Sweet Debris | Catalogue Essay

The following is an extract from ‘Hannah Farrell: Transparent Envelopes’, a contributing essay to the Sweet Debris exhibition catalogue. Sweet Debris was presented at Waterside Arts Centre in Sale (Manchester) from 12 April to 6 July 2019, and featured work by Hannah Farrell, Phoebe Kiely, Chris Rhodes and Theo Simpson. The catalogue is produced by Tide Press.

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“A photograph cannot be transformed (spoken) philosophically, it is wholly ballasted by the contingency of which it is the weightless, transparent envelope.” (Roland Barthes)

In the opening pages of Camera Lucida (1980), the French writer and theorist Roland Barthes grapples with his desire to separate the distinct ‘essence of Photography’ from the ‘sovereign Contingency’ of each individual image (only later realising that it was exactly the “stubbornness of the Referent in always being there” that would provide the defining aspect he so desperately sought). By contrast, it is possible to unravel human consciousness – which we might call here, in Barthian terms, the primary ‘transparent envelope’ that contains our experience of the contingent world – from complete identification with thought. However, this can be hard to achieve; total immersion being the default state for the majority of people, the majority of the time.

In ‘Sweet Debris’, artist Hannah Farrell presents us with two ghostly black-and-white photographs; one a negative exposure of the other. Floating unframed side by side within the gallery, they each depict a flimsy table upon which an internal (photographed) photograph of an abundant vase of flowers leans against the studio wall behind. This inner image is a negative in the original (positive) exposure (Still Life (+), 2019),and therefore rendered positive in the negative exposure (Still Life (-), 2019), making both pieces simultaneously positive and negative, in a sense.  

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