Writing Art History Since 2002

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Siobhan McCusker I The Substation I Johannesburg

There are two parts to Siobhan McCusker’s show Altitude Remains Nominal, each of which is presented in discrete rooms. The smaller of the two is used to show digital photographs, the larger an installation. The primary medium for both is shadow and the manipulation of the play of light on surfaces.

Shadow, Pliny tells us, is the primary means of pictorial representation. For Pliny shadow was the first art (he conflated this with painting), which was invented when a shadow of a person was transcribed into physical lines. In this view art was born through a negative — more negative if we think of shadows as holes in light. Absence and presence — absence of the body, presence of the light projection set up — was and continues to be an important philosophical issue in art. McCusker investigates this dialectic, using it to explore her larger interest in nature. She manifests this interest with great conceptual and technical skill.

In her photographs shadow is apparent as dark abstract tone that suggests calligraphy. These calligraphic shadows invade domestic scenes, which appear as semi-abstract fragments. But there is enough information to reveal that their source lies in interior and exterior space, and, by association, references the tense relationship of culture and nature. The photographs butt up against each other to produce a single row around the room.

For her installation, shadow and light are projected on a much grander scale and the effect is profound. Several plinths stand in rows on the edges of the room facing the wall. Lanterns crown these sentinel-like structures and cast circular beams of light onto the walls. The centre of the room remains empty and very dark. This is the space the viewer occupies to view the projections. Standing in this darkened environment the viewer feels space in an embodied way.

The circular beams, which are projected through filters and orbs onto the wall, produce a variety of images. Some are abstract, some suggest organic forms, leaves, trees and the like. McCusker produces these images through a complex overlaying of processes: handmade engravings and mechanically produced laser etchings.

In both her photographs and installation the artist draws with light. The photographs are less successful here, feeling somewhat conventional, whereas the projected pools of light of the installation are profoundly evocative and challenging. This is not only because we see light as raw form being processed into image, but also emerges from how we witness light being trapped in darkness. This manifests as an illuminating exploration of the way the ethereal sensations of light can create both optical magic and embodied experience.

McCusker adds the ethereal element of sound to this sensation. A recording of a bird repeatedly crying overlays other natural sounds and permeates the darkened space. More evocative than disruptive, this eerie cry feels primal, infusing a sense of timelessness into the installation.

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