Magazine article Art Monthly

The Shadow: Compton Verney Warwickshire June 30 to September 9

Magazine article Art Monthly

The Shadow: Compton Verney Warwickshire June 30 to September 9

Article excerpt

In Anri Sala's Ghostgames, 2002, two girls play a game on a beach in North Carolina. Using torches, they chase so-called ghost crabs that only come out of the sea after dark; most often the crabs run away but occasionally they become transfixed by the light. Sala's video is included in the group show 'The Shadow', currently at Compton Verney. The exhibition is curated by Lea Vergine, whom most will associate with her writings on body art in the early 70s. Upon entering the projection space of Sala's video, one is met by a guard who kindly shines a torchlight in front of visitors in the darkened room. Presumably, the point is to reduce the risk of the collision of bodies in the space and not a playful echoing of the condition of the animals within the work. Yet, it is tempting to read it as an emblem of how this entire show, which brings together pre-existing works under the theme of the shadow, transfixes somehow both the viewer and the work.

An important precedent for the exhibition is Ernst Gombrich's 'Shadows: The Deception of Cast Shadows in Western Art' at The National Gallery, London in 1995, but where Gombrich's interests were mainly art historical and related to painting, Vergine has moved these concerns into the realm of contemporary art practice where the motif of the shadow lends itself easily to lens-based art. Among the works included is Francesca Woodman's Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976. The photograph portrays the artist's naked, childlike body sitting on a chair with the imprint of her figure stamped on the floor, a ghostly presence strangely detached from its referent. In the framework of the exhibition--with all its paraphernalia, from catalogue to visitor's pamphlet to press release--Woodman's work is made to illustrate the 'psychological and symbolic meaning attached to the shadow'. Focusing on the symbolic dimension of these photographs is important, but only to the extent that this does not 'overshadow' the part of the work that deals with presence and absence as allegories of the photographic process. This psychoanalytic framing becomes equally problematic with regard to the other works included here when symbolic interpretation is used to override material circumstances.

It is difficult to determine the type of knowledge production that comes out of this kind of curatorial pursuit. At best, this activity suggests alternative connections between works across time and genre by piercing through existing narratives. At worst, it insists on the reducibility of a diverse range of practices to a specific reading dictated by an overarching title.

In her influential essay 'The Body as Language' from 1974, Vergine notes that a certain narcissistic streak characterises the art of the decade, and that, by definition, narcissism involves a performative, outward projection of the self. It is this relation between the self and its reflection which constitutes a possible connection between Vergine's early and recent practice. In the present catalogue essay she notes that music 'finds an equivalent [of the shadow] in the echo', thereby shifting her focus from the figure of Narcissus, obsessed with his own image, to Echo, punished for her desire for him, her voice doomed to wander forever like a shadow detached from its source. The rehabilitation of Greek mythology by psychoanalysis constitutes an important legacy but carries some problems with it when reappropriated in the context of this exhibition, also when only invoked indirectly. …

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