A sheer curtain partitions the high-ceilinged gallery, forming a darkened corridor leading into the main exhibition space. The wall opposite the curtain holds a set of seven mirrored shelves, most above head-height, bearing an assortment of vases. A maundering, soft-spoken female voice is audible, describing teenagers as if they were medieval knights, kissing, smoking and vomiting, but with valour. The source of the voice is a single speaker, mounted on a stand, on the other side of the curtain. The words provide narration for two looped slide shows, projected onto perpendicular walls behind the speaker. A vase of flowers on the floor is caught in a projector beam, its forms caricatured and reduced to a silhouette on the gallery wall.
The voice divulges that the slides were found in a skip down the road from the narrator’s home in Glasgow. The wandering nature of the pre-recorded narrative gives an impression of spontaneity, but correlative groupings of images reveal that an act of ordering must have taken place. Although looped, the slideshow has a distinct beginning and end. It opens with amateurish, documentary photographs of unfamiliar, mechanical objects. Later the slides shift through a series of pastel-toned, close-up photographs of flowers and frosty branches and, towards the end of the show, we are introduced to a procession of unconventional clocks; ostensibly the author of the slides was a clockmaker.
The voice is Corin Sworn’s, and the work is Endless Renovation (2010), as installed at Tate Britain, London in 2011.1 As the slides progress, the artist uses the selection of images to generate a speculative history – filling the gaps in her spoken analysis of the images with digressive narratives. The central account is one of the life and work of the slide-maker, though, apart from the conjecture that he makes clocks, we learn very little about him. In addition to her narration about the medieval teenagers, Sworn also talks about the dogs barking in Red Hook, New York where she is making the recording, the pitch at which a lampshade might crinkle, and the reason why, even if taken with a figurative intent, a photograph will still most likely hold an abstract quality.
Each slide is individually analysed and though Sworn’s evaluation is tangential, deliberately slipping from objectivity into delirious fantasy, she remains foremost a presenter and decoder of images. Projected on the walls, a flickering, frozen past is faintly resuscitated. Sworn’s voice assumes the authority of a historian, who captures and attempts to render this history objective. Significantly, she uses outdated equipment, the slide projector suggesting a past more distant than is actually being enacted and evoking a historical model in which the notion of the present is distinct and separable from history. A present in stasis is formed – a singular, detached point from which any objective history must be written.
Halfway through the 13-minute piece, and just as the viewer has, in the darkness, been lulled by the story of teenage knights in tight 1970s-jeans, Sworn reintroduces the first slide of the show. The image is an unremarkable photograph of a light fitting. It has been flipped horizontally and appears, this time, to be of a slightly higher definition. Sworn muses:
Although this may appear similar to the slide that I first showed you, it is in fact the original; the first slide was a copy. I had the slide copied because of all the slides in the collection, I feel that I could have taken it, and in copying it, I sort of have. So I misled you when I said that I found all of these slides in the skip. I made this one myself...
By shifting the parameters
of the present, Sworn distorts our view of the past, suggesting
that a simple and neat historical model is not
tenable.The change in our understanding of the
present slide reflects back upon all the previous proceedings
and the pretence of a sequential past leading to an inevitable
present is undone. By shifting the parameters of the present,
Sworn distorts our view of the past, suggesting that a simple
and neat historical model is not tenable. What emerges from the
artist’s conjectural account is not so much a history that
generates the present, as a present that structures historical
One is tempted to think of Sworn’s photographic slides as their scientific counterparts. Rather than freezes of a definite past stretched by the light, living cells are trapped between the glass and projected for observation. Sworn’s analysis, along with the flickering projector beam, causes their contents to shift, changing the clustered formation of a hypothetical past with each observation.
Sworn’s single-screen video projection Lens Prism (Working Model for a Viewing Subject) (2010), exhibited first at Tramway, Glasgow provides another example of her exploration of the nature of historical narratives. The video features a monologue, delivered by a balding middle-aged actor wearing a mustard yellow waistcoat. The theatre lights turn on to greet him as he enters an empty stage from a side door. He hangs his coat on an unseen nail in the rough-hewn wall and walks out of shot, before a cut in the video plunges the theatre into darkness. Stood under a spotlight, he begins, ‘I’m thinking of a photograph I took several years ago outside a museum…’ With difficulty he attempts to describe the image. Following another cut he returns with the image in his hands and declares his recollection to be entirely incorrect. His memory and the photograph are completely misaligned. Later he speaks of visiting the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, and adopts numerous personas, among others, the protagonist of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) and Raymond Roussel as he wrote New Impressions of Africa (1932). Yet despite these discrete reference points – the allusions occur on an untenable timescale and cross resolutely between historic accuracy and fictional invention – his account still maintains a cohesive appearance.
Despite abrupt cuts, lighting changes, prop discontinuities and the actor’s apparent lapses of memory, the video maintains an impression of an immersive and compelling cinematic experience, thus establishing a conflict between a nagging present and a linear narrative structure. As with Endless Renovation, the formal presentation of the work supports a desire for a sequential engagement with the story that is being told, but the content increasingly rebuffs it. In both works the artist makes use of a recorded monologue to bring the relationship between the present and our understanding of the past to the foreground. Just as Sworn draws inference from the appropriated slides of Endless Renovation, the protagonist of Lens Prism appropriates historical and fictional narratives by living them anecdotally. The actor’s alleged participation in the historical events he recounts allows them to be re-lived and analysed as present artefacts, and by incorporating them within his own personal narrative, the fallibility of memory is imposed upon the process of historicisation, revealing it to be a site of partiality.
In Sworn’s most recent installation, The Rag Papers (2013), currently on view at Chisenhale Gallery, London, the artist also makes use of a narrator. A single-screen projection follows a man and a woman, filmed in what appears to be a documentary style, as they perform simple actions in a sparsely furnished room. The two protagonists are never on screen at the same time, and interact only by moving various objects placed on the room’s cluttered surfaces – a desk, chair, sideboard and fireplace; covered by piles of paper, plants, books, photographs, fruit and a vase of flowers. Though the edit doesn’t specify a timescale, the placement of these objects suggests that the man’s actions have occurred prior to the woman’s – the core from his apple is brown and shrivelled, the papers he sorted through lie neatly piled on the desk as he left them – and as such the man’s actions are viewed as past, a flashback, whilst the woman’s are present.
This scenario on screen is interrupted by the sound of a female narrator, whose voice does not fit into the timescale of the video, nor does it appear to reside within the space shown on the screen. As she talks, an installation of five lights hung from the ceiling behind the viewer light up in erratic sequences. She appears to be present with the viewer. Her commentary seems to hold the authority of an objective description of a current event, yet her words are divergent, and the information she gives regarding the characters in the video is not verifiable. It is an unstable account given shape by an individual and a moment. Again we find ourselves in a detached present watching a history being formed, and again we must conclude that what we view is a prismatic historical narrative, one just as much in transition as the present.
Travis Riley is the recipient of the inaugural Afterall Writing Prize (CSM, 2012), awarded annually to students who produce outstanding dissertations. Riley is a graduate of BA Fine Art at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, University of the Arts, London.
Corin Sworn is one of the artists
included in Scotland +
Venice 2013 at the 55th Venice Biennale (1
June–24 November 2013), together with Duncan Campbell and
Endless Renovation was first shown at Washington Garcia, Glasgow in April, 2011.↑