Jaki Irvine

Soho’s Frith Street is no stranger to spooky goings-on. At No. 22, John Logie Baird invented the television: The crossover between the Victorian inventor’s wave-channeling invention and his belief in Spiritualism was evoked, some years ago, in a series of wraithlike projections by Tony Oursler in nearby Soho Square. No. 60, home of Frith Street Gallery, is a recurring flashpoint for coincidence, as one discovers in Jaki Irvine’s six-part video installation Towards a Polar Sea, 2005. In the opener, the only segment in black-and-white, gallery director Jane Hamlyn recalls how a Craigie Horsfield photograph she’d once exhibited attracted a visitor who not only knew the female sitter but had lived in the gallery years before, when it was a private residence, and where this woman had visited him. The Georgian house—which, with its creaking floorboards and compact rooms, retains its domestic ambience—is thus set up as amenable to revenants; by contrast, in capturing the current incumbents’ self-consciousness before the lens (that of Hamlyn in particular), Irvine makes them seem very real. She then uses these individuals to sketch a narrative that pulls them into the orbit of the past: The last journey of Victorian explorer Sir John Franklin, who disappeared in the Arctic in 1847, and is thought also to have lived at 60 Frith Street.

The second film finds a redheaded gallery employee, Karon Hepburn, wearing mourning black and gazing expressionlessly through a window before descending a flight of stairs. “Every morning I awake to find your ghost self has wrapped its arm around me in the night,” says a female voice-over, nudging an identification of Hepburn with Franklin’s widow, Lady Jane. The sinuous interchange between past and present, truth and fiction, is sustained in subsequent films: In one, a 16-mm film is shown being packed up in the gallery office; a loupe lingers over a woman’s face in a strip from one of Irvine’s previous films. The voice-over, apparently from Franklin’s diaries—“If the earth opens and swallows me up, this does not mean my trust in it was misplaced”—might briefly position the magnifier’s user as the explorer thinking of his distant wife, or, more generally, could imply that his own demise was just one of a lineage of losses in the common adventure of love.

Faced with such deft deployment of indeterminacy, one wonders whether something more than a blind spot for bathos led Irvine to film four of the gallery’s employees sitting together in a bare room while reciting more agonized journal fragments, as if they were the stranded exploration team. This show, we are told, marks the hundredth exhibition at Frith Street Gallery; and the comparison of Franklin’s fatal journey with that of several people selling art feels radically imbalanced. Yet Irvine closes off beautifully, framing Hamlyn lying down in the basement in which the last segment was shown, her head on a leather pillow, vignetted by an ellipse of daylight. “I am lying on the floor in this building, listening to it creak and shiver in the dark,” the voice-over murmurs. But the dealer’s tensed features—the presumably prosaic art-world worries that crease them briefly substituting for those of her dead namesake, the culturally erudite Jane Franklin—are what weight the space with insinuations of an obscure past and a multiplicity of potential futures. It’s a demonstration that the art of using coincidences lies not in discovering one—that’s easy—but in creating a setting that makes it shimmer with significance.

Martin Herbert