PALIMPSESTS OF TIME: Recent work by Chris Meigh-Andrews
A fascination with technology in general and video in particular unites the wide-ranging interests subtending the work of Chris Meigh-Andrews. Emerging from the UK art school system in the late l970s, the artist shares the materialist preoccupations of his elders and contemporaries who were similarly embroiled in the beguiling process and apparatus of the moving image. The prevailing ethos combined an enchantment with film and video techniques with a critique of Hollywood film and television, which were seen to perpetuate right-wing ideologies disguised in the ‘harmless’ narratives of entertainment. Like many deconstructive artists, Meigh-Andrews tampered with the smooth running of film and video realism using composite images and abstraction to counter the ideological and formal dominance of narrative in the mainstream. Where filmmakers such as Malcolm le Grice and Peter Gidal tended towards a strict academicism in the early years, Meigh-Andrews was drawn to a more lyrical tradition exemplified by Chris Welsby and William Raban with their strong attachment to landscape as well as the visual experimentation of Peter Donebauer whose Videokalos Image Processor Meigh-Andrews himself used to develop a series of single channel works in the late l970s and early ‘80s. The quality that most significantly distinguishes Meigh-Andrews from his peers is his fascination with what video and latterly digital imaging can do as well as what it is capable of revealing or dismantling. At a time when much contemporary video and film has returned to a transparent use of the media, Meigh-Andrews’ enduring fascination with the magic of moving image ensures that the role of machine vision and its impact on human perception is never subsumed into empty spectacle or narcissistic introspection.
The excitement that was generated by the new medium of video when it was first introduced to the UK in the 1970s has been maintained by Meigh-Andrews as he has embraced each new development along the way to the digital miracles that can be achieved today. In a series of installations in the 1990s, he combined digital camera footage with computer-generated effects and a panoply of sculptural elements that weave a story of nature and technology, not locked in opposition, with technology determined to eradicate the natural world, but in a bio-synthesis, where humanity, nature and imaging machine are all subject to the same elements of light, time and energy flow. Electrical signals travelling a video cable are analogous to the flow of water cascading down a fountain or stream and all mimic the continuum of thought processes that apparently distinguish us from our environment. In Mothlight (1998) Meigh-Andrews extended a lifelong fascination with renewable energy, representing possibly the most perfect union of the natural and the human-made. The image of a moth, fluttering among a series of suspended video screens was powered by solar panels that were activated, not by the sun, but by powerful lamps drawing energy from the mains. The impossibility of achieving perfect interdependence of the elemental and the technological was wryly alluded to in the ‘cheat’ at the centre of the work. What resulted was a poetic assemblage of electronic paraphernalia and moving image centred on the frantic plight of the insect, which, like the artist, was irresistibly drawn to the light of technological invention.
The scattered elements of Meigh-Andrews’ installations in the 1990s created a kind of electronic bricolage and invoked Eisenstein’s arguments for the poetics of montage and the equivalence of visual fragmentation to the juxtaposition of images in poetry. As David Finch described it, like poetry, “film takes place in the mind of the viewer”. 1 The elements that a filmmaker assembles are “partial and incomplete…the impression of wholeness in the image produced comes from the fact of the viewer having produced it him/herself, as an idea.” 2 Meigh-Andrews’ work from this period could be interpreted as a metaphor of the creative imagination in that he fashions an environment that encourages perambulation and the final discrete impression of the work is only formulated by the viewer in retrospect through the unifying processes of memory. The sense of dislocation and time-lapse between perception and comprehension mirrors what the artist regards as the false polarisation of technology and nature. But Meigh-Andrews is also a realist and in works like Mothlight (1998) he admits the near impossibility of achieving equilibrium within the fragile environment of our planet given the current abuse of its resources.
Interwoven Motion (2004) takes a brave stab at getting it right. After extensive research into the logistics of installing a solar and wind- powered video installation into the landscape, Meigh-Andrews was commissioned to build a prototype in the Grizedale forest. The artist chose a tree overlooking Coniston Water into which he mounted a series of solar panels and a wind turbine. These powered four cameras that surveyed the surrounding area from a high vantage point in the tree and the succession of images, determined by the direction and strength of the wind, were relayed to an LCD video screen set at the base of the tree. Where many of Meigh-Andrew’s earlier works brought nature into the gallery (albeit as a simulation), Interwoven Motion finally re-sited the art back into the landscape. Here, he reversed the tradition in painting of framing a pleasing rural scene. The monitor frame became part of the view, as a passer-by approaching the work would experience it. The cameras pointing outwards offered a vantage point that, until now, only the tree itself had enjoyed. At the same time, the tree with its unexpected technological accoutrements became an object of curiosity, framed by the shifting perspectives from which the visitor forged an impression while walking around the work. This play on points of view complemented the ecological implications of the work, but another strand of meaning arose in the historical specificity of the site. Coniston Water inspired John Ruskin’s enraptured descriptions of the changing weather conditions transforming the view across the lake. The English Romantic poets were also drawn to the area in which Wordsworth developed his notions of the sublime experienced in communion with nature. Meigh-Andrews’ sense of interconnectedness of the natural and the human-made is now enriched by a sense of history, of temporal associations through the image.
The history of photography features prominently in a recent work for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A Photographic Truth (2001) takes as its starting point the iconic image of Hawkhurst Church created as a calotype in 1852 by the early photographer B.B. Turner. Meigh-Andrews creates a series of resonances or what he calls ‘symmetries’, between the calotype and his own video shot from the same spot on which Turner stood 152 years before. One of the mysteries of the original photograph is how Turner managed to produce such a perfect image of the Church’s reflection in the pond flanking the building. The estimated exposure time of something over half an hour would have involved disruptive elements – wind on the water, birds flying by, passing humanity – breaking the smooth surface of the image. And yet the calotype is perfect, as though time stood still and nature held its breath so that the photographer could make his ‘photogenic drawing’. Meigh-Andrews creates a video that exists within the same time frame that Turner must have taken to make his original work and the video camera now reveals the temporal dimension that the photograph concealed. A stone is tossed into the pond, a bird intersects the frame, wind ripples the surface of the water before it freezes over and a car drives by as night falls. The video camera recreates the process of contemplation and careful decision-making that was characteristic of the long exposures and cumbersome equipment of early photography. The snap-happy, throwaway culture of today’s digital cameras is replaced by the artist’s insistence on the time-base of video recording. Photography was the new imaging medium of the 19th century and, in his time, Turner was operating at the cutting edge of its capabilities. Meigh-Andrews finds parallels between early photography and the technological advances of his own age. Not content to simply recreate the temporality of primitive photography, he demonstrates in the digital manipulation of the video image, the capacity of contemporary imaging techniques to produce a simultaneity of time-frames. The artist harnesses the device of splitting the screen, which itself has a history in moving image, being characteristic of early films by Vertov in the 1920s as well as of pioneering video art including tapes by the likes of Bill Viola in the l970s and ‘80s. Within the sophistications of multiple imaging that the digital realm now allows, Meigh-Andrews uncouples the church from its reflection and disrupts the mirroring effect of water by combining footage of church and reflection shot at different times of day. At one point, the pond, frozen into stillness, momentarily mirrors the suspension of time in Turner’s original photograph, before shattering under the impact of a casually tossed stone. Turner’s calotype itself fades in and out of view while the differing light and weather conditions in the bifurcated image conjure up all the metaphysical connotations of light versus dark, frozen versus flowing, earth versus sky, the secular versus the spiritual; each element anchored to the inexorable turning of the earth in relation to the sun.
Seasonal changes and cycles of light and dark in the environment are also evident in Temporal View in Amsterdam (After BB Turner) (2003). Here, the artist set up his camera at the precise location where Turner made a calotype of the view in 1857. Since then, very little has changed in the arrangement of two bridges and a canal bordered by those characteristically slender Amsterdam houses. What has changed is the degree to which such views are now part of the tourists’ checklist. Turner began the process of recording ‘classic’ vistas whose capture nowadays confirms that a traveller has been there, done it and seen it. In Meigh-Andrews’ tape, a tourist stops and photographs the view that he, Andrews and Turner before him have also reiterated as image. Every experience of the scene is unique as is each image created and yet, the urge to commit to a frame this particular view is common to these and countless other photographers who have admired it since 1857. A kind of levelling takes place, the view being as much an inspiration for the tourist armed with a cheap camera as for the elevated sensitivities of artists and writers. In the particular configuration of water, boats and buildings, photographer, artist and tourist seek an essence of Amsterdam that is linked to the picturesque traditions of landscape painting familiar to us in works from the topographical views of the Netherlands in the 17th century to John Constable’s timeless and idealised visions of rural England. The cultural, aesthetic and personal experience of place are linked across time in the simultaneity of temporal representations that Meigh-Andrews creates in the work. Time becomes an object of pictorial manipulation as well as an agent of history.
The seamlessness of the transitions between times and overlapping framings is again a feature of Wawel Castle from the Debenicki Bridge (After Ignacy Kreiger) (2004). Another favourite outlook, this time in Krakow is re-presented by the artist as video, while its photographic original by Kreiger, made in 1890, drifts in and out of the murky view that Meigh-Andrews encounters on the bridge overlooking the castle. A striking feature of this work is the strong presence of ambient sound: cars and lorries crossing the bridge marking out the space behind the camera and the raucous cries of seagulls circling through the mist across the river, in-shot. Together with the visible unfolding of time, the world of sound is re-invested in the mute and motionless photograph of the castle that inspired Meigh-Andrews’ work. And yet, the experience is still incomplete. As Malcolm Andrews pointed out: “You cannot paint or photograph light and fresh air”. 3 But with the advent of sound, the bodily experience of the place comes closer to filling in what the imagination constructs around the static point of the photographic image.
Commonality or symmetry between past and contemporary images is found in the process of framing, of giving cultural, aesthetic or picturesque meaning to a chance collection of natural and human-made objects. In the video work, the artist’s hand appears over the misty scene holding what looks like a Polaroid depicting Wawel castle at sunset. Further conditions of the same view are inserted on smaller Polaroids showing the castle in the early hours and magically, in winter, swathed in a blanket of snow. The recession of images refers not only to Kreiger’s original photograph but also to a feature of video technology that was much used in the early years: its capacity for visual feedback achieved by pointing a camera at the screen on which its output is displayed. However, it was a feature of photography that most struck me when I saw the work. Meigh-Andrews’ use of slow dissolves between different temporal and weather conditions seemed roughly equivalent to the time that it takes to produce the chemical change allowing a photographic image to emerge in the developing fluid. The beauty and wonder of that moment is recreated in Andrews’ work just as he enjoys the pictorial and conceptual continuities between the different imaging technologies of photography and video. The artist is clearly captivated by video’s ability to achieve alchemical changes, the transmutations from one state into another, from one visual language into its opposite – movement and stasis, colour and black and white, positive and negative. In spite of his materialist and conceptualist leanings, Meigh-Andrews manifestly relishes the visual pleasures that photographic imaging allows us in the playful manipulation of perceptual ‘trickery’ both digital and traditionally photographic.
Chris Meigh-Andrews is an artist who creates temporal palimpsests, mapping one image onto its historical ‘other’ whether recently past or embedded in the history of photography. His most direct reference to that history comes in the form of a solar-powered video webcast entitled For William Henry Fox Talbot (The Pencil of Nature) (2002). The artist recreated the view from the latticed window of Lacock Abbey that Fox Talbot first photographed in 1835. The video image was then sent, via an ISDN telephone line to be projected in a gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London where Fox Talbot’s original photograph was displayed. In contrast to many of the earlier works discussed here, For WHFT makes its temporal connections between the dawn of ‘photogenic drawing’ and video imaging partly through its primitive image resolution. The intermittent scrolling of the video image and the translucent fragility of the projected sequence produces a materialist self-reflexivity that is tinged with a nostalgia for the crudity of early video as well as the primitive results of Fox Talbot’s first photographic experiments. The nostalgia is almost a temporal projection. The transmission of video images (as opposed to television transmission) is still an inexact science and Meigh-Andrews’ sequences will soon themselves be part of a technological history as smoother and crisper image resolution displaces the gently pulsating pictures of Fox Talbot’s window.
The sense of gently drifting time-travel in Meigh-Andrews’ work makes of his subjects ghosts, those who are reanimated in his ‘moving’ historical photographs and those who populate his chance encounters when he made the videos in the recent past. Barthes said that a photograph contains within it a portent of death as well as the record of that death when the image has already outlived its subject. In his insistence on temporal links between archival images and contemporary representations, Meigh-Andrews is also signalling their short shelf life, the ephemeral nature of cultural meaning and our own transient occupation of our mortal coil. Visual approximations between now and then also speak of their distance in time, of the unbridgeable gulf between the lost past and the present. Finally, these works speak of the separation that occurs in the act of representation, between the viewer and the scene that the artist depicts. Video, like photography is as much about absence as the illusion of presence. Fenêtre Digitale (2000) creates another caesura, between the person of the artist and the individual spectator. Reviving an earlier theme of self-portraiture, Meigh-Andrews’ window onto his own existence finds him the naked creature of the creative instinct. He is seen in varying degrees of undress peering at us through a Venetian blind from the isolation of his studio. He approaches a pane of glass separating the camera/viewer from the object of their gaze. Meigh-Andrews animates that real and imaginary barrier between us by throwing eggs and water at the glass and finally, in a gesture of conceptual frustration, he smashes the glass with a hammer. Just in case we are fooled by the illusion of his spectral presence and feigned destructiveness, he reverses the footage and reconstitutes the glass, allowing visual contact once more but forever preventing actual communion between viewer and subject. As an image the artist remains emphatically in the domain of representation, of frustrated desire. At the same time, through that remoteness, he courts the engagement of poetic imagination. This is a playful work and teases our anticipation of public confessional in the age of reality TV. But Fenêtre Digitale also reiterates the artist’s fundamental relationship to the magic of video imagery and his own state of ‘continual surprise’ underscores his creative immersion in the ever-evolving wonders of digital technology.
Catherine Elwes, Oxford, February 2005
1. David Finch, ‘A third something: montage, film and poetry’, The Undercut Reader, eds. Nina Danino and Michael Maziere, Wallflower Press, 2003.
2. David Finch, ibid.
3. Malcolm Andrews, Landscape and Western Art, Oxford University Press, 1999.