“She sees the shadows… she even counts the tree-trunks along a promenade by the shadows, but sees nothing of the shape of things.”*
In 1886, a 22-year-old woman in Lyon saw the world around her for the first time. Objects instantly recognisable by touch were hard to distinguish with her new sight, and shadows appeared more concrete than solid forms. Her doctors described the sudden strangeness of familiar environments, and her singular experience of the world as a newly sighted person.
In his 1932 book Space and Sight, Marius Von Senden collated the patient’s experiences alongside testimonies of similar cases dating from 1020 to the present. These captivating accounts, which later inspired writers including Maggie Nelson and Annie Dillard, express how something familiar can show a previously unacknowledged beauty when seen in a new way.
She sees the shadows is a group exhibition of works from the David Roberts Collection that resonate with the ideas found in Space and Sight. Each artist has reconceived day-to-day objects and materials in unexpected ways – a bench, plug socket, grate, section of railing or broom – and invites viewers to see alternative qualities and narratives therein.
Some artists have used precious materials to confer value to unremarkable commonplace objects. Susan Collis’ paint-splattered broom is inlaid with mother-of-pearl; Lea Cetera’s disposable coffee cup is cast in ceramic; Tatsuya Kimata’s generic plug socket is carved from white marble; Kris Martin’s wall screw is solid gold; Gavin Turk’s cardboard box is cast in bronze; and Rachel Kneebone’s eggbox is filled with delicate porcelain. Meticulous tromp l’oeil studies of grimy undistinguished patches of a city street, including puddles, broken tiles and railings, focus attention onto the unnoticed fabric of daily life.
Other subtle modifications to objects can subvert their use: wooden bannister rails jointed into an endless loop, public benches where the seat is elevated beyond reach, notebooks opened to face the wall so their contents is entirely obscured, a single black leather glove behind a glass frame, a wind chime pitched to an atonal scale.
Stories and ideologies infiltrate the private sphere through different media channels. Isa Genzken’s Weltempfänger (World Receiver) points to the domestic radio’s influential role in both propaganda and resistance. Rodney Graham’s couple reading a comic magazine in bed enact a popular sketch in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 film The Lady Vanishes. Theaster Gates places a charged 1970’s journal article ‘The Black Bourgeoisie’ in the seat of a piano stool. Harry Gruyaert’s TV Shots capture the constant news stories and dramas of 1970s colour television sets. Neil Beloufa carves a constellation of floating cats into compressed wood and power sockets, the ubiquitous trope of online videos and memes streamed into contemporary homes.
“I Was So Entranced Seeing That I Did Not Think About The Sight”. David Birkin’s title directly quotes deaf-blind activist Helen Keller, describing her experience at the top of the newly built Empire State Building in 1932. Birkin exposed a sheet of gelatin silver photographic paper to sunlight at the same location, embossed with a braille transcription of the quote.
Each of the works in a collection, like the testimonies compiled by Von Senden, speak of personal experiences and moments. She sees the shadows is accompanied by a new publication with responses to the project from writers Orit Gat, Claire Potter and Sally O’Reilly and artists David Birkin, Jason Dodge, Marine Hugonnier, Marlie Mul, Magali Reus and Douglas White.
*M. Von Senden (trans. P. Heath), Space and Sight: the perception of space and shape in the congenitally blind before and after operation, 1932, Methuen & Co. Ltd.: London, 1960.
She sees the shadows is a collaboration between DRAF and MOSTYN, curated by Olivia Leahy (DRAF) and Adam Carr (MOSTYN).
With works by Caroline Achaintre, Horst Ademeit, Fiona Banner, Sara Barker, Phyllida Barlow, Neil Beloufa, David Birkin, Karla Black, Carol Bove, Martin Boyce, Lea Cetera, Susan Collis, Thomas Demand, Jason Dodge, Boyle Family, Theaster Gates, Isa Genzken, Rodney Graham, Harry Gruyaert, Jeppe Hein, Marine Hugonnier, Pierre Huyghe, Matthew Day Jackson, Tatsuya Kimata, Rachel Kneebone, Elad Lassry, Bob Law, Nina Beier & Marie Lund, Kris Martin, Marlie Mul, Nika Neelova, Man Ray, Magali Reus, Pietro Roccasalva, Analia Saban, Erin Shirreff, Monika Sosnowska, Oscar Tuazon, Gavin Turk, Franz West, Douglas White.