Catherine Yass: Dream Shifts
A portrait of Catherine Yass who
has been nominated for the Turner Prize 2002 by Alistair Hicks
been working with a sleep scientist (sleep doctor) to learn more about
the structures of sleep," says Catherine Yass (Biografie,
by the BBC), who is well known for her luminous photographs and light boxes.
These are characterised by an interplay between negative and positive images,
and the resulting duality is reflected in the world she portrays, which
hovers between dream and harsh reality.
1/4s, 4.7°, 0 mm,
40 mph, 2002
1/4s, 7.2°, 0.2 mm,
20 mph/180, 2002
Yet there is always a down-to-earth
element in her work. She started working with the sleep doctor shortly
after completing the eight-minute film Descent (see more),
which is a vital part of her contribution to the Turner Prize exhibition
currently on at Tate Britain (London). The film beautifully disorientates
the viewer. On a foggy day, she and her camera were lowered slowly from
an 800-ft. tower block in Canary Wharf still under construction. She shows
the film upside down, leading the viewers to feel as though they were slowly
falling through this no-man’s land. "I was fascinated to learn from the
sleep doctor that dreams about falling can be triggered by what you’ve
eaten – that what you digest apparently helps form your dreams – as much
as anything psychological."
1/4s, 5.7°, 3.4mm,
1/4s, 5.7°, 3.4 mm,
1/4s, 7.2°, 0.2mm,
Yet speaking of Yass’ work in terms
of dreams could be misleading, for, as she says, "I have quite vivid dreams,
but I’m not interested in projecting these. I’m more interested in how
the imagination works – in the waking imagination." In this, she unconsciously
shares concerns with an earlier generation of Slade
pupils, such as Victor
Willing (1928–1988) and Michael
Andrews (1928–1995), who were interested in the French philosopher
Bachelard’s ideas on reverie and architecture. From the beginning,
Yass has chosen simple, strong architecture for her compositions.
is often a strong hint that the corridors (picture)
she photographs mirror a mental architecture – an architecture of the human
mind. "Of course, photography has to have a subject – one has to take to
pictures of something," she says, "– and this subject holds the attention.
But those corridors … maybe they do reflect the way the mind works – going
off down corridors – dreams do have a certain space."
art schools, and in particular the Slade, there used to be an edict against
action in pictures. It was considered taboo to show someone doing something
to someone. Art was meant to be above mere story telling. Yass managed
to avoid this straightjacket teaching at the Slade (she was not in the
painting schools), yet many of her images have the intensity fostered by
this tradition. From the beginning, she was interested in making portraits.
These were invariably of single figures: framed, isolated, and contained
by their environment.
Cell: 2, 1998
Cell: hole, 1998
The exceptions seem to prove the rule, for
when she had more than one subject, as in Portrait: Chairpersons of
the Council of the City of Salford, 1994, the individual figures are
still in splendid isolation, almost wrapped up like individual bubbles
by the artist’s technique. Yet it was the same year that she achieved recognition
for her Corridor series, and she became famous for her bleak architectural
compositions, hospital corridors (picture),
and other institutional settings. "That was an accident," she maintains.
Corridor series started out as backgrounds for the portraits," Yass explains.
"They were always backgrounds for portraits. I got a commission to work
in a hospital. I had been doing portraits until that time. My main intention
was to make portraits of the patients in the psychiatric hospital, but
before I ever got to do the portraits, I was introduced to the archive
of Dr. Diamond, a nineteenth-century doctor who’d done research at the
hospital on mental health. There were photographs of individual people,
and each photograph was accompanied by the single bald statement of their
disease; these people were characterised forever more by their illness
– mania, hysteria, and melancholia.
Before I did the portraits of
the patients, I did the pictures of the corridors. I installed the portraits
in niches in the corridors of the hospital itself, but I didn’t feel happy
about removing them from their context.
Previously, when I’d been
making portraits, I had been making them as ways of opening up existing
relationships. If I was commissioned by a gallery, for instance, I would
be making a portrait of a curator. I was dealing in relationships of equality
of power that were more on the receiving end of power structures. These
people, though, had less vested interest in my making their portraits.
I wanted to make sure they weren’t shown in an exploitative way, and I
would only show them in contexts where they would be respected.
don’t believe that you can ever catch the kernel of a person in a photograph.
People’s identities are constantly changing. It’s just a moment, and then
it’s gone. Identities slip. At times, one doesn’t know precisely what one
is photographing. I don’t just want to project my own views on them. The
hospital is a world in itself. It’s cut off from everything. The photograph
can’t contain them."
Garden Portrait, 2001
Despite Yass' protests, there is a sense of
the visionary about the figure in the light box Garden Portrait,
1995–2001 (Deutsche Bank collection). It is almost as though he were in
a state of reverie. Again, there is the ambivalence. Is he a visionary?
Does he see anything at all? The image provides no judgement, but with
its vibrant, blurry blue edges, it suggests how man leaks into his environment
and vice versa. He could almost be in the "moment of daydream suspension"
that Yass wishes to achieve in her work.
Yet seen alongside the
bare Corridor pictures or the Cell series (pictures),
where she took pictures inside a police jail, one is unnerved by the shifting
world. The spreading blues and greens seem to attack the very fabric of
order, the bare architecture, as though they were a corrosive acid or a
colour virus. The blurred edges are almost like holes encouraging us to
slip from one world to another.Blue is particularly important to
Yass. "Blue, unlike other colours, does seem to have this quality of floating
in front of and behind a plane, so you can never quite locate it. It makes
you look at the image from a fragmented and unfamiliar viewpoint. With
the portraits, the effect of the blue is to destabilise the sense of space
and the position of the person in it, and this can have a disorientating
effect on the viewer, too. In the images such as the Corridor series, where
there are no people, there is an empty space left for the viewer to fall
Bankside: Cherrypicker, 2000 /
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
Do we "fall into" these pictures? My instinct is a desire
to break out from the limitations of these prison and hospital walls, to
force my way out of my own imprisoning mental walls. Yass has pushed us
in there; we did not just fall. It is the blurring between the mental architecture
and the rudimentary structures she depicts that dumps us there. She works
further on us with the viral infection, the anxiety she injects into the
Star: Madhuri Dixit, 2001
Star: Hema Malini, 2001
Yet a subjective interpretation such as this can hardly do
justice to the multiple layers of her work; Yass herself has always cleverly
avoided being reduced to an unequivocal subject or category. When she
represented Britain at the 10th Indian Triennial in New Delhi, 2001,
she made a series of portraits of Bollywood
Stars. There is a completely different mood here from the hospital
series. She entices the viewer with the magic of the movies, at times depicting
the lush, rich cinematic interiors. Seeing the colourful portraits of the
stars, it’s no wonder they’re idolised by millions of fans. Yet these images
definitely spring from the same vision and help explain the thinking behind
Yass’ whole body of work. "I am interested in light boxes as a form of
sculpture, as well as photography and films. Film seduces and draws you
into images. Light boxes also have an internal space, like the space inside
Greg Hilty, Parveen Adams, "Catherine Yass,"
aspreyjacques, London, 2000
Vikram Chandra, "Star," British Council,
© Catherine Yass, London