Time Surfaces 1994

colour laser prints by Sue Ford

National Gallery of Victoria

15th July - 22nd August 1994

The exhibition Time Surfaces stages an overlaying and mapping of histories, stories and

memories. It operates as a form of storytelling where the tension between remembering and

forgetting and the forgetting of remembering informs all of the works and the relations between


To encounter the exhibition Time Surfaces is to encounter story telling of a kind which is

marked by the sentiment of ambivalence. The stories embedded in the surfaces of these

works are carried by the constantly shifting focus of its imagery. The gaze is drawn to the

detail, but here the detail is an enlargement, it has become monumental through its extension

over vast gridded surfaces. As they do in memory, these details amplify and expand, covering the walls of the gallery. These gridded

surfaces include the 'larger than Iife' ancestors in Shadow Portraits, Mask and Haunted which together stretch the full length of the gallery;

Video Land, a twenty metre comic strip stretch of images; and Soldiers and Journey which fill the frame of the walls at either end of the

gallery. These surfaces are produced from the labour of researching, locating, cutting up, rephotographing and reframing. It is the final

process of enlargement in the photocopier that produces and compresses these images - meshing them together at the surface, while

simultaneously exploding them into grids. These operations of labour and technologies stage the scenario for the story telling of Time


This exhibition is accumulative in the sense that it harbours traces of the ideas

Sue Ford has worked with for over twenty years as a photographer and film-

maker. Her work has always gestured towards an approach to history and

biography in relation to the competing concepts of time they embody. For

example, Ford's work, Abigail from her Time series, was begun in the 1960s and

involved three versions of one person's face photographed ten years apart. In

that work, as with Time Surfaces, there is no clear progression of time but a

mapping of the intersections of biography and history in which the framing

doesn't function so much as a means of confinement, but the place and limit

from which stories are refracted. In Time Surfaces, we also find echoes of

Ford's cinematic work - the reference to the screen through the scale of the

works, the effects of time through the use of montage, the use of colour Xerox,

the grid and the narrative traces throughout.

As Walter Benjamin observed through his attachment to the sentiment of the

storyteller, " [the storyteller] ... speaks of the most extraordinary things,

marvellous things are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological

connection of the events is not forced on the reader ... thus the narrative

achieves an amplitude that information lacks".' Benjamin never the less

emphasises that the storyteller is vanishing - yet vanishing with, 'a vision of the

new beauty in its vanishing'. In this sense, 'vanishing' is the action of

disappearance not obsolescence. We are witnesses in Time Surfaces to a

storytelling with a tremulous hold on its images. This montage effect activates

memory practice in the spectator, who constantly recalls, both recognises and

mis-recognises, associates and identifies with these stories which

simultaneously fade and illuminate.

"You know they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and liveable acreage. Occasionally, the river

floods these places, 'Floods' is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding, it is remembering".2

This passage from Toni Morrison's essay "The Site of Memory" invokes the act of remembering through a means replete with after-

images. This is also a way of considering remembering in Time Surfaces. Stretched across the surface of each of the Shadow Portraits

is an effect of remembering. Comprised of images taken in nineteenth century Australian portrait studios, with their carefuIIy framed,

theatrically staged scenarios with painted backdrops and props supporting the pose of the subject, the figure ground relations are re-

oriented. This is like the 'vision of the new beauty.. . in vanishing' identified by Benjamin. In some of the Shadow Portraits, only the trace

of the original figure remains, yet its meanings are amplified by the loss of this figure, while others leave the figure to float in an alien

environment. The staging of the images is foregrounded here through the cutting out of the subject and re-fiIIing of this space with another

ground, flora from the Australian bush floor - an image taken one hundred years later.

The generations of stories and images which are inscribed within

Time Surfaces function as a form of mapping. Mask deploys the

image of the convict hood, repeated many times and in various

capacities across the surface. Initially displayed in the museum as a

relic, the hood here is re-inscribed; photographed, fragmented and

echoed. It is collaged with images of convict ships, manacles and

extraordinary night skies. The stability of its historical place is

retrieved from the past and re-mapped to 'prick' memory, producing an

uncanny moment of recognition in the present. The representation of

the eighteenth century English courtroom framing this central image,

exposes the law as unstable - the logic of the relations between the

figures in the scenario is lost.

The trajectory of Time Surfaces is mapped through the exposed seams of this narrative. These exposed seams also serve to locate the

discontinuities within them, destroying any single idea of origin. The shifting generations of images nevertheless come together in the

iridescent surfaces of the colour laser prints, only to fall away again in the refracted and fragmented effects of enlargement brought about

by the grid. This grid echoes another mapping - that which the early cartographers overlaid on the Australian landscape for the division and

ownership of land as property - a grid that applied pressure to the relationship with the land which existed for the Aboriginal inhabitants

before European colonisation.

"The detail has just that tendency to prick consciousness, to encroach on the terrain of inner feelings, to expand to the point of

obsession ... Barthes punctum ... the superfluous, perplex-

ing, derailing detaiI operates as the object of one's love, apprehension, hunger or repulsion... a point of entry, aperture, rent ... stains".)

After all, the framing in this exhibition consists

entirely of framing details. Rather than enclosing a surface to delimit a scene, Time Surfaces works the other way around. It is not in

peeling away the surfaces that we locate a history, but in the other direction, in the surfaces themselves. Stories of a colonial past

intersect with childhood stories which seep into the present and address the impossible scenarios which are given to us as children as our

history. Juxtapose this with the fairy tale which, unlike these histories, is sympathetic in its mediation of our phantasms. This fixing of the

trajectory of history produces only a gap, a gap in memory. It is this gap which is mapped, recuperated and replaced in a similar way to

that which Toni Morrison describes in her discussion of 'slave autobiographies', "to extend, to fill in and complement slave

autobiographical narratives... Still, like water, I remember where I was before I was 'straightened out"' .4

Time Surfaces negotiates this gap by retrieving images from the

representations of history wherever they could be found, often by chance.

These sources are seemingly contradictory as, they have been located in

disparate sites and times: the late twentieth century museum, the Australian

bush floor; the portrait studio of the 1890s, via the archives of the National

Gallery of Victoria; a children's jigsaw puzzle of Kiplingesque soldiers; the

staged histories produced for official cultural events such as the 1988

Australian Bicentennial and the tourist

images taken around Aboriginal sacred sites which surface through the video

camera and the television screen.

Consider the three-dimensional soldiers from the child's jigsaw puzzle in

Soldiers which cast their shadows on to the heavy folds of the dress of the

Victorian woman in her 'feminised' interior. This massive visual weight is

accentuated in the original to establish some permanence for her identity.

The image is extracted out of its formal structure and overlaid with cut-out

toy soldiers, 'innocent' replicas which have also 'fallen' from their context

within the game of jigsaw. The mirroring of the image out from the centre

which operates in Soldiers as well as Mask, Haunted, and journey, denies a

singular narrative and provides a visual echo, a doubling which resounds

throughout the exhibition.

Iridescent rainbows of orange, red, yellow and blue combine to form a

background of massive wheels in journey. This background, originally a

detail, is enlarged here and mirrored,

'expanding to the point of obsession' out to the edge of the frame. It

functions as if it is a rear projection, generating the illusion that the female

figure in that massive gown, now floats

on a surface of possibility. Yet it is a surface fragmented both within each

grid and in the spaces between, which is where the stories of Time Surfaces

are amplified.

In Video Land each frame of this comic strip-like stretch is generated from a web of collage, re-framings, enlargements and grids. It holds

narratives within narratives which echo their sources, the video images of Kakadu, snapped from the surface of the television monitor. Yet

the stories generated by these narratives can be seen as details: “The storyteller starts the web which all stories together form in the

end ... one ties on to the next ... ".5 Through the contingent and temporal effects of storytelling, Time Surfaces foregrounds personal and

cultural histories and along with this, our response as one of affective ambivalence.

Denise Robinson, 1994

Artist's Statement

I have always been interested in working with elements of layered time. I feel that my work evolved in this particular direction, from the

experience of living some of my life in bushland areas, becoming familiar with the cycles of growth and decay, and the wonderful fragile

and timeless nature of the land here. The images in this exhibition Time Surfaces are created out of the energy from this experience and

are a personal attempt to unravel the 'official' histories I have been given since childhood in this country.

Sue Ford, 1994



Walter Benjamin, from 'The Storyteller',

Illuminations, Great Britain, Fontana,

1973, pp. 89.


Toni Morrison, from 'The Site of

Memory', Out There, Eds., R. Ferguson,

M.Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha, C. West.,

MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts,

1992, pp. 305.


Emily Apter, from 'Feminising the

Fetish', Cornell University Press, 1991 ,

pp. XI.


Toni Morrison, ibid


Walter Benjamin, ibid