Review: Kerry Tribe: Dead Star Light

Posted on July 3, 2011

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This article was originally written for MouthLondon magazine

A thin, black strip of audiotape, secured flush against the wall, whips round the gallery space and back again between two reel-to-reel decks, its movement almost undetectable. The speaker at one end emits the recorded memories of Milton Torres – a Cold-War pilot who was sent on a mission in 1957 to shoot down a UFO over Norwich. At the other end the speaker emits static, revealing that as one deck writes sound the other erases it, in a perpetual cycle of sound and silence; the remembered and the forgotten; existence and absence. The nature of memory – personal and national, and the part technology plays in creating it, is a key theme in Kerry Tribe’s exhibition at Camden Art Centre.

Alongside her new work Milton Torres Sees a Ghost, Tribe is displaying her 2009 film H.M. – a filmic portrait of a man who was rendered incapable of forming new memories following a “frankly experimental” operation to cure his epilepsy. Two other recent films are exhibited: Parnassius Mnemosyne, a film of the butterfly named after the personification of memory in Greek mythology, and The Last Soviet, a work concerned with the rumours of Russia’s “Lost Cosmonauts”.

Tribe’s careful presentation of her films adds layers of meaning to her work. In H.M., two projectors positioned side-by-side play the same film on loop, with a 20-second delay between the screens. Images recur, some well-known faces from the past; our eyes dart back-and-forth – that face looks familiar – the same but different, perhaps. Doubt infiltrates the mind. H.M.’s on-screen uncertainty created by his failing memory, becomes our uncertainty in a beautifully crafted piece of artistic communication. Tribe’s comment on the human mind’s unstable visual memory, in particular in relation to visual media, is acute and will strike a chord with many viewers.

The use of outdated technology in art, to create a certain aesthetic, seems to be a trope of our time. However, Tribe’s use of “retro” equipment engages with the history of documentary media in a way that is crucial to her work. We rely on technology to record the memories that we are incapable of storing. Out-dated recording equipment has taken on symbolic meaning: we believe it will reveal the past.

Tribe brings the irony of this to light in Parnassius Mnemosyne. If memory is as fragile and elusive as a butterfly, is it really compatible with technology? The artist has taken a magnified recording of the Parnassius Mnemosyne butterfly, then twisted and spliced the reel to create a möbius strip – meaning the image regularly flips along its vertical axis. By drawing attention to the fact that modern media is as much a process of manipulation as it is factual recording, Tribe alludes to the sentiment that technological recordings are no more reliable than memory.

Kerry Tribe may be using outmoded technologies to tell tales from the past but her use of film and audio equipment – manipulating them so that they become artistic material – is fresh and thought provoking. Dead Star Light comments on the nature of human memory and how this has been influenced by interaction with technology, bringing to light our lingering faith in the ability of a machine to preserve the past. The result is a fascinating exhibition of our time.

The exhibition continues until 10 July.

Admission is free.


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