Photography

Mind’s Eye View

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The unpeopled spaces in Rachel Cunningham’s photographs throb with ghostly life

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper, the young lady protagonist, diagnosed as suffering from ‘nervous depression’ and a ‘hysterical tendency’, is confined to a room on her doctor’s orders. In true Gothic-horror fiction style, she begins to believe that she shares an unnatural connection with the space, that the walls echo her thoughts and feelings, and eventually, that she forms a living, breathing part of the patterned wallpaper. Written in 1892, Gilman’s story is hailed as an important piece of early American feminist literature, one that critiques attitudes towards women’s mental and physical health. Apart from that, it is also a brilliant exploration of how spaces we spend time in absorb—literally and metaphorically—traces of ourselves, and how the walls within which we play out our lives are shaped by their inhabitants as much as they are moulded by them.

UK-based Rachel Cunningham’s In Situ comprises works from three different projects, and the unpeopled spaces she photographs throb with past, ghostly life. In the first, Prag Mahal (2010), she explores the former home of Maharaja Pragmalji II, ruler of the princely state of Kutch. The Bhuj Palace, commissioned in 1865, was designed by Colonel Wilkins of the Royal Engineers and is an elaborate blend of Gothic and neo-classical styles. Within its walls hangs the heavy weight of history. The stuffed creatures—a stag, lioness and hippopotamus, among others—gaze out into empty rooms, symbols of shabby, impotent power, lingering remnants of India’s colonial past. Seemingly suspended in mid-air are over-wrought chandeliers, unlit and unused, surrounded by a piercing darkness.

While the Prag Mahal series carries an impersonal, almost distant air—the photograph of the Durbar Hall, for example, which evokes the idea of public appearances—Cunningham’s second series, as is also evident in the title, is more situated in the personal. Place/Home (2007) comprises quiet images of a luxurious home located on the outskirts of Paris. Its exquisite baroque detailing is evident in small, intricate details—a gold shelf holding a shepherdess statuette, the glossy rich floral wallpaper—yet the focus is also on the comely and warm. A pile of leather-bound well-thumbed books lying on a polished wooden table, a small vase placed on a shelf evoke a familial atmosphere, yet here viewers are pushed outside the frame when the artist shows only the bottom half of a painting (perhaps a portrait?) against the wall. We’re allowed glimpses of, not complete access to, this family’s life.

The last series, Garden City House (2007), which comprises images taken in a former Italian hotel in Cairo, conjures, as in Prag Mahal, a sense of the country’s history, and also lends itself, like with Place/Home, a spirit of shared spaces, even if fleeting. Although gradually falling into disrepair, after being nationalised under Nasser’s government, the hotel seemingly resounds with stories of its former clients. With its corridors and elegant stairway now grime-encrusted and dusty, the hotel exists as a shadow of its former self. Adding to the slightly misplaced pomposity of the hotel are wall portraits of Beethoven and Tutankhamen.

The photographs play around with the idea of stillness. Beautifully lit and composed, they could well be still-life paintings of atmospheric interiors. Yet, as Emily Dickenson said, “One need not be a chamber to be haunted; One need not be a house; The brain has corridors surpassing material place.” These images move beyond the tangible and reflect the dark, shadowy recesses of the soul.

In Situ is showing at Matthieu Foss Gallery, Mumbai, till 1 October