RICHARD GRAYSON
.

Lindsay Seers

essay for SMART Project Space, Amsterdam 2007

 

"The murderer's image in the eye of the murdered. They love reading about it."
James Joyce, Ulysses

Rudyard Kipling's 1891 short story "At the End of the Passage" is set in India. Three civil servants meet every Sunday to play a game of whist with a Doctor Spurstow. One of them, Hummil, complains of sleepless nights and bad dreams and the next week he is found dead in his bed with a look of horror frozen upon his face. Doctor Spurstow examines the dead man and noticing gray blurs in the pupils of his eyes, decides to photograph them for later study as the cause of his death remains uncertain. Hummil is buried. After the burial they reconvene ......"After breakfast, they smoked a pipe in silence to the memory of the dead. Then Spurstow said absently-

"Tisn't in medical science."

"What?"

"Things in a dead man's eye."

"For goodness' sake leave that horror alone!" said Lowndes. "I've seen a native die of pure fright when a tiger chivied him. I know what killed Hummil."

"The deuce you do! I'm going to try to see." And the doctor retreated into the bath-room with a Kodak camera. After a few minutes there was the sound of something being hammered to pieces, and he emerged, very white indeed.

"Have you got a picture?" said Mottram. "What does the thing look like?"

"It was impossible, of course. You needn't look, Mottram. I've torn up the films. There was nothing there. It was impossible."

"That," said Lowndes very distinctly, watching the shaking hand striving to relight the pipe, "is a damned lie."

Mottram laughed uneasily. "Spurstow's right," he said. "We're all in such a state now that we'd believe anything. For pity's sake let's try to be rational."

In 1876 Franz Boll of the University of Rome discovered a red pigment in a frog's retina which bleached when exposed to light and was resynthesized in the dark. He called this substance visual red - later renamed visual purple or rhodopsin.

The professor of physiology at Heidelberg Willy Kuhne, took up the study of rhodopsin. He wrote: "Bound together with the pigment epithelium, the retina behaves not merely like a photographic plate, but like an entire photographic workshop, in which the workman continually renews the plate by laying on new light-sensitive material, while simultaneously erasing the old image."

He hypothesised that with a pigment that bleaches in the light, it might be possible to take a picture with the living eye. He fastened down an albino rabbit so that its head faced a barred window and it could see only a gray and clouded sky. The animal's head was covered for several minutes with a black cloth to adapt its eyes to the dark, to let rhodopsin accumulate in its rods (the most abundant and light sensitive retinal receptor cells). Then the cloth was removed so that the animal was exposed to the light for three minutes. The rabbit was immediately decapitated, the eye removed and cut open along the equator, and the rear half of the eyeball containing the retina laid in a solution of alum for fixation. Khne saw, printed upon the retina in bleached and unaltered rhodopsin, a picture of the window with the clear pattern of its bars.

The research gained coverage in the media and entered the popular imagination as an idea - one often thought to be ancient or folkloric - that that eyes of some-one dead would hold the image of the last thing that they had seen when alive, that they had fixed in their eye perhaps an image of the agent of death.

This belief became widespread enough for some police departments to take close-up photographs of the eyes of murder victims in the hope of identifying their murderers. The most celebrated cases was Scotland Yard's investigation of the infamous Jack-the-Ripper murders in Whitehall, London in 1888. "In an attempt to be scientific, the police pried open Annie Chapman's dead eyes and photographed them, in the hope that the retinas had retained an image of the last thing she saw. But no images were found. (Stewart-Gordon Jack the Ripper Argosy Magazine 1973)" (1)

Lindsey Seers makes reference to this in a note that is a component part of a set of images in her exhibition. It reads " In Senigullia for eight days now. Can we be possessed by and image/ a person/ an idea from the past? Annie Chapman. The police forced open her dead eyes looking for an image in her retina - an optogram. Is that the same desire - to find an image written on the body - the desire that makes this compulsion in me to want to take photographs in my mouth.." Next to this note is a drawing of a body - we presume the artists - slumped like a corpse. A camera on a tripod looks down on her. The only landscape and context visible is delineated between two lines that radiate from her mouth. In this cone we can see an upturned boat, a beach. Below there is a photograph. It must have been taken by the camera in the drawing. In the photograph her head is hidden by a black bag. A final image is a red disc. We can see that the two pale forms retreating into the distance in it are two vastly foreshortened legs, above them a torso. We can see the upturned boat again. It is an image photographed from the mouth of the person slumped on the floor.

As viewers of Lindsay Seer's body of work we are presented with a series of enigmas and mysteries centered on the body and the image. Her complex practice focuses on the act of perception, and the act(s) and technologies of photography. These are extrapolated into a meditation on memory and expression with the life and the body of Lindsey Seers central to this enterprise. In seeking to find out what has happened, not only do we become detectives ourselves, but discover that the the investigator and researcher are central figures in the construction of Seers' own identity and history in the work. In a series of films and videos she turns the autobiographical into the biographical, and seeking ways to understand the events that have taken place in her life, turns to the eyes and words of others. The artist becomes the person who is spoken of, who is represented. One of the narrators is her mother who tells of Lindsay's childhood on the island of Mauritius, the return to England and her reaction to Seer's work and activities (which she identifies as 'disappointing' and that it has been 'for all its qualities, has been somewhat a negative process"). At other times theater producers and researchers speak of her life. Rufus Eisenbud in 'The World of Jules Eisenbud (Remission)' tells how his father, a psychiatrist and psychical researcher, had investigated the 'thoughtography' of Ted Serios in the late sixties. Serios, an elevator operator and alcoholic from Chicago seemingly imprinted images from his mind onto photographic emulsion, and Eisenbud supervised thousands of trials testing this. After Serios' stopped doing this, and his disappearance, the son relates, his father became fascinated by Lindsay Seers and her activities as a camera until 'like Ted, she disappeared......and reappeared as a ventriloquist"

Narratives unfurl, one from the other. As related in Extramission a central, foundational, event in Seers' (auto)biography, is when, at the age of eight, the artist loses her eidetic memory - the power of total recall - through being presented with a black and white photograph of herself. Up to this point she had experienced her life on the island of Mauritius with an immediacy and vividness so great that it allowed no effective separation between herself and the outside world. She was absorbed in the sensations of being as if they were imprinted upon her very fabric. When she sees the photograph she says her very first words 'Is that me?" and this simple enquiry triggers a profound rupture and an absolute shift. In this narrative the photographic artifact replaces the reflective surface of Lacan's famous mirror stage. She becomes separate from that which surrounds her and the relationship of subject and object, of the symbolic order is initiated. She can speak - where previously to the great concern of her parents she had been mute - but she has lost her cathexis and immersion in the world; one akin to the 'oceanic feeling' of connection that Freud identified in 'Civilisation and its Discontents' as underpinning the religious drive. As if to reinforce the absoluteness of her expulsion from this oceanic Eden, she then has to leave the island that has been her home. On reaching England she is given a camera by her stepfather which she starts to use compulsively to document the world that surrounds her, as if to reestablish the linkages broken by the shock of seeing her portrait. Later, we are told, she seeks to turn herself into a camera through taking photographs with her mouth by placing a small discs of photographic paper at the back of her throat. She places a lightproof bag over her head, and its removal and replacement allows the light to seep between her teeth - a mouth as shutter - and be hazily registered on the light sensitive surface cosseted inside of her. A narrator in 'Extramission' comments that this is an attempt to achieve 'the destruction of photography's perfect surface....and turn it into something much more personal, emotional. A lived experience'. In returning herself to an analogue of the recording mechanism that she was until the age of eight - where she achieved a completeness where each action and experience introjected into the nervous system as if it was unexposed film changing under stimuli - this clunky re-absorption serves to make her mute again, her mouth shut - up by the photographic process.

Technologies are uncanny. Arthur C Clarke famously proposed in his Three laws of Prediction, (Profiles of the Future 1961) that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and with photography the magical loading has been felt from the first. Not only was the photographic process used from its early days to document seances and psychical manifestations (and so to prove them 'real' as the medium quickly claimed an indexical authority) but the very nature of the process seemed to place the viewer in new relationships to ideas of where consciousness could penetrate, of time, and of the past. After seeing the first exhibition of the Lumier Brother's films in Paris a writer for the Newspaper La Poste, wrote on December 30th 1895, "...photography no longer records stillness. It perpetuates the image of movement. The beauty of the invention resides in the novelty and ingenuity of the apparatus. When these gadgets are in the hands of the public, when anyone can photograph the ones who are dear to them, not just in their motionless form, but with movement, action, familiar gestures and the words out of their mouths, then death will no longer be absolute, final."

We can feel technology re-imagining and re-modelling the world in Kipling's tale of the doctor, in the police photographer peeling open the corpses eyes. Lindsay Seers introjection of photographic media and the photograph's flux of mirroring and exchange, of mimesis and reflection makes this the matter of her work, how the image can make meaning and the inanimate shape the animate.

To meld with a machine is a dream of modernism and the modern age. We see it in Arnold Schwarzenegger's half-ripped half-metal face in the Terminator movies, and in it in Dziga Vertov's 'Man With a Movie Camera' where the camera represents a new objectivity and reality that displaces and replaces that of the human being. Vertov wrote: "In the face of the machine we are ashamed of man's inability to control himself, but what are we to do if we find the unerring ways of electricity more exciting than the disorderly haste of active people." Seers' project rejects the futuristic modernist drive of these images, the teleology implicit the meeting of human flesh and technology and chooses instead to absorb the function of the camera into her lips and mouth rather than its matter. It becomes embodied and human. When she does use prothesis to achieve her ends, the technologies are relatively simple, home-made - the ventriloquist dolls she constructs or the helmet used when she wishes to project images. The theoretical underpinning of these technologies is not entirely located in the cybernetic world but in theater and alchemy. The strange mechanics of making an image through taking it into the mouth distantly recalls practical puzzlements of religious thinkers in the middle-ages seeking a non-metaphorical understanding of how the Virgin Mary might be impregnated without her hymen being broken came up with images of light passing through a window pane or doves whispering sound into the ear.

Ideas of the Human are always returned to, and the equations of the technological and the individual are constantly blurred and shifted, the technology takes on a frailty. We know the importance of the photograph in Seers own development and they are also the means of making her visible to others. However they do not maintain an indexical distance but become muddied, humanised: Eisenbud has hundreds of photographs of Seers that were taken by a Frank Weston...' at worst you could call him a stalker, at best a researcher'. The distance that scientific and technological methodology presupposes becomes inhabited and colonised by human psycho-pathology.

Importantly, we learn that Seer's attempt to become a camera fails and is abandoned. In another mirroring she gives up the project when she discovers that an artist in Dublin is also taking photographs with her mouth. As the photograph of herself robbed Seers of her eidetic recording function, the discovery of a functional double means that she can no longer take images into herself. She has to find other means of relation. And to solve her predicament she turns to ventriloquism. However the dolls (her doubles and projections) that she surrounds herself with rarely speak - only in the film 'Intermission ' do we hear sound coming out of a dummy's mouth, and then, this seems autonomous, without an operator. Instead they conceal a camera's mechanism in their wooden jaws, and are an agent sent into the world to do what Seer's own mouth used to do. And still the realm of photographic image cannot be left behind. Indeed such is the penetration of its narratives that it turns out that 'Bill', one of Seer's dummies, is infact 'Stookie Bill', the doll used by John Logie Baird in his early television demonstrations.

Seers takes this logic of projection further. With Bill and the other dummies her recording function is externalised and she expands this into an undertaking to turn herself into a projector. This development is hinted at in the drawing of her body where the cone of what is visible seemingly radiates from her head. The image inexorably recalls earlier ideas of sight where the ancients were uncertain of the direction of vision, whether it radiated from the eye - the eye beam, an idea manifested in the idea of Medusa's petrifying gaze - or whether as Alhazen argued in the 11th century, light operated as a stimulus on the eye.

We learn about Speer's interest in pre-scientific modelling of the world and the universe and its occult, animating forces. It was a body of enquiry and research that links seamlessly with the body of knowledge that has allowed the development of photography, with its focus on light, the immaterial transforming material into new substances and forms. Newton famously combined both spheres of investigation, the search for the philosopher's stone - a sort of universal cure that healed metals of its impurities for instance paralleling his work on light and optics mathematics and gravity. The area of Lincolnshire where she was regretfully relocated is saturated with the history of Alchemy, linked to Robert Grosseteste John Dee, Newton and Robert Fludd. We are told that Seers 'may have been a member of the Rosicrucian Order herself', as the foundation text 'A Chymical Wedding' is found in her room. Alchemy itself talks of the search for a lost unity, and investigation that seeks links in a world where that which lies below mirrors that above, and the 'everlasting emphasis on macrocosm and microcosm' that lies at the heart of occult systems' (Frances Yates The Rosicrucian Enlightenment). It seems fitting that it should become the means by which Seers seeks rearticulate models of a lost unity. In a haunting image Seers is seen squatting in a darkening field with beams shooting out of the apparatus on her head projecting a beautiful crystalline tree of light: a manifestation of the alchemist's tree of life that sought to explicate and unite the realms of the material and the ineffable.

Seers' recent interest in Thomas Edison's first film studio continues a path of convergence. The building constructed in 1893 was known as the Black Maria named after the van used by police to take away prisoners. It was covered in black tarpaper and had a large window in the ceiling that opened up to let in sunlight as early films required a tremendous amount of bright light. The Maria was built on a turntable so the window could rotate to face the sun throughout the day, supplying natural light for hundreds of Edison movie productions over the eight years of its operations. Seers is interested in this building as it was a space both for photographing and for projection. It is in a reconstruction of this dark room that she is projecting the spectacular, complex, reflective and mirrored images that constitute her explorations of her journeys through a world and an experience defined by the shifting operations, the flicker, the constructions and transformations, of photography.

It is a complex project - this text can only outline a few strands, make a rough outline - and it is quixotic. Her reclamations and analogues, her experiments and modeling with medium and technology have a touching impossibility and a wry hint of inevitable failure built into them. We are left with the desire to reveal and to understand. Meaning and certainty become ultimately contingent, flickering. We are left with the glowing image of a human being repeatedly returning to the mystery of the image, its meaning, and finding ways to articulate and understand the ways it imprints and impacts upon a body and a life.

 

(1)This section draws on Optograms and Fiction: Photo in A Dead man's Eye Arthur B Evans Science Fiction studioes XX:3 (Nov 1993) 341-61

© Richard Grayson 2007