James Coleman was born in Ballaghaderreen, Ireland, in 1941. His work lies between photography and film, theatre and painting, between all the art forms linked to fixity and movement. In his pioneering "slide-tape" presentations, multiple transparencies are projected with a synchronized audio tape. Social situations are depicted with a precision which, paradoxically, creates a narrative ambiguity.
Coleman studied at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and the University College Dublin and worked in Paris, London and Milan before returning to Ireland several decades later. He represented Ireland at the Paris Biennale in 1973. In 2006, he was awarded an honorary doctorate in fine arts by the National University of Ireland at Galway.
Throughout his career, Coleman has dealt with issues of perception, representation and the construction of images and identity. He addresses these subjects through various media including video, film, slideshows, theatre and performance. In his work, he connects fiction and reality, literary forms like theatre or Irish folklore and pastiches of events drawn from daily life. These elements are combined with images indirectly referring to traditional painting, photography and film. Confronted by the mise-en-scène established by his works, viewer-observers may well find themselves caught in a web of impressions and tensions.
In his installations, a rhythmic flow of still images is accompanied by a voiceover reciting a story. The work, shown in a continuous loop, has neither beginning nor end; viewers entering and leaving the darkened space of the installation determine the length of what they see with their own movements and create their own reconstitution of the narrative Coleman proposes. As Jean Fisher writes in On Seeing for Oneself, A Perspective, his work itself ‘becomes a theatre in which the viewer is co-performer’.
Coleman photographs his actors in a setting with a given framing and then creates a montage based on the juxtaposition of image sequences. In the installation INITIALS (1993), a narrated projection of eighty-nine slides, the transparencies are superimposed and sequenced in slow fades showing empty hospital beds piled up against a wall. Six figures appear in a rundown, abandoned hospital; they move across the screen from one slide to the next, at the same time that the setting changes. The elliptical text, foregrounded by its quantity and the density of its variations, affects the meaning of the succession of images to which it is linked. But the complexity of the images is such that it is impossible to linger over the continuous flow of words which constantly escape us. There is a desire to stop the text in order to think about its relation to the images but any interpretation is vain, undermined. In this work, Coleman explores our ability to question the meaning of the image and our ability to decipher it. Anything which can help viewers construct a narrative falls apart in front of them as the modes of perception are deconstructed. In this sense, it is a mistake to speak of a narrative; memory, feelings and hackneyed phrases are superimposed, with the result that story and image cannot come together to give viewers a precise sense of the work.
Coleman has always been reluctant to publish part of the texts of his installations, or simply comment on their meaning. Nothing is done to hide the way the work is made: the projectors and their humming sound fill the installation space quite ostensibly.
The fact that the space is defined by images and sounds serves to call upon the viewers’ point of view and point of listening. Coleman is particularly attentive to this dimension and carefully controls the dimensions of the rooms and the screen, the placing and number of speakers, the sound level, the quality of the acoustics and so on – in other words, all the formal parameters orienting the reception of the montages.
INITIALS, Baand Lapsus Exposure (1993) are three works focused on photography. They are less interested in the photographic image itself than in the projector and the consequences of its kinship with a long line of devices (the camera obscura, the stereoscope, etc.) intended to visualise and organise the world. What these devices have in common is their dependence on light. Vision would thus be the metaphorical condition of knowledge and truth. If we replace the objectivity of the mechanical eye with the fallibility of the human eye, we might think that the only truth is what can plainly be measured. But the dark room dissociates vision from the sensitive body: it keeps observers from seeing that their position in space is part of the representation. These three works attack a paradox of photography: even though it appears to ensure the permanent presence of its subject, it nonetheless announces that subject’s death. The truth of the photograph is not to be sought in any equivalence to its referent. Pretending that it is the analogy or mirror of a phenomenal reality amounts to denying its fictional dimension.
The sequencing of the slides animates the still image and pushes back its apparent limits. It scans the space, bringing out a given place or detail, while destroying the spatial coherence expected from a still photographic image. Far from rationalising the space, the figures seem to maintain an indirect relationship with it, posing in front of the lens, looking at Polaroids or drinking a cup of tea. The more we attempt to capture an essential element or meaning, the more it escapes us.
Translation: Miriam Rosen