Christine Sullivan Narcissus 1999

Artwork details

Artist
Title
Narcissus
Date 1999
Medium 2 photographs, colour, on paper mounted onto aluminium
Dimensions Image: 1500 x 1840 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Presented by the artist 2002
Reference
P20229
Not on display

Summary

This work was the result of a commission undertaken by the artist during the transformation of the former Bankside Power Station into Tate Modern. For sixteen months between October 1998 and February 2000 Sullivan had access to the changing site as builders worked towards realising the vision of architects Herzog & de Meuron. She has described the intention of her project, saying, ‘I chose to utilize the site’s ad hoc constructions as a means to refer to art practices and locations of art production, such as alternative art spaces and industrial studio spaces’ (correspondence with the artist, 1 June 2004). This photograph forms the right panel of a diptych with Echo, 1999 (Tate P78594), although the artist has specified that the works may also be shown separately. Both images were produced in an edition of five, and depict the spaces adjacent to the undeveloped oil tanks underneath the garden to the south of the building.

The photographs were shot consecutively with very long exposures using available light. Sullivan has described how she became fascinated by the site, saying, ‘I chose to photograph in the area of the oil tanks initially out of curiosity and then out of obsession. The area of the oil tanks has a very particular poetic quality ... it is a place where the mythological is physically real’ (correspondence with the artist, 18 November 2003). Sullivan has suggested parallels between the oil tanks and the mysterious and transformative region known as the Zone in the film Stalker, 1979 by Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-86) where wanderers are forced to confront their true selves.

The centre of the composition of Narcissus is dominated by a large white electric strip light, positioned vertically next to a concrete pillar. Despite its obviously temporary positioning, the light is on and gives off a cold white glow. In the foreground is a pool of water, the result of flooding from the Thames. A piece of metal juts out from the dark surface of the water, which reflects the wall above. A broad section of this wall is bathed in warm orange light, contrasting with the cool grey-green of the areas in shadow. A hole cut through the wall on the bottom right of the image provides a visual echo to the hole in the wall in the companion photograph. In the darker recesses of the room, there are cables stretching into an upper space.

The artist has spoken about how photographing the building during construction gave her access to startling configurations of objects left by the builders or remnants of the building’s previous life as a power station. She has written, ‘When photographed, the utilitarian machinery and materials ... appeared to transcend their functionality and appear as art objects’ (Sullivan, p.27). In this image, the neon tube light evokes the minimal sculptures of Dan Flavin (1933-96; see The Diagonal of May 25, 1963, 1963, Tate L02190). Sullivan had Flavin in mind when making this work; she has said, ‘For me one of the most important features of the image is that the fluorescent strip is bound to the column by chains ... there’s a nice poetic to that’ (correspondence with the artist, 1 June 2004).

The pool of water directly references the myth referred to in the work’s title. After spurning the advances of a number of besotted suitors including Echo, the beautiful youth Narcissus, catching sight of his reflection in a stream, becomes enthralled with his own image. Unable to tear himself away from his own reflection, he wastes away, only to be transformed into a flower. The metamorphosis in the myth can be seen as an analogy of Bankside’s conversion from power station to art gallery.

Further reading:
Christine Sullivan, ‘The Transfer of Power’, tate: the art magazine, no.21, 2000, pp.26-31, reproduced p.27 in colour.

Rachel Taylor
November 2003
Revised June 2004

About this artwork