Perhaps the biggest obstacle for coming to terms with Alec Soth’s exhibition Hypnagogia currently running at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, is Soth himself, or at least the sort of expectations about him and his work to date that the audience might hold. Of course, this is a familiar dilemma for any established artist and one that Soth has shown a distinct awareness of in the past, attempting on several occasions to expand or even dismantle the perception of what his work could be and how it could be made, beginning conspicuously in Broken Manual and more so with Songbook, which left behind the lush colour of large format film photography in favour of crisp, digital monochrome and a looser, more aggressive approach. His latest project continues somewhat in this vein, but is less a fully-fledged new departure as it is an essay in archival and narrative possibilities, one that finds Soth mining his own back catalogue. On the basis of this, he has brought together a range of disparate images related to the themes of sleeping and of dreaming, as might be indicated by the title, a somewhat obscure word denoting the transitional period between conscious and unconscious states that often gives rise to hallucinations or other strange phenomena.
A mixture of different strategies is employed to display the images, from traditionally framed and matted prints to large-scale images pasted directly to the gallery walls. Not only does this break up the rhythm of viewing the work in a pleasing way, it also creates distinctions that might make the work easier to navigate or to read, helping solve the ‘puzzle’ that it presents. In that sense we can perceive the large pasted-up images as forming one thread for us to unravel within the overall sequence. Here we find an image of Soth himself, or his reflection at least, lying on a hotel bed that appears to float high above a night-time metropolis. The way distance has been collapsed in this image is quite striking; it also conjures the particularly modern state of disconnection familiar to long-haul travellers, one that can sometimes feel like a waking dream. Soth is not shown sleeping in the reflection in his hotel room window, however, but using his phone. In the next (or previous, depending on how you look at it) image, the figure suspended at a height has jumped – or fallen – and now descends. This picture of a diver on a waterfall is by now a familiar one, but is used to good effect here. Following this is a claustrophobic image of a curving underground passageway. What it leads to we don’t see, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it could be anything good. Taken together we can read these three images as a parable of descending into sleep.
Other groups of images also work this way, if only because they are of the same subject, sometimes forming a chronological sequence, such as that of the young woman in a raincoat standing in front of what appears to be a large wave, water being another recurring theme. The device of grouping similar subject matter is used in a trio of images depicting sheep, one of which wears a suggestively hood-like covering over its head. These images and a further two, one portrait from a sleep study centre and another of a hooded falcon, were made in a fairly stark, flash-lit monochrome that in some ways pre-empts the style of his later project Songbook, but the presentation here is, for want of a better word, rather more clinical. The only imagery in the series that might properly be considered as repeating features in the pictures of impromptu wooden constructions that each form a kind of crude pictogram. These images are all titled Sleepwalker and, with a child-like literalness, do indeed appear to depict a stick-man, his ‘arms’ out in the cartoon pose of a sleepwalker.[i] How we might be expected to connect all these dissimilar pictures is not exactly made clear, however, and in many ways is not meant to be, given the sense of dream logic that pervades many of them.
The only person shown (apparently) sleeping here is in the – also well known – image of a red-haired, and bearded, man who lies with his head on a mossy rock. The picture was originally made for Soth’s series Broken Manual, where he followed the trail of those who had chosen to live largely isolated lives away from the pressures of contemporary society. In the context of the present exhibition we might also note that that work was about the dream of escape, of an elemental, impossible freedom, as much as the reality of it. The composure of the man’s face and the sheer tangibility of any image made with Soth’s once signature large format camera contribute to the effect of this picture, which is one of the stand-outs here. It is placed with purpose at the centre of the gallery’s back wall, as if it were the pivot of the whole sequence, converging on the head of the dreamer who is weaving together this uncertain mix of memory and fantasy. He might also be a substitute for Soth himself, given that there is a certain degree of resemblance between the two men. But, just as much, he is closed off and unreachable, enveloped in a private mental realm.
The purpose of the work, as is expressed in the statement that accompanies it, is to explore the role of narrative in photography and the sort of connections that can be made between images. The most immediate impression, however, is of the gaps that occur where these connections should ostensibly be. As we have seen, some of the images are indeed linked, such as with the large paste-ups and in the smaller sequences, but the sum of all the works is a good deal more elusive, except within the fairly broad remit of its main thematic prompt. Viewers expecting the novelistic scope of Soth’s previous works may well be disappointed by what is, in the end, a rather eclectic affair. However, the questions it raises about narrative and photography are indeed interesting; specifically, we have to wonder what it is that connects one picture to another and how that connection might be understood, in light of the fact that photography is simply not a story-telling medium in the way that, for example, film can be. So perhaps ‘narrative’ is the wrong word here, because, although connections between the images do undoubtedly exist and I have described some of them already, they do not form a ‘story’ as such, but something more like a kind of imaginative space that the viewer can enter into and make their own.
Most of Soth’s major projects have pursued clearly defined arcs; this thematic clarity has also been their strength. The use of a single core theme in Hypnagogia hints at that tendency, but doesn’t really follow it in the elaboration of the work, which is, after all, a project reconstructed from Soth’s own archive. It is telling that a given thread could be traced back through decades of work in this way, but perhaps the same could have been done with equal effectiveness using any number of different themes. In that sense it is hard to escape the feeling that this body of work is essentially a minor, if productive experiment for Soth before he moves on to something a bit more substantial. That is not necessarily to say he will revert to his more established mode of working, but rather that he is still elaborating strategies for a development to which these studies can be applied and resolved in a way that is not entirely achieved here. Soth has always been an artist willing to grow in public and to shed the established conceptions of his work, those belonging to his audience and indeed his own. Whatever its merits and pleasures, then, perhaps the significance of this exhibition is that it suggests several enticing new possibilities for Soth to explore, leaving us to dream in the meantime.
Alec Soth – Hypnagogia, Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, August 5 – September 21, 2016. All images courtesy of the artist/ Douglas Hyde Gallery.
[i] Admittedly one is constructed of stones (as in sticks and stones), but the point remains.