Paul Simon Richards‘ L*a*b is a video and installation that’s constructed in pairs. For his solo show, running March 17 to April 24 at London’s Arcade, there are two screens in the small space on a wall, two speakers up high on the opposite one and two wooden benches that sit in between. One speaker is behind the other; low, unvarnished and quiet. They both have triangles on their ends, and exist with something of the specific touch that occasionally runs throughout all parts of ‘L*a*b’ the video —screening on the screens —offering something I’ve never seen before.
The press release tells us L*a*b is a theoretical colour space in digital imaging that provides a much less normative set of rules than the usual colour systems, like RGB —in terms of how a computer can read —describe and produce colour. At first this seems distant to the work itself, and more like a statement with which Richards wishes to illustrate an idea about producing (other) spaces between things (like, ‘greeny-yellow’). Indeed, there are moments where he applies colour and hue on top of imagery, rather than in a way that enables the production of something that transcends, is open and non-graspable, as the accompanying text seems to alludes to when it suggests the work is about “the experience of imaginary colours as events” and that colour here acts as a space and a ‘stage’. Slightly confused, I look down at my phone and see Richards’ website, where a drawing on his home page is of a pair of eyes with blue pupils, irises, eyelids and eyelashes.
In the two-channel video that plays across the screens, a lot of the background is blue. The blue replaces what otherwise would have been the background of objects, domestic appliances, such as washing machines, and a haunting and occasionally transparent figure that is made of light as though it has been cut out of paper and held up to a lamp. It crawls across the blue corner-less floor. Mugs with patterns on their sides become just patterns in this blue, as though the porcelain is dismissed and dissolved in its hue, leaving the pattern floating and glitch-ing, like an inverted shadow.
Blue is the colour that Derek Jarman used for the final feature film he made before he died from AIDS-related complications and when his eye sight had nearly gone. The blue background that keeps appearing in Richards’ film is the same blue, or close to it, if not quite. The only visual in Jarman’s ‘Blue’ (1993) is this colour and its deep hue. It is the background to the soundtrack, which is how the imagery in ‘L*a*b’ works.
A humming chant begins the soundtrack in Arcade, which lasts for the length of the 13-minute running time of the video. Both of them loop. A man’s voice starts to talk. The voice is in a dark room, tripping over laptop cables, describing, seeing, not seeing, falling over, scrambling to the fridge to use it as a light, occasionally referring lovingly to a second figure, ‘you’, and fondly lamenting “the little still lives that you make so delicately”. The audio seems to share its time between fragments of what we can visualise, and what we know he knows from sight, but cannot see for ourselves. In this way the work references deeply the power of producing space in a place that cannot be seen.
There are snippets of things in the films that also act as an homage to things people don’t see. In one, someone is lying down in a very dark room, although just light enough for the viewer and the camera to see. Another figure glides over and touches, or wakes, or just approaches them. There is so much ambiguity in ‘L*a*b’, despite the personal narrative. It yields a viewer to consider all persons involved in both video and soundtrack as figures, or characters, even. One shot with a sepia filter shows a lizard next to a birthday cake. The shot is zoomed out of and we see both lizard and birthday cake alone at a banquet table. It almost takes intimacy, and pulls it into a designated space, exclusively in your imagination. It asks where intimacy exists.
The scene described above with the figures is the part of the video that comes closest to the sound track playing behind. It is important that the sound comes from speakers behind your head. You don’t look for them because you are looking at the screens, and therefore the sound comes from somewhere beyond —like in a cinema —even though I am sure the speakers are unhidden in this room. It is also important that the narrative read out by the voice is in the present tense throughout, as though both formed and still in the place about which it is speaking.
There may also be a nod to disorientation in terms of image-making (as an artist). Both characters crafted by and in the narrative seem to be artists in ‘real life’ —real life as something somehow separated and left alone to develop in our imagination by the space Richards’ creates in the work; real life as the ocean and the work somehow as the shell that you hold to your ear. The video occasionally includes visual tropes and signs that are seen in many contemporary art videos: a 3D spinning empty hoodie, a row of bottles of products like soap and toothpaste, graphically designed away from their bathroom context, a hovering washing machine next to a large house plant, again with no background. There is something about the fact that he includes them in with the recurring and haunting see-through blurry crawling figure, and the panning shots of a dark room with warm red, pink and yellow hues applied, that takes away from their being used as recognisable signs of domesticity and representations of mundane contemporary life. In actual fact, I don’t know what they mean: in L*a*b, the exhibition, they make the least sense.
Perhaps L*a*b works to transcend its own images in a way that feels like Paul Simon Richards is looking through the blue of Jarman’s film, or of Yves Klein’s empty blue square, even; like he’s wearing lenses made of this blue —as per the drawing of the face with the blue eyes on the home page of his website —which enable him, as the presumed protagonist of the fragmented narrative, that he has collected together to see open spaces. They’re like colours that sit in between colours, which we can only see through the work, with its dissolving mugs and its desire to be elsewhere.**
Exhibition photos, top right.