|To Travel… To Arrive
Findings… Bitter-Sweet by David Williams
The first of David Williams’ twelve pieces, comprising Findings… Bitter-Sweet, announces his setting out on a journey. The three images are out-of-focus and almost bleached by over-exposure. Arranged in triptych format, they show the protagonist of the spiritual journey ahead, and his reflection in the wet sand of an empty shore. He advances from left and from right. Unaccountably suspended in the scene are two spheres - they were read and blue, and now rendered photographically are pale blue and pink. (They are helium weather balloons tethered above the beach.) All the elements of the landscape retreat further from recognisability in the central image; the camera now set far distant from the solitary traveller.
The traveller has been the object of our obsessive interest for thousands of years. The perplexing condition of being in time - constant and changing simultaneously - is made almost comprehensible if translated into the experience of the person who moves through space. But the traveller’s tale - that of Ulysses, Aeneas, Tom Jones, Kutz (There are so many) - is, for all its geographical pretext, existential. He is a heroic individual. Or rather, he is heroic if he has a destiny to seek. Williams’ protagonist, however, travels differently. As the title of the work states, he does not seek: he finds. Against the epic heroism of seeking may be set the poetry of finding.
The heroic traveller is, emblematically, a spear-bearer; he carries, in Greek, a telos. The spear contains within itself, ontologically, an end to be fulfilled - its striking of its target. It is the proper attribute of the traveller who has a goal or destiny, whose likelihood of hitting his target increases with the sharpness of his focus.
The poetic traveller is our guide here, has no spear: no map nor plan. He does not foretell his arrival, as these things do. Yet, as the narrative of the twelve pieces shows, there is an arrival. It has been achieved by someone alert for signposts in an unfamiliar land. The finder lights up objects of curiosity and wonder, and pauses to ponder his experiences and predicament. He has no attribute, just his animal and human faculties.
The exhibition consists of sets of photographic sequences, some arranged in narrative, that is in linear form, and some in icon, that is axially symmetric form. Some could be described as constructed pieces, and others as performance. In either event, the idea came first. In fact, this has been some much the case that Williams has had to invent photographic methods to realise his purpose. He also exploits particular and unusual photographic effects for the same reason.
The ‘protagonist’, or the performer, is often the photographer himself. Williams devised a 100ft long electronic cable-release in order that the camera could observe him in a greater space than that which the self-portraitist customarily occupies (and, indeed, the purpose of the remoteness of the photographer/protagonist was to free the work from the sentimental expectations and exclusivity of autobiography). Polaroid photography presented practical convenience and emulsion’s creamy colour contributed to the images’ softened effect. The original polaroids were photographed and enlarged in the conventional manner.
Focus, exposure and emulsion were manipulated to create images in which light erodes form and bleaches pigment, and the very palpability of objects is called into question. As a result, the images come to be of essentially fragile things - so close to evanescence. Williams is here working at the boundary where formal elements and things with names seem ever on the point of changing places. It is a territory discovered by Titian and revisited by Turner.
Here is a universe of metamorphic possibilities. Red, for example - the property that is loose in the world and alights on so many diverse things from a strawberry to a Ferrari - can, in the great conceit of the art of painting (and photography), turn into a flower. The piece, Out of the Blue… Solace, tells of the arrival and manifestation, in the form of a flower-like-thing, of Red in the blue environment and in the life of the protagonist. A white-clad sleeping figure turns the observer in a blue place marked by the presence of prison-like bars. Then, a vague Red begins to materialise in front of the bars, before condensing into a crimson flower - and the protagonist is stirred from sleep0t. Red is an active force throughout the larger narrative. The images are witness to formal and epistemological processes of condensation and rarefaction - ancient physics and venerable philosophy. At last, in He became… What he always was, a thin red line is glimpsed sharply through an almost-closed door. All is clear.
This narrative of a vapour becoming matter, expressed in terms of a Red arriving at saturation, is a metaphor for a spiritual visitation. It might happen to anyone an object of passion and attraction comes into our consciousness. The story might also be told in familiar and specific terms - as an Annunciation. What else but this happened when Gabriel appeared? Williams conceives the drama in terms of the life of common humanity.
Williams’ evasive photographic method - blurred and often bleached images - allows him to explore the territory of feeling and imagination. It is where matter turns into spirit, the place wandered by German Romanticism. Where things with names turn into pigment and where matter turns into spirit, art can turn into abstract expressionism. Though discoverable by the individual, it is not a private land.
Connecting formal elements with the psychological drama extends to the larger story. Colour, mood and theme are related, and the whole is composed in terms of their changes and development. Williams, himself, has likened his method to that of a musician assembling an ‘album’. The twelve pieces - twelve songs - whilst discrete in themselves, comprise a shaped and resolved narrative. As has already been hinted, the whole work is, amongst other things, a narrative of the ‘lives’ of Red and Blue, from their beginnings as the helium-filled balloons, to the kite in To attract her attention… Do anything, to the red bather and blue rocks of In his youth, so much sand…Sand, all over, and to the blue and red elements of He became…What he always was.
Pivotal in the work as a whole is ‘Listen”…Sunflower Blues, in which the deepening of the field of focus and the consequent drawing of the observer into the space is accompanied by a weakening of saturation in the object of prime attention, the sunflower. Simultaneously, the white light at the back of the space diminishes, to become a blue tear. The sequence ends, by this means, in the minor key, the cadence incomplete, the metamorphosis of form into content, suspended.
The primary colours act largely as protagonists within the whole series. At the same time, the more ambiguous hues of individual pieces establish a tone for which a musical analogy can readily be felt. When form and content are taken together, there is a predominating mood. After the passivity of Out of the Blue… Solace comes the extroversion and celebration of To attract her attention… Do anything. An inhalation is demanded by the pale spaciousness of In his youth, so much sand… Sand, all over whilst a holding of the breath is appropriate in the collusion and stillness of A sadness… Made sense of, an d finally an expiration seems proper in the pallor of His dream came true… the world stopped turning. Something invigorating is followed by something tense. At last comes something nameless, but resembling if anything the lark-calls at the end of the last of Strauss’s For Last Songs.
Forms also rhyme and mutate across the gaps between pieces. For example, the figure with arms raised in He loved to hid… Mostly he hid from love, eroded by light almost into a Cycladic figural symbol, reappears in Big things were easy… The little things were difficult. He has metamorphosed from black to white and from the agonised or praying form into one with joyous swagger in to attract her attention… Do anything. The choreography of the bull-fighter or the manic gestures of the string puppet (it is not clear, after all, if the kite flyer operates the kite, or vice versa) contribute to the Goyaesque effect. By a similar process of rhyme and mutation , rich with poignancy and irony, the distant traveller of the first piece, raised above the level of the wings of the triptych, stands enacting a sort of Calvary in A Sadness… Made sense of.
The traveller - protagonist, artist, observer - does not rush by in pursuit of his end, but pauses to look and listen, to meditate, to assimilate events, to receive gifts. Williams is identifiable, with this accommodating protagonist. He is not the activist, the seeker, the vigilant judge. He exercises instead a kind of spiritual alertness and emotional self-awareness. Is it a moral scruple or poetic sensibility that makes him care more for the importunings of the moment than the beckoning goal? Here, as elsewhere in Williams’ work, is asserted the coincidence of morality and sensibility: they are not to be disentangled. This is not the coincidence of morality and political purpose. As has been said, Williams has no map: there is no text being illustrated. It is the absence of a text, an orthodoxy, a political project - a telos - that there can be expressed a demotic rather than a partisan morality. This is the artist’s job. It is an aesthetic issue.
Findings… Bitter-Sweet is rich and realistic. The two themes, love and death, do not appear in neat columns under the headings, ‘cheerful’ and ‘sad’. Instead, there having been no itinerary - no plan or project - the real ambiguity of the world receives acknowledgement. Then, it has been possible to pose the basic question: how to reconcile oneself with a world in which, scandalously, there is love and death? The answer, and the argument of the work is that the bitter and the sweet are not epithetical, but are woven into the very substance of existence. Reconciliation comes when we submit to the embrace of necessity.
The individual and the whole of humankind live in a condition of bereavement. Paradoxically, there are lives and deaths for which we may be grateful.
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