A Time and a Place


Jeremy Millar


  Padova. Summer 1995.

Leaving behind the parallel lines of steel which brought me here, I descend. I close my eyes tight, trying to shake the visual stain which dully persists there, squeezing their lids between finger and thumb ( although I’m uncertain as to why). I replace my sunglasses, and the colour within the scene begins to assume (what I assume is) its proper density. After taking a drink of unpleasantly warm water, I scrape my black nylon bag over my shoulders, its presence on my back reminding me of the wetness which the plastic seat has already drawn out of me. Down stone steps, I enter the subway.

A pile of sawdust lies in the corner, at the base of the steps, soaking something up. The station, like many in the region, is long and low, like the platforms, its cool clean forms reminiscent of a time which some are only too happy to remember, others too sad to forget. Outside, blocks of the reddest roses make shapes between lines of taxis. I move south along Corso del Popolo, past a Chinese supermarket and a discount bookstore, into which I stare while waiting to cross the road. A bridge leads over what is mainly water, with the old city walls which remain, in part, on the left. A park, veined with pathways, half-opens to me, a gateway there, and next to it, a newsagents stall, on one of its sides cheap flesh cheaply printed. Behind it, in the small, plain brick chapel are the most important frescoes ever painted. I wonder why it’s sometimes called the ‘Arena Chapel’ while in front of it, on a patch of gravel and dirt, two African men kick a football erratically, back and forth, while a group of Italians on mopeds watch, smoking.

Two coaches are parked abstractly in front of the Erimatani. Shell suits rustle down the steps and shimmer on the pavement, like puddles of heat haze. The rest of the street is as empty as the afternoon sky, and I walk past stores of modern silk and antique wood. I come to the university buildings and try to recall what I had learned about the institution. Inside is the world’s first permanent anatomy theatre, like a scale model of a mile-high stadium, built at the same time that Galileo was teaching physics here. Galileo taught physics here. His lectern is inside.

The street becomes via del Santo soon afterwards, as though making a point. Shops begin selling illuminated manuscripts and embroidered robes, candles like pillars and postcards which hover restlessly between images of the Turin Shroud and a third-rate painting of Christ, their features coinciding exactly, reassuringly, like proof. In the piazza, in front of the Basilica di Sant’Antonio, groups of people are held together like atomic particles, small children running, circling, bombarding with requests, demands, splitting, seperating, dividing. Around the edge, identical red stalls spill identical plastic shapes from their shelves, like an illusionist’s trick. Candles one, two, three feet long hang from their roofs while inside, snowshakers, paperweights and fairy-lit grottoes all enclose the figure of the Saint, in a Franciscan habit, with a small boy held high on his shoulder, as though attemting to give him a clearer view. In the Basilica, the tongue and chin of Sant’Antonio are kept inside a head-shaped container. I take another mouthful of water.

I follow the couples away from the piazza, women with lacy tights and gilt edges, men in Lacoste polo shirts and bright, blank smiles. Soon these weekend pilgrimages will be made with a small transistor radio held to the ear. Men from all over the city will react in unison, clenching fists, imploring skywards, their wives, girlfriends, mistresses talking to their own reflection in the windows of lingerie stores.

Further on is the Orto Botanico, four hundred and fifty years old, the oldest botanic gardens in Europe. It was created for the medical department of the university, a floral archive, the plants seperated into their own little plots, tagged, well-behaved. Two pathways neatly bisect the main circle of the garden into quarters, a small pond at its centre, with each slice containing its own geometrics, like a horticultural spirograph. I’m told that the shapes refer to the positions of the constellations and I’m reminded of Galileo and his telescope. Goethe came here also, over two hundred years ago, to visit a palm tree which was then two hundred years old. Next to it now, on the hot gravel, lies a flat frog, dried, brown, dessicated.

I shock my head under a cold water tap on one of the outer walls and move down via Donatello, leaving a trail of dark drips which disappear minutes, seconds, after my passing. A moped breaks passed me in the middle of the road, the wrong way, and I reach a shop at the end selling cheap copies of shirts for Padova, Vicenza, Lazio. Flags limply announce ‘Forza Italia!’ or half conceal the face of Ayrton Senna in folds of viscose. An Italian teenager stares from the doorway, a Union Jack on his T-shirt, the word ‘hooligan’ marking a width across it wider than his chest.

My mouth feels dry and I find it difficult to swallow. I force another drink. I turn the corner, to my left, and am faced with an enormous empty space, not a square, but an oval, like an enormous running track. The buildings around its edge do not follow this pattern but a more complex geometry, the shape of an old -fashioned baseball park that has continued to grow, beyond utility and scale. I walk, then quicker, across the road and onto the dust of the car-park. To my left, a white bridge crosses the water which lies just inside the elliptical wall. Around its edge stand a number of statues, and although I don’t count them, I know that the number is 78 (which strikes me as unusual, given the formality of the design). In the water, below, are an impressive number of ornamental fish, and although I don’t know what that number is, that there are any left at all seems impressive enough. The pathways from the four bridged entrances act as cross-hairs for the central fountain, for which they aim. Like a drunken recreation of the botanic garden, much simplified and much exaggerated, small plots of plants are replaced with huge areas of plain grass. The whiteness of the paths’ stones hurts my eyes.

I sit on one of the stone benches which rest against the wall of the centre circle. The seat is cool and I find the sight of the fountain refreshing, its spray evaporating into pure colour. As I look further on, over the furthest walkway and through the frame of the monumental gateway, between the framework of a rollercoaster and the segments of a big wheel, I make out the unmistakable shapes of a floodlight and a football stadium. And, yes, strange, stranger than all these things, stranger than me writing them now, I actually thought of Stephen Gill, and his photographs.

London. April 1996

Well, maybe not so strange. When we were at college ( we were at college together) Stephen was working on a series of landscape photographs. Perhaps the term is inappropriate, misleading, in that Stephen was making pictures of gardens, green suburban dreams. The photographs were relatively straightforward, and almost formal, quite small, like the gardens themselves. Only better, more interesting.

As the project became larger, so did the spaces in which Stephen began to work, public spaces replacing private ones, as though its confidence were increasing. This became even more apparent when, one day during the last term (or the term after) Stephen told us that he was to visit Europe for a time, starting with Italy, with a view to photograph some of the gardens there. A few weeks later, during the Easter break, I bumped into him amongst the dull stone shapes of Market Square and wished him well on his trip.

A week or so later he was back at college. Travelling from Florence, he had decided to spend a day in Rome, and it was here that his wallet was stolen, along with his bag. He managed to keep hold of his camera, but only after a struggle. I can only remember one photograph from the trip, and it is of a statue, clean white against a clear blue sky, its head just visible above a plane of green foliage, as though it were hiding, and just checking.

When reminded of the grim walk to most British stadia, it may seem wilfully perverse to evoke the sun-thickened pleasures of Italy, with its rigorous gardens and easy life, but there is an important parallel to draw here between the development of this work, and the earlier development of that which has become its ostensible subject matter. In a sense, it is in these perfect spaces, these formal gardens and parks, that we find the earliest models for the sports stadium, a recognition betrayed by the impulse they share, the reduction of nature to geometry.

As the rules of modern sports began to be clarified, so too did the spaces in which they were to occur. Gardeners from the larger parks and gardens were invited to become groundsmen, their jobs now not to encourage the unfolding of nature, but in a way to arrest it, to keep things the same. In order that comparisons be made between sports meetings, it was crucial that each venue was standardized, or else records would become meaningless. Unlike the earlier formal gardens, which were the symmetrical aestheticization of man’s control over nature, sports stadia attemted to render it virtually non-existent, an empty space in which humankind alone could demonstrate its own sense of natural power and beauty. These were places that were designed to be almost placeless, and although this fate has now been accepted by many as virtually inevitable in our post-industrial global economy, there are few other areas where this has been the absolute desire of those concerned, rather than some vulgar financial expediency. Indeed, if there is another place, another type of place, that is forced to be like all its others, then it is the laboratory, where the reproducibility of experiments is of fundamental importance, the negation of geography by pure scientific reason.

It was such a relationship which interested a number of photographers in the early 1970’s, photographers who have had a marked influence upon the work of Stephen Gill. During this period, artists such as Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Stephen Shore were being acknowledged as some of the foremost members of a new ‘movement’ which became known as ‘New Topographics’, after the ground-breaking exhibition which identified it. Their photographs were clean, simple. the style was objective (the paradox is deliberate) and often represented those urban spaces which are ill-defined. As such, the technical clarity of the images only further intensified the lack of clarity of the subject matter itself (it is hardly coincidental, surely, that this work was being developed at a time when we were seeing the first photographs taken on the moon, clear and clearly empty).

Perhaps we should think of those historic photographs some more. Representation of the landscape has always been linked, inextricably, with notions of control, ownership and territory. Central-point perspective, the visual model on which photography is based, not only gave us the optics with which to look further into the landscape, but also the means to calculate a trajectory of anything which we would like to send into it. (Indeed, vision and warfare is now closely developed that many military experts proclaim that if it can be seen, then it can be destroyed). This territorial impulse of photography is founded upon such a history, and is perhaps best expressed by the image of the ‘Stars and Stripes’, singular amidst the white desolation of the moon’s surface, its position marked by the cross-hairs etched onto the glass of the lunar Hasselblads.

Stephen’s photographs in this exhibition often make explicit reference to these spatial desires, whether it is the aerial mappings of preliminary excavations, like an architectural silicon chip, or the black metal supports, X’s marking the spots where people will be allowed to sit, numbered and known. Driven by an interest in the work of Joachim Brohm and Volker Heinze in Germany, and especially Peter Fraser in this country, Stephen has become at least as interested in photographing the space around an object as in photographing that object itself. With his intelligent use of focus, for example, he is inviting us to reconsider our perception of the space around us, to concentrate, to focus upon it, literally. At first glance, we may think that some of these photographs are not in focus, but here lies a failure to recognise that, using a lens-based camera, it is impossible to produce a photograph which is not focussed. In these photographs, the plane of focus lies in an area which contains no visible objects, nothing to confirm its existence, yet this does not imply its absence. Instead, we begin to think of these spaces as no longer fixed but subject to flux, uncertainty, a movement of concentration, focussed now, now unfocussed, as attention shifts, and shifts. When looking at these photographs, we begin to realise that territory is not simply a place, but a process.

In his book ‘The Transparency of Evil’, amongst the talk of computer viruses and the Heysel disaster, Jean Baudrillard writes that good photography does not represent anything but rather captures this unrepresentability. This may be true, but very good photography does both, and in the bright-dark colours and precise lack of focus of these images, Stephen Gill has achieved this. It’s there. One-nil.