When I first saw Matt Ducklo’s photographs of Memphis at Launch F18 Gallery, I didn’t immediately connect them with my own experience of that city, which I visited over ten years ago. Although Ducklo is originally from Memphis, he had lived in New York for a long time before returning to his home town. His black and white photographs shot over the period of five years on numerous night drives through Memphis convey a bizarre mixture of familiarity and outlandishness. A large number of them show a single church van parked inside a narrow fence enclosure in the middle of an otherwise empty parking lot, the van’s white body glowing eerily under the streetlights. The pictures are shot in various neighborhoods, and while the shapes of the parking lots and enclosures, the makes of the vans and the names of the churches printed on their sides, differ from one another, the images are so alike that seeing them together is both amusing and slightly alarming. Other photographs show an empty bus stop, a large square building of a city jail, a bush at the side of a highway’s concrete wall, or a corner of a building with its doors locked, and a single plastic chair left behind on the lawn. The austere beauty of these images, the rigorous geometry of the compositions, the intense contrasts of light and dark, seem to confer some special significance on their mundane subject matter. While I was trying to put it in words, I suddenly remembered my own night walk through Memphis in 2002.
It was my first visit to America, and Memphis was my first stop. I had received a grant to attend a workshop on geophysical exploration methods in Santa Fe, but instead of flying directly to New Mexico, I took a detour to visit a friend in Tennessee. The friend had come to the States a year before, overstayed his visa, tried his luck in a few different cities and ended up in Memphis. At the time of my trip he was working as a busboy at a local hotel and shared an apartment with several other illegals from the former Soviet Union. He was the only person I knew in the whole country – or for that matter, on the whole continent – and it seemed a good enough reason to visit. My hosts – a happy bunch of Russian and Uzbek men in their twenties (their exact number uncertain, as someone was always leaving, and someone else moving in) – lived out of their suitcases in a sparsely furnished apartment, working nights and odd hours at hotels and supermarkets, spending their free time reveling in the luxuries of American life: food and movies. They gave me a mattress to sleep on in one of the unoccupied bedrooms, and took me on a tour of a nearest Walmart and a large food supermarket (I was duly impressed). The next evening we went to a block party somewhere in downtown Memphis. Jostling in a half-drunken crowd in the middle of the street in a near-tropical weather, jet lagged and light headed with a severe cultural shock, I felt strangely detached from my own self, as if the experience was not mine, but another person’s. And it became even stranger later that night, when I discovered that I lost my ride home and all my companions except a shy young man who had recently arrived from rural Uzbekistan, and the two of us were stranded in a strange city with only ten dollars in cash between us, no phone, and our combined English vocabulary of less than a hundred words. Luckily, my companion had been in this part of the city before, and possessed a good spatial memory. For the rest of that night we were walking together along the empty night streets, passing through brightly lit spots under the streetlights and the pockets of darkness between them, a rare car swooshing swiftly by, and sometimes a police car slowing down as it approached us, and then speeding up again. We met groups of young men, some white, some black, who looked at us keenly, and sometimes nodded, or said hello; I was impressed by American friendliness. We walked for about four hours, and when we approached our neighborhood, it was nearly dawn, and some of the lawn sprinklers started to go on. The experience was profoundly unsettling, but there was a strange softness to it, a deep dark southern stillness. While I couldn’t recall any of the views from Ducklo’s photographs, I recognized their mood, the unnerving mixture of stillness and tension. It seemed there was some important link between the photographs and my memory apart from the mere coincidence of their originating in Memphis.
While still in New York, Ducklo produced a photographic series documenting the encounters between blind people and the famous works of art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In one striking image, the tall upright statue of Thutmose III hides the person almost entirely from view, leaving visible only her thin arms hugging the stone. There seems to be a strange contradiction in these photographs. We see in them what the blind cannot see: their own bodies, in full or in part, the feeling, searching gestures of their hands, the artworks they touch. But even though we see so much, the true content of the photographs – the experience of art by a blind person – is invisible: it cannot be revealed, it can only be pointed at it. This experience cannot be shared not just because it’s only the blind people’s privilege to touch the art at the Metropolitan, but because vision defines our perception in a radically different way. The photographs reveal the rift between those who see and those who see only through touch, the mental and psychological distance that defies physical proximity. Although they show no people, Ducklo’s photographs of night scenes in Memphis convey a similar sense of estrangement. They appear to chart the invisible boundaries separating different kinds of existence – being awake or asleep, secure or unprotected, roaming or confined. To Ducklo (as to me on my only visit to the city), night time Memphis is a scene where different ways of living would meet briefly and pass by each other, without touching.
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Writing by Tatiana Istomina