When first encountering Clare Strand’s photographic studies at Grimaldi Gavin one is baffled by their apparent simplicity.
There appears to be no tangible visual information, or not enough to hold the gaze for long. In many instances they appear impassive, a dead weight to the eye. If one were to describe them in words alone, they would sound like nothing at all.
But Clare Strand is not like other photographers, and there is one thing that marks her out as one of the UK’s most exciting practitioners in photography today – she is an illusionist. Strand takes familiar aspects of the medium we all know and understand, and transforms them through sleight of hand and psychological ploy to create something so subtly beautiful and intelligent it seems to defy logic. With a sharp wit she makes us confidently think one way, all the while something else is happening, something deeper, and this is the trick.
Despite the science and mechanism of the camera barely changing since its invention, photography is not a static medium. Our relationship to photography and the camera has changed: how we use cameras and how we interact with photographs either through advertising, social exchange or artistic endeavour has evolved many times over. All the academic papers and discussions on the medium’s mortality would have us believe there is nothing left to say; that the same old arguments will forever be repeated and we are resigned to staring into the mirror of the medium and delight in the blank expression is throws back.
In an age when we seem to know all there is to know about image construction and process, about aesthetic and meaning, it is all the more important that artists like Strand continue to make us question that assuredness and undermine those values. It is crucial that exhibitions like Getting Better and Worse at the Same Time are staged, to breathe new wonder back into what has generally become a stultifying practice book-ended by Millennial mediocrity and its obsession with idealised beauty, or gratuitous reporting of a cynical world.
Through her sculptural photographic works, Strand reminds us that the history of photography and its seemingly insignificant traits remain valuable, that we should keep the faith. This notion is best described in her eccentric device The Entropy Pendulum, which mechanically swings an abrasive symmetrical weight across the surface of reprinted archival imagery collected by the artist. It is noisy, violent, and it is a satisfying display of a paradoxical disposition we now find ourselves in as photographers and consumers of photography. We obsess with the archive and the unique “art object” in an age of infinite reproduction and non-physicality. We salivate over authenticity and the technology that isolates and erases it.
Once The Entropy Pendulum has sufficiently altered each print beneath its scraping arm, the transformed pictures are rehoused in individual frames mounted on the gallery wall. This act reoccurs during the run of the exhibition itself, giving the artworks a temporal lifespan outside of their inherent components. The resulting panel of 35 framed images titled Output Entropy then completes a transmuting process that never actually had a defined beginning. For this trick to work convincingly, Strand couldn’t have selected each of the original archival images over the years with this exhibition in mind. A good illusion requires an equal ratio of chaos to order, but most of all it requires the illusionist to be utterly confident in their performance. The best way to display confidence is to be sparing with information, and generous with concealment.
Again, with Control in Motion, a motorised mutoscope with 100 graded photographic panels flipping loudly in a continuous cycle; and The Happenstance Generator, a transparent dome filled with countless miniature cut-out fragments of research material from the past 30 years repeatedly blown about inside by a motorised fan, we are presented with material that is changed through a simple act of motion. What start out as one thing become something else right before our eyes, albeit not necessarily immediately; while we are fixed on the activity, the process of change is occurring, or, while the process of change is evident as with the hand punched holes in the Gelatin prints that constitute Retouch, we seek desperately to decipher the obscured motive. Was there once a face there, and the holes were punched out to a system, only for the paper to darken leaving no trace? Is this Strand’s disappearing act?
In Rubbings, the artist lays bare her technique yet still there remains mystery, as though it is a red herring in the show. We see the large prints sculpturally rendered through nature’s destructive mannerisms, next to an image displaying same subject and exactly where the activity happened. They are reminiscent of crime scene photography, or those images of the girls jumping in the Enfield Poltergeist haunting – as evidence alone can they be trusted?
The source material that Strand uses with The Entropy Pendulum and Output Entropy are significant: documented moments of scientific and pseudo-scientific experimentation and performance. Combining such imagery we are being deliberately mislead and forced to question just what it is we can believe. Vision alone is not enough, but then the physical world is capable of things we still do not fully appreciate too. It is because we are trapped between our knowledge and our willingness to believe in more that we create illusions, that we create art. It is here in this in-between world that Strand catches us unawares, and for a moment of time gives us respite from the definitive.
When Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno made the film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, they included the football legend commenting on the curious nature of his sport, in particular when synchronicity emerges from disorder on the field and results in a goal: “Magic,” begins Zidane, “sometimes is very close to nothing at all.” It would seem Clare Strand is of the same mind as the prodigious midfielder in this respect, that sometimes we need only a little suggestion to create a great idea, and for that things are indeed better.