Paul Knight’s works in the exhibition Without Words, curated by Kyla McFarlane, at Centre of Contemporary Photography, are photographs of couples embracing in bed. One member of each couple always has one eye open while the other sleeps. The photographs have a deep fold in the middle of the figures that feels like the crisp turned over sheet in a hotel room. This deep and precise fold contrasts the creamy crinkles of sexed up sheets and flesh. The fold has the effect of making the two figures seem anatomically one. The photographs are light and bright with details of wrinkles, hair and skin pores conveying a visceral sense of reality. There is a clear sense it is morning in these photos. These couples will not be able to stay like this for long, as the person with the eye open seems to know. These works depict an intimacy that is tender and familiar. They show a comfortable state of togetherness that will not require any awkward language about the state of their relationship when they wake.
However, the fold in the photo acts as a dark void. It suggests that moments in relationships that no longer have a need for words are as deep and relaxing and as comfortable as sleep. In John Donne’s Song (circa 1600) a poem about leaving a lover for a time and trying to convince her not to worry about him—he concludes by saying:
But think that we
Are but turned aside to sleep;
They who one another keep
Alive, ne’er parted be.
Donne and Knight both allude to the solitary nature of sleep. Even when we sleep beside someone, we are in a state of internal isolation. The void created by the crease in Knight’s work suggests the depth of the individual’s unconscious that draws the two together in the first place. It keeps them separate not only in sleep, but as individuals that don’t function as some sort of morphed unit once together. The couple who, as Donne says, ‘one another keep Alive’ must separate from each other in order to function in the world outside the bed. Though awake, they will need each other, be conscious and appreciative of each other in a way that they can’t be in sleep. It seems the member of each couple with their eye open might appreciate this. Though their dry stare to the ceiling or camera tells us they don’t need to like it and are perhaps envious of their partners deep comfort and sleepy solitude.
However, the crease in the photographs is unsettling. The part we can’t see makes us curious of a “something missing” in this relationship. So while we might say it’s simply the parts that are unknowable of each other, it still doesn’t quell our desire as the viewer to iron it out. Make it more like the album cover for the soundtrack to Franco Zeffirelli's version of Romeo and Juliet. In psychoanalysis, language is used as the “talking cure”; words open up associations and understandings. The crease seems to imply that perhaps the closer and more comfortable these people become, the less they need to speak. But things that maybe should be said, get lost down the same crevice that binds them. They risk seeing their partner as perhaps an extension of themselves rather than an individual. Freud writes ‘At the height of being in love the boundary between the ego and the object threaten to melt away’. If too much is left unsaid, it falls down the comfort crack. The deep and dark void becomes a form of waking sleep.
The viewer gazes at this scene with a self-conscious fascination of watching a moment that is intensely private. John Donne in The Sun Rising (circa 1600) admonishes the sun as a ‘saucy pedantic wretch’, who wakes up sleeping lovers. Like the sun in the poem, the viewer and photographer are an outside world that see the loving couple and speculate on the creases in their relationship. The gaze of the viewer objectifies the couple as perhaps generic types; the old couple, the gay couple, the young couple, to differentiate the untitled works in our mind. So we get a sense that they have woken not only into the arms of a lover who they are close, connected but not co-joined; but also in front of a world of people like me who start finding words and categories for them “old”, “young”, “gay”, ”hairy”, “straight”, “male”, “female”.
The crease, while seemingly menacing, could be about what can remain hidden. Perhaps it is hidden to protect something even more private then this morning moment. It can stay comfortably hidden between couples. It has to stay hidden from the taxonomic tendencies of the viewer. It may even stay hidden to the individual. They will tuck themselves in it at night and iron it out to face the world in the morning.