Reviews

‘Within the camera’ the sculptures of Alan Constable

In response to ‘Action, Camera! at The Gallery of Everything

Written by Gabriella Sonabend, originally published in After Nyne Issue 15, 2017

A pale turquoise-blue box, thin, rectangular and collapsed. Finger-prints indented. Orifices functioning as viewfinders. ‘FA’ scratched in messy hand-writing. Oversized, visceral and cumbersome, static but curiously animated. A cartoon-like pair of binoculars glazed in a brilliant silver, an enormous Pentax in acid green, a 16mm film camera in teal, speckled with cerulean and beige. A warm yellow aperture lopsidedly pried open.

Alan Constable camera held by Ella Fleck. Photo by Gabriella Sonabend.

Alan Constable camera held by Ella Fleck. Photo by Gabriella Sonabend.

Alan Constable is a photographer, a painter and notably a sculptor. His photographs are undiscriminating in their subject matter, he will capture anything from a tree, a pavement, a crowd to the corners of his studio. The act of looking through the viewfinder is what compels him and the theme of the viewfinder dominates his work. Constable’s paintings are based on his photographs or newspaper and magazine clippings, but unlike the photos these are more discerning thematically. Some depict scenes from sporting events, others present internationally recognised political figures and many are images of people with glasses, binoculars and cameras. Constable’s, sculptures however, have one major focus, the camera. 

Alan Constable camera, image courtesy of Arts Project Australia

Alan Constable camera, image courtesy of Arts Project Australia

As a child Constable would construct flimsy replicas of house-hold cameras from old cereal boxes. This childhood pastime was revisited and mastered years later and now forms an iconic and internationally celebrated artist practice. Working with clay, the most visceral and immediate sculptural medium, Constable copies different cameras, using touch as his primary sense. He celebrates the form of the camera, focusing on the detail and protrusions; the lens, the cord eyelets and the viewfinder. These oversized, non-functioning machines are glazed with metallic, pastel and vibrant colours resulting in a cartoon-like object.

These forms feel like relics, sacred vessels, melted in a mysterious fire. They relate somehow to ceremonial objects of the past, imbued with powers or used to meditate upon and channel a spirit or enlightenment. The rudimentary medium of clay connects these works to a lineage of hand-made objects dating back to the earliest civilisations.

Alan Constable camera, image courtesy of The Museum of Everything

Alan Constable camera, image courtesy of The Museum of Everything

Watching gallery visitors interact with Constable’s work is fascinating. People feel compelled to reach out and handle them. Some experience elation, whilst others are puzzled, even challenged. It is the fact that Constable’s cameras are non-functioning, which makes them so interesting. The camera and the photograph have been widely critiqued and their significance exhaustingly explored but new questions arise when presenting an inoperative representation of such an iconic machine.

In in the seminal On Photography Susan Sontag writes “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.” If photography is our addiction then it is the image we worship and not the camera. The junkie does not idolise the needle. Constable however revers the instrument over its production. 

Perhaps his audiences experience elation because they are faced with the personalities of cameras. Constable’s cameras are seemingly anthropomorphised, awakening the spirit that exists behind the image and beyond the photographer. But this is a generous spirit, that indulges the senses and encourages emotional connection. Sontag describes the camera as “a sublimation of the gun” stating “to photograph someone is a subliminal murder” but Constable’s so called guns are decommissioned and injured, imperfect and innocent. For those intimidated by the camera and its potential these defunct effigies are assuringly gentle and restorative. 

Alan Constable camera, image courtesy of The Museum of Everything

Alan Constable camera, image courtesy of The Museum of Everything

Sontag also discerns “A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it—by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.” Constable’s cameras refuse the possibility of taking photographs but contrary to the camera presented by Sontag they force experiences, which take place in real time and cannot otherwise be replicated.

Perhaps the audience should not be told that Constable is legally blind, deaf and therefore mute. Constable has never verbalised the motivations behind his work but to me this makes them infinitely more intriguing. With this knowledge the viewer is invited to experience the works as Constable does, silently, through their hands and in the moment.

If Alan Constable cannot speak and can barely see - then what do his cameras represent? The work becomes a riddle, which reads something like this:

There is blind and mute man, obsessed with sight, he moulds cameras and seeing devices from clay but they do not function, they sit in a gallery and are observed by visitors… who sees what?

Gabriella Sonabend