Photo London – 2019
If I were to be asked which artists triggered my interest the most at the Photo London art fair this year, I would certainly include Garry Fabian Miller. He is certainly not a discovery, considering that Garry Fabian Miller was born in Bristol in 1957, and that his work is present in a number of major collections around the world with The Victoria & Albert Museum holding a large public collection of his work acquired over many years.
We understand that the artist has worked for a number of years without a camera, re-exploring techniques of the early days of photography when light, paper, glass or other translucid materials, and time were the four key ingredients with which to transmute a physically perceived image into a visual idea of that image.
Resorting to long exposures lasting sometimes several hours, Miller achieves his powerful visual effects by moulding light, so to speak, with time. It is obvious that photography is always about light, as anything we actually perceive through vision; but most of the time photography has an object which is either exalted, transformed, or related to some other set of objects so as to convey an emotion or an idea. In those pieces that were shown at Photo London, the object tends to disappear as such and give way to an image that could be – say – the edge of the sun, or the iris of an eye, or lava from some volcano, or some pierced sphere through which light is made to pass, but does not matter as light here become an attractor, a quasi-hypnotic experience.
This is achieved in part because the image crystallized on paper is seen immediately while it represents in fact the patient layering with light, and evolving by illumination, of something that we will never be able to actually experience ourselves, as our vision does not accumulate but takes sequentially. In our perception, it is memory that makes for accumulated time. Perhaps because of this, our attention tends to be captured and retained as if it tried to reconstitute through the contemplation of a fixed image the change which it actually embodies. As a result, we have access to a form of “perareality” – from the Greek πήρα. “beyond” – which could signify a reality which is not transcendental and therefore inaccessible other than through metaphors or altered states of consciousness, but only beyond our common means of access but still belonging to what we would term reality. And this is a different experience than that resulting from a film, where the stream of consciousness helps us grasp what we see.
In the realm of art, time is essentially made visible, and to some extent reconvened, by monuments. Indeed, the word comes from the latin monere, to remember. And rituals, which are a form of re-enactment as is obvious in the case of the Christian mass to take but one example, are a powerful way to convene past events and the related forces which have acted in the past, at some founding moment. There can be no doubt that rituals constitute in themselves an art form, perhaps the matrix of all art forms.
Time also manifests itself in the shape of traces, such as footprints, of which an extraordinary example is given by the now-famous Happisburgh footprints of five hominid individuals, probably a group of homo antecessor, around 800,000 years ago, or the “negative hands” of Pech Merle, dated around 25,000 B.C. But this is time convened by memory and fantasy, not actual elapsed time in the process of flowing.
With Miller’s work, we have time embedded in the image. It does not interfere in the least with our memories, with nostalgia, or with history and our related fantasies. Some of Miller’s work does convey an idea of science, perhaps because of the high quality of the prints and the underlying geometry of the shapes, but failing a recognizable object – be it a particle or a galaxy – it simultaneously presents us with a form mantra, some path to meditation. It retains a quasi hypnotic quality. In that sense, one is reminded of the Chinese Gongshi (“spirit stones”), or scholar rocks, which evoke the microcosm and the forces which inhabit therein. Gongshi fuse in a single object abstraction and matter, the tangible and the intangible, the visible which you can touch with the immaterial which is the wandering of the thoughts and associations giving “life” to the stone. One could perhaps refer also to the inks of Zeng Xiaojun, of some works by Li Huayi, for instance.
The point is that Miller’s images do represent a point of intersection between shape and colour – or “materiality” – on the one hand, and micro- or macro-cosmic references on the other hand, which trigger a wandering of the spirit. One may view them as “spirit images”, to coin a name. The assumption is that this is achieved precisely by embedding time into the image so that it is far enough from the recognizable object without being the result of a mere formalist, and therefore aesthetic, research.