Hide reorients our sensibilities to non-human spheres, emphasising soft, seemingly illusory things. In this exhibition, Joyce Campbell reveals to us an almost imperceptible thread in her recent photographs; cutting through various series with a different kind of logic, a group of images are bought together which have non-human creatures at their core.
A raven is depicted interceding a tilting desert scape, an albino eel, half hidden from our purview, crosses the threshold of the photographic–frame, and a spider in another image seems actually to be on the outside. In fact, in most other photographs, the animal is concealed outside of the frame; one finds only its traces within the animic landscape it inhabits. Between narrowing cliffs of stacked rocks, for example, we find a mountain lion’s close with only its paw prints amongst mounds of snow and tufts of alpine grass.
In the absence of the animal, we attend to the sensuous landscape that is its material surrounds, to very ordinary aliveness of rocks, cliffs and mountains. Each photograph is articulated a little differently, with varying degrees of formality in presentation. At least one is traditionally framed, whilst others hang almost vulnerably as loose paper, sedate and overlapping. The overall mood, here, is seductive, not only because of the sensibilities of the artworks, but due also to their modes of concealment. After all, both mystery and seduction are intrinsically connected to the hidden.
The animal is neither a metaphor for the artist, nor a symbol of anything whatsoever. Undoubtedly, this is an atypical grouping of beings; they are neither domesticated pets, nor all beasts of the wild. Unlike Christ’s lamb or Krishna’s cow, they are not straightforward signifiers within world religions, nor are they all particularly desired beings for eating, pelting, cloning. They are our kin in various domains, and their agency is their own, outside of us, and our too-human categories.
To one familiar with Campbell’s practice, it is an unsurprising given that the photographer employs old processes—hand printed black and white film on silver gelatin paper, Hasselblad medium and large format, c-type colour, etc. In the context of this exhibition, the significance of this mode reads as accented, as curiously weighted.
Broadly speaking, analogue processes prioritise ‘the negative.’ Like the exhibition title and its contents suggest, it is a practice of working with hidden things. The crucial point of inflection, therefore, is in how one might orient oneself to the various kinds of negativities within these works—concealments, absences, traces. After all, that which is hidden is not without influence or power to move us.
These images inspire within us a sense of something altogether familiar, and yet forgotten. As if to remedy impoverished ways of relating to the non–human world, the photographs, through old processes and techniques, connect to disremembered paradigms of animic thought. By depicting animals in their hidings, the exhibition points to that which is hidden inside each visible thing. It posits an animic world-view, one without separation between the visible and invisible, the material and spiritual.
In the end, the work that the artist does may be characterised in terms of what the ethnologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro calls a “decolonisation of thought,” with the notion of animism, the animal and the animic landscape at the core. The salient point of these subtle pictures is in their foregrounding of imperceptible things.
Derived from the Indo-European ane-, “to breathe,” the Latin anima is a current of air, but also designates the vital principle of life—the breath. Anima is the common etymological root of both animal and animism.
To reconsider animism, then, vis-à-vis an exhibition with concealed animals at its core, is to reclaim a sense of the world as animated by the vital winds. It is to regain breath, and see the world itself as breathing. It is to recover from a double loss—loss of access to spirits in their animal-kin forms, and loss of an understanding of people who are in communion with them. The point of these photographs, however, is not to verify what magnetized clairvoyants see, or to understand their enigmatic healings, but to cultivate lucidity and reorient ourselves to our animic world in the milieu of art. After all, our world is neither mute nor blind, but a breathing thing.
Joyce Campbell: Hide. Christchurch: Ilam Campus Gallery. 7 – 29 October 2015. Image: Joyce Campbell, Close, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.