Engrams can best be described as photo-reliefs. They layer up to three photographs into a single picture form, with sections cut through revealing the images beneath, coloured spaces or even the wall on which they are hung. The photographs are predominantly of architectural forms and urban spaces, either taken by myself or appropriated from found images. The series began in January 2011 when I was an Abbey Fellow in Painting at the British School at Rome and my intention was to make a series of photo-collages utilising a variation of the relief structure developed in a previous series of works of mine entitled Bare Life. The compositional and organizing impulse in these works refers to particular distinctions of montage and collage image relationships, in particular, the concept of the shock found in Walter Benjamin’s writing and the idea of a continuum flowing between images that can be found in Aby Warburg’s thinking.
The relief form served in layering images of places, displacements in time, overlapping histories and the contrasting sensations encountered in Rome into a daily studio practice.
Shock and continuum relate respectively to Walter Benjamin and Aby Warburg’s methods in relation to photographic images, and in particular, in the Passagenwerk and the Mnemosyne Atlas. The pathos-formula of Warburg’s Atlas was a device he employed to map the evolution of gestures and signs, Benjamin’s Passagenwerk similarly used photographic juxtaposition as a means to explore genealogies of the Parisian arcades. Engram refers to Warburg’s use of the word that was an appropriation of a biochemical concept referencing the means by which memory traces are stored. Warburg used an idea of the engram as a means to figure memory in relation to images. That this capacity entails qualities of ‘trauma’ I found to be a material aspect of the images I collected and subsequently integrated into these reliefs whilst in Rome.
In Engram 8 two images are combined. The first was taken at the Villa Torlonia in Rome, an early 19th century neo-classical building designed by Valadier that was used, from the 1920s on, as Mussolini’s principle residence. The image was taken looking into a large cracked mirror in, what was, Mussolini’s dressing room. Holes are cut through this image, through to reveal the second image of bullhorn loud speakers of the public address system at a Fascist rally, appropriated from propaganda footage of the time. One hole containing a section of the bullhorn image is raised up to be on the same plane as the contemporary image of the mirror. Another layer, closest to the position of the spectator, frames the two photographic images. It is painted in chrome yellow, sampled from the colour of the wall in the dressing room image. A cross-shaped mark on the mirror echoes the cruciform structure supporting the bullhorns. A hole cut through all the layers, revealing an ‘empty’ black circle, in turn echoing the bullhorn’s gaping mouths. The displacements in space, in the image of the room as seen in the mirror, the displacements into the spaces of the relief itself, as well as the displacements in time serve not to act as a commentary on Mussolini and the tragedy of the Italian Fascist period. Rather they constitute an intertwining, an entanglement, an entrelac between how moments of a nominal ‘now’ and a ‘then’ displace and re-present themselves.
In Rome I found myself often using reflections and shadows as a mechanism of displacement, containing two spaces at the same time, becoming further divided by punctures through the image and ultimately by the most frontal, ‘framing’ plane of the relief structure. Engram 35 combines two images of the inside and outside of Basilica di San Lorenzo fuori le Mura in Rome. The interior depiction shows two of the Roman columns that comprise so much of the collage of elements making up the sum total of this 13th century church. In turn a crisp shadow is cast upon the columns, the wall and windows behind. This image is cut through to another, an exterior view, looking from the Basilica toward the Via Tiburtina, a place that is predominantly an aggregation of 20th century buildings. The foregrounded framing plane is cut to accentuate the interior space, echoing the relationship between the projected shadows and a nominal viewing point and is painted light yellow as is an angular shape, cut through both of the images, situated on the deepest plane of the relief. No commentary is intended. Rather the in and outside of the Basilica, shifts in time are displaced, embroiled into the relief’s structure.
So far 43 reliefs have been made in this series. Other reliefs are comprised of images from Amsterdam, Brussels, Lodz and London. Each city suggests a different pictorial structure. Engram 38 is made from two images shot in London. The foreground image is of the top of the Guy’s hospital tower at London Bridge, enshrouded in scaffolding and taken from the summit of the Shard. The second is an image of a billboard poster in Waterloo. The poster is torn, a coupling of two images; an image of a road, the other a portion of a woman modelling clothing. This image is, in itself, the displacement of two images into one plane. The top poster is torn away, revealing the poster below; a found image that is not so much the product of collage but rather of décollage (collage is to glue and décollage is to unglue or take off). This secondary image, in itself displaced in space, is further removed into the structure of the relief. As the deepest image in the relief its frontal qualities play between the literal depth of the layer, the plane of the image and the space depicted in the image. It simultaneously operates as a near and far space. The near layer, occupied by the image of scaffolding, is nominally a distant space yet is replete with the provisional grid enshrouding the building. The frontal framing layer is painted blue, sampled from a tone from the image of the poster. It has a rectilinear shape cut into it, axonometric in character that alternates between functioning as a flattening device and also pulling the eye into the depicted spatial matrix of the relief.
The framing layer of each relief operates differently depending on the demands of the images it contains and the manner by which they are integrated as pierced layers. Engram 27, a relief rooted in London, uses an image of the shadow of my studio’s windows that is cast upon a wall. Squares are cut into this image revealing either the layer of an image depicting a brick wall in Bethnal Green or giving onto the literal wall behind. The window shadow oscillates as being read as the window itself or as a grid. The cut squares redouble this relationship that are, in turn, echoed in the crenelated shape cut into the near foreground layer. Window, frame and grid are intertwined with different modes of wall; depicted and actual.
In all of the Engram works the apparatus of the relief structure serves to activate a dialogue between the images. Between their spaces, their temporality and histories. They are entangled interstices and do not aim to reduce the components into a single entity or image but instead seek to render an ebb and flow of readings.
All of the reliefs are 60 x 40 cm in the horizontal and vertical dimensions. Their depths vary between 4 and 6 cm depending upon how many layers are combined. They are generically 60 x 40 cm as this is the largest image that can be derived from the digital Canon G12 camera I carry with me. The images are processed in Photoshop the hardcopy output being generated from an Epsom plotter onto either photo rag or watercolour paper using archival inks. The relief’s layers are planned and composed in Photoshop to gauge what a cut will reveal from a successive layer. However the images are cut by hand and much improvisation and accident determines the final result. 6mm MDF wood acts as the supports for the images and the frontal framing layer. Each layer of MDF is sealed to preserve the archival integrity of the structure.
A major contributing factor in the making of the Engrams series has been the Tableau Project that I began in 2010. This has been a series of symposia and exhibitions that address the question of the tableau form as a more comprehensive way of discussing and imagining pictorial forms than those geared to categories of medium, in particular painting and photography. I have used the word relief throughout these notes to describe the basic generic form of the Engram series. However I think of them most specifically as tableaux. As the French artist Christian Bonnefoi said, “A conception of the tableau as modality of the plane, time and the invisible substitutes for the conception of painting as an art of surface, space and the visible.”
Mick Finch, London, August 2013.