Gayle Chong-Kwan: The Obsidian Isle
The photographer talks about her latest exhibition, inspired by the blind third century poet Ossian
The Obsidian Isle documents a fictional island on which exist Scotland’s lost and destroyed buildings and places. What inspired this?
As part of a photography award I received in 2009 I had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout Scotland. I was struck by the influences from other cultures as well as the distinct identity and histories that have shaped the landscape. I became fascinated by Ossian, the blind third century poet ‘discovered’ by James Macpherson in the 18th Century, who was influential in the development of changing ideas of the Highland and Scottish landscapes and notions of ‘Scottish identity’ at home and abroad.
What images are used in these photographs?
The ten large-scale photographs feature many lost and ruined places: from settlements which were forcibly abandoned or left during the Highland Clearances; to the Tait Tower, a 300ft-high art deco structure constructed at the summit of the hill in Bellahouston Park as part of the Empire Exhibition in 1938, demolished in 1939, allegedly because it would be a beacon for enemy bombers. The works are constructed in complex ways, from medium-format photographs and objects gathered from around Scotland, found images from paintings and photographs and three-dimensional elements, which are re-made as mise-en-scènes of different vistas looking out from Ossian’s cave.
What first made you want to be a photographer?
I first started working with large-format photography for my 2004 series ‘Cockaigne’, when I became interested in the tourist or theatrical gaze and allowing the viewer to travel through the photographic image. Landscape can involve an alternation of expansion and contraction, and for me this links up with the ebb and flow of memory.
Which living visual artist should be better known than they currently are?
Terry Smith, with whom I had the pleasure of working as his assistant while still at art college, and who I now count as a dear friend. In his own words, Terry Smith has ‘no medium, no style, no continuity and no intention to change.’ He makes work from whatever is to hand, from video installations to sculpture and wall drawings.
The Obsidian Isle, Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow, until Sun 11 Dec.