Hannah Collins, Thin Protective Coverings, detail, 1986.
Two words make up one phrase that sums up nearly all of the works on show in Hannah Collins’s mid-career retrospective at Camden Arts Centre: ‘empty limbs’, printed on the first work on display. Vacant but embodied, the spaces she documents in her black-and-white photographs suggest the corporeal, but only through the stuff that clutters them: through the ghostly residues of touch or talking. For Thin Protective Coverings, 1986, Collins covered her Hackney studio with layers of unwanted cardboard: inventing, and then documenting, a room-within-a-room, layering pithy white texts of physicality onto the image (dry tongues/heavy shells/empty limbs/warm skin). But with no limbs present, we can only guess at who made the material impressions we see.
The form in which Collins presents her large-scale photographs imitates the appearance of skin: printed on thin sheets of cotton paper and then pinned to the wall, the works curl at the edges, immersing the viewer in the image and its fictional space. It is a form of intimacy and closeness. Unframed, fragile and felt, (in head and hand), Collins’s photographs call to mind Kathleen Stewart’s notion of ‘ordinary affects’ as: ‘public feelings that begin and end in broad circulation, but they’re also the stuff that seemingly intimate lives are made of … They can be experienced as … an empty pause or a dragging undertow, as a sensibility that snaps into place or a profound disorientation.’
Disorienting in its ordinariness, Collins brings us into contact with both the texts and textures that once fleshed out the adolescent room of Nelson Mandela in The Road to Mvezo. Reading-Umtata, Mandela’s Teenage Home, National Monument, 2007-08. The worn spines of books lie limp on a paint-splattered shelf, their dishevelled materiality a reminder of the life contained within. This is another seemingly banal image of limbs since left (or destroyed), as in other works that seek to capture hidden trauma, such as In the Course of Time. The Road to Auschwitz, 1995/2013. And in the more playful Family, 1988, a collection of abandoned speakers becomes a visual representation of kinship: emotional ties that remain, like damaged wires after the event.
In Collins’s work, objects and architectures become abstracted extensions of the person who touches them, however present or absent they may be: the point at which physical gesture and material reality merge. The places she documents are not so much uninhabited as annexed: by stuff, body and voice, as heard in the soundtrack to Solitude and Company, 2008, wherein residents of an industrial city in northern France describe their dreams over a time-lapse film that documents the decrepit interior of the La Tossée factory. Private affects are made visible by the material effects (filling out those ‘empty limbs’ with spoken language).
As seen in the indented mattresses of The Violin Player, 1988, Collins’s photographs bring into focus the ways that human contact and artificial materials coalesce, an approach not unlike the French Nouveau Roman of the 1950s, which created a sense of affective banality through the writing of space and objects. For example, in Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropisms, 1939, the author put language to ‘movements’ that ‘seemed to be both veritable actions, hiding beneath … the most everyday gestures … emerging up to the surface of the appearances that both conceal and reveal them’. Collins’s photographs are in a similar state of concealing and revealing; static documents that likewise move with the gestures and affects they belie, and the gestures and affects of the viewer.
In The Interior and the Exterior – Noah Purifoy, 2014, Collins documents the Californian artist’s assemblage environments across an installation of 18 prints and a sound recording. I stop at an image of some empty trousers standing weightless upon a wooden structure, and then again at a horizontal display staging used bed frames and recycled metal. Collins’s photographs of Purifoy’s desert museum are akin to a kind of artistic biography, dangerously close to nostalgic homage. But by using a process of cut-up fragmentation, heard in the shuffled soundscape that features interviews with Purifoy’s contemporaries and seen in the prints’ arrangement, the artist disregards the linear narrative. Instead, she re-pictures Purifoy’s life and work through what is materially visible now, as a way of confronting how we reflect and remember the dead, the absent, the invisible. Collins’s photographs of Purifoy’s salvaged, space-age constructions help us think about the person who made them, the banality of the images a veil to the affects of the artifice.