On Luke Willis Thompson’s ‘autoportrait’

Luke Willis Thompson | Chisenhale Gallery | autoportrait | 19.07.2017

The image of a figure is projected on a wall. She looks forward. She knows she is being watched. The camera looks at her from below, from the chest up, and at a slight distance – is she in a dock, on trial? Nothing’s really happening, but she’s not really waiting for something to happen: her sitting there is enough. I notice her blackness, the ways in which civic identity and presence are granted, denied, and claimed. She looks down, bending her neck to us, and then looks back up. Perhaps she’s on a plinth.

A different shot, closer to her face. The minor details of her skin reveal the luxuriousness of the image being produced. She mutters something to herself silently – it could be a prayer, or a mantra – and gently sways. Perhaps she’s singing, very softly. When she looks out, it’s hard to tell if she’s looking at us: her eyes are totally shadowed. Mostly she looks down. Is she performing demureness? Who must submit, must ensure they are not seen to be violent, or a threat? The screen whites out, and she’s further away again – I think of her weariness of this persistent visibility, the labour of a continued dignity. It cuts back and she’s singing again. Why does she choose to present herself in this way? Why bear our gaze?

I’m gently eased out of the intimacy of this image by the continuous clatter of the projector. Sitting on the other side of the huge space, the beam it casts out across the room runs at about chest height, and the resulting image fills the wall from floor to ceiling – maybe 4 or 5 meters squared? The projector itself is huge, and loud; while two sides are blocked off by screens, but you can easily peer into the mechanics from the front and back. The long thin strip of film reel delicately and precariously runs over the top, and then winds down and around into a thick coil below – it’s delicious.

The exposure of this analogue technology gives material speciifity of the production of this image – its effort, heat, noise, strain and vulnerability. It is absolutely and overtly local, present, material and visible; all in clear contradiction to its ‘sister-image’, the Facebook Live video Diamond Reynolds (the figure we see) produced moments after her partner Philando Castile was shoot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in Minnesota, United States. Geographical specificity contrasts digital decenteredness; material dependency rather than cloud-based data; deliberation and pensiveness after the urgency of murderous violence.

The presence of Diamond Reynolds within an artwork raises obvious and complex tensions around agency, exploitation, media and political efficacy. The gulf between the projector and the image feels distinctly huge; an empty space full of questions. Who is in control, who is visible, who is present, who isn’t? What does it mean for Luke Willis Thompson to use Reynolds’ image within a work of art?

The interweaving of these two different shots, two different portraits, undercuts the risk any singular image would carry of a presumed and reductive authenticity. The steady and huge and laborious force of this light – and the stillness of her poses – contradicts the ways I rapidly scan through media on digital platforms. I think of screen burn. But maybe this romantices the situation a bit: the show has finished at Chisenhale Gallery, and the walls have not been permanently marked by her image. Luke Willis Thompson has moved onto other projects. We don’t need to be reminded of the tricky issues that surround collaborations between artists and those more directly implicated in social and political movements: the announcement of Thompson being nominated for this very exhibition for the Turner Prize reminds us of the ways in which reputations and economic reward are accrued by individuals within an art market.

I think back to Reynold’s eyes – the only thing betraying her meek demeanour was an occasional flicker. She subtly scans the room, surveying her situation, reading information. Even within the frame, it feels like she continues to negotiate this context in order to make informed choices. She feels active: noticing and negotiating. Rather than presuming her lack of agency, we need to ask what this situation might offer to her own political struggle. Rene Matic writes that when giving an artists talk, Thompson “made no reference to supporting the communities which he was studying, and did not seem concerned whether his art or his practice was of benefit to those whose experience it leeches upon.” But to Reynolds here could lead us to ask: why might she be choosing to engage with the kinds of people who visit contemporary art galleries in London? As Jeremy Miller puts it: “I suspect that someone who had the presence of mind to live-stream the aftermath of her partner’s shooting has a better understanding of the power of images than any of us.”.

A friend and I find ourselves alone in the gallery; an irresistible childish curiosity leads us to cross into the huge space between projector and wall, to block the light, to see our shadows. Looking at our silhouettes – small, still, flat – is looking up at her before us. In the face of her stillness, we see our own watching, waiting, inactivity, muteness. Reynolds is presented – or presents herself – as demure, still and restrained; why not fierce, powerful and antagonistic to a world of horrific institutional violence? Complicating what we might think of as the ‘look’ of activism, Reynolds instead might be insisting on the strategic need to at times acquiesce to power; when one must choose to speak or be silent, to be still or to make oneself visible; to strategically adopt and persist within positions of compromise.

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