BY Stuart Morgan in Features | 20 AUG 91
Featured in
Issue 2

Partial Eclipse

The portraiture of David Griffiths

BY Stuart Morgan in Features | 20 AUG 91

In 1987 David Griffiths exhibited a photograph of a man's back and head. He could have been anyone and there was nothing special about the short-sleeved shirt he was wearing. The only point of interest was that instead of being tucked in, the label at the neck was sticking out 'MOYEN', it read: 'Medium'. And suddenly a person who would have gone unnoticed in a crowd seemed to be paraded in public with a sign announcing that he was a misfit. At once problems arose about the relative position of the sitter and the photographer. While a documentarist could have interpreted it as a social faux pas, a portraitist, however unorthodox, would find it impossible to attach labels to sitters without their collaboration. It could have been a joke, yet something more than humour seemed to impel it. Appropriately, the work was included in an exhibition about male identity, called 'The Invisible Man'. As if taking his cue from the hero, visible only when his body was swathed in bandages, Griffiths began perfecting a technique whereby interlopers, entering the space of a projected image, blocked the light which created it, revealing another image which had previously remained invisible. The process still involved a play between the back and front of the body, with all the associations of confrontation and forgetting ('facing facts' and 'putting something behind you') that this implied. The installations resembled bland, neo-minimalist projections, with patches of coloured light appearing in darkened rooms. Making shadows, imposing their own presence on the even glow, visitors revealed unsuspected truths, neither underlying reality nor superimposed upon it, but as one of its components, summoned now by a human presence. Standing in the space meant confronting evidence discovered, or uncovered, by a human body.

For Griffiths, the kind of attention demanded by a work of art seemed to relate to the act of caring for a human being. By chance, this was demonstrated a second time when projecting an image onto a screen revealed a hitherto invisible figure: a small child at the bottom of a tree in the foreground. Perhaps children always constituted an invisible society of their own. As in the case of the labelled man, the 'found' image of the child beneath the tree prompted varying responses. The 'invisibility' of children has to do with their relationship to adults; looked after, they tend to be overshadowed. Was that child lurking in the undergrowth as a threat, a reminder or a lure? in Griffiths's untitled installation at U7 in 1990, he examined permissions and taboos governing child-adult relationships. Unhappy children formed an invisible component of Victorian society. The discovery of one particular waif implied that its predicament could be alleviated by the intervention of others. As if in response, every element at U7 involved warning signals. Cipher, a painting with an inset that read 'Keep Away from Children'; islet, a black painting with an image of fire and Denizen, a black rectangle containing a blue, ripped square with the image of a young face, explored different aspects of the necessary protection of the young and the dangers of crossing an invisible line to offer direct help. Issues of permission and even of powerlessness needed to be solved on any level. Griffiths's accidental discovery of an 'invisible' member of society prompted thoughts on the barriers that separate children from adults - CHILDREN'S SOCIETY, a phrase uncovered by the participant's body in Educe (1989) suggested a world of their own as well as an adult organisation to help them while thoughts of permission and prevention already informed a technique by which images could be seen marked out upon the viewer's body. At that point the relationship between viewer and image ceased. Conventional approaches to photography often stress its documentary potential. (In Antonioni's Blow-Up, for example a buried image is discovered by accident in the process of developing a photograph, and provides evidence for a murder.) In Griffiths's art, however, viewer and image are caught in a loop. Elements of secrecy and closure inform work where images are summoned only when light is blocked and the viewer is reduced to a shadow in the process. This is bound to seem worrying, given the cry for help made by the 'found image'. Paradoxically, evidence can be brought to light only by some literal form of 'screening'.

As metaphors of looking continued to be explored, who preys on whom became a major concern. Vulnerability had always played a major part; we yearn to tuck the man's label into his shirt, as we would for a hurriedly dressed child on its way to school. Now that response was emphasised, in an installation curated in 1991 by Mark Currah for M.O.I at Surrey Quays, London. On one entire floor of a disused warehouse a large, forbidding space extended, at once closed (since it had a roof) and open (since the building was now windowless). Griffiths blacked out the windows, leaving room for only a narrow strip of light to enter. Straight ahead of the visitor, on the wall at ground level, two similar strips were to be seen, this time illuminated, an effect produced by two slide projectors. But the strips of light did not meet; a darkened area separated them. Walking towards this, one became aware not only that it was wider than might have been suspected, but that a path was available by which it was possible to enter the space without one's feet causing shadows by interrupting the beams. Approaching it without varying one's course, it was possible to go unnoticed to become 'invisible'. Yet treading that narrow path proved far from easy, since the fear of being 'picked up' by the beams on either side only increased as the walk continued. The feeling of being used, of existing as a target, had assumed special significance in a situation where visitors acted as mobile screens, one image appearing on their backs, while another was made visible by and on their own shadows. And the accompanying sense of punishment seemed just: a sighted person, Griffiths was insisting, sees only partially, remaining an agent with power to act and change or simply to suppress action in favour of looking abstractly, for reasons of beauty and pleasure, with the attendant dangers of incipient aestheticism and sheer passivity that this might entail. Given his tactic of operating at extremes, it was natural that at some point Griffiths should put his own meanings in question by pushing one extreme so hard that it turned into its exact opposite.

The title of the work, Sensor, referred to the visitor, walking through the space. A pun on the word 'censor' was involved; people see only what they want to see, it is suggested. Yet censoring, refusing to see, can have serious effects. Dream of being in a house where a sinister figure is trying to break in and that figure, in Jungian terminology, is the shadow, the negative side of the personality which has to be encountered, though that encounter demands extreme effort, partly because it resists assimilation by the conscious mind but also because it is composed of one's own dark characteristics, recognition of which will help in the achievement of self-knowledge. In 1945 Jung described the shadow simply as 'the thing one has no wish to be', summing up many references to the term as the negative aspect of the personality, that which is unpleasant, worthless and primitive - in short, the repository of all that the conscious mind rejects. It may burst out in moments of unawareness, and is encountered in the process of projection, in which what is unacceptable to the personality is located in a person or object. Employed in the most general way, Jung's terminology helps with Griffiths's works, where a literal shadow, the presence of the viewer, intervenes to reveal that which is outcast, needy and unfinished, only to reveal it at unexpected moments. Of course, the viewer soon realises that the extra image can be turned on or off by a mere movement, but the frisson it gives is usually repeated, as in a fairground. That other people's misery can be so pleasurable is shocking but irrelevant; the image is already accepted as an invention of the viewer's own, is treated as such and returned to compulsively, almost with relish, as one picks at a sore. Just when an audience existed to recognise Griffiths's technique, he refused to employ it. That no image emerged, that the only compensation was to reach the far wall unscathed, made Griffiths the 'censor', his lone participant the 'sensor', feeling vulnerable in a sinister, uninviting and finally unrewarding environment.

Since then, Free Fall, at Camerawork in London, 1991, contained elements of Sensor, 'blind' spots where no shadow appeared, alternating with the face of a suffering person and a child's rubber ball, which, when intercepted by corners, resembles a planet. Picking one's way through the blue space proved alternately shocking and rewarding, but the reward took the simplest form. Griffiths has always used circular frames for his images. Now the image itself was circular and, of course, bulbous. The proffered treat, compensation for the suffering witnessed elsewhere or the lack of recognition, took the form of a large breast, in the circular shape that Griffiths's screen had taken from the first: a place of perfection and wholeness, eclipsed by the problems adulthood brings. Seeing one's body reflected darkly, without features, implies a level of recognition and a wish to pass the image off as something strange in order to shirk the degree of confrontation it implies. No art based on shadows can avoid moral ('black and white') overtones. Working by reversals, the process Jung called enantiodromia, stressing individual engagement and complex layers of private interpretation - everyone's shadow is different - Griffiths has still managed to keep his meanings within certain perimeters: narcissism and shame, pleasure and responsibility, reassurance and danger, acceptance and rejection, all measured by a shadow which is and is not oneself, the strange dark other we refuse to acknowledge but can never embrace.