Studying the Context and Narrative unit has proved to be an enjoyable and inspirational experience for me. The three most significant lessons learned are the notion that, in a postmodern context, the story is told by the reader rather than the author (Barthes and Heath, 1977), the use of visual metaphors (Shafran, 2000) and that all artists have one central story (Crewdson, 2017). These insights have influenced my work for Assignment 5.
My One Central Story
Imagine trying to add up without the use of words. Please try to mentally add up 1+1=2 without mentally using the words one or two. I can’t do it. But if I look at two objects, I can mentally construct the number two without needing to do the maths. So what?
Well as I go through life, like us all, I’m exposed to situations which I struggle to understand. One example was when I lived within the home of a married couple, one of whom was subtly mentally abusive to the other. I couldn’t understand what I was witnessing nor why I felt so disturbed. In the pressure of the moment, I lacked the prerequisite language to formulate my thoughts. It wasn’t until I came across the work of Maria Falconer (Falconer, n.d.) that I could comprehend what was happening. Falconer’s images were like visual ‘post-it notes’ upon which I could ‘write’ my thoughts and consequently develop an understanding of the complex behaviours that I had witnessed. I was beginning to realise the power of a visual language.
When interviewed, Crewdson consistently discusses the idea that every artist has one central story to tell and that their task is to retell it in original ways. My central story, for now at least, seems to be the presentation of complicated, unspoken feelings, emotions or psychological conditions using simple, elliptical, allegorical images in a typological style.
Development of the idea
In Assignment 2, ‘Photographing the Unseen’, my idea was to metaphorically represent the emotion of loneliness using a 3×3 grid of everyday objects that might characterise a lonely person. Without identifying the particular emotion, the images invite the viewer to guess what it is, and in the process, perhaps considering how such a person might feel.
For Assignment 3, using another 3×3 grid, I tried to illustrate the nine diagnosable criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder as described in the psychologist’s ‘bible’ known as DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). In this case, rather than choosing everyday objects, I experimented with notan hand gestures.
Encouraged by my Assignment 3 tutor feedback, I decided to continue along the same lines for assignment 5. I chose to reexplore an idea I had considered for Assignment 3.
Gaslighting, a word coming from Patrick Hamilton’s 1939 play ‘Gaslight’ (Hamilton, 1939), means to manipulate someone by psychological means into doubting their sanity. In the play, a husband gaslights his wife by verbal abuse, hiding objects and hurting her dog. The commonly held view is that the husband dimmed the lights as part of the gaslighting exercise. That is not the case; the lights did dim but only as a result of his secret nightly attic searches, not as an attempt to abuse his wife. For the sake of authenticity, I had previously, therefore decided to ignore this idea. However, given further thought, I decided to use this misconception to my advantage.
Gaslighting creates uncertainty in people’s mind to the extent that they doubt their sanity. While of course, I don’t wish anyone to question their sanity, I wanted to produce images that might create doubts in their mind. Alluding to the name Gaslight, I created a 3 x 3 grid showing nine photographs of the same lightbulb. Possibly one or more of them are slightly dimmer than the others. Or are they all the same? The caption ‘If I am mad, be patient with me’ is a direct quote from the Gaslit Mrs Manningham in the play (Hamilton, 1939).
I am hoping the idea in Assignment 5 builds upon the work done in assignments 2 and 3. I believe it does in the sense that Assignment 2, invites the viewer to guess an emotion from a series of objects that might characterise it. Assignment 3 attempts to illustrate the diagnosable behaviours of Narcissism using simple notan hand gestures. With Assignment 5, I am trying to create doubts in the viewer’s mind. Or, in other words, try to make them experience gaslighting themselves.
Agonising over the use of a viewing synopsis
The problem with conceptual work is how to make it accessible to the viewer. I like Crewdson’s idea of elliptical stories and hovering question marks. On the other hand, if the viewer cannot position the work then engagement will be limited. The title ‘If I am mad…’ highlights to the viewer that a psychological subject is being addressed. The lightbulbs used have an old-fashioned look (the exposed filaments resemble a flame) and the term Gaslighting is in common use these days. People who saw the image seemed to get it. So after much deliberation, I decided not to provide any further help by way of an anchor or relay.
The image for Assignment 5 is a simple one. There are no complex scenes, costumes or models. It’s a modern lightbulb, but with the exposed electrical filaments simulating an open flame, it resembles an old-fashioned gaslight. I again chose a 3×3 format for comparative reasons, for as Hilla Becher said:
By placing several … side by side, something happened, something like tonal music; you don’t see what makes the objects different until you bring them together, so subtle are their differences.(Collins, 2015)
Unfortunately, the typological presentation of these images doesn’t work on screen. But when hung, light inevitably reflects differently across the nine pictures, thereby creating visual differences between the individual lightbulbs.
To produce this assignment, I drew upon my studies of the following artists:
The work by Maria Falconer, ‘Keep her Unnoticed’ (Falconer, n.d.), describes an abusive relationship in a series of self-portraits, was hugely influential on me. I was astounded at the level of debate the images generated which, of course, resulted in a much deeper understanding of such a complicated unspoken subject. I doubt if words could lead to that level of appreciation.
The work called ‘Annunciation’ by Elina Brotherus (Brotherus and Lund, 2019) – a series of self-portraits documenting her unsuccessful IVF treatment between 2008 and 2012 – being another example of work specially produced to encourage debate around unspoken subjects.
John Dowell’s series called ‘The Black Dog Came Calling’ invites the viewer to feel the emotions allegorically depicted during his journey through depression (Dowell, 2003).
Listening to Gregory Crewdson speak about the retelling of an artist’s central story legitimised my persistent return to the same underlying theme.
I was particularly interested in the self-absented portraiture of Nigel Shafran (Shafran, 2000). It took me a while to understand what he was doing; how could a series of photographs of washing-up be considered self-Portraiture? But of course, seeing the contents of somebody’s sideboard tell us a great deal about them. I now realised that one could talk about oneself using other visual devices.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Desk reference to the diagnostic criteria from DSM-5. Arlington: American Psychiatric Association, p.327.
Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1977). Image, music, text. London: Fontana, pp.142-148.
Hamilton, P. (1939). Gaslight. London: Abacus, p.49.
Shafran, N. (2000). Three bean soup, cauliflower vegetable cheese. Morning coffee and croissants. [image] Available at: http://nigelshafran.com/category/washing-up-2000-2000/page/2/ [Accessed 26 Nov. 2019].