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Like Northern Lights

Daveen Koh

Hannah Rickards
To enable me to fix my attention on any one
of these symbols I was to imagine that I was
looking at the colours as I might see them on a
moving picture screen.

Modern Art Oxford
On now to 21 April 2014

I have never seen the Northern Lights, but I felt them at Hannah Rickards’ simple and charged solo exhibition. Her work is ‘simple’ in the way that Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, which John Cage famously likened to landing strips for dust and light, are free of adornment and the compulsion to impress. Rickards’ installations also recall astronomer Mark Thompson’s explanation of the aurora borealis in a recent BBC photo essay that captures dazzling displays across the UK: the sun ejects electrically charged particles that travel to earth and make gas atoms in the sky glow. Thompson concludes: “It is a simple as that.” A similar process occurs in the cathode ray tubes that generate television images. Rickards connects the two processes by placing a television, each emitting a differently colored light, in each corner of a triangular room. As red, blue and green light cross the floor, transcriptions of Rickards’ interviews with Alaskans who have witnessed the aurora borealis flash as text on the monitors or flicker as voice recordings. The effect is both ethereal and chaotic.

Rickards, recipient of the 2009 MaxMara Art Prize for women, amplifies the everyday methods––some more ‘scientific’ (or ‘scientific’-looking) than others––that people employ to understand their environments. Her installations are, to borrow David Howes’ phrase, investigations of the “patterning of sense experience.” The absence of actual images or sound recordings of the natural phenomena Rickards tries to reconstruct underscores the limitations of human perception and description. This is not, however, to say that human vision is poor. In the work Some people say they think it sounds like aluminum foil but to me aluminum foil is not the sound., Rickards invites us to see things in a different light—green, specifically. Light, filtering through green film stretched across the gallery windows, falls on a loosely mounted screen print, a page culled from a larger sheaf of papers and then magnified. The text is a fragment of a transcribed interview: “Fast crackling sound but it was really crisp and it wasn’t loud, and it wasn’t; it wasn’t a rough sound, it wasn’t a hard sound. It was spiritual…” Another piece, Right here and then nothing anywhere else.––a digital print (the only other canvas occupying the Upper Gallery walls)––resembles an evaluation matrix, which renders the impossibility of quantifying an elusive phenomenon even more apparent. The matrix categories are poetic: “seemed to be where it should be” is followed by “the feeling of an island”.

To begin to understand Rickards, it is helpful to consider what W.J.T. Mitchell says about word and language being two countries that speak different languages but share a lengthy history of intercourse, including mutual migration and cultural exchange. Mitchell contends that we should see the word/image relation not as a definitive method for demolishing or sustaining borders between “institutions of the visible” and “institutions of the verbal”, but as “the name of a problem and a problematic”. By fusing visual media with practices of speech, Rickards demonstrates the value of Mitchell’s proposition. In Like sand disappearing or something., we see only whitewashed speakers and panels in a white room, evocative of Rauschenberg’s monochromes. We hear a cacophonous exchange between Rickard’s interviewees, who challenge each other’s perceptions of the aurora borealis. In the video projection No, there was no red., we observe these interviewees conversing in a gymnasium-like space, though seeing them does not significantly enhance our understanding of the phenomenon.

As an artist, Rickards deconstructs natural phenomena by documenting processes of deconstructing natural phenomena. In so doing she tackles what Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter describe as a ‘Western’ cultural bias toward concrete labeling. To create Thunder, for instance, Rickards recorded and then digitally slowed down the sound of an eight-second thunderclap, which composer David Murphy turned into a musical score. The recorded performance was then shortened to mimic the length of the original thunderclap. In her lucid and luminous works, Rickards concretizes Blesser and Salter’s realization that a single sensory modality is really composed of many, disparate processes. Sound is tactile, and touch is temperature, texture and movement. Or as a woman says, as the blue screen lights up in Rickards’ triangular room, “You can hear it but not with your ears.”

Daveen Koh is reading for an MSc in Visual, Material and Museum Anthropology at Wolfson College, Oxford.