, the words as fragile as a flickering candle or an old tombstone obscured by moss. The daylight contains ‘an invisibility that is real’.
This endless cycle has an abstracted quality in which the people referenced are always just beyond our grasp, coming in and out of focus. Often the arbitrary names seem to form a collage or poetry of sorts. We become attuned to the arcane sounds of the names Bunny Lang, Bird Stein, Flossie Williams and Emily Woodruff Stone that would have played tunefully in the ears of poets O’Hara and Stein.
While these lists wash over the spectator with a haunting emptiness, they also spark off colourful possibilities. Stein, Guggenheim and O’Hara were never artists yet through the sheer scope of their connections we are reminded of what each of them made possible. These figures demonstrate how art occupies a social space separate from the internal world of the studio. They might also represent nostalgia for an art community since lost. Whittlesea distills the essence of many conversational moments, giving us temporary access to a private world of anecdotes and in-jokes. He grants us the license to imagine a moment in which Ezra Pound, Charlie Chaplin, Pablo Cassals and Gypsy Rose Lee freely occupy the same room. Finally it is the spectator who must piece together obscure associations to momentarily capture images of a nineteenth-century bedside, of Gertrude Stein’s parlour, the teeming streets of New York or the lightning fields of the remote Mexican desert, in short to make ‘the invisible real’.
Ian Whittlesea studied at Chelsea College of Art and the Royal College. This is his fourth solo exhibition at the Cairn Gallery. He has exhibited widely in the UK (most recently at the Jerwood Space, London and The Newlyn Art Gallery, Cornwall) and abroad. The artist lives and works in London.
Tamsin Clark, 2006