Sam Austen: the real horror story

Moving Image Arts London, June 2, 2019

Eyes featured prominently in the films of the four artists I saw today: a Syrian boy whose eyes had seen too much (Erkan Özgen), an evil eye belonging to a capriciously tyrannical and omniscient shapeshifter (William Kentridge) and the dead eyes of computer animated females (Kate Cooper). But it was Sam Austen’s poetic exploration of the relationship  between the eye and consciousness that gave me the most profound aesthetic pleasure and intellectual stimulation. The others will get due consideration in a future post.

 

Sam Austen’s enjoyably eerie video installation, Real Mirror (2017), at the RA Schools two years ago demonstrated a distinctive combination of imagination and technical ingenuity so I am chuffed, but not surprised, to see growing recognition for his work since then. A group show at LG London gallery, curated under the ambiguous title, Out of Eye, features his latest film, an intense 11 minute meditation on the eye’s slippery, multifaceted metaphorical power, touching on its relationship with love, desire, death, the mind and memory.

 

Its title, Hologram Burnt On To The Retina, spelt out in a script suggestive of a horror film poses the question: is this the horror of trying to excise an image we would rather not have seen? A devastating scene directly outside the gallery was still freshly minted on my mind’s eye: a group of a dozen junkies living on the street with their drug paraphenalia spread out around them on the pavement.

 

The apparent physicality of our visual memory has encouraged much material imagery  such as branding, burning, etching and tracing to describe the process, but this is an analogy that misses out the non-material complexities of repression. The film  constantly references the mysterious physicality of vision by describing images as material objects as if located in a topology of the mind. I have no quibble with this as visual memories must be encoded by our brain neurons in some way. Austen’s caption “Images travel out from the eye” evokes the Greek theories of vision accepted until the seventeeth century which assumed that the eye emitted rays to capture images of the “real world”. The idea that we are receivers rather than emitters of light gives a completely different concept of the mind’s role in perception and paved the way for the Freudian take on imagery. For me this is summed up beautifully by another of Austen’s powerful coinages: “the cauldron of glances”, a vivid evocation of the mayhem inherent in the storing, sorting and retrieving of snippets of memory from the conscious and unconscious mind. 

 

 

The film has carefully controlled pace and structure building to a ferocious climax, the electronic whine and growl of the soundtrack matching the accelerating rotation of a plaster “eyeball”  its pitted surface reminding me of the white fatty covering of the cow’s eyes I would source from the abbatoir to dissect for GCSE biology classes. The black “pupil” is evoked by a static blurred dot in the centre of the screen while the eyeball whirls in the background like a lonely hyperactive planet, just one example of the value of his trademark use of physical casting, celluloid film and superimposition.

 

A stunning sequence which introduces a blast of colour for the first time right at the end of the film sets up the kind of visual ambiguity made famous by the face/vase illusion illustrated below. We are either inside the eye looking out or outside looking in at the back of the retina with our interpretation constantly switching, the background matrix of red dots either representing the retinal cells or the visual field.  Yet again we are forced into acceptance of an uncanny truth: the “real world”  is only a physical construction in the brain’s  visual cortex. Perhaps this is the real horror story.