16.05 – 29-06-2019
Jo Ractliffe’s ‘Signs of Life’ is a fragmented collection of disparate photographs, moving from exhausted horses, dead crows and boys dressed as Spiderman to a shot of the TV, waves and a beehive. This range is overwhelming but the scale of the photographs is immediately compelling. It’s intimate, bigger than old 8 x 10 photographic paper, but still small enough to imagine holding a print in your hand without it buckling. In contemporary photography shows I tend to expect massive, engulfing prints. The scale here is slightly nostalgic, speaking of film, of darkrooms and a time when photography didn’t register its value in size. But it is also physically engaging, I found myself stepping closer, my eyes up against the frames scanning for details.
This sense of getting closer reminds me of an essay from Marianne Hirsch’s ‘The Generation of Postmemory.’ Hirsch writes about her investigation of a tiny photograph of her parents in war time Romania. The photograph is 2.5 by 3.5 cm. In it, her parents look jaunty and well-dressed, in contrast to Hirsch’s knowledge of the hardship of Jewish life at the time. She is intrigued by the photo’s refusal to testify, the gulf between what it shows and what she knows. She tries to get closer, digitally scanning and enlarging the image, but she comes up against the limits of the information recorded in the image. You can get in closer, but the image won’t resolve.
I often think of this when I step closer to a photograph, coming up against what I imagine as the skin of the photograph, it’s logical limit. I want to peer through, get to the bottom of it, but meaning dissipates rather than coalesces, details become untethered. While the scale in Ractliffe’s show is not nearly in the realm of Hirsch’s photo, I got a similar sense of irresolution, resulting in peering deeper, and attempting to get closer.
Ractliffe’s work is known to be dense, research intensive essays. This work though takes a different tack. Ractliffe talks of an injury curtailing her normal ways of working, and there is a definite sense of searching for new ways and possibilities in the work. The result is a disparate collection of images, varying in time and place and shifting in mode and subject matter. She also speaks of the images as the ones that refuse to be edited out. This is perhaps the crux of the show, as we look for the punctums that marks these images out, or we try to connect them into a narrative, looking for the signs of life, so to speak. But life here seems to be more of a creeping movement of time, a slow falling apart. The signs are stilted and quiet, thorns growing in a picnic spot, a rusting car, a crumbling house. Moments of brightness, like Birthday Girl, Macgregor or Two Friends, Oaxaca are subsumed by a moodiness. Melancholia seems to be the overarching theme. Though this isn’t the isolating, intellectual melancholy of the young, it’s not histrionic, but rather seems to be a sense of despair seeping into a visual register.
This analysis seems to fit badly, though. Instead, I try and see the work as a personal reflection of Ractliffe herself: I look for her sense of taste, her desires, her impulses. But the images have too much of the documentary in them to sit comfortably in this register. This is the curious nature of this exhibition, my interpretations half-fit. Putting this range of things together seems to demand linkages, and the brain scrambles to find the meter, the connecting rhythm, but it refuses to resolve.
So, I step closer and try and find what each image is made up of and what it says on its own terms. The title’s are circumspect, a brief description, maybe a place. But they have an internal logic: a sliver of beauty, or a good composition; a moment of optical clarity or a curious subject.
The images may be best described as surreal, fragments that seems both significant and wholly mysterious. Each image becomes a little dream-reality. We seem to be witnessing the moment when a photograph subtly converts reality into aesthetics. Getting in closer only reveals more picture.