Authenticity has long been discredited as an absolute value in art. In common consciousness, however, the authentic tends to retain its sovereignty over the staged and the second-hand. Real life is preferable to pretence; the natural superior to artifice. A line in Arthur Rimbaud’s poem, ‘A Season in Hell’ (1873), states: ‘Real life is elsewhere. We are not in the world’. Romantic longing and the elusiveness of authentic experience are evoked in Roy Voss’s latest show at Matt’s Gallery, ‘All the World’s a Sunny Day’.
A series of individually framed found postcards lined four walls. Uniformly spaced and hung slightly lower than eye-level, the frames formed a 360˚ horizon, as if delimiting an interior world. Voss’s installation of an artificial fourth wall within the gallery space emphasized this, creating a sense of interiority that was set against the carefree, sunny outside depicted in the postcards. In each postcard, a short, polysemous word has been cut from the handwritten message on the back and inserted into the image on the front. A literal puncture in the surface of the image, the effect of the word resembles Roland Barthes’s punctum: a poignant detail that suggests a more intimate, direct form of communication than the sunny ‘wish you were here’ communiqué of the postcard.
In Out (i) (2014), the inserted word literally the heads off two figures seated on the edge of a fountain, indicating the titular word’s exclusory qualities. Other definitions are implicit in the image: the holiday-makers are away from home, in the open air, in or out of the water. Voss plays further on this plurality of meaning by encouraging us to construct expressions from the individual pieces: ‘miss out’, ‘outlook’, ‘look out’ and so on. The combination of image and word activates subtexts that may be rueful, bawdy, cautiously optimistic, but always fluid in comparison with the formal precision of the works’ presentation.
Voss has selected cards from a particular era – the early-1960s to the late-1980s – during which an explosion in mass tourism democratized the once privileged experience of travel and leisure. Many postcards of this era bear a particular quality, epitomized by John Hinde’s colour-saturated, meticulously composed depictions, most famously of the popular British holiday-resort chain, Butlins. The vibrant, dream-like intensity of his idealized images served to counteract the (often grey) reality of British weather and the increasing homogenity of the holiday experience. The irony of the fact that these highly orchestrated, mass-produced objects are intended to authenticate unique, personal experiences is amplified by Voss’s subtle intervention.
Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) haunts a number of these postcard images, though the lone wanderer is often traded for a happy couple or a family (these are evidence of good times, after all) surveying the scenic rather than the sublime. A short video posted on social media by the gallery to promote the exhibition plays on the notion of the artist’s hand as guarantor of authenticity: in close-up, Voss mimes the motion of extracting and inserting the words in the postcards. The artist’s gesture is slight and swift, and feels immediate in comparison to the postcard, whose relationship to the place or experience that it depicts is distant both in terms of the way it idealizes its subject and on account of the time that it takes for its message to be received. Recollection and documentation necessarily colour or distort the facts of ‘real’ lived experience. The further we move from an experience in time and space, the more it tends to become obscured by nostalgia.
A theatrical term, ‘the fourth wall’ delineates an imaginary plane between audience and performance. In ‘All the World’s a Sunny Day’, the promise of elsewhere suggested by the postcards is echoed by a doorway set into the artificial fourth wall. Through the doorway, we find ourselves in a space between wall and window, between illusion and reality, in which we can begin to gauge the fantastic gap between here and there.