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Anna Gaskell: half life

Anna Gaskell: half life is best experienced alone — no one else in the room, no guards chatting amongst themselves in the hall, nothing to interrupt the mysterious air of the darkened gallery. Only then might you experience the prickling that comes from wandering where you haven”t been invited, when the very surroundings weigh upon you.

Anna Gaskell, Untitled # 90 (half life), 2002 ...C-Print 40 x 50

It’s not the voyeurism of snooping in someone’s medicine cabinet, but the excitement of stumbling upon a previously undiscovered wing of a building. In that tingly moment, the gallery feels like it’s looking at you as much as you are looking at it.

The installation creates an atmosphere that permeates the whole gallery. The dark green walls, low lighting, and unconventional hanging complement the mood depicted in the nine photographs of Gaskell’s latest series. There is surely something cinematic about half life; less film noir (as has been suggested elsewhere) and more like a Saturday matinee of an old Vincent Price film. It’s difficult to avoid the word “gothic” in describing the experience; but then, the story that inspired this series is a classic of the genre.

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (and Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of the book) tell the story of a naïve and insecure young woman who marries a widower nearly twice her age and moves to his seaside estate, Manderley. Once there, she finds she must contend with the memory of Rebecca, her more sophisticated and admired predecessor. Over the course of the novel, Manderley is both palace and prison, a picture-postcard idyll of an English country manor and the very embodiment of the first wife’s superior taste and breeding. Rebecca haunts her successor, not as a ghostly apparition but as the impossible standard against which the young bride will be measured. Given Gaskell’s previous work, one might think the protagonist’s transformation from adolescence to womanhood accounts for the artist’s interest in Rebecca. Instead, it is the house and the presence that haunts it that inspire half life.

Like the dilapidated manor in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher or the freeway wasteland of J. G. Ballard’s Concrete Island, the setting of Rebecca and of Gaskell’s new work is a character unto itself. But Gaskell differs by suggesting familiar environments without ever identifying a specific place. The dark-paneled hallways, baroque decoration, theatrical shadows and grand staircases recall theatres, mansions, hotels, museums and other ornate locations. Whether the nine photographs were taken in the same place never seems to matter. All are suitable backdrops against which a hundred stories could unfold. Familiarity and a lack of specificity collapse the dramatic possibilities into a cohesive whole.

half life‘s setting, however, is never a simple backdrop. It may even be the protagonist of the series, since the black-haired woman inhabiting these rooms is more of a conspicuous intruder than a sympathetic heroine. Sometimes we get only a glimpse of her; other times, her presence is a foreboding shadow cast into a dimly lit room. On occasion she confronts us directly, preventing our passage in the immediate foreground or blocking our view with a splayed hand across the lens. In these latter photographs, Gaskell turns the tables on us: is the black-haired woman the intruder or are we? Are we spying on her or is she following us?

Not only does Gaskell refuse to be specific about the setting, she carefully avoids any reference to specific events in the novel. Her compositional technique of cropped figures, skewed angles, blurred focus, and off-center arrangements deliberately confounds expectations of where to focus our attention and effectively dismantle any notions of narrative. It is the mood of events in Rebecca that Gaskell conveys, not the events themselves.

Anna Gaskell, Untitled # 91 (half life), 2002 ...C-Print 60 X 70

Since Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills (1977-82), interpretations of staged photography have assumed a critique of the image culture that Sherman so effectively wielded. While Gaskell is relying on our familiarity with certain cinematic conventions like Sherman did, she is pursuing less theoretical ends. half life is a commission, and Gaskell is in part responding to the legacy of Dominique de Menil and the way her memory haunts the institution she created. This offers a rich parallel to the plot of Rebecca, and manifests itself most conceptually in the video Gaskell created to accompany her photographs.

In a second gallery lit only by the video projection, we come face to face with the mysterious intruder, now floating under water, black-hair gently moving with the current. It is Gaskell’s most direct reference to the plot of Rebecca. In the story, Rebecca dies under suspicious circumstances and her body is hidden at the bottom of a nearby bay. The possibility of discovery allows the perpetrator no peace of mind. Here, Gaskell’s submerged figure haunts the exhibition. She is the proverbial skeleton in the closet tucked away behind the rest of the show, reminding us every few minutes of her potential for menace when she opens her eyes and stares right at us.

While successful metaphorically, the video fails to captivate, suffering from the familiar temporal plodding common to the medium. Lacking both narrative and action, nothing much happens. In its defense, it doesn’t require that we watch all 21 minutes. We can walk in and walk back out at any point and still understand its role in the exhibition. The duration becomes irrelevant.

So what of the project as a whole? Is half life to be counted amongst Gaskell’s best work? While similarities exist with previous series — the ornate interiors of hide (1998), the literary sources of wonder (1996-97) and sally salt says (1999) — half life marks a departure from the themes of adolescent sexuality and ambiguous violence in her best known work. Sex and violence always have an audience (and a market). So while the mischief of wonder, hide, and by proxy (1999) is an effective snare, half life may prove to be the truer test of Gaskell’s skills. It is, no doubt, a transitional body of work but not an inferior one.

At first, I found it hard to imagine these photographs in any other context than the current one with its very specific installation. Could they convey the same mood and atmosphere as individual images? Certainly, the video would not have the same meaning. But the more time I spent in the gallery and especially later, recalling them from memory, the more they began to resonate on their own. Their subject matter may not be as titillating as Gaskell’s previous series but they are just as haunting.

Chris Ballou is a writer, curator, and KTRU DJ working in Houston.

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