Gayle Chong Kwan

The Obsidian Isle (2011)

Details Ten 140 x 175cm framed c-type giclee photographic prints on Hahnemuhle paper, ten framed 10 x 12cm tactile prints, four 55 x 40cm framed c-type giclee photographic prints on Hahnemuhle paper, one 5 x 10cm ebony framed glasses, coloured glass, one 50cm diameter, publication
Installation New Forest Pavilion, 54 Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte, La Biennale di Venezia. Solo Exhibition, 'The Obsidian Isle', Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow
Dates New Forest Pavilion, 54 Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte, La Biennale di Venezia. 4 —26 June 2011. Solo Exhibition, 'The Obsidian Isle', Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow, 15 Oct — 11 Dec 2011
Photo Credit Gayle Chong Kwan, ArtSway and Street Level Photoworks
Additional Information Also exhibited at: Peacock Arts, Aberdeen, 23 March — 5 May 2012; An Lanntair, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, 7 June — 8 July 2013; Galleria Uno + Uno, Milan, 19 Jan — 9 March 2012

'Utopia is Elsewhere: Mapping The Obsidian Isle'
Text by Dominic Paterson, in 'The Obsidian Isle' by Gayle Chong Kwan (excerpt)

The artist presents us with constructed images of a place which is part Ossianic myth, part repository of abandoned building projects, as firmly rooted in Romantic conventions for representing landscape as it is in the contemporary world of advanced photographic technology. Posited as a place where Scottish history is both remembered and forgotten, The Obsidian Isle is both fantastical illusion and a hypothetical dark mirror in which we glimpse the kinds of myth-making and historical story-telling which sustain such realities as the nation state or national identity. Chong Kwan invites us to view a place, which is an amalgam of different places: where, then, should we locate The Obsidian Isle itself?
Though its ostensible location is close to Staffa in the Inner Hebrides, The Obsidian Isle might also be thought of as taking its place amidst an archipelago of other mythic, artistic, and literary evocations of islands. That significant artistic work has been staged around islands, both real and imagined, is perhaps unsurprising – islands, after all, have historically proved fertile ground for narratives of all kinds, from literary fantasies to scientific voyages of discovery. One might go so far as to say that islands are as much tropological as topographical entities; in other words they are formed (in our cultural imagination) by repeated tropes, figures of speech, and stories, as much as they are by their material reality. The stories,which render islands as places of adventure, abandonment, uncanniness, terror, imprisonment, discovery and so on, become inseparable from them. From the perspective of the early twenty-first century, the figure of the island is always well-trodden cultural territory, and even the notion of a journey to a hitherto undiscovered island is itself a familiar trope by now….The particularity of The Obsidian Isle lies in its emphasis on Scottish history, of course, but also in the somewhat utopian tenor of its premise that it is a place where national history can both be remembered and forgotten. And yet, for all that this mnemonic isle seems an ideal solution to the problem of living with, but not in the past, the tone of the Chong Kwan’s images, with their sense of ruination, uncanniness, and hallucination, intimate that this too is an unattainable or dystopian utopia.

Caught in a Dark Mirror
by Laura Mclean-Ferris in New Forest Pavilion Catalogue, Venice Biennale, 2011 (excerpt)

It is this atmosphere, distilled into a potent form, that pervades Chong Kwan’s The Obsidian Isle works, which give us a way to understand the relationships between a more manmade landscape of loss that we, too, can begin to get a handle on. The instability that one associates with this landscape, the idea that at any moment, a Scottish building could be destroyed and could appear in the half-lit rubble, too, is an admonition of the inabilities of mind and memory to comprehend the landscape, past or present. Polished obsidian (or black mirror), the material that gives this series1 its name, was once used by landscape painters, who stood with their backs to nature so that they could paint its reflection in the polished mineral, which translated the world into a dark gradation of tones. Themes of limited vision and blindness pervade in The Obsidian Isle. We appear to be staring at this wrecked landscape from a hole, or the mouth of a cave – an optical device that recalls Marcel Duchamp’s Etant Donnés (1946-66), itself constructed as a diorama featuring a fragmented nude woman splayed on the landscape behind a series of thresholds (sculptural doors, a hole in a brick wall that was built as a hole, rather than as a wall). As Rosalind Krauss has written in The Optical Unconscious, looking at Etant Donnés, the “viewer has in fact entered a kind of optical machine in which it is impossible not to see”. If Chong Kwan formulates a related type of machinery in The Obsidian Isle, she does so partly by reminding us of the ways in which inhibiting vision can allow different types of seeing, creating a reflection of a country that exists in a dark mirror world. Here then, is a jeremiad to a world just lost, the could-have-been of the Tait Tower, a landscape of a Scotland that can only be seen through mirrors, holes and memories, or through the words of a blind poet. All these give us a faltering, fragile picture of place and history, but nonetheless it is something that we can just about hold on to.