Memento Mori: Sonata for Light - Artist Dialogue (2017)

In Dialogue with Kathryn Smith (Excerpts)

When I decided to create an installation on light, arts, time and death, I soon had the idea of having an email conversation with a friend, Kathryn Smith. I was so glad that she accepted my invitation promptly.

Kathryn Smith is a visual artist, curator and forensic practitioner. Senior lecturer in Fine Arts at Stellenbosch University, she is currently a PhD researcher at Liverpool John Moores University’s Face Lab, where she also teaches on the MA Art in Science programme.

Below is the excerpt of our dialogue.

A – Amy Chan

K – Kathryn Smith

A: Capturing time, stopping time, capturing light, fixing the light from a specific moment, not allowing the light to go/ fade away… these all seem basic human desires, which provoked the birth of photography.

K: Your mention of time is significant, especially as it is an intrinsic component of light. As an artist who likes to take photography apart, both technically and theoretically, I understand light and time are connected, not least in the sense of the relationship between what is fleeting and what is ‘fixed’ – which is one of the things that photography tries to do.

A: I love your remarks on the light and time in photography and physics. They remind me of my favourite impression of the dark hole, with light, space and time all entangled in one instance. I always find light a paradoxical medium. Light exists and travels endlessly in outer space. Light governs our visual perception, our key experience to the surrounding, but it cannot be experienced alone without the presence of perceivable space. Light-space becomes one entangled unit to me. Then there comes my hope for the life and autonomy of light-space. And, time comes in. The travel of light is both time and distance (the unit of “light-year”). The rhythmic time - the heart rate, the pulse, the breathing, the walking rhythm - is instinctive to our lives, which is also reflected in our apparently inborn affinity to music.

K: These (galaxy telescopic) images convey unimaginable scale - space, distance and energy that is apparently the substance of life itself - but these pinpricks of light and swirling matter could just as easily exist under a microscope. They are so unrelatable to one’s own body that I struggle to position myself in relation to them. Extreme macro- and extreme micro- are equally difficult to comprehend as having ‘materiality’ in a positivist sense, but this does not make them less ‘real’.

A: With this thought of integration of space and time while hearing these sounds and noises, the presence and the perception of the universe become so colourful and the time starting from the origin of the universe is more vivid, a phenomena different from the visual-predominant “dark” cosmos. At this juncture, your mentioning of destabilizing the audio- and visual media comes to my mind, with sounds and noises being the counterpoint in the composition of audio and visual.

[…] Through this passage and freezing of time, the musical piece enables the contemplation of death, at a time in the future his composition of the music, and repeatable in every performance afterwards. Time travels in different directions and in different tempos in this musical memento mori.

K: I am currently very preoccupied with the relationship between the material, the ‘immaterial’ and embodied perception in relation to images that seek to project some kind of truth. Here I have found Kaja Silverman (The Miracle of Analogy: A History of Photography Part 1, 2015) very useful. […] Here she is writing about the work of Walter Benjamin, on his evolving theory of photography, from an ‘industrial’ technology that possesses an evidentiary truth, to one that ‘discloses’ its truth analogically, which is about reciprocity and relationality. She observes that

Benjamin suggests that the photographic image is propelled by a mysterious kind of intentionality toward a particular look - one that has the capacity to recognise it, and thereby to redeem it. It travels through time and space to reach this look, and when it arrives, something extraordinary happens. The present discovers itself within the past, and the past is realized within the present. (Silverman 2015: 7)

I am very interested in this capacity of disclosure; it suggests trust, intimacy, participation, the kinds of things that inform and motivate performance work like yours, Amy. Silverman quotes Benjamin, who wrote, “It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, [or that] what is present casts its light on what is past; rather… what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.” (Silverman 2015: 8)

K: Wonderful, no?”

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