A Canadian in London

By Catherine Elwes

floating-house-paulette-phillips.jpgFloating House, 2002

Paulette Phillips at Danielle Arnaud

Human nature dictates and the media exploit our fascination with extreme behaviours, crimes, misdemeanours and natural disasters of every kind. Through their representation, we are able to experience vicariously the unthinkable and briefly tread dangerous grounds upon which ‘by the grace of God go I’. The resulting sense of security in our personal safety is gently unsettled in the work of Paulette Phillips whose video installations were recently on show at London’s Danielle Arnaud gallery.

In judiciously understated pieces, Phillips contrives to make us aware of the ordinariness, the indiscriminate nature of disaster, while never letting us forget the voyeuristic pleasures of our consumption of its narratives. Floating House (2004) consists of a projected image of a quaint wooden home drifting and turning towards its inevitable fate - sinking into the grey depths of the sea off a nameless Canadian coast.

The soundtrack populates the house with the chatter of family life curiously unconcerned with its predicament. We have witnessed on television so many images of buildings destroyed and vehicles cast adrift by torrential rains and hurricanes that this slow motion enactment of our worst nightmare takes on the character of an elegy, a parable of family life and its unconscious tensions showing the cracks in the armour that we use to shore up fears of the unseen dangers, homelessness and inevitable partings in death.

That such tensions might break out into violence is a feature of the contemporary psychic landscape and in It’s About How People Judge Appearances (2001) Phillips does little to spare us the trauma of witnessing a woman repeatedly self-abusing, cracking her head against a brick wall on a suburban street. Whatever mental pain is driving such an elegant citizen to destroy her looks is never revealed. Some commentators have seen this work as an attempt to empower women who are subject to violence in the city by representing an act of self-mutilation as deliberate and controlled.

I take issue with this position. With considerable skill, women have long complied with society’s characterisation of femininity as the dark side of the moon, the mad underbelly of civilisation. This is nothing to celebrate; neither here nor in the self-lacerating performances of Gina Pane or Sonia Knox, who regularly trod through barbed wire in response to the situation in Northern Ireland. Phillips, like Pane and Knox before her, will not let us off the hook with any easy feminist rescue. The tape is a ritualised, bleak report from the gender that regularly turns anger in on itself rather than lashing out at the iniquities of a divided, alienated society.

The division between those who witness extreme events and the events themselves are dramatised in Crosstalk (2004), the final projected video on show. A busy intersection in a Canadian city forms the backdrop to a flow of humanity crossing the road in slow motion, temporarily distracted by an unseen event occurring somewhere behind the camera. The work inevitably conjures up memories of the televised disaster of 9/11. It also records a moment when the shock of discovering some rogue element in the environment, an anomaly that fails to fit into the “city’s rationalised architecture” [1], momentarily causes the passers-by to forget the camera, to ignore the presence of our gaze beyond it in the gallery. For me, this impression was curiously undermined when I recognised a few faces from the Toronto art world drifting past, making the constructed nature of the work apparent.

This and the other works in the exhibition all seemed to exist in the murky, undifferentiated realm of the imaginary. Although the events implied connect to what is seen, known and feared, Phillips approaches them through re-enactment and casts them as emblematic markers delineating the boundaries of what is knowable, what can be articulated in visual and verbal language. In her elliptical staging of extreme adversity, she also evokes those mysterious forces that churn and drive the subconscious mind.


[1]. Joanna Graham, ‘The Unravelling Crime Scene: Notes from a Public Investigator’ in Paulette Phillips, The Secret Life of Criminals, catalogue, Danielle Arnaud contemporary art, 2004.

Paulette Phillips also showed in the Summer 2005 group show Staged at Danielle Arnaud contemporary art (www.daniellearnaud.com).

Catherine Elwes is a video artist and author of Video Art, a Guided Tour (I.B.Tauris, 2005).