Static image traveling

Caryn Faure Walker

Oliver Whitehead: Shore (1987) is a series of charcoal-on paper drawings. Each drawing is one-and-a-half meters square (150cm), the series fifteen meters long overall, it came out of a work with an actual photograph of a beach in Sweden that I found in a shop. I re-photographed the image as a set of blown up details; in fact I scanned the postcard as if I were making still with a movie camera. Put together, these photographs created a virtual landscape which I could imagine myself being in.

Over two months I continued to do preparatory work with these photographic blow-ups: sketches, diagrams and installation plans. Then when I started to work directly on the drawings themselves, I began to treat drawing as a performance activity. Each drawing took about two or three weeks. I wanted all the memories of my feelings to be drawn out by my body responding to the images. When I became dissatisfied, frustrated, ecstatic or euphoric, those were the feelings that I wanted to channel. I didn't want a literal copy of the photograph.

Caryn Faure Walker: Is this drawing/performance activity cinematic?

OW: Oddly, there is a thirty-second movie entitled dood (1968), of children running in and out of a swimming pool not dissimilar to Shore the drawing of twenty years later. In the set of drawings we have just been discussing, I make reference to cinema by having the incident pictured in each image overlap spatially. Common reference points across the drawings allude to continuity between them, if not a narrative. Two years earlier I had done this in groups of colour pastel drawings. Center Point (1985), where I worked from a series of photographs of staged activities that I had shot. I scrambled the time sequence. The beginning and the end of the action weren't where they were supposed to be in the finished drawings. In Shore, the work is also about drawing as an activity, which is fetishistic.

CFW: I am not certain that I understand what you mean by fetish in relation to your work?

OW: With designed object, for example, designs are worked over and over again. They become not just a representation of aerodynamic form or a utility object, but containers for a certain way of thinking or being. It makes an idol of a commodity. Let's take Mistake, two large drawings of different aircraft, which I did with charcoal directly on the wall in the Helsinki Taidehalli (Art Hall) in 1990. better still, my oil paintings of car wrecks from 1987. I wanted to paint the large image as fast as I could from a photograph and let the image crash itself; each mark became the action of the thing that I was representing. This crucial to a lot of the work that I did later in tjat I was trying to correlate images that I had seen, and felt something about, with the action of what oil paint did in my hands. Also, from the late 1960s, I had started to be interested in science fiction based on the reality of today, specifically, the work of J. G. Ballard. This was long before David Cronenberg's film Crash, based on Ballard's book The Atrocity Exhibition. This book has been a continuing influence on me. Ballard's writing is very visual. He uses words to evoke colliding, images. Sparse, fluid, rapidly changing subject matter, which is almost hallucinatory. I admire Sylvia Plath's poetry for the same reason and the non-narrative cinema of Stan Brakhage and Harry Smith. Reading Ballard also coloured what I was seeing in London then: eroticism, women, landscape, cars - the way people behaved. Thinking now, I can connect my admiration for Ballard with my work Simulation (1990), where I made a counterpoint of destruction, which moved between a photograph of a metal toy car that I had partly melted down and a watercolour of the same object. I was experimenting with the polarity between the hand made image and photography - how each implicitly communicates violence. In my mind, the work also refers to paintings of dying soldiers made during World War II. People maintain a romantic attitude towards painting and towards the role of the artist in our society. They don't seem to recognize that the horror aroused by the military machine is mitigated through such associations.

CFW: Why did you return to this imagery in your most recent large-format colour photographic series Melted (2000), exhibited in Helsinki earlier this year?

OW: Each time I draw, paint or photograph these designed, utilitarian objects, I re-create this double fetish activated by touch and technology. Here, I am thinking again about the world portrayed in Ballard's book where modernism and decay overlay each other. In this world there doesn't seem to be any difference between something that is honed to perfection and the transformation that comes of destruction. My colour video Melt Down (1993), in which toy soldiers, seen against a plain background, repeatedly melt, plays on this sense. Thinking further back, there is a series of black-and-white drawings and photographic diptychs, Ritual Behaviour (1990-92), in which I drew shapes in total darkness. Simultaneously, my movements were traced in light and photographed. I also made in the same period a 16mm black-and-white film, Personal Effects (1991(, in which a pair of women's hands repeatedly set out in perfect order, a child's tea service, or the hands a also moulded clay into a minute bowl shape. We play to form patterns of behaviour. In turn this dictates how things are designed.

CFW: Around 1993, you became interested in how urban architecture also patterns our behaviour. You completed a single screen video and several triptychs entitled Visual Violence. In 1999, you made a further, similar, but more condensed series of grids and large black-and-white photographs of Helsinki building facades. In 1997, you were commissioned by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Finnish Doctors for Social Resposibility and STAKES to complete a set of images for a book on peace research to be published in 2001. The photograph series itself, Behind the Lines, will be exhibited in Kiasma, The Finnish Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, next year. To make this work you went around Helsinki and drew various images in chalk directly on the city streets, then made photographs of people walking past them. Why?

OW: The more recent triptychs to which you refer are highly formalized so as to communicate how aggressive urban architecture really is. It has to withstand extremes of people's group behaviour at night, and also be attractive to people during the day. I found this dual nature of urban architecture something I wanted to examine in the drawings and photographs. At the same time I was making reference to the high art' aesthetic of constructivist painting and using the hardness and distance of black-and-white photography. Behind the Lines was commissioned in 1997. When I actually went about making the drawings which were later photographed in black-and-white. I found that planning regulations in Helsinki only allowed me to draw on the street. In the work, I wanted to draw images that were at one and the same time a part of my own graphic world, but also images that people would spontaneously recognize. I chose sites that were local, not touristic, so that the drawings would have a relationship with objects that people already knew. Chalk is something that children and teachers both use to draw with and also make references to linear diagrams in books. The military images which I finally made in the city streets were internationally a subtle but unnerving reminder of something that is continuously going on at ground level; we make the weapons. People who make decisions about the defence industry live among us, even here in Helsinki.

CFW: Do you think that making drawings and still photographs has directly affected how you make films.

OW: In mind's eye (1999), I used the camera as if it were my eyes - catching things and letting things go. It is about scanning, about comprehending a lot of things at once, picking things out as I went past them on the train. I shot the film along the route into Helsinki from my home, which is outside the city. I shot it a number of times. Each day the graffiti changed. Previously, I had made the association between the decorative, repetitive, quality of graffiti and something much older, The Book of Kells. I thought that music from this period would make a good sound track for mind's eye. I tried it and it didn't work. Four or five years later, I realized that a text which I had casually downloaded from the Internet seemed to echo the film's counterpoint - the 'open-faced' quality of graffiti and the repetitive, decaying urban fabric that I passed daily. The British artist Stephen Willat's conceptual work and writing on the city has also deeply influenced me, particularly his book Intervention and Audience (1986).

CFW: Is there a contest between various media for your attention?

OW: Image and soundtrack together make something inexplicably right. In fact, the films that I do are far more intuitively made than the works on paper and photographs. I will, however, always love drawing. It is magic. Recently I have been looking at Goya's drawings of people in a book from the 1950s. The sensuality is so spontaneous. But interestingly, the drawings have the feeling of documentary photography in their ability to capture the almost invisible corners of life. I use drawing myself as a private diary. Want the actions of my 'body memory' to create the work as it roams through various stored graphic languages. Also to work over and over a drawing is for me a bit like editing a movie. This is partly due to the new technologies of film which have made the process of film making more spontaneous. Another source is the performance and poetry, which I have written and continue to write. In essence they are about images in transformation over space - the abstract narrative. I feel natural with a camera. I like to work with people, to be present when things are happening. In many of the short documentary films I have made, I chose the subject in situ. Then, in some cases, I make a determined effort to think only about the last shot as I continue to shoot footage. In parallel, drawing for me is spontaneous. Things that happen periodically within a certain time limit. I have never been comfortable with an image which is contained by a frame. Arrays of images happen across a spatial field. People don't pick up everything at the same time. They have to search to find connections themselves. I like to think that how I work is more intimately connected to how people behave rather than to an unlived ideal.

above text from the catalogue

cITy internationaler\\\medien\kunstpries 2000