Imaginary Spaces – digital collages

Pirkko Siitari

The pieces in Oliver Whitehead's Retouch are like virtual worlds, reminding us that we perceive/experience several realities at once. Just as in computer games, the viewer in the space of these works is cast in the role of a wanderer. We look at/use the spaces, ascribing meanings to them as if we were inside the works themselves. Just as in 3D animation films and computer games, objects grow, vanish, mutate or change their colour. The virtual world seems boundless. Seemingly innocent everyday objects mutate and bend to acquire new, different meanings.

Urban spaces with their associations of power and violence have often provided the subject matter or the starting point in Oliver Whitehead's work. The spaces in his work are not neutral or merely physical, however; more than anything else, they are experienced places, nodes of social networks, places that shape us as we shape them. For example, in Visual Violence, A Guide to Living (1994) Whitehead studied the way signs steer our behaviour and movement in cities. In his video Mind's Eye (1999), blocks of flats, subways and graffiti-covered fences glimpsed from a train window turn a journey from Espoo to Helsinki into a startling urban experience. Objects – especially toys – have also provided interesting material for him. About the meaning of objects, Whitehead says: "[I see] them as evidence of fetishistic design, hedonism, violence, aggression, and the like." In the series Fuse (2002), he used continuous exposure to photograph a person holding things, such as a doll or a perfume bottle. In Melt Down (1993) he videoed melting plastic toy soldiers, and has used toy cars in many of his works.

His more recent series, Retouch, utilises the same elements. Toys or parts of toys and other objects are magnified many times over, and associated with pictures of urban spaces. For instance, Whitehead has placed his strange toy sculptures in ominous-seeming passageways or benches offering a place to rest. The miniatures are shown as monumental, oversize public sculptures or as imaginary creatures from fantasy or science fiction. Some of the objects fill the view, one can only guess at the background.

The large size of the objects and the fact that their background is out of focus may irritate viewers who would like to reach the space behind the figure yet yet without ever really being able to do so. There is one exception, a picture that shows the urban space as it is, except for a line of paint stretching over the image. Whitehead is also interested in the mechanics modern architecture uses to protect itself against subcultures, such as metal grilles preventing graffiti artists from applying their spray paint on the walls of buildings or subways.

Objects, the dramatic alteration of their size and dislocation are central elements in the works. Artists have always manipulated scale to create illusions. This is also Whitehead's method. "I like intentionally creating a hallucinatory appearance of something that is not quite viable. When objects are scaled or transformed, they can sometimes perturb the senses." The material in Retouch came to him by chance and intuition. Whitehead says he walked around: "Whilst walking in the streets, I came across objects, mostly broken pieces of toys dropped presumably by children, and also many other types of objects."

For Whitehead, surprising combinations of objects and spaces is a method for drawing attention to the associations awakened by them. "Using this sense of 'reflective displacement' as a metaphor for looking at the ambivalent area between toys and the utilitarian world, I insert and manipulate the found objects as images into other 'places' to suggest other ambiguous associations. For example, what occupies us as we go through the daily mundane motions, doing something that might be utterly unrelated to what we may be thinking or 'partially imagining'? We are continually at the mercy of a constant stream of inner associations (visual, sounds and sensations recalcitrant to definition). Some we recall and some we put out of our mind. These associations are totally unrelated to what we are actually doing. It is this stream of irrepressible associations that I draw attention to in these works, as if something is constantly 'sandwiched between' us and the tangible concrete presence we exist in."

Oliver Whitehead studied in London in the late 1960s. Already as a student, he experimented with all sorts of media, sketching, painting, taking photographs, making collages and performances. He has also combined different media, presenting video, charcoal drawings and photographs in one and the same exhibition. His interest in Pop Art and the work of Claes Oldenburg also go back to his student days, and his playing with scale and use of everyday objects are allusions to those interests.

Whitehead's use of digital imaging in Retouch has a corollary in his earlier collage and painting techniques. "In the late 60s (before computers) I was working using various collage techniques. Today it is possible to work with the photographic image, which for me has similarities to an earlier way of working that feels familiar and natural. The comparison between painting and digital imaging is quite complex, as both are similar in different ways. I use both techniques. The 'mental speed' at which I work with the computer feels faster, yet, painting has a different kind of spontaneity. It's a different way of working, something that I have not experienced before, but somehow creates different kinds of work. With the computer it has a memory bank that can be used instantly."

Whitehead's work poses the question, what is real. "This is a concern in Retouch, to bring attention to the ambivalence of the realities perceived, so the two composed elements become insecure as experienced realities." A photograph is a trace, whereas a digital image is an icon, where the origin of the image is not so obvious. Digital collage is a fine medium for work that investigates the meanings, character and existence of several adjacent realities. And the zone where fantasy and reality become mixed, and where everything is real.