“What is it”, Sophy Rickett asks, “for one person to be looked at by another?”. Describing this as a central preoccupation in her work might seem surprising. Her photographs have never dramatised the exchange of looks between two people, and have never even contained more than one person. Usually, we see empty landscapes, or scenes which feature a single, isolated human figure.
How could this choice of subjects allow the artist to explore the experience of being looked at? Is it our own gaze as viewers that is being addressed? Rickett’s early series of night-time photographs ‘Pissing Women’ might invite this kind of interpretation. Women dressed in slick business suits were depicted peeing in City locations, standing upright like men. The pictures had a certain shock value and were widely reproduced. The viewer became a spectator to an intimate, private event, yet the posture and public display of the women seemed to undermine any voyeuristic position and return the objectifying gaze.
Yet the affront to the viewer’s position so evident in this series would swiftly disappear. Rickett’s subsequent work is less manifestly confrontational. No more pissing women. And no more direct questioning of the spectator’s act of viewing. But what we do find is something already implicit in these early photographs. Rather than staging representations of human acts of viewing, the motif that occurs throughout Rickett’s work is the beam of light. In ‘Pissing Women’, it takes the form of the jet of urine. In her later landscape series, we see a single source of light creating a line in a field at night. In her most recent video work, we see two films which feature a spotlight. A dancer moves into the beam of light, sometimes boldly, sometimes hesitantly, gravitating towards and then distancing herself from it, as if unsure of whether she wants to be seen.
This film, together with Rickett’s striking night-time field illuminations, have often been seen as narratives of isolation and loneliness. The solitary figures seem completely cast off from any kind of support. They are alone in a pool of light in the empty blackness of night. But Rickett insists that loneliness is not her main interest. The figures aren’t there to say anything about isolation. It is looking that matters, and more specifically, the special relation of looking to light.
As infants, we can resist being fed, touched and potty-trained, but how can we stop someone looking at us? The very fact that we can’t might give the experience of being looked at an invasive aspect. Beyond any benevolence, there is a threatening dimension. And this might invite a whole range of ways to try to divert the look, capture it, tame it or disarm it. It’s no accident that when figurative paintings are defaced, it is usually the eyes that are struck first.
Rickett explores this theme in her own very particular way. To be looked at is bound for her to the idea of illumination. And indeed, one of the first things that happened to the artist after her birth was nothing less than an illumination. Her body was lit and photographed, the images used in lectures for medical students on anatomical development in the infant. Lighting and looking are thus knotted up in her history, and, as Rickett says, her art is in part a way of exploring this basic question.
Is illumination the core of looking or can they be separated? Are looking and lighting the same? We see a range of responses to this in the artist’s work, together with a variety of ways of approaching the question. In the ‘Joyrider’ panoramas, single figures are caught by a car’s headlights on deserted roads. The viewer here shares the point of perspective of the driver, which is identified in turn with the parameters of the headlights. The source of light and the look are thus equated.
But in the ‘Untitled Landscape’ series, the source of light is never identified with the viewer. The car headlights here shine from the side of the image. They have been dissociated from the viewer’s perspective, as if the look and the line of light were fundamentally separated. Where commentators have tended to focus on the separation of the human figure here, we could see the key separation as that between the point of looking and that of illumination. The beam materialises the look, but what is so fascinating in Rickett’s exploration of these themes is how this materialisation becomes progressively distanced from the human eye as such. If light in the ‘Joyrider’ series was identified with looking, in her later work it becomes what sees us rather than what allows us to see.
In the powerful Rome series, Rickett presents a series of lush night-time images of the city, avoiding the usual highlights and sights. Her interest here, she says, was less the objects she chose to capture than their illumination. She chose trees, foliage, statuary, grass verges and fields, sometimes reminiscent of the haunted landscapes dear to Romanticism. She is drawn to those aspects of landscape that usually resist illumination or that seem trivial or unnoticed. The photographs bring out not only some neglected aspect of these scenes and objects but the process of illumination itself.
Her latest series of photographs involve the solitary trees found next to a motorway service station exit. Her illuminations invest them with a strange beauty. These typically overlooked, sad specimens take on a superb and fragile dignity as they are bathed in artificial light. It is difficult to ignore the very painterly quality of these images, the delicate, almost anatomical frames and flowers of the trees recalling Romantic painting and also the veins and nerves of anatomical illustration.
The trees that inhabit these new images are a logical progression from the earlier human figures. Although one may choose to focus on the expressivity of these figures, for Rickett “they are only there to help define light”. What matters to her is to “clarify the light, to refine it, to collect it, to trap it”. And don’t we see another example of this not just in the illumination but in the way the trees trap the light that has been focused on them? The thin trunks capture this light vertically on their surface, as if the line of light from the earlier field images has now moved into the subject matter of the composition itself.
The lines of car headlight in the field images have become vertical as opposed to horizontal. The small fluctuations along these lines evoke the graph-like display of a medical monitor, and equally, the struggle of film to capture light itself. Rickett has used a similar effect in works like her ‘Forest’ series, where the parallel, slim poplars evoke not simply the forest of the title but the anatomical arrays of nerve fibres, as well as the process of silvering central to traditional photography. The same image allows a convergence of all these motifs: anatomy, light and photographic process.
Rickett’s illuminations make us consider the actual process of the formation of an image. As well as the concern with the capture of light on film, her images explore the moments at which something appears out of nothing. “By shining a beam into night”, Rickett says, “I’m trying to give a focus onto nothingness. The trees fix the darkness, the void. They emerge from the void”. As she illuminates motorway verges, they emerge from their unnoticed void to burgeon into glorious yet fragile fields of colour. Daisy-filled fields come out of darkness, their colour kept sharply separate from the blackness of the background sky like some lunar landscape.
The monochrome of these backgrounds often reminds us of colour field painting, but Rickett points out that what matters to her here is the tension between the areas of her compositions, and especially the lines that divide and demarcate. These lines can be found most clearly in the beams of light themselves so ubiquitous in her work, and also the lines of light that divide foreground and background created by her illumination techniques. If we returned to the artist’s question of what it means for one person to look at another, we could ask if these lines are those of light or of sight?
Rickett sometimes thinks of a particular moment in her history when she is taking photographs. It was the only time when she saw her father cry. The occasion was his mother’s funeral, and he had just read the line from the psalms; “And a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight”. What is there, she wondered, beyond the horizon line? And is it light that creates the limit of our sight?