Hey, I’m Robert – let me tell you a story about art.
In October 2014, I was halfway through a roadtrip when Heather and I visited the Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago. It was in this liminal setting halfway between two oceans – homeless save for a Toyota Corolla and a tent in the trunk, with all of our possessions in storage at my boyfriend’s home – that I experienced a photo series that is so hard to shake. Sarah Charlesworth’s Stills was exhibited in a sterile space typical of art galleries. It featured maybe a dozen prints of people in mid-air, a literal representation of my in-between-ness and uprooted-ness. More specifically, each image was a single person jumping or falling from a height, collected by the artist from newspapers and other public media. They were blown-up way larger than their original resolutions so many were too pixelated to appreciate for their photographic composition, but all the images were unambiguous with regard to their visceral impact.
I walked through the room, pausing in front of each huge photo and trying to identify the individuals, as though they were my own ancestors and their descents were part of my family’s folklore. If only I could know what happened just before the jump, or who survived the fall. But the photos weren’t concerned with that, Charlesworth was documenting the fall and nothing else. Something about the severity of the concept, how it would not delineate from its strict parameter to indulge the curious viewer – maybe even because the information was unknowable – that really stuck with me.
When I reached the last photo I went back and pored over the didactic. For me images of people falling out of buildings in undeniably linked to my memory of the attack on the World Trade Centre Buildings in 2001. But Charlesworths images precede that event quite significantly; in fact I remember reading that the artist began collecting these images and even exhibiting them way before that date.
Stills. What a lie that title is. What a beautiful title that says so much about photography as a medium that freezes time (as much as photography was meant to offer undeniable realism). I compare it tone of own of my go-to quotes: Doris Humphrey’s assertion that “Movement is situated on a tended arc between two deaths”. The truth of her statement stands in ironic contrast to the title of this show and the feeling that the free-falling individuals Charlesworth collected were in all likelihood between two deaths in a much more literal way themselves.
Then Heather and Christian were ready to move on to the next exhibition, and I looked around me and people were entering the room, and exiting after an appropriate amount of time and only the images were unmoving.