Sarah Dobai

Entwistle Gallery

In Sarah Dobai’s photograph Above the City (all works 2001), London stretches out toward a low horizon. Even the structures that puncture the skyline—Centre Point, the London Eye Millennium Wheel, and a tower block in the foreground—reach only tentatively up the picture plane. Most of the surface is a powder blue sky across which white clouds pass. It’s a definite place, but also a space of reverie. The golden glow imparted by the sun as it sets just out of sight beyond the right-hand edge of the photograph hints at a John Martin-like sense of the apocalyptic. Mundane existence, wonder, and trauma jostle for the upper hand.

In Sturdy, a Breuer cantilever chair sits on the paint-spattered floor of a studio. Although pretty much as encrusted as the rest of the space, the boards under the chair have at some point been sanded and varnished. There’s a closed door in the background that one would have to step up to reach, and a folded copy of the London Evening Standard on the floor. The wall to the right of the door has been roughly painted a bluish gray. It’s a complicated space, at once a theatrical sham and an environment in which to engage in productive, intellectual, or imaginative work. The chair’s chrome frame is spotlessly shiny. but the seat and back are upholstered with stained and dirty red material. Over the back hangs a blue jacket on which the tiny spots of red and white paint echo the sheen of the metal and the color of the fabric. Modernity as ideal remains, for all its perceived failures, somehow in the mix here.

Nothing is accidental in Dobai’s carefully staged, digitally tweaked photographs neither the crumpled paper bag littering the floor in Into the Desert, the hair band and mug ring on the windowsill in Gordon, nor the fragment of newspaper headline reading LEADER CALLS FOR UNITY in Red Room. Objects reappear in unrelated contexts. A blanket covers the bed on which a naked man lies curled up in a fetal position in Gordon. The same blanket is spread over the cheap sofa on which a naked man and half-naked woman lie in Red Room. and it appears again as part of the precarious and suggestively figurative pile of boxes and bedding that sits in the corner of the room in Totem. The blanket’s recurrent presence in these images seems something like an intrusion of the real into their dream space. The photographs have the strangeness of which Lacan spoke, that which occurs as soon as the world begins to provoke the gaze.

Once provoked, however, what the gaze encounters is a series of feints, veils, and displacements. The lank-haired woman in Into the Desert rests-having apparently been overcome in some way-on the edge of a supermarket freezer cabinet. Although the cabinet, its contents, and the rather shabby surroundings of the shop are all in crisp focus, the woman’s face and hands are slightly blurred. Hardly conscious of her own surroundings, she equally eludes the gaze of the viewer. The couple in Red Room regard one another with no semblance of connection. His hand rests at the top of her thigh, the fingers curling in toward her sex, which, like his, is hidden by his pose. Her breasts remain covered by a tank top whose pale blue contrasts with the deep red of the walls and the warmth suggested by the radiator hard up against which the sofa has been pushed color somehow communicating a barely suppressed anguish.

Michael Archer