Three small panels of iridescent surface; green, red and blue. To gaze into each is an act of bravery: surrendering yourself to a timeless space of unknown depths. Confronting emptiness and all that we each fill it with. Journeying (2016) is a new series of work by Manchester based artist Hannah Farrell. Though imageless, each piece is a photograph: a sheet of light sensitive paper that has been taken to the dark room and over-exposed – illuminated into darkness – then obscured by a sparkling sheen of two-tone acrylic spray paint.
Farrell’s aligning of photography and questions around the very nature of existence is very personal. Her decision to begin studying the form at university coincided with a significant moment of disjuncture in her life caused upon realising the damage that the destructive habits of her teenage years, as well as TV and magazines, were having upon her. In search of something more meaningful, she grew increasingly interested in eastern forms of philosophy and ancient ideas around feminine and masculine balance, sexuality and human identity. This marked the beginning of a long and ongoing process of unravelling and relearning about the world, which partly plays out through the medium of her work. We see this in Journeying through the decision to spray each of the three photographs in a layer of acrylic paint, which serves two, interrelated roles. Firstly, the metallic appearance alludes to a set of experiences in cars from Farrell’s youth, specifically connected to men and the performance of masculinity. Yet it also signifies acceptance and detachment; the abstract, shimmering opticality of each surface simultaneously intended as a reference to an almost cosmic-like space, where artificial dualities such as gender dissolve.
The complexities of gender are deeply bound-up with Farrell’s use of the camera. She acknowledges herself how rare it is for women to photograph men within the art world or photographic industry. Paradoxically, the feeling of discomfort this creates both personally and for her male subjects (who she often does not know, and even at times has approached randomly in the street) heightens the degree of trust needed between the two, and helps create the unique fragility, intimacy and tenderness that lies at the heart of Farrell’s newer works. We see this in Being in dreaming (2016) and Left side, right side (2016) where she has managed to capture both male subjects in in-between moments, their expressions giving way to a sense of something somehow less certain than fixed ‘maleness’. Farrell’s use of props adds to this; the copper circle and plants providing symbols of nature, femininity and healing, while their careful arrangement encourages notions of delicacy and grace. This is especially so in Left side, right side where the soft openness of the female hand holding the branch suggests a gesture of empathy, as if trying to reach out through the frames of the picture (a photograph of a photograph) and bridge the two spaces. The hand is in fact Farrell’s and her placement of herself within the work forms an important part of her own connection with its themes, and the journey she herself is on.
Farrell’s construction of these works as photographs of photographs, within which only one-way forms of interaction occur, not only draws our attention to the status of the photograph as object. It also taps into the role that photography and other forms of media representation have played in reinforcing polarised standards of gender and shaping our relationship with sex. Farrell first began exploring this subject in her 2014 series, Close your eyes and think of England, using found images of soft-porn lifted from vintage copies of Penthouse magazine. Here the notion of ‘unravelling’ accepted norms appears in its earliest form through her fragmentation and distortion of the photographs and hence the female body. Yet it can also be seen in Farrell’s more recent experiments, such as Left side, right side and Bodywork (2016), where the photographed peeling-away of both subjects’ portrait suggests a kind of flimsy, insubstantiality to their outer image. Indeed, Farrell regards men as often as much damaged by the sexist, patriarchal aspects of our society as women.
The entwined desire to both richly complicate our understanding of photography whilst subtly unpick the knotted mess of the society in which it sits has led to Farrell down an exciting path. Recently identified by The Catlin Guide as one of the most promising artists to watch, look out for her upcoming work featured at PAPER.
We are pleased to announce that Hannah Farrell has won the DeLonghi Art Projects Artist Award at London Art Fair. The prize of £2500 was awarded to Hannah Farrell for her outstanding presentation of work on PAPER’s booth at London Art Fair.
Visit Hannah Farrell’s website at www.hannahfarrell.com.
Words by Sara Jaspan