John Gerrard

John Gerrard

Work from his oeuvre.

“Nietzsche famously positioned the expressive possibilities of art between the formal surfaces of sculpture and the emotional immediacy of music. Sculpture, like most visual practice, he took to represent art’s “civilising” impulse and the pursuit of beauty: the creation and manipulation of surfaces with which to mask a chaotic, ultimately meaningless reality. Against this, music embodied the possibility of loss of self, of a pure experience, unmasked and unmediated. Tragic drama, for Nietzsche, marked the perfect synthesis of these two possibilities since, through the formula of a dramatic process in which a protagonist struggles unsuccessfully against their fate, an audience comes to experience the contingency of both their individual existence and their personal and communal world of meaning. Tragedy then, works through a formal technique which gestures beyond itself to call the production of meaning as such into question. The aesthetic effect is always the same: the protagonist is comprehensively devastated, not simply through their physical death but through the desolation of the coordinating certainties through which their life was possible. As an audience, we are rewarded with a precarious, cathartic encounter with our own finitude and Silenus’s infinite, abyssal truth: we are born to die; and the entire edifice of ‘life’ is but a brief departure from this.

In One Thousand Year Dawn (Marcel), John Gerrard’s protagonist stands within a deliberately elemental composition of earth, sea, sky and sun. These offer basic verities – the material composition of existence, perhaps – and as we come to understand the millennial duration of the piece a further element is added, that of time. One Thousand Year Dawn (Marcel) thus centres upon a double horizon; the horizon of the image’s visual composition and the time-horizon of its unfolding duration. Such boundaries or limits suggest the central challenge of such a sparse, primordial composition: the question of our limits. Just as the coming dawn is beyond our lifespan, the possibility of any further meaning is also beyond us and we are immediately required to confront our own finite being and the bounds of what can be known beyond basic, material truths.

Much as the audience to a tragedy undergoes catharsis through the experiences of a dramatic protagonist, Gerrard’s composition offers both the horizon that encloses us and the infinite, unknowable beyond through his central figure’s encounter with it. Thus, the partial fragment of the dawn we might live to see is not fully ours, but rather shared and always to be made sense of through an Other. We may seek different perspectives on the life and fate of a tragic protagonist and Gerrard’s presentation device may allow us to traverse the image and view both scene and central figure differently but, regardless of the perspectival possibilities this offers, we cannot escape the determining elements of the scene and the bounding horizon in particular. Where ordinarily an image might provoke thoughts of its particular historic context, the context of this piece both includes and exceeds our own history: its context is one that is somehow less historically determined, since the rising sun will come – a thousand years hence – to illuminate a future world we might only imagine. We, Gerrard’s contemporary audience, are thus reminded of ourselves as a millennial generation: we have ourselves seen one millennial turn with its associated ‘end of…’ and ‘post…’ cultural neologisms. We have, after 1989, seen the End of History and Politics. And then known the savage violence of their re-birth. But Gerrard asks us to imagine the end of another millennium altogether and – just as tragedy ends in re-affirmation as death makes us see anew – we are invited to see this coming time as one of illumination, possibly enlightenment, but certainly as a new dawn.

Gerrard’s Dark Portraits also explore infinity, illumination and the human subject. Here, the subjects of his portraits are kept in absolute darkness for a period and then suddenly illuminated at the moment the photograph is taken. Like the figure in One Thousand Year Dawn (Marcel), they are caught in a moment of contemplation but also of uncertainty, staring into another infinite, primordial medium – abyssal darkness – and, in Gerrard’s words: ‘… lost, without reference points … staring into the unknown’.. Again then, we return to fundamental questions about the possibility of illumination and the infinite, this time through the potent character of darkness and the danger that, to take another of Nietzsche’s formulations, ‘when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes back into you.’ How might such an encounter mark those who experience it? How might their faces bear its trace? How also, might the experience of being immersed in darkness show itself in how Gerrard’s subjects compose themselves before the camera? They cannot see the lens, there is no ‘cue’, no countdown to their exposure before us. Facing absolute dark, they are the subject of a totally contingent moment of exposure for which they have neither control nor the ability to fully ready themselves.

So while, through the immediate presence of total darkness, Dark Portraits invoke the abyss itself and the contingency of a world which is never fully comprehensible or controllable, they also present the human face in a moment of absolute nakedness. This vulnerability derives first perhaps, from the contemplation of the transcendent truth of the abyss and the contingency of our fate before it and second, for Gerrard’s audience, through our own exposure to his subjects’ unique, momentary, luminous presence before the lens. Through and beyond their profoundly dilated pupils and glowing skin, there is an extraordinary openness to these faces that makes them difficult to reduce to ‘portraits’: something in their vulnerability which demands a different kind of response, one perhaps more akin to ethics than aesthetics since it requires us to acknowledge their defencelessness before us. How to respond to the face of the Other? The youth of Gerrard’s subjects suggest the transience of their moment and thus the immediacy of ageing, of decline: of youth as a brightly lit but brief snapshot, bringing both uncertainties and the challenge of producing ourselves meaningfully. Again in encountering the works’ tragic impulse, we are rewarded with a moment of catharsis: we experience the vulnerability and finitude of others and thus precariously experience our own.

The play of contingency and the absence of control, along with the possibilities of portraiture and time-based elements presented by new technologies appear again in Portrait to Smile Once a Year (Mary). The presentation device for the image is set so that Mary will smile annually ‘on a day of her own choosing’. There is thus a sense in which, like One Thousand Year Dawn (Marcel), Gerrard’s audience are forced to think through their own limits: they cannot expect to influence Mary’s smile any more than they might see the sun rise after their own death. Mary can never be fully possessed by the owner of the piece, and we are again required to contemplate the bounds of what we might know and control and the place of contingency: especially perhaps, through our being subject to the emotional or internal states of others.

Gerrard’s mastery of the new medium of realtime 3D – the impressive facility with which he has understood and sought to chart its artistic possibilities – is undoubtedly realised in the works’ capacity to immediately surpass its own technical nature and provoke such questions. Its provocations provide the point at which we might position him further within a number of artistic traditions and ask after the manner in which he has sought to both revisit and rethink them. The composition of One Thousand Year Dawn (Marcel), for example, provides a line of continuity with Nineteenth Century Romanticism also suggested by some of Gerrard’s earlier pieces such as Viewing Platform; the use of time as compositional tool perhaps providing oblique reference to that movement’s rediscovery of Greek Tragedy and other aspects of classicism. The use of time, of contingent events and unimaginable durations also serves to position his work within a more contemporary, modernist, Irish tragic tradition exemplified in Samuel Beckett’s work, a relationship most consciously worked out in Gerrard’s The Ladder. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Endgame have both been described as prolongations of the final act of traditional tragic drama: the narrative is done and thus absent, the protagonists simply left to await their fate. One of Endgame’s protagonists repeatedly expresses a desire to leave and lives in terror of being left alone – of being the last man alive – a condition of frightful solitude suggested in both Dark Portraits and One Thousand Year Dawn (Marcel). The synergies between Waiting for Godot and One Thousand Year Dawn (Marcel) also suggest themselves: Gerrard’s figure awaits enlightenment, and suffers an impossible duration. Just as a good tragedian uses the techniques of dramatic form purely to gesture beyond the work and question the coordinates through which life is made meaningful, Gerrard has managed to avoid the temptations of artifice that come with new technology. Instead, he offers something like catharsis and the rapture of transformation: an encounter with our own horizons from which we can perhaps emerge newly reconciled with our own finitude and infinite exposure to the contingent. Perhaps we come to await our own fates in new ways. But undoubtedly, through Gerrard’s compositional use of time we are waiting: waiting for dawn, for a smile, for illumination; waiting.” – Dr. Shane Brighton

Comments are closed.