Andrew Stones, Street Level Photoworks,
Glasgow, 6 May - 7 June 1997
On entering Street Level, conscious
of hope in the air following the general election, it was remarkable to
see 'Bothered (Black Rod)', which made direct reference to the symbolic
opening of parliament.
I was confronted by an array of
black and white video monitors, the type used to display images from surveillance
cameras, positioned above head height. The screens peer down at the viewer
from both sides of the gallery, like an audience. On each is displayed
an identical image of the Queen's face, only her eyes and forehead showing.
The Monarch looks out through her glasses, as when reading the customary
speech at the beginning of each session of parliament.
Like a gunshot, the silence is punctuated
by the hollow ring of Black Rod on the doors of parliament. At precisely
this moment, the multiple images of the Queen's face look slightly askance,
a sidewards glance giving expression to the unease that this sound generates
in the head of State.
Multiple readings of this work are
possible: however I prefer to deal with the artist's inferred critique
of the institution of governmental power. The martial spectacle of the
opening of parliament, with the MP's advancing side by side in ranks like
a military brigade, is evoked by even such minimal fragments. Concentrating
on this ritual, the piece reminds the viewer of the symbolic nature of
the handover of power in Parliament. The opening of the House of Commons
itself symbolises the hierarchy that places limits on the power of the
Commons. Black Rod, the usher of the ancient Order of the Garter, represents
the Lords or nobility and the Crown, and by implication the military through
the Knighthood. His presence is a reminder of the struggle in the executive
between the Commons and the State. Given the loaded significance of the
imagery, Stones manages to be subtle. Possibly he is attempting to express
the ambiguous relationship between the three elements of the medieval institution
of Parliament: Crown, Lords and Commons.
The position of the viewer in relation
to the piece is also open to question: images of the Queen are reproduced
through the mechanisms of surveillance, but the Monarch stares unblinkingly
back, distracted only by Black Rod. The method of replication - black and
white television - refers to the first mass television spectacle, the Coronation
44 years ago. Back then, the live broadcast was said to herald the arrival
of the new Elizabethan age, echoing the beginnings of English imperialism
and conquest at a time when the empire was collapsing. The authority of
the Crown extended and reinforced its dominion through myriad television
receivers in its subjects' living rooms. The use of a recorded video image,
looped through a closed circuit, seems to mimic the changed relationship
between Crown and parliament since that time: the supposed democratic power
of the people still in thrall to the spectacle of monarchy, yet critically
monitoring, watching for any slip in the mask.
Situated in the second gallery space,
'The Nature of Their Joy' seems to share an approach with the first work:
that of scrutiny of a face, trying to unlock the emotional significance
of an ambiguous expression. At either end of the gallery are two large-scale
transparencies, mounted on light boxes, the images follow a concave curved
plane, like the surface of a lens. Superimposed titles inform the viewer
that these are images of crowds celebrating in London at the outbreak,
and cessation of the first world war respectively. The photographs have
been manipulated, the artist framing certain faces from the crowd, picking
them out from the mass in the picture field.
I found myself going back and forth
between the two, trying to discern any differences in the expressions on
people's faces. A fruitless task: there are differences between individual
faces, but these are diluted by the crowd, and by the granular distortions
of the enlarged images. The artist is exploring the difficulty of interpreting
media, in this case the photographic document.
To the right, on plinths ranged
along the gallery space, is a series of cases housing portable microfiche
readers. They are connected by a loop of transparent plastic tubing, which
passes through the projection beams intended to illuminate microfilm. Clear
fluid from a large bell jar in the centre of this strange apparatus is
pumped around the loop. On closer inspection, the jar is seen to contain
tiny negatives. Carried by the current, faces are seen fleetingly, magnified
on the small screens. They trace paths across the screens in turn, like
figures passing a window, never quite making a clear, still image.
A label on the jar announces 'images
in solution'. As the pieces of film are washed, rub against each other
and the pipes, they literally begin to disintegrate. Symbolically linking
the two polar opposites, war and peace: with an arcane, obsolete apparatus
allowing the viewer to inspect and magnify image fragments. The use of
mechanisms that simulate scientific processes of observation, analysis
and evaluation posit the masses as data. The behaviour of crowds, and of
society, the process of history itself as a fluid dynamic, particles in
The soundtrack that accompanies
this installation was constructed from two recorded loops, rainwater on
a roof and a football crowd. Both are slowed down, mixed together to form
a wave like roar. A melancholic ambience fills the space, articulating
a sense of loss, of inevitable change and decay. The artist has described
this piece as an attempt to express society's loss of control to the machine.
The mechanised slaughter of the war replaced humans and horses, allowing
the fighting to continue much longer, beyond human limits. He points to
the use of redundant technologies such as the 'Commuter II' microfiche
readers, replaced by laptop computers almost as soon as they were manufactured,
as evidence that this process continues to accelerate. Images, people,
societies, are transformed into just so much information.
Despite their apparent simplicity,
these are complex, multi-layered works. They act like catalysts for thought
- the viewer making links between the images, sounds, materials, and apparatus.
As such it would be easy to criticise the artist for leaving meaning too
'open to interpretation', but Stones has focused on a narrow range of imagery,
successfully directing the viewer gently towards certain conclusions. Stones
is questioning the authority and veracity of the media and image making
itself, the impossibility of a fixed meaning in art or science.
It is genuinely refreshing to see
an artist working through political issues, yet not succumbing to glib
posturing, or single issue tub thumping. It has been some time since I
have experienced works by an artist this rigorous in intellect, and conveying
a powerful yet subtle political critique.