Where You Had Been: six films by Nick Collins, Peter Todd and Margaret Tait Screening notes

The light passes from ridge to ridge,
from flower to flower –
the hepaticas, wide-spread
under the light
grow faint –
the petals reach inward,
the blue tips bend
toward the bluer heart
and the flowers are lost.

-HD, from Evening (in Sea Garden, 1916)


It is all too easy to look but not see. It is too easy to mistake the profound for the trivial, the trivial for the profound. We ignore the quotidian, well-trodden, often-visited. We overlook it. Yet it is the places which are best known to us that bear the most marks. It depends on how we look, on our regard.

Space is not navigated by guidebooks alone, nor charted only by maps. It is not so much the timelessness of a place that activates it, enchants it, but its timefulness. It is, now. And it is our experience of it, bodies in space in time; a topography as much of experience and emotion as material and object.

The artists in this programme are brought together by ways of looking, and a sense of deep engagement with quotidian, domestic spaces. But the familiarity of the home and the garden, the heart of the domestic, do not invoke a reductive or banal vision: rather than a narrowing, the artists’ enquiry, rooted in the familiar, signifies a distillation, a quest for the essence of things. This essence may be sought, of course, in an unpeopled wilderness, but the risks of losing one’s way and, ironically, seeking to impose a reductivist or civilising mantle – to contain the uncontainable – are great. Here, it is precisely the strict parameters of the bounded spaces, the mediated worlds that lend both a rigour and watchfulness to the artists’ work.

In just this way, Peter Todd’s quietly alert work We Saw discovers, via a process of patient regard, the wonder within: the suburban interior and garden, spaces fixed, contained, known, are activated and transfigured – animated – via time itself. The passing of clouds; snow falling silently; warm breezes; a summer chair standing as sentry in the garden. Watched closely, the phenomenal world presents itself here as it might anywhere, and connects a quotidian time – the time of clocks, of calendars, of work – with an ancient time, or rather, ancient (and ahistorical) processes and an enduring sense of being in the world.

Nick Collins’ earlier works Across the Valley and Mimente offer quiet, timeful studies of place, both based around an enquiry into the nature and character of particular places (both in the south of France) via a formal structure which seeks to make manifest otherwise imperceptible processes: the former using time-lapse photography to describe the passage of the sun from ridge, across valley floor to ridge, over hours, a day, a season; and the latter using varying  camera speeds to abstract the flow of a river. His is a process bound to place; to the singular gesture of particular place(s).

Where Peter Todd summons the elemental, Collins, in Dark Garden and Three Short Films, is concerned more with conjuring the inherent strangeness of things within the framed space of the domestic environment. Yet Collins relies, just as Todd does, on the phenomenal – here shadow, light and the transformative power of night – to do so. With a certain economy of process, Three Short Films presents domestic objects and interiors as things in themselves: liberated from their relationship with the world they are free to assert themselves as form alone. The trio follows a structural enquiry, and is different in tone to the other works in the programme for its abstraction of form and the visual tricks and puns occasioned by its use of superimposition and careful control of light. Yet it is, as are the other works, a study of phenomena and the phenomenal—not least of light itself, and shadow.

Obscurity and light likewise inform Collins’ most recent work, Dark Garden, which wrests spectral limbs and bleached skeletons from the garden. Otherwise tame and familiar forms are rendered alien in a stark chiaroscuro of phosphor and obsidian. Everything changes at night; all is transfigured. The garden – place of repose, of domestic activity – exists only for and in a diurnal zone. At night, it loses its function, forgets itself, becomes other.

The notion of the ‘home’ and the ‘homely’ makes room, logically, for that of the ‘unhomely’ (and, by extension, so topos, or ‘place’, allows for utopos, or ‘no-place’); and the Freudian unheimlich centres around a sense of uncanniness wrought by a loss of the familiar, or rather an altered familiar. In order to discern the uncanny, then, we must first be able to feel a sense of familiarity. And in this way, Collins’ choice of the garden is perfectly suited to his quest to uncover the alien and preternatural: where better to unpick the familiar and manifest than here, a zone thoroughly familiarised and prefigured by a conflict between the (un)natural? The garden is no neutral site, no mere benign entity, but a potent symbol of the mediation of and will to control (or assume a sense of control over) nature; a repository for, and visual example of the manifold systems we have instituted to assert that the universe is orderly, codifiable and classifiable in the face of its  latent chaos.

Peter Todd’s Where You Had Been explores the homely, too, but is altogether more wistful, exploring a dialogue of absence and presence in the loaded, emotionally significant space of the home, visiting the house as site and record of interchange, companionship, love. Todd’s playful commentary, occupying the space itself, hints that this brief image-diary is more than the sum of its parts: “I looked for you / But only found / Where you had been.” Suggesting not only the possibility of finding presence in absence – that is, locating and even describing a person via the effects that they leave in their wake – but of the difficulty, ultimately, of really finding; of pinning down a person, or a place, or a time, and ascribing to that a sense of the definitive, or indeed finished. And, from here, of really looking, and of really seeing, because, of course, things are in a constant process of becoming, the world in a state of flux.

The Orcadian filmmaker Margaret Tait, similarly, addresses place but also time; a sense of place-time, perhaps, and, for her, its ability to summon the mortal, and the mortality and fragility of things. Rooted in the communities of Orkney, her work describes a people and a life without recourse to the prosaic or literal which would otherwise seem to be a prerequisite for such a task, instead taking her enquiry back to the essence of (the) place: radical in the correct sense of the word. It is a place both specific and symbolic at once. Though her work frequently invokes the elemental, it is invariably from within a bounded space, through a window, in the hands of another: mediated, in other words, by the domestic, the human, the sense of lives lived.

Besides a filmmaker, Tait was a writer and poet, and it was perhaps from poetry that her work as a whole sprang. She referred to her films as ‘film poems’, and indeed there is an assonance, a sense of meter and stanza, in the association of images. Both Aerial and The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo are lyrical, romantic, yet at the same time approach nature and the natural with a matter-of-factness – a directness of vision – that prevents them from becoming mawkish or clichéd. Aerial presents a fragmented, allusive series of glimpses, glances – an assembly of starlings beyond the windowpane, an earthworm’s progress through damp soil, a dead bird – which become motif-like, standing both for themselves and a sense of the space they inhabit; and, crucially, the time in which they inhabit it.

The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo, by contrast, is more structured, set to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem of the same name, read by Tait herself, and tackles themes less diffidently yet with a similar sense of poesis and metaphor. Both works, though, circle life, seeking signs of life, and, as The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo suggests, in time finding both life and death. Fragile works, shy yet with a clarity of vision and purpose, they crystallise themes which run deep through all six films in this programme: the wonder of life, and, simultaneously, the just-tangible, mercurial, unpronounceable feeling of time passing, life lived.