For the first time since the restrictions were lifted, the College Street Gallery, in Swansea, UK, finally welcomed its first in person exhibition, presenting the work of photographer Gareth Phillips.
The Abysm Book Installation. Edition Three observed on plinth with Edition One on the shelves behind ©Gareth Phillips
Within this installation we can discern two distinct themes: the first being the photographic documentation of his father’s physical and mental illness; the second being the curation of the photobook as installation. Throughout three contemporary book editions, we delve into the life of a man struggling with both mental health and cancer. The project was realised over a five-year period whilst Phillips was travelling back and forth between India and the UK. Whilst spending time with his father in Wales, Phillips would intimately and delicately observe his father’s day-to-day life, photographing the impact the illness was having on his life. Phillips then used his time in India to develop the project, in the early stages working with peers such as Asmita Parelkar, to create numerous book dummies that focused on reworkings of sequence and narrative, forming the content we see in the first edition of this book installation. The show divides itself naturally into three chapters that one can explore, with each coinciding with a different edition of the work. The first part of the installation is composed of nineteen unique photobooks, each displayed on a its own bookshelf. The books are all incomplete in appearance, and their unfinished nature translates a sentiment of fragility and uncertainty. At first, it feels uncomfortable perusing these books,
but upon mustering the courage to touch and open them, it’s like going through someone’s house for the first time. You don’t know where to look or what to do, it feels as though you are intruding into someone’s life. However, the more you read through each book, the more you become immersed in the life of these people you do not know. One is assaulted by a storm of external landscape images that clearly represent the internal struggle of Phillips’s father and gives an echo to the family’s emotions. Text is scribbled or printed onto pages within various books, with one poignantly giving voice to the author’s mother, one of a few instances we see her presence in the show. As I submerged into this installation, it felt as if I was watching his father drown, whilst his mother drifted around him, trapped in an orbit of spectral inclusion. In these earlier versions of the books, ‘Ligatures of Ivy’ is written on the covers. This was the previous working title before it morphed into its present title, ‘The Abysm’. This, I believe, better translates Phillips’s father’s obsessions with the passing of time, and of his own mortality, dragging him down further and further into The Abysm inhabiting him. We are submerged by Phillips’s use of rhythm and repetition. Images are folded and unfolded, they are faded, ripped and torn apart. Text is visible through these torn holes and it adds layers of complexity which is an attempt for Phillips to control and diffuse the reality of the situation. It leads me into Edition Two.
The second part of the installation presents a single book page, printed as a four-meter-wide montage covered by a multitude of images. Facing this wall of images, I took a step back so as to not be consumed and overwhelmed by this swell of memory; attempting wave after wave, layer after layer, to drag you into its depths. After a while, you can see that a selection of images was chosen to be cut out and folded back to create new pages behind the surface of the print. It entices the viewer to look behind the print, beneath its surface to discover what feels like hidden images. Like diving underwater, the space is dark and quiet, and the sensation of overwhelmingness has disappeared. I delved under the surface, to see what his father could see. Being behind the print, getting closer to the images, the holes left by the folded prints mimics small windows that facilitate a sense of passive spying when looking back through them. This soft voyeurism makes this part of the installation more intrusive than looking through the delicate and fragile books on the shelves of the first part. It gave me an uncomfortable and uneasy aftertaste, making me question my place as a viewer as I am confronted by being a viewer looking at people viewing the photographer's family, from the backside of the book page. However, this side of the installation is as intimate as it is intrusive. Its quietness gave me space to absorb the intensity I had seen so far.
The last part of the installation showcases a whole wall consumed by a large vinyl print that guides you towards a standing plinth. Within this plinth, a single twelve-inch book is contained. It is overlooked by a clock that is probably found in most family homes. As I walked amongst this installation, I was struck by the contrast between presented editions. The previous one was overwhelmingly terrifying, whereas what I faced upon looking at the third and final edition was a sense of sublime realisation. It reminded me of the philosopher, Emanuel Kant, who defined the sublime by dividing it into two categories: the dynamic sublime and the mathematical sublime. The dynamic sublime represents the forces of nature and their superiority over us - such as storms or eruptions whereas the mathematical sublime is immeasurable and seems infinite - such as the infinity of space. Both forms of the sublime create strong emotions like fear, and both exist thanks to a physical encounter. Considering Kant’s theory, the sensations experienced when facing edition two felt like an encounter with Phillips’s ‘dynamic sublime’ whilst the third edition felt like an encounter with his ‘mathematical sublime’. With the book contained within the third edition, it feels as if it is a recollection of all the emotions and experiences the author and his father went through during the time they spent together making this work. Reflecting back on my encounters of this book installation, I feel Phillips has successfully turned the experience of his father and his family into something immersive, poignant, and universal.
I found myself trying not to cry when looking at this installation, I couldn’t help but see my own father in these images. It brought me back to the days when my own father’s illness took over our lives. Although it is difficult to look at, I am happy to have finally seen someone documenting this subject in such a human and poetic way. It was made in a way that makes the work relatable to those who have experienced such illness or have seen loved ones go through it. It was not turned into something grandiose or a spectacle as in editorial magazines. It is a difficult subject to photograph, but I think Phillips has been able to communicate perfectly the journey he and his father went through as individuals and as a family.
Phillips, with the support of emerging artist Abby Poulson, has presented an installation that pushes the boundaries of the photobooks as a physical object through its curation and the different form each edition takes. I am impatient to see his next work.
About the Artist:
Based in Cardiff, UK, Gareth Phillips is an established photographer working predominately in the medium of photo books and installation. He has an extensive international exhibition history and continues to work with clients such as Saatchi & Saatchi, The Guardian, Sunday Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal & FT Weekend Magazine. He graduated in the 2007 class of Documentary Photography at The University of Wales, Newport, and his work has been recognised in numerous awards. A selection of his work now resides in the David Hurn Collection of the National Museum of Wales.
About the Writer:
Camille Relet is a French multi-disciplinary based in Swansea. Camille Relet is a young French multi-disciplinary artist based in Wales. Her practice addresses concepts such as the transient condition of one’s nature and identity in relation to language, territories, time, memory, religion and history. She considers visual connections to philosophy, literature, mythology and science as a method to synthesise social and political narratives whilst exploring the potential for photographic processes to be combined with other media to establish an ‘Anthropocene Photography’.