A way of making ghosts

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Description

instrumentation: piccolo/alto flute, contrabass clarinet/E-flat clarinet, tenor saxophone, quartertone horn, trombone, cello, double bass, piano
date: 2020
duration: 27’00
details: 72 pages, including performance instructions; A3 portrait, full colour

Programme Note

A way of making ghosts is a two-part work comprising a pair of quartets—Self-portrait, 1996 and Self-Portrait, Three Times, Standing (15.3.1991–20.3.1991)—based on self portraits of the painter Gerhard Richter. The two works are mirror images of one another: one internal, inward, gravitational, hazy, uncertain, transitional, private; the other outward, external, layered, soloistic, referential, splintering. But their links to notions of mirrors and mirroring stretch further—both works engage with issues of duplication, reflection, replication, depiction, revelation … but also illusion, impression, self-projection, self-deception, and fraudulence.

Richter’s 1996 self portrait is based on a photograph (from his sprawling Atlas collection), and I’m fascinated by the way in which the cropping and rotating of the original image completely alters the emotional state that is projected in the painting. As with so many of Richter’s more intimate portraits, the subject’s gaze is deflected, hidden, obscured. The face and its details are all just out of reach, present but not visible. What I love about the self portrait is that it is personal and vulnerable but also somehow quite distant, not least because of the blurred, smeared surface, and perhaps even more because of the strange, overlaid grid that partially obscures the image, which reveals the physical ‘surface’ of the paint on the canvas and distances it from the ‘image’ of the painting.

Richter’s Self-Portrait, Three Times, Standing (15.3.1991–20.3.1991) is a collection of six overpainted photographs. The six prints are identical, with triple-exposed black-and-white images of the artist in his studio—ghostly, faint, hardly visible in three separate locations, and only barely distinguishable from the shadows in the room—against a repeating background of the artist’s own paintings hung from the studio’s walls. On each photograph, Richter then paints, using his traditional squeegee technique, thick horizontal blobs of bright red paint pulled from left to right, each of the six with slightly different densities and saturations of colour, from reasonably sparse to thick and mangled. This paint obfuscates and obliterates the image below while simultaneously ‘making real’ the physical surface of the print itself. One is immediately aware of the gap between the surface of the paint, the surface of the print, and the space of the image of the photograph, flattening three-dimensional spaces and giving depth to two-dimensional ones. 

That these are self-portraits is important, particularly when viewed through their layered, multiple, and uncertain stacking of realities. Richter’s images show the self-portrait both as a reality and a fabrication, a replication and a sleight-of-hand misdirection, and a challenging jumble of truths around which of these layers is the real ‘material’ of the work. Both of these quartets explore similar issues, dancing between the representational and the abstract, between obliteration as covering and obliteration as revealing the reality of instrumental and bodily material, between intimacy and separation, between vulnerability and otherness, between layering as stacking/extending and layering as concealing/hiding. And both new pieces continue a path I’ve been exploring in my work in recent years, rethinking where ‘I’ sit in my work, and reimagining the personal, the evocative, and the expressive aspects of how and why I make pieces.

Unlike Richter’s many self portraits, here I haven’t used/re-used any existing materials, but these quartets aim to re-examine and repurpose some of the spaces I’ve opened up over the last 20 years or so. It’s not so much a return or re-use as it is a kind of provocation to myself, a reminder that there’s unfinished business with some of what I’ve made in the past, and also an acknowledgement that there remains a gap between what I’ve made and what I wanted to have made. A way of making ghosts is a ‘working through,’ a ‘trying again’, but then is also an effacing of those older materials, and that effacing is its own reality and its own ‘self’. (The Richter works are not dissimilar—there is, in fact, a slightly earlier Self-portrait 1996 using a different photograph as a starting point, and the overpainted photos are a  re-staging of Self-Portrait, Three Times, five (seated) images in the same studio space from a year prior.)

The work was supported by a generous grant to the Centre for Research in New Music (CeReNeM) from the University Research Fund at the University of Huddersfield. The quartets were written for, and dedicated to, Ensemble Musikfabrik and ELISION Ensemble.

Gerhard Richter, Self-portrait, 1996 [Catalogue Raisonné: 836-2]

Self Portrait Standing, Three Times, 1991 Gerhard Richter born 1932 ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/AR00182

Discography

A way of making ghosts. Ensemble Musikfabrik, ELISION, JACK Quartet, Line Upon Line. Also includes A republic of spaces, String Quartet (2002), and solos from The wreck of former boundaries. Forthcoming, Kairos 2020 postponed to 2021 due to Covid-19.

See the individual product pages for each quartet for additional materials.

See the individual product pages for each quartet for performances of the individual works.