The Optical and its Limits: A Reflection

Milena Michalski, Chelsea MA Fine Art student, reflects on her Chelsea College of Arts Residency, the result of winning The Arts Club Aldeburgh Beach bursary, 1-6 April 2014.

‘From the moment I thought about applying for this residency, the South Beach Lookout and its surroundings have inspired me to think and create in new ways. The character of the tower and the surrounding landscape, combined with the incredible generosity of spirit and practical support of Caroline Wiseman and the Arts Club, create an environment where ideas seem to generate themselves, and the artist’s practice naturally opens up. I know that the wonderful experience of this residency will continue to resonate and be reflected in my future work in ways I cannot even imagine yet.’

The Residency

‘My aim for this residency was to explore and experiment with ideas and materials, and to relate to the Lookout and its surroundings. A key idea was to use film, paper, perspex and other substrates as material, as sculptural objects- not merely as carriers of image- to investigate the haptic as well as the optic.

‘During my residency I inhabited the whole of the Lookout at various points, to try out different ideas. I used the top floor of the tower for contemplation and for photography, and ultimately, in one of my exhibition prints. The middle section was used for projection of 35mm slide transparencies, and I opened it up to the public on one day, encouraging children, visiting artists and the general public to create their own painted or collaged slides downstairs. These were then projected upstairs in a makeshift mini cinema. The lowest level, originally the boathouse, was my main ‘studio’ for the week; sometimes I opened the doors wide, allowing the curious public to enter, at other times I shut myself in, drew the blinds, excluding the outside world, and immersed myself in the Lookout and my work.

‘One piece directly representing the Lookout is a transparent, plexiglass version of the tower and the boathouse, which I filmed in various locations and set-ups: on the beach in sunlight; inside the darkened tower, illuminated from within, with pieces of translucent acetate for visitors to post inside; with Super 8 film projected on to it, and finally exhibited with a silhouette figure of the artist in the tower.

‘Other pieces are inspired by the intriguing, spiral, ironwork staircase on the outside of the Lookout. One is a series of black and white prints of fragments of the stairs; another is a lightbox (accompanied by a Lookout balcony lightbox), and perhaps the one which generated the most interest and which will form part of the Lookout archive, is a multi-media box-format, with layers of images of the spiral, pebbles from the beach and fragments of painted perspex.

‘Another series of prints, exhibited on the doors and walls, combines images from the Lookout with photographs I took at the site of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Germany. In these prints the two towers “talk” to each other and “look” at each other. Visually, the images overlap and merge, whereas ideologically they represent diametrically opposed ideas relating to lookouts — as places of protection or of ominous surveillance, of looking out and looking in, and in terms of the residency, of looking within oneself and re-assessing one’s own artistic practice, as well as being a place to bring people in to look at the work.

‘At the end of the week I transformed the boathouse into an exhibition space, and many wonderful people came and shared fish and chips on the beach, took part in the slide-making activity and engaged with my work. At night I projected one of my works on to the side of the Lookout, and passers-by stopped to gaze at it.

‘During my residency I filmed the Lookout, the sea and the beach at various times of day and night, and in different atmospheric conditions, using both digital video and Super 8 film. This raw material needs time to be processed, literally and metaphorically, and I look forward to beginning this new chapter of post-residency work, which will allow me to re-visit the Lookout and share it with others, from afar.’

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