Thursday, 27 March 2008

Darren Almond, Fire Under Snow, Parasol Unit

Two pieces at Darren Almond’s new show transfixed my philistine mind: ‘Tide’ and ‘Bearing.’ You encounter the first as soon as you walk into the Parasol Unit. A completely bare room greets you with large white walls, in a gallery? No way. Taking up one of the vast walls is a sea of clocks. Not the friendly clocks with hands but those evil ones that clack. They’re not intrinsically evil but fill me with the horror of being forcibly pulled from a pleasant dream or the soul-destroying nature of working at some large corporation as a temp.

This ‘Tide’ of clocks sound off every minute with a near deafening ‘clack.’ 600 clocks clacking in unison is one of the more disturbing noises you’re likely to hear off Hoxditch. Almond has succeeded in managing to isolate abstract time but whether it was his idea to put the receptionist in the same room facing this ‘sculpture to inevitability,’ is uncertain. Probably a sadistic curator was involved.

‘Bearing’ takes naming to a new level. You sit in a dark room with only the glare of a large protection illuminating the inquisitive faces of the public. You watch as a worker in an Indonesian sulphur mine makes his way up, what seems like a never-ending mountain, with only a rag to cover his mouth from the toxic air. It’s as real as recorded reality can get.

His climb and the shot are relentless. A camera is constantly fixed to the worker’s face. You hear the strain of his breathing, the creaking of the bamboo carrier, loaded with large sulphur rocks. Its easily one of the most intense things I’ve seen in a recorded format. I’d not noticed how much an effect watching commercial films, TV, ads etc makes on a subconscious expectation for fast cuts, commentary, feedback, something.

You could see the viewers’ distress when they realised it was going to remain one unflinching shot. Every once in a while the worker stops and lays his load down and peeks into the distant height of his destination but as viewers you have no idea of the true distance left. The film lasts 30 minutes.

It reminded me of a new religion in one of Phillip K Dick’s short stories, ‘The Little Black Box.’ People watch a ‘man’ named Wilbur Mercer on 'Empathy Boxes.' Like the Indonesian worker, Mercer traverses a never-ending desolate landscape. No one is quite sure why he’s doing it, but all who watch empathise with his struggle:

"N-nothing." Ray continued to grip the handles. On the screen, Wilbur Mercer walked slowly over the barren, jagged surface of a desolate hillside, his face lifted, an expression of serenity - or vacuity - on his thin, middle-aged features... To Joan, he explained, "This is the empathy box, my dear... when you take hold of these handles you're no longer watching Wilbur Mercer. You're actually participating in his apotheosis. Why, you're feeling what he feels."

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