Santa Fe

Robert Harrison

Linda Durham Contemporary Art Gallery

You catch a strange air of nostalgia from Robert Harrison’s photographs, as though you were seeing a dream someone else had but couldn’t quite remember, and Harrison was trying to remember it for them, for you. It’s as if he were trying to pinpoint all the moments where things might have gone wrong—all the instants of lost time—and capture them forever.

Looking at this work is like sitting in a darkened room. The room is silent, mostly, except for the sounds of fabric rustling, and breathing, and people shifting their weight to one side or another. It is a sound like a large animal, sleeping, restless. Then there is another sound—a clattering noise, gears whirring, teeth meshing, wheels spinning. At which point a light comes on, it flickers in time to the noise, it fills the screen in front of you, lambent silver, gleaming white. And then gray: numbers, reeling off one by one. But backward, until they stop at “1.”

Zero comes. What fills up the screen next isn’t a number at all, but the figure of a man. He wears little round spectacles, and a boater, and he clings to a hand on a clock—the hour hand, the big one. He’s part of a machine too, he’d better be, what with his feet dangling out over the abyss, his face registering both panic and nothing. Of course, he’s Buster Keaton; you recognized the scenario at once. Those stricken black eyes in their stricken white face, neither giving anything away. The stone-faced struggle to maintain some kind of connection with the machine; to keep his place as the cog that goes “burp,” the thing that always breaks down in interesting ways, falls apart, making partial objects as it goes, monkey wrenches and clockworks in equal measure.

Except what you’re looking at are photos on the wall, stills from a film that never got made, and it’s Robert Harrison starring in every frame, but the spirit is there, it’s practically the same thing. You can see the same machine go, even though the pictures don’t move: Harrison designs the sets, arranges the lights, everything’s perfect, he calls for "action”—and everything falls apart, he’s captured only the moment of disintegration, flotsam and jetsam, cogs and gears and rakes and garden chairs, frozen in space, falling on top of him.

Gathering, 1994, is like that. It’s a photo of a man in faintly old-fashioned clothes; he is disappearing, seemingly covered over by everything. As if all the lost objects in the world have been caught up in a whirlwind—all the things that have been mislaid and mourned, the things that were seen once and desired forever, all the things that, simply, have been discarded—and then dropped on the man in the frock coat. It’s the perfect picture of the schizo-machine: desiring production producing connections, breaking them off, fragments flowing by. Of course, this isn’t a movie, so these must be the outtakes—photos of the necessary mistake, the one that makes everything go.

Mark Van de Walle