Debra Phillips | 2009

1–31 October 2009

Debra Phillips Backwash series (installation view) 2009 pigment print, on rag paper 7 panels, 150 x 150 cm each


Anthony Gardner

Between the madness of the urban grind and the stillness of the artefact lies another notion of time I like to call Exquisite Time. This is that rare stretch of time we allow for collecting or honing our thoughts – or, more accurately, for letting our thoughts come back to us – or the time of reading into the darkest hours past midnight, when being absorbed in the world of another can sometimes be richer than sleep. It's a time of extraordinary conversation, full of beans and ideas, that gestates over hours and seems to persist long after. In short, Exquisite Time is that profound and peculiar state of giving oneself over to another pace of life and to other tempos of being, of thereby opening oneself out to new possibilities, and which lies, for me, at the core of Debra Phillips' practice.

Each of the three works exhibited at BREENSPACE subtly engages with this state of Exquisite Time. To an extent, this emerges in terms of the works' making, and particularly the processes of research and creative reflection on the images and objects that are Phillips' subject. Rather than the "snap / print / exhibit / forget" approach to photographic art – and, in parallel ways, art writing – that we often see today, Phillips' material can sometimes take years, or even decades, to process into their present form. Four reels of Super 8 film, made during a Vietnam Veterans' march through Sydney in 1987, took twenty-two years to develop into the DVD projection Parade, for instance, while the seven images that comprise Backwash stem from photographs taken at different times again: the six images of foliage in northern France from 2005, the seventh image of a building interior in the Sydney suburb of Surry Hills taken in 1983. Both works have built upon a long gestation of ideas, with images resurfacing from the artist's archive to be worked through, re-thought and re-imagined years later, as a kind of reworking of thought through time rather than simply over time. Or, to put it another way, what both works suggest is a persistence of images and ideas from one period of life - whether that be the life of the artist, of contemporary culture, or of photographic technology - into another, destabilising our usual linear conceptions of time and the pastness of the past.

Conversely, Blow emerged from a slightly different engagement with sustained reflection and Exquisite Time. During the course of several months, Phillips accidentally knocked over a number of glass vases and lamps, the randomness of the accident mirrored in the haphazard lines and shapes taken by the glass. The fragments became objects of what Phillips calls her 'curious observation', slowly revealing their potential as photographs – of moments in time captured resolutely in the unique forms of the shards, which could subsequently be captured in the split second of taking a photograph. In many ways, it was only through prolonged re-evaluation of these glass forms, and their mutual capacity to spark reflective thought, that Blow gathered its present material form. It is an attempt to build form from the immaterial: from processes of observation, of slowing down and working-through, and from sustained thought and the hazards of chance whose effects - like those of the images in Parade and Backwash – also persist through time.

Each work in this exhibition is thus an ode to "unusual" notions of time: time to think through form and materials, to flesh out ideas about time itself, and to give a physical presence to those ideas so that they can keep on persisting and evolving again. Moreover, it's an ode to active and prolonged observation in an otherwise over-raced age that is also, I think, triggered in the viewer (and is certainly triggered in this viewer). The richness of detail in Backwash lures and absorbs, as though pulling one into the building to explore its crannies or into the foliage to sense its depths, gripping like a really good book. Similarly, Parade is less an immersive spectacle than a catalyst for putting social observation into motion: most obviously to reflect on the spectacles and commemorations of war from the 1960s to now, or from Vietnam to Iraq, but also to reflect on the shaping of cultural memory through documentary photography, and how such photography has changed over time, from the 1930s to the 1980s and on into the present. Such calls to detailed and extensive observation are perhaps most explicit in Blow, however, for here the particular shapes of the glasswork are isolated in space and time with an anatomist's precision. What the series demands is a rigorous study of these quasi-monumental, chance-made forms and the clever dualities suspended within each image: between the reproducibility of the image and the uniqueness of each form, for example, or the temporal correlations between creating a still photograph and the instantaneous moment of the glassware's destruction. What the series seeks is to be beheld, considered, analysed, explored for a period of time that may no longer feel natural to us, but which may be specific to the photographic and conceptual worlds that these objects have come to occupy.

In conversation, Phillips has described this state as one of 'slow happening', a term borrowed from the influential theorist of the 1960s, George Kubler. Neither the ultra-fast pace of cities like Sydney nor the longue durée of artefacts, 'slow happening' is instead a process of working-through ideas and images sometimes long after their initial development. It is a process of gestation and not just immediacy, of resonances through time so as to open ourselves to details, thoughts and senses of time different from what we are used to. 'The field of history contains many circuits which never close', as Kubler famously wrote (1) those circuits can instead be articulated, sensed or even given form through our engagements with 'slow happening'. The same is true, I think, of Exquisite Time as well, and what it characterises: the shifts or even letting go of oneself into unexpected realms of creative reflection, into states of beholding that can also redirect our usual perceptions of space and time, and which ultimately lie at the heart of Debra Phillips' new work.

(1) George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962, p. 36.