Anne Shelton, Nine Lives
onepointsix gallery, Vancouver 2003
The landscape photographs from Anne Shelton's exhibition Nine Lives seem hauntingly familiar. Not so familiar that you'd be able to pinpoint what places are being depicted, but familiar nonetheless. They seem to emerge as a composite of memory. They are stark and empty and stare back at you. Like the markings on moths' wings, they may be warning us of some potential danger. The doubling of the landscapes, their reflection from across an invisible seam, creates an uneasy tension between the landscape and its "re-featured", constructed nature. On a formal and material level this speaks of the potentially dual nature of the "original". The negative of the photograph is as much its "correct" viewpoint, as it is its reverse. The negative is flipped. Pyscho-physiologically, the landscapes are made strange by their break with a classical unified perspective. They perform a backwardness or doubling of vision, as if simulating an altered scopic state. Past traumatic events seem to have left their mark on the landscape. How does a landscape take on memory, faciality even? Like an ink stain doubled in order to stimulate the unconscious, these landscapes have a hold on us. They look back. One is no longer the master of the gaze.
Death and the mirror: photography has often been related to these two elements. A mirror of reality, photography often serves to frame a scene, isolating it for reflection. It can act as a cipher within the construction of history and identity. One attaches meaning to landscapes in the same way one attaches meaning to an object or person. But real landscapes are not symmetrical the way our bodies are. The very symmetry of Shelton's landscapes takes on an anthropomorphic quality. These landscapes reflect something projected from memory. A cultural phantasmogoria has been mapped onto the land itself over time. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes wrote about the relationship between death and photography-- how a snapshot freezes an instant of time that has vanished and how an image can continue to haunt us long after the instant or the things or people that inhabit it have passed away.
The photographs in Nine Lives depict empty, natural landscapes. Dilapidated buildings or traces of tire tracks evoke the passage of time. They have not detached themselves from the invisible presence of death that embody every nook and cranny of the scene. The aspect of death projected onto the land hinges on its place within collective memory, constructed from films, novels, and news photos. Aileen Wuornos' murders, Janet Frame's "madness", Anne Perry's act of murder, the disappearance of a group of girls at Hanging Rock, these are traumatic events that have mobilized our public imagination. The very invisibility of these actions and occurrences within natural, neglected landscapes makes one ponder the unimaginable violence that gripped these female "characters" that have come to inhabit our popular imagination. The images and their contexts complicate our gender stereotypes of predator and prey. Straddling fiction and reality the very doubling of the images could be seen to reflect upon the forces that breed violence. Unfathomable, these forces seem to lie hidden somewhere within the infra-thin space that separates the landscape from its reflection, reality from fiction. The photographs could be perceived as a counterpart to Atget's photographs of deserted Paris streets, captured like scenes of crime (Benjamin). Rather than photographing for the purposes of establishing evidence, Shelton creates a psychologically loaded space through a Rorschach like strategy. We enter into the uncanny space of collective memory only to discover it staring back at us. The titles of the works in turn provide a subtle element of social critique that goes beyond the land, bringing us face to face with the mediated cultural sphere that brought these images to us to begin with.