If everything had been perfect, the world would quite simply not exist: Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime.
All of us begin our lives in rooms. From the hospital to the home, the walls ceilings and floors that surround us provide shelter, as though they were an extension of the womb. Rooms are where we first encounter the world. They are where we learn what it is to want, what it is to be satisfied, what it is to fantasize what it is to fear. When we remember a room, we remember its emotional significance as well.
In her series The Impossibility of Storytelling, the artist Julia Dogra-Brazell takes the room as the primary site of experience. Using table-top models and cinematic lighting effects, she conjures up a world that appears half-dreamt and half-real. Empty of everything bar the occasional doorway or piece of furniture, the metaphorical places she depicts are not susceptible to any straight-forward interpretation. At once imprecise and over determined, they allude instead to an elusive past irreducible to a single event.
‘…if rooms, like the ones portrayed, nurture us and help us forget our innate vulnerability, then they are also manifestations of an oppressive and structuring social order.’
In one picture we glimpse the end of a white iron bedstead, partially obscured by an otherworldly blur of light. Its institutional appearance suggests a hospital and the possibility that we are privy to some sort of related memory, perhaps even a primordial one before our eyes have ever begun to focus and before our minds have leant to structure their impressions of the external world. Equally, this hazy vision might anticipate the last perceptions of a consciousness in the process of being extinguished. Yet to try and identify this scene may be to miss the point. For all that is certain is that it portrays a moment that emanates from outside the regular flow of time.
Dogra-Brazell’s elimination of any specific temporal reference is part of a broader strategy of reduction. In the Impossibility of Storytelling she presents us with a sequenced series of images whose content grows increasingly indistinct. Suffused light lends the pictures a self-consciously nostalgic quality. And since the very fabric of what is depicted seems to be threatened by miasmic vapours we find ourselves in the presence of a world on the cusp of dissolution; one which appears to have already turned from the difficult task of sustaining the present and is now struggling to keep the past intact.
The opposition between recognizable, concrete space and invading otherworldly ectoplasm reminds us of the never-ending human project of staving off the void. If by our many creative acts we seek to get the better of the nothingness that lies at the heart of being, Dogra-Brazell’s pictures suggest that it is only by an ever-vigilant feat of will that we can prevent ourselves from being overwhelmed by it. And while these images necessarily depict an external reality – they are photographs of something after all – the fact that they are pictures of constructed, imaginary environments only serves to emphasise that paper-thinness of appearances, behind which, it is hard to guarantee the existence of anything whatsoever.
Dogra-Brazell alludes more specifically to the contingent nature of the world in a recent series, It’s Easy For Someone My Age To Become Nostalgic. Here, seven bleached out images appear even more ghostly, even closer to a point of total erasure than their earlier counterparts. Like memories, they flicker uncertainly, as though they were the site of a struggle between our will to the illusion of existence, and our acceptance that humankind’s underlying truth might just be that of nihilism.
Inhabiting that borderland between something and nothing, these images remain profoundly ambiguous. Yet the fact that either series exists at all, as works of art or more straightforwardly as objects of human creation, indicates that our proclivity to truth might not be quite so strong as our desire for the illusion of the world. It is unclear whether the nostalgia referred to in the title of the later work is the nostalgia for the materiality of a domain in the process of disappearing, or whether it instead reflects a longing for a more fundamental state – that of the nothing that both precedes and comes after being.
By employing the techniques of short focus and dramatic lighting, Dogra-Brazell imparts a seductive quality to these spaces in flux. The results evoke the enticing if melancholic ‘other side’ of Victorian ghost stories. Possessed of a consoling emptiness, such a netherworld offers an escape from the difficulties of mortal existence. For if rooms, like the ones portrayed, nurture us and help us forget our innate vulnerability, then they are also manifestations of an oppressive and structuring social order.
Void of people, the scenario described in The Impossibility of Storytelling is one where any interaction with other human beings has already been left behind. Replaced by an altogether less problematic relationship with space and with things, all that now stands in the way of the subject’s flight into oblivion is the architecture of the remembered world. If the corrosive mists that eat into many of the images suggest that the dissolution of this architecture may not be long in coming, then these determinedly beautiful pictures also read as a lament for a sensuality on the brink of extinction. And maybe the lesson they ultimately teach is that once we have given up on everything else, it is only the sublimating process of aesthetic experience that keeps us from embracing the void.
© Jason Oddy 2003