Essays
Published in 3 different nights, recurring, IMMA, Dublin, ISBN: 978-1-909792-15-9

Double Slo-mo, Quantum Zeno

Francis McKee

These new works by Grace Weir require an alternative approach. To be frank, they require the use of a personal pronoun: I would betray the spirit of the works by remaining hidden behind an analysis that claimed to be objective. With the emergence of quantum physics came the theory that the act of observation creates changes in the phenomenon under observation. In the case of these pieces, as in some of Weir’s past films, the artist is visibly at work and I’m always aware of the difference her presence makes.

Something else is at play here though. Certainly Weir is visible, and central, to the five Script films she has just produced but in A Reflection of Light (2015) she is more difficult to locate. This is deliberate. In one sense she is ubiquitous, delivering a voiceover that interprets what we see. But she is never visible in the film and the voiceover also contributes to a sense of detachment, a disembodied position of relative omniscience. The artist here is one of a succession of ghostly presences.

A Reflection of Light opens with a shot that defines the parameters of this spectral world. Fixed on a view of a square in Dublin, the camera lens is refocused to pull back through a windowpane. The image warps and buckles, suddenly nothing more than a wave of light, until the camera settles within the room. It’s a moment that renders the material world superficial, a construct of the eye and a construct so deliberately crafted that we sense the artist’s direction behind the shot. The eye of the camera is the eye of the artist and the ‘I’ of the artist.

The whole film is shaped by a series of long tracking shots that take us slowly around three buildings: the interior of an apartment owned by the artist Mainie Jellett, a gallery space at IMMA, and the department of physics at Trinity College. In the history of cinema the tracking shot plays a special role: it is a virtuoso gesture, disdaining edits, playing out in real time across a series of locations in an impossible balletic pursuit of the film’s subject. The technical challenge of such continuous camera shot confronts the issue of time and also the constraints of space. Motion becomes the central element, as the eye of the camera keeps moving I wonder how long the shot can be sustained physically, practically in series of rooms. I became acutely aware of the linear time that dictates the unfolding of images in a film. The constant motion of the camera syncs with my sense of consciousness: the perpetual motion of my mind processing information.

While these long shots heighten my awareness of linear time, something contrary is occurring too. The motion of the camera takes me to the notebooks of Mainie Jellett’s grandfather who invented a prism (‘a rhombic spar of Icelandic crystal’) and then to a cubist painting by Mainie which contains a half shadow prism. From there we move to the mantel of a fireplace and an old photograph of Jellett’s family taken in front of the same fireplace. The camera enters the photograph and we are back in that same room, looking into the mirror above the fireplace over a half-century earlier. Momentarily we are through the Looking-Glass in an alternate world before withdrawing back into the present. The trajectory of the camera then takes us past silhouettes of the Jellett family to a tableau in which Sonja Kroll, wife of Mainie’s great nephew Vasco, is creating a photographic portrait of Mainie’s nephew Michael Purser and his wife Helen. The Jellett family is multiplying at a vertiginous speed but equally we are now encountering a layering of artists: Grace Weir filming photographer Sonja Kroll in the former studio of Mainie Jellett.

Then, as Weir remarks that ‘Time splinters at each moment into the past and the present making a dark curve in space’, the film takes us through a curve in one of Mainie’s paintings to a gallery where the same picture is part of an exhibition on Cubism. That cinematic gesture is ambiguous, creating a sense of continuous linear movement while simultaneously opening a side door in time and space, stepping from one location to another. The tracking shots may move us forward in a linear fashion but Weir demonstrates how we weave other dimensions of time and space into our daily consciousness.

In the gallery scene, the curator Seán Kissane stands watching as the installation team hang an exhibition of cubist works on the walls around him. The action is slowed and almost ritualistic in the clear white space. Weir explains cubist theories of ‘movements of translation and rotation’ and how ‘it comes down to this – to slow the passage from the square to the circle’ as the camera floats through the room until it reaches a painting by Mainie Jellett called Let There Be Light (1938). Scanning down the canvas in which a hand divides and sprays a ray of light into a spectrum of colour Weir concludes that ‘painting was no longer dependent on a subject but on principles and laws founded on the very nature of colour and of light’. As if to prove that the same could be said about Weir’s own cinematography, the camera dwells on a curved red brushstroke that gradually modulates into a circle of projected light in a laboratory. Another side door in time and we are in Trinity College physics department where the circle demonstrates the theory of conical refraction predicted by William Rowan Hamilton, a friend of Mainie’s grandfather. As Weir explains, ‘A single ray of light refracts through a crystal into two paths of light. Turning the crystal a line becomes a circle. A radiant stranger leaps into palpable existence…’

This description shifts us from the scientific register to a poetic one - it’s almost biblical or mythical in its allusion. And yet, we are in the domain of science, gliding through to the lecture theatre where Erwin Schrödinger delivered a series of talks that later constituted his book What is Life? (1944). There, Schrödinger asked ‘how can the events in space and time which take place within the spatial boundary of a living organism be accounted for by physics and chemistry?’
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To answer that question Schrödinger proposes that genetic information could be stored in what he called an ‘aperiodic crystal’ and this storage solution influenced Crick and Watson later in their development of DNA theory with Rosalind Franklin. Schrödinger’s crystal joins a constellation of prisms in this film and as Weir’s camera moves downstairs there is another scientist, Shane Bergen, drawing a diagram of the refraction of light with a prism to help him. Weir considers whether time could be both wave and particle like light itself and then points out that light changes speed and direction when it passes from one medium to another. Perhaps what the film demonstrates is just how light, time and space are transformed as they pass through another medium: the lens of the camera.

As Weir moved towards these concluding remarks she descended stair and a wall on which there was a large portrait of John Hewitt Jellett, Mainie’s grandfather and the only member of the board of Trinity College to approve the admission of woman in the 1870s. Downstairs opposite Shane Bergen hangs a portrait of George Fitzgerald who marries Mainie’s aunt Harriet: his portrait faces the painting Let There Be Light now returned in it’s place in the Physic’s Department.

These long shots are dizzying in the way they layer histories, images and meaning. Perhaps Schrödinger offers a key to some of this complexity. The genetic transmission he proposes is certainly present in many ways. There is the bloodline of the Jelletts, a biological transmission. But there are other forms of lineage: the women artists, a quietly drawn feminist line, from Mainie Jellett to Sonja Kroll to Grace Weir; or the scientists on the cusp of quantum theory from John Hewitt Jellett to William Rowan Hamilton to George Fitzgerald to Shane Bergen; and a lineage of art media that would include painting, silhouettes, a variety of still cameras and film.

Schrödinger, though, ended his lectures with a question that went beyond the transmission of genetic material and addressed the most intimate of successions, that of the self:

each of us has the indisputable impression that the sum total of his own experience and memory forms a unit, quite distinct from that of any other person. He refers to it as ‘I’. What is this ‘I’?

If you analyse it closely you will, I think, find that it is just a little bit more than a collection of single data (experience and memories), namely the canvas upon which they are collected. And you will, on close introspection, find that what you really mean by ‘I’ is that ground-stuff upon which they are collected.
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It is appropriate that he chooses the image of the canvas as the ground for the data of experience and memory and that the artist, Grace Weir, has linked the ‘I’ of the maker to the eye of the camera as she rotates a work through time and space. Her film elaborates something not quite explored by Schrödinger, which is the perpetual motion of human consciousness: an ever-evolving perception and interpretation of the world around us.

The potential circularity of time that Weir refers to in her concluding remarks is part of that sense of constant motion, and it’s something that Mainie Jellett and her fellow Cubists put at the heart of their enterprise. It can be found too in Weir’s marking of the seasons and time in the various Script films where light and the sharpness of the lens play a key role. In Darkroom, Weir creates a double portrait of the nineteenth-century photographer Mary Ross and of Weir herself. The film captures the ruins of the darkroom through light and lens to suggest the absence of Rosse and the passing of her world. The final scene, in which a print of the original room develops, undoes this death: captured light from the past recreating a scene in the present.

1—E Schrödinger, What is life? With mind and matter and autobiographical sketches, (Cambridge University Press,1992) p. 3.
2—Schrödinger, 1992, p. 89.