Magical Surfaces at Parasol unit, Shoreditch

Freud called it ‘that class of terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar’.

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Julie Monaco, 'cs_02/4', 2005.

Parasol unit is a beautiful gallery in Shoreditch, whose location adds a dash of confident ‘cool’ to the occasion of visiting it on a spring evening. We walked past Wharf Road, where it stands, before we realised we’d overshot and had to double back down the little street. Last night – April 12th – was the private view of Parasol unit’s new exhibition ‘Magical Surfaces: The Uncanny in Contemporary Photography’ featuring work by Sonja Braas, David Claerbout, Elger Esser, Julie Monaco, Jörg Sasse, Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld. Today, it opens to the public.

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Sonja Braas, 'Forces # 1', 2002. Courtesy of the artist and Fabian & Claude Walter Gallery, Zurich.

First, a word on terminology. ‘The uncanny’ is most simply explained as the feeling of unease human beings feel when something is both familiar and unfamiliar at once. Repetition, dreamscapes, facsimiles can all evoke it; Freud called it ‘that class of terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar’. It’s been argued that the very medium of photography itself is uncanny, representing something so accurately, and yet not constituting it. All the work in ‘Magical Surfaces’ deals with the concept one way or another.

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Stephen Shore, 'U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon, July 21, 1973', 1973 (printed 2002). © Stephen Shore, courtesy 303 Gallery, New York.

The very word ‘photography’ implies all sorts of things, not least an immediacy and a degree of ‘honesty’ – at least, the assumption that you’re looking at something that was, as it was.

Set over two floors, the selection of artists and their pieces is smart, slick, playful and occasionally sinister. The very word ‘photography’ implies all sorts of things, not least an immediacy and a degree of ‘honesty’ – at least, the assumption that you’re looking at something that was, as it was.

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Joel Sternfeld, 'McLean, Virginia, December 1978', 1978 (printed 2003). © Joel Sternfeld; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and Zabludowicz Collection.

It turns out, though, that many of the images are processed in some way, doctored, edited, or even totally computer-generated, like the work of Jörg Sasse, one of the first artists to take up software in place of brush and canvas. Julie Monaco’s work seems ostensibly to capture the sublime, the overwhelming power of the natural world. Sea seems to blur into sky in 'cs_02/4', 2005. It’s both amusing and disconcerting to realise that what you’re responding to so strongly, as an image that seems to depict the raw force of nature, is actually created entirely on a computer. Monaco’s work is generated by fractal algorithm software. Does it matter? Do you mind?

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Julie Monaco, 'cs_02/4', 2005. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Ernst Hilger, Vienna.

Upstairs, Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld represent an older generation of photographers. Both travelled across the USA in the 1970s, documenting the uncanny juxtaposition of smallness, kitschness and domesticity of human intervention situated within the sprawling, breathtaking vistas of north America. The chapel in Stephen Shore’s 'Bellevue, Alberta, August 21, 1974', looks almost cartoonish in scale, composed of straight lines and technicolour. The tiny building constitutes an oasis of faith and familiarity within the vastness and unknowability of the world, represented very effectively by the landscape stretching out behind it as far as the eye can see, encompassing mountains, forests and the unfamiliar.

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Stephen Shore, 'Bellevue, Alberta, August 21, 1974', 1974 (printed 2014). © Stephen Shore, courtesy 303 Gallery, New York.

Joel Sternfeld’s 'Solar Pool Petals, Tucson, Arizona, April 1979' plays with a similar idea of human development aping (and paling in comparison with) the natural world. The ‘solar petals’ floating in the pool are reminiscent of lilypads in a pond; but the edges of the body of water are too straight, the water too blue, and the floating objects too perfectly circular. Despite these implementations of regularity, the effect of the ‘human version’ is so much less satisfying than the natural foil we hold in our heads; sterility rather than perfection is the effect. Indeed, the people in the picture look appropriately underwhelmed.

Lastly – and by happy accident – the uncanny is summoned up very neatly in the garden, where we stand for a glass of wine after perusing the show inside.

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Joel Sternfeld, 'Solar Pool Petals, Tucson, Arizona, April 1979', 1979 (printed 2010). © Joel Sternfeld; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Lastly – and by happy accident – the uncanny is summoned up very neatly in the garden, where we stand for a glass of wine after perusing the show inside. A permanent installation by Yayoi Kusama, ‘Narcissus Garden’ sits on the pond at the end of the garden (belonging to the Victoria Miro Gallery next door), and consists of silver balls which float and move around on the surface of the water. Although not part of the show at Parasol unit, the frame of mind 'Magical Surfaces' left me in made me see 'Narcissus Garden' in a new, uncanny light. Quite simply, the spheres look too heavy to float, and so there’s a childish awe, a sense of magic, when they gather at one end of the pond, moved by the slightest breeze. On another level, the mirrored surfaces function much like the photographs inside, in that they show a reality we recognise, yet isn't what it represents.

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Yayoi Kusama, 'Narcissus Garden', 2008.