Burning Bright: Gibson-Cowan’s Fearful Symmetry at the blackShed Gallery by Julia Mortimer
Ben Gibson-Cowan’s stunning photographic exhibition not only reveals to us a world of symmetry, but also allows us to see how it changes when our physical surroundings are viewed from multiple perspectives. I have an abiding memory of two London red buses stopped on opposite sides of a zebra crossing at Kings Cross station – two people, one in black, one in white, were moving across the road from either side – a moment to cherish, an unexpected moment of perfect harmony and synchronicity. I think it is this human desire to look for patterns in the world around us that lies behind the success of the work on show. Gibson-Cowan decodes a complex visual world by finding both order in disorder and revealing to us unseen patterns: the outside world is brought inside; the natural world is captured by the digital; the Fearful Symmetry is framed.
Fearful Symmetry, taken from a phrase in William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’, comprises a series of photographs showing the same scene from different viewpoints. Time and space become confused – some are time progressions, the same photo simply taken at different times – and in others, the viewpoint is changed, zoomed in or zoomed out, the photographs presented together to give the impression of a panorama, but disrupted by the repeated appearance of tiny figures.
In ‘Birling Gap’, the repetition is disrupted by the changing perspective of a bather – a man in blue trunks – zoomed in and zoomed out again, and, in ‘Zabriskie Point’, the tiny figures draw us into the extraordinarily textural rocks of California’s Death Valley. From a distance, the rock layers are indistinguishable from one another – they appear like sawn wood, but when viewed more closely, they become fur or fabric. It is not until the observer moves in that the sandstone comes into sharper focus. This painterly, granular quality is never more apparent than in this series.
In the astonishing septych ‘Dover Straits’, the sea’s power becomes almost tangible. This series is at the heart of the exhibition, a sequence of pictures in which a wave gradually gains momentum and finally crashes away – the same and yet different in each image. The artist says that he is fascinated by ‘that point where the sea meets the sky’ and that this fascination is transmitted to us in ‘Dover Straits’, ‘Birling Gap’ and, in particular, ‘Beachy Head’, where the horizon remains constant in three photographs, while the shifting sands of the foreground again highlight the stillness–movement equilibrium. Each set of images, whether it be of sea, woods or rocks, has its own symmetry, but is equally part of a beautifully constructed exhibition. As you stand in the middle of the seven photographs of ‘Dover Straits’, the symmetry is perfect: three seascapes either side of you; still photographs moving in front of you; the horizon perfectly poised between the sky and the waves.
Get yourself to the blackShed Gallery and let the symmetry and contrast of Gibson-Cowan’s images wash over you.
Gibson-Cowan, Fearful Symmetry, blackShed Gallery, Russet Farm, Redlands Lane, Robertsbridge, TN32 5NG, until 11 November 2017, Tuesday to Saturday, 10–4; Sunday, 11–4, www.theblackShedgallery.org.uk