Afternoon Dust

Failing to see, or not: Hannah Rickards at Modern Art Oxford

While in Oxford for Audiograft festival I had the opportunity to visit Hannah Rickards’ solo exhibition at Modern Art Oxford. The show comprises various works made over the past decade related to meteorological phenomena — or rather, to different attempts to describe or otherwise represent experiences of such phenomena. In the film No, there was no red. (2009), people recount experiences of seeing aurorae, sometimes agreeing or disagreeing over the appropriateness or accuracy of particular descriptions, metaphors, or similes; Like sand disappearing or something (2013) is a multichannel audio installation of further (or the same?) attempts to describe and explain similar experiences. The sound I think it makes is, is that whispering sound… (2007) also reflects on unusual atmospheric events, only this time we hear voices recounting experiences of hearing sferics, occasionally seeing quotations from their speech on a red, blue or green background. For Thunder (2005), the sound of the eponymous weather event was timestretched from eight seconds to eight minutes in duration, with the resulting sounds transcribed for a small chamber ensemble; what is heard in the installation is a recording of the ensemble playing the transcribed score, sped up from eight minutes back to the original eight seconds.

On the surface, these works would seem to posit the insufficiency of language to adequately convey experience, proposing a melancholy gap between the two into which plummet our attempts to relate what we see and hear to others. Over time, however, things begin to work rather differently. From time to time one or both of the video channels in No, there was no red. cuts to a black screen, which, combined with the darkness of the room, results in strong after-images left on the retina. Viewers begin to see things that are both there and not there, much like the sights the film’s protagonists try to describe. The sound I think it makes… is installed inside a small triangular room with a monitor placed in each corner, meaning that only one screen can be seen at any one time; the audio narration, on the other hand, can be heard moving from corner to corner, confusing attempts to pin down its source. And in the large room in which text works hang, the light from the windows is tinted green at one end and red at the other. So subtle is the effect that you hardly notice it until you walk back into a previous room — a room that you know is painted white, but which your vision now insists on tinting red.

At some point, the exhibition ceases to be simply a collection of descriptions or accounts of liminal experiences, and becomes a set of liminal experiences in itself. The account of the role of language with which we started must therefore be reassessed. It is not only language that struggles to get a handle on visual and auditory phenomena, but also the biological and neurological faculties of vision and audition (and taste, smell, touch, temperature…). Our own eyes and ears don’t get it either. Well, that our senses are fallible is hardly a new revelation. But bringing moments of sensory confusion together with equally uncertain descriptions and narrations makes it possible for language to appear on the inside of experience, as part of a set of interlinking (and similarly fallible) multimodal techniques and strategies aimed at understanding and responding to the external world. The linguistic repetitions and falterings that mark the breaking points of language (“The sound I think it makes is, is… um, uh… like historic, not historic, but, um, oh…”) properly belong not to speech as abstracted from its content, but to experience, not as evocations of the straining and grasping of eyes and ears but as their equivalent. In other words, a concept becomes just a particular kind of percept.

What should hopefully be clear by now is just how far we are from any notion of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign. In Rickards’ work, language is part of the structure of experience, not arbitrary metadata assigned after the fact. Aurorae and sferics are often experienced as mysterious or sublime because they confuse our senses: our linguistic sense as well as our visual and/or auditory senses. By producing the same confusion through her work, Rickards highlights not only the uncertainty inherent in experience, but also how that uncertainty extends beyond the histories of individual subjects and becomes (as) general as language, a pervasive tint that goes unnoticed until a sudden shift prompts recalibration.

The exhibition runs at Modern Art Oxford until 21st April 2014.