Nights In A River

To view at some length and in sufficient numbers Remco de Fouw’s ongoing series of black and white photographic prints of the ripples, eddies and turmoil in a moving body of water is to be reminded both of the infinitely various and infinitely repetitious aspects of Nature’s patterning. These are intimate and exquisitely detailed images wrested literally from a river’s flux. They are moments permanently arrested within the flow of time. To dwell on the elaborate process through which these seemingly simple pictures were brought into being is to be reminded of our conflicting desires to surrender, however briefly, to Nature’s forces and wonders, and yet at the same time to claim ultimate dominion over them. The invocation of the Romantic Sublime, that is to say the fearsome fascination exerted by Nature’s imponderable depths and incommensurable breadth, most especially in some of the darker images, is cannily offset against the inherent absurdity of de Fouw’s by now trademark technique of elaborately low-tech, lensless photography. As he has done in the past for previous exhibitions, here once again the artist has taken on the role of a determinedly Luddite, plein-air photographer; a nightraider of Nature’s hidden image-hoard, whose working method is a disarming mix of refined obsessiveness and freewheeling instinct.

Preparations for these works begin in the darkroom where de Fouw paints however many sheets of watercolour paper he wishes to use during any given outing with successive coats of liquid photographic emulsion, and then leaves them to dry. He acknowledges that it has taken quite a bit of experimentation to refine this process to the point where archival quality can now be ensured. Then, choosing his nights carefully, taking full account of levels of rainfall and cloud cover, as well as wind conditions and the phases of the moon, all in order to ensure maximum darkness, he will set out to a chosen site by the banks of a remote, pitch-black river or bog stream. Once there he will attach one of his sheets of paper to a rectangular wire mesh frame designed for this specific purpose, using anything up to a twenty or so clothes-pegs. This frame, which is stabilised by an arrangement of weights and floats, is suspended by string from a long bamboo pole, chosen for its ideal combination of strength and light weight. The flash unit is also suspended from this pole, at some distance above the paper sheet, and is connected by wire to the button that will be used to activate the flash when the time seems right. (The patience and attentiveness required to ensure that the right moment will be identified and seized is part of the considerable self-discipline engendered by de Fouw’s project.) The entire apparatus is then swung manually into position over the river to await this moment.

Because of the protracted nature of the necessary preparations for these nocturnal excursions de Fouw has gradually found himself conforming to a pattern whereby he goes out gathering images every three weeks. While the cyclical nature of this process inevitably takes on ritualistic overtones it also suggests certain affinities with performance-based art practices. That the shamanistic parallels often mentioned in relation to such art practices are not irrelevant to a consideration of this particular body of work is suggested by de Fouw’s own account of certain psychological and physiological aspects of his modus operandi: ‘It occurs to me that the sharpening of the senses is part of the image-capturing process at night, heightened by the darkness and by trying to see through and finally arrest moving water in order to predict the image.’ This ‘seeing in the dark’ is of course also partly a matter of attentive listening to the slopping and splashing of the water. The senses are thus simultaneously sharpened and synchronised.

It is one of the deliberate paradoxes that typify de Fouw’s practice that this elaborate process is nonetheless the most rudimentary method of capturing an image of the surface of a body of water. As no camera lens is used, the focal length of the negative image will be the depth under water of a given paper sheet when the flash is fired. This is usually somewhere between half an inch and three inches. This pared-down process has the effect of reasserting photography’s fundamentally indexical nature, its memory of physical contact with the actual world, at a time when this aspect of the medium has been considerably obscured by the pervasiveness of digital manipulation. Getting back to basics, it appears, requires considerable patience and ingenuity. Despite the time-consuming nature of his preparations, de Fouw allows that ‘the river does most, but not all of the work’. Yet certain aspects of the image can be predicted and, to a certain degree, controlled. The more turbulent the flow of water, for instance, the more ‘shattered’ the image will be. The further the paper sheet from the surface of the river the lighter and less ‘readable’ the image will be.

De Fouw’s pseudo-scientific working method and home-made apparatus call to mind the earnest amateurism of a bygone age of natural scientific enquiry. The decision to show these photographic prints, not as individually auratic art works tastefully isolated in pristine frames on the wide white expanse of a gallery’s walls, but more in the manner of a closely hung ‘scientific’ display, was crucial. So too is the fact that these images are displayed alongside the ingenious but decidedly makeshift apparatus used to capture them.

The dispersed and dreamy nature of what are effectively ‘all-over’ abstractions induce a sense of reverie in the viewer when focusing on any single one of these images. They indicate a passage from the conscious order of daily activity into the nocturnal abandon of the unconscious, whether private or collective. Viewed in terms of that immemorial image-bank, ranging across cultures, which Jung termed the collective unconscious, these images might recall, as de Fouw puts it, ‘a primordial time of struggling order and chaos’. Considered in more personalised terms, these are snapshots of fickle and fugitive ‘spots of time’, to use Wordsworth’s phrase, occasions of private pleasure and solace, inducements toward ‘the bliss of solitude’. That the passing of time, and the (im)possibility of capturing or arresting it through the faculty of memory or reverie, remains a core concern in his current work is indicated by the title de Fouw has chosen for this exhibition: ‘Amnesiac Dreams’. (As he idly muses: ‘What might an amnesiac dream of? And if amnesiacs can dream what might they recall of their dreams?’) Yet, despite the significance of the notion of private or collective reverie to a consideration of this entire body of work, the serial presentation of the photographic images, as well as the standardised square format – the medium-sized prints are exactly four times larger than the small prints, and the largest are four times bigger again – produce the opposite effect, curtailing the reverie through an assertion of exactitude and repetition. All of which suggests that the various dialectic tensions in de Fouw’s art between abstraction and precision, between the unconscious and consciousness, and between scientific enquiry and romantic transcendence seem likely to remain enduring and animating impulses in this work for the foreseeable future.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, November 2002