By Anuja Dutta
I have always been drawn to blank places—or spaces—within or beyond my (immediate) visual apprehension. The very abject presence of absence–the sheer nothingness of non-being—communicates the exact opposite of silence, although the decipherings of such blankness need not be uniform. The idea of a bubble is somewhat similar. It is literally the plop preceding nothingness where being and non-being are joined (or separated, depending on how you want to perceive it) by an instant. The current theme—Homo Bulla—on the brevity or transience of existence offers a relatively large expanse of ideas to choose from, but I believe half a decade’s obsession with all things dark and macabre edged me closer to Hollis Brown Thornton’s work.
For a researcher on the ghostly, bombarded with the annoyingly non-threatening images of bed-sheet clad flotsams as pop culture churn-outs, Thornton’s creations reminded me a little bit of both—serious yet playfully deviant in his own politics of memory, and thereby, erasure. As an artist whose work spans a little over two decades, Thornton describes his printmaking process as being ‘concerned with mortality’ and ‘work(ing) with objects from the past’. And what better way to get nostalgic than immersing yourself in family albums? As texts, family photographs are tricky. Like people within, they accumulate their own wrinkles with time, making the photographic narrative—and our relations to the dead and undead within frames—occluded. We don’t see what we arguably might have seen two years back, or five years ago. The glint of gold on a mother’s nose pin from her heydays or the early onset of grey peeking through an aunt’s fuller scalp amidst an informal house party. The images may not bowl us over by their quaint beauteous charm, but may actually trigger genuine moments of introspection as to how alike or different we are from our foremothers in terms of appearances or traits, bringing forth fresh panic waves on how fast the human body ages. For deceptively simple memorabilia, photographs devise their own intricate mechanisms of clockwork. And it’s safe to say we’re never in the same time zones.
Thornton stretches this element of photographic occlusion to an ultimate point of opacity. Using pigment transfer on papers, Thornton carefully erases the faces from their human frames leaving behind a literal blank. At first I thought—or so it resembled to my inexperienced eye—that faces had been meticulously scratched off of photographs with a sharp-edged object—remnants of an overused cliché in psycho-predator flicks. Looking closely, I recognized a method to this systematic elimination—one which, despite its artistic endeavour, triggered an uncanny sensation similar to what someone might feel during those flicks when presented with such images on celluloid—communicating a sense of calculated dread, hatred even. Thornton replicates this erasure through a series of images, essentially family photographs, often leaving a trail of depigmented space conveying a false sense of motion. In its own way, the pigment transfers can be quite beautiful to witness, gradually placating the initial dread with a more relaxed, renounced sense of melancholy. You’re haunted by and dispelled of your fear at the same time, getting pulled closer into the art’s and artist’s play of forced anonymity.
As blank contours of grown men, women, and children populate the most banal of spaces: living rooms, gardens, backyards, beaches, empty offices and sometimes literally on top of the world, you begin to interpret their partial or literal absence from the frame as not an anomaly but a mere accentuation of the near-empty spaces we almost already inhabit. The literal absence of a face performs a function opposite of orchestrated amnesia, plastering the gaping outline of a ghosted being directly onto our senses. How does a creative act of deliberate erasure communicate with the politics of keeping someone’s memory alive and well, that too when the nearest of visual references—people’s faces—are literal blanks?
As if to momentarily displace the veil of anonymity centring family, or family photographs, the artist employs a quirky way to thrust some identity back into those erasures; he fondly titles few of the photographs by proper nouns. We see pigment transfer on paper indeterminately titled ‘Freddie’ where the person in the photograph has dainty blonde curls surrounding the face; ‘Leona’ standing in a meadow wearing a multi-striped pullover; and ‘Toucan Sam’—my most favourite—the image of a slightly potbellied kid with a bird-mask on its face. Rummaging through his website, I stumbled upon an unexpected piece of information about Thornton’s daughter—she’s called Leona. It was mildly amusing to reflect on the photographer’s choice of subject, and also the cultural longevity of digitized images as vessels of filial memory. The archived ‘Leona’ appears to be not a six-year old child but a grown woman at least in her adolescence. There appears to be not a mere emptying of memory into literal voids but perhaps also a blending of identities. What follows is not a melancholic obsession about being unable to remember or locate, but a playful mind game of who’s who, as if almost hunting for visual clues, or cues, thrust into faded corners. Being your own memory detective into someone else’s bildungsroman. Pretty sneaky, eh?
It often helps to tackle any abstraction by assigning names to it, lending it some sort of form. In the case of Thornton’s photographs, names are trick questions leading us further away from closure. While his work is relatively free of literal soap bubbles, it actively seizes upon the elegant emptiness within it, tweaking the translatability of memory by simultaneously eliminating and adjusting (our expectations around) visual triggers. Mystery is far more compelling than a brief nod of familiarity. It is strangely more commodious, more comforting because it promises nothing, not even transience. By its own twisted logic of a lack, it contradicts transience as, unlike closure, mystery survives. And so do Thornton’s ghostgirls and boys, resplendent in their neons and pastels and greys.
Anuja Dutta is an independent research scholar based in Calcutta specialising in the colonial and post-colonial literature of horror and its economy as a genre. She is also a freelance writer for magazines and a serious cult/classic enthusiast. She finished her M.Phil last year on the horror/humour divide in supernatural fiction in Bangla.