Strange Pillows by Wolfie Mayr exhibits an archive of old slides of travel photos which have been stored for up to half a lifetime. These images can only but evoke the theme of memory. What is distinctive about these artworks is that often the actual slides onto which these moments were frozen are as much the subject of these images as the conventional views, landscapes or people shown. In this sense, this adds an interesting and self reflexive twist to travel photography. While travelling we are more inclined to notice details; to expose our film to banal moments as if they are somehow transcendental. Indeed, in our travels, away from home, they are. Exotic subjects always seem more worthy.
There is a well known theory of the event of watching a film that suggests that we go to the cinema to input virtual memories into our experiences. Often these virtual memories are beyond everyday experiences—among these are the experiences of the exotic and travel. The cinematic theatre’s darkened space, the larger than life image and the spectators’ comfortable passive state all contribute to focus sensory perception on fantastic but realistic virtual memories. The slide (or 35mm transparency) was the most cinematic of all still photography in that its conventional mode of viewing is the slide show in the darkened room. The slide presentation, commonly associated with travel snaps, was accompanied by a story of the trip as the slides clunk into a projector. This medium is also a reminder of actual travel—it is a souvenir.
In the past before the slide, however, the same darkened room was used to capture a memory or a souvenir of travelling to a destination. The 18th century Venetian painter Giovanni Canaletto made artworks for British travellers on the grand tour to take home. He used a camera obscura to produce his work. In other words, he worked inside a darkened room with a lens on one wall and painted his paintings from the likeness projected upside-down on the opposite wall. Visitor, Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA 1998 is taken in the dark museum without a flash. A bald head obscures the sky of the painting View of the Grand Canal and the Dogana by Bernardo Bellotto—Canaletto’s nephew. Bellotto was himself a traveller. He was invited around various courts of central Europe and painted views of the cities. In fact, his detailed views of Warsaw were used to assist the rebuilding of the city after World War II. The space in the Getty, vignetted in darkness, seems not only reminiscent of the conventional presentation of the slide photograph but the optics used by Canaletto and Bellotto, the cinema and also a conceptual visualisation of memory.
Strange looking patterns of mould damage on the emulsion of the film form abstract references to time and memory. The nature of photograph image, which freezes the world’s visual likeness, is undermined by the slides material deterioration. The image continues to change in time. However, the freezing of time is re-enacted with the transfer of the image, damage and all, onto the pristine reproduction colour print. Time’s index, material deterioration, is aestheticised. The colours of slides enlarged in this way also seem less naturalistic, more saturated, chromatically distorted or stained by an unnatural colour. Framed two-dimensional artworks are displayed against windows. This creates an unexpected effect like an inversion of the conventional slide projection; the image is darker than the background of daylight filled glass. This inversion poetically renders the absence of the old slides. This all can be likened to Sigmund Freud’s analysis of his analysand’s memories where distorted colours in remembered situations give clues to an intrusion of the present into past events which have been subjectivity coloured.
A sense of the artist’s motivations, which differ at various times in his life, come to the fore. Although abstract, different times and stages of creating images with different moods render shifting interests and an ever emerging personality. The viewer is made aware that these images were always intended as art yet this outcome had been disavowed till only now. The artist who emerges within the traveller continues work on this personal art project. The strangely photogenic material deterioration is compulsive. Time is the traveller-artist’s invisible hand. It could be said that material degradation of the film causes aberration in a similar way to how forgetting stains memory. However, in Mayr’s work the beauty of aberration evokes a clear present time. The present seems to wash over these images, and overwhelm their resemblance to the past.