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

Out of the Darkness
Sam Thorne

Grace Weir's Darkroom is a two-screen film that has two locations. Or, it might be more accurate to say that we are actually encountering two renderings of a single place. One is the original, the other a copy (though the fraught relationship between these two terms is partly what the film is interested in). The first of these is one of the world's first darkrooms, constructed in the mid-19th century by the photography pioneer Mary Rosse. Located in the depths of Birr Castle in County Offaly, this studio was for the best part a century completely forgotten, until it was stumbled upon again the mid-1980s. As the film's punning title implies, it feels curiously fitting that a darkroom might actually 'go dark', only coming to light again much later. But it is also troubling that a figure such as Rosse might slip so easily from view. Weir photographed Rosse's original darkroom shortly before it was dismantled and reassembled; later she returned to the space, now demolished, as well as its replica. The second channel of the film follows Weir as she documents the reconstructed studio. She develops a black-and-white digital image she took of the original darkroom, an umbilical (and analogue) connection to Rosse's lost space. Intriguingly, the word 'atélier' derives from the old French word astelle, or yoke, suggestive of the studio as a bridge between different things – times, places, ideas. And indeed, in Darkroom, different senses of before and after, original and simulation, are gently yoked together. Photography, and filmmaking more broadly, comes to feel like a kind of connective tissue.

Darkroom is informed by several preoccupations that weave throughout Weir's prismatic work. To begin with, the film concerns darkness and light in a way that is both literal and richly metaphorical, speaking – as many of Weir's films do – about what happens when certain things are brought to light. Whether circling around marginalised artists or black holes, her work often wonders at the myriad ways in which the forgotten can be remembered and how we come to give form to unseeable things. In these investigations, light and dark are never binary or opposed. The relationship between the two is more shifting and always intimate. Watching these essayistic pieces, I am reminded of an observation in Chris Marker's 1983 film Sans Soleil (the title of which feels particularly resonant with Weir's work): remembering is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining.

The reconstruction of Rosse's studio at Birr Castle inevitably recalls the myriad ways in which studios have been reconstructed: Eduardo Paolozzi's in Edinburgh; Constantin Brancusi's, uprooted and annexed next to the Centre Pompidou; Frances Bacon's at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. The latter studio, which Bacon proudly referred to as his 'compost heap', is one that Weir knows well, having shown at the gallery in 2009. Its contents – tins of paint, pots of brushes, myriad scraps of paper, empty champage crates – were catalogued meticulously by a team of archeologists, before being transplanted from South Kensington to Dublin. It has been argued that this studio has become Bacon's most famous work. But how much do reconstructions obscure, and how much do they reveal? This is the question posed by Weir in Darkroom. In the case of Mary Rosse's studio, its replica both elides and guarantees the visibility of its original. Weir has said that she is fascinated by the relationship between photography and reconstruction, noting that, 'Both attempt to fix a moment.' Darkroom is about how two images come to be fixed in time, but also about the passage of time between them.

Time, elsewhere in Weir's work, becomes even more stretched out, and light's relationship to it becomes both fugitive and completely determining. The title of her series of photograms, The history of light (Betelgeuse) c.1374 – Dec 2014, refers to the second-brightest star in the Orion constellation, the light from which takes some 640 years to reach Earth. This means that Betelgeuse may have died anytime since the late 14th century and we would be none the wiser. Weir produces these photograms directly from the light of Betelgeuse by building a makeshift camera of her own. This consisted of a tube that moved in time with Earth's rotation, meaning that the photographic film could be fixed on the dying star for hours at a time. In their economy, these photograms are beautiful illustrations of the gap between what is actually the case and what we perceive it to be. In the case of Betelgeuse, our perceptions are two-thirds of a millennium behind the times.

Another of Weir's series, titled Future Perfect (2015), is made using photographic retouching inks that have differing states of lightfastness (a lovely word). Each of these delicate geometric abstractions is dated from when it was made to when the colour fades away. This life span could be months or even decades. These are photograms with an expiry date, always in the process of receding from view. I remember Walter Benjamin's claim that, 'To do without people is for photography the most impossible of renunciations’
1, and wonder at how these photograms of Weir's are somehow trying to do without photography, while at the same time insisting on its persistence. After all, the future perfect tense means 'this will have been'.

Weir's film A Reflection on Light (2015) feels like the light-filled double of Darkroom, in that it involves another overlooked Irish pioneer with ties to the early decades of modernism. The 20-minute film trails a 1938 painting titled Let There Be Light, one of the last paintings to be completed by Mainie Jellett, who studied first in London with Walter Sickert then in Paris. Soon after returning from her studies with the cubist Albert Gleizes, in 1923, Jellett exhibited Decoration at the Dublin Painters' Society. This was the first ever abstract painting to be exhibited in Dublin. Jellett was deeply religious, and the title of her painting quotes from the third line of the Book of Genesis – that is, the moment when God, by creating light, gave shape to a hitherto formless world. Light and creation are yoked together, from the very beginning. In fact, Jellett's own family was closely connected to contemporary thinking about optics and perception. Her grandfather, a physicist who had laid some of the ground for Einstein's theory of relativity, invented an object called a half-shadow prism, which refracts a beam of light into a circle (wire models are included in Weir's retrospective at IMMA, casually propping one on top of a vitrine, as though it had been absentmindedly forgotten). Again, light and time become enfolded. As Weir's own voiceover wonders at one point, 'Perhaps time is like light – sometimes a wave, sometimes a particle... 'Perhaps time is a circle. Its line makes an arc and implies a return.'

A Reflection on Light begins in what was once Jellett's studio and home in Dublin, 'unchanged since she lived here', as Weir tells us. Today, Jellett's family still lives in the house, and the building is used as a commercial photography studio. We see an older couple – Jellett's nephew and his wife – circled by a photographer, as they pose for a portrait. Light rakes through a window, seemingly more the subject than the couple. The film soon cuts again to another pair of figures, this time art-handlers. We are in the galleries of IMMA, where the two men are in the process of deinstalling the 2013 exhibition 'Analysing Cubism'. They are carefully carrying Jellett's painting. Finally, we see where Let There Be Light permanently resides, at Trinity College's School of Physics, where for several years Weir has been a resident artist. A Reflection on Light traces the social life of an art work, how it passes from the studio to the white cube, the two defining spaces of modernism. A single painting quietly bobs at the centre of this shifting narrative. As Jellett herself once wrote, 'A picture is a mobile living thing.’
2

The title of Weir's hour-long film Black Square (2015) alludes to Kasimir Malevich's painting of exactly 100 years before. This he had presented in a seminal exhibition in Petrograd, titled 'The Last Exhibition of Paintings 0.10', alongside works by Vladimir Tatlin and Liubov Popova, among others. As was implied by the exhibition title, a manifesto in itself, Malevich and his peers saw the works on display as marking the very end-point of painting, a return to degree zero.

The film Black Square is itself about a journey to the edges of visibility. Told chronologically, the two-channel work is a road movie of sorts, though its true destination is both infinitesimal and unfathomably vast. Weir's aim is to see the the supermassive black hole that lies at the very centre of the Milky Way, the galaxy that is itself somewhere in the region of 130,000 light years wide and home to up to one trillion stars. To do this, she and a small film crew journey across the remote Atacama Desert in the north of Chile. Their destination is an observatory on top of Cerro Paranal, a mountain which stands some 2.5 kilometres above sea level. This is home to what is called, unambiguously, the Very Large Telescope. Each of the telescopes that make up this installation can detect objects that are roughly four billion times as faint as can be detected by the human eye.

Black Square culminates with one of the astronomers showing Weir a single pixel on a computer monitor. He explains that one-thousandth of this tiny black square is the equivalent of the supermassive black hole, which has a diameter of some ten million kilometres. This miniscule unit of sense contains multitudes. Like so much of Weir's work, Black Square is about how we find images for what we cannot see. It was William Faulkner who once said that you strike a match in a dark wilderness not to see anything better lighted, but just in order to see how much more darkness there is around.

1—W Benjamin and H Eil, Walter Benjamin: Selected writings, volume 2, part 2, 1931–1934 Edited by Gary Smith and Michael W. Jennings (United States: Harvard University Press, 2005) p. 519.
2—Grace Weir quoting Mainie Jellett in Grace Weir, A reflection on light, 2015; HD Video, 20 minutes.

Sam Thorne is the director of Nottingham Contemporary. He is a contributing editor at frieze, a visiting tutor at the Royal College of Art and a co-founder of Open School East, a free-to-attend study programme in East London. Sam is the author of the book School: Conversations on Self-Organised Education (Sternberg Press, 2016). Prior to joining Nottingham Contemporary he was artistic director of Tate St Ives.