David Johnson: Spectres of Vulnerability
"Clouds,..., I am the interval between what I am and what I am not,
between what I dream and what life has made of me,..., Clouds,..." (F. Pessoa)
First a recollection from elsewhere: A damp November evening my friend and I were walking along a pavement outside the boundaries of the large landscaped churchyard Skogskyrkogården in southern Stockholm. The mood was emphasised by the particular day; All Saint's Day which is the annual Swedish traditional celebration of the ancestors. Inside the gates the tall trees were veiled in a foresty darkness apart from the flickering warm light cast from candles and lanterns placed by many of the graves. A disembodied blue tinted torch light occasionally interjected and scanned the ground in search of a treasured head stone.
While walking past a high concrete wall, we noticed how a lamp post threw a yellow light that produced shadows outlining the naked trees growing behind us. The shadows fell onto the wall and revealed a form of silhuetted expansive luminosity, merging the shadows from our bodies with those of the branches. Yet there was something strange; my arms, which I stretched out horizontally, appeared clearly as shadows while the rest of my body was suddenly invisible, or rather, it took the shape of a semi-translucent tree trunk. Some form of optical illusion was created and it was as if we had unknowingly entered upon the stage of an unannounced shadow theatre or been caught in the spell of a magic lantern. By the ghostly fragmentation of our bodies we appeared as if suspended between being and not being, acutely aware of our own mortality and transience.
Upon arrival I glimpse within a soft contained dimness stacked up high boats peering out of draped tarpaulin and other hibernating props...
I may not have been so perceptive had I not visited David Johnson in his studio in east London a couple of weeks earlier in late September. Within the studio I was presented with a work in progress, and to me also an enigma; Ghosts (Remembering my Father). Within the dark room light flooded through what seemed like a filled in door way. Gradually I became aware that within this concentration of light there was an evanescent image of a small boy and his father standing on a pier in summer dress. Parts of the projected image would only be realised by my particular bodily position within the room - as I blanked out rays of light from a second slide the boy and father became visible within my own shadow. The two figures would thus alternate between solitude and togetherness in the presence of the viewer. Again there was this growing realisation of the unexpected, something that I was sensorially connected to, a recollection in which both memory and the material world slowly coalesced into one. David also showed me Trying to Imagine not Being,where a wooden vertical post was lit by a spotlight and as a result threw a long shadow across the floor but where it was presumed to hit the wall the shadow seemed to have suddenly and subtly vanished into thin air.
When installed David's work occurs as glowing pools of light within an ambivalent yet sheltering darkness. Tanizaki Junichiro speaks about something akin to the nature of this darkness in response to Japanese old rooms; "..., the darkness must always have pressed in like a fog... this suspension of ashen particles..., It must have been simple for spectres to appear in a 'visible darkness',..." This "visible darkness" has connotations with interiority and mystic elements and the "spectres" may have a haunting quality in the sense that they allure us to become acquainted with them. We will draw up to the source of light, through the promise of something, even if only fleetingly glimpsed, such as the beckoning light from the half-open wardrobe in David's Imaginary Landscapes No. 2 or the door with a window that filters through a light source in the installation ON.
Whether encountering a natural phenomena or presented with an artwork by David, there is an intensity created between the surrounding space, the central object, the light, the perceiving body; an interconnected experiential field where the boundaries are porous and exceed any notion of fixity. Maurice Merleau-Ponty talks about the flesh as something like an immaterial thick elemental atmosphere that surrounds us, something that we are part of, absorb, exhale, something that we are amidst:
"The flesh is not matter, is not mind, is not substance. To designate it, we should need the old term "element," in the sense it was used to speak of water, air, earth, and fire, that is, in the sense of a general thing, midway, between the spatio-temporal individual and the idea,..."
This unbounded field of 'contact' can often be felt as an absorbent tactile attraction in David's work, a haptic trompe-l'oeil, where the viewer may not be content with just watching from a distance but wants to become immersed into the world he conjures up. To become touched by light, by work, by the seeming world of the work, to imagine and to connect to somewhere inside ourselves. Gaston Bachelard suggestively describes this event:
"If we dream of an object, we enter into that object as into a shell,.., This is the starting point for an understanding of oneiric space, a space made up of essential envelopes, a space governed by the geometry and dynamics of envelopment."
In this oneiric space of suspension from the everyday, of reverie and daydream, we may be temporarily and willingly lost within the work with no imperative or necessity to decode its 'behind the scene' orchestration, even if it may also incite curiosity. The Sea of Unknowing presents us with a toy boat floating upon the dark inky water contained within an old wooden rowing boat. The nightlight held within the hull of the tiny boat, which gives the sail a warm glow, may provide a reassuring point of recognition, of safety, within the liquid expanse. Perhaps there is here a longing for comfort, protection, and an intimation of tenderness rather than the larger boat forming a restriction? In Ocean a boat is partially filled with milk upon which a starry night sky seems to be mirrored. Milk as a sign for nourishment, potential leakage, smooth skin, or something evocatively semi-transparent? A direct reference to the Milky Way - a far away galaxy but also a token for star-gazing, silently spoken wishes and wonderment?
Anesaki Masaharu describes how in a traditionally built Japanese house, sound, shadows and moonlight, are filtered through the paper clad sliding shoji-screens and how; "..., the air passes freely through, snow-flakes or flower-petals come in driven by wind, or birds and butterflies fly through the rooms." If I draw a metaphorical parallel to the function of these screens, I see a similar occurrence happening in David's work - he is presenting us with a sensorial and fleeting 'membrane', akin to the idea of the flesh, in-between the visible and invisible, the minute and the vast, the concrete and the immaterial, a transient interworld between life and its gradual or immediate annihilation.
"snow,..., 1. atmospheric vapour frozen into ice crystals and falling to earth in light white flakes. " David once posted a snowball in a jam jar to a writer - it travels across the sea, fields and mountains. A spray of white snow as skies traces lines down a remote and untouched height. The artist gets ice caught in his lungs, a breath in fear of being interrupted.
In Secret Sea No 1 a boat is filled with clear water. If encountered in the everyday, this boat may have been abandoned and filled by seawater, rain or melting snow. However, by the placement of the boat in the gallery, it becomes a sign for something else; a boat's memory if such a thing is possible, a body or a vessel of tears, a 'portable' sea, or maybe a metaphor for a voyage and an inner journey of discovery?
Nicolas Bourriaud says in relation to the use of found things that we as consumers appropriate them for our own purposes; "What matters is what we make of the elements placed at our disposal." With the considered detail and through his shifting constellations of found objects, I perceive David's work to form poetic manifestations with the preciseness of a haiku poem while similarly, through its reduction to a few selected and recognisable elements, opening the way for imaginative associations. He uses known imagery such as boats, buckets, a bath tub - things that can be recognised for their quotidian significance. There are also links to natural and ephemeral experiences such as finding a rain puddle that contains the vertiginous mirroring of tree tops or towering heavy clouds. Although in the work there are other sources of optical phenomena and substrates whereupon the projections fall be it a screen, a wall, an opaque fluid or even the human body. By these acts of re-presentation and shift of narrative, David teases our assumptions and invites us to expand our awareness of their semiotic function and the possibilities of things at hand.
To some extent there is a metaphysical magician at work here, however, we are not duped by the manipulative speed of delivery, by an incessant voice or hidden trickery, but instead allowed to quietly linger, to suspend disbelief, with what is presented. There is a sense that we are observing the tracings and workings of somebody who fills, empties and refills 'mysteries' into the world, where a continuous enquiry and art practice operates as a laboratory for a material and philosophical imagination. Bachelard puts this succinctly when he conjoins the phrase; dream-physics.
Apart from the floating and slowly moving ceramic bowls, carrying images of the sky within a water filled boat in All the Days, most of David's pieces use still objects or still images which the viewer can invest in and speculate about. However, in Word there is a moving projection of a river that rushes towards the viewer across a wooden table top. The table is floating, suspended just above the floor. On the surface there is a plaster cast of the interior of David's mouth which the water cascades around. Only three elements: a levitating table, a intimate cast, and the flowing river, yet these few elements may evoke infinite associations whether to a body, a ritual of purification, a stream of words and consciousness or other bodily expressions - utterable or not. In Alessandro Baricco's novel Ocean Sea, a figure named Plasson attempts to paint the sea:
"The man is wearing waders and a large fisherman's jacket. He is standing, facing the sea, twirling a slim paint brush between his fingers. On the easel, a canvas,..., He continues staring out at the sea. Silence. From time to time he dips the brush in a copper cup and makes a few light strokes on the canvas. In their wake the bristles of the brush leave a shadow of the palest obscurity that the wind immediately dries, bringing the pristine white back to the surface. Water. In the copper cup there is only water. And on the canvas, nothing. Nothing that may be seen."
Similar to Plasson's suggestive attempts, there is in David's ouvre a sense that it is also about something that is not there, and this whatever it is, may remain anonymous yet the inadvertent presence can still be felt. The intangibility is reinforced by the illusions that are at work through the interactions between painted backdrops, the play back of recorded and altered sound, multiple light sources, and the audience is tempted into reading their physical and conceptual relationships. In The Bath an image of an ideal possibly summer blue sky with white clouds is projected into an empty bath tub and invites an imaginary therapeutic remedy, of being bathed by the sky, of temporarily absolving the self in aerial weightlessness and thereby becoming One. In The Invention of Nothingness a dark large somewhat frightening intense circle materialises on the otherwise white wall as the standing spotlight placed in front of it suddenly switches off. But then, as the spotlight comes back on, and the apparent blankness of the wall returns, there is a sense of relief but possibly also some regret as the evaporable black void lured us by the emergence of its seductive depth.
tide foams to
the very gate." (Basho)
In Untitled (Moon) a light beam is concentrated into a limited area of a bucket and a crescent moon with an iridescent aura seems to be mirrored in the surface of milk contained within it. The piece entices me one dark winter night to go out onto the balcony and attempt to 'capture' the moon in a tea cup filled with water. A moment of celestial immensity, where the distant appears acutely intimate, even if the smallest shake fractures the illusion and the silver-white disc dissolves or spills out. I am reminded of David's phrase; "... the endless void under the thin crust of being", which speaks of the vulnerability of existence and the formation of identity. This also resonates with The Tides where a large smooth beeswax sphere made out of melted figures from Madam Tussauds and Musée Grevin is held within the skeletal metal framework of an iron bed. The soft material has previously upheld temporary figurative representations yet here there is an amalgamation of identities which is reduced to a basic form through the malleability and precariousness of this organic substance.
Later at night I dream of a co-hosting of bird baths, open barrels and fleeting collections of rain, dotted across the world whose surfaces become reflective moon pools...
Even if contextual links to concurrent artistic practices and art historically located movements can be made in relation to David's practice I perceive it to offer something rare - perhaps it is tranquility? It explores aspects of our existence that are possible to connect with on an immediate bodily and human level and which also stimulate sustained reflections. For me it also has spiritual content in that it offers comfort, it carries an invitation for the viewer to partake in an experience which often feels personally located yet open enough for others to attend to. The work is sometimes instantly perplexing such as Reflection (Full/Empty) where there is a glass of water in air and a glass of air in water. Although the overall work is logically thought out and meticulously constructed, sometimes involving complex preparatory steps including the building of models and photographing them, or the painting and shading in of walls, there is an excess at play in the work. Bachelard speaks about the potentially extraordinary qualities of matter and which I believe are echoed in David's work:
"..., matter can be imbued with values oriented in two directions: in the direction of depth, and in the direction of height. In the former it appears as something unfathomable, as a mystery. In the latter, it appears as an inexhaustible force, as a miracle,..."
Whether David is working with the imagery of the immeasurable sea or the soaring sky, or anything between such as the bodily fluids of milk and even blood, there is a sense of a conjoining of different materials - either as an exploration of physical laws, or of matter being bound as a poetic text. Our own recollections and experiences of the type of objects he uses, and the more ethereal elemental substances that are invoked, become urgent. He creates cinematic dream like set designs for our psyche where the particular handling of the objects and imagery leaves a residue that Emmanuel Levinas perhaps evokes when he writes:
"Matter, which is invested as a tool,.., is also, via the human, the matter which obsesses me with its proximity."
Through the process of mediation in David's contemplative and intimate work, I attune to an element of hope. In Facing the Dark there is a window with small panes that appear to let daylight in despite the apparent impossibility as the brick wall it is hung on would in fact block light out. Perhaps the dark as a realm, or as an experience, may provide light and a gate way in itself?
In relation to many of the pieces, I experience that I am being offered the end of a symbolical mooring rope. I am offered a brief tangible grip upon something, yet the other end of the rope, which I can only intuit through an affective and bridging dimension such as the notion of the flesh, seeks either the safety of the anchorage point or the unpredictability of the nomadic vessel, or a meandering thought, depending on my state of mind. While I am temporarily transfixed, David's works may provide a suspended and significant moment of recognition, an encounter whether with something of the past, or the cosmically unknown yet just then interiorly found.
"Afterwards there is only the wind, just the wind, and I notice sleepily how the doors
strain at their hinges and the glass in the windows moans resistance." (F. Pessoa)
from returning light, 2007