I only discovered the music of now-dead New York electro guy Arthur Russell a few months ago. See, I had this sampler disc a friend had given me a year or so back. On it, was Russell’s sublime song ‘That’s us/Wild combination’. I had listened to it before, when I first got the sampler, and had noticed it – kinda - and then moved over the track without really making any sense of it. But right before Christmas last year, I found myself rooting around my office trying to find it. A fragment of music was in my head and it seemed urgent to hear it.
I didn’t really know what song I was trying to find…until I found it. There it was - Russell.
What I was listening to was INCREDIBLE. The most tender, sensitive, soulful music I'd maybe ever heard. Not only that, but it was a part of the birth of electronic pop in a way, certainly its consolidation into creative maturity. It connected New Order’s ‘Confusion’ to Ben Watt today, then back to Curtis Mayfield and forward again to Susumo Yokota. Basically it moved across histories and between countries and moods and ambitions. It was so damned worldly, so pure, so inventive.
Somewhere inside I must have known this, but not been able to process it at the time. Its gentle radical beauty was too much to take in all at once.
I guess this minor revelation made me realise that it isn’t always obvious when we come across a new thing. Time and again in my life those moments of newness, of pure freshness, that have come to mean so much have not been marked by a sense of immediate novelty. I think this is because whenever we come across something new, feeling precedes cognition. And, I know it sounds like a cliché, but feeling really is harder to get a grip on.
It’s more intense, yet somehow more ambiguous too.
What I mean is this. As we live our daily lives we carry a whole bunch of conversations in our heads. These soundtracks-to-our-days basically colour the present tense, filtering and guiding our perceptions; the chatter fills up all available air time. So when we come across something new, we don’t get the newness straight away. We’re not conditioned to do so.
As difficult as all this is, it is exactly this that Sarah Ryan has made visual equivalents for. Her works in Like never before catch both the quiet build-up of the new on our psyches and the sudden rush of pleasure and reinvigoration when we finally come to realise what we’re encountering.
As I say this I do realise that proving it is impossible. It’s one of those claims that maybe just has to float, and if you feel it, you feel it.
I feel it…and the sense I get when looking at the images is a rush - but hushed, quiet - of expectation. It’s exactly like someone, some force, has taken the wind away. As paradoxical as it sounds, therefore, it is a rush of silence.
This sensation is felt in the arms, in the hair and at the back of the neck. I am serious about that. The works are experienced physically. In the body, before the brain. I am speaking almost mystically now, but I wonder if that explains that sense of expectation because the mind is lagging behind while the body is already there.
This works us over in other equally curious ways. Ryan’s perfectly pitched cinematic jump-cuts create fragments that, instead of deflecting us, pull us into a larger whole – some kind of indeterminate and elusive narrative arc. In a very real way, therefore, these gaps are filled in by our own desires and needs.
We fill them with the life going on between their frames, of its unseen pulse and movement.
Such an intimate, personalised adventure is located in a preternatural stillness that riffs on a planetary scale. In these images we see sun, shade, everything, working in a bigger and bigger context, so that our sense of appreciation of these spaces is mirrored by a deep understanding of the insignificance and therefore tenderness of all of our lives.
(Maybe that’s another reason why these works feel so quiet, softly spoken. They are overshadowed by a mass of interplanetary darkness - the great cosmic beyond.)
Yet could it also be that quietness is newness itself, that the two are the same thing. Because to be quiet and intellectually humble is necessary to allow for the fresh take on things to rise to the surface.
So…to allow ourselves to be fully open to the world, that is what Ryan’s work is ultimately about. And that is how it hits us. With slow charges. Exploding when we least expect it to, reminding us of the pleasures that are there to be had if our sensibilities are in tune with our times and our places.
Planets, new experiences, all things “happening” for the first time, all things making themselves over…each place new, each time different.
Here, therefore, I think Ryan has established a tacit drama centred on the humility not the hubris of discovery.
Of the newness that comes in a rush of stillness.
Its gentle radical beauty too much to take in all at once.
Like the wind being sucked away.
Like never before.
Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of Western Australia