Untitled #12, from the series “Ill Form & Void Full”, 2011
Have a close analytical look at the photograph above by Canadian photographer Laura Letinsky. You can see a larger version at http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/ill-form-and-void-full There is something immediately uncanny in this photograph and in much of Letinsky’s work. Firstly, notice the planes that make up the background and the area on the lower left of the picture. These ‘surfaces’, on which there are objects, shadows and cut-out pictures of objects, create an odd sense of space which you can only partly identify as a table scene, a meal. There appears to be a slanted table top seen from the side in the middle of the area on the left, but this surface is uncertain, reflecting some of the objects and not others. The objects themselves are simple, everyday items: two spoons, some fruit and cherry pips. But the shadows and perspective of these objects is inconsistent. This plays with our sense of dimensionality, the way we as viewers orient our viewpoint on the scene depicted. Some of these objects appear to be ‘real’ in the sense that Letinsky has placed and photographed them herself, whereas others have been cut out of magazines. Notice that these cut-out objects had been photographed from different viewpoints (and in a different time and space), which Letinsky has tried to incorporate into the perspective of her own ‘still life’ scene. The spoon on the far left appears to rest on the surface and take part in the scene and the other spoon appears to hover above the surface and has no shadow. How many things in your own life are real in the sense that they are in front of you physically? And how much of what you experience and know comes through representations? Do you play sport, spectate or watch it on television? In her previous work, Letinsky used left-over meals, plates and cutlery to indicate a scene, event or relationship going on beyond the view of the photograph, turning viewers into detectives looking for clues and connotations. Meticulously placed dishes express the thoughts and emotions of the ‘character’ who placed them. In this work, she extends this by looking at the ways people incorporate representations and collective fantasies into their ‘reality’. Have a look at Laura Letinsky’s website lauraletinsky.com. Also look at the still life work Bungled Memories by David Bate at http://www.davidbate.net. For a seventeenth-century comparison with Letinsky’s work, you can look at the paintings of Pieter Claesz here: http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/ SK-A-4646/still-life
Write about the following issues in response to Letinsky’s photograph.
1. Visual description (objects & background/space)
3. Sense of space or ‘dimensionality’
- Visual description (objects & background/space)
The composition consists of a large white background or negative space. One part of the background is the white wall, which covers two-thirds of the frame. The positive space has some paper cutouts of fruits, objects like spoons, plates and is a mix of paper cut-outs and actual objects. I tried to zoom in and see – it’s difficult to actually comprehend very clearly as to what is a real object and what is a cutout. I think the tomatoes are real while the rest appear to be paper cut-outs, again am not too sure. The twigs of the cherries seem to be real whereas the cherries itself appears to be a paper cut out.
The background is not a pure white as the natural light falling on the left of the frame tends to make it brighter and whiter compared to the shadow part of the right of the frame, therefore, appears grey. The middle lower left of the composition is more of a milky white with another reflective silver paper that is folded to give it some angular structure at one end.
The composition seems to be divided into four parts, where the three parts consist of the background and one part which leads to the arrangement of the products that form the positive space. The natural light is falling onto this frame in such a way that it gives the viewer a sense of division within the frame itself. The arrangement of objects which is crooked and slanting does make it look like everything is going to slip off the table any moment or that this was captured moments before everything slid off.
The composition as a whole appears to be of a scene that consists of an aftermath, like leftovers, or what was remaining of the food products in their half-eaten or discarded state. The arrangement itself seems to appear edgy and precarious. The strong lines that contrast between the various hues of whites tend to form leading lines which takes the eye to the arrangement. The sole bright color of the tomatoes add to the emphasis point of the composition and despite the vastness of the white space, the eye immediately moves to the focus or the center of the arrangement.
3. Sense of space or ‘dimensionality’
The sense of space tends to become skewed here with the various white hues in the composition and the fact that the different backgrounds are merging into each other without a definitive visual as to what it really is. It seems that the off-white block just below the arrangement is a white sun board sheet or a table whose side or bottom one can’t see, further adding to the confusion whether it’s a 3D block or just a sheet. If it’s just a sheet then what is the reflective piece of material on top of it holding on to for support? All these questions make me think that perhaps all these objects are indeed only paper/magazine cutouts that’s why they are so easily stuck on to the paper without adding any weight on the 2D sheets. The cutouts do appear 3D simply because they are photographs which will form a shadow despite them being 2D. Though the cherry top twigs appear to be real. The frame definitely makes you ask a lot of questions – none of them though will provide any clarity and perhaps will cause more confusion.
The composition itself though is minimalistic and has a very defined positive and negative space. The entire image becomes surreal in the sense that sense of direction or gravity tends to become hazy. The viewer is compelled to understand the complexities of a seemingly simple canvas yet is baffled by the myriad interpretations. The elements tend to merge between 2D and 3D objects. It becomes hard to decipher which one is an actual object and which one a magazine cutting. The paper cut out causes a shadow which confuses the viewer to wonder if it is an actual object.
One spoon seems to be hanging in midair – some of the objects are casting shadows so they appear 3d while my guess is they aren’t – they are just magazine cut outs. The positioning of the objects adds to the already crooked sense of dimensionality.
The first thing I notice about the photograph is that I need to look at it again and again and then again and then perhaps look at it yet again on another day to understand and get over the initial confusion that the image generates within you.
The title – “Ill form and void full” kind of makes me feel that the huge negative space within the image is representative of a void or empty space and the small objects, a mix of paper cuttings and 3d forms, not meant by the artist to be particularly pleasing or visually attractive at the first glance, are referred to as “Ill forms”. It is not a happy setting and represents a leftover kind of state – a used and discarded state of things. Something that is representative of an aftermath of say a meal – a disheveled state of being. I don’t know for sure what the artist wants to represent by this image but to me, it appears that it hints at life itself – the idea of mortality and the fact that everything real or living has to end or disappear into the void. Or does it reflect on the point that in the largeness of space or the bigger picture everything shrivels and dies? It definitely appears to establish a strong relationship between the negative and positive space or between the composition and the background set up.
Looking at her entire series of work, I also wonder if it represents the fact that whereas a pictorial representation of an object actually freezes it in time even though the real fruit, say, for instance, might decay and rot. Would it then be a great example of juxtaposition? Does the artist want to convey life and death on the same platform by keeping fresh and decaying food articles on the same canvas? Or to represent the cycle of life? It could be a journey of a living thing from its birth to its ripe age and then when its usefulness is over, then the decay and rot that follows it before it shrivels up and dies.
Is the artist trying to portray the transient nature of living things and how recording them has given a sort of quality of timelessness to it?
At best, her work seems to be ambiguous, complex, confusing, unsettling and forces the viewer to think and draw diverse interpretations from it. Her earlier work was easier to comprehend but this series is a combination of diverse approaches making it a little more than simple to understand. Its precariousness reminds me of Fischli and Weiss’s work. A balance which can go off any minute or the balance that was captured moments before it all fell apart. Despite being still life, her images capture a sense of movement, with the play of shadows and planes and the tipped off balances.
The importance of life in every state of its being – from being born to dying, to disintegrate and eventually decompose is a fascinating process and a combination of various of these time periods is what comes across in her works. To me what is most interesting is her way of bringing out a beautiful image of what is seemingly finished or done with. Our obsession with recording things – beautiful moments, memories, etc. – hers is what remains – what is the aftermath – what is left over.
To go off on a different tangent altogether, her work has also made me aware of fifty variants of white just like there are so many shades of black. It compels me to think and wonder if there is actually a pure color. Her use of different surfaces and textures in different hues of white makes one question the entire existence of the color or non-color. What is a pure white? Is it our perception or just our interpretation that make or translates a creation into the realm of our own understanding?
Having written this already, I happened to chance upon an interview with the artist, who says that her work helps her establish a relationship between the photograph and the various emotions that a viewer might experience/undergo upon looking at that picture. In her own words – “It’s not always possible to articulate what’s about right in an image – she often pushes a composition till she feels it’s the right balance of precariousness and sometimes it’s just an intuition of what feels right and it’s not always expressible in words. And how photography is a medium that changes how we perceive the world. I began to think about the idea of leftovers. It became important for me on a number of levels, because it has to do with what you do after the promise when you realize the promise is not possible. This is fundamental to any utopian notion–the promise and its demise. You can’t have utopia without its loss.” The photograph shows something that can no longer ever exist; the picture is a construction of something that only exists for the moment of the picture. In that sense, the photograph embodies the possibilities of both mourning and melancholia. On the one hand, it’s the substitute that allows you to let go.”
David Bate’s photographs are images of broken crockery photographed on his kitchen table and are symbolic of building something new and afresh from what has been discarded. Again, the demise or destruction of something means the rebirth of something new – a similar theme to that of Letinsky.
The paintings of Pieter Claesz use skulls in a lot of them – perhaps trying to portray mortality of humans in comparison to things like food, fruits. One can see the inspiration clearly though in the case of Pieter Clasez it is more of a realistic interpretation of a setting whereas Letinsky gives the viewer a more abstract and complex view of the message that she wants to convey. Whereas Clasesz’s work might look visually more appealing, with the use of rich colors before his move to a monotone color palette, Letinsky’s work seems a lot more minimalistic in its approach. The use of light that was extremely crucial to Claesz does appear to be a common factor with both the artists.
What remains common among the artists in the review is the fact that all of them have attempted a recreation of a scene or setting reminiscent of something that was or something that has passed.