David Johnson: Returning Light
In this text Asa Andersson reviews David Johnson's current retrospective exhibition at the Dean Clough galleries in Halifax. She describes how her interest in Johnson's work stemmed from a chance encounter on the Axis website. This virtual starting point then provided the gateway for Andersson to experience these works first hand and allow them to take her on further journeys into the magical and dream-like worlds created in Johnson's work.
Dean Clough, Halifax
12 May-2 September 2007
All the days, 1999-2005
The mind sees and continues to see objects, while the spirit finds the nest of immensity in an object.1
Sometimes we may be afraid that the reality of something is not going to match up to our anticipations and this was the situation I was in when about to visit David Johnson's retrospective exhibition at Dean Clough in Halifax. I had first become aware of his work through the Axis website and what I could glance from the initial look at the digital thumbnail sized impressions, was the visual promise of a world that was philosophically complex while carrying elements of the magical. After having gone from this mediated online encounter, I was nearing the Dean Clough with a sense of trembling nervousness. Would the work be as alluring as I had imagined, would that philosophical enchantment be present?
Upon entering I found those pieces of work I had glimpsed and dreamt of, scattered over the upstairs galleries and down in the dark and atmospheric arches of the Viaduct theatre. Within the overall challenging and maze-like configuration of the Dean Clough galleries, I had the rare opportunity to experience the fleeting and enigmatic work of David Johnson (the objects and installations date from 1978 to 2007). It felt as if the tiny digital representations that I first spotted on the Axis website, had acted as transitional spaces or portals, such as in fairytales, be they mirrors, holes, or other gateways, whereby we tumble into the depths of the miraculous...
The space of the Viaduct theatre was dark and fairly moist with thick brick walls and the humming of slide-projectors merged with the occasional sound of dripping water hitting the uneven floor. The installed pieces were placed around the centrally located theatre stage and the silhouettes of the ascending rows of chairs were hinted against the selective areas of light. In the Moomin story Moominsummer Madness (1954) by Tove Jansson, the Moomin family encounters a floating theatre where props and other traces are suggestive of the dormancy of past or future events. Similarly, when I entered the Viaduct theatre, the whole space became the world of an unmoored and sleeping theatre but where the fringes were lit up by David's promising light pools, enchanted props and suggestive orchestrations, playing out possible narratives. The margins of the space were providing storage for furniture and other items and this added to the marvel of suddenly identifying one of David's poetically charged manifestations.
Under a beam of light, within an archway, an old wooden rowing boat was filled with dark inky water making up 'All the days' (1999-2005). Within the boat there were white porcelain bowls of varying sizes that slowly sailed the seemingly deep water. The image of a blue sky, with a few clouds, was projected into the bowls and also appeared as a darkish semi-submerged shadow on the surface of the enclosed water. The bowls made a twinkling sound as they grouped together in small formations to then gradually come undone and move on. There was an optic illusion at work where it looked as if the clouds moved; as a viewer I felt as if I was drifting within this world, enabled by the fine grain quality of the slide-projection. In another archway there was a dramatically spotlit old and worn white bathtub. It contained an organic bundle of lead piping where the softness of the lead grey colour, and the bent pipes that emanated from out of the plughole, may have alluded to the physicality of the body. From a distance a glowing window, 'Facing the Dark' (2000), cast an alluring reflection upon the dark floor, and beckoned a closer look. This ethereal window seemed to reveal the view of a brick wall beyond its perimeters. It was puzzling and mesmerizing - there was the paradoxical promise of sunlight coming in through the presumed glass panes yet the immediately 'facing' brick wall would in actuality have blocked out any light.
In 'Untitled (moon)' (1987) a light beam was concentrated into a limited area of a metal bucket and a crescent moon with an iridescent aura seemed to be mirrored in the surface of the milk contained within it. The bucket was at first difficult to spot and only the faintest glow was visible but once the eyes had peered over the edge it was easy to become transfixed. A moment of celestial immensity, where the distant appeared acutely intimate, even if the smallest shake, or attempt to touch the moon by the intervention of the silhouette of a finger, fractured the illusion. Like the portability of the souvenir '50 cc of Paris Air' (1919), a delicate etched pharmaceutical glass phial filled with Parisian air which Marcel Duchamp presented as a gift to an American friend, I developed a desire to keep this moonlit world, to lift the handle and carry the bucket with me.
In 'Ghosts (remembering my father)' (2006) there was a blocked yet lit up doorway with a white sheet spread out on the floor in front of it. When walking nearer I became aware that within this concentration of light there was an evanescent image of a small boy held by his father standing on a pier in summer dress. However, parts of the projected image would only be realised by my particular bodily position - as I blanked out rays of light from a second slide the boy and father became visible within my own shadow. The two figures would thus alternate between solitude and togetherness in the presence of the viewer. There was this growing realisation of the unexpected, something that I was sensorially connected to, a recollection in which both memory and the material world slowly coalesced into one. When viewing the work I was in the presence of two small children and this became significant as their height would not blank out the rays and make the faces of the boy and father visible. Even standing on the adjacent white chair would not suffice and an adult's arms were required similar to the held boy in the image. I recognised the intensity of the interrelated states of proximity and distance in relation to processes of longing and how personal memory is becoming rearticulated as we age. A young viewer made the observation that, like the blocked doorway, only fragments of memory can be intuited - once lived through they are in some respects inaccessible to us as we live in a continuous temporal flow...
She sticks a finger in the water, scattering her reflection; then the circles close up again, a very fine dust settles to the bottom, and her face comes back together: her eyes, nose, mouth, reunited on the jelly of the water.2
Ghosts (remembering my father), 2006
(click on image to enlarge)
The oscillation between presence and absence, the visible and invisible, was also evoked in 'Trying to Imagine not Being' (2003) which showed a plain wooden vertical post that was lit by a spotlight and as a result threw a long shadow across the floor but where it was presumed to hit the wall the shadow seemed to have suddenly and subtly vanished into thin air. There was another piece 'One Day and a Hundred Years' (2006-2007) which further brought up the idea of transience, this time using two sets of digital clocks with LED displays, written instructions, bulbs, and involving computer programming. Through the instruction, 'One Day' invited the viewer to press down a button that would light up the adjacent bulb for the same amount of time the following day. The accompanying part; 'a Hundred Years', would light up for the same duration of time in a hundred years. The first component, with the 24 hour delay, was suggestive of a quite playful moment while the notion that the extension of my gesture and intention will exceed my life span evoked a deeper reflection.
Akin to the legacies of the surrealists, the strategies used by conceptual artists amongst others, several of David's pieces use found, often domestic, utilitarian objects that speak of containment - boats, beds, bath tubs, a pillow, a bucket and a wardrobe. Together with photographs, and displayed drawings showing proposals for potential installations, the work often speak of 'framing' whether formally or metaphorically. By this act of visual distillation, we are brought temporarily closer to something we may otherwise ignore or just accept as habitual. A connection may be made to James Turrell who frames the actual unmediated sky; a square aperture is cut in a roof where the blue atmospheric ether may be seen, or the raindrops or snowflakes may slowly fall into the space gathered by the opening. However, David works with manipulated audio recordings or photographic representations of these elemental worlds which bring at least me into a realm of the mythical. I dream within the composite image (the object and the ephemeral slide-projection or the combined object and sound), and there is a suggestion of an annexation between our inner selves, the wider world and the cosmos; '... the oneiric landscape is not a frame to be filled with impressions, it is a matter which multiplies.' 3 By the expansive act of framing in David's work, I am as a viewer taken on a journey of dreams and associations, it often teases out an emotional response while sometimes being more abstract and interactively playful. In the Korean film, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring by Kim Ki-duk (2003), an old monk raises a young disciple and they live within an intimate floating temple in the middle of a lake. Their sleeping area is only demarcated from the altar by a freestanding door through which they enter and exit although they could easily just skirt around the frame and not have to open the door. Similarly, when engaging with David's work, it is necessary to suspend disbelief and to not become too concerned with the actual technical construction. He offers us small visual baits and if willing, we will be drawn up to the sources of radiance, through the promise of something, such as the beckoning yet deceptive light from the half-open old wardrobe in 'Imaginary Landscape No. 2' (1987-1997) that was placed in an otherwise empty room.
In the Viaduct theatre, and in some of the upper floor galleries, a productive relationship was emanated between the site and the artwork. In 'Secret Sea No. 1' (1984, 1986-1987), an old wooden rowing boat was filled with clear water and with its pair of oar blades reflectively pointing inwards. The boat was positioned upon the mosaic floor in an entry way. The tiled pattern of flowers and leafy ornamentation became suggestive of a garden where the boat with its watery core formed an imaginary pond evocative of the interiority and fluidity of the body.
When engaging with David's work I feel as if observing the tracings and workings of somebody who fills, empties and refills metaphysical 'mysteries' into the world, where a continuous enquiry and art practice operates as a laboratory for a material and philosophical imagination. Gaston Bachelard put this succinctly when he conjoined the phrase: 'dream-physics'.
In the beginning of this text I mentioned how the thumbnail images on the Axis website acted as portals, and after having seen the show (a selection is represented here), I felt as if the actual work invited me to yet another experiential world, an entry point to the world outside. Through taking an imaginary 'star-dive' into 'Ocean' (1995) which presented a night sky with shimmering multi-coloured stars reflected in milk in the bottom of, and across, the interior of an open wooden boat, I surfaced with a heightened sense of the potential miracle world we are guests within.
The walls are exploding. The windows have turned into telescopes. Moons and stars are magnified in this room. The sun hangs over the mantelpiece. I stretch out my hand and reach the corners of the world. The world is bundled up in this room. Beyond the door, where the river is, where the roads are, we shall be.4
The team at Dean Clough should be highly credited for hosting this eloquent show which requires subtle and attentive nursing due to the fragility of some of its materials.
1. Bachelard, Gaston, (1994), The Poetics of Space, Boston: Beacon Press, p. 190.
2. Darrieussecq, Marie, (2001), Breathing Underwater, London: Faber and Faber Limited, p. 81.
3. Bachelard, Gaston, (1987), On Poetic Imagination and Reverie, Dallas, Texas: Spring Publications Inc., p. 36.
4. Winterson, Jeanette, (1993), Written on the Body, London: Vintage, p. 190.
Asa Andersson, 2007