A review of the Terra Firma 2020 diary by Benjamin Clay.
There is always a generosity to Terra Firma’s output, materially and collaboratively.
The 2020 Diary is of no exception. Spread over more than 160 pages, the publication acts as a pit stop in the continuing conversation between TF Art Director Sophie Willison (Sydney) and Artist Victoria Doyle (London). Initiated online, their friendship has secured productive terrain which here acts to expand and then dissolve the particulars of photographic authorship. Departing radically from pictorial canons of lens-based image taking, the multivocal practice of Willison and Doyle appears instead to seek a making more akin to that of analogue and camera-less trajectories.
I am particularly keen to address two things in relation to the plates meticulously curated for (re)production. First is the decided detachment of the diary’s images from their moment of taking/making/becoming by virtue of refusing traceable ownership. Second then is the self-consciously-photographic-ness of that which soon evolved.
The coupling of photography and instantaneity, while antiquated, is arguably not ancient. What this has bestowed for now is a commitment to authorship that proves difficult to shake - well, who released the shutter? In Terra Firma’s 2020 Diary, we are not told, and nor does it matter. Instead Willison has positioned the year’s planner to engage much older histories of communal photography, the kind that ensued in Plato’s cave. Junko Theresa Mikuriya’s recent publication ‘A History of Light’, brilliantly locates early meditations on photography, its kinds and potentiality well within cavernous philosophy. It was in this space that Plato’s cast of characters tirelessly sought to understand images – recognising gradually the shadows cast on cave walls before looking to the reflections on water’s surface, the constellations in the night sky and finally the solar source itself. This greatly nuanced consideration of the photographic exists across shared time rather than as a nameable instant within an isolated moment of one’s own. It is this mutual eagerness to slowly evoke light, rather than to index its objects, that ignited the 2020 artists’ exchange.
As for the self-consciously-photographic-ness (a necessary mouthful) of this exchange, I would encourage you to notice that the edition’s palette derives almost exclusively from Cyan, Magenta and Yellow. This combination of pigments accounts for the greatest majority of colour printing processes, additive and subtractive, wet and dry. Immediately displayed is a reflexive awareness of the material conditions involved in producing such work. Beyond this, we bask in an onslaught of surfaces with heightened specificities – pixels, grain, noise, reflection, refraction. Glassy, steely, filmic, plastic, abrasive. Of course, these qualities are reminiscent of their forms – pixels, for example, suggest very different ontologies to those foregrounded by grain. By combining mere fragments of analogue and digital photography, photograms, contact sheets, screenshots and even shots of screens, Willison starts to recall the hyper-juxtaposed nature of Instagram, the platform on which her dialogue with contributor Victoria Doyle first began. Also achieved is the dismantling of modal hierarchies, with no technology positioned over another, the medium is activated most broadly.
Inconsistent and often ambiguous, the types of processes employed to adorn each page seek to image that which cannot be seen. The degree to which surfaces and skins constantly stand in for ‘pictures’ themselves speaks to an excerpt included from a 1942 text by novelist Clarice Lispector. “Between her and the objects there was something, but whenever she caught that something in her hand, like a fly, and then peeked at it – though she was careful not to let anything escape – she only found her own hand”. Much like this analogy of the hand and the fly, a photosensitive surface too is itself the solitary remnant of any chance-encounter with light, no thing is ever seized. Like a book of substrates, Terra Firma’s upcoming volume collects trace after trace to describe but never fully reveal the practitioners’ overlapping enquiries into what it can and does mean to draw with light, together.
Plants & Flowers
Amidst an array of glorious botanical offerings, some limes and a succulent, peace lilies, poppies, and grapefruit punctuate Terra Firma’s 2019 diary. I mention some limes and a succulent, peace lilies, poppies, and grapefruit only because their formal attributes are recognizable to my genus-illiterate self. As ‘Flowers and Plants’, some limes and a succulent, peace lilies, poppies, and grapefruit demonstrate the publication’s investigation of horticulture, and its visual and discursive potential.
I stress that you do not need green thumbs to bask in the selection of photographic plates, texts and collages curated by Art Director Sophie Willison. The diary’s visual and textual poetics drastically transcends its overarching typology. We are invited to consider the natural world both for its capacity to affect us, and its inherently seasonal disposition. Between each calendar week throughout the year, the user is encouraged to take root and bloom – greeted warmly by fine offerings from the magazine’s innumerable contributors.
Page 33 stands out to me particularly for its employment of the plant as monument – a kind of commemorative architecture inscribed by its climatic truths. In Willison’s photograph, a modest fibro home stands quietly behind a writhing hand of parched cactus. You cannot ignore the sense of familiarity that these characters share, presumably having grown and changed in relation to one another and it is this dynamic history that the image distils. The two forms mock each other like old friends, showing no sign of mercy.
Green encroaches forcibly into the composition, offering its effervescence against the sombre suburban vision. The work heralds the diary’s arrival at March, and this pairing will evoke something unique for every viewer. For me, a sunburnt month of cicadas’ chatter. For me, the resurgence of routine and due dates. I am energized by the photographer’s vivacity.
One of Lily Golightly’s textual entries describes her encounter with a camellia – its mere presence offered a long-awaited answer. Previously, Golightly’s favourite flowers were tulips but now this has changed. “I feel that they’re expensive and they die”, posits a practical Kara Nissan on this floral topic, championing plants as a more sensible alternative.
Whether we love them or they make you (me) sneeze, whether your lover bought you some for your birthday or forgot, we cannot deny the archival potential of flowers and plants. Often our memories, fond and not, are tied to the very locale in which they unfurled, bestowing great significance on the vegetal witnesses. It is this significance that Terra Firma honours, and I am tremendously excited to splay 2019 across their splendid pages.