by Frances Loffler
20th September 2009
In this essay curator Frances Loffler explores the relationship between private and public space in portraiture.
At Hexham Abbey in Northumberland there is one of a few remaining Frith Stools. The Frith Stool (or ‘chair of peace') was used during medieval times as a place of infinite refuge and sanctuary from the law, the word ‘frith' in Anglo-Saxon English and Old German denoting peace, security and freedom from molestation. The Frith Stool represented an uncompromising space of restricted privacy, and anyone who violated this committed an unpardonable offense. Today, the boundaries between ‘private' and ‘public' space have considerably shifted and at times dissolved. In the Ecstasy of Communication (1983) the thinker Jean Baudrillard declared the end of interiority and intimacy, as we have become subsumed into a virtual network of communicative media that expose our most intimate moments on a proliferation of screens (1).
Technologies of mass media distribution and Western religions have long been inextricably bound. Historically the newly invented printing press played a pivotal role in the shaping and channelling of the protestant reformation in the sixteenth century. Today, evangelical television channels, ethno-sociological documentaries of religious minorities and the Pope's message at Christmas have all harnessed the power of broadcast media as religion has become increasingly publicised, increasingly public. Boris Groys argues that if we are today seeing a return to religion, this is due to its proliferation in the mass media channels; the modern age has not been the age in which the sacred has been abolished but rather the age of its dissemination in profane space (2).
Prayer Project, a newly commissioned multi-screen work by Daphne Wright, rehearses and yet simultaneously resists this culture's easy consumption of private subjects and spaces, and highlights the voyeuristic tendencies inherent to portraiture and to filmic media. For this work, Wright was granted permission to visit the following individuals and film them in the act of prayer or meditation: Bryan Appleyard, Vice President and Chairman of the Buddhist Society in London, Sister Frances Dominica, filmed in the grounds of the All Saints Convent, Oxfordshire; Jay Lakhani, Director of Education for the Hindu Council UK; Rabbi Francis Berry of the Bristol and West Progressive Jewish Congregation; and Prafula Shah, a leading community representative of the Jain faith.
The resulting documentation is presented as a series of filmic portraits. Tightly framed to emphasise the human subject over other content and saturated in bright colour, Wright's portraits trace an art historical lineage that stretches from eighteenth-century portraiture to the static films of Andy Warhol. In the history of art the portrait, perhaps above all others, is the genre where private and public collide at their most intense. Wright's portraits can be referred to as what Michael Fried has called the ‘absorbtive current or tradition' of portraiture, in which the subject is lost in thought or absorbed in action. According to Fried, the effect of portraying a person engrossed in activity is to neutralize the presence of the beholder to the extent that the subject appears unaware of being watched (3). Caught un-composed, the sitter is thus liable to reveal their true identity, their innermost thoughts.
Each portrait is filmed in real time, with little variation in camera angle, post-production editing or subsequent shaping of material. The footage is presented without commentary; intervention on the part of the artist is kept to a minimum. Wright's real-time approach recalls the strategies of certain artists working with documentary video in the 1970s. Driven in part by the limitations video posed at the time, but above all by a self-critical reflection on the legacy of the medium, these artists desired a less mediated, more objective observation of their subject. At the onset of the age of television, the long take posed a kind of anti-televisual language that allowed for slow and careful observation. The static use of the camera in Prayer Project works in opposition to the way the same subject is treated by the televised media spectacle, asking the viewer to take time with the work and properly observe.
The effect of the long take is also to complicate the theatricality that Fried detects in the ‘absorbtive tradition' of portraiture. There is an ambiguity to Wright's portraits that both admits and excludes the viewer, which pulls towards and yet leaves intact the deeply private and introspective nature of the scene. On the one hand, the almost naiveté of the unshaped material gives the impression of direct representation, of being present at the scene. On the other hand, the absence of narrative, and the sheer duress imposed on the viewer who must overcome boredom and distraction to stay with the camera's unflinching gaze, distances and thus activates the viewer's presence. In the stillness of the camera's quiet gaze, one is left with the uncomfortable awareness of watching someone engaged in an intensely private and introspective act. I am both drawn into Wright's portraits and yet paradoxically repelled by this sense of intrusion. It is as if, momentarily transfixed by what I am seeing I am then caught off guard by the sound of my own breath. Looking back and forth between watching and being watched then, Prayer Project tells us more about the complex dynamics embedded within the genre of portraiture (and the medium of film) than it does about the individual sitters.
This push pull of connection and disconnection can be considered not only in terms of the formal qualities of the series, but also in terms of its content. Prayer Project documents the performance of a plurality of different faiths; each indivisibly separated and sealed in individual expression. Without explanation by way of commentary the performance of some of these expressions of devotion, so closely observed, for the uninitiated can come across as highly enigmatic, as cryptic rituals or rites. Underlying the mysteriousness of these gestures, however, is the common act that each sitter engages in; the communion with a transcendent state of being that surpasses the material world. By focussing on this, Wright lays bare a connective thread that underlies each scenario: the encounter with the problem of mortality that is at the root of all systems of belief. Far from the communal euphoria of the televised religious ‘infomercial', however, the series poses a pluralistic model of connection that allows for difference, and acts as a plea for tolerance over religious conflict.
At the heart of these works, then, lies an exploration of the notion of communion, both in the sense of communion in terms of its religious connotations (a communion with God) but also in the old sense of the word as communication, community, or dialogue with the self or with an ‘other'. Seated in the garden of the All Saints Convent in Oxfordshire on a still summer's day, Sister Francis folds and re-folds her hands, the small adjustments mirroring the very slight changes of expression that pass over her face, like the shadows of clouds passing silently over a landscape. Watching Wright's Prayer Project, one is left with the thought that, perhaps there are moments when difference is transcended through disconnection, through infinitely enigmatic gestures.
(1) Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Ecstasy of Communication', (1983) in Foster, Hal (Eds), The Anti-aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Bay Press, Port Townsend, WA.
(2) Boris Groys, ‘Religion in the Age of Digital Reproduction', Eflux Journal, 4, March 2009.
(3) Michael Fried, ‘Absorbed in the Action', Artforum, September 2006.
Frances Loffler is a curator, she is currently working in Bristol with Situations and Picture This.