19 November - 31 December 2015



20 November - 31 December 2015

The family is not what it was. Our lives are far more fluid, geographically and affectively, than they used to be. Quite likely your parents have divorced and live hundreds of miles from each other and you. Quite likely it wouldn’t occur to you to follow in their professional or social footsteps. Quite likely you have enough choices, physically and virtually, to feel that blood relationships are or could be only a small part of your life picture. Yet we’d all accept that our family background is a formative influence on who we are. Most of us keep that in the back of our minds, and move on: so successfully that there has been recent press coverage of a trend for adult children ‘abandoning’ their ageing parents.

Moving on isn’t enough for Jonny Briggs, though. He wants to break more radically. “Escape,” wrote Emmanuel Levinas [i], “is the need to get out of oneself, that is, to break that most radical and unalterably binding of chains, the fact that the I is oneself.” For over a decade, Briggs’ art has attempted to achieve that. As he puts it: ‘I try to think outside the reality I was socialised into and create new ones with my parents’. Here, of course, a paradox lurks: for can a self which is largely formed by how and where it came into being ever truly break free from the background which indirectly determines the nature of those very escape attempts?

Briggs is, of course, aware of the problem. That gives his work an edge which feeds into his own embrace of paradox at the level of individual works. And the effort does lead him somewhere, even if it he can’t get where he hoped to go. Imagine an athlete who sets himself the goal of running a six second 100m. He won’t succeed, but if he trains hard enough he may get to a place – say 10 seconds – he would not otherwise have reached.

Briggs has used several approaches to these ends, in all of which we’re aware of his presence as the artist, though it’s normally his parents whom we see. He has directed them in photographic tableaux which – through his controlling role as artist and photographer – reverse the parent-child power relationship. He has treated the home as a metaphorical body, especially when grappling with his grandmother’s cancer, and explored the cognitive psychology of ‘context dependent recall’ – the way a place can act as cue for memories. He’s turned around his memories by montaging his parents’ heads onto photographs from his childhood.  He has made us think that he has constructed realities out of collaged or photo-shopped elements, only for it to turn out that the situation is at one level ‘real after all’.

‘To Eat with the Eyes’ approaches those issues by different means: most of the works are detourned versions of historic black and white photographs of his grandparents and great grandparents.  The alterations all reconfigure the gaze of his relatives. Several are rendered monocular by a splicing which combines their eyes. The effect is unsettling - maybe that’s why we speak of ‘the evil eye’ rather than ‘the evil eyes’. The one all-seeing eye seems to stare us down, oddly, more fully than two would. There’s something forensic about the look: I’m put in mind of a security camera as much as a person. Knowing Briggs’ trajectory, though, we’re bound to read these as another attempt to alter the construction of his own identity, this time by going back to earlier generations and recasting how they see him.

The second group of photographs altered by what Briggs calls his ‘mindful vandalism’, it being more controlled than iconoclastic destruction, is somewhat ironically entitled ‘the Envisionaries’.  Here Briggs obstructs his ancestors’ eyes by pinning lips onto them. That makes for the right organs with which to ‘eat with the eyes’, and picks up the suggestion in that phrase of the consuming appetites which sight can stimulate. The prominence of the pins is, again, disturbing, and the extra mouths do nothing to change the fact that the dead can’t speak.

The contemporary colour images of Briggs’ mother provide a contrast.  They do set up oracular conjunctions, but the effect is more akin to a comical wink to indicate connivance. If they’re sharp eyes, that may be literally implied by how glass meets in the middle of them. That’s caused by the technique of cutting and conjoining not just the image, but the frame and mount as well, collaging the image as object.

The forensic note returns in what seems at first and, indeed, second glance like a rather attractive record of the woodland floor even if we guess – rightly – that this is whereBriggs grew up, making it something of a primal scene for him.  Near the lower right hand corner, though, you may spot a mouth. Remember the opening scene of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which zooms in on an ear in the grass? This may be just a photograph of Briggs’ mother’s mouth, but it’s disquieting nonetheless, once found. It plays another version of the mouth for eye pun through the title: Peephole. But is it for dark forces to spy on us from under, or for us to look through and check we’re safe? 

All sorts of arcana feed in to Briggs’ work:  he mentions that the Japanese have a word for ‘cute enough to eat’; talks of the Amazonian tribes who believe that it shows great respect for the dead to eat them; the psychological theory of transference; how much he’s just enjoyed visiting a mannequin factory; that he’s experimenting with the practice of meditating with a partner by them staring into each other’s eyes unceasingly. As such background thinking indicates, these are not casual images, and Briggs plans his effects with economically precise drawings which act as stage directions for how his photographs will be set up.  Yet the underlying issue remains that comparatively simple paradox: how was I formed, and can I escape that? Will I always be trapped in the nexus of the past, no more able to move on completely than to literally eat with my eyes?


[i] Emmanuel Levinas: On Escape (De l'évasion), 1935