Place is the inner (Short summary)
“Place is the inner”: The psychogeographic portraiture of Sarah Rhodes (short summary)
–– Emeritus Professor Jeff Malpas
In the work of the Swedish thinker and visionary, Emmanuel Swedenborg, the spiritual and earthly are united in a relation of essential correspondence. From this Swedenborgian perspective, what is ‘outer’, being part of our worldly place, is also ‘inner’. A similar idea has become central in the contemporary movement known as ‘psychogeography’ (encompassing academics, writers, and artists) in which the psychical and the geographic, soul and place, are understood as intimately bound together. The ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’, are thus not apart from one another: place is the inner, and the inner is always placed.
Sarah Rhodes does not position her work in any direct relation to Swedenborg or the psychogeographic, and unlike most psychogeographers, she does not engage with urban spaces and places. Rhodes’ images are of ‘natural’ places – places that appear apart from ordinary human habitation. Nevertheless, the images that make up much of her work, especially those in this exhibition, embody what might be understood as a form of ‘psychogeographic portraiture’. What appears in Rhodes photographs is not merely external scenes against which figures are sometimes set. Instead, her portraits open an interiority of the soul that is given through the exteriority of place.
This idea of exploring the inner through the outer is not an unusual one. It is common in much artistic practice, especially portraiture as it has developed in European art. Often, however, we take the relation between the interiority of the person and the exteriority of place as metaphorical or symbolic. In Rhodes’ work, however, the relation is deeper, closer, more intimate. The interiority that Rhodes’ explores belongs both to the person and to the place, so that even those images from which human figures are absent have an intense interiority of their own.
Full of the colours and textures of earth and rock, of cloud and mist, of water and ice, of branch, grass, and leaf, these images show the interweaving of personal existence – existence as felt, as remembered, as imagined, as thought – with the dense materiality of the world. That materiality is itself layered and frequently opaque, so that there is as much hidden as there is revealed, and the seeing that these images make possible is almost always partial. We are shown into and through things: between branches, into bush, along roads, inside tunnels, past flowers, through smoke, across slopes, towards mountains. Amidst the often-ominous greys and browns there are sudden firings of intense green, red, orange, and translucent white that burst out from the image, as if what is shown can no longer be contained within its frame. There is thus a dynamic, active character to Rhodes’ photographs. Through them, we bear witness to sudden, perhaps unexpected events – a moment of appearing or disappearing, of epiphany or joy – to the enactment of unfamiliar rituals and the constant and mysterious unfolding of processes of which human life is but a part.
Many of these photographs show places that are marked and scarred, bearing the vestigial traces of past activity; places that are abandoned and remote, their histories buried and perhaps forgotten. The individuals who appear seem to be strangely, even precariously positioned – as if in danger of being themselves lost amid the rock and mist and bush. And yet none seem troubled by their situation, appearing instead to be oddly at home. They do not look at the camera or the viewer – some have their eyes closed, others their backs to the lens, all are seemingly absorbed by the place itself, drawn towards the same place into which, through these images, we too are drawn.
Despite their strangeness, there is a sense of conciliation to these images, even of healing or redemption, both of person and of place. Perhaps it is the same sort of conciliation that Swedenborg looked to find in the correspondence of the spiritual and the earthly. In her portraits of people and places, Rhodes does not merely show us individuals in landscapes. Instead, we are shown the place and the person at one and the same time; in the place we see the inner, both of place and person; in the place, we glimpse the soul – and not only of those pictured, but also, perhaps, our own.