Photography's New Materiality

Wilful Damage

John Hilliard

In 1999, prior to her arrival at the Slade School, University College London, where she studied for a Masters degree in Fine Art, Aliki Braine had produced a work that incorporated the seeds of her future development. Ghost consisted of a series of large photographs of clothing belonging to her grandmother, cut out so that the near-life-size prints had the shape of the different items they represented, and could now be collectively understood as a portrait of their owner. It is partly the act of omission, the indication of an absent subject through its surrounding context, that is significant here, but also the act of excision: the brutal rupture of the photograph's normally pristine and continuous rectangularity. Both of these traits are revisited and repeated throughout all her subsequent work, that original cut being joined by an array of related devices imposed on both films and prints - pricking, punching, sticking, blocking - always serving to draw attention to the material presence and specificity of the photograph itself.

The habit of pointing the viewer to both subjects and interpretations by inference, rather than by direct assertion, emerges as an act of ellipsis in a group of works expressing a particular interest in image and language. In two related pieces, “Landscape” (2001) and (Sky) (2000), an idyllic vista of white clouds floating against a blue background is enclosed respectively by large quotation marks or brackets, cut directly from the prints as an absence and usually appearing to be white where they reveal the painted surface of the wall on which they are displayed. Such deliberate nomination prompts only an unspoken utterance, however, forcing the spectator to make their own speculative reading, to fill in the blanks with silent words or to consider the reductive image itself as the elided or muted subject of this emphatically punctuated enclosure.

The relative emptiness of backgrounds such as water, sky or land suits the purpose of these works, where a lack of specific incident opens up the image to supposition through the most minimal linguistic prodding. But there is surely more to it than this: the landscape theme is so recurrent in Aliki Braine's work that it must be understood as more than a convenience. It reflects a personal affiliation with that subject, an enjoyment of being there on location, but also deliberately seeks to recapture the ancient practice whereby urban inhabitants went into the countryside beyond the town in order to contemplate without distraction, rather as Plato's Academy was located in a rural setting beyond the confines of Athens (a place now, unfortunately, little more than inner-city scrubland). Landscape, then, is the site of creative thought, but it may also be the subject of creative acts, as evidenced by a further aspect of her practice that entails a recurrent reference to painted representations of landscape, drawn from the precedents of art history.

Alexander Cozens, for example, in A New Method Of Assisting The Invention In Drawing Original Compositions Of Landscape (published 1785), proposes 'forming artificial ways of representing landscape', working from ink blots, first with light ink then with black ink, then further elaborating this contrast: 'A true blot is an assemblage of dark shapes or masses made with ink upon a piece of paper, and likewise of light ones produced by the paper being left blank'. The emphasis on constructed artifice, the use of ink, and a light/dark opposition, has a particular bearing on some recent work, which can be divided into two categories: those where portions are physically removed, and those where portions are physically obscured (in both cases by altering the original film in an invasive act of post-production). In the first instance, a hole-punch, normally used on paper, punctures the black-and-white film negative by the removal of circular sections, which then appear in the finished print as black globular shapes, displacing and invading the foliage of trees and spilling gloom into the surrounding landscape (as in the triptych Dessine Moi Un Arbre . . . , 2005). In the second instance the intrusion is reversed - a bleachedout veil of whiteness occluding clouds or branches. A thick layer of black ink has been selectively painted onto the negatives, so that light from the enlarger is largely deterred from penetrating those areas, preventing exposure of the paper and leaving only a pallid trace. Dessine Moi Un Arbre . . . En Hiver (2006) reconfigures an isolated tree as spidery white lines of 'snow', while in White Out - Winter Branches (2006), a network of tree limbs fills the frame, their 'frosty' coating apparently cracking with cold (the result of the ink's crazed pattern as it dried on the film). White Out No.1 (2005) is arguably the most reductive and uncompromising of this group. After all, the original image of clouds is already elusive, made even more obscure by being painted over with ink on the film prior to printing. The result might be a terminal act of erasure, but paradoxically the clouds are given new substance by the traces of the ink's opaque screen, and now hover between material presence and fugitive disappearance into the white surface of the print. 

A third tactic, referring to Cozens through subject rather than method, is even less user-friendly than the preceding two, and even more obscure in its result. Using the Renaissance fresco device for transferring a full-size cartoon onto the prepared surface of a plaster wall, separate images of different trees have been pricked with a pin around their outlines, so that each is defined by its own specific shape. The collective group, assembled as a grid, is then deliberately turned away from the viewer, who now has only the trace of punctures by which to differentiate and 'picture' each individual element of this typology. Further, the repeated litany of the brandname (Fuji, Fuji, Fuji) on the reverse side of the photographs only adds to the affront of being refused sight of the 'actual' images. The title of this work, The Shape, Skeleton And Foliage Of 32 Species Of Trees, is identical with that used by Cozens for his own series of drawings on this same theme, published in 1771.

It is the wilful refusal to deliver a conventionally 'interesting' or 'complete' or clearly described picture that characterises Aliki Braine's work, compounded by the equally wilful damage imposed on her films and prints. However, it is precisely the lack of certainty, the insistence on the spectator's own contributory effort that makes it so engaging, and the materialist celebration of the photograph caused by her rude interventions that makes it so pleasurable. All of this is inflected and extended by her informed reference to the iconography and methodology of the history of painting, resulting in a body of original contemporary work that has an eye on the future and a memory of the past.


Photography's New Materiality