All images: Haris Epaminonda, Installation view at Tate Modern, Tate Photography © Haris EpaminondaBy Laura McLean-Ferris
The tingle of cold frosty bells rings around a pristine white space, partitioned into discrete areas. A low wind instrument, perhaps a wooden flute, plays a single note, appearing to signal to that something is about to happen. We are in a museum of sorts. Everything signals this. There are small vases, statues and pots. There are tall plinths for them to sit gracefully on. There are subtle pieces of museum architecture – a metal barrier here, a piece of string there, to keep you from getting too close to certain object displays. It’s the images on the walls, however, which cause interference in the way we approach these artefacts, so delicately choreographed. These framed images, often in pairs, appear to be taken from anthropology journals such as National Geographic.
The quality of the colour prints, ink sitting up on matte paper, bright yet calm, suggests that they are from from the 1960s and 70s. The name of Haris Epaminonda’s exhibition at Tate Modern’s Level 2 gallery, Volume VI,
a complete installation (2010), suggests that we should somehow be reading the exhibition as a book. Or does it, indeed, refer to the other meaning of volume - the measurement of space?
It’s difficult to work out what is so unsettling, yet seductive about the work of Haris Epaminonda, like a cold chill on the back of the neck. Such terms are bandied about frequently with reference to all kinds of art, though, so I will attempt to give you something better than that. Firstly, some of the images Epimanonda uses for her ‘non-collage-collages’ (by which I mean using found images and putting with together with other images, though keeping them apart in separate frames, so they never touch) promote the desire to own them. And by this I don’t mean buy the pictures, I mean own the images, which is something different and impossible to achieve. It’s the totemic, talismanic power in images that is the thing that iconoclasts fear. This is a high level seduction stemming, perhaps, from the fact that the photographs are very silent, almost blankly abstract images, and that they never give themselves fully away. Women with their back to the camera are a regular feature in Epimononda’s work, and there is one here - the back of a woman’s head, her hair lacquered and gleaming in an elaborate piled-up style, of some non-specific Oriental tradition. She has elaborate hair decorations – a large white object glances diagonally across her hair like a modernist museum staircase surrounded by gold and red feathery decorations. Next to this image is one of a gushing waterfall, one of several in the exhibition. A rainbow glances across the scene at the same angle as the woman’s white hair decoration. Her hair and her silk dress begin to look a little like water. If this were a John Stezaker, these images would be overlayed – would have a conversation with one another – but they remain resolutely uncommunicative in their separate spheres.
In another pair of framed images around the corner, two monochrome photographs, again journal or magazine pages, we see a woman picking a flower from a blossoming tree in the left frame. In the right one, a woman sits in a floral dress in a chair, in a bare empty room, looking, herself, like a plucked flower in a vase or a museum object. They are out of time with one another, and we with them. In later images we see images of water carved from stone. Everything is dry, plucked. We see images of dead, forgotten cities. We now notice for the first time that all the vessels and vases around us are dry and empty of water or flowers, and are now just vessels for space. They are now themselves held in vessels, the supporting architectural spaces that surround them.
Around the corner, in the only film work, a zebra stands alone like a marvellous circus animal. It doesn’t do anything. Like Epaminonda’s images, the zebra is totally uncommunicative. It has not been made to perform a function within the work. The colour in the projection seems to leech from warm to cold. Too late, we realise that the thing that we wanted to own was deathly. The flowers, women, water and colour dry up when owned and kept. But the spaces, the calm, pale museum spaces, for putting things in, for stilling pockets of time, oh, they are beautiful indeed.
Volume IV is on view at Tate Modern, Level 2 Gallery until 30 August 2010