Is it possible to eradicate our conditioned response to ‘pose’ in front of the camera? Can you capture through photography or video the shift in ‘conscious experience’ frequently described in meditation, prayer, yoga, or devotional song? These are just some of the questions that were posed in Come Back To Where You Are, a collection of video and photography by East Midlands based artist Michelle Walsh.
The resulting exhibition turned the Mezzanine Gallery at New Art Exchange, Nottingham, into a spiritual, reflective and cathartic space. The room was painted black and a spotlight-sized light shone onto each subject’s face from above. They looked angelic, and it gave each an other-worldly quality . You felt like you had to be silent or at least whisper as you came face to face, literally, with the 12 faces captured after meditating, doing yoga, singing devotional Bhajans or contemplating on spiritual themes such as love. I wondered for quite a while why such reverence resulted from these portraits when they were not in any way presented as religious iconography. Why had I found the space and 12 pairs of eyes staring at me in a black room so calming? The more I looked at the images, the more I realised that for me, these weren’t captured faces that presented questions of ‘who is this person?’ as most portraits do. These were people completely detached from their body as they contemplated an abstract thought. A split in body and soul – an undeniably ethereal idea.
For this collection, Michelle Walsh engaged 60 local people already involved in contemplative practice and photographed them directly after meditation, prayer, yoga, or devotional song. The underlying question throughout the project, according to Michelle, was if the shift in ‘conscious experience’, frequently described as a result of such contemplative practices, could be rendered visible in a photograph. The project also asked if it was possible to eradicate conditioned responses to ‘pose’ and project ourselves outwardly to the camera – an increasing apparent habit in the current era of Facebook and other social media outlets.
Michelle Walsh said all subjects featured in the exhibition, which addresses contemporary portraiture at the point where neuroscience intersects with Eastern philosophy, engaged with the camera in a totally different way to what they were used to.
“They stood with eyes closed in front of the camera and reconnected to the heart of the particular practice they had just engaged in. When they felt present and centred, able to maintain their attention focused inward rather than projected out to the camera, they would open their eyes and look at the lens. Once their eyes were opened I captured their portrait instantaneously,” she said.
The 12 photographic portraits were also complimented with video works documenting two Buddhist monks sinking into meditation. Moving beyond still photography, Michelle said, the piece intends to reveal the process before the ‘constructed self’ is dissolved through contemplative practice, and the moments that follow.
“There is an enduring idea in portraiture practice that a good portrait somehow captures the ‘essential self’ of the person depicted and this idea persists despite the fact that contemporary neuroscience, postmodernist thought as well as most ancient and contemporary eastern philosophy, all support the view that this notion of an ‘essential self’ is a fallacy. If we consider the fact that there is no enduring self, no ‘I’ as we understand it and no cohesive whole then suddenly we are on fascinating ground.”
Michelle Walsh is a photography and video installation artists based in the East Midlands of the UK. Her interests are in contemporary portraiture, influenced by psychology and consciousness studies as well as the exploration of photography as a contemplative art form.