Black Water by Andrew Ananda Voogel, which takes place in the gallery’s Project Space, is also the first solo show in Los Angeles for the artist. It features over a half-dozen digital projections of near-black images onto black walls (in totally darkened rooms). Thus the viewer can only expect to see images after prolonged exposure to the work.
“The dispersion and the focusing of the self: those two movements are of the essence” - Charles Baudelaire circa 1850
A photographer becomes interested in archives and visual histories surrounding the legacy of the indentured labor in Colonial Guyana—the Caribbean state next to Venezuela. His interest was partly formal and partly a personal investigation into his family’s own history, given that his great-grandparents were some of the thousands of Indians who were forced to travel from Calcutta to Colonial Guyana in the 19th century to work on cane fields.
As many before him have recognized, photography has always been most potent tool for exploring the nature of memory. The physicality of the lens, the residue of moments, the exposed details that only a frozen image can reveal; such elements combine to create a near-perfect, rarefied model of how we form and capture memories. Thus for the photographer, Andrew Ananda Voogel, the photographs themselves became more heuristic, prompting an increasing array of questions: How does a memory affect the present? What happens to those without a past? Can tomorrow exist without yesterday?
Soon he was obfuscating and interrogating the image to the point of near disintegration. Darker and darker tones became the norm and he found himself seeking out locations such as caves and darkened rooms as subject matter. But by then he had moved beyond the limits of the photographic medium and no photographic process or paper could reproduce the darkness he craved. So instead, he turned to film projections, or as he says “live light” that could be projected through dark filters.
That led to projecting near black scenarios onto black walls in all-black rooms. The only way the work could be seen then, was to have a viewer sit and wait for several minutes before each work, waiting for his or her eyes to adjust. Then, and only then, would the images reveal themselves.
But what did they reveal?
Cognitive psychologists believe that the part of the brain that deals with sensory perception is accustomed to dealing with large quantities of information, meaning the constant barrage of audio-visual input that surrounds us each and every day. Conversely, the body’s nerve systems that feed the brain’s central processor still continues to work at the same rate, even when there’s an absence of information. But without any cues to compute, the brain begins to see patterns that may or may not be there. Thus whole images form out of partial ones and fantasy world begin to surface.
Therefore, without other cues to go on, the viewer who experiences one of Voogel’s projections can’t help but feel he or she is looking at a ghost. The glimmering, soft light glows and pulsates, flickers and disappears. They seem to border on non-existence since there seems to be more absence than presence. In fact, in order to see one, the viewer must allow him or herself enough patience, focus and participation to receive the work. So in that sense, Voogel’s practice harkens back to the very beginning of photography, when subjects were forced to sit for long exposure times and forced to sit motionless for as long as 30 minutes. For Walter Benjamin the very idea of the subject ‘growing into the image’ as he described it, was a vital new element to art making, and one deserved more attention. “The procedure itself caused the models to live not out of the instant but into it,” he writes. “This act, a condensation of live movement into the arresting square of photographic light, introduces a new model of performance into the history of visual art.”
For Voogel, the viewer is also participating in a very personal narrative that draws off his own Indian heritage. Many of the phantoms that appear in the exhibition are meant to refer back to Kalapani (or Kala Paani). In Hindi, Kalapani not only means “black water” and/ or “time”, but the name of a notorious jail that was central to the troubled history of India’s freedom. For many, the word is used to describe a well-known taboo that forbids the crossing of the sea. Because it was believed that if you crossed the Indian or Atlantic oceans you were doomed to lose your karma, caste and/or varna status—forever. Worse still, the same curse followed each subsequent generation, all of whom lost their after varna status as well.
So enter at your own risk. The ghosts of oceans, seashores, and distant figures may well be waiting for you just inside.
Born in Los Angeles and now based in both San Francisco and Santa Cruz, Andrew Voogel is of Indo-Caribbean heritage and a 2014 graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute. His work has shown in galleries stretching from the Bay Area to Australia and India. This is his debut solo exhibition in Los Angeles.
Works by Andrew Ananda Voogel
Continues through May 9, 2015