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ELOISE CALANDRE:
BELOW THE PHOTIC ZONE
Simon Gregg
Curator, Gippsland Art Gallery

There is something decidedly thrilling about being in
the dark. A nervous energy, perhaps, associated with
hiding under the covers as a child. It heightens the
senses to compensate for the loss of vision, and brings
other phenomena to our attention—the minutest
sound, a breath, a whisper.

It is these breaths and whispers that electrify
the work of Eloise Calandre. Her images of women in
interiors are held in permanent suspense, on a knife’s
edge, as we await either further illumination of their
obscured surrounds or the fall of absolute darkness.
Until then we cannot fully know their situations,
whether they be in play or peril, ecstasy or despair.
The most likely scenario is an indeterminate middle
ground, but the effect of the darkness pressing in from
all sides is to exaggerate and amplify the possibilities.

In Excursus, for example, in which a woman sits
eagerly forward, only a thin blade of light silhouetting
her face, hair and arms, we sense her attentiveness.
Like us, she appears to be straining her ears and eyes
for any clue as to her surroundings. She is a small
prone figure in an otherwise vast field of absolute
darkness; her plight one of seeming desperation
given these circumstances. She might simply be in
the throes of a sleepless night, but in the absence of
information to the contrary, our imaginations tend
to fill the void with the invisible monsters that have
woken her from slumber.

A quintessential feature of these works is their
wilful disparity with the progress of civilisation,
which is characterised by a constant move towards
light. As a species we evolved beyond the apparent
uncultured chaos of the ‘Dark Ages’ (though recent
research is proving that this period was anything
but) into the Renaissance and eventually the ‘Age
of Enlightenment’. This banishment of darkness is
consistent with the broad view espoused by religion—
especially Christianity—that darkness is the source
of evil, and that light represents all that is good
and Godly. In this context Calandre’s work presents
as a kind of cultural regression, in which darkness
reasserts itself. That her work is produced in high
fidelity and presented cinematically, using advanced
contemporary technology, suggests a new form of
image making that might be termed hi-fi archaism.
The images propose a documentary exploration of the
human unconscious, into the back rooms of the brain
where the lights are always off. In conducting this
tour of our uncharted psychological chasms Calandre
shines the light on aspects of our deepest, darkest
interiors.

One occasionally hears stories of fishermen who
have discovered deep sea creatures in their netting,
creatures that live below the photic zone of the ocean,
surviving without sunlight and with minimal food and
oxygen. They typically have a nightmarish quality
about them, brandishing large eyes and teeth and
strangely disproportionate bodies. It’s easy to forget
such creatures have a place in the world, yet they
are part of the delicate balance of life that keeps the
planet in check.

In the same way the fragile states of being
caught up in Calandre’s netting, and dragged into the
light, are an essential part of our own psychological
makeup. We just don’t always want to know they’re
there, but in confronting and addressing them we
become richer and more rounded personalities.
It’s how we deal with the lingering darkness and
primitivism that inhabits us all that defines us as
people.

As viewers we tend to hold our breath when
viewing Eloise Calandre’s work. This is a remarkable
effect, and a somewhat unsettling one. It’s as if we
don’t want to be noticed by the figures at play, or
that we detect and respect the precarious silence
and stillness. The works are filmic in execution and
presentation, but also invoke that moment before the
film actually starts. We are in the cinema, the curtains
have drawn, a narrow thread of light pierces the
veil of darkness, and the narrative begins. Calandre
locates that fractional moment between darkness and
light, between void and presence, that is perpetually
indeterminate, and raw with possibilities. We hold our
breath.

The consideration of gender brings a fascinating
dimension to this project. Are these innate insights,
for instance, that only a woman could detect? Where
are the men in these images? We tend to imagine them

in the shadows, a cause of either threat or excitement
for the women, or perhaps as banished altogether.
Perhaps these are events, emotions, and sensations
unique to women, where men must watch as outsiders.
Indeed, anyone looking at these images is made to feel
an outsider, or a voyeur. We are not meant to be part
of these proceedings, and yet we feel an accomplice by
our having witnessed this rapturous intimacy. Calandre
explains, ‘I shot them with the idea that they are
engaged in an activity which remains ambiguous to the
viewer, eg. it could be tenderness or aggression. The
viewer should feel invited to look and at the same time
pushed away by the image’.

The loss of detail reduces our capacity to gauge
these works in the usual way. We cannot be sure about
time, date or place, or whom they depict. So while
concerned with the most fleeting of moments and
sensations, they also speak of all moments and all
sensations. We bring our own baggage to fill the void
and to complete the picture—as such the images will
appear different to every onlooker. The artworks, in a
very real sense, hold a mirror to the audience in what
can be quite a sudden and shocking confrontation. By
deftly blurring the actual, virtual and psychological
realms we slip easily between what we are and what
we imagine ourselves to be; the experience of viewing
the works thus tends to be one of revelation rather
than affirmation.

The psychological effect of the works depicting
trees and scrub is, if anything, greater. Here the natural
surrounds quiver and vibrate under our scrutiny,
drawing in our gaze and holding it, unwilling or unable
to let it go. We find ourselves immersed in these thick
fields of foliage in a different way to the black images—
in the blacks we must imagine what we cannot see, in
the landscapes we see what we cannot imagine. They
are the seething, writhing tentacles of our interiority
made manifest, in forms that are both wondrous and
horrific. The daytime images—Inside, Still and Echo—
operate as soporific vignettes to the large nocturnals—
Noon, Convergence and Chrysalis—which were in fact
shot in natural daylight, using bright sunlit areas to
throw the rest of the image into shadow. Calandre says
of the duality between darkness and light:

I like the idea of considering light, and
where it comes from. Without light there
is dark. Light permits us to see and the
mechanics of photography exaggerate light
and dark. Photography lies to us with a
facade of reality. I like the idea that there
is darkness in bright sunlight, and how
this may change our perception of time
and place.

Anyone familiar with crime fiction would surely identify
these images of bushy scrub as prime locations for the
discovery of murdered bodies; indeed even the most
innocent analysis could only draw sinister conclusions.
But let us not forget that these shallow panoramas
are also breathtakingly beautiful, like Millais’ image of
Ophelia without the floating corpse. At once exquisite
Pre-Raphaelite visions and depictions of dour English
ruralism, they find a bridge between the ordinary and
the extraordinary.

While Calandre’s static images and, to an extent,
her so-called ‘moving image’ works are hauntingly
still, they are far from inactive. To the contrary, they
demand a great deal of participation from the onlooker
whose cognitive capacity for memory and imagination
is fired. But where memory and imagination might
ordinarily dwell in separate abodes, here their threads
are entangled and cannot be separated. To look at
these pictures is to encounter a liminal space where
recollection and invention become merged as one. The
effect is of disorientation and uncertainty, of looking
for familiarity where there is only fantasy.

A powerful undertow carries the many guises
of Calandre’s imagery down our streams of
consciousness. Sometimes we come up for air to catch
fragments of our disappearing world, but we spend
most of the time below that photic zone where the
strange monsters of the deep live. Approximating a
heightened sense of primitivism these images bring
us into proximity with the sprites that inhabit our
unconscious, pricking our passage through the here
and now with the alarming realisation of parallel,
subliminal lives.

A cataloguing-in-publication
entry for this title is available
from the National Library of
Australia.
ISBN 978-0-9873896-9-5 (pbk.)

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with support from the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria
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Gallery Patron John Leslie OBE