In the mansion…I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly…I would not ask for this to be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.
Barnaby Hosking proposes a close relationship between elemental conditions (such as snow, darkness), the artwork, its process and installation. Though all these are first experienced and endured by the artist, he argues that these sensations only come together in the final installation; here, the circle is closed by the presence and body of the audience.
The contemporary installation is a viewing mode, which proposes to immerse the viewer in sensation, it surrounds, engages and seduces. Hosking’s stark black and white environments, contrariwise, make no attempt at a single fusion between separate elements such as video-projections, paintings, sculptures and objects to create defined sensations; instead, links are implicit rather than explicit, and are faced with clearly delineated boundaries between discrete (though connected) works, each requiring ‘frontality’ rather than immersion. Frontality is often associated with the ‘cinematic’, a condition that requires the viewer to square up to the object of the gaze in a static manner; its distinguishing feature is the need to pay attention, to engage in a sustained manner with the projection surface, whereas ‘immersion’ demands circumspection, the ability to sense surroundings in a totalising manner.
Hosking destabilises the act of perception: both his own vision and that of the audience are reduced and questioned; by painting in white in the midst of a blizzard in Norway or by choosing to work in the darkest hues in a forest at night, he asks us to consider ‘blindness’ as an integral part of the creative process. ‘Claude Mirror Sun’ (2006) combines the object, a mirror, with the darkened image of the sun, reminding us of travellers on the ‘Grand Tour’ in the 18th Century. The Claude Glass was used to make the world reflected in its dark convex surface more picturesque, or, to put it another way, more painterly. Similarly, Hosking’s installation celebrates the instrument, the object and the process of transformation; curiously, while the reduction in light renders our surroundings alien, it allows us to see the world as it should be in the eyes of the artist; thus, the less we see, the more blindness overcomes us, and the more we come to understand about what is and will remain beyond our reach. Thus, the world ceases to be a concept, governed by the reason of transparent rules, but it is plunged into darkness and loses its predictability ceasing to be “governed by any fixed norm or image of self.”
His sculptures and objects display a dedication to tactility and palpable surface value. Their clarity, simplicity and elegance, are the result of painstaking craftsmanship and patience, which we are often privileged to witness. ‘Surface’ (2003) shows a video of a female head being measured with callipers, the resulting clay sculpture is displayed alongside, while ‘Reclining Figure’ (2005) displays a bronze nude lying on the gallery floor, flanked by a video depicting the process of drawing and modelling projected onto black velvet. The videos, shot in stark black and white, trace the manual labour of the artist: he measures, draws outlines, he moulds the clay with his hands, all tactile, physical actions and translations executed with infinite deliberation and care. These display both skill and patience, two aspects of artistic practice that return us to the past. Here, the execution of a laborious and exacting task requires the artist to submit to the process itself. Such submission to a task can also be seen in the work ‘Black Caddy’ (2004), a video-installation showing a film of a Japanese Tea ceremony and the cutting and assembly of the caddy used in the ritual. The women in the film wear traditional costume and each one of their actions is performed with the precision associated with the endless repetition of a smooth groove; being bound by ancient ceremonial rules may, at first, seem constraining to a Western eye, however, such a hermetic view of culture, where repetition is privileged over invention and originality, also liberates the individual momentarily from the world; here, repetition and absorption remind us of the need for “daydreaming” as Gaston Bachelard would put it. Paradoxically, the more precise and rehearsed the action or the greater the immersion in the task is, the less it absorbs us. Thus spending time means gaining time.
Though Hosking’s work appears to foreground stillness it also displays aspects of the transitory or nomadic, a term often associated with current globalised art practice. By contrast with many of its proponents, however, Hosking does not appear to travel in order to communicate: instead, he journeys and makes art, to get away, and, at times, to quite literally disappear. Though traditional nomadic culture may be defined by its mobility, it is equally marked by hermeticism and adherence to traditional customs. In short, our contemporary appropriation of the term points towards a lack of understanding: in our own post-capitalist culture, which is ruled by simulations, surfaces and coded signs otherness is too often dismissed as arcane. If the nomadic once represented a real displacement within vast uninhabited space, today, we must add to such a definition and say that it also signifies a wandering around in a forest of signs, a place of conflicting messages. The artist is thus cast as a cartographer of the actual unknown, of places and times, and also of the known-unknown, of the familiar that is alien due to its impenetrable surface coding. In short, we recognise what is before us, but it has lost all connection to what it resembles.
It might appear as if Hosking were solely invoking Romanticism and harking back to another time and place, though this would be an incomplete, and ultimately superficial reading. Instead, his problematising of both subject-matter and process functions perhaps as a way of staving off oblivion, to recall in order to endure today. His bodily actions remember and repeat when forgetting might be simpler. White-on-white or black–on-black becomes memorable because either is barely perceptible. On the very edge, as things escape our grasp, as they are obliterated, when our sight dims, the limits of our perception are reached, and in this blindness, this inability to feel and comprehend, we arrive at momentary consciousness, since ‘consciousness is nothing – not a thing but an activity, a wind blowing from nowhere toward the world.’