North of Morocco
Tim Brennan - The North Spacex Gallery 2007
Review by Nancy Roth
Tim Brennan's current work The North comprises a series of large, luminous photographs, a set of very small watercolour paintings, two tiny wall-mounted, glass-fronted cases lined with glistening, crystalline stones, and a performance event - called a manoeuvre - that lasts about an hour. There is a text on the gallery wall, which I took to be part of the work, for without it, The North would be incomprehensible. The photographs - spare, enigmatic images mounted on thick, luxurious acrylic - would certainly in themselves form a comprehensible critical object, as would the paintings or the performance. But one must have words to start linking these parts together, to start reading this exhibition in terms of 'the relationship between geography, personal memory and social history' (exhibition copy).
Shot with a mobile telephone camera, the photographs are minimal in terms of information. No one is likely to doubt that they were made in those very specific places in the North indicated by the titles, e.g. North Sea Station, Cheswick or Coaltown of Wemyss. But no one is likely to worry about where they were made either. For any documentary value or interest is overwhelmed by their transformation from cheap, low-resolution data on an electronic screen into large (112.5 x 150cm) visually seductive coloured surfaces, objects with substance and value. Like an alchemist, Brennan has transformed 'poor quality' data into 'mysterious,' 'evocative' information, on the scale of ambitious abstract painting.
Brennan's relish for irony becomes apparent in the watercolour paintings. Small (10.5 x 14.8cm), evidently handmade, rather clumsy and fussy, they also turn the tables on photographic information. For these paintings reduce information-rich images from the Hubble Space Telescope to records of mere aesthetic preferences. Like the alchemists' dream in reverse, the 'gold' of hard-won information from the most exotic of places has been transformed into the base matter of personal taste. The titles in this case join the name of a mine in the North of England with subject matter of the telescope photograph. The connections are apparently arbitrary, e.g. Murton Polka, Trifid Nebula or Horden Colliery, Supernova Remnant LMCN 63A. Brennan explains that the mines are difficult to access, and the sites in the galaxy are impossible to visit. One is deep within the earth, the other far outside it. OK. So which way is North? As Brennan put it, Exeter is actually north of a lot of places, such as Morocco.
The tone, the underlying assumptions, the energy driving this project first really become apparent in the performance, or as Brennan terms it, manoeuvre. Although he has been giving such performances since 2002, this particular one had been developed expressly for Exeter and was presented there for the first time. Modelled on the format of an urban 'walk,' a guided tour of historically significant sites, a Brennanesque manoeuvre freely reconstructs the 'historically significant' in various ways: some of the stops - 23 in total - were among Exeter's most cherished monuments, notably the Roman ruins near the Exe bridges. Some were ordinary intersections or adverts. At each stop a text was read from a prepared store of quotations. The sources ranged from biblical Book of Genesis to a website about magic, interspersed with earnest definitions of the sublime and picturesque, Malraux's reflections on photography, and 16th century documentation of armed defence of the Catholic faith in Devon and Cornwall. There was no discussion of Romans.
At a minimum, Brennan effectively elicited from his audience the ritual behaviour of the guided tour - the docile behaviour, the deference to authority. The local newspaper dispatched the requisite photographer. Perhaps there were fewer nodding heads on this tour than on most, more furrowed brows and shrugging shoulders. It didn't make conventional sense. Steering carefully between the silly and the serious, though, Brennan did give us a glimpse of the promised intersection of 'geography, personal memory and social history'. His tour broke most of the rules that govern the ways a site and its documents 'should' be linked. In the resulting conceptual chaos, the tourists could - and did - find occasion to rethink their respective conceptions of Exeter, to refresh and reshape personal associations with specific sites, occasionally to rebuild interpretive conventions in association with fellow travellers, and to consider how extremely complex and ungovernable such a social and historical construction as 'Exeter' or by extension 'The North' actually is.
Those who say history is over, that we are living in a post-historical time, are not suggesting that nothing happens any more, or that we've become incapable of experiencing events. Rather they are addressing a contemporary difficulty in thinking about events as unique, unrepeatable, and headed in one direction. Events don't necessarily seem to fit together in causal chains or logical progressions, or to fit into sentences that flow from one to the next, and on into essays and books.
Brennan pointedly does not write history. He manipulates pictures, quotations, or samples - the materials of history. He taunts a bit - prods, provokes, holds up a mirror to our own rather pompous and archaic expectation that things should make 'sense,' and that we ought to document them for 'history'. His work makes a particular point of loosening photographs from service in specific historical narratives, turning them instead into occasions for recreation - creative play between the self and the social. On the ruins of our belief in a meaningful shared past, he manoeuvres us into a position from which we might invent a sharable future.