‘At the Frontier of Vision’: on recent work by Michael John Whelan

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1.

One way to begin thinking about Michael John Whelan’s Frontier (2016) – an elliptical cinematic travelogue, partly shot on the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, and informed by a rich mixture of natural science and local lore – could be to keep things simple. It might make sense, at first, to focus on what appears indisputable and fundamental about Whelan’s work, on what is, in other words, objectively there. (In this regard, we might first of all follow the path taken by Simon Critchley in a discussion of Wallace Stevens, towards discovering, in its discrete particulars, “the hardness and plainness of reality itself”.) Indeed the sleek, spare set-up of Whelan’s work surely invites such a careful, clarifying approach, since the film is presented in an installation style that is, sculpturally, both assertive and restrained. The two sturdy, stand-alone projection screens Whelan has designed are imposing, minimalist blocks: bulky, clean-lined cuboids, taller than human height and fixed, with strategic specificity, at a slight angle to each other. They are not, or not quite, minimalist sculptures in themselves, but standing together they have a direct, three-dimensional authority and clarity that seems purposeful and potent: bringing to mind Robert Morris’s comment that “simplicity of shape does not necessarily equate with simplicity of experience.” In the deep darkness of the windowless gallery, these modestly commanding structures glow and flicker, displaying the sequential sections of a contemplative, slow-moving montage. The twin streams of imagery – partly featuring original footage from Svalbard, partly showing clips grabbed from assorted internet sources – sometimes correspond closely, mirroring each other, or offering comparable views of similar content. There’s a considerable degree of understatement – and apparent simplicity – to these recordings. Roads, rocks and gently rolling waves are solemnly studied. The vision of nature that Whelan offers is both expansive and insistently pared-back to elemental basics. We gaze on open, uncluttered, barely populated places, staring into an extreme, skeletal kind of reality. We sense too the glacial slowness of time in this icy northern outpost. Frontier is, in total, only ten minutes and twenty-eight seconds long. But its gradual, patient movements through space and time are suggestive of infinitely longer stretches of earthly existence.

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2.

It surely makes sense to start in this way – reflecting on what is most simple and straightforward in Frontier, taking a moment to steady ourselves, to fix an initial position – given that much of what engages Whelan’s artistic interest is fugitive and elusive. In the case of Frontier his interest was piqued by reports, in 2012, noting the appearance in the Arctic waters off Svalbard of an albino humpback whale – an extraordinarily rare phenomenon, given not only the small numbers of animals with this genetic distinction, but also the fact that few such creatures survive for long in their natural habitat. (Oddly, in an irony important to Whelan’s thinking, these albino whales, so unusual to see above water, are imperiled in the seas as a result of their heightened visibility – they stand out too noticeably in the dark realm beneath). Only one documentary record of this memorable whale sighting remains (digital footage taken by a maritime engineer) and in the absence of further substantial corroboration, Whelan has responded by, on the one hand, returning to the landscape – studying the terrain with his own camera, keeping his eyes open for further, freak occurrences – and, on the other, by returning to the extant footage: zooming in, examining the evidence. In Whelan’s own, subjective surveys of the landscapes and seascapes, we occupy possible positions from which something remarkable was formerly seen, or might yet be seen again. These could be scenes of expectation or disappointment or remembering; as such, they point to the past and the future simultaneously. Moreover the camera’s tracking of snowy coastlines and ocean surfaces seems to suggest a desire to map and record precisely, to assiduously analyse specific positions – seeing the world in its immediate thereness – while at the same time failing to capture any trace of the core out-of-the-ordinary natural ‘force’ that has inspired the expedition. Such efforts show Whelan’s commitment to searching and documenting; but his resulting split-screen document necessarily has an air of inexorable loss. Maybe, in this instance, the means available to him cannot yet ‘credit marvels’ – to borrow a key poetic catchphrase of Seamus Heaney’s – or maybe there is a recognition that art itself can arise in an acknowledgement of this incessant disappearance of the world – the perpetual, barely noticed, passing away of life at every second.

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3.

The existing footage appropriated by Whelan in Frontier is a crucial kind of capturing: it tells a truth, even in small measure, of an actual occasion of seeing. But, as treated in the film, the shots of the whale become barely discernible. Whelan forces the material, through digital manipulation, to the limit of visibility, to the frontier of our vision. Close-up we see ‘reality’ become confusingly pixelated: the accurate, comprehensible picture breaks up, becoming a shifting mosaic of luminous blocks of image-information. These disorientating effects call to mind Slavoj Zizek’s speculation that reality itself may be like a video game created by an incompetent, lazy designer – so that when we look at parts of the game environment not essential to our immediate progress, we see that the marginal settings have not been programmed, and the surrounding ‘world’ is thus found to be incomplete. The closer we get to reality as we commonly understand it, Zizek argues, the more it disintegrates. Maybe it is for related reasons that Whelan adds to the appropriated footage of the whale a series of shots showing other Albino animals: trying to visually capture the albino humpback, we are bounced backwards or sideways towards records of other rare beasts. We are sent away from the primary subject, just as we are seeking to edge nearer. As with other work by Whelan, such as Lupus (2014) – a photographic series concerned with mapping the known dwelling place of the last wolf in Ireland – the introduction of this parallel imagery of extraordinary, threatened or lost animals, seems to not only re-assert a sustaining artistic interest in nature itself, but also in how its elements are categorized and made meaningful. There is an evident back-and-forth between the elusive and the allusive. Again and again, from one frontier of knowledge and experience to another, Whelan moves between reflecting on features of the world that speak of natural immediacy, specificity and distinctiveness (apprehending these as unambiguously real things, as unique manifestations of life) and on those ways of seeing and representing and connecting up the world that we rely upon, but that, inevitably, keep us at a distance from any such forceful, vital realm of the real.

References:

Simon Critchley, Things Merely Are: Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens (New York: Routledge, 2005).

Robert Morris, Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994).

Slavoj Žižek quoted in, Liz Else, ‘Wake up and smell the apocalypse’, New Scientist, (30 August 2010).

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