Between reality and perception:
Transition through the prism of narrative, character and space
by Julia Makojnik
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It has been more than two years since the fateful EU Referendum, and over sixteen months since the government triggered article 50. Since the end of March 2017, the UK has been in a state of limbo, unsure of the final outcome of Brexit and the consequences it might bring, with debates being held behind closed doors and governmental processes stalling progress. While we are all breathing the heavy air of uncertainty, Matthew Pickering, a Newcastle-based artist, is creating work about what it means to be between states.
Since graduating from Newcastle University in 2015, Pickering has delved into making video, photography and installation based works and established a thriving studio practice, showing his work in group shows and at film festivals, as well as regularly receiving funding to develop new solo exhibitions. His work, regardless of its specific subject matter, draws on the experience of transition, whether spatial, physical or psychological and how personal perception intersects with facts and reality.
The focus on shifting narratives in bodies of work like Martha [Alzheimer’s Machine III] (2018), Interrupt Cycle (2016) and Alzheimer’s Machine II (2015) points towards changing boundaries between fact and fiction as experienced by persons living with Alzheimer’s disease. Meanwhile, his newest project - Between States (2018) - explores how we fail to retain control of self-imposed boundaries while going through the motions and mechanisms of administered transition.
Video: GP Office, In Transit (2018)
Between States took place at Newbridge Project’s exhibition space in Carliol House in Newcastle-upon-Tyne between the 21st June and 1st July 2018. During the short walk down a corridor leading into the main exhibition room, ‘Red Tape’ (2018) sets the scene for the rest of the show. Through its title, and a series of overlaid clips of a woman folding an official looking document, sliding it into an envelope then sealing and addressing it, the video suggests a rigid bureaucratic process which leads to a standstill in decision making. Having recently lived in Northern Ireland (a country without a sitting government at present) and worked in their public sector where procedure is king, I instantly perceive the palpable frustration. The fast, continuous loop prolongs the time I spend in the corridor, unsure of whether I’ve definitely watched the whole thing.
Video: Red Tape [Installation View] (2018)
Past the entrance corridor Pickering constructed a dark and comfortable viewing space, where fabric walls, a soft black carpet and beanbags for seats diffuse the clinical and precise video work on show. The bright screen onto which ‘Searchlights’ (2018) is projected seems to hang down and over me as I sink into a beanbag, slowly drawing me in while I watch from the ground, nearly horizontal. Yet the video is far from relaxing. After a brief shot of what appears to be an interview set up of a plain table and chair in an institutional setting, an authoritative voice begins to ask direct questions and dictate instructions as a searchlight flashes from the middle of the screen, instantly distancing me from the initial comfort of the viewing environment.
Video: Searchlights [Installation View] (2018)
Nothing is ever purely decorative in Pickering’s work. The environment, constructed from translucent green walls has its skeleton exposed as the searchlights shine through the fabric, but it remains reminiscent of a standard, familiar but undefined institutional space, such as a school corridor, a hospital room or a local government office. The surreal set is constantly on the cusp of CGI, playing with my conviction in the truth of my own perception. There is a heavy contrast between the pale green walls and opaque, rusted COR-TEN steel-like accents appearing on the staircase and a feature wall throughout the duration of the work. This is revealed to be a trick: as the video progresses, the rusted metal is revealed to be a dyed bed sheet, which is repeatedly smoothed over by a character in another scene.
Video: Roaming searchlights reveal the skeleton of the walls, Searchlights (2018)
In general, environments in Pickering’s work are minimalist, constructed from basic materials like fabric, wood or metal scaffolding, mesh and strategically placed panels. The borders and boundaries of the space are never clear. In ‘Searchlights’, shot from the outside, the set appears small and confined, but inside shots reveal a limited view, and with bends around corners and the space at the top of the staircase out of sight there is no telling where the set begins or ends, or where the rooms lie in relation to each other.
The set of ‘In Transit’ is constructed from scaffolding, wooden panels and mesh fabric, providing a suggestion of the space rather than hard constraints. These constraints shift throughout the video, playing tricks on memory, the boundaries even more unclear and manipulated without warning.
As ‘Searchlights’ progresses, my ability to discern fact from fiction peters out, as three different characters - all played by Rene McBrearty - overlap and blend into one another. The narrative jumps from vivid descriptions of spaces and past events to interrogative questions and precise instructions, it is in a constant state of flux between subjective first and third person perspectives and impersonal, one-sided dialogues.
'Peel off the red backing to the tape. The tape beneath is clear and adhesive.
Pell off the backing to the red tape. The tape is opaque and sticks only on one side.
Peel back the red tape.
While the characters of an examiner, an administrator and a subject position themselves in space, enacting repetitive, ritual actions such as folding clothes, anxiously re-reading papers in a chair and making a bed, I become a voyeur, silently intruding on their uncomfortable exploration of the environment from the corner of the room, the end of the corridor or what appears to be a prison door hatch.
'You approach the table, walk along highly polished floors worn by shoes, tyres and other rubberised surfaces.
The woman meets your gaze and you wonder for a moment if she’ll beckon you to her.
Doors to your left.[Pause]Arrested by her gaze.
I’m moved into a new space and a brief dialogue follows.'
None of the settings feel permanent - they are plain, undecorated and could be inhabited by anyone - and their occupiers are not at ease, appearing anxious as if awaiting their time to walk down the corridor, staircase or to leave the waiting room. The occasional sound of approaching footsteps suggests an official coming to take them out of their limbo.
Video: Characters repeat ritual actions in transient spaces, Searchlights (2018)
In all of Pickering’s works, there is a seamless transition between what was filmed within a physical set, and its later digital manipulation, the line between the two unclear, bringing into question the validity of spatial perception and differentiation between real and digital space.
Video: The video set appears to slowly envelop the subject, Searchlights (2018)
In works such as ‘Alzheimer’s Machine II’ (2015) and ‘Interrupt Cycle’ (2016) Pickering deliberately put a question mark on the legitimacy of the presented narrative through the use of algorithms, which presented viewers with a different experience every time, making it impossible to impose meaning into the order of events itself, or the overall story if watched multiple times. The resulting disorientation and questioning of what viewers remember of their initial experience versus what was being shown to them each time after that simulates the experience of many patients during the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Video: Two iterations of the video present different versions of events, Interrupt Cycle (2016)
Although, unlike a lot of Pickering’s previous works, ‘Searchlights’ presents the same chain of events every time in an endless loop with no discernable beginning or end, the meaning of the piece evolves as more details and references emerge upon repeated viewing. I only notice the subtle flashing of searchlights outside the green structure, the association with different objects, tone of voice and clothing which differentiates the three characters, and the slow movement of parts of the set when I watch the piece for the third or fourth time. I begin to realise the significance of these subtle details, and question the meaning I initially interpreted from the video. I realise that in Pickering’s work meaning doesn’t simply adhere to the artwork - it is an intrinsic core buried inside it, waiting to be extracted.
Video: Administrator's uniform, Searchlights (2018)
Character development in Pickering’s body of work is also significantly subtler than the usual deployment of different actors to different roles. The archetypes of examiner, administrator and subject in ‘Searchlights’ are all portrayed by the same actress, but become associated with changes of pace in the spoken narration, as well as objects that reflect their qualities.
The examiner speaks with an authoritative voice, from a non-personal perspective, asking direct questions which bring to mind border interviews and repeating instructions on peeling red tape off the glue strip on an envelope. The instructions are slightly altered each time, drawing attention to how a small change in narration can affect the perception of meaning. The examiner’s commanding, confident tone is reflected in the object of one of the three chairs that appear throughout the 10 minute piece - it is the more decorative wooden chair, selected for its academic feel. The administrator’s voice is calmer, recalling past situations centering around an empty table in first person and describing subtle changes in the atmosphere. Their chair is wooden and functional, but simpler. Lastly, the character of the subject speaks softly, vividly describing a room seen in a mirror and focusing on how unfamiliar environments and uninvited change re-shapes boundaries without their control. Their chair is plain, plastic, reminiscent of a secondary school classroom, reflecting their insignificance in the larger context.
By contrast, in ‘In Transit’ (2018), Martha, a woman living with early onset Alzheimer’s is played by multiple actresses, all representing the character at different stages of her life as she recounts different memories. Again, the character is anchored to a specific way of speaking and objects that are meaningful to her, rather than a particular appearance, creating a distortion between appearance and meaning.
Further, in ‘Lapse’ (2018), which sees Martha and her daughter condense memories from Martha’s life into a single narrative, but without a chronological order, objects of significance such as thick canvas gloves and a garden table appear on screen or are described in detail through the narration. Martha anchors specific memories to spaces and events in her garden, which is her lifelong passion. When towards the end of ‘In Transit’ she moves to a care home, the significance of her garden and how Alzheimer’s disease has impacted her spatial memory is revealed.
The three characters exploring the environment in ‘Searchlights’ at different times are compressed into a single non-chronological narrative which goes back and forth between them, leading to a climax of anxiety and lack of trust in self-imposed boundaries - the same way Martha’s whole life of memories is compressed into a single stream, resulting in the lack of trust in her cognitive function.
In both instances the characters start off as trustworthy, but as their subjective mediation of events unfolds, the fine, changeable line between fact and fiction unravels in front of the outsider over time, while the characters remain oblivious.
Video: And what if she saw nothing? (2018)
This uncertainty of what is factual and what is fictional in Pickering’s work reflects the recent experience of online news feeds dishing out fake news and untruths, and the growing influence and effect of things that may initially appear legitimate.
Overall, Pickering's body of work since his graduation has increasingly focused on the importance of the process of transition - no matter how uncomfortable - in contrast to the usual preoccupation with the end result. His works draw attention to the ways we can explore this process individually and collectively, and questions how it can be maximised.
At a time when the myriad of hypothetical situations we may find ourselves in as we move away from free borders and create boundaries we cannot control, Pickering’s work creates a space in which to reflect upon and explore anxieties associated with uncertain transitions.
Text: Julia Makojnik
Visuals: Matthew Pickering
Sound: Matthew Pickering and Jennifer Walton
This project has been supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.