Friday, 17 February 2012

Looking at Art 2: Catherine Yass: Lighthouse

Looking at Art: personal and opinionated rambles on what I've seen, probably with a lot of reference to my own work...

Catherine Yass: Lighthouse at the
Alison Jacques Gallery, London - 13 January - 17 February 2012

I first came across Catherine Yass's startling photographs in an abandoned swimming pool in 1998. Using multiple positive and negative exposures, she creates alluring lightboxes from smart compositions of interesting subjects. This recent London show was all about the Royal Sovereign Lighthouse - 5 miles out from England's South coast. A wonderful subject for a no-nonsense photographer like Yass.

Lighthouse (East), 2011 © Alison Jacques Gallery
There were only a few images at the show, initially a disappointment, as these lightboxes have to be seen in person to appreciate their dynamic colours, so I always grasp any chance I get. The main attraction, like Zarina Bhimji last time, was a film piece. I'm pleased to say that, again, the film was perfectly presented and projected in a lovely clear and quiet space.

The lighthouse itself is perched on the corner of a square platform which is itself atop a cylinder with an extruded platform halfway down. That tiny circular platform circumnavigates the pillar, and is reached via a door from inside the pillar. Climbing down from there is a battered and barnacled ladder reaching down into the depths. Around the bottom of the large square platform are triangular struts to support walkways, but only one side has a walkway attached today. On one or more of the others doors open out onto a nothingness that is plainly something sometimes.

I know all this because Yass takes us on a wonderful trip to the place, evocative and descriptive, an intimate barnacles-and-all portrait all around, above and below the structure. And, more than still images or paintings or architect's plans, it does feel like a portrait with character.
All images © Alison Jacques Gallery
All images © Alison Jacques Gallery

The film explores the whole scene vividly and thoroughly in a series of dizzying but formal long helicopter shots. Sometimes upside down, sometimes side to side, but never clumsy and never silly. Sometimes it pans right down onto the sea, the fierce ripples form the helicopter's silent blades signalling another rotation and spin, how will things look when we rise again?

The camera patiently covers all the angles, revealing the detail you want to see. You've seen the ladder from a distance, and ask yourself 'Where does that go? How do you get to to it?' Yass delivers the answers patiently and elegantly, and when you wonder how far beneath the water it goes, you are shockingly plunged under, to see the ladder and pillar through the murk.

The shot revolves around the sides of the platform revealing those ghost platforms, the dead end doors. There's no people shown and we never see inside, but we learn so much about life here by seeing how the platform is navigated, the ladders, the barriers, the doors. That seaborne ladder isn't to go down into the sea, it's to come up from a boat.

Want to know what the bottom of the platform looks like from down there? There it is bobbing on the huge screen - feeling like the dirty revelation of a secret space so rarely seen, especially compared to the spick and span white of the platform above.
All images © Alison Jacques Gallery

All images © Alison Jacques Gallery
All this adds up to what amounts to a loving portrait that may sound dry and diagrammatic, but is actually a giddy pleasure. And, like Bhimji, it's shot through with a photographer's eye for detail and composition, and a photographer's patience.

A great piece - if you ever get the chance to see it, you should!

All images © Alison Jacques Gallery