In leak, there is a series of what seems to be half-built houses inserted into the sides of classic Australian hill country, with gum trees and occasionally even stockmen and sheep. Sometimes the hill is level, forming a kind of horizon, while the house is on a slope (Aristide). On other occasions, the house is on the level, while the hill leans out of the image (Eudoxia). Sometimes, indeed, the entire photo is flipped upside down, so that both the hill and the building inserted into it appear to hang precariously in mid-air without support (Jim). What is going on here? Obviously, in one sense, the series of images strikes us as the various attempts to strike a balance. In each of the photographs, there is a sense of the world swaying, in movement, swinging from side to side. It is almost as though the world we see is a ship in a storm, rising up and falling down steep waves, and even once or twice being tipped upside down. But two things strike us about these images. The first is that, no matter how unbalanced any landscape is, giving us the feeling that it has somehow been stopped in motion, it is uncannily still. There is no blurring or nothing that cannot be seen. Everything is rendered in crystal clear detail. The second thing goes against this, and that is that, even though each individual image might be seen to be a solution to the problem of striking a balance, finding an equilibrium, it is nevertheless unsettled by those around it. Our eye cannot remain on any one image without immediately being drawn by those on either side of it, which reveal it to be only a momentary or provisional stabilising of its subject matter.
How might we summarise the effect of this? The paradox Laing grapples with throughout her work is the reverse of the usual relation between the blur and the still found in classical photography. What we instead have in her work is that what should be still is blurred and what should be blurred is still. Or to push this a little further, we might say that it is only through the blur that we can have the still; it is only what is in motion that can be seen. And the task of the photographer – a difficult task, or a task at least that cannot be pursued directly – is to find this “still point”, that moment when in the midst of motion a certain stillness arises. Again, take most famously Laing’s series of brides poised in mid-air. We can see them – impossibly, for how to explain how we too are floating in the sky? – but always just at that moment when at the top of their arc they are beginning to turn over: a moment of grace and beauty, literally of the formation of the figure, that is only to be achieved through motion. And the whole image closes over, forms a point of symmetry or reflection across this still point (for one of the striking things about Laing’s bride images is that the clouds behind the bride were sometimes composed upside down, so that they seem to echo or mirror the ground below them). There is therefore no outside to the image. It folds upon itself, and yet contains a world within it. It is an image of Australia, a non-place, as the world.
We see the same thing in leak. The undoubted effect of the half-built houses driven into the earth is of two “halves” of the image somehow reflecting each other as presence and absence, without being able to say which comes first or which is which. And what Laing seeks to image across this series of photographs is a kind of still point, that moment when this world first came about or is first seen. But it is not exactly a still point, in the sense of a point that is definitively able to be located or that exists once and for all. It comes about only in motion, in the very passage – or leak – from one image to another. In fact, we would suggest that it is not such a jump from these images of Laing to Williams’ desert landscapes, with their own unlocatable still points, their own folding in on themselves across their vertically arranged roads…
Keith Broadfoot and Rex Butler 2011
Press release courtesy Tolarno Galleries.