Sanne de Wilde, Nicholas Muellner and Jon Tonks shared the gallery space in a harmonious display of their story-telling images, connected to an underlying sameness: interest in distant and exotic island-centred life, literally or metaphorically.
The Island of the Colorblind
by Sanne de Wilde(1987) is series of infrared and black-and-white images of people living on two Pacific islands, Pingelap and Pohnpei, people living with a hereditary condition of complete colourblindnes (achrompatopsia).
In a constructed darkroom with taped instructions and changes of light, visitors can mimic that condition of not seeing colours. Told to paint over a xeroxed image, they are expected to pin the result on the outer walls.
While the experience feels disorienting, de Wilde’s images do not. They slot easily into the current obsession with the technical virtuosity of photographers. Something else dominates what she makes visible – the freedom to use colours in a non-descriptive way. She carefully matches the palette to the idea, the island attracts by its seductive untrue beauty that embraces the described forms, trees, boat, clouds, people. It is both representational and autonomous.
Whereas the image of the colourblind man presents the raw truth, viscerally there.
“Color is just a word to those who cannot see it. What if the colorblind people paint with their mind, how would they color the world, the trees, themselves. Initiating my visual research in FSM I tried to find ways to envision how people with achromatopsia see the world. I tried to see the island through their eyes. Daylight is too bright to bear, moonlight turns night into day, colors dance around in shades we cannot imagine. Imagine flames lighting up in black and white, trees turning pink, waves of grey. A rainbow revisited. The islanders often refer to green as their favourite color, growing up in a lush environment, living in the jungle. But green is also the color that the most common kind of colorblindness (deutaranomaly, five out of 100 males) can’t distinguish. I learned that the color the islanders say to ‘see’ most is red.” (accessed on sannedewilde.com)
The image of the bird (below) appears to me as being painted while simulating the colourblindness. If so, than the image is grounded in personal presence of the artist who aims at extending our knowledge of the hidden condition. It reminds me of LN Tolstoy valuing “emotional infection” as a sign of good art. Others, e.g. Victorian painters of the mid 19th C, may use it for rather sentimental aims. One of the most enduring critical legacies of modernism has been the condemnation of the sentimentality of Victorian art. The image below is not a tender beauty, rather it is a one disabled by not matching the appearance, staying sincere to the given visual perception, to its insecurity.
Nicholas Muellner (1969)
The installation shot above is defiant in parting with any details… it indicates a personal preference for black-and-white – (there are colour photographs too among the exhibits) –photography grounded in his presence in the natural environment, not in imitating perceived colourful fields, trees, etc. It makes me think about the distance between the colour green and the word green. In that gap, my memories, my imagination fill in the meaning. A process akin to reading poetry. Muellner lets words and images in the book stand alone and together. Exhibited, the images appear like documents of the world distant from me as a viewer, politely waiting for my response to surprising details.
His ability to respect the observable while lifting it out of the ordinary with discipline, dignity, and craft, does not rule out playful denials, if it allows him to enhance the poetic and emotional impact. Although different in the way it is made, his image carries the secrets Josef Sudek (1896 -1976 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=…) knew about and resonates with the split-second surprises Bill Brandt could catch so effortlessly, fresh and strange (his words. See more on www.billbrandt.com).
The untrue proportions become utterly believable. Muellner enjoys play – akin to the surrealists daring to let the impossible become convincing, by cherishing what others consider a mistake. It is poetic, and admirable craft too.
His is a complex visual art, admirably achieved through a lens-based medium and related techniques. No seams. No awkward juxtapositions, only the elegant smooth mystery of seeing, imagining, of being. Document willingly dissolves into a dream. And the light! I know it from sunsets, and the above image hold that link for me. The narrative, the backstory, is pedestrian: stories of gay men in Russia, solitary woman on an island. Muellner’s art succeeds in making it unexpectedly beautiful and poetic, emotionally infectious.
His travel to Vanuatu in the South Pacific with a friend, a writer, Christopher Lord, in 2014, resulted in the series of photographs Blong, presenting a once-a-year ritual, “Cargo Cults”.
Based on a prophesy that an American soldier named John Frum will return with a “cargo” of riches and renewal of tradition customs, the yearly festival includes “people wearing military uniforms, carving muskets out of bamboo and saluting an American flag.”
His is a narrative photography insisting on “correct” representation of what is seen. Yet, his subtle interference with the obvious undermines that correctness by a fusion of the real and the believed, observed and imagined. That fusion contains something else. An obsession of Westerners with “the other”, the less developed, the looked down upon, to feed their own corrupt superiority. And maybe a well hidden sorrow at lost paradise, which people visit while harbouring a hope to recharge, to recover from their daily routine. I sense a touch of smile in the image of an expensive ship near the muddy ground, an incongruous relationship.
An interesting interview with Jon Tonks is here.
Images credit: the artists and Belfast Exposed Gallery.