Talking Pictures: Fitts & Holderness, Nicholas Mangan, Louise Menzies, Sean Rafferty
Artspace, Sydney, 20 April – 22 May 2011
Is all art in some sense archival, driven by the desire to document, to extend our subjectivity beyond ourselves, to create something lasting? Talking Pictures asks these questions, musing across the screens, projections, objects and artifacts from Australian and New Zealand artists Fitss & Holderness, Nicholas Mangan, Louise Menzies and Sean Rafferty. Although the show is disparate, each artist bringing their unique interests and practices to bear on their work, the pieces are bound by a shared interest in the ephemera of history.
Archives of all kind are explored: personal, historical, academic, environmental, incomplete. All art may well be archival, but Talking Pictures is consciously so. The show addresses the way in which the past inhabits our presents, pointing to our futures, and our future pasts. Cycles of destruction, itinerant histories and displaced desires operate between the works, as they encounter each other and create their own fragmented archive.
The most intriguing of the four collections is from Fitts & Holderness, whose three works revolve around unsolved missing persons cases. Here, the pictures are talking, yet there’s a black hole at the centre of their speech. They stutter and fumble towards sense yet are eluded by it. There is a wealth of information but still nothing is revealed of the whereabouts of the missing but tangential scraps and ephemeral traces. Each operates at the event horizon of knowledge, the point where sense vanishes.
The first display is a glass case, populated by objects supposedly pertaining to the disappearance of Brent Dyer. After an unsuccessful investigation spanning more than 30 years, the official investigation ended, and the Dyer family invited a bizarre array of people (including private investigators, psychics, historians, academics, artists and a recovering drug addict) into the preserved homestead to engage in increasingly absurd attempts to divine clues.
In the next room we encounter the story of Ása Ragnarsdóttir, a young girl who vanished from the relatively small Icelandic capital of Reykjavik. The room features interviews conducted by the artists while in residency in the city, a series of photographs and another glass case of related artifacts. Interviewees offer strange partial accounts of Ása’s disappearance, including oblique references to huldufólk (‘hidden people’) and a strange atmospheric phenomenon known to cause severe headaches and disorientation. The final room is dark, empty save for a bench and screen displaying a series of photographs the artists claim have been recreated from the files of Garth Mayhew, a NSW policeman who disappeared during his investigation of a secretive community led by the mysterious ‘Our Tully.’
Each of these ‘archives’ inhabits a strange space between fact and fiction. Cloaked in the verisimilitude of the archival format, the information presented to us is disorienting, forcing us to question what we are being asked to believe. It’s this sense of disorientation, the spiral toward nonsense, that characterises our relationship with the images. Fitts & Holderness have captured the fluid nature of how we interpret pictures, the contradictory and incomplete accounts of what they are ‘saying’. Pictures do talk, but they talk in fragments, in languages we only half understand. The photograph, Roland Barthes said, is a shared hallucination, “a mad image, chafed by reality”. Talking Pictures, at its best, rubs against reality, sometimes close enough to open our eyes what these pictures are really saying: that all reality is fluid and chaotic, that our archives are merely mad images, claiming reality, yet filled with fictions.
Kate Britton is a freelance writer and arts critic. She is the Arts Editor of FBi's Flog, 'Scene' Editor for the Alternative Media Group, and is completing her PhD in the use of visual arts in qualitative research at UTS.
 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography(1980); trans. Richard Hill; Hill & Wang; New York; 1981:115