CRITICS CHOICE: Nicola Mann writes about Circuit Gallery artist James Rajotte‘s compelling photographs of East High School as part of our ongoing series.
by Nicola Mann
I have a recurring dream. An unfortunate discrepancy in my academic record means that I must return to the U.K. to resit my ‘A’ Level exams, the British equivalent of the North American high school SAT tests. Embalmed in the prickly wire wool of my regulation Black Watch tartan kilt and without a pencil or protractor to my name, I shuffle through endless labyrinthine corridors looking for an exam I’m already late for. Hearing activity behind a door, I decide to forgo my exam in favor of the chokingly dusty realms of Mr. Puddephatt’s wood shop. You’re just in time, Nicola. It’s your turn on the band saw. Remember to be careful. With these fateful last words I – of course – break the band saw blade, nearly decapitating a crowd of terrified teens in the process. Banned from the wood shop (again), I find myself dismissed to the corridor and out into my waking hours.
It is into this maze of dreamy dread to which I am transported when looking at James Rajotte’s History and Locker Room, two works that make up his East High School (2005) series. The strict frontal spatial symmetry of both works invites the viewer to ‘step in’ through the threshold of the dream window and into a 3D time machine of sorts. Once absorbed in this tardis we are projected along the portals of our memories and back under the glare of the hot stage lights of our school days. Describing the cinematic spatial mysteries in Blue Velvet, David Lynch says, “(they) provide a corridor where you can float out.” In an analogous sense, Rajotte’s familiar stage sets provide an opportunity for the viewer to “float out” and fill with the ghostly actors of times past. One of the strengths of Rajotte’s Circuit Gallery work is its ability to ‘float’ evocatively between photographic precision and narrative obscurity; his theatrical set pieces generously set the scene and we direct, projecting our own personal melodrama into the space. The stark corporeal absence belies a paradoxical feeling of ‘fullness’. After looking at Locker Room, just close your eyes and imagine the proverbial array of winners and losers in front of you: tubby kids crying salty tears over bloodied knees, as chuckling snub–nosed pretty girls look on and you, well, if you’re anything like me you were still wrapped up in your Black Watch tartan trying to get out of P.E., doing anything to evade the spotlight, to be anything but a lead actor. But as these illuminated images reveal, much like my kilt, memory has you in a vise. Cue dramatic music: there is no place to hide. For as much as many of us proclaim to have hated our school days, we still can’t really let go, can we? Drawn by morbid fascination we attempt to recapture this time in the bite-sized chunks provided by social networking sites like Facebook. Locker Room tempts the viewer along the yellow brick road between now and then, playfully teasing this bizarre desire to compartmentalize the teenage experience by forming faux friendships with people we can hardly remember.
With its shallow patchwork grid of wooden boxes and its title placed along its top like a status update, History makes a similar claim to the (im)portability of history, alluding to events that are passed, but which we nevertheless carry with us. Rajotte’s Pandora’s boxes reside in the collision between our irrational desire to archive the fading shadows of the past in the hopes of gaining access to a comprehensive truth, and the impossibility of doing so. As Rajotte’s fantastic psychogeography makes tantalizingly clear, it is only as we close the curtains on the theater of our dreams – when we decapitate past ghosts instead of ‘friending’ them – that temporal proximities collapse and we are finally cast in the lead role. Preserved in our midnight hours (and only in our midnight hours), our teenage triumphs and traumas, and the phantoms that provoked them, are as alive as they ever were.
Nicola Mann is a doctoral candidate in the Visual and Cultural Studies program at the University of Rochester. She holds a B.F.A. from the Surrey Institute of Art and Design and a M.A. in Painting from the Royal College of Art in London. Nicola’s current area of research involves a critical investigation of late 20th century popular visual representations of Chicago’s public housing.
See more photographic work by James Rajotte: