A short review of Chronoscapes II by Philip Crean

Chronoscapes II was exhibited in ArtisAnn Gallery in Belfast from the 5th to the 28th of April 2018. The work is a series of three digital moving image works presented on flat screen monitors.  Installed in the upstairs gallery across three walls, we were invited to view the works one at a time. With no audio and movement barely perceptible, Chronoscapes II could be a series of landscape paintings. Their format, scale and naturalistic palette undeniably evoke the landscape genre. But these are somewhat abstract works that also manage to softly represent unknown landscapes.  These are not observational works, but rather are figments of the artist’s imagination. 

You could be forgiven for being reminded of screensaver programs and this is something to do with the pace of movement within the frame. Whilst the utilitarian screensaver is generated by a programme and the resulting imagery is random, thankfully, Chronoscapes II are multi-dimensional and complex, the result of the human hand and not a computer algorithm. Developments in technology have made the creation of digital images less specialist. The phenomenon of our online existences and the resulting individual desire to produce digital media has stimulated the availability of free software and easy to use applications for image creation and manipulation. As a result, digital media is ubiquitous and so we have evolved ruthless filters. The digital image now has to work harder to make an impact on the viewer.

Bog Gas  by Philip Crean

Bog Gas by Philip Crean

Philip Crean’s works are purposefully ambiguous and authentic. They are not created by chance through digital play or experimentation but rather are carefully constructed affective images. They propose an expanded space beyond the abstract landscapes represented within the frame, a space of physical experience beyond the visual. This is a space in which the viewer is implicated. In this space, these works activate other tactile senses and in doing so replicate how we experience landscape in reality, not only optically but also with our whole bodies.

Chronoscapes II speak to us about landscape painting and it is the language of this genre that we employ to first engage with these works. We read the scenes within each frame in terms of colour, perspective and scale only to discover perspective and scale elusive to pin down. Our eye is not allowed to rely on the rule of thirds or locate a vanishing point because all of those rules are broken. An inability to focus or fix a point keeps the eye roaming the surface. Background, middleground and foreground slide over each other and merge, as the image gradually changes. These works hook us, inviting us to employ this visual language, only to pull the rug out from under us and ask us to think again.

Peninsula  by Philip Crean

Peninsula by Philip Crean

Chronoscapes II rely more on the elements of time and movement than scale and perspective. The slight movement within each frame produces a sense of three-dimensionality; we can feel the movement due to the proximity of our bodies to the screen. Movement creates depth that disrupts the frame, removing its limitations. The images or rather, the effect that the images have is not constrained to the screen space. The space in front of the screen becomes activated. This is the space that we occupy, and so our bodies become engaged in the experience of viewing.  This is a dimension of sensory experience known as the haptic sense.

The haptic sense, comprising the tactile, kinaesthetic and proprioceptive senses, describes aspects of engagement that are qualitatively distinct from the capabilities of the visual sense. Where the visual sense permits a transcendent, distant and arguably disconnected, point-of-view, the haptic sense functions by contiguity, contact and resonance. The haptic sense renders the surfaces of the body porous, being perceived at once inside, on the skin’s surface, and in external space. It enables the perception of weight, pressure, balance, temperature, vibration and presence.[1]

The haptic sense is associated with touch and the visual sense with vision but the two do not exist in opposition to each other. The use of digital media in visual art and particularly in installation, offers the viewer opportunities to experience a haptic visuality, integrating multiple senses.[2]  These landscapes or Chronoscapes, begin to activate the haptic sense with the subtle movement that creates depth and breaks the surface of the image. Development of the installation could exploit the affective qualities at play in the work. A dark space heightens the kinaesthetic and proprioceptive senses. In work where the viewer is invited to view the moving image in a dark space, and when they are not seated but able to move around the space, the haptic sense becomes key to the experience. The installation design and its constituent components are determining elements. It is not only the digital media that is the fabric of the work, but also the technology and architecture of the installation environment. How these are acknowledged and handled determines the limits of the work in terms of promoting haptic visuality and creating a haptic installation.

An example of haptic installation is Willie Doherty’s Ghost Story as exhibited in the 2007 Venice Biennale. The 15-minute film was projected directly onto the wall of a blacked-out, custom-built space. A corridor to prevent light spill was installed making the space completely void of external light. This darkness, combined with the large scale of the image is reminiscent of the cinematic experience of a large screen in a darkened auditorium. In contrast to the cinematic experience where we are arranged in seats before the lights go down, the installation of Ghost Story requires us to enter an already dark space. This immediately places us in a state of alternative awareness as our eyes struggle to adjust to the change in lighting conditions. As we enter the space, we see only the projected image on the wall facing us. The light emanating from the projection is not bright enough to allow us to fully see the space we are in. We are unable to see if there are other people in the space, an aspect of cinematic spectatorship that is desirable, but that in installations where we are standing and can move around, makes us very conscious of the position of our bodies. Our visual sense is so limited by the darkness that other senses must come into play.

Whilst Ghost Story powerfully evokes the visual sense, I would suggest that its installation evokes the haptic sense. On first entering the installation space, our sightlines only extend as far as the projected image and its boundaries. The darkness beyond it prevents us from getting a visual sense of the wider space. This means that our experience begins as somatosensory; our bodily senses of movement (kinaesthesia), and the body’s felt position (proprioception) immediately come into play. Unlike the cinematic experience, where we have a defined and delineated amount of space to inhabit, in the installation space we are not restricted. Jennifer Fisher’s analysis of spectatorship within haptic terms is of particular interest here:

What distinguishes exhibitions from other communication media is that they demand movement. Beholding requires perambulation through the spaces of display. It is through proprioception – the sense of dimensionality and motion in space – that we understand exhibitions. In this way, haptic awareness encompasses a key aspect of exhibition experience accounting for ‘how we are touched’ by the kinaesthetic demands of exhibition choreographies and the proprioceptive impact of both ambience and arrangement.[3]

The flat screen monitors in Chronoscapes II preserve a domestic scale. We are used to flat screens in the home, office, hospital and airport, we see them everywhere and understand their function as one of displaying a digital channel of information.  But these Chronoscapes seem to want to push out of the limits of the display technology. It is the movement of the images within Chronoscapes II that evokes the haptic sense, rather than the installation.

The scale and framing of the imagery certainly refers to landscape painting, and this is emphasised by the illusion of painted texture and layers and indeed by the individual titles of each piece. Fissure (a disruption in the land or the painted ground), Bog Gas (the earth’s energy emitted) and Peninsula (a place at the edge, almost separated), give us a context within which to read Chronoscapes II and perhaps digital art itself. These works represent landscape effects, rather than actual places. They portray and evoke an experience where we operate not only visually, but also haptically; describing our somatosensory experience of existing in time, in the landscape.

Fissure  by Philip Crean

Fissure by Philip Crean

[1] Jennifer Fisher, ‘Relational Sense: Towards a Haptic Aesthetic’, Parachute, Vol. 87, 1997, p. 6, (pp. 4-11)

[2] Laura U. Marks, ‘Haptic Visuality: Touching with the Eyes’, Framework: The Finnish Art Review, no. 2, (2004), p. 81, (pp. 78-82).

[3] Jennifer Fisher, ‘Relational Sense: Towards a Haptic Aesthetic’, Parachute, Vol. 87, 1997, p. 6, (pp. 4-11)