Fiona Crisp’s new installation Subterrania is an intricate, multilayered, and insightful look at what we perceive life to be. It is thoughtful body of work exploring the phenomenological experience of an image – its raison d’être so to speak – and questions the relativity of time, of when the image exists – when it was taken, what it is now, what it was before – the history behind the site – that which it was, that which it now is – and what you yourself understand or perceive the images to be. All of these ideas are projected in still images, yet such is their power, they manage to evoke sensors in every part of your subconscious. It is a probing work of art, which, like an iceberg, only reveals the basics of what we think we see. What we cannot see – the unyielding size and strength of the submerged ice – is what Crisp is fundamentally looking at capturing.
On a sunny morning, I find Crisp great company. She is pleasantly conversational, and when responding to questions she answers in a very descriptive, charismatic, and unrushed way. Extremely intelligent and likeable, there is not a dull moment in the time we have.
Do you see yourself as a visual philosopher in respects to your photography?
I suppose that would be a fair summation of it all actually, it’s a nice way of looking at it. I never trained as a photographer – my background is in sculpture – so it’s been a really interesting argument with photography because I felt more and more compelled and drawn towards using it as a medium. It seems like a perverse medium to try and do something in. I’m interested in what photography can’t do as to what it can do. I suppose almost by default it has become an exploration of the very basic ideas of photography: of space, of light, of time, and how they exist within the image and how possible it is to take an image of a place, environment, and for that to become something else other than a photograph and how we then respond to it. One of the things that runs throughout the images here in this show Subterrania, is the sense that they are very powerful spaces… there’s no escaping that physicality.
Speaking of sensory properties, I recently finished reading a book by Alain de Botton – The Architecture of Happiness – in which he talks about the relationships that people have with buildings. When you’re in that space, is there something about it that hits you?
Oh yeah. I’m very interested in architecture and space and that kind of follows through into this exhibition here. I have worked closely with the team to build a space where the work can be seen in a very specific way, so it’s not like walking into an open space where you see everything and you perceive it as a photography show, instead I decreased the entry size so when you walk in the first thing you see is that black image, which from a distance is almost kind of absent, a hole in the wall. It’s really important for me that you get your first encounter with the work almost as an object, something sculptural, and then you’re drawn to it and you start seeing it as an image. That relationship between image and object is something that is really fascinating.
When you picked up a camera was there a Eureka moment where you thought this is interesting?
No. I first started using photography as a way of documenting other things that I was doing: sculptures, of installations. The first work where I was more conscious about using photography as a medium was almost like a private performance. I shaved my hair off and then photographed it everyday as it was growing back, and then all the photographs formed a long object. As I started to photograph installations and sculptures I realised that the image was doing something in itself – it wasn’t just documentation – and I started to play around with the idea about how we perceive space.
What attracts you to a location, how do you get there?
The Subterrania series started with the Catacomb works. I was living in Rome doing a fellowship. I went on one of the tourist trails and was blow away by the environment of the catacombs. Most of them in Rome are not like the catacombs you might find in Paris where you get lots of skulls. In Rome all the human remains have been taken away and you end up with this very sculptural environment. It’s interesting that all these intricate spaces have been made by removing stuff instead of architecture, which is made by building walls. It’s like the difference between construction and carving within a sculptural process, and also, you have architecture that that has no exterior to it. It struck a chord with a lot of the others concerns I had in my work up to date: ideas like the impossible space, what’s real, pictorial, what is space we can inhabit… then ideas about what these places are as tourist attractions, how we’re invited to go and have a particular experience of them. They’re very powerful places to experience but at the same time you have a guide trying to get you to imagine what it would be like to be an early Christian or a 17th century lead miner and it’s bizarre – you have all these conflicting things going on.
What is it you find interesting about the places depicted in Subterrania?
This whole mix of the conflicting demands of tourism, heritage, leisure, and how we perceive history. I find it really fascinating how all these things work together and against each other. To put the demands of that on what a photograph can or can’t do is fascinating. The works are of places, but there not documents of those places – they don’t have a documentary narrative or truth, they’re not to do with telling a story or a history, and in some sense they could be anywhere. If you think about underground spaces it doesn’t have the same sense of a national identity or regional depiction, they are just underground, they are just space. On the surface we have all these indicators of geography, of national identity, of the weather of life, but underground you have stillness, this geographical fact.
It’s interesting you say that because with that stillness I get the feeling of quite a dark quality to your work: it’s very quiet, devoid of people, and there is a sense of abandonment and an otherworldly atmosphere to it. I even get goose bumps.
I so enjoy it when people give me that sense of what they get from them; it’s great. Especially in the pinhole works is the idea that you can take a photograph, which is of the world, but the way it actually manifests itself as an image is not a straight representation. It’s not like taking a picture of you on a beach and I say I can imagine being there in Whitley Bay in 1993. It’s making an image that is somewhere and nowhere. Because of the way the pinhole images work – they have no lens and they have no point in focus – they create an image more like a painting. They have this huge depth of field in the images and it’s not how our eyes see at all. When I’m looking at you, I’m focusing and refocusing the whole time, I can’t perceive this whole scene. If I’m focused on you I can’t look at that table behind, but if I take a photograph of you everything will be there.
It’s like a distorted reality of the world we actually see.
Yes. We look at photographs and think that they are naturalistic and because we are so ingrained in perceiving the world through images that we understand that as a natural phenomena, but it’s not, it’s not how we see it, so in a lot of ways the work is taking that apart again: what is light, what is lack of light, what are these spaces, what is time.
Do you have a specific process of working to capture these ideas?
Quite often I start with more than one type of camera and then feel my way through what’s going to be appropriate to that place. Another really important aspect is I still work with film and not digitally. The fact that you don’t know what you got is really important. I photograph, then go away and develop the images, I look at them and I think about them as images, and then I go back to the place and experience the place again, and I to and fro. Through that I am getting the technical quality of the image right. It’s very experimental. I kind of force myself to go back.
Do you enjoy that slow-burning process of work?
I think there’s a necessary slowness in it. It sound really weird but it takes a really long time to recognise what the work is. We’ve been installing the work the last few days, and I came in this morning and gave a talk to the crew, but when I was driving in I was thinking, “What the fuck am I going to say this is so new to me!” Even though this has taken me so many years to evolve these works, to see them all together at that scale in that installation is almost as new to me as it is to them.
What inspires you?
Doubt! The perpetual question… In terms of what motivates me is a kind of questioning, a relationship with the world. I can’t imagine how else I would have a dialogue with the world and what it is and why. I get an urge to do something and it germinates very slowly and I don’t know where it comes from any kind of conscious way.
With that in mind, do you have anything coming up in terms of new work?
In terms of this body of work I have been trying to negotiate access to a mine on the North Yorkshire coast. It’s a working mine but they have a 3 million pound laboratory down there where astrophysicists are trying to find dark matter. 96 percent of the universe is missing and so they’re trying to find what they call wimps and apparently their machines are more sensitive in this environment. I find it really fascinating that they’re trying to find and measure something that is moving everything in our universe but they can’t see it. I hope they give me permission to photograph there, but I don’t know what I’ll do visually, so it’s kind of putting yourself in the position where there’s potential for something interesting and unexpected to happen.
Subterrania is at the Baltic until 4 October 2009.
Article published at Dazed Digital