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Courtesy of Cornell University

February 12, 2018

Doug Hall’s In Silence — A Wondrous Architecture

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The acclaimed artist Doug Hall has worked in a variety of media and his work is currently being exhibited through his photography. Located in the Bibliowicz Family Gallery in Milstein Hall, In Silence brings together some of Hall’s most celebrated photographs which feature stunning scenes of archives and examinations of the human relationship with knowledge.

In “Remembrance of Things Past” (Marcel Proust), the title of the photo alludes to the central figure dominating the entirety of the piece, the Proustian work of the same name. The luscious prose which sprawls across the page is hypnotic and is one of the initial pulls of the work. The book in the photograph radiates the appearance of being effortlessly unplanned yet at the same time astonishing. The text in question, coming from the Overture of Swann’s Way (the first volume of the actual Remembrance of Things Past by Proust) deals with the narrator ruminating over the elusive nature of sleep. Yet far from soporific, the photo is nothing short of an awakening. A closer inspection reveals the fainter illumination of the previous pages’ words as they are superimposed by the text of the viewer’s immediate notice, resulting in an effect reminiscent to that of the pulsing of receding waves. The blurred background — a surrounding which appears to be that of the artist’s personal study  — assumes the role of framing the central object within the physical frame of the photograph itself. The book as an object questions its own relation to the work of the photograph; in fact, one may dare to go so far as to dispute the book’s status as an object or a subject. Is it that the assemblage point of the viewer’s attention is convergent upon the book itself or the sublime union of the very insertion of ourselves into the labyrinthine prose?

Hall also spent a significant amount of time in Italy where he extensively photographed libraries and other archives. In “Doorways: Archive of the Bank of Naples II,” the play between shadow and light is particularly intriguing and is one of the initial invitations to the viewer. In a certain way, the aesthetic shift is not necessarily confined to those illuminated spaces which betray their contents via the illumination that defines them. The intrigue within the shadows may as well be as instinctual as breathing, and it is here that the absence of form is perhaps more compelling than its delineation. This appeal to the natural curiosity is masterfully employed and the frontiers of the dark spaces are captured in an effortless and natural manner. What is most compelling to me, aesthetically and symbolically, is the sublime mystery evoked by the concentricity of the successive doorways — an aspect that simultaneously conjures the labyrinthine anatomy of the iterative successions of thought. In this way, a psychological architecture is transposed onto that of the physical painting’s form. The seemingly never-ending volumes border upon the fractal and gradually the viewer is thrust into the unstoppability of their own wonder.

A similar work is his capturing of the “Vioere Archives, Naples.” Like the previous, it is not only centered within an archival space but observing the color palette one also notices that the tones are of similar subdued and earthy tones, highlighted by the simplistic elegance of the stone and mortar floor. Shifting the gaze to the contents of the shelf the books of “Doorways” have been replaced by packages bound with string, amplifying the curiosity of what may be hidden within the elusive contents. The lighting is of a soft and warm nature and highlights the subtle contours of each of the bundles, creating the appearance of something that is on the verge of bursting with knowledge. In contrast to the previous piece, the repeating doorways have been replaced by a wrought-iron gate whose form is outlined by a lurid yellow illumination from behind. The circular apex of the gate embodies the form of a rising, or perhaps setting sun, juxtaposing the rejuvenative qualities of the knowledge within by the almost divine restraint of the physical barrier from it is constructed. Again, we note that quantity — the sheer number and repetition of the bundles — is seen in this work just as it was in “Doorways.” This theme is without a doubt a salient one of In Silence and points to the psychological space that the human mind is predisposed to create within the physical.

It is often highly recommended that during a meal, especially one of rich and strong flavors, to take care to plan the meal with interstices of a certain palate cleanser so that the loveliness of each course or each bite may be afforded a fresh canvas on which to paint its stunning gustatory landscape.

The final painting, “In Silence,” is markedly different from any of the other photographs of books by Hall in that the book in question is devoid of text. Thus, while usually instinct and habit urge the viewer to extract a textual significance, we are instead compelled to see our own narrative in the blank pages before us. And at the spine where the pages recede softly into the shadowy infinities of the book, so too are we drawn into the bottomless depths of our contemplation.

 

Varun Biddanda is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at vdb22@cornell.edu