Article on now Berlin-based music duo Hype Williams, for Under/current 03: Dawn, 2010.
Sat in a Turkish café on a junction in Dalston, a couple of hundred yards from the warren of streets he has lived variously amongst for his whole life, Roy Nnawuchi is discussing the ‘foil-people’ that have featured over the past year in short films he’s made for art shows. “When you mold foil over someone’s face it gives an exaggerated version of it, like a caricature”, he explains, “I basically always look like a gorilla”. His latest short film idea, called Money, involves a parade of people wearing these foil-masks through Hackney and Clapton, culminating in a real basketball game on a street court. “It’s got to make you feel for a minute like you’re not where you think you are. It’s clearly an art performance but I want it to be a proper match that people just stumble in on”, he says. “So that you feel like you’ve been brainwashed to live in this alternative universe for a short period of time”. It’s a statement that resonates across everything that follows.
We’re talking about the foil-people because performances of Roy’s musical project Hype Williams often start with him in a foil-mask. It’s a crossover that, if not merely symptomatic, is endemic. “For me the music is a continuation of the same thing”, he explains, “I’m really into approaching every medium the same”. Comprised of Roy and Aliina Astrova, a curator who runs the transient project space/gallery Ceylan Projects, Hype don’t really have songs, involve a revolving cast of collaborators and typically play in art galleries or house shows.
With a torrent of tracks, mix-tapes, split-releases and videos emerging from the messily irreverent group over the past year – under at least three distinct monikers, or amalgamations of such, indicating distinct groups of collaborators involved on any given track – it’s hard to draw a line between Hype, Paradise Sisters or the Bo Khat Eternal Troof Family Band, each bearing the mercurial fingerprints of Roy and Aliina. As Roy stresses, perhaps rather paradoxically, Hype isn’t a band and its members aren’t musicians.
Their performances, such as those in the basement of Seventeen Gallery or at Ceylan’s Magic and Happiness exhibition where the group played in separate rooms from the audience, suggest something above the typical fare going on. At Seventeen Gallery, for example, the audience were confronted with total darkness whilst Roy squatted in one corner with torchlight illuminating his apish tinfoil-caricatured face. After disappearing through a curtain, Hype started playing in an antechamber. Removed from the performance, hearing music and watching a video-feed piped from the other room, and isolated from each other by the pitch-blackness, the audience were left to question what they were consuming, what was on offer. A performance that denied its audience the intimacy, the authenticity even, of performance itself? Perhaps but for the percussive reverberations, dulled by the curtains separating rooms, one could think that Hype weren’t even playing at all, that instead one was watching and hearing a recording. At the least this suggests a group not content with merely using performance as a medium of expression but one actively engaged in questioning the nature of the medium itself.
Whilst varying sonically between reverb-drenched psychedelic hip-hop rehashes and improvised jam sessions, Hype’s music is saturated with a hip-gnosis inducing lo-fi primitivism – like a tweaked-out epiphany attained through tuning in to the hum of a refrigerator at dawn as the sun breaks in through the window to stream across your face. Live Roy presides like a hipster-shaman beating out the percussive core of the ritualized drone to follow; looping chants, groans and yelps accelerate the ever-rising intensity into a resonating ball of feedback and alliterating fuzz; everything reaching towards saturation, to white noise, and breaking waves of nigh-religious luminosity. It gives their music an epic, timeless expanse; evoking images of barbarians thumping out rhythms on the gates of some ancient civilization as flames scorch the skies and leave the earth an ashen silhouette. Both in terms of practice and sound, it’s a transplanted echo of Gang Gang Dance’s early noise-improvs.
More recently, at least in terms of live performance, Hype has almost ceased to exist as its own entity, instead being consumed into the wider improvisational collective of the Bo Khat Eternal Troof Family Band. “It’s loads of people. Us, Hounds of Hate and a bunch of other delinquents which turn up every Wednesday and practice for five or six house, record that, chuck out all the off-cuts that are really bad and put it out as a release”, explains Roy. “Bo-cat is not a good word where I’m from”, he continues. “It’s a guy that likes to go down on a girl, which basically in Hackney is an insult. We had a few people addicted to Khat in the band, so it just ended up being like, ‘Yo, Bo-Khat!’ That’s how it came together. Khat’s actually a big part of what’s been going on recently. A lot of chewing.” Roy’s since cut down on his own consumption of the African bushweed narcotic after a picture of him looking like a saucer-eyed tumbleweed farmer with Khat in his hand invading a party of innocent youths surfaced; “it’s actuall the cover of the De Stijl 7””, he adds.
What marks both Hype and Bo Khat apart is their focus upon free improvisation, upon the singular events or pure moments of a musical conversation. Without songs, set patterns or directions to abide by each session can be anything, go anywhere, depending on the contributions of those that happen to be there are participating. “The best bit about playing music”, exclaims Roy, “is when you surprise yourself, flick an accidental switch and go, ‘What was that!’ If you have a point you’ve expected to get to and then you get there, are you really happy?” he muses. “Being surprised, for me, is the best state. I don’t believe in things having to be discussed or there having to be a point”. “To me this is the point”, agrees Aliina, “creating conditions in which you can be surprised by things”. Discussing Ceylan’s week-long Carnival residency, which turned Chapter One gallery into an open project space and culminated in a video of the work produced being screened alongside a Bo Khat session, in terms equally applicable to the Family Band, Aliina says, “with so many people and ideas together you have no idea what is actually going to happen”.
Although toying with near-clichéd ideas of 60s experimentalism and happenings, the Family Band’s improvisations avoid feeling hackneyed through the vitality that emerges from a group forging new avenues for dialogue and collectivity between themselves. “When it comes to improv we prefer to do it in a bigger group of people”, explains Roy. So is Bo Khat about adding more and more people to the musical conversation, without having any preconditions or set playing field and just letting it generate itself from there? “Yeah, exactly”, agrees Roy. “And it just gets better and better. It’s beyond music. They just want to get involved in the conversation and say something. It’s really fun. Which is why Bo Khat is really exciting, because anything can happen. It can be anything at all. No matter what it’s like I’ll be happy, because how could a conversation go wrong? The only way it goes wrong is if people stop talking.”
Underlying everything Roy and Hype are doing, mind, is a distinctly absurdist humour. “Just imagine fish spilling out of a room”, he explains of littering the threshold of the room Hype played in at the Magic and Happiness opening with fresh kippers. “Hearing all these shitty sounds and it looking like fish are literally pouring out of it, like the room is full of fish.” It’s a funny idea but it pales when compared to Hype Williams’ supposed origins, which, at once preposterous and compelling, hearken back to Roy’s comments on creating alternative universes.
According to their bio, Hype were formed in 2005 by a husband and wife team of motivational speakers, Father Ronnie Krayola and Denna Frances Glass, as an 18-year relay project handed on to somebody new every three years. Think of that old-school drawing game Exquisite Corpse and you’ve got the idea. The recordings from Ronnie and Denna’s stint have been stuffed into a piñata, hidden away until the end of the project. “I think it’s just tapes of them talking”, claims Roy, “these secrets that they’re sure are going to change everyone’s lives. But not for another 14 or 15 years.” Asking around the close-knit scene of artists and musicians Hype run with meets with mixed responses of incredulity and blind faith. Whilst, for example, Hounds of Hate’s Stan Iordinov claims he’s actually seen the piñata, a nagging suspicion remains that it’s tagging along to keep a fantastical concoction going.
“They’re obviously not very normal people”, Roy offers in explanation of the project’s progenitors. Apparently managing Hype and only available for interview via email, Denna seemingly verifies this in claiming the pair now sell methadrone and bootleg pulp fiction. “It’s totally true!” chimes in Aliina, “I didn’t realize that people find it so hard to believe. To us it’s all pretty normal. Roy probably makes it seem more extraordinary by his evasiveness. I think he’s just being protective over his kid.” Admitting how it could seem like one big art project he’s orchestrated, Roy protests that, “I really don’t understand what’s going on. It sounds like a pile of shit, but… sadly most of it’s true.” One wonders whether Ronnie and Denna are real people, or if he just made them up? “So do I,” counters Roy, “But that is what Hype Williams is”.
Whatever Hype is one way to get a better idea of what’s going on in the wondrous looking glass worlds abounding around the group is to consider a gold plate almost ever-present at their gigs and in the videos Roy makes. He compares it to when you’re a kid, “you find something like a stone that you make into this thing of great importance and hold it up everywhere you are like Simba on the mountain”. If only through its very presence at every show the gold plate becomes that. For Roy people do this all time, with other people too and its what most relationships are based on. “Now that it has this really big importance, it has to have its presence”, he says. “But, as is anything, it wasn’t anything. It could have meaning, but really it’s just a gold plate.”
“This is pretty ludicrous what’s going on. It’s not serious”, concedes Roy, “This is not someone taking their life very seriously right now”. Adding that if he thought about the future he’d probably stop what’s he’s doing. “But that’s what art is, you immerse yourself in it, you either do it or you don’t”, he continues, “Art is meant to evoke something – even if it’s disgust. I really hate indifference.”
In contrast, Roy brings up Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader’s disappearance at sea during his art performance In Search of the Miraculous, “Strive for the extraordinary in search of the miraculous. He went in search of the miraculous, went out in a boat and went missing. I guess he’s dead, but… maybe that’s what he was looking for? Maybe he found it? We can all assume he died, but maybe he found the miraculous.”
At once the instantiation of absolute meaning and inherently, absurdly, superfluously meaningless, the gold plate could perhaps be seen as a cipher for the miraculous ‘eternal troof’ sought by the group’s improvised musical conversations – the point of not having a point – and the Hype project itself. In a sense, it all comes down to a choice between just blandly accepting life or wanting it to really affect you strongly – that if Bas Jan Ader did die, he found the miraculous? “Exactly”, confirms Roy, “Something happened. Something occurred.”
Introduction for Eastenders book for photographer Robert Glowacki, 2010.
Eastenders has been one of the central soap-opera touchstones of England’s self-consciously working class moralisms for over two decades. The continual mess of intrigues reaching throughout the community around Albert Square both holds it together and threatens to rip it apart. An encyclopaedia of tabloid taboos is reflected in the relationships unfolding on screen, these then forming instructional cartographies in how to navigate our own, how to deal with the people and events encircling us and defining our lives. The voyeuristic addictiveness of Eastenders’ hyperbolic exaggeration and cathartic tragedy of trash culture has carried its vision of east London’s working class into the heart of the mainstream. Perhaps, in this way, we are all Eastenders – a little bit of the Mitchell clan or Dot Cotton living on in us like an undead frog in the throat.
The photographs that Robert Glowacki has collected together in this book offer us another east end and portraits of very different east-enders. It would be nigh-impossible to capture all of the many beautiful juxtapositions and ruptures between worlds that make up the rich cultural collage of east London: from the Asian communities in Tower Hamlet’s deprived estates and the culinary tourismo of Brick Lane’s curry houses; through the art boom fuelled and soul-destroying gentrification of Shoreditch; Dalston’s grimey italo-disco basement clubs; and, the scenesters triangle of the London Field’s park-based catwalks; to the proto-bourgeois living in Hackney or Clapton’s Victorian houses; and, the yummy-mummy strip of Stoke Newington’s Church Street. Full of latent creativity and inspiration, east London has attracted people from all over the world to come and make it their home. It is a life fuelled on vibrancy and desperation in a city where one must continually strive amidst near crippling rents and an extortionate cost of living just to survive.
Asking people why they came to east London or what they thought of it when they arrived, some might say that it was exactly what they thought it would be before they arrived, others that London reminded them of late-70s Lower East Side New York. At that time the Big Apple was almost bankrupt. Sold down the river by successive Presidents, vast housing projects stood pregnant in their dereliction and vacancy. The downtown art scene that crystallized from the influx of young artists into these spaces still resonates today as one of the most energetic and charged periods of artistic experimentation. It spawned a dizzying quantity of sublime quality; just consider the lasting impact of the music scene and how punk, new wave and no wave have implicitly or otherwise inspired every guitar and noise band since.
Inspired by the example of New York, artists, gallerists, musicians and (perhaps most importantly) students started flocking to London’s east end during the recession years of the ‘90s. Cheap rents and derelict buildings offered spaces of possibility, a vacuum within which creativity could flourish unfettered. The resultant proliferation of art shows and galleries, gigs and clubs, market stalls and shops, design studios and fashion houses, all serialized and celebrated in DIY publications, transformed the area and made east London a Mecca of global cool.
Within the current global financial turmoil, however, it is no surprise that east London is no exception in having a fin-de-siècle atmosphere. Much of the current cultural produce smacks more of Mecca Bingo than the feted Elysian heights of yesteryears. As the cultural successes anchored in the east end, such as the YBA fuelled art boom, filtered down and outwards successive areas have been gentrified. When Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas opened The Shop on Bethnal Green Road in 1993, Spitalfields was a picture of urban desolation. Now it features a host of global chains and expensive boutiques, the area’s history, its character and charm, lost beneath globalized design and the ubiquitous non-spaces of consumer retail traps. Likewise, the nightlife of Shoreditch and Hoxton has been increasingly swamped under a deluge of overpaid, trendy city boys descending from the glass plated peaks and valleys of their corporate sweatshops to the south. These influxes of capital have squeezed out the cultural aborigines who gave the place its lustre, leading to a mercurial drift of people moving ever outwards in search of affordable rents and creative spaces. This waning of east London is perhaps clearest within the art scene itself. With recession threatening to burst the art bubble, there has been a notable decline in quality of the galleries along Hackney’s Vyner Street and the work on such. Many of the most interesting exhibitions recently have appeared south of the river in Peckham, in particularly at Hannah Barry Gallery and through the Auto-Italia group.
If we’re to ask where or what the future might bring perhaps we could turn to the famous Adbusters article by Douglas Haddow claiming that the hipster is the death of western civilization. An endemic ideological infection of irony and cynicism whereby everyone and everything is cool in the shallow superficiality of pervasive referentiality, hipster-ism is paradoxically post-modernism as hegemony. Plaid shirts, fixed gear bikes, hard-core music wearing Ray-bands running about in cliques and castes, feudal scenes and fiefdoms of socially networked movers and shakers, as a thousand little emperors and empresses carve out their niches within the demographic of the hip. It’s a generation in limbo, offered all the skills and tools to remake their worlds but waiting unendingly for the event(s) of their lives like Godot with no vision, blind to their future and rendered mute through their slavish appropriate of the past. Perhaps all this unmeaning banality is a phase, co-extensive with the death of an underground. Any new scene or style is instantly co-opted and capitalized. Plucked from obscurity and placed centre-stage into the mainstream, nothing is allowed to gestate or mature independently. This means that any potential transformative impact it could have is quelled. Revolution is sold to us stillborn and ersatz, branded under the stencilled mane of Che Guevara.
But for all that, the hipster is perhaps the first truly globalized youth tribe or lifestyle choice. Hipsters may happen to live here or there but in essence they’re a transitory breed, a circulating diaspora transfusing ideas and influences across physical expanses and cultural borders. It is this hint of the outsider within someone simultaneously freelancing for luxury brands – unashamedly part of the mainstream and everything that might be wrong with it whilst also vociferously critiquing it through Situationist agit-prop art works – that offers our cues for the future.
Within the advent of a new recession a new generation of artists, musicians, photographers and writers are forging their own scenes. Like NYC, London is brutally unforgiving. One must always be doing more, never resting, be driven ever on by the city’s unquestionable thirst to make one’s name, to shout it writ large and thunderous amidst the cacophony of a million other self-published voices. Eschewing corporate co-option, D.I.Y. music and art projects continue to spring up through gigs played in kitchens, record labels run from bedrooms, exhibitions in empty shop windows or funeral parlours, and in nearly any imaginable way.
Inhabiting interzones between a multiplicity of worlds, between those of life (leisure) and work – the feted warehouse lifestyle is itself almost a parody of the post-modern collapse of the live-work divide and a holism at once frighteningly consumptive and liberating – arched between an array of different cultures without ever quite touching or meeting them, we today live on the edge of a radically decentred and multi-polar future. It is this cultural multiplicity that has fuelled the creative booms of east London and it is this alternative eastender, portrayed in the following photographers, that perhaps will prove to be the greatest agent of regeneration.
Short piece for AnOther for the exclusive premiere of Fresh Touch’s Harar Rhythm, with an interview with Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zinner.
For an exhibition entitled Journeys into a Bright World, Emer O’Brien’s first solo show at FERREIRA PROJECTS, confronts us with a dark, menacing vision of control within the seemingly innocuous portraiture of horses. Inspired by the four horsemen of the apocalypse from the Book of Revelation and E.A. Poe’s short story Metzengerstein, Journeys is a meditative mix of photography, light-boxes and film shrouded in shadows under the disquieting and un-localized sounds of stampeding horses.
Comparing O’Brien’s early photographs of space frames to the new sculpture of the 1960s, as images of and for consciousness, Ian Jeffrey identifies their true theme as being that of absence. These ‘desolate and inadequate structures’ encroached by the organic world are the residual frames of something that once stood before, with a significance now lost and formerly containing things which have now disappeared. For Jeffrey, they present us with the predicament of the subject at large in the world: faced with our own substance, materiality and sheer presence, we are confronted with the absence of that about which all the rest has been constructed, a center or source capable of infusing the world with significance or meaning. It is a vision from the edge of a great beyond, a desert in which the sands of time have eroded and washed away all but the most rudimentary traces of what stood before and have erased everything of substance, meaning and gravitas.
O’Brien’s first photograph of animals emerged out of her images of space frames with the shooting of a dead dog found in the desert in Mauritania. Shown at the Whitechapel Gallery, Contemporary Amnesia, 2003, is an image invoking many of these same themes of desolation, absence and loss. Almost desiccated completely, the animal leaves a sand imbibed husk of parched leathery skin nearly indistinguishable from the rocks and stones about it. Essentially a landscape depicting the return of the organic to the inorganic, it is a photograph in which the vitality of life has all but gone. Yet what marks this image out is the ambiguity generated by the mountain range-like tufts of fur not quite submerged within the dirt. Looking like burnt grass, one cannot decide whether they present the last dying gasp of a suffocated, sunburnt planet, or if they irrupt from the ground as the very principal of regeneration. Within O’Brien’s young oeuvre this introduction of the animal as subject marks a turning point at which, with the desolation on show reaching its nadir at the extinction of life and its dissolution into mere dirt, some vital spark survives from which substance and significance can be rediscovered.
In Journeys O’Brien refers back to Contemporary Amnesia with an image of the neck and mane of a brown horse. The smooth nape of the horse’s neck accentuated against the blank background is in stark contrast to the broken earth of the earlier image. Here the animal is distinct, clear, its cohesion uncompromised by its surroundings. The reigns looped about its neck suggests a bridle, an instrument of control indicating co-option into the functional economy of human civilization. The animal is literally harnessed and transformed into a tool. Reminiscent of O’Brien’s space frames and in contrast to Contemporary Amnesia, the bridle here symbolizes civilization’s isolation of the animal from nature. But, whilst the ‘inadequate structures’ of the frames are substituted for the functional harness, the place is also transformed in this change of perspective from the ‘desert of the real’ to a blank and empty void. For O’Brien, within this dichotomy of real desert and ideal void, the source and core providing significance is the vital physicality of the body. That this core significance can seemingly only be encountered within the void or against a sky-like background suggests that it is itself ephemeral or merely illusory, as if we can only discover it through the constricting lens of civilization. It is this relation of civilization and control to the body that orientates O’Brien’s work in Journeys.
A series of images arrayed along the right hand wall depict a solitary white horse, its head moving minimally as the contrast changes and the shadowy contours of muscle are subtly bleached. In contra-poise to Muybridge’s studies of horses in full flight, O’Brien limits movement to its most unassuming and docile. Cropped to the head and shoulders, limiting the strength of its limbs to the suggestion of musculature, this series presents the horse shorn of its associated potency and vigour. In another series mounted on light-boxes, the calm and dignified composure of a white horse looking at the camera, exerting its gaze and hence individuality, gives way under the re-imposition of control. Its contorted features, as it is pulled back into line and reduced again to the nondescript horse per se, captures the violence of control. Other images incorporating a horse’s flanks disclose how control is played out on the body through the grooming of manes and coats. Through reading the violence of control down to this scale of micro-gestures a spectrum of violence emerges which parallels that of the photographer’s domination and control over their subject. O’Brien’s work invokes the photograph as still life, a stilled finite slice of the immense multiplicity of life and reality, to composition, cropping and editing.
On first sight O’Brien’s most famous image, from the Where The Wild Things Are series, showing a hooded donkey within a stark cell-like stable, recalls to mind infamous images of torture and abuse. The hood speaks to us of repression, of the denial of personality and recognition, and through the surgical lamp hanging from above, of an implicit violence, even imminent execution. Unlike Jeff Wall’s A Donkey in Brighton, where the ass’s un-freedom is expressed through the placement of the animal and the articulation of space about it, in which the photographic apparatus pins the donkey to the back corner in an act repeated in each new viewer’s gaze, O’Brien’s donkey enjoys an ironic freedom in relation to us. What violence is enacted within O’Brien’s photograph is actually upon us. The donkey’s hood is see-through. Seemingly submissive under an imposed constraint, in reality the donkey gazes calmly and curiously at the camera. The implicit violence of the gaze’s caesura is reversed: he can see us but we cannot see him seeing us. Yet the violence of the photographic cut extends further than this play of gazes between artist, viewer and subject within an image. The artist exerts control not only in terms of what is shot but also which shots are presented to us and how.
Split into two rooms shrouded in darkness, with only the flickering half-light of O’Brien’s films and the luminescent glow of her light-boxes to guide our way, Journeys also conditions how the images are presented and demonstrates how for O’Brien this conditioning of viewing by the artist extends into the gallery space. The menacing sound loop of galloping, wild horses permeates the space. Rumbling in the shadows this displaced howl of the animals’ primal energy is at once ever-present behind and yet amputated from the clean surgical portraits on show. Its threat is that of the very mechanism of control witnessed within the images, ubiquitous, invisible and un-locatable within the situation or space itself. All we can find are the symptomatic marks, traces and scars of its action.
This scarring is documented in the second film of The Listed Screen with the repetitive and clearing dysfunctional clawing at the ground of a tethered horse. The neurotic intensity of the scene is such that it is easy to mistake it for a video loop, until one notices the normal movements of the clawing horse’s partner behind it. In these two images of the horse, one regular and normalized, one pathologically deformed by its imposed constraints, we see the mis-match between a functional ideal and a feral, brute existence.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a near blank image of a white horse’s head and neck. With its one visible eye closed, O’Brien offers us a negative silhouette of the stilled and quieted steed. As the name suggests, we can read Journeys as a journey from the dark to the light, from the potent animalistic body, site of dark unknowable desires and drives, to an ideal image of the horse, one that invokes notions of domestication, of a perfected and unfettered docility. Together with the inherent anthropomorphism of the portrait form, this subdued animality reflects our own enmeshed site within culture and civility. The social and semantic ties of the cultural world proscribe, re-direct, diminish and yet focus the jouissance of our primal desires and drives, re-forging this base materiality towards an otherworldly ideal. It is an implicit cultivation and the choice of the horse as subject, with its heritage of agriculture and warfare, perfectly instantiates this; we are both the products and tools of our own civility, our own domestication.
Paradoxically the closed eye of this last horse, whilst highlighting the unassuming servility of this ideal horse which hasn’t even the presumption to its own gaze, its own consciousness even, and hence which finalizes its ideal quality as purely for the intellect, is simultaneously a pure image of the body. Yet it is an image of the body cowed, of consciousness quieted. Reduced to its minimal contours and shorn of its physicality, here is the Idea of the horse. Indeed this is the last horse, the idea left once its tether to the means of production has been severed by industrialization and its functionality is nigh obsolete. It is a portrait of desolation and disappearance as with the earlier space frames, but here it is the subject itself facing dissolution in its own ethereality and divorce from the physical boon of reality.
It is thus not without reason that some Native American’s feared that having one’s photograph taken would steal one’s soul. Photography is an art of the cut, an art of seizure, of capture, that isolates and separates. Arresting a moment in time, photography preserves the scene falling under its gaze and yet, no less than the cave paintings at Lascaux, the photograph reaches us as a memorial and trace of the departed. In this way photography teaches us loss, as the shutter-click’s cut of each shot announces the incessant march of time. Thus the essence of the photographic cut is an erasure of reality un-represented within the photograph in the same motion in which it archives that which is captured. The selection of images exhibited itself constitutes a dramatic eugenics whereby the sheer scale of photographs taken is reduced through severe editing to the few presented before you. The principal ofcontrol and conditioning within O’Brien’s work signals a pre-occupation with that which is un-captured or un-capture-able by the photograph itself. Her conditioning of the gallery space with sound and light is designed to make us think of the lived reality absent from her images and halt the erasure of all that which suspended in between the images on show. In Out and About, Jeffrey contrasts the old Kantian sublime of awe at the vast magnitude and potency of nature, with a new sublime, of awe at the idea of infinity. It is here, with the lost infinity of reality looming darkly underneath the pristine glossy surfaces of her images, that this new sublime occurs within O’Brien’s work, as an idea of the absent.
The question of how to read O’Brien’s exhibition, however, is problematic: is it a journey from light to dark or dark to light? One reading presents the reduction of the horse to an idealized abstraction, the other a near apocalyptic irruption of primal dark desires out of the previously docile, habitual, or servile. Within Poe’s story, the turning of its head by a magnificent white steed locked in a tapestry signals the arrival of a demonic stallion. The superhuman struggle for control between this creature and Poe’s protagonist ultimately ends with both consumed in fire. It is possible to read the four coloured horses of Journeys as the beasts of apocalypse of the Book of Revelation, with O’Brien’s photographs and films re-enacting this struggle for control under a looming and menacing threat of self-immolation. Thus O’Brien challenges all the edifices of culture, our control and domination over nature, animals and our darkest selves, to answer: who, really, is in control?
And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts…
And I looked and behold, a pale horse
And his name that sat on him was Death
And Hell followed with him
-‘The Man Comes Around’ by Johnny Cash, from the Book of Revelation