Introductory text by Chris Fite-Wassilak
After several years and no small amount of displacements, shards of glass still blink up and shine out from the soil. Digging up the sprawling root system of a dead sycamore tree at the end of the garden, one part of it was clutched around countless small, shattered squares of glass. I could only guess them as the remnants of a greenhouse from some decades earlier, long since collapsed and overlayed with bramble, broken bath tiles, and the moulded washing machine that we’d cleared away. A new structure stands where the greenhouse must have been, but I often imagine the earlier one as a sort of ghost housed within it, a shadow double from the past. Occasionally, sweet peas and other odd plants peek through the grass, living holdovers from this previous gardener.
Niamh O’Malley’s Glasshouse (2014) is a short film that is also quietly haunted. Panning slowly over framed panes of glass, it’s apparent that we’re looking at, and through, the cracked and stained remains of a greenhouse. Just beyond, young trees and overgrown grasses sway in the breeze, while a few low fenceposts and a hedgerow preside over a small road that runs parallel. In solemn black and white, that is what we see in the silent film, with a pace that is unaffectedly meditative and intently observant.
Though it’s two portals, the side-by-side visions onto the sliding glass house with their sly pairings and casual doublings, might tug us along a bit further. I’ve seen the film in different contexts – once, several years ago, installed as two flat-screen televisions mounted on a low wall, as if you were somehow looking out a set of train windows onto the landscape going by. The gap between the two screens became an active object, It was what held the two separate screens together, as the brain keeps trying to link these two separate images – which, of course, is what it does in assembling and integrating images fed from two eyes. Before, Glasshouse felt more innocent, an earnest look at looking: how two eyes might perceive the world and try and piece it back together, the silent impossibility of stereoscopic vision that is habitually dared.
Here, it’s reconfigured for the pandemic age, placed online within a smaller, single screen that is never singular: another tab among many, another frame within a frame. The space between the two images becomes part of the off-black background seen through a surface flecked with dust. The film’s hesitant window-gazing seems to fit with a lockdown unease; but more than that, I notice different things, and literally see it differently. Now, when the micro-attentions of computer and phone inter-frame awareness is at a global high, the film seems more pointed, more insistent on the illusion and more determined in exposing it.
At several points in Jean-Luc Godard’s 3D film Goodbye to Language (2014), the two parallel cameras that create the stereoscopic three-dimensional effect part ways. The image that our brain has been stitching together is pulled apart, in a moment that is disorienting and a bit dizzying, to become more nakedly what it already was: two separate, overlapping pictures. O’Malley crosses the same rift more subtly, where at times the even scroll of one of the portals will stop; but what I hadn’t noticed before, and what this condensed, more private version of Glasshouse seems to bring to the fore, is the loop’s folds and seams: the points where, ever so slowly, the plants nodding in the wind will still and then stop. And here, while one portal is artificially holding its breath, we slide gently further, and begin again. At this point, the gesture doesn’t feel so much one of wonder at the leaps of vision, but evenly pragmatic. That stereoscopic vision is itself an impossible return to life. That a return to outside might mean seeing things for what they are, a reality tinged and filtered through doubled layers of unreality.
I think I’d always imagined myself as someone who would happily tend to vegetables, to grow my own cucumbers and the like. So when lockdown hit, a little corner planter was set up with chard, beans, you know. And then once it was there, I couldn’t bear to look at it. Seeing it only reminded me of the desires to be self-sufficient, and the attendant urban delusions of impossible independence. Lockdown relieved me of those delusions; I am not a gardener. But I still live with the overlaid image of the previous garden, and its occasional sharp insistence into the present. In Glasshouse, the overlays are there in parallel, two portals that give overlapping visions of the same space, that we try to assemble in a crossfade without a crossfade. But they remain separate: the haunted world is there for us to see, the impossible perception of life going past.