Distortion, deliberate and otherwise

Seike’s black-and-white “Waterscape # 24,” 11.176 x 18.034 cm, suggests something of the artist’s mastery. (Courtesy of Art Factum)

BEIRUT: One of the more easily grasped propositions of German philosopher Martin Heidegger has it that when you’re reading a book or watching a film, you’re closer to the text on the page or the images on screen than to, say, the glasses perched atop your nose. According to this theory of space, the thing closest to you at a given moment is the thing that has your attention.

Heidegger may come to mind if you visit Art Factum Gallery these days, wrapped into the question: In an art gallery, what object should be closest to the onlookers?

It should be the art but, sadly, this isn’t the case at “Salt,” an exhibition of work by Australian photographer Murray Fredericks, currently up at the Karantina space.

Hung in tandem with Tomio Seike’s “Glynde Forge” and “Waterscapes,” the Fredericks show is being held in collaboration with Hamiltons, the prestigious photography gallery founded in London in 1977.

Seike’s small, monochrome gelatin silver prints are adequately showcased in the ground-floor display space. On the gallery’s lower level, however, Fredericks’ landscapes fall prey to problematic presentation – a conspiracy of strong lighting and glass surfaces.

Taken near Lake Eyre in a desolate stretch of the Australian outback, Fredericks’ eight shots explore vast skies and stark emptiness. The horizon line cuts each image about a quarter of the way up the frame, grounding what otherwise may have become an array of cloud and sky abstractions. The hues are diverse – from pure, serene blue to the hot orange of sundown.

“Engulfing” is perhaps the best adjective to describe Fredericks’ series. In his photos the subjects’ vastness almost swallows the onlooker whole. To spy the photographs while descending the gallery’s stairs ignites a vague but thrilling specter of imminent vertigo.

Once situated before the first photograph – “Salt 305,” a long, rectangular image that foregrounds the dry, cracked surface of the lake’s salt basin – your hopes (or anxieties) are dashed.

Ready to be immersed in the landscape’s coarse emptiness, you find your reflection in the glass. Staring at yourself, appearing literally inside the image, you couldn’t be further away from the work.

Reflection may be one of the things the artist plays on in this series, which he commenced shooting in 2003. It seems likely, though, that he had in mind the light cast between sky and land, between rain puddles and cloud wisps – rather than a bedroom-mirror-meets-remote-desolation commentary.

Reposition yourself all you want, you won’t find an unobstructed view of “Salt 305.” Apart from your own image and that of the other works, a strange, almost undulating refraction of light distorts the thing, making it almost impossible to get close to the work.

Frustration mounts as you move around the space.

The textured, lapping serenity of the lake surface in “Salt 271” appears to pattern your own flesh. The three-quarters of “Salt 326” given over to a true blue sky sports the vivid reflection of an air vent as well as the photograph opposite it.

Darker, nighttime shots are less obscured, but nightfall detracts from Fredericks’ razor sharp horizons, making shots such as “Salt 88” among the least arresting of those on display.

Upstairs, Seike’s framed photographs fare better, if only due to their size. The lighting still hinders the viewer, but because the images are smaller and monochrome, the distortion is less distracting.

Casual onlookers – for whom appreciating exquisite composition and form is not a matter of foremost interest – may find Seike’s photos a little uninspiring.

Seike’s work is strongly influenced by early photography and “Glynde Forge” perhaps aptly works to capture the soul of a fast disappearing craft.

The forge Seike reveals in his work, however, is a silent, meditative spot. While the contemplative shots of unused tools and dust-covered surfaces may beguile viewers, they also contain nothing of two central facets of the blacksmith’s craft: intense heat and sweat-stained labor.

Yet where the intensity of the forge is absent, the mysterious play of winter light is present, bequeathing a quiet, intriguing elegance on what is traditionally perceived as a coarse, graceless environment.

The subject of Seike’s “Waterscapes,” by contrast, represents the epitome of serenity. Lakes, and the light and shadow cast upon them, have long been a staple of tranquility-inducing images.

Again, the works are small, but the trained eye is capable of seeing the skilled, deliberate composition of each. Yet even to the casual observer, this series proves the highlight – albeit almost by default – of this Art Factum-Hamiltons collaboration.

“Waterscapes” was birthed, by complete accident, on New Year’s Day 1996, when Seike was suddenly inspired by the foggy scene at a lake in Bath, England. He captured the strange light in “Waterscape Number One – Barton Bridge.”

Over the years since, the photographer, who is known for the slow pace of his artistic output – often producing only four or five works a year, the exhibition guide informs – has expanded the series.

Among the most intriguing of the photographer’s waterscape works on display are “#3” and “#24.” In both Seike captures the reflection of a tree’s slim branches on the lake surface, with the tendrils appearing to diffuse in the liquid like a drop of colored paint in a glass of water. That such an impression is created in black-and-white photographs suggests something of the artist’s mastery.

Standing in the air-conditioned cool of one of Beirut’s most appealing exhibition spaces, in the midst of work by such talented photographers, it’s hard not to wish that the gallerist had hung the work to better advantage.

Murray Fredericks’ “Salt” and Tomio Seike’s “Glynde Forge” and “Waterscapes” are up at Art Factum in Karantina until July 21. For more information please call 01-443-263.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 28, 2012, on page 16.




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