I am as happy as a prince, at Coxwould and I wish you could see in how princely a manner I live – ‘tis a land of plenty. I sit down to venison, fish and wild fowl, or a couple of fowls or ducks, with curds, and strawberries, and cream… with a clean cloth on my table – and a bottle of wine on my right hand to drink your health. (1)
Laurence Sterne wrote these words in a letter after he had been installed as incumbent of St Michael’s church and had taken up residence (at least for the summer months) at ‘The Parsonage’ – the building that soon became known as Shandy Hall. The house first appears as a drawing on a map dating from 1727 where it can be seen to be one of a row of mediaeval buildings that had been built on the north side of Thirsk Bank, opposite the church. Coxwould (or Coxwold) village was prosperous and Sterne added this third living to the others at Stillington and Sutton-on-the-Forest where he had been vicar since 1738.
His appointment to the living of Coxwold followed the publication of the first two volumes of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Published at Sterne’s expense, the work was rapturously received in London by readers and reviewers – O! rare Tristram Shandy… thou wilt be read and admir’d’ (2) and the relatively unknown Yorkshire preacher rapidly achieved celebrity status. This was largely brought about by an extraordinary portrait by Joshua Reynolds (which can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery) and a lasting friendship with the actor/manager David Garrick.
Parsonage House (as it was known in the eighteenth century) where the new celebrity took up residence was already old. Built in 1430 the original structure was an asymmetric, timber-framed hall with a central hearth and a solar or meeting-room at the west end. Enlarged with cross-gables in the 1600’s to form a relatively large dwelling place, the central hall was divided creating top and bottom chambers. The downstairs room was panelled and remains very much as it was. Sterne found the atmosphere and the mood of the building conducive to writing, so much so that his friends re-named the building ‘Shandy Hall’ and that is where he began to work on Volume III – no longer to be self-published but to be printed by Dodsley of Pall Mall, with a frontispiece by William Hogarth. It is in this third volume that the reader is confronted with Sterne’s genius as he engineers the insertion of a marbled page into the body of the text to express the idea that his work contains that vital element – chance. Once the colours have been chosen, the shapes that are formed on both sides of page 169/170 are unpredictable – as a marbled page must be.
Where is this piece of writing going? Why are we considering marbling?
Anne Vibeke Mou has used the process, the art, the craft of marbling as the starting point for a new work for that panelled room in Shandy Hall. She has gone to the ancient art of Suminagashi marbling, which can be traced back to 12th century Japan. Suminagashi can be translated as ‘ink floating’ and is perhaps the most subtle form of marbling. Delicate swirls of pattern are created by blowing or fanning the ink on the surface of the water and are then ‘fixed’ onto equally delicate Japanese paper. The cloudlike patterns are suggestive and meditative. Mou has created sixteen pieces of suminagashi paper and used them as templates to guide her meticulous engraving of the patterns onto glass using a diamond point. Thousands of tiny impressions on the glass hold chance in suspension. The panels have been leaded by Barley Studio of York and placed and secured between the wooden glazing bars of the window.
The dedication required of the artist for this work is considerable – especially when the finished piece represents a writer, the place where he wrote and the remarkable novel that was written there. Diamond Window is now installed at the heart of Shandy Hall – the room where all the previous inhabitants over the last 250 years will have gazed through that very window to watch the day – to watch the clouds. A moment in the process of marbling captured in stillness; but the ever-changing quality of light through the glass makes it a living work, evoking the transience and passage of time.
Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen: the days and hours of it, more precious, my dear Jenny! than the rubies about thy neck, are flying over our heads like light clouds of a windy day, never to return more ––everything presses on ––whilst thou art twisting that lock, ––see! it grows grey; and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, and every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make–– (3)
“Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me! A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time. If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me! If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift! If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world Like a fine, an exquisite chisel…”(1)
It’s a misty spring morning, hoards of snow drops wave their bowed heads as the car speeds past on our way to Healey in Northumberland where Anne Vibeke Mou and James Hugonin have installed two new windows in St John’s Church.
As Anne drives us through this scene of quintessential English countryside (think Midsomer Murders meets James Herriot) something both inconspicuous and charged with magic occurs. I had asked Anne how long it had taken to create the window and she explains about the month-long process and of using a particular, metal-pointed tool to painstakingly pierce the glass pane with thousands of tiny notches. As she talks, she mimes the action of the delicate, precise tap upon the glass illustrating it with a perfect imitation of the sound “cht.”. All at once that action and that sound, so embedded and perfectly reproduced here upon the air, charge the space with latency, with unrealized substance, invoked by that ‘chipping’ of the transparency between us and the world. To anyone who may have happened to glance into the car at that moment, this seemingly inconsequential action would have belied a much greater significance…
Generally I find churches an intimidating embodiment of organised religion: uninviting, cloistered and incomprehensible. St John’s on the other hand appeared, even from the outset, like none of these things but rather a tenderly idiosyncratic place with its unusually sculpted shrubbery and the vestry tower which appeared almost as though it had been ‘tacked on’ as an after thought. Originally built by Quakers to serve the community, it is still used by the small community as a hub for social gathering, a point for the exchange of ideas and ceremony.
It was interesting to reflect as we entered the church that neither of the artists commissioned to work on the new windows for St John’s believe in a deterministic God. Though quite often their work (and the work of some of the other artists in the Chance Finds Us group) is likened to a kind of Naturalistic Pantheism, there is no religious impetus to their practice. But the processes through which the work is created – which are lengthy, hermetic and rigorous – and the pace they invite the viewer to engage with the work in (meditatively, quietly carried upon the visual flux of an immense and intricate system of marks, with a sense of the time invested in their creation) does bear parallels to a kind of metaphysical endeavour or meditation. But the choice of commission was not dictated by a wholly religious credos but is instead part of a tradition (from early in St. John’s history) of commissioning artists of the time to create work indicative of their time.
The first window we arrive at is Anne Vibeke Mou’s Untitled (Point engraving, 1270 x 365mm). And it is now that the magical precision of her mimed action in the car is re-invoked and crystallized. Before us, suspended between us and the world beyond the arched window, is a vaporous, veil-like cloud comprising thousands of minutiae indentations. The effect in the dull light of this March morning is of such subtlety that the work appears to be hovering on the periphery of being and non-being, between something and nothingness. I’m reminded of the quote, the philosophical maxim “why is there something rather than nothing?” (Leibniz). This something, although it is a fixed entity or a phenomena (fixed by physical and metaphorical means) is an manifestation of something which cannot be depicted. It is a trigger to a metaphysical beyond, rather than a crystallization of reality. The image itself is entirely changeable depending upon the external factors of weather conditions, the play of light, and the state of mind of the person viewing it. Sometimes the work can be liminal, almost not there at all (when the light outside and within the church is balanced), or else a dazzling, numinous entity when it refracts and reflects the sunlight directly. It is a work in a constant state of flux, subject to momentary and chance encounters or changes. In this window there is a process and a material that almost isn’t there ; the tiny chips at the surface of the glass are a way of subtracting to create form, to manipulate the refraction and reflection of light …The dedicated action involved, this method of mark making is essential to the formation or crystalization of a cloud, a weather system, an unrepresentable phenomena.
Jamie Warde-Aldam the current church warden who commissioned the new windows explained the choice of artists because of the way in which their work is something to be discovered, explored and meditated upon (rather than being prescriptive or didactic):
“…James Hugonin and Anne Vibeke Mou, were chosen for a number of reasons, the most important being that the work invites contemplation…a poise, stillness and seriousness that hints at the sublime.”
The durational quality of Mou’s window (both in process of creation and as experienced by the viewer) is mirrored in the encounter with James Hugonin’s window Contrary Rhythm (Glass) (Glass with Lead Border, 1292 x 385 x 17mm). In the morning light, the palette of dancing colours (yellows, ambers, blues, blacks and pinks) was muted and became defined as much by the opacity/ translucence of the juxtaposed rectangular pieces as by their colour relationships. Gazing at the brilliant, fluctuating window (somewhat dumb struck) it seemed somehow impossible to fix it, to see it all at once. The detail and position of the window (both low and close enough for the viewer to step up to) seemed to invite a more intimate inspection, upon which it became apparent that these coloured units – unlike in his paintings – hovered between the lines of the double grid structure. The individual rectangles of coloured glass varied incredibly in colour and opacity; some were flashed, others entirely transparent, some bearing the bubbles of the glass-blowers breath. Again the fine balance between the deliberate, chance and pseudo-chance appeared to be at play; how was this modulating, seemingly random arrangement composed?
Contemplating the selection and tabulation of the pieces within the grid, it occurred to me that perhaps they were (like Anne’s Untitled) an arrested moment of a greater, dynamical system. An incomprehensible system which extended beyond the accessible, beyond visibility itself. Whereas the phenomena in Untitled was fixed and defined by tiny, repeated fractures, in Contrary Rhythm (Glass) the marks, the lexis of the piece is that of pure colour. Just as maths and science rely upon signs, numbers and language to distil, make manifest and circumnavigate the infinite complexities of the universe, in Hugonin’s grid it is the units of colour and tone which barely clothe the infinite. But unlike those previously cited ‘natural sciences’ Contrary Rhythm (Glass) does not attempt to define or explain, but rather to make manifest a glimpse of something ultimately beyond what is representable, to encourage a subjective, changeable contemplation of that beyond.
Science attempts to apply system and order to the potentially infinite complexities of the universe. As does organised religion. Whereas stained glass windows in the past were originally used to provide everyone in the community with religious iconography that could exist without reliance on the written word (and therefore providing access to religion previously available only to the literate middle classes), these windows vault from the outmoded, illustrative forms of the past to offer a new kind of key to those ‘inner’ universes “Immensity is within ourselves…” as Gaston Bachelard wrote in The Poetics of Space. They are not explicit, didactic or resolved, but instead open, evocative and meditative.
In thinking about the permanence of these pieces, that aspect seemed integral to the work. As Anne remarked as we left the church
“…they’ll exist as people are born, christened, get married and are buried… that’s why it’s so important that people don’t completely ‘get’ them… people can live with them for a life time and still be discovering them… they provide the tools but not the answers…”
“When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking on the innocence of trees
and then a grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence
and I was satisfied to think of migrations, of waterfowl in a v-shaped formation
of crossing through this process, but never myself having to leave.
Then the angels looked down and they make us perceive each other.
What was unknown becomes patterned…” (1)
Even on this cold autumnal day, Anne Vibeke Mou’s studio is warm and soaked in a brilliant white light. It is so quiet that – at moments when the conversation wanes – the silence stretches until it is broken by the minute hand of a clock as it reaches its zenith. We are looking down upon a collection of lenses taken from antique glasses. Into these lenses Anne has been delicately and assiduously chipping away tiny perforations with a fine diamond-point bevel. As with some of her previous work – such as her window at St. John’s Church, Healey, Northumberland – Mou is tapping directly into the unique, transparent medium of glass in order to manipulate, or to “draw with”, light:
“..the ability of glass, unlike many other materials, is to let light pass through it unbroken. But as soon as you mark the glass it breaks the light and traps it. So really you can make drawings of light…”
The sublimity of light as a medium is invoked through its immaterial, luminescent and illuminating properties but also metaphorically through its religious and mythical associations (the light of God, the light of Creation, the inner light of Enlightenment etc). But in trapping the transitory impressions of light these miniature antique lenses also suggest the hallucinatory or ghost like quality of visions:
“…they’ve had a life and they’ve had a use which is unknowable to us… it’s almost like a series of invisible photographs, layered inside the glass. You can’t read it but you know it’s there…”
I am reminded of the Gothic tales of ghosts trapped within glass and particularly the passage in Wuthering Heights when the narrator, Mr Lockwood, smashes a bedroom window, inadvertently breaking an invisible divide between the worlds of the interior (domestic and corporeal) and the exterior (wild and unearthly) thus allowing the spirit world to enter the house and narrative of the story. But these antique lenses do not speak of such melodrama, rather they hover at the edge of history; of the unseen past and fleeting present, the fine marks on their surface barely fixing them between existence and intangibility. There’s also a faint echo, on contemplating these Victorian lenses, of the history of glass; from its origins as one of the pinnacles of alchemical endeavour (the creation of a uniquely translucent material that occupies the space between human science and the world beyond); to its application in enabling or enhancing vision and the passage of light through cameras, magnifying glasses, telescopes, windows and film projectors. The sense of the fleeting and the ungraspable – of the past, the shifting light and images – Mou was beginning to explore further in her use of imagery:
“The imagery I’ve started working with, which is far from resolved, is… trying to describe things purely by how they reflect the light. So I’ve tried… the surface of the water, because when the wind moves and the waves change, the way you see the waves is how light is reflected… its very much a starting point and so that’s something that I’m looking at and I don’t know exactly where it’s going to go but I like… that a tiny little object can sometimes hold something which is beyond us, beyond tangibility somehow…”
There is an interesting contrast, I thought, between these new works – which begin with objects already laden with subjective, personal (though unknown) history – and with Mou’s ongoing series of large scale pencil drawings which begin with a facetless, ahistorical, expanse of white paper. These drawings which are always of the same, perfectly square dimensions and rendered with an H pencil – not with a collection, but a single pencil, which is used until it is finished and then replaced – take a number of weeks to “emerge”. The drawings are rendered through a systematic, almost ritualised process where blocks of fine lines are repeated across the entire surface of the drawing. Mou then continues to painstakingly layer these marks. Initially this act of mark making begins in an intuitive, abstract, fragmentary manner, thus building up the density and, conversely, the luminosity of the drawings:
“…it’s again about using a single basic material and pushing that… to conjure things up … and reveal everything it can be… I think it’s quite amazing that you can take a dense, dark material and create a sense of light from it, make it luminous… So you’re almost turning it in on itself, finding its opposites within itself…”
This process of persistently pushing a material – in this instance, graphite – from it’s original “dense” and “dark” state into its inverse (as a shifting luminosity) invites associations with the alchemical endeavour to transform base elements and compounds through esoteric chemical processes into the noble materials of gold or silver. Whilst Mou concedes to the parallels between her methodology and the hermetic practices of alchemists or anchorites, she also warns that this is a dangerous comparison:
“… The hermit practice or the anchorite practice, that tradition of shutting yourself away to gain understanding… and finding a very simplistic routine in order to gain some sort of revelation… can be problematic I think… but there are elements of that in this kind of practice…”
None the less, this dedicated systematic process of repeatedly laying down marks can’t help but resonate to similar ‘sublime pursuits’: from the intricate laying down of gold threads in Opus Anglicanum to the accumulation of repeated gestures in Australian Aboriginal painting and the carved wooden oracles of Voodoo. All of these employ a systematic, ritualized process of fabrication which is not only an act of devotion but also a means for channelling or fixing something of the transcendent “other”:
“Most often they acted as bridges between the living and an ancestral spiritual realm. Their effectiveness in achieving this was invariably enhanced by their compelling visual appeal, for an artifact’s aesthetic merits were seen as a measure of its potency and the diviner’s professional standing.”(2)
The systematic in Mou’s work (and in the work of some of the other Chance Finds Us artists) might be interpreted as a means of ordering reality itself:
“… I think what I’m particularly interested in is how we construct these systems to deal with the wholeness around us that we don’t otherwise know how to deal with… because I’m not religious, remotely, but I think it’s interesting that whether you’re religious, whether you’re not religious, that you always need to systematise – whether it’s a routine or something else – your approach to the world… Otherwise you sort of… float…”
By translating the beyond or the unknown into a set of symbols or gestures (just as mathematics did with numbers or religion did through embodiment and doctrine) one can negotiate or interpret the impossible “wholeness around us”. Ritual itself is a performative means of positioning oneself in relation to a system and as a means to express, or to point towards that which is beyond the system or the operations of language:
“Ritual is the symbolic use of bodily movement and gesture in a social situation to express and articulate meaning.” (3)
This sense of divining or conjuring forms into being is apparent not only in the private process Mou undertakes in her work but also through the finished drawings themselves. These delicate, nebulous works seem to hover in a state of imminence – on the edge of being and formlessness. Though supremely subtle, as you gaze into one of these drawings you find yourself invisibly drawn into a contemplative perceptual space. Just as when you stand on a mountain top and the rain clouds form around you, the drawings seem to vacillate between whole, emerging forms and atomised accumulations of hundreds of thousands of tiny marks (in the clouds, water droplets). Perhaps it is the rhythm of these barely perceptible pencil marks which slow the pace of looking, drawing us in to the slowed pace and the mythical time of making.
Mou talked about the development of these drawings in terms of inviting something of the ‘real’ world ‘to arrive’ from the abstract, formless action of mark making:
“…then there comes that point where you become aware there’s an image emerging and you start to work on that image. This image seems to hover between being a fully abstract process and a landscape, which is of the world…”
But what are these images between process and landscape? In works such as Untitled (2007) the form, which manifests is faintly reminiscent of ice or rock clefts viewed from above or of towering, billowing volcanic ash. Perhaps this work is a drawing of a process, both the microcosmic process of the drawings creation and also the macrocosmic operations of nature or of any deterministic, chaotic system? But as I consider the work, none of these comparisons seem fully satisfactory. The drawing slides too much; it is too indefinite and too composed of its own particular, mediated system of marks to be a thing entirely of the exoteric universe (a landscape or a cloud formation). It reminds me, in this way, of cartography or information imaging – it is not the corporeal/visual thing that we are looking at and trying to identify which is the subject but something other and beyond its language of marks, surface qualities and ambiguous, autonomous forms. In Mou’s work the chasing, tracing or mapping of the invisible – be it time, the Tao, the sublime – suggests the impossibility of incorporating that which is ‘beyond’ into the signs, actions or metaphors of this world.
“…the thing is it [the drawing process] is infinite because there’s never going to be a finite path, there’s never going to be a finite shape, there’s never going to be a finite… presence. So it’s something that you do in order to… I don’t know… make sense of time?” Anne Vibeke Mou (2011)
Anne Vibeke Mou has suspended a cloud on glass. By means of carefully calibrated blows of a metal point, she has punched hundreds and thousands of minute marks into its hard surface and, with the others that she generated over her months of work, these combine to form a roiling mass moving across the window set into the wall of St John’s Church, Healey. Each tiny opaque star made by the shock of the blow is analogous to the drops of water vapour, which, with millions of others, constitute the clouds that move and recombine in the skies above us.
In the glass, however, the movement is frozen. Instead of a cloud transforming itself through the constant shift of droplets of water in relation to each other, here changes in density and form are determined by where the viewer stands and the angle and intensity of light to the minute opacities in the glass. Sometimes the cloud will become fugitive and imperceptible, other times the window will be filled by its unfolding waves. There will be moments when it will almost disappear – perhaps when the interior chamber has been made dark by bright sunlight – other times when it will seem entirely present: maybe when it is night outside and the viewer is looking up from the brightness within. Each change will be shaped by the relationship of the viewer to the glass, the angle of the glass to the sun, by the shift of the ecliptic and the movement of the planet through the heavens.
Mou’s project is informed by minimalism, an aesthetic based upon reduction and the exploration of the nature of materials. The matter and manner of an artwork’s construction becomes, in many ways, the content of that work. Here, for instance, Mou is using no coloured glass, no insets, no cast details. Her range of effect is determined by what happens to the surface of the specially made glass slab under the pressure of a point . From this simple, direct, genesis she has created an image of extraordinary complexity. Similar approaches have informed previous work. She has shown old panes of glass abstracted from their usual context – the window-frames of old buildings – and put them on display in the pristine white space of the art gallery. So we had to interrogate each wave and bump, imagine what events might have unfolded on either side of the plane: the glass became a crystalisation of time and its processes. Another significant strand in her work has been the development of large drawings, using pencil on paper, where the constant repetition of a small mark has built up the graphite into grey clouds and masses, which might be sublime images of distant star dust or mysterious close ups of matter made gigantic through microscopes. Freezing the transitory processes of change, her work here unites these two lines of investigation into a single work.
The approaches of minimalism not only make the viewer sensitive to the subtleties of the object in front of them, they heighten awareness of the space that contains the work, how interactions between the work, the volumes that surround it and the viewer shape our understanding. This happens in the white anodyne modernist cube of an art gallery but when the context for a work is the chamber of a church, implication and association multiply exponentially. Although these approaches are rooted in the material, there is a profound engagement with the idea of essence, so an immaterial realm is conjured into being: a Platonic realm, where the pure unsullied form exists – the Platonic Ideal – rather than the imperfect one that we experience on this physical plane. The work embodies and echoes the functions of the spaces that contain it.
Glass itself moves between the material and the immaterial – it is solid yet nearly not there – and between physical and metaphysical realms. It transforms objects and space: it makes the small seem massive (but give it another shape and this shift is reversed). It changes time: the light from stars in the night sky seen through the lens of a telescope is ancient light, which might have been travelling for billions of years, before arriving here on earth. The stronger the lens, the further away is the past that is pulled into our present. Glass contains time in other ways. In our day-to-day lives we consider the material as fixed and immutable – unless, of course, it is stressed and shatters into fragments and shards – but as every schoolchild learns, this unyielding surface is just a slow liquid, which is inexorably flowing and changing. The opaque points made by the artist in the window here will not shift much in relationship to each other over our lifetime or the lifetimes of generations. But over other vaster measures of time they are as much in motion as the molecules of water vapour that make up the white cumulus and thunderhead.
Marcel Duchamp used glass as a material to slow down time to map the peculiar operations of the Bride and her Batchelor machines in ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors Even’ – also known as the Large Glass – a vast and complex schematic made between 1915 and 1923. The world he was describing took place, he said, in an unfolding multi-dimensional universe, so the glass screens which hold the static image were operating as ‘a delay’ in glass. They held a particular moment abstracted from the multitude of moments that constitutes the life of an act or event that stretched out invisibly on either side of the panes. Almost like a section cut from a plant stem mounted on a microscope slide, but miraculously with no apparent damage.
There was a similar fascination in medieval times as to how glass bridged or mediated dimensions. It was considered mysterious and meaningful that a beam of light from the sun would pass through a pane of glass and shine brightly on the floor, without either the beam being interrupted or the glass broken or changed. This generated a body of optical symbolism and iconography to do with the Virgin and the Incarnation. Glass vessels were often used in painting to symbolize the essential purity of Mary and we are familiar with Renaissance paintings of a throne room – the standard setting for virgin and child paintings – with light coming in through the window. The beam of light signifies the ‘light of the world’, and its passage through the window pane a metaphor for the conception of Christ. As the 15th century hymn ‘Dies est laetitae’ stated ‘ As the sunbeam through the glass passeth but nor staineth, thus the Virgin she was, Virgin still remaineth’.
In this context, the marks that cloud the window’s surface take on a new layer of resonances too. If the pencil drawings touched on ideas of the sublime, here we are inevitably moved towards the numinous. We are reminded of the close and necessary relationship between images of the sublime and representations of the Divine. The Gods often live behind clouds, either on mountaintops or in the empyrean realm. They manifest through clouds – be this Zeus the thunder god, or Jehovah leading Israel out of Egypt in a ‘pillar of a cloud’. He speaks to Moses on Mount Sinai through a cloud and in the Book of Revelation where ‘He cometh with clouds’. There are Clouds of Glory, Clouds of Witnesses, even Clouds of Unknowing.
Anne Vibeke Mou’s window, commissioned for the Church of St John’s, Healey does not illustrate or narrate any of these allusions or stories. Indeed, the work is nearly Puritan in its modesty and its refusal of representation (and its abstraction and restraint serve to echo specific developments to how religious iconography has been imagined in this country). The cloud is not a representation of a cloud; it is a cloud, made of marks on a weighty pane of glass set into the wall of a place that – as Philip Larkin wrote – ‘is a serious place on the serious earth’. The beauty of the work – both physically and metaphorically – is how it illuminates this. It seems to voice and express profound narratives and ideas, which also are contained in this ‘serious place’, about the ways that we variously seek to understand the world and the realms that contain our world. It does this, and, at the same time, remains resolutely of itself.
‘I called “The Bride” a delay in glass (…) as if it were the projection of a four-dimensional object’ said Marcel Duchamp in a conversation about his vast multi-layered work The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915–23).(1) He meant by this that the images of the Bride and her machineries of desire and thwarted consummation that hang suspended in the transparent plane of the free-standing glass were to be seen as a two dimensional registration – a trace or trapping – of time: the fourth dimension. A ‘delay’ is a slowing down, a pausing, a moment from the multitude moments that constitute the life of an act or event. The Large Glass offers us a singular image from a baroque, onanistic narrative that stretches forwards and backwards in time; it is as if it is a screen or slide cutting across, presenting us with a synchronic section that is frozen and held.
Anne Vibeke Mou’s work builds on the idea of the ‘delay’ and expands from this into a compelling exploration of how materials may effect a momentary suspension in the dialectics of change and entropy and fix, for a time, process and narrative. The word ‘delay’ also serves to remind us that the glass that used to contain Duchamp’s images was itself only seemingly static. Were we able to see the wider chronology of glass speeded up, we would realise that its hard reflective surface is itself a moment grabbed, retarded and delayed from the material’s essentially liquid state.
In Relic a pane of old window glass has been re-contexturalised: it has been removed from the building that framed it, extracted from the line that delineated the inside and outside (the line that it itself defined). Here, now, reframed, we have the screen itself, rather than the ‘projected shadows’ of narrative, but this focus only serves to draw the absent narratives inexorably to the minds eye. The framed glass conjures up the procession of events and actions that the glass framed in the past, the light that radiated from a universe of stories and images – that we can no longer know – has passed through it. Relic has community with other iconic transformations, other projections of ‘four dimensional event(s)’. Renaissance paintings of the Immaculate Conception often showed a beam of sunlight passing through a window pane to shine onto the Virgin inside a room. The light passing through the solid glass without breaking or piercing it was seen as analogous for the word of God entering the body of the Virgin.
The ghost story ‘A View from a Hill’ by M.R. James features a pair of binoculars that included in their making matter taken from a nearby ancient grave. When the local landscape is seen through the lens, it is seen as it was in the past (‘as if through a dead man’s eyes’). Relic suggests we extend such uncanny physics to consider that the past may be contained in glass: that the past events that travelled as electrons through the membrane in front of us (a membrane that not only separates the inside from the outside but the past from the present) may have left some trace, or been trapped in the medium, as if in a cloud-chamber. Has the glass been transmuted, changed, by the energy of past events?
The trapping of a moment of change and flux shape Anne Vibeke Mou’s series of untitled drawings. Here a inchoate cloud is both generated and defined: the pictures imply that what we see is about to shift, that we are seeing the image of a great transformation, a boiling and broiling of diffuse matter. At the same time the physical nature of the graphite used to make these images claims that it is fixed, slowed, in the same way that atomic and sub-atomic events only become determined and defined by the act of observation and recording.
In The Glass Wall, the sheets of glass have become so imprinted and effected by the past, by events, by the clouds of particles that have battered the surface, attempted to pass through, that the material is transmuting. It has started to reverse, to mirror its nature: rather than the glass sheets being transparent they are becoming misted, opaque. They are registrations which now stand, almost mutely, in the present. By refusing our gaze through them they seem to deny the future: we can no longer see what lies ahead. They become silent, their surface deadened and they hover between the syntax of light and the syntax of the lack of light. The large slumped depression in one of the sheets speaks both of impact and extraction. It too, flickers between the past and present. On one hand it is as if some large form or force in the past has tried to pass through but been refused, rejected. Conversely it seems to talk of some future change, a giving way, a slump only momentarily delayed; The Glass Wall rests in a suspension between these states. That the depression is a similar scale to the human body makes the relationship of the wall to us corporeal and it is transformed into something that perhaps has held the animate and which might again contain the animate: a barrier that we might press against and may close behind us as we pass through it. The shadowy volume recalls Le Corbusier’s modernist abstractions of Vetruvian man and the cool green surfaces are those of the glass panels that define the functional abstract spaces of the modern office, house or clinic. Mou’s wall, however, not only offers the possibility of containing and articulating an infinity of spaces, but of transporting us to unknowable places from where we may not return.