Alia Syed | Panopticon Letters (film still) 2010 – 13


” Inspired by an invitation to lecture at the Tate Modern, Syed’s research led to the eighteenth-century British social theorist Jeremy Bentham’s design for a penitentiary at the current location of the Tate Modern on the banks of the river. Syed’s experimental video, which is the mainstay of her practice, deftly combines her interest in storytelling with a compelling presentation of history and a visual narrative. At once haunting and alluring, this twenty minute display in the back gallery dislodges our perception of viewing, as we know it. Adhering to her belief in ‘contesting the philosophy of sight as the primary means of comprehending the world’, varied images of the water and horizon are spliced together and placed against flat backgrounds, false skies, and thick black strips that separate and interrupt our vision. Accompanying this visual dissonance is a combination of voice-overs that create a similar effect on our aural sensibility.”

s the video unravels the spectator must find a correlation between the visual, graphic, and aural registers. While images of traditional British landscape painting emerge through the disjointed pictures of the daily ebb and flow of the river and its surrounding environment, we hear a description of Jeremy Bentham’s plan for the ‘Panopticon’; a circular structure with the inspector’s house at the centre, which would have enabled him to watch all the inmates at the perimeter without being seen. In addition, a Hebrew and Jacobean English rendering of psalm 139 from the Book of Psalms is sung followed by Syed’s own dream-like narrative.

Her medium of film then becomes a coded system of representation as each register offers a different perspective. Our notion of realism as a continuous narrative is thwarted by her visual technique. Without deviating from her painterly study of color and light that provides some of the most bedazzling views of the Thames in jeweled diamond tones, pinks, hues of grey, and an array of greens and blues, tonal shifts are accomplished by combining digital and 16mm film that undermines the image and separates it from its natural mimetic nature.

Against this splendid panoply of the river that serves as a visual backdrop, the viewer is taken on a metaphorical journey via the often confounding commingling of Syed’s personal narrative and historical documents. The interplay of the force of nature with constant interjections of plans for a penitentiary and incarceration conjure unpleasant thoughts of control and being corralled. Psalm 139’s repetitive invocation of an omnipresent force contributes to this feeling of being overpowered. And by extension, Syed’s own place as a South Asian artist negotiating her way in a powerful, panoptic western institution is not lost on the viewer.

Understanding Syed’s combination of fact and fiction to explore the nature of language and communication is crucial to her practice. Our experience of viewing the artist’s mesmerizing images of the Thames is transformed by the seepage of sound, memory, and history.”

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