Necromancing, Central Institute, Showcase Gallery, 2009

Necromancing, Showcase Gallery, Central Institute, 

2009 Necromancing the Tableau Vivant

A tableau vivant literally translates as “a living picture”; traditionally vivid representations of history these living pictures tell frozen narratives of victories, anointments and great journeys. Bound up in sweeping gestures and cultural signifiers these tableau inspire pride and nationalism in the public and turn history into something alive, useful and politically negotiable. Interestingly tableau is also the name for the curtains at the front of the stage which open and close, initiating the separation of scenes, each bound up in a dominant setting. The tableau then, as a cumulative definition, in essence represents our desire to retell history as a theatrical construct. They can shape and reshape an understanding of our essentiality, how we act and will react, told through the use of universal symbology dictated by our subconscious cultural memory. The tableau’s legacy is that of a symbolic narrative structure that at once promotes ethical and symbolic understanding.

Although perhaps not immediately bringing to mind the photographs of Jeff Wall or Cindy Sherman I think Harry Hummerston’s Necromancing engages this history of the tableau.(1) Not immediately imitating the apparent aesthetic structure of tableau vivants, Hummerston’s story boards never the less etch into the cultural understanding of symbolic narrative on another, extended level. Read separately, as if the curtain were opening and closing over different scenes, Necromancing provides a look into the symbolic tableau that is popular culture, a culture built on floating imagery, loosely exchanged as seemingly random, seemingly incoherent, yet equally meaningful currency.

If the tableau vivant gives us a look back at historical events, it does so to use these events as contemporary currency. Today however images come to us from the past, the present and the future in a tableau that reacquaints us with our presumptions of time and space. It is within this maelstrom of symbolic (dis)order that Hummerston finds the space to present his floating images, garnered from all forms of mass media, as less a soliloquy, less a staged photograph, and more an invested transferral of the inherent possibility in (post-pop) imagery as a language of seduction and slippage. The currency of imagery today, the contemporary tableau vivant, is based on just such an aesthetic exposure of this ungraspable, or rather just out of reach, meaning in the random mixture of not opposing, nor even unrelated (because nothing is visually) but diffused imagery that constitutes a narrative in popular culture. No longer will the stagnant restaging of a moment invest all that we understand about time and place, today the tableau must sit at the intersection of a multitude of possible, variant stories.

Without getting too far down the rabbit hole of semiotics and ethics, phrase regimens, Lyotard’s term for “language games” (which he “borrowed” from Wittgenstein) denotes just this multiplicity of communities of meaning, illustrating the innumerable and incommensurable separate systems in which meanings are produced and rules for their circulation are created.(2) Lyotard’s micro-narratives break down the coordinated meaning in something like a tableau vivant, giving it the life it defines itself by through framing significant minute sections and re-presenting their previously acquiescent relationships. Post-Lyotard, we have become alert to plurality, difference and incompatibility in our concerns with universal aspirations of truth, yet, equally, if we no longer engage with grand narratives then we have come to believe with greater currency today in the more causal notions of habit and re-occurrence… which ultimately lead to more comfortable zones of self-knowledge. Underlying Hummerston’s floating images is a sense of narrative derived from war, violence and fear and the anxiety we might feel at the always immanent dispersion of our comfort zones of entertainment and consumption. We give these things names but here, in Hummerston’s work, this anxiety is acknowledged as a fact, a seeming underscore to being alive. It seems in Necromancing that through fear of acts of violence toward our self (harm is everywhere and can happen at anytime) our own tableau vivant comes alive. Being of duplicitous nature today we have become defined, our culture has become defined, the currency of popular culture has become defined, by fear, violence, and ipso fact acts of extreme cowardice and its counterpoint; bravery.

This though is a narrative I have made up from these images, this accumulation of chapters, and the slippage between their layers. That I have invested my narrative making skills into these works illustrates two points; one is that despite the best efforts of post-structuralists I think human nature desires a coherent script; and the second is that Hummerston’s ability to play in the fields of phrase regimens is successful in that the end points of his image assimilations don’t disintegrate into nihilism; this is no end game.

Hummerston’s images live despite (or because of) their best efforts of sous rature, they refuse to sit still, exploding meaning rather then imploding it.(3) How is this achieved? By understanding the power of proximity, by providing simultaneous positive and negative messages and by utilising iconic imagery through a seductive (if not slick) sensibility; in short by giving us the communication constructs of a good story. Particularly relevant to Hummerston’s Necromancing are those genres that give us stories bound up in love and hate, good and evil and the bonus of a moral to carry us through. The tableau vivants were popular forms of entertainment before film and television, indeed they where precursors to it, educating the public as to how to extend their reading of the still image into a live entity. Through the tableau vivant we came to understand iconography as a living entity, and icons slipped into our collective subconscious. In time the tableau became the magic lantern show, that uncanny dramaturge and theatre of necromancy, which in turn continued to educate us in readiness for film strip and, more importantly I think for Hummerston’s work, the simultaneous rise of the comic strip; both increasingly mobile incarnations of the living icon. Hummerston’s use of comic book characters, bold text, a comic strip aesthetic and the displaced, non linear and overlapped design of comic books delves into this history of being educated to read iconography as a live entity. The understanding in his work of the relationship between icons, moral attitudes and narrative dichotomies to our collective subconscious social self-knowing is an informed and flirtatious one.

Hummerston’s contemporary and innovative tableau vivant essentially tells us about ourselves, what is important, what makes us tick and what makes us emotionally respond. Necromancing is a humanist drive toward our humanity; it is a search through the duplicity and vicarious nature of being human…the good and the bad and the small gap in between. At its heart Necromancing illustrates the implausibility of trying to pin down human nature, but more so the creative drive which responds to, and comes from, our complexities, our desires and our inherent knowing (cultural memory). Necromancing is a collection of living, breathing pictures; a collection of chapters which reflect our lives, our fears and our hopes in a constantly moving, shifting and evolving story.

Dr Ric Spencer

(1) The tableau vivant is commonly associated in contemporary art with “staged photography” as an extension of the traditional use of the tableau as a standing still re-interpretation of old paintings by actors. Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman, along with other photographers such as Sarah Lucas and Darren Sylvester are sometimes categorised as this type of photographer.

(2) See Au juste: Conversation, 1979 (translated as Jean François Lyotard, Jean-Loup Thébaud, 1985) and Le Différend (The Differend) 1983, which develop a postmodern theory of justice and, through the micronarrative, suggest a collapse of ethics. For this concept Lyotard draws from the notion of 'language-games' found in the work of Wittgenstein, see Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. Malden: Blackwell, 2001

(3) Sous rature is a strategic philosophical device originally developed by Martin Heidegger. Usually translated as “under erasure”, it involves the crossing out of a word within a text, but allowing it to remain legible and in place. Used extensively by Jacques Derrida, it signifies that a word is “inadequate yet necessary”. See Derrida, J 1967, Of Grammatology, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore