Catalogue essay for Be Still, 2012
by Hila Shachar
Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight zone ... All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.
-Susan Sontag ¹
Be Still is a series of ‘traces’ that testify to the things and people we have lost. Via a combination of old and new photographic technology, the artist Sundari Carmody captures intimacy through a poetic absence, signified by empty spaces and ghostly figures. These haunting figures of loss and transience created through the unpredictable art of pinhole and polaroid photography symbolise the imperfect nature of our memories and the desire to hold onto mementos of mortality that would otherwise be lost. Carmody’s photographs are born from Sontag’s elegiac art, in which the photographic image participates in a process of capturing and signifying absence, becoming part of individual and collective memories.
Carmody’s images are often blurred, peopled by moving and indistinct figures. Such imagery clearly aligns itself with a Sublime and Romantic artistic legacy from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like the Romantic Sublime, in which a transcendent identity is constructed at the very moment of a possible loss of subjectivity, Carmody’s blurred figures and empty spaces are images of transcendent being that are set against a background of loss.
The overtone of haunting which can be felt within her photographs is reminiscent of the liminal figure of the ghost. If a ghost represents a sense of being that is predicated on death, it also symbolises a presence, a lingering ethos that tries to fill this gap of loss. Similarly, Carmody’s ghostly figures recall the Sublime ego, produced in moments when the self is teetering at the edge of annihilation, yet also leaving remnants of a transcendent mortality behind. These themes, explored through Gothic imagery and literature by the Romantics, enter a distinct modern context through Carmody’s art.
Fragmentation, loss and haunting are key tropes in contemporary Australian art and literature. The West Australian author Gail Jones notes that she favours gathering “fragments, ... ontological gaps and incompletions. Against organic and mimetic models – of the reconstitution of ... the body of experience, of textual plenitude and recreated presence – I favour signifying absence and the trope of disintegration.”² Such themes are often used as a strategy in Australian art to articulate a forgotten way of seeing, alternative histories and a suggestion of the ‘in-between’ state of modern experience where we are caught between the legacy of the past and the deconstructed present.
Carmody’s photography likewise expresses the logic of an ‘in-between’ art that collects fragmentary moments, lingering imperfection and absent gaps, which carry traces of artistic heritage and seek to capture the incomplete present. Ultimately, her images remind her viewers that the stillness of photography is based on an ever-present haunting that lingers beyond the captured moment and speaks of both the past and present.
Hila Shachar is a writer based in Perth, Australia, and an Honorary Research Fellow at The University of Western Australia. She can be found on hila-lumiere.blogspot.com
¹ Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977), (London: Penguin, 2008) p. 15.
² Gail Jones, “A Dreaming, A Sauntering: Re-imagining Critical Paradigms,” Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature 5, 2006: 12.