A click, a wink, a nod or the blink of an eye
– a temporary assemblage exploring the edges of perception
bb15, Linz. 22.6.21 - 30.6.21
The short version of this article also appears on Les Nouveaux Riches
A stuttering, minimal splash of fragmented objects.
Elisabeth Molin paints a multi-media picture of absence that makes you want to know more, drawing fragile cartoon bridges to artworks you encountered long ago with a set of story triggers that have no visible punch line. The charming surface of a deep, inky well.
I wasn’t expecting to get what I got from this exhibition. Partly because the internet text was a bit understated, and partly because the objects were expecting me not to be expecting. Though they soon told me otherwise.
I was expecting a bunch of textual audio fragments, (because that’s what the text told me) which actually I got. But I didn’t start to receive them straight away, because the individual elements of the exhibition were too busy telling me stuff. And that wasn’t even everything.
Just the way I like it. (Almost…)
It started with a big rollered splash of yellow, shouting at me through the front door as I approached the space. Boomph. Molin had applied bright yellow paint with a small roller in a way that left a perfect white edge around the yellow when viewed framed through the doorway. It stopped just where it wanted to, roller strokes visible, as if someone was testing out how that wall would look all yellow. A fragment. A touch. A splash.
As I entered, the next thing to present itself was a pair of neat, polished black shoes. Positioned precisely together, a polite distance from the wall. As if the wearer had placed them there and slipped off for a swim in the yellow. Or as if they were patiently waiting there for something. Except that they weren’t there, just the neat, black shoes. A placer for a person.
Now inside the room, a sweep of the eyes revealed various areas of interest, all of which needed to be investigated in turn: a light bulb, still on, with its black bulb broken (How? - I realise now - is that possible? Where’s the noble gas kept?); a little object placed on the space’s electricity casing, not sure what yet; a series of black images (huh?), a large black monitor with images rolling; sound, playing from not quite sure where, but somewhere other than the monitor, coming from behind the curtains?; a larger, framed image on the far wall.
First I went to have a look at the unclear little object on the white casing. It was a cigarette butt, stubbed out. Except that it was made of glazed clay, meticulously. Another marker for someone missing?
The broken shards of the black light bulb fascinated me for a while – opaque fragments lying scattered around their mysteriously still glowing light. A literal description of all the other pieces, fragmented parts of thing. (On my second visit I remembered to pay attention to the how. The light itself was coming from tiny little tubes of glass.) And then I drew back to the shoes. There was something funny about them…
… something about them wasn’t right.
It was their insides. They were too black. It was as if they were filled with oil.
Indeed, it was that they were filled with oil. Calling up hazy memories of that giant room, 20:50, first filled with oil by Richard Wilson in 1991, hand in hand with Mr Saatchi. A memory marker for the Britart I grew up on in the early ‘noughties’. Of course then there was Sarah Lucas, smoking her cigarettes sitting on the toilet, stubbed out but memorialised. A trace leading toward Ryan Gander, that player of games evoked through the disparate multi-media harmony of the whole, though here each of these pieces less grandiose. It was as if I was standing in a ‘How To of Where the Britartists went Wrong' with their grand gestures. Amid something more, and less coherent.
I found another stubbed out ceramic cigarette stub around the corner, smoked down and frozen. And by it, a pair of smoking white wellies set inside of a niche, framed by another blast of yellow. This one, photoshop-gradiented to black and wallpapered into place. As if the white witch had just been zapped to a digital elsewhere by some mysterious force. The abstract sculptures of Haroon Mirza came to mind here, his mastery of ultrasound and all things arduino packed neatly into her under wall kunst niche. (I later learned that the wallpaper was no photoshop. It was a close up of skin, that somehow went yellow and faded to black when photographed. Molin also likes to photograph, it turns out. See her books)
Lying alone on another ledge, a black leather glove, knuckles bulging, knuckle-duster-like, teased me with its simplicity. If unprompted, I would have looked and nothing more. That would have been my mistake, for I had already learned that nothing was as it seemed. The text would have told me, if I had looked. Physically prompted, I prodded. The whole ‘glove’ was made of metal, dressed up to look like leather. A hard symbol of a soft thing. Daniel Clowes’ Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron springs to mind here, even though the object was aping leather not velvet. A stray reference perhaps, not quite fitting. But then again: Indie stories of isolation, love and confusion loose and lost upon this mad modern world of ours? It might well fit.
We joked that such a glove would be perfect for winning duels before they even started. One slap in the face with THAT and you’d be reaching for painkillers at dawn. Though there’s no-one here to duel with – they’re all off somewhere. And the end of each tale is missing its punch line.
Proving my point, behind this weighty, handy set-up line, the framed photograph hanging isolated on the wall, side and centre, shows a suit jacket hung upon a fold-up chair. Its owner off somewhere too.
And so to the black pictures. Each made so that you can only see the grey text printed upon each one as you stand directly before it – viewed from the side they fade to black. Some clever making trick that I don’t fully understand. Filtered glass, perhaps? The juddering stanzas almost formed a sentence from left to right: last month – since the – could end at – from the day before – over night, but the meaning remained far from lucid. Despite appearing most like an isolated artwork in this room of blurred edges, they fit right in. Their hard edges masking a soft, fluid centre. A never ending ending.
Swimming in this fog I sat down to watch the video. I couldn’t really take it in. A person – a woman?, disappears into the trees in a white hazmat suit. A camera melts, burning. A robotic bug waddles around. Phrases of text rise up and sink away. I remember nothing.
It’s at this point that I know I need to talk to the artist.
I did. I learned more things - when I wasn’t telling things. Elisabeth Molin is inquisitive even when talking about herself, more keen to deflect off and find something out about you than to immediately share everything about her work - a cautious, generous way of thinking things through that tells through in her work.
I learned that the objects often come from stories, tangentially. They might be part of a side character or a bit part. And there are actual stories too, written. She has a book of them. (Correction – books. More later.)
I learned there was a conversation with a gallery invigilator in which he told her about his dream, where he disappeared leaving only his invigilation shoes. I already can’t remember if he melted or was sucked into them, or if it was something else, more oily. Imagine if all that was left of you was shoes! But it was this snippet that set me to wondering more about the rest. Who smoked those cigarettes down and got preserved - which marbleised heroine has a nicotine addiction?
Molin tells me she has an interest in gallery attendants. She has a collection of photos of their chairs, preferring those where there is a bottle of water or a walky talky, some sign of their present absence. It makes sense – they are the ones spending the most time with her artworks, probably. And this stuff needs time. They add their presence to the constant loops. And then they become one of them themselves, melting into their pristine shoes, leaving their jacket on their chair to assist an elderly lady who slipped on a bronze banana. Maybe smashing the light bulb with their foot?
I learned what my text was already telling me (‘smoked down and frozen. And by it, a pair of smoking white wellies’) but that I hadn’t noticed directly: that a smoked out cigarette is the end of the fire, the story is over. But that other things in the exhibition have taken up the smoking. Elisabeth told me this as if she had just learned it too – caught up in the fog of memory and action that making can make if you are brave and focused enough to let it.
From another friend I learned that the glove was cast out of bronze not cleaned after firing, hence – we supposed - its blackness. But I didn’t learn more about the story behind it. She shifted tack and redirected me off. (I did find reference to a glove in one of the books though...)
The white wellies belong or belonged to Molin’s mother. I learned that too.
Then I went back to look again at it all, and think harder about the video, and pick up the books…
The video was easier alone, without an exhibition opening and the lure of people.
First time round, I knew that the objects were giving the video its time, and that the video was giving the objects it back. Creating space to spend time.
Second time round, I went into it:
Somebody’s talking about “...the letterbox effect...”, whatever that is. And going down into the mines. He's Northern, so you know where that places him in history: strikes, ends of eras, a talking residue of industry past.
Then there’s a camera body burning. No lens. It’s the same image as the one on the flyer. The flames seem to come from inside of the camera body and be eating it up. I am reminded of John Smith’s works, you know the ones where he records video of audio cassette tape blowing in the wind whilst playing you the sound on the strip of tape? Except, the camera is IN the image and the lens is missing so the recorder is not burning up - creating the opposite situation to the lamp with the smashed bulb still burning.
The sounds are generally in the blank spaces between the images. Northern voices, middle English ones, the privately schooled. English voices all, saying clever things on the edge of hearing.
I won’t list all the events of the video.
Oh. Yes, I will.
Because then there are blue diagonal lines flashing across the screen, as if the video is showing you itself, from the inside. Inset Mickey Mouse hands pass a ball back and forth, taking me back in time, or showing me the process of thinking. My process, synapses passing bits between.
A code - E0O7, flashes up, again showing me electrical innards. I feel like I am inside the camera with an error. Maybe I read that wrong?
Somebody says “...brighter greener...” (Later I also find a reference to bright greenness at night inside the books. There are trails within trails)
Another, “...do you believe...?” There is an echo in the space that eats up the words, but this swallowing fits.
The poshest voice talks about it being so cold that you can brush the stars. Then there’s a body walking through the woods in low lighting wearing what still looks like a white hazmat suit (I remembered it correctly!) and they’re walking and walking and the trees look normal, but the hazmat suits keeps breaking up at the edges in a way that I didn't notice before. Distorting into fiercer diagonal lines at the edges of the machine’s tolerance. They walk and walking grow brighter at the edges, like a juddering star of the screen, the suit walking away now. I think it must be a trick of the suit's material, illuminated via torchlight to burn out the camera’s tolerance somehow. I am forgetting them already.
A fly washes itself repeatedly, like a cat. It cleans its parts, just like I do in the morning. Kafka bleeding through. Showing me my mechanics. Yours.
A woman observes, “...if somebody says ‘this represents this’ then you are automatically going to think ‘that’...”
There’s a jar of milk and into it pours something black – one has to think oil because of the shoes. And then you have a white layer at the bottom, a black layer on top, and in between, a weird collection of bubbles and froth, a confusion of the two layers. It is like when you are given new input that you don’t know what to do with. It is like entering this exhibition for a second round.
The posh voice again, “...just below the edge of telescope perception...”, describing the trouble with having an instrument that isn’t quite precise enough to see something clearly. Describing the milk meeting the oil. Describing me inside this exhibition. Describing our daily lives, crossed with the mad fact of all of the layers of life piled up on top of each other, pretending to make sense to one another despite their obvious differences.
There’s an image of a projector slide. It is not clear if it is a piece of fruit or a cross section of a body part of some creature or person. It seems so simple. Except I can’t tell what it is.
“...we couldn’t… machinery...”
A venus fly trap presents - you know the ones with the big bulbous hanging sacks? - just for a moment. It’s so much bigger and jucier than any fly, even though it's smaller on the screen. But I don’ think about the fly for a second. I only see that now they are together in this text. I think: fruit and the juice it secretes to catch its prey; to dissolve is to forget.
Then there is an underground tunnel with tracks running down the middle, receding strangely, as if it is stuck in a loop of going away over the same part of the track again and again. It goes on much longer than the fly catcher. Much. Like trying to recall something that you can’t.
I read ‘12 Fach, verlängert’ and then there is the mechanical robot insect, stuttering about.
Then the most memorable text, that I remember catching last time, even as I forgot it as it went into me:
“...the nothingness that is between them gets squeezed.
If you put nothingness in a box, it’s not the same nothingness...”
Which is exactly how I feel right now, tapping in this text, reprocessing the whole thing, at the same time sitting on the gallery step, absorbing from a giant black cathode ray tube in a box, placed on the floor of the exhibition space, surrounded by all of these physical fragments.
Probably the voice is talking about physics. And I am too, but it's Molin's physics. The physics of being, which is way weirder than what science might have you believe.
And then the loop repeats. We go back down the mine. The camera is burning.
So it's not that the video provided resolution. It’s that the video provided a broader frame of reference for the entire process. It IS about perception. The text said it was about perception. But through it all, and especially through the books, it becomes clear to me that Elisabeth Molin is a dedicated fragment miner, tapping away at the edges of perception, of being an artist, of being alive. And she is not getting answers, but she is getting results. There is an interrogation of where different mediums cross and meet here, and there is a technical mastery of modern materials too. But it's not results like that, or like those in a cheesy cartoon cop show that I mean - despite the missing persons.
Rather it's the findings of a detective from a James Sallis novel, discovered by a sensitive person acting as instrument, aware that it is not sensitive enough to get everything. But it is trying. She is. Aware of her own heart beating and her own memory having blanks and repeaters, and yours too. At bb15, Molin has defined multiple, nesting frames - a monitor, inside a play of cartoon objects, inside a box-like gallery space that is all 'about perception'. Here her precise nothings squeeze open portals that bore off into dimensions unknown. Nothing stays inside any of the frames. Things are absent that shouldn't be, and present where they should be not. The edges are constantly being traversed.
Without the video it was already enough. With the video, it's like a meta layer thats lens casts the whole thing inside a much larger realm. i n s i d e i n s a n e i n d u b i t a b l y . Have you ever noticed how the 'in' in these words actually means 'out of' or 'not'? At least, that's how it seemed to me as I tried to process all this.
And do you remember this cocky line I wrote near the top: ‘Just the way I like it. (Almost…)’ ?
After the first viewing, I was frustrated because I felt like I hadn’t been given quite enough information. Like I knew there was more to the story (I had already heard about the ingiilvator by then). But I thought that the amount of more was going to be tangible, graspable, and that then I would know everything.
Having watched the video again, and grazed on the books, I now realise that this was entirely incorrect. I will never know everything about what Elisabeth Molin is doing, because she doesn’t know either. And again, most bravely, she knows that she doesn’t know it.
What started off like quiet fun ended up being loud and ongoing.
Tricks, observations, tops off lids. POP and… wait for it…………………………………. KAPOW!
Deep in writing and thinking this, I lie beneath my bedsheet in the heat and start to notice that the infinitesimal threads that make it up have a life of their own: an entire story, a way of being, reaching back to other people's fingers and machines that I for the most part am able to completely ignore. Molin's way of thinking creeps in and such things become stranger aliens, controlled with precise movements of the brain to show you where the edge doesn't stop. I should never have looked i n s i d e the books...