She was pushing a toy spider across the floor. Her parents and another couple, watching her play. Her proud father asked suddenly: “How many legs does the spider have?“ She ignored him, absorbed in her world. “How many legs does the spider have?“ he tried again. The answer came as quick as a flash: “Two for each person in this room“. The time was 1995 Hong Kong, and she was two and a half years old.
Gourlay Grant is a 19 year old BA Photography student in Falmouth and her first solo exhibition spanning a range of photographic works opened last week in the POSK Gallery. There wasn’t a private view. It is, “A personal look into the artist’s Asperger’s Syndrome and her own problems with eye contact, a reflection on the mind and Autism Spectrum Disorders“.
On the far wall of the gallery, there is a series of large scale, close-up images of faces focusing closely on eyes, some juxtapositioned on each other, merging features most of which I find intruiging, mesmerizingly threatening and atracting the same time. I am instinctively trying to find the story behind them, since I am convincted there is one, trying to understand, what the eyes say, who is the person behind them, what are they feeling. Eyes are the windows of your soul, aren’t they?
“I have been told“, Gourlay Grant says “that as soon as we meet a person, we make judgments about them and we can usually tell whether they are happy, angry or sad and respond accordingly. I do not have this ability and I find it very difficult to understand facial expression. Largely, because of eyes; I do not want to look at them and I do not want them to look at me. The eyes are so personal, so intrusive. I can’t stand that sort of connection with someone“.
On the opposite wall there is a series of black and white images of inkblots, that instantly evoke the idea of a brain, the artist based the idea on Rorschach inkblot test. Blackish grey inkblot brains, bigger, smaller, with different markings, gaps due to the trauma of an accidental splash on the paper, repaired by the surgery of a scan, and spreading, growing new patterns, breathing. There is one image, the deadened, black part at the bottom providing a contrast to the new, intricate, three dimensional growth, like a supernova star just emerging and on top of it, a network of new, sympathetic nerves that looks like trees, seaweed, neurons reaching for the membrane of a forming cerebral universe around them. Ink blots? More like an incredibly poetic visual metaphors for the irreplacable organ of a human body.
“Poetry never made any sense to me at all. Everything is always hidden. I take things literally. Somebody once showed me a poem about a broken mirror, trying to explain the meaning behind it. All I saw was a broken mirror, because that’s what it described. I don’t understand why people don’t say what they mean. It would be so much easier..
I often simplify my subject, like the inkblots were chosen for brains, because brains have no aesthetic difference. There is a simplicity I see in life. These images are representing a pattern of conciseness, some more broken then others, but all beautiful“.
I am looking at the hilarious, colour images of pink prawns in white bedrooms, sitting in white armchairs, presumably doing white makeup in front of the white mirrors, one emerging from the white toilet in a Salvatore Dali like fashion, playing havoc with our sense of scale, much like the old master did. Why prawns? And then, I am not surprised. She is from Hong Kong.
“They could be anything, but I chose prawns for the aesthetic of it, and because they are humorous.“
And the bedroom, the toilet, the all white home, which she photographed after meticulously painting the whole dolls house with white paint and sitting the pink prawns in the tiny armchairs? No Photoshop at that stage, she wants the real thing.
“A world so much like ours. A reflection of our society and lifestyle. Yet much more simplistic. There is no range in subject. All of the home: confined. All of the prawn: alone. A look into what normality is, this simplified look at the home enviroment should be normal, yet the singular, unfamiliar element of the prawn as the subject, makes it comical and surreal.“
What is normality? We are sitting with Gourlay Grant in a company of a normal company director and me, a normal, experienced incurably curious artist. He is explaining to her something about the stock market. She nods politely. “Oh, do you know it?“ he questions her. “No. I am aknowledging that I am listening to what you are saying“. We are drinking tea and discussing Venn Diagrams. Or rather, we are listening, she is explaining. She starts to patiently draw the diagrams on the piece of paper. “Logic was established to try to create the universal truth of mathematics. If the set of all sets that did not contain themselves included itself, then it would not be the set of all sets that did not contain themselves“. The patterns are drawn, cirles including sets of all sets of colours but they could be birds, they could be anything. “It’s simple“, she says. “So“, I persist, “What you are saying, is that we can’t have the answer, so the answer doesn’t exist?“
“No. The answer is, we don’t know“.
A few weeks ago, I had queued for two hours to see the exhibition in Wellcome Collection called “Brains“. It explored what humans have done to the brains in the cause of medical intervetion, scientific enquiry, cultural meaning and technological change, said the guidebook. I saw the the preserved brain of Helen H Gardner, women’s suffragist from 1925. X-rays, scans, neurosurgery, specimens, even mass murder in Nazi Germany in order to study, to try to understand, and yet, how much do we really know about the matter of a brain? And the answer is still, we know very little.
In 1989 the Rainman film was shown and became an instant ambassador of autism.
“I was born with a desire for simplicity...“
I watched her grow. It’s a real goldmine up there.