Testing for Lies

An introduction to the recent work of Ed Fellows, by Phyllida Barlow

…an image of two men in a deserted street. Nothing remarkable. Next, there is one man in the same street. Then no one. The three colour transparencies could have been taken in any order, before or after each other. There is a title written on each slide’s plastic holder: ‘Performance with an audience’, ‘Performance without an audience’ and ‘Performance without a performer’. As images they have little to distinguish themselves as anything other than what is apparent. In fact they are seminal examples of the enquiry with which Ed Fellows has accompanied his creative activities over the last eight or so years.

These three images represent an intensive engagement with performance art which Ed had initiated for himself whilst at Chelsea School of Art and which he continued to develop throughout the 'nineties, showing the resulting works extensively in the UK and Europe. Isolation is the theme common to all these works. In each performance Ed is marooned: he has only himself and his audience as the raw material for the work; both are the means for his confrontation with his roles as protagonist, artist, viewer. All three are interchangeable.

Another image. This time a gallery space full of seated people. They are looking at a blank wall: an audience staring at nothing. In fact Ed had incarcerated himself behind the wall and was delivering a monologue, the content of which was the description of three postcards, randomly chosen and in his possession whilst being described. Isolation is part of the work, but Ed has rooted himself in the everyday through which he is seeking responses to awkward questions. Who is artist and who is audience: those in front of the wall, or the protagonist behind the wall? What is the artist for when anyone can generate an experience from the minimum of information, and banal information at that? Ed has had a determination to render his own creativity as anyone’s, anyone, that is, who would have it.

There are quite a few years between these performances and the current work. The questioning persists but the resulting work - photographs and drawings - has acquired sophistication. The process is no longer subjective. Instead Ed uses the act of production as an expedience, its expressive qualities are fortuitous, not contrived. Process is the means to capture a form for the work, which becomes its subject and content.

Firstly, the ‘flash photographs of photographs’. On the studio wall a group of postcard-sized photographic images of mountainous landscapes, with their backdrop of vivid skies and with fast flowing becks and waterfalls bisecting the romantic scenes. There is something amiss. Are these old images salvaged from a car boot sale, or charity shop? The colours are dark and aged; browns, greys and Prussian blues. And dominating each image is a white scar. It sits compactly, a cloud-shaped fog in the centre of each picture, obliterating part of the idyllic scene, an unnatural phenomenon perhaps, or a freak disturbance in these otherwise sublime settings. 

The larger versions of these photographs reveal more. The white fog melds the paper on which it is printed with the landscape image. The texture of the paper is showing at the centre of the fog whilst at its edges rocks, grass and water have a highlighted sharpness, different from the cheap photographic qualities inherent in the rest of the photograph. Gradually, the familiarity of this white fog tells: it is the dazzle of flashlight. A photograph has been re-photographed and in the act of so doing the flash has obliterated the image but at the same time revealed its materiality and physicality: paper and light. The process of photography itself is being scrutinised. Like the performances, photography for Ed must be subjected to a kind of lie test. All must be revealed. There must be no pretence. And if there is, it must be shown for what it is: an image burned onto the surface of paper. The poetic implication of the ghostly fog is nothing more than the surface of the paper on which the rest of the image has been processed.

Secondly, some drawings. The myriad of minute ink dots which make up the drawings recall the bare essentials of minimalism. The earlier drawings show bleached out landscapes, the latter are abstracted beyond recognition, and all are obsessively constructed from pinpricks of dots, but consumed by the whiteness of the paper. They reciprocate the flashlight photographs but in reverse. Each dot is a tiny reconstruction plucked from a photographic image: they are the re-making and re-capturing of the original photographic moment. Like the blast of flashlight, the dots also obliterate but through their painstaking reconstruction of the photographic image. As with the ‘flash photographs’, it is the whiteness of the paper which ultimately rewards one’s act of scrutiny, and like the blank wall and the empty street in the performances, the raw materiality of the work becomes its subject and content.

Ed has clearly identified how process can deposit his presence upon the work, not as an artist but as someone speculating on what it is to reconstruct an experience, any experience. Ed does not have a hierarchy of experiences; his act of making refers to somewhere, but it could be anywhere, as with the three randomly chosen postcards and the group of photographed landscapes. There is a solitariness demonstrated literally in the performances which is transformed in the recent work into the act of making itself. The ‘flash photographs of photographs’ and the dot drawings are templates for anywhere, anytime, anyplace, challenging us to dissolve the sentiments of looking with the reality of converting raw materiality into something of our own.

As studio work, these photographs and drawings are in an environment where their speculative intentions can be uncompromisingly revealed, assisted by the improvised viewing conditions, and in the control of Ed himself. It is like old times back at Chelsea School of Art where, as a visiting tutor, I first met Ed. Inevitably our discussions veered towards a shared experience of doubt and uncertainty. That was ten years ago. The doubt and uncertainty have not changed but the work has. The stark confrontation of Ed alone on the street, the performance artist without an audience, or at best, with an audience of one, is, I believe, innate to this more recent work. The difference is that Ed now evidences that isolation through the exacting tasks of testing out photographic images to near obliteration: he demands that the process, the maker, the viewer are implicit in the resulting work. If there is a lie, it must be tested to destruction, and we have no choice but to witness that, and what remains…