The Court Tailor displays the Royal Garments 1. Cibachrome Print Triptych, 70 x 152 cm. 1993. Edition of 1. Private Collection
travels in amira
Xanadu did Kubla Khan
There is more than a touch of the Orient about Amira, the mythological land evoked in the exhibition Travels in Amira by artist Karl Grimes. Like Xanadu, Amira is a fantasy. It is a confection of all that is delightful, a place where our visual senses are lightly pleasured and our dormant prejudices gently reaffirmed.
By and large, the photographs depict Middle-eastern styled interiors, doorways, shopfronts and architectural features. Colours are bright and assertive, favouring rich 'ethnic' hues. The mundane items depicted - shop dummies, sift drink bottles, advertising plates - take on the air of exotica that foreign-ness confers. But here also are familiar Western scenes and icons - the Empire State Building, the Manhattan skyline by night etched in neon, plaster busts of Elvis, blonde B-movie starlets. East in West. Or could it be the other way around? Whichever, all appear to coexist in Amira.
In his book Orientalism Edward Said posits the notion that Western depictions of the East tell us more about our own Western culture than they can reveal about the 'Orient'. Grimes' exhibition blithely mixing West and East and vice versa, seems wary of this idea: our perceptions of one derive from our experience of the other.
Rugs, wall-hangings, murals and framed portraits occur frequently throughout these works. They function in a manner of theatrical backdrops, setting up a series of layered tableaux within the one picture frame, striking a definitive note of artificiality and illusion. The Oasis of Nefta depicts a mural painting of desert and palm trees, cruelly punctured by a roughly gouged wall vent, and teasingly heralded by a real projecting sprig of greenery. The theatricality is echoed in the installation-like redecoration that the gallery has undergone. Red walls with golden Arabic script, white muslin drapery and a tri-faceted text work joyfully ape a 'middle-easternism'.
The images are almost filled to bursting point with frames themselves. Window sashes, picture surrounds, wall ends and rug borders all jostle for position within the photo frame. In casting the frame as a subject in itself, Grimes draws attention to its restrictive delineation of the boundaries of a given perspective. The triptych format employed by each of these pieces re-stresses the role of the frame in separating individual perspectives, and in suggesting possible relationships between diverse images. By also dividing the exhibition space into two areas, Grimes establishes another level on which this dynamic of separation and relation can be played out.
The subjects of these photographs are frequently themselves objects of depiction. Because of close cropping, they tend to fall only partially within the photo frame, their edges extending beyond the border of the image. What we see are images of parts of images. Lots of them. The Empire and the City of Lights shows us not the Empire State Building, but a scaled architectural model of the same. The Ceremonial Robes of the 12th Court appear, humorously enough, in a shop window on a tailor's dummy, but are also present as robes which have been rather crudely painted onto the shop's window. Photography, the medium of representation par excellence, seems here to succeed only in capturing the image of existing representations.
Amira is peopled by a motley collection of personalities, who are present in so far as their portraits are photographed. The only time we are present with a live subject, a nude subject, the photographer has called upon a mirror reflection to capture the image. The mirror is at an angle and the subject's face and identity are cropped from the resulting reflection. Despite the guileless nudity, the photographer must rely on imperfect representational devices to give an account of himself.
The apparent abundance within these images belies the fact that we are constantly made aware of what has fallen outside the picture. The photograph's limited ability to tell the whole story is brought into relief. Urged to suspect the singular perspective and the integrity of the photo image, we can draw no comfort from the various captions Grimes uses. The convoluted titles are as richly evocative and as slippery on meaning as the imagery they describe.
Madam Piver is Remembered in the Cafe of the Fondouk, The Court Tailor Displays the Royal Garments at Sunrise, Queen Ivana Warns of False Gods, all suggest a sense of history, ritual and fable beyond the superficial acquaintance with Amiran culture we are offered here. The golden Arabic signs which decorate the walls look convincing enough, but they remain inscrutable to the western eye.
Grimes sets up all these potential meanings in the way of a domino chain, then gleefully tips them over. It can be exhilarating to watch the chain reaction as one debunked meaning tips over another and so on. The final triptych in the sequence of images is entitled The Royal Palmery of Amira. Of course, the palmery exists only as shadows of palm trees thrown up against a pink sun-baked wall. Ultimately, this exhibition is an exuberant celebration of the potency and mastery of such shadows.
Moroney, Mic . 'Fabled zone where kitsch is reality'.
Irish Times, June 18. 1993