Susan Norrie: Part of The Enlightenments

Susan Norrie (2009).  Art Review, London, Issue 35 (October). p.127

Listening to the instrumental muzak version of Burt Bacharach’s Walk on By, which accompanies Susan Norrie’s video piece Enola (2004), it is easy to wonder whether the labelling of her practice as an exploration of future catastrophe isn’t the product of a mischievous, shared sense of irony.  Yet – Hollywood aside – what basis do we have for our expectations of what catastrophe might possibly look like, or sound like, or how it might be experienced?

For me, the seamlessly rendered landscape of Enola (in which the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame Cathedral sit comfortably behind the Vatican and close to the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, the Palace of Versailles and La Sagrada Família) brought to mind the Great Expositions of the 19th Century and that peculiarly Western way of representing the world by speciously bringing it to hand, so described in Heidegger’s “the Age of the World Picture”.  In these giant trade fairs other parts of the world were often ‘recreated’ for the delight of domestic visitors and often met by the bemusement of non-European travellers[1].  In Norrie’s work the famous icons are revealed in slow panning survey shots and fly-by inspections, the dotted pedestrians appearing frozen as if caught on a Google Street Map.  In a few scenes we see two Japanese onlookers, dressed in smart/casual dark hooded outfits, scanning the grand, appropriated vista.

If we return to the notion of catastrophe, and we might remind ourselves that the Enola Gay was the name of the B-29 Bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb, then this ‘nuclear fallout’ – as one review described it – seems to be as much about visuality, exhibition and representation as any spectacular aftermath. In a narrative sense these buildings, standing peacefully intact, might be imagined to be monuments to buildings elsewhere destroyed.   If Grand Narratives of progress, so tied to the 19th Century Expositions, project a culmination point for Western Civilization, then Enola suggests its permanent deferral: synecdochical forms displaced and frozen, as if the future tragedy of Western Civilization lies in the crippling logic of its past modes of representation.

Shot (2009), the second video piece, is less orchestrated than Enola.  The video loops footage of a Japanese space rocket being moved from its hanger and being launched with images of related, though somewhat anonymous, jobs being carried out.  The subtitled voice-over outlines the mission’s aim to collect data about global warming.  It stresses the sheer quantity of data a satellite can collect, but offers reservations about the actions it might ultimately engender.  Shot certainly doesn’t take an idea as far as Enola, but instead preserves an illusion of documentary realism.

[1] Timothy Mitchell provides an engaging account of four Egyptian delegates visiting the 1889 Exposition in Paris where they encountered a curious prevalence of exhibition practices and the Westerner’s tendency to stare.  Mitchell, T (1998 [1989]) Orientalism and the Exhibitionary Order, in Preziozi, D (ed) The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology.  Oxford University Press, Oxford. Pp. 455-472.


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