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The Cloud Chamber

Catalogue Essay: Cloud Chamber

 this fire seemed to become altered of its location, now here, now there, drawing away, or shifting unaccountably along the flank of their movement. Like some ignis fatuus belated upon the road behind them which all could see and of which none spoke. For this will to deceive that is in things luminous may manifest itself likewise in retrospect and so by sleight of some fixed part of a journey already accomplished may also post men to fraudulent destinies
Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

The Eyes in the Wall

When I was a child my grandparent's house seemed something special, certainly out of the ordinary and to me quite magical. The house occupied a double block that gave space for my grandfather to grow flowers, raise chickens and racing pigeons. Inside the house the rooms were enormous, especially the spare room, a vast cavernous space with a monstrous bed and the neglected clothes, hat boxes, books and junk of 100 years. I spent so many days hiding and playing in that room, lost in its dark and mysterious corners.

So in effect the theatre of these images occupy simultaneously the worlds of seduction and cynicism. Without the apparent beauty of the idealised there is little to compel us to commit and perhaps our sense of identity is formed as much by our success at parody as it is with our failure.

When my grandparents died my brother bought the house and now when I visit it the magic is gone, the extra block of land that made the house more like a farm to me, long since sold, a cream brick bungalow taking its place. The rooms now are tiny, the spare room especially so. Gone was the deep, dark cave replaced by a room where I could with arms outstretched almost touch each wall while standing in the middle of the floor.

Something else was gone too, the eyes in the wall. I suppose I was three or four when my brother took great delight in pointing out the monster that lived in the wall of the bathroom. From a spot just below the bathroom ceiling I could see two greenish eyes staring back at me– the colour of the eyes shifting throughout the day towards yellow and then with sunset disappearing. They were of course just a broken air vent with most of the holes blocked except for two, but to me they were a glimpse of something at first frightening and then engrossing, somewhat just outside of the common place. But there was something else the eyes did at the right time of the day, in the right kind of weather; they projected a movie onto the opposite wall. Not much of a movie of course, just the branches and leaves of the neighbours tree shot through with the circle of the sun and at times and most enchanting of all; the faint but captivating outline of passing clouds. The eyes in the wall had created a room sized Camera Obscura and in me a life long fascination with photography and theatre.

I could have of course gone outside and looked at the real tree, the sun and those beautiful clouds but the projection, the simulation; the abstraction of that real event was to me so much more compelling. It's how things look, how they are represented through the camera that intrigued me then and now. That room was a theatre, a place of mystery, a cloud chamber.

To paraphrase Shakespeare truth and photography keep little company these days. I found it quite mesmerizing the way a small hole in the wall could create an image of the outside world, stripped of its finer details, and reduced to its elemental form and that has stayed with me. I am not interested in the pixel perfect replication of "reality" that is possible with CGI photography rather my enthralment lies in the theatrical abstraction that comes about when photography's protean talents enchantingly distorts it.

The cut out clouds in a theatre set don't say this is exactly what a cloud looks like, it suggests that this is a representation of a cloud, - how we might remember clouds to be, or even how clouds "feel".

The images that are the product of this process, this shadow play have a wonderfully strange "half-remembered' quality to them, as if filtered through layer upon layer of memory and forgetfulness. It is the vaguely realized aspect of these images that has a strong influence on my photography.

¹Within ten months of the official announcement of the invention of photography in 1839, two Frenchmen, Horace Vernet and Frédéric Goupil-Fesquet, began making daguerreotypes in Egypt while others were travelling to distant countries and bringing back photographs from the Middle East and China. Images of people, temples, buildings and landscapes that almost everyone in the Western World at that time would never see. These early photographs became in some instances the only record of people and places that were about to vanish from the face of the earth. Frances Firth's photograph of the birth house of Cleopatra VII at Armant is all that remains as the small temple was torn down to build a sugar factory shortly after his visit.²

By the 1860s the parlours of the middle class homes in London, Paris and New York and a thousand other cities were home to photographs of pyramids, pagodas, mountains and far off people. The simulacra of travel, without moving.

"The palest ink is better than the best memory." Chinese proverb

The photographs for this exhibition were taken with a plastic pinhole camera, no lens, just a tiny hole in a piece of metal that projects an image onto film, a camera obscura, something thousands of years older than photography itself, the first known written account being by Mo-Ti 470 BCE to 390 BCE, a Chinese philosopher. My pinhole camera uses the same principal as the "darkened chamber/room" in my grandmother's house. In this instance I am the one travelling without moving, by photographing tiny models of structures in my garage. Making each work is for me a performance, the inspiration for which springs from events real and imagined, experienced and observed from a distance both in space and time. Such as the lingering memory I have of watching grainy newsreel footage of the Hindenburg disaster, the final image of the zeppelin, a potent symbol of Nazi propaganda in itself exploding into flames, burned into my thoughts still. Or the wood-engraved illustrations by Gustave Doré of the ancient mariner filtered through scenes of ships at sea from Hollywood B grade pirate movies or the fabulous cinematic stagecraft in the silent movie Faust directed by F.W. Murnau in 1926.

These images are my attempt to as Leonard Cohen says, "… make objects out of thought".

The eyes have gone now from my grandparent's house; blinded by renovation but the world they created for me still lives on.

Mark Kimber 2011

[1] Dayot, Armand (1898). Les Vernet : Joseph--Carle--Horace. Paris: A. Magnier.
[2]Canadian Centre for Architecture; Collections Online, s.v. "Francis Frith & Co."
[3]Ruutz-Rees, Janet E. (Janet Emily) (1880). Horace Vernet. New York: Scribner and Welford.

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