Nicole began to run very suddenly, so suddenly that, for a moment, Dick did not miss her. Far ahead he saw her yellow dress twisting through the crowd, an ochre stitch along the edge of reality and unreality, and started after her. Secretly she ran and secretly he followed.1
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934) moves from the baked and rotting colours of the French Riviera to the anaesthetizing blue and white of Switzerland and the clinic where Dick Diver works. His wife and former patient, Nicole, is in torment, a stitch unravelling. Her dress is ochre – a subterranean colour that looks unnaturally exposed. They have stopped at a fairground where, in front of a Punch and Judy show, Nicole has a sudden imperative. She must move and move fast, so as to keep the line between reality and unreality clear.
Yellow pulls into the foreground just as it pushes us away. There is something desperate or strenuous about the colour, even in its sunniest form. Writing 40 years before Fitzgerald in The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), Charlotte Perkins Gilman focused the story of a breakdown on the volatile nature of the hue: ‘The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.’2
A bleached shade of ochre, one that is equally troubling, draws the eye in Elizabeth Price’s new two-screen hd video installation, K (2015). We watch a machine manufacturing yellow tights, the same flat shape being spun and folded with efficient magic and then bluntly packaged.
The artist uses high-temperature ‘K’ light for filming, which has a draining and cooling effect. ‘K’ stands for kelvin, the unit of measurement for colour temperature: the higher the temperature, the cooler the light. In this hushed and diagrammatic visual register, Price places the machine in tight focus, giving its processes an eerie intimacy. Human presence comes only in the interjected footage of Crystal Gayle and her backing singers who, like the machine, are broken down into repeated gestures. Swaying hips, undulating fingers, theatrical expressions and swinging hair gather urgency in repetition; they pile up like the models on the packets that the machine spits out. By repeating ourselves, we activate memory. By repeating ourselves, we become real.
In the corner of the screen, a small flickering disc reprises Price’s two-channel projection, Sunlight (2013), a composite of 50 years of photographs of the sun, also taken using ‘K’ light, so as to remove its glare. Here, the sun is reduced to an emblem or logo. Beneath it, a text (also in yellow) is being spelled out, while simultaneously being spoken by a voice that sounds as synthetic as the colour looks.
The yellow of K is not of the earth: it is a simulation. As are the Krystals, the professional mourning troupe whose practice is described by the text. These mourners follow protocols as intricate and nuanced as any other ancient rite. Yet, the description given here is a very modern analysis of the mechanics of emotional and visual impact. The expression of feeling is an act of manufacture. We use the repeated gesture in the form of words, dance and song. Our grief is always a performance.
Each of the two screens is split into two-thirds image and one-third text, with a little leakage between. The two thirds might be our conscious and subconscious, and the text a kind of super-consciousness in which things are made deceptively clear. Or should that be painfully clear? Such formal enactments as the rites of mourning have always enabled us to channel and express what we feel.
It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw – not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.3
W.H. Auden observed in his lecture ‘The World of Opera’ (1968) that it is at times of emotional extremis that we burst into song. Once our feelings reach a certain height, local details get left behind and what remains is universal. Our feelings are simplified and brightly lit. So, what do we sing?
We all have experienced occasions, when, as we say, we feel like singing. We may sometimes even attempt to sing, but if we do we are dissatisfied with the results for two reasons. First, most of us cannot produce pleasing sounds; second, even if we are professional singers, we cannot compose a song expressly for the occasion but can only sing some song that is already in existence, which we happen to know ...4
We sing a song we happen to know. We repeat ourselves and each other, the repetitions hardening into pattern, formula, routine.
Step to the side, shimmy, clap, wave, spin. Set to music, these are the gestures of dance. Without music, they appear desperate, even agonized. Trapped in a spotlight, a singer spins and drops. He keeps capsizing, like Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture L’homme qui chavire (Falling Man, 1950), as if the world has suddenly withdrawn its support. It’s just part of his act but, isolated like this, as a single gesture without music, the man well and truly hits the ground, covering his eyes as if felled by the glare. In repetition, the moment becomes both more real and less so: a possible crisis or a party trick.
The duration of K is seven minutes and 15 seconds: the film seems both short and long as it’s driven forward by words and noise, and held back by image and gesture. Set against the noise of the factory, dance becomes a process of stalled and repeated manufacture. The machine noise is heightened and enriched so as to be musical. When it evolves into actual music, everything takes shape and makes sense. It dances. And then it all gives way again. What finally emerges from the machine is just something in outline.
The pattern of the film is of a woman trying to escape a pattern – like Édouard Vuillard’s sister about to emerge from, or disappear into, more yellow wallpaper. (His painting Interior: Mother and Sister of the Artist was made in 1893, just a year after The Yellow Wallpaper was published.) The yellow check on her black dress cages her in. She is struggling to take, or hold onto, shape. She is out of proportion, like Gayle’s floor-length tresses. As the voice describes how long hair is prized by professional mourners and how it is implemented as a phantom or a shadow, we watch Gayle singing country songs, making country gestures and giving us (in silent outline) words ‘we happen to know’. But the extremity of her hair tips this all off-balance. It asserts the push and pull of Nicole’s yellow dress and disturbed mind. The sexual tips over into the animal. What was most attractive when kept in proportion now threatens us and even repels.
What do we spin? The yarn, the body, the hair. And then there is the spin put on language, the surprise angle taken so that meaning swerves. The constructs of authenticity and authority are spun until they blur and so appear to take shape. The film’s synthesized voice has a multi-strand register. Biblical, testimonial, fabulist and futurist, it could also be a research report, manual or corporate guide: ‘As sorrow has increasingly become contingent to all public and social affairs, any occasion of significance requires its proper acknowledgement.’
The tensions out of which we build perception are made explicit as we try to watch, listen and read at the same time. Text, sound and image are held in centrifuge so that we experience a fraying attentiveness. A loose thread is being pulled. Meanwhile, the connections we usually make without thinking are subverted. Music is replaced by the punch and clamp rhythms of the machine. Emphasis shifts from the release of dance to the ways in which we are compelled to take shape.
The models posed on the packaging look cornered and dazzled. They shield their eyes as if to be fixed as an image of femininity is to be in a place of obliterating brightness. But we are dependent upon such images. We need shapes to inhabit and these include clothes and song and dance, and people who will stand in the place of our grief.
The text claims that outbreaks of dancing mania occurred when the mechanical loom was invented. What could be more entrancing than the possibility of moving so fast that you forget yourself? Only then you find yourself back where you started. Secretly we run and secretly we follow.
Elizabeth Price lives in London, UK. Her work User Group Disco (2009) is currently on show at Turku Art Museum, Finland. In 2016, she will have solo exhibitions at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Berlin, Germany, the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK, and The Model, Sligo, Ireland.
1) F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night, 1934, Penguin Books, London, 1985, p. 207
2) Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper, 1892, in Herland and The Yellow Wallpaper, Vintage Classics, London, 2015, p. 198
3) Ibid. p. 120
4) W.H. Auden, ‘The World of Opera’, Secondary Worlds, Faber & Faber, London, 1968, p. 76
First published in Issue 174