In 1951, Robert Rauschenberg made his ‘White Paintings’ – a series of Minimalist panels that were shocking to an art world then immersed in Abstract Expressionism. His friend John Cage wrote of them as receptive surfaces, absorbing and reflecting light, shadow and outside influence. New versions of the ‘White Paintings’ make an appearance in Hannah Rickards’s latest project: Grey light. Left and right back, high up, two small windows (2014), an audiovisual installation at the remote Fogo Island Gallery, off the north-east coast of Newfoundland.
I came to Rickards’s exhibition one outrageously windy day in October, having trudged up a hill to the newly opened Fogo Island Inn. Inside lies the exhibition space of Fogo Island Arts, which is largely a residency programme for artists, curators, designers and writers (full disclosure: myself included) who retreat to Todd Saunders-designed studios tucked into the island’s rugged landscape. Rickards has been a frequent artist-in-residence, visiting the island four times to research and produce her project.
Rauschenberg’s paintings – receptive to their surroundings – and Cage’s concurrent role in foregrounding ambient noise, figure obliquely in Rickards’s work. Rickards often experiments with the structure of musical composition, applying it to natural phenomena and employing interviews and personal accounts as well as other sounds. In the past, she has stretched and compressed birdsongs and thunderclaps, and has used conversation to build descriptions of the reported acoustics of the aurora borealis. This particular installation is structured rhythmically around the sound of a foghorn. In keeping with her working method, Rickards began from a specific place: this time, Seldom Hall – Fogo Island’s only community meeting hall, in the town of Seldom, where daily life is punctuated by the blast of the foghorn from the lighthouse on the harbour.
In Rickards’s installation, the white paintings are sound panels for two videos and an eight-channel sound piece transmitted from speakers scattered throughout the gallery. Rickards attached microphones to the architecture of Seldom Hall, spatially translating it so that the gallery’s interior now rattles, taps and clinks. There is the island’s notorious wind, a car driving past and the popping of the camera trolley as it rolls over cedar shakes set in place to level the uneven floor. The foghorn sounds regularly in the distance; this protagonist, Rickards notes, is an ‘auditory marker for non-visibility’.
Two large screens stand askew in the centre of the gallery. On the left-hand video monitor, the camera pans the hall, across panels and electrical routes, skirting the floor and then up to a row of fluorescent lighting; it pauses on an average stretch of white wall, scuffed and dented. On the right-hand monitor a man and a woman sit at a table gesturing, as if reacting to unseen directions. In fact, they use diagrams of Seldom Hall’s ceiling and photographs of its floor as scores for their movements, which have also been influenced by viewings of the ‘Fogo Process’ films – a documentary series produced in 1967 by the National Film Board of Canada. The films were experiments in using community media to address rural living and alternatives to proposed resettlement as the fishing industry dwindled. Rickards was fascinated by the filmmaker’s attention to the listeners rather than to the speakers in the recorded meetings and her work highlights the position of the listener, or receiver. It is her first project to exclude the voice; without speech, she attempts spatial, aural and gestural forms of description, savouring the uncertainty that comes with such translations.
Little actually happens in Grey Light … but the deep focus on sheer ordinariness is striking, especially given the context. Tiny Fogo Island is an astonishing place to encounter such an exhibition: once supported by a booming cod-fishing industry, now long in decline, the community remains resilient. With the introduction of the Shorefast Foundation – the umbrella organization to Fogo Island Arts and the Fogo Island Inn – the island’s economy is now partially supported by nascent cultural tourism. Grey Light … is not entirely site-specific, however. Its subjects resonate widely – the slow making and unmaking of a sleepy town hall, with a distant, melancholic foghorn feels political: a nebulous portrait of rural community and economy, shown with its new and still indeterminate relationship to contemporary art-making.