Interview by Bethany Rex
Catherine Yass is a leading contemporary photographer and film-maker whose work captures the psychological impact of architectural space. This exhibition at De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea presents her new and recent work from the last decade. We spoke to curator, Jane Won about the highlights of the exhibition and her experience of working with Yass.
The current show, Catherine Yass, features Lighthouse (2011) a new film of the Royal Sovereign Lighthouse, just visible from the Pavilion. Though never in slow motion, Yass’s films seem to occur at a glacial pace. How do you think this use of time feeds into the artist’s fascination with the impact of architectural space?
Catherine has always experimented with the element of time in both her photography and film works. In her light boxes she overlays two transparencies taken apart at around 5 seconds, and the movement between these shots are registered in the final print. One of the light boxes from the Lighthouse series in particular has a more prominent ghost-like gap between the images because of the rocking of boat where she took the images from.
Time is another dimension of space she deals with in parallel to architectural spaces and more interior, psychological spaces as you can see in the Sleep series. Naturally she works more directly with time and movement in her films. Time is one of the elements in her film that makes the viewer physically experience the impact of the architecture. She often deliberately shoots in a very slow pace and turns frames in 180 degrees. These already make it difficult to judge the direction of the movement and disorientate the sense of space. Then the film gets installed in a huge scale and audience gets immersed in a powerful cinematic experience. In Lighthouse there are scenes where the structure is upside down in her characteristically slow pace, which resembles a space station in space.
With her interest in typically slow-moving subjects – ships, opening locks – that appear to have ethereal aura, it would seem that an exhibition at DLWP with its unique location and history was an organic next step for Yass?
Catherine is not only interested in the formal beauty but also the idea of space. The DLWP is a structure built with the modernist aspiration of looking into future, and for many artists and thinkers buildings like the DLWP reflect their own continuing spirit. As we look out to sea, there is a lighthouse which stands alone guiding the ships and fighting the rough sea. When we started our conversation about the exhibition and the new commission, Catherine immediately spotted the Sovereign Lighthouse and from then on we very quickly started working on the project.
While Descent (2002) takes the viewer to a high rise structure in a Canary Wharf construction site, Lock (2006) is filmed on the Yangtze River in China. What role would you say location plays in Yass’s work?
Location is without doubt a key part of her work. Most of her film subjects so far are in an industrial scale which we don’t normally experience. Because of the mental distance of these places in our minds and their sheer scale, it’s a surreal experience to watch her films. In the lighthouse film, the structure of the lighthouse itself isn’t as monumental as other structures as the high rise structure in Canary Wharf, but it’s the particular location surrounded by never-ending sea and sky that provides the ethereal aura.
Yass’s signature colour images, overlaying negative and positive transparencies, are given a strong presence by being mounted on light boxes. How do her recent photographic works relate to early photographs such as Portrait Selection Committee for the Arts Council of England (1995)?
Her early portrait works contain strong psychological presence and she has carried on capturing this sense in an architectural setting. Since her Corridor series (1994) taken in a psychiatric hospital, she photographed neglected spaces like graveyards, toilets and empty stalls at Smithfield meat market. For her, space itself can reveal the psychological dimension more effectively without a human presence. The most recent series, Decommissioned (2011) was taken in a former car showroom just before its demolition. She also made a beautiful series called Sleep (2005-8) where she attempts to photograph spaces from dream, daydream and memory. So the range of space she deals with expanded in her recent work from the exterior to interior.
As part of the exhibition programme, visitors can participate in a trip on an RIB powerboat to the Sovereign Lighthouse. What role do you think this kind of experience plays in a viewers overall experience?
I think it is the best interpretation experience we can offer for this particular work. Experiencing the trip and the actual space describe more than any talk or exhibition tours. Catherine’s work is a suggestion and never claims to be a complete picture on its own. There is always a space left for the audience to add their own thoughts and the boat trip would be an ideal way to do that in my opinion.
We’ve read that you’ve taken the trip with Catherine herself, what was this like? What were the artistic outcomes for you both?
It was surreal to be out in the middle of sea faced by this enormous structure which we could only see as a dot from the Pavilion. Every visitor and local residents have a fascination with this structure because they can only mentally registered it. There have been a lot of stories and myths about it as lighthouses usually have. It is very inspiring to have this experience and we are very lucky to be able to make this project.
As a curator, what’s been the highlight of this project for you?
Working with a living artist on a new project is the greatest thing. New commissions can be risky because there is no guaranteed result, but when you believe in the strength of the concept of the project by a great artist it is an exciting process. The filming itself was not easy because of the unpredictable weather condition and the fact that it involved helicopter, boat and divers. But when we tested the final film in the gallery space, it was immediately clear how fantastic the work was.
Catherine Yass continues at DLWP, Bexhill on Sea until 4 September.
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