Exhibition Essay from TRUCK Contemporary Art in Calgary
In her essay titled “Living in Wythenshawe,” social and economic geographer Doreen Massey investigates the architecture of social relations, and how identities are moulded by spatiality. She writes: “The “architecture” of the city is [ … ] the frame of social relations through which we live our lives, which we constantly adapt to, construct, and reconstruct – which is our spatiotemporality. The spaces of social relations are constructed, just as buildings are constructed; they can be adapted, as buildings can be adapted; they are not “material” as buildings are material, but they can be as hard to walk through as a wall.”
Karen Asher’s photographic series, No Cause for Concern, explores similar ground as it looks into the very complex and immaterial relationship we “urbanites” share with our city and, by extension, to one another. This assemblage of visuals could be put forward as a journal of encounters made by Asher through her daily life in Winnipeg. Like a journal, and in continuity with Massey’s understanding of the city (which is not fixed, but an eternal process, has multiple identities and no clear boundaries), No Cause for Concern has no single storyline and cannot be understood as a standard linear narrative with a beginning and an end. Its strong potential for intersubjectivity makes it akin to the New Novel in modern literature, with its “increasingly complex approach to the subjective,” as opposed to a previous style of narration where everything was spelled out to a passive reader/viewer.
Images from the series thus appear as fragments of an elusive, plural and open narrative. Asher alternately confronts us with uniquely strange, intriguing, seductive and endearing characters that she contextualizes within awkward or banal locations that seem to complement them perfectly, body and soul. Accordingly, the Lady in the Lobby’s extravagant outfit blends in discretely with the busy wallpaper used as backdrop; in another instance, the lilac tone of the print and the lavish flowers crowning Erik The Great’s head pull the latter’s majesty to the forefront. But what really strikes the viewer from the get-go is that these individuals are not presented to us as strangers, but as acquaintances. They are depicted in personal and familiar situations, posing yet not posing for the camera, as if we already knew them. Their “shields” or “public faces” are not up – fully exposed and at times poignantly vulnerable, they surrender to Asher’s gaze and, by extension, our own.
While they do offer themselves to our scrutiny, their identity and purpose remain a full mystery aside from Asher’s parents, which are clearly identified as such throughout the project. Apart from “mom” and “dad,” three characters are given particular importance: Michael, Bella and Johnny, who each appear thrice in this visual essay. The plot thickens.
We might stare as much as we want to – portraits do seem to be invitations to give into a voyeuristic impulse our proper social upbringing usually denies us -, but the portrayed individuals won’t disclose their secrets. What they do exude is an unmistakable humanity. We know nothing of them, yet we relate to them, as if their anonymity would not act as a protective blanket, but would rather function as a pervasive and powerful transmitter.
And while each image from this body of work is a successful snapshot, No Cause for Concern gains in effectiveness when presented as a multiple whole. Together, these photographs become visual testimonies of Karen Asher’s subjectivity – they position her through relationships of alterity. They form an intricately woven narrative that encompasses individuals, places and memories. Through them, Asher is mapping her hometown, her community. She is mapping her Winnipeg.
– Ève De Garie-Lamanque