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>> Catherine Yass: Dream Shifts
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Catherine Yass: Dream Shifts

A portrait of Catherine Yass who has been nominated for the Turner Prize 2002 by Alistair Hicks

"I’ve been working with a sleep scientist (sleep doctor) to learn more about the structures of sleep," says Catherine Yass (Biografie, short portrait by the BBC), who is well known for her luminous photographs and light boxes. These are characterised by an interplay between negative and positive images, and the resulting duality is reflected in the world she portrays, which hovers between dream and harsh reality.

Descent: HQ5:
1/4s, 4.7°, 0 mm,
40 mph, 2002

Descent: HQ5:
1/4s, 7.2°, 0.2 mm,
20 mph/180, 2002

Descent: HQ5,


Descent: HQ3,

Yet there is always a down-to-earth element in her work. She started working with the sleep doctor shortly after completing the eight-minute film Descent (see more), which is a vital part of her contribution to the Turner Prize exhibition currently on at Tate Britain (London). The film beautifully disorientates the viewer. On a foggy day, she and her camera were lowered slowly from an 800-ft. tower block in Canary Wharf still under construction. She shows the film upside down, leading the viewers to feel as though they were slowly falling through this no-man’s land. "I was fascinated to learn from the sleep doctor that dreams about falling can be triggered by what you’ve eaten – that what you digest apparently helps form your dreams – as much as anything psychological."

Descent: HQ5,
1/4s, 5.7°, 3.4mm,
8.5mph, 2002

Descent: HQ3:
1/4s, 5.7°, 3.4 mm,
8.5mph, 2002

Descent: HQ5:
1/4s, 7.2°, 0.2mm,
20mph, 2002

Yet speaking of Yass’ work in terms of dreams could be misleading, for, as she says, "I have quite vivid dreams, but I’m not interested in projecting these. I’m more interested in how the imagination works – in the waking imagination." In this, she unconsciously shares concerns with an earlier generation of Slade pupils, such as Victor Willing (1928–1988) and Michael Andrews (1928–1995), who were interested in the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s ideas on reverie and architecture. From the beginning, Yass has chosen simple, strong architecture for her compositions.

There is often a strong hint that the corridors (picture) she photographs mirror a mental architecture – an architecture of the human mind. "Of course, photography has to have a subject – one has to take to pictures of something," she says, "– and this subject holds the attention. But those corridors … maybe they do reflect the way the mind works – going off down corridors – dreams do have a certain space."

In British art schools, and in particular the Slade, there used to be an edict against action in pictures. It was considered taboo to show someone doing something to someone. Art was meant to be above mere story telling. Yass managed to avoid this straightjacket teaching at the Slade (she was not in the painting schools), yet many of her images have the intensity fostered by this tradition. From the beginning, she was interested in making portraits. These were invariably of single figures: framed, isolated, and contained by their environment.

Cell: 2, 1998

Cell: hole, 1998

The exceptions seem to prove the rule, for when she had more than one subject, as in Portrait: Chairpersons of the Council of the City of Salford, 1994, the individual figures are still in splendid isolation, almost wrapped up like individual bubbles by the artist’s technique. Yet it was the same year that she achieved recognition for her Corridor series, and she became famous for her bleak architectural compositions, hospital corridors (picture), and other institutional settings. "That was an accident," she maintains.

"The Corridor series started out as backgrounds for the portraits," Yass explains. "They were always backgrounds for portraits. I got a commission to work in a hospital. I had been doing portraits until that time. My main intention was to make portraits of the patients in the psychiatric hospital, but before I ever got to do the portraits, I was introduced to the archive of Dr. Diamond, a nineteenth-century doctor who’d done research at the hospital on mental health. There were photographs of individual people, and each photograph was accompanied by the single bald statement of their disease; these people were characterised forever more by their illness – mania, hysteria, and melancholia.

Before I did the portraits of the patients, I did the pictures of the corridors. I installed the portraits in niches in the corridors of the hospital itself, but I didn’t feel happy about removing them from their context.

Previously, when I’d been making portraits, I had been making them as ways of opening up existing relationships. If I was commissioned by a gallery, for instance, I would be making a portrait of a curator. I was dealing in relationships of equality of power that were more on the receiving end of power structures. These people, though, had less vested interest in my making their portraits. I wanted to make sure they weren’t shown in an exploitative way, and I would only show them in contexts where they would be respected.

I don’t believe that you can ever catch the kernel of a person in a photograph. People’s identities are constantly changing. It’s just a moment, and then it’s gone. Identities slip. At times, one doesn’t know precisely what one is photographing. I don’t just want to project my own views on them. The hospital is a world in itself. It’s cut off from everything. The photograph can’t contain them."

Garden Portrait, 2001

Despite Yass' protests, there is a sense of the visionary about the figure in the light box Garden Portrait, 1995–2001 (Deutsche Bank collection). It is almost as though he were in a state of reverie. Again, there is the ambivalence. Is he a visionary? Does he see anything at all? The image provides no judgement, but with its vibrant, blurry blue edges, it suggests how man leaks into his environment and vice versa. He could almost be in the "moment of daydream suspension" that Yass wishes to achieve in her work.

Yet seen alongside the bare Corridor pictures or the Cell series (pictures), where she took pictures inside a police jail, one is unnerved by the shifting world. The spreading blues and greens seem to attack the very fabric of order, the bare architecture, as though they were a corrosive acid or a colour virus. The blurred edges are almost like holes encouraging us to slip from one world to another.Blue is particularly important to Yass. "Blue, unlike other colours, does seem to have this quality of floating in front of and behind a plane, so you can never quite locate it. It makes you look at the image from a fragmented and unfamiliar viewpoint. With the portraits, the effect of the blue is to destabilise the sense of space and the position of the person in it, and this can have a disorientating effect on the viewer, too. In the images such as the Corridor series, where there are no people, there is an empty space left for the viewer to fall into."

Bankside: Cherrypicker, 2000 /
Sammlung Deutsche Bank

Do we "fall into" these pictures? My instinct is a desire to break out from the limitations of these prison and hospital walls, to force my way out of my own imprisoning mental walls. Yass has pushed us in there; we did not just fall. It is the blurring between the mental architecture and the rudimentary structures she depicts that dumps us there. She works further on us with the viral infection, the anxiety she injects into the image.

Star: Madhuri Dixit, 2001

Star: Hema Malini, 2001

Yet a subjective interpretation such as this can hardly do justice to the multiple layers of her work; Yass herself has always cleverly avoided being reduced to an unequivocal subject or category. When she represented Britain at the 10th Indian Triennial in New Delhi, 2001, she made a series of portraits of Bollywood Stars. There is a completely different mood here from the hospital series. She entices the viewer with the magic of the movies, at times depicting the lush, rich cinematic interiors. Seeing the colourful portraits of the stars, it’s no wonder they’re idolised by millions of fans. Yet these images definitely spring from the same vision and help explain the thinking behind Yass’ whole body of work. "I am interested in light boxes as a form of sculpture, as well as photography and films. Film seduces and draws you into images. Light boxes also have an internal space, like the space inside us."

Further reading:
Greg Hilty, Parveen Adams, "Catherine Yass," aspreyjacques, London, 2000
Vikram Chandra, "Star," British Council, London, 2001

© Catherine Yass, London