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Stephen Russell | Charles Robb

I remember the first time I saw a reproduction of Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat (1793): it was in Webster’s Unabridged Universal Dictionary, a massive hardback volume that dwarfed all other books on my family’s bookshelf to both fascinate and intimidate me in equal measure. There was Marat under ‘Q’, slumped in his bath all pale and ethereal, with a single red arrow pointing out the quill in his hand. Like a photograph of a crime scene, this image troubled me for some time. On the one hand, the illustration imbued the quill with a menace that completely eclipsed that of the blood-stained knife beside it. But the arrow itself was also a cause of concern, irrationally incriminated into the drama of the scene by its proximity to the bloody incision in Marat’s chest. I also worried about the oddly sensual figure in the diagram and the way in which his death was so effortlessly overshadowed by a slender bevelled feather.

Thirty years later David’s image still resonates. But I have come to see that, even without the Webster’s arrow, Death of Marat retains all specificity of a diagram. The severe frontality of the painting, its compressed sense of depth, the rigidity of its rectilinear forms, the expanse of almost undifferentiated space that presses down from above, the starkness of its inscription; all these elements combine to produce a statement of specificity. Here, commemoration plays out not through an impassioned call to arms or outpouring of grief but through the meticulous display of mathematical proportion. As Hugh Honour notes, Death of Marat is ‘a secular Pietà, a depiction of ‘the absolute solitude and stark finality of death’1i. As the Webster’s editors apparently noticed, it is precisely forensic clarity that makes the work such an apt didactic instrument.

Stephen Russell also uses the Death of Marat as diagrammatic framework in his video installation Super Vanitas (2009). For Russell though, the self- assembling precision of David’s forms and the clarity of his didactic purpose become provocations to more open-ended and ambiguous distortions. If David’s painting proclaimed the triumph of secular values and the new political order through which to enact them, Russell uses the painting as his own ‘ground zero’: a field of forms, equivalents, prompts and digressions that comprise a dynamic experimental system. Through a process of refraction in which the incidental subjective aspects of the painting are given form, the ne plus ultra finality of the painting is systematically broken down into a series of elliptical associations: David’s famous facial tumour and Marat’s hunched physique evoke the image of Quasimodo, the disfigured bellringer of Hugo’s novel; the sweeping arc of Marat’s arm recalls the swinging bells of Notre Dame and by extension the movement of Foucault’s Pendulum in the Panthéon (where Marat was briefly interred following his death); this pendulum, which converts that building into a monumental timepiece, evokes a radial movement of a very different kind in the form of the gallows trapdoor upon which the fate of Quasimodo and Esmeralda hinges; and so on. Russell’s chain of associations, necessarily incomplete and amorphous, mirrors the fragmentary and endlessly digressive nature of the online technologies so fundamental to the distribution of images in our world. Russell’s project, it seems, is to create a portrait of the Marat that incorporates the intertextual patina that the work acquires through history.

But to take Russell’s work as a purely intellectual exercise is to miss something of the point. For his work is as much about distilling the image as it is about disrupting it. Despite the elliptical nature of its processes, Russell’s work nonetheless preserves something of the quiet melancholy of his source. Like Marat, Russell’s forms are suspended forlornly in space – mementos mori that literally mark time. Russell’s pendular projections address the temporal and spatial concerns normally masked by digital media – the viewer has to physically negotiate swinging motions in order to access the work. But, by requiring the viewer to set this action in motion through the use of a rope pull, Russell casts the viewer in the role of Quasimodo. Like the hero of Hugo’s novel, the viewer’s interaction with the work is framed by a sense of melancholic desire that plays wryly on the strange parcel of expectations that each of us brings to the work of art.

Ultimately then, Russell faces off against both canon and viewer: the twin perils that haunt the artist’s studio. Just as Russell’s act of dissective détournement disrupts the integrity of the Marat, his use of viewer-participation makes the audience a surreptitious accomplice in this process. For Russell, the distortion that the viewing process performs upon the work of art is a phenomenon that unites both the viewer and artist. Russell recognises that, like his own strategy of fragmentation, the motion set forth by the pull of the bell-rope transforms the work into a complex of rhythmical gestures that fundamentally tempers the authoritative impression of the artwork. Russell makes visible the motion that the frozen solemnity of Marat’s corpse tends to obscure: its dependence on highly dynamic systems of distribution.

By giving form to the field of interference that exerts itself upon the work of art, Russell’s work occupies a compelling zone between familiarity and strangeness. In so doing, he provides a view into the shifting constellation of influences that permeate our relationship with culture more broadly. In effect, Russell’s primary subject matter is precisely that incongruity with which a quill and an arrow can become forever linked: the uncanniness that accrues to all artworks over time.

by Charles Robb

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