At the Still Point of the Turning World
by Anna Wallace-Thompson
Written for CABIN gallery solo exhibition
Her hair floats like seaweed. It rests languid, curling around its owner like gentle, delicate tentacles. It fans out like a soft veil, shrouding and obscuring eyes, nose, lips and face. Suspended in time, the rolling, kinetic motion of each lock of hair is caught, like a whip mid-crack, the only evidence of a motion that has been put on pause. Elsewhere, mouths are open to speak, but as the words form they take on the shape of air bubbles, trapped and encased in delicate shimmering nets. This effect of muted, suspended animation owes its nature to the medium it is taken in, for the subject is suspended completely in water, the camera submerged with it.
In water, not only are shape and form suspended, but so is time. Words, limbs and breath float in an eternal present moment, neither past nor future, neither moving nor completely still. They are caught literally mid-breath, confronting the viewer with the ephemeral and ethereal nature of time. Indeed, underwater photography has long been Emma Critchley’s passion, along with diving. Indeed, it was during a marine conservation trip to Indonesia in the early 2000s that the two worlds met. “As I was doing a photography degree I bought a cheap, second-hand underwater camera to take with me. I was diving three times a day, so spent hours underwater playing with it,” she recalls. “What fascinated me was the experience of taking pictures in this space – watching the way that everything moved and behaved in a very different way, and particularly my own experience of being a part of this world.”
The effect is one of a world made up of shadows, sunlight refracted and metamorphosed as it travels through the density of water, imbuing everything with blue light. Here, we are presented with another world – one in which sound and movement are warped, and everything is on pause. “For me being in water evokes a sense of time that is different to how we usually think and experience it. I am interested in the heterogeneous nature of time,” explains Critchley. “Underwater there is a sense that time decelerates; the density of the space means one has to physically slow down and adjust how you move, which has a psychological impact.” It also reminds her of the temporality of being human, as one’s existence under water is dependent on how long a breath can be held for. “Our existence in this space is a suspended moment between in-breath and out, yet it is a state that can only ever be transitory, as it is dictated by our bodily limits,” she explains. “It is an experience that is very much focused on the present moment, which allows a certain detachment from the everyday.”
Many of Critchley’s subjects are in fact divers, and she draws on their relationship between breath, time and consciousness. In Freediver Portraits, they appear, seemingly standing in a void, silent and dignified, lit by shafts of light penetrating the deep. Working predominantly in pools or tanks (due to warmth of the water as well as clarity and stillness), she shoots with a digital camera. The process is slow and painstaking as Critchley shoots and reshoots to capture what she is looking for, often working with the same people for a long period of time as their relationship with each other evolves. “I never cast the people I work with; it is not about what they look like but more about them as people, their relationship with the water and how we work together.”
Critchley also explores the intrinsically primordial nature of water as a medium, as both the material from which life one earth emerged, as well as the primary component comprising the human body. “I am interested in the breath being a link between two worlds or spaces: above and below the water’s surface and also the link between our internal body and the external world,” she says. “It is a thread or an exchange that we are continuously engaging in with the space around us.” In A Shift in Sight, Sound, Movement and Breath, the image captured as a woman swishes her hair under water speaks of the camera’s ability to freeze an already suspended moment. Meanwhile, Critchley’s Figures of Speech series captures people mid- sentence, words and thoughts obscuring faces in large, bright bubbles, shimmering like blobs of mercury. “I think water is very primordial in this way and has the power to evoke this sense of a greater time, before and after our existence, something that is almost inconceivably bigger than us,” says Critchley.
The exhibition also includes a concurrent off-site screening of Critchley’s video installation You at the Chelsea College of Art. Critchley has worked with film and video for the past five years. The shift to working with moving image was a natural one, happening gradually as her work became more temporal; at the time focusing on the breath and duration. In You, she depicts the struggles of an internal battle, the densely silent underwater environment acting as a metaphor for an internal space – one in which both viewer and subject are caught in an eternal present moment. There is a sense of being out of sync with the world, as the thick liquidity of the space resists the impact of the central figure’s throws.
These suspended moments allow for one to be immersed in a moment in much the same way the subject itself is immersed in water. In capturing a breath, a motion, a person’s gaze, held aloft in the thick syrupiness of an aquatic environment, it is presented to us in its own vitrine, hair, bubbles and clothes splaying out like fans. Running from 6 February – 1 March 2015 at CABIN Gallery, At The Still Point Of The Turning World is an investigation of the temporality of time, as well as the many moments and movements we never have the time to slow down, stop, observe and take in. It is not so much time interrupted as time regained.