Angela Buckland - 'The Sleep Series' at the Castle
by Marelise van der Merwe
Student review written as part of the Practical Art Criticism course in the History of Art Honours Programme at UCT
On show at the Castle during the Month of Photography, Angela Buckland's exhibition is a sensitive, occasionally disquieting examination of the transformation that takes place in the human form in sleep. What began as the photographing of two friends who were expecting a baby becomes, print by print, a series of intimate and revealing portraits of human nature with its defences down.
That Buckland began her series by photographing two close friends, particularly during a time as hallowed as pregnancy, sets a somewhat sentimental tone for the rest of the exhibition. This sentimentality is not pervasive, however, and is countered largely by her simultaneous intellectual involvement. While her handling of each subject is careful and affectionate, she describes her inspiration as a fascination with the revelation of another self in sleep; sleep being an unguarded state, one which shows the inner self most clearly.
Aesthetically, the prints echo this need to create a clearer portrait of each model. Black and white printing, combined with a careful manipulation of lighting, literally brings each figure into relief. However, Buckland's concern is not only analytical: she is clearly also concerned on an aesthetic level with the composition of shapes and forms in her work. Duvets and pyjamas acquire a character of their own as shape plays against shadow to create a complex network of compositions and sub-compositions. The experimentation here is subtle; each print is a delicate arrangement of shapes within shapes and forms within shadows.
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of this exhibition is that presentation, too, plays a vital role in the viewer's experience of the exhibition. This is honestly one of the few times I have looked at an artist's work and not only felt that the presentation was excellent, but that it added an entirely new slant to the meaning of the work. Each photograph in this series has a dark, wooden, box-like frame: the glass on the outside of the frame rests at least three to four centimetres above the print inside, which means that the viewer has to peer inside the box/ frame to see the print. On seeing the prints for the first time, my immediate reaction, therefore, was to think of a bed. Each print is small, and nestles in its frame: it is as though Buckland's presentation of an unguarded state in her subjects is accompanied by the provision of a safe space for them to rest in. (Ironically, the size of each print emphasises the preciousness of the subject, but by the same token demands closer scrutiny - the artist's protectiveness is automatically coupled with the viewer's voyeurism, and vice versa.)
The sentimentality, which threatens on initial viewing, is also countered by a suggestion of the macabre in the frames chosen. What begins as a tender depiction of pregnancy later reveals echoes of an entire life cycle, as some of the sleeping figures evolve from sprawling, unselfconscious positions into stiffer postures, some being entirely covered by sheets. In these prints there is the suggestion of death, which metamorphoses the box-like frames from safehavens into coffins. This metamorphosis is unsettling, to say the least, and leaves the viewer feeling ambivalent towards the sleeping figures, unsure whether to opt for sympathy or revulsion as a response. And here, too, lighting becomes an evocative factor. Always either dim or oblique, it creates a sense of mysticism in the series, which echoes the themes of life and death that run through each print. There is an unreality to the sleeping figures - sometimes the lighting is a slight but warm glow, which lends them an angelic aspect. Other times the light is sharper, but coming from one corner only, lending a sharpness to the objects in its path but leaving others in darkness, doubly mysterious against the clearness of the sharply lit forms alongside.
The series is undoubtedly successful in its combination of themes and aesthetics, and succeeds, also, in creating a very real description of the vulnerability present in sleep, death, pregnancy and - not least - personal identity. The only possible problem in this respect is that the photographs were taken under artificial conditions, in Buckland's studio, which can be disillusioning in the light of Buckland's assertion that the sleeping self is unguarded. However, some of the subjects appear so unselfconscious that the viewer is left wondering whether she did perhaps wait for her subjects to fall asleep in the studio, or whether they were simply natural actors (pardon the oxymoron). And while others are clearly merely pretending to be asleep, the artificiality of some of the poses is revealing in itself, speaking volumes about the insecurities of the figures concerned.
The series does have its moments of voyeurism, but it is a voyeurism that I, for one, cannot criticise because it is present in viewer as well as artist. The same curiosity that is indulged by, for example, reality TV is indulged by this exhibition - it is a curiosity we are all familiar with. Moreover, Buckland's inquisitiveness, her unashamed watching, never comes across as malicious. Instead, it is closer to the benign curiosity of a child prodding the ears and feet of a beloved pet hamster: an affectionate interest that is as unguarded as the subject itself.