Arcadian dream pool: Hugh Hamshaw Thomas, Bergson, and memory.

1. swan (blue) 2017 1000px

The work of Hugh Hamshaw Thomas suggests a kind of many layered spectrality, and ties it, irrevocably, to notions of place. His work, Swan, which was first shown in the RA’s Summer Exhibition 2018, is indicative of this kind of layering of space. It is a photograph of the lake in Highams Park, created in the eighteenth century for John Harman, who owned the park at the time, by his gardener Humphry Repton. Therefore the landscape depicted has already gained a layer of meaning; it is mediated through Repton’s notions of beauty, and landscape aesthetics. In this way it has already come one step away from its original intentions – absorbed by city parkland notions of outside space. Somewhat manicured and entirely manufactured to produce an emotional response to the calm placidity of water in relationship to the bustling city outside. Not only does the work depict a real landscape, but the landscape, through its mediation becomes fictioned. A virtual platform for dreaming built out of the real. Further to this, the method of creating the colour distillations digitally within the work, too, adds a layer of dreamscape. This could be Arcadia, it could be Eden, it could be a pool between the world.


The work depicts a mirrored image, part Rorschach test, part arts and crafts revival wallpaper – yet the inclusion of a swan, swimming outward towards the viewer distorts the reflection. Here, the reflection becomes representative of an outside, an ‘underworld which displays itself in hiding’. There’s both a doubling here, and a layering – it is as though the work creates a layered loop between the double and the real; the virtual and the actual, a resonance of memory and interpretation between the two. It is at once a digital photograph, and something that predates photography. In a way one might say that it is the landscape speaking through the camera from an earlier time. The swan causing the ripple, which alerts us to the tangible difference between the truth and the reflection. The swan creates a hole in the landscape.


Hamshaw Thomas interrogates the idea of Arcadia, here. Swan is a work that is saturated in nostalgia. It is at once Edenic garden, and reflected dreamscape – a new platform born out of the camera’s artificial eye. It seems as though time is distorted here. The reflection will always be rippled in that way, by that one swan, who is always swimming but never moving. The pool itself is reminiscent of the pool of Mnemosyne from greek mythology: drink from this, and remember everything – here lie all of the memories of the past.


Swan‘s mirror-like qualities, too, remind me of Bergson, who said in Matter and Memory that ‘our actual existence[], whilst it is unrolled in time, duplicates itself all along with a virtual existence, a mirror-image. Every moment of our life presents two aspects, it is actual and virtual’. Duplications and mirror images are entangled with notions of the weird and the eerie. Freud’s The Uncanny has a preoccupation with the idea of the double: ‘reflections in mirrors, […] shadows, guardian spirits’ which, according to Freud have their ‘counterpart in the language of dreams.’ All of these stem from notions of the self, and the other, and are found in iterations of the actual, and the virtual; the inside, and the outside.  Yet, whilst freud traces this back to castration anxiety (obviously…) for Mark Fisher the doubling, or mirroring, constitutes an understanding that ‘there is no inside except as a folding of the outside.’


To be aware of the self as an other, requires there to be a fundamental difference between the two images (or more than two in the case of layers of the stack, or layers of self). For this to happen, the mirrored world must ripple, or crack in order for us to discover that we are other to it, and for Fisher, that we always were. What if we’ve come from the mirror, though? Slipped through the cracks. We could read this into the swan, the lake, and its ripples in Hamshaw Thomas’ work, and even more so into the lake as a symbol both of Mnemosyne and of a mirror. In a way it functions as a signifier of pre-existing memory.


For the Deleuze-Bergson theory of memory, it is that all beings unfold out of a pure ontological history which they actualise in coming to be. Memory, not as trace or thread through space, but a property of matter itself. ‘All of the past is contemporaneous to the present’, and memory is never what it actually was, but how we experienced it. For Hamshaw Thomas, ‘nature, and our gaze on it is the mediation of our place in what we experience as “life”.’ Yet, I would go one step further – our gaze upon nature is not only the mediation of our position in our own loves, but also our position in the collective unconscious of landscapes themselves, and what they represent reaching into the future and back to the past. Like looking into a mirror, we never see our faces as they actually are. Like Mark’s mirror, cracked with the shudder of the eerie and altering the reflection, or Kapoor’s Sky Mirror which reflects, not our own image, but the outside at the human level: I am an other to my memory, and I always was.


It seems as though Hamshaw Thomas’ Arcadian vision never existed at all. Yet, somehow, it invites its viewer to hang onto its entangling threads of meaning: is it wallpaper? Is it Rorschach? Is it photograph? Is it reflections? Is it real? In a way we grab onto it as an example of a transcended Nirvana, a suspension of being in which we might achieve some kind of deliverance. Yet, somehow, with its nostalgic Arcadian view it seems to be representing a different kind of loss. To show us something which has never existed at all, causes the viewer to realise that it hasn’t. We cannot miss that which we do not know – and in seeing it, we miss it keenly. The work becomes a hall of mirrors, bouncing refracting and reflecting cultural, historical, and social interpretations – was it ever like this at all?


What it comes down to is that the present moment, frozen forever in the work, has become past moment. The swan, inevitably, swam on. The ripples altered. The lake was still. Wind caught the surrounding trees and eventually in time the leaves withered and fell, scattering themselves over the water as ash, only to be reformed as bud, as new leaf, to wither and fall again in the cycle.  The moment swan depicts is therefore always already lost, and further to this that means that Arcadian notions of place are always already lost. We are always mourning that which never really was.


You can find more of Hugh’s work on his website here.

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