Susan Trangmar: Blue Skies

Throughout most of its history, photography has traditionally been limited to flat prints displayed on a wall, or, at best, to light boxes, view screens and transparency projections which remain essentially two-dimensional. In recent years, that limitation has been overcome by a number of artists including Andrea Fisher, Susan Hiller and Susan Trangmar; using techniques such as multiple slide projection and mixed installation, they have succeeded in using the medium in unambiguously sculptural ways. Incidentally, it is worth remarking on the fact that virtually all the innovators in this area seem to have been women.

Blue Skies, Susan Trangmar's latest installation, was first shown in the dramatically different context of the sculpture court in Stoke on Trent's City Museum before being redesigned for Watermans Gallery. It consists of eight slide projectors in a darkened room; falling in overlapping pairs, eight skewed but perfectly legible images are projected across the floor and walls. Four of them, showing groups of children looking up at the sky, remain unchanged throughout. Sliding just over and above these is a sequence of sky images which range from the purest azure through to banks of white cumulus and Turneresque sunsets. As viewers move through the room, their shadows fall across one pair of images after another till they find the one spot near the centre, surrounded by the projectors on their angular stands, which allows an undisturbed view of the whole.

Skies are a potent symbol, above all perhaps of freedom: to live under an open sky is to suffer no constraints, to be afraid of nothing, to ignore the necessity of shelter. The sky is still, across a wide spectrum of beliefs, the place where gods reside, the seat of mythic power, source of life-giving rain or divine retribution. We swim in air as fish swim in water, and the daytime sky represents the outer limits of our element, the rim of our earthly goldfish bowl; at night, the sky becomes a text to be deciphered, or the most tantalising of frontiers.

Poisoned, the symbol loses none of its potency. Meanings and contexts change with history and circumstance, and Trangmar's gazers at the sky represent four different generations: a curious, rather apprehensive group in a slit trench must surely have been photographed during the war, a more obviously clean-cut, middle-class bunch appear to date from the sixties, the gleeful multiracial bunch of younger children are redolent of the seventies, while the three streetwise kids in T shirts are probably the youngest and most recent. For wartime children, the sky was where bombs came from, yet as we note, their attitude is as much one of curiosity as of fear; perhaps because at they are still out in the open, and can look up at the sky. A peculiarly horrible thing about being threatened from the air is the concomitant uncertainty. To be inside a house or a vehicle can be the source of the most intense anxiety; better to be outside, where one can at least see and hear.

The terror of mere conventional explosives later paled, needless to say, before the threat of nuclear bombardment, and it was the generation born in the forties which developed that nervous, almost subliminal tick of stopping for a second or so whenever the sound of aeroplane engines echoed in the empty sky above a city - a generation uncomfortably aware of civil defence, D.E.W. lines and ten-minute warnings. Later still, when long-range bombers were replaced by ICBMs and ten minutes became as many seconds, the tension was in some odd way blunted. Nowadays, of course, the youngest of these kids can gaze up at the sky and worry about holes in the ozone layer.

I'd like to come back to the gaze, that line running from the children's eyes to the sky. Trangmar's work has been much concerned with the act of looking, with the bipolarity of the gaze. In Between Here and There (Riverside Studios, 1987), the audience's gaze was returned by that of cheetahs on a car bonnet; in the first part of Lines of Flight (Chisenhale, 1988), all four images are, as Hilary Gresty has pointed out, "of crowds focusing on something situated beyond the frame of the image: the launch of Apollo XI, US Marines protecting themselves against the glare of an atomic blast in the Pacific, South Vietnamese troops setting off for the Tet Offensive and Sri Lankan pilgrims watching the sunrise". Re-Sitings (Athens, 1989) reduced the play of interwoven gazes to a stark minimum: the rolling eyes of marble horses and oxen from the Parthenon frieze intercut with tightly framed shots of human eyes. The meaning of the gaze slips and changes: ownership, power, awe or simple delight. We gaze at the turning sky, and the sky looks down upon us looking up: once again, a two-way process.

"Blue Skies" was shown at the City Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent in September 1989, and at Watermans Gallery, London in January 1990.

John Stathatos - Γιάννης Σταθάτος
Art Monthly 134
March 1990