The Shadow of a Doubt
Multi-disciplinary artist Sandra Johnston poses more questions than she provides answers with an intriguing exhibition at the Golden Thread Gallery
The title of Sandra Johnston's current exhibition at the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast is, of course, a legal term, all but discredited nowadays, or at least fallen into misuse, through its unworkable vagueness.
Johnston has taken the phrase and its apparent contradiction – the notion of doubt accruing sufficient weight to gain a shadow seems at odds with its flimsy, legal inexactitude – and brought together an exhibition of different disciplines: performance, video installation, drawing and writing, as a single nebulous entity.
There are seven pieces in total. A slim, glass case of wool hangs from the ceiling, light projecting onto it, making a tumbling relief of shadows; a midnight forest or ink dropped into solution, spiralling and clouding. On to this is projected footage of a farmer watering saplings by hand, loosely, from a plastic bowl, a collie chasing his heels.
But this undulating fleecey landscape makes the ground churn beneath him. It looks, in fact, that, Canute-like, he is sowing seeds into the rock-pools of some desolate, blasted beach. Complementing this three-ply visual conundrum is a garbled radio news report, featuring an audible snippet of dialogue: 'Are the seeds being sewn for economic recovery?'
Thus the literal elides into the metaphorical; language becomes elusive and abstracted: a visual representation no more exact than a hack sound-bite on a news programme. Nothing is reliable on this shifting palimpsest.
A film projection of the trooping of the colours is so discoloured that it looks as though it has been rinsed in Ribena. At the bottom of the screen the lyrics to David Bowie’s 'Jean Genie' scroll across the image like the 'You have been watching' sequence at the end of Dad’s Army.
Presumably 'Queen Bitch' would have been deemed inappropriate. In fact, this is a reference to Bobby Sand’s favourite song, and the screen is faced by six of the nine chairs Johnston has appropriated from a scrap yard that had been salvaged from the Maze prison.
Pepper yellow and caked in dirt, the corners of their seats curling like staling bread or drying leaves, they have been manufactured as though for an interview situation, and are presented here as such: two against one. There is an unfairness here, a brutality built into the system, as though integral to the design of the seating.
Two video screens are set up back to back, displaying the artist’s torso, arms crossing over her breasts from the front, hands clasping at sharply delineated shoulder blades from the rear. The effect is disconcerting: from the front the gesture is defensive, protective, forbidding, but from the back it is an embrace.
The studio floor is criss-crossed with charcoal lines. They are regular and tightly grouped and unmistakably reminiscent of a prison: the lines resembling a fence or tower, the tightly bundled sticks like a fasces or days marked off on a prison wall. The charcoal sticks remain in situ. Are we meant to add our own; to mark off the days of our own sentence?
There is a still shot of security cameras on a knotted metal turret. Only the jerking clouds reveal it to be time-lapsed. It remains almost static, balefully surveying that which it has been asked to survey.
One of the most beautiful images in the show, a happy accident, surely, but necessarily included, is the effect on the camera as the sky darkens and it begins to rain. The turret seems to melt, deliquescing into a spangling smear, a spider’s web on a rain soaked morning.
These seem like disparate pieces, separate attempts or approaches to an idea, but the 'Cuttings' – short elliptical paragraphs available from the gallery – allow a secret history of what you have seen, a series of threads, perhaps invisible to the naked eye, tying one piece to another; a literal narrative describing a hidden one.
In the end it is these 'Cuttings' that are key to the work, colouring the parts of the collection that might seem difficult and forbidding in isolation. An extended monologue about recollections from the 1980s – from the death of Bobby Sands to the acquisition of a 'wonder woman' swim-suit – and they let us into Johnston’s work, helping us to reappraise what we’ve seen, review the ideas.
This is an exhibition about layers of information, and Johnston puts together clue after clue. While there are no definitive answers, there don’t need to be: you just keep asking questions.
The Shadow of a Doubt runs in the Golden Thread Gallery until February 2.