Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art, 14 Wharf Road, London N17RW
18 January – 30 March 2008
By Wiebke Gronemeyer
Upon entering the gallery’s premises 600 identical clocks forcefully carry out their task: keeping time. Nonetheless, the clocks in this sculpturally overloaded installation, Tide (2008), act out more than this, questioning the objectivity of the passage of time. Indeed, these 600 clocks are unstoppable: each time a digital number on the computer-controlled synchronised clocks flips over to mark the passing of another minute or another hour, the gallery space physically reverberates. However, this overload of homogeneity lets us question time and its duration: should we think more often of the difference between an apparently objective chronometry and our subjective tools of measurement, based on experience and constituted in our memory?
Ideas about memory in relation to the subjectivity of time permeate all of Almond’s works in Fire under Snow: Darren Almond, his new exhibition at Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art in London. In his film In the Between (2006), the artist deals with evocative meditations on time and duration, geography and displacement. The fourteen-minute long, three-screen high-definition film was shot in Tibet and China on the Quinghai-Tibet railway, the world’s highest train route. What Almond pictures is an ongoing itinerary, harnessing the symbolic and both the personal and historical potential of objects, places and situations. The visual juxtaposition of the outside landscape and the interior of a Buddhist temple turns out to be countermanded by the interference of the corresponding sounds: the clattering train and the monks’ monotone chanting. Thus, the linearity of this itinerary becomes undermined, affecting its narrative character. The work is on a very literal level still to be understood as depicting aspects of duration, both on screen and by means of sound. In addition, on a more abstract level, it is much more about a contemporary attitude that can be read through the train as a metaphor, making its way across a whole continent: a characteristic of an aesthetic of globalisation. Almond surpasses and subverts the notion of an itinerary as a means to an end that is not recurrent to itself. As he interlaces the different narratives – the train and the monks, the dominating and the controlled – the artist goes one step further of portraying the evident contrast between the industrial and the spiritual and reveals how even such a clash of culture can, in its narrative structures, have something in common – time, duration and the effects it has on the individual, on both sides of the story.
This nostalgic longing seems to filter through the other works in the show. Bearing (2007) is a single-screen projection depicting the daily routine of an Indonesian sulphur miner, monitoring him on his way in and out of the mine, carrying the toxic material. The more than evident beauty of the landscape strikes the moral disguise that is evoked by the harmful characteristics of the sulphur, confronting the viewer to position himself out of his comfort zone in front of a high-resolution screen in London towards the social reality in Indonesia. Aren’t our reactions, whether they be compassion of fascination, be understood as unethical and thus wrong?
Night + Fog (2007) consists of six large-scale black-and-white photographs of dead forests surrounding the nickel-mining towns of Siberia. Again, Almond highlights pollution and its damaging consequences, relating to our historical situation, recalling similarities to the symbolic potential of pictures taken in the woods surrounding Auschwitz and Birkenau. Is a longing for the past as a means to an end for a contention with contemporary culture to be understood as how Almond lately, more poignantly, introduces nostalgia into his work? Whether this is a path worthy to explore could be a question to address in the future. As for now, it seems not to detract from the political claims he makes with his work but to strengthen them through carrying the symbolic antipodes, beauty and barbarity, image and sound, to their extremes.