John Smith’s Associations (1975) hides its sense of order in plain sight. A rebus of a film, this tricksterish 16mm short provided the title and thematic pivot for this small group show at Arcade, which also included work by artists Charlotte Moth and Jeremiah Day. ‘Associations’ was the first in a series of exhibitions at the gallery, bringing younger artists, such as Moth and Day, together around the work of Smith, an English filmmaker active since the 1970s.
Associations begins with Smith’s narrator reading from an essay by psycholinguist Herbert H. Clark, ‘Word Associations and Linguistic Theory’ (1970), which details the range of responses given in word-association games: significant answers lie between idiosyncratic or overly personal reactions and knee-jerk or predictable responses – the so-called clang responses. Seemingly random stills begin to flash on the screen: a cat, a pack of cigarettes, an ornate clock. Eventually, as the tempo of the montage increases, the relationship clicks into place – the constant repetition of the word ‘associations’ allows us to piece together the repeated images of a donkey or ass (‘as’), a sewing machine (‘so’), the sea (‘ci’) and several South Asians (or ‘ations’). At first, this appears pretty straightforward, but by the time we pin down what is actually going on, Smith’s scheme has begun to slip, offering only playful glimpses that we must struggle to keep pace with. Images take on several sounds and meanings, or reference more indirect relationships: three clowns provide the ‘jest’ of ‘suggest’; or, my favourite, ‘i.e.’ is illustrated by a loin-clothed boy running through the jungle (‘aieee!’). Associations takes on the air of a jovial game show; it’s like witnessing the epileptic recall of an avid 1970s magazine-reader. But, if Smith’s binding of advertisement clippings and stock imagery to the formal, deterministic language of psychology points to a popular, commercial consciousness, Associations points to the slippery connotations that animate and undermine that same consciousness.
The restoration of Washington, D.C.’s presidential monuments in 2004, a process which took place alongside George W. Bush’s re-election campaign, was the starting point for Day’s branching re-assessment of America’s oft-proclaimed founding principles. Thirteen photographic C-type prints of various sizes, some with handwritten captions, and a slide-show performance (on the exhibition’s closing day) made up the American artist’s Jefferson Project (2004–6). Day contrasts images of building sites, exposed roots and the work on the monuments themselves with personal thoughts, from musing on his grandfather’s precise repetition of his daily habits in his final years to Thomas Jefferson’s acknowledgement of his failures. Attempting to cast personal experience as civic memory, Day’s multimedia performance of a body politic is a potent one, though sometimes over-egged, as with a photograph of the title page of Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution (1963), carefully lit and tastefully arranged with withered autumn leaves.
The use of analogue media throughout ‘Associations’ left a lingering taste of nostalgia, and all three artists’ use of classic photographic formats created a haze of dream-like connections, a place where meaning is indefinite and relationships constantly shift. Moth’s slide installation (Untitled, 2010) best embodied this, projecting varying permutations of coloured rectangular paper on a wall – like a miniature Paul Klee test-site. The pattern seems to breathe as it expands and shrinks, each click of the projector animating new alignments of white, gold and magenta; a blue mirror jutting from the wall at a right angle provided a distanced, distorted companion. In Moth’s work, the photographic trace evidenced in the three artists’ use of the medium creates a pattern, almost suggestive of a hidden code, which is actually randomly arranged – akin to a post-Structuralist’s game of blind man’s bluff. The resulting constellation is not entirely unintelligible, but defined instead by its mute slippages and its intimate idiosyncrasies.
First published in Issue 130