Ossian Ward

Text from the Catalogue produced for Charlotte Ginsborg’s solo exhibition at the Jerwood Space, 2006 – Ossian Ward

“It’ll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or in the second, using the third person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing. If one might say: I will see the moon rose, or: we hurt me at the back of the eyes, and especially: you the blond woman was the clouds that race before my your his our yours their faces. What the hell.”

Argentine author Julio Cortázar’s wonderful short story Las Babas del Diablo, published in 1959 and translated into English as Blow-Up, begins with this admission of the narrator’s problematic relationship with his own story. Not only does it reveal Cortázar’s struggles with his chosen professions of writing and translating, but it also establishes his narrator’s inability to differentiate between his own eyes and the lens of his camera. In Blow-Up, the photographer and narrator in question, Michel, idly snaps two figures, a young boy and an older woman, apparently in some love tryst. Michel develops and enlarges this photograph noticing the boy’s obvious distress and a sinister-looking man in a car, also somehow involved. With each successive blow-up, Michel begins to imagine the photographed scene as a forced seduction or a kidnapping leading to the boy’s enslavement or even his murder. The anti-hero feels guilt and terror at his complicity in the boy’s fate, rueing his (or perhaps the camera’s) impotent, voyeuristic eye. The clear warning is that any record of reality, photographic or otherwise, is as unreliable as the words and memories that accompany it.

Charlotte Ginsborg’s 2005 film entitled Stretching out flat on the mattress he fell asleep instantly, also narrates a tale of impotence and disorientation caused by a set of recently processed photographs. Her terrorized photographer, Nick, sits in a dark pub to relate (in the third-person through a female voiceover) how his prints of a day spent at an anti-war march in London with his wife Trish, did not come back from the photo lab quite as he had expected. In the narrator’s words; “as he began to glance through the photographs he had been handed, he realised something was wrong. It slowly dawned on him that they weren’t his images… most unsettling was that they were almost his pictures… He began to notice small shifts in perspective… [and] the absence of his wife in any of the images.” The film suggests, through a series of stills and sequential montages, in which a younger blond woman appears in place of his wife, that she might actually be the narrator, who is also the lead protagonist of the film and by association, the author and artist as well. At no point in the 9-minute film does the voiceover offer any great reveal, in fact at one point she addresses the camera and viewer directly; distorting her performance as impartial narrator even further. Is she the other woman in the photographs, perhaps the artist? How to unravel the confusion of ‘her’, ‘she’, ‘me’ or ‘I’?

Like Cortázar’s short story, Ginsborg’s film tackles the unreliability of various modes of representation: narrative story telling, photography, memory, but also, filmmaking. Having initially trained as a sculptor, video artist and photographer, first at Central St Martins and then at Goldsmiths College of Art, she only turned to making films using industry-standard 16mm stock after working in commercial film and television production – the ultimate arena of created or falsified realities.

While the artist has employed actors for this film, it is nevertheless based on an actual anecdote, similarly told to her in a pub by a friend’s father. Any verisimilitude to the surreal tale is largely hidden behind the multiple permutations of voice and viewpoint offered, with added psychological and sociological dimensions hinted at through research that Nick had undertaken to discover to what extent women are politically active or prone to outbursts of anger. Are women less likely to express anger or protest because cultural programming demands they preserve the social harmony? It is up to the viewer to decide how much of this gender-specific context is painterly subterfuge to distract from any empirical truths. More significantly, these glimpses of social documentation and psychological profiling provide valuable insight into the artist’s working methods and thinking processes.

The work’s visual backdrop of an anti-war march peppered by Blair- and Bush-bashing slogans is likewise not simply misdirection, misplaced political subject matter or just a framing device for the characters, but provides an alternative expression of the heady concoction of impotence and rage that fuels the story. Just as the opening shot shows him pointlessly knocking over his pint of beer in the pub, Nick unleashes his pent-up frustration in the camera shop, sweeping everything off the counter, onto which he then pounds his fist violently. However, as this futile finale is described retrospectively by the narrator, we can never be sure whether it is true and if he really did then race home and, as in the title, stretch out flat on the mattress and fall asleep instantly.

Ginsborg’s 28-minute film, The Mirroring Cure, opens with an almost two minute continuous panning shot that travels vertically down from central London’s smoggy, grey horizon line to the bowels of the busy construction site below. The breathtaking descent into the film’s location is simply the camera’s slow drop through a 90° arc, yet it feels like a journey through a latter-day, urban version of Dante’s Inferno, composed of seemingly endless substrata of concrete upon steel upon rubble, accompanied by an intensifying cacophony of monstrous digging machines and pneumatic drills. The layered structure is an important prologue to the film’s almost forensic exploration, not of any imagined hell, but of her characters’ psyches – our own inner demons if you like.

Over three years ago a property development firm, Land Securities, commissioned Ginsborg to create a work of public art based on their (now completed) office and shopping complex near Victoria Station. While the work’s timeframe encompasses almost the entire construction period from the site’s demolition to its inauguration, frequently illustrating the emerging architecture, it is the intertwined stories of a handful of people who work on and in the growing office block that constitutes the film’s foreground. The office building itself becomes the repository for these personal accounts, confirming Balzac’s notion that architecture is the record of human history.

The first character, a young receptionist glimpsed behind the glass and steel of her desk, is again the narrator and maybe the artist’s alter ego. She undertakes a series of interviews with her co-workers, ostensibly to ascertain what drives her colleagues at work and whether they are satisfied in their employment – another example of the artist’s sociological methodology. The results of her investigation, played out in various dialogues and monologues, introduces the key protagonist – the design manager (he is never named, like Kafka’s character K. known as ‘the surveyor’).

Ironically for someone routinely working in unfinished 20-storey office towers in which the walls have no windows and some of the floors have no floors, the design manager suffers from unexpected bouts of vertigo for which he develops ‘the mirroring cure’ of the film’s title. These moments of dizziness also represent the psychological disorientation that accompanies a general fear of instability in society, the fear of falling through an abyssal fault line in the fabric of life by not securing work, a home, a relationship, success and happiness.

Despite professing happiness at work, the design manager is nevertheless situated in a hierarchical work structure, within the architectural structure he is helping to build. His throwaway comment about making box art “like Joseph Cornell” in his spare time, speaks of the compartmentalisation and pigeonholing of modern existence and how essentially we find ourselves living, working and, eventually being buried in, different kinds of boxes. To escape his existential confinement he, like many, daydreams to pass the time. This escapist practice ultimately helps him discover his mirroring cure, which is not just a solution to his fits of instability but a means to avoid contemplation of an unknowable future.

The design manager’s mirroring or doubling of another’s actions creates an immediate but subconscious association with that person, which staves off his physical dizziness as well as the vertiginous feeling of being alone. His studious observation of strangers in the hallway or his colleagues in the lift is matched by the interrogative style of Ginsborg’s film. The interview scenes shot in grainy digital video rather than in high-grade 16mm, not only heighten the viewer’s fraught relation to the film – is it documentary or art, who is subject, voyeur, interviewer and interviewee? – but also function as a bizarre doubling of the viewer, turning the questions back onto us – how do you perform at work, are you satisfied in life, do you feel lonely?.

Our self-awareness can become uncanny and even unbearable in this situation, as disturbing an experience of doubling as when you become suddenly conscious of your own voice in isolation or when the other person you catch yourself looking at is actually your own image seen strangely anew in a mirror. This self-reflectivity is all the more destabilizing for being presented as a film in the context of an art gallery, where you also ask yourself: how do you perform in a gallery? Do you drift off and daydream instead of focusing on the art? How long are you expected to spend in front of a work of art? Are you unconsciously mirroring those in the gallery around you to feel more secure?

Stretching out flat on the mattress he fell asleep instantly successfully confuses boundaries between fact and fiction through a systematic disruption of the narrative, from the ambiguous perspective of the voiceover to the spliced-in photographic stills (echoing Chris Marker’s 28-minute stop-motion masterpiece of 1962, La Jetée). In The Mirroring Cure, Ginsborg mutates the interrogative format of documentary film by incorporating the uncanny relationships that we all have to the architecture or social environments that surround us, as well as to our ubiquitous interior monologue. What separates her art from of any style of observational or documentary filmmaking is this sustained querying of the fundamental structures of reality.