Thursday, November 26, 2009
Vaguer than nebulous
Jim Speers: Crystal Spirit
21 November - 24 December 2009
We have here an enigmatic but ambitious installation of fourteen images under glass on the walls of Starkwhite’s large downstairs gallery. Elam lecturer Speers has also added a new white vinyl–covered floor on which he has placed converging red, white and blue lines, disappearing into a corner.
The odd floor design could be referring to the diminishing economic and political power of the U.S.A. while the exhibition’s title seems to be alluding to a George Orwell poem about an Italian soldier slain in the Spanish Civil war, where the last two lines go: no bomb that ever burst shatters the crystal spirit. Plus the different glassed-over images could be interpreted as faceted planes in a crystal.
The language within the images and title is rich in other references too, varying from football clubs, rock bands, methamphetamine use and Allan Smith to John Steinbeck’s non-fiction book, The Log of the Sea of Cortez which involved a marine–specimen expedition made in the waters of California in 1940. It is really an inventory of footnotes Speers expects you to figure out (Google each listed phrase perhaps?) and structure into some overarching cohesive sense, like a detective.
In other words the specific meaning of these framed factory photographs, Elsworth Kelly-like abstractions, snippets of text, and images of the sea and sunken ships, is calculatedly obscure - a tease. It is part poem and part encyclopedia with its many fragments of image, sentence and word. These juxtaposed visual, historical and verbal allusions are all geared up to both frustrate and pleasantly evoke.
But evoke what? About two thirds of the individual images are sufficiently compellingly on their own to hold your interest as you try to guess their origins. These, those of the sea and factory machinery especially - would look good in isolation.
Unfortunately the total experience for the viewer falls flat. There doesn’t seem to be enough cohesive focus to consistently engage an audience so that they really want to construct their own speculative account. The images end up too psychologically detached because of their size, lacking the impact that say Gavin Hipkins’ banner photographs had in the same space a couple of years ago - and the slashing trail of ‘American’ colours diagonally traversing the gallery (as if passing through a prism) isn’t sufficient to centre the visitor’s experience.
It is all too disparate and dryly cerebral, without sufficient physical (and emotional) involvement. Plenty of crystal; not enough spirit.