by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Catherine Yass: Highrise

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On a windy Saturday morning last June, Didier Pasquette stepped off the roof of a tower block at Red Road in the North of Glasgow on to a high wire some ninety metres above the ground, and began to walk towards his target, the next block of flats on the estate.

With a long pole to aid his balance, but none of the safe­guards you might expect - no net to catch him, no harness to hold him - Pasquette took tentative, oddly graceful steps into the void between the two buildings, watched by a small band of local residents.

The skywalker wasn’t taking this un­con­ven­tion­al stroll to add to his list of record-breaking tightrope stunts - in the past he’s crossed the Thames, 30 metres above the flowing river, and walked the length of the pitch at the Stade de France in Paris - but at the behest of artist Catherine Yass.

For Yass, Pasquette’s daredevil passage between the towers of Peter­shill Drive marked the real­isa­tion of a work she has spent years de­vel­op­ing, revising and bringing into being.

‘I first had the idea for this work, or some kind high wire work, in 2002,’ she explains, ‘but I never really thought it would be possible. So, for a long time, it was a dream about a dream: I was dreaming about this walk through the air, which is something people do dream about, and is a wonderful, fant­ast­ic­al thought.’

That flight of fancy has come to fruition in the form of High Wire, a four screen video piece recording Pasquette’s walk with ac­com­pa­ny­ing pho­to­graphs, which premiered last night at the CCA, a cen­trepie­ce of the Glasgow In­ter­n­a­tion­al festival of visual art.

But why film a tightrope walk, and why film it here in Glasgow?

High Wire is the latest in a strand of lens-based works by Yass that focus on the built en­vir­on­ment. All de­cept­ively simple, each one of these brief filmed pieces is a close ex­am­in­a­tion of a single site, with roots in Yass’ ongoing in­vest­ig­a­tion into the real-world outcomes of Utopian idealism, often tempered by personal concerns. For the 2002 piece Descent, which earned Yass a Turner Prize nom­in­a­tion, the artist slowly lowered a crane-mounted camera through a fog-bound Canary Wharf con­struc­tion site. Wall traced the contours of the barrier between Israel and Palestine in un­for­giv­ing close-up, and, most recently, Yass trained her lens on the passage of a ship through the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river, an en­gin­eer­ing marvel that displaced millions of Chinese citizens, for Lock.

‘I’m looking for concrete man­i­fest­a­tions in the world for things that are very much in­tan­gible,’ Yass explains, ‘You’d hardly say that Canary Wharf was built from some great Utopian ideal, but it was built on an ideal of cap­it­al­ism, the wall in Israel was built as a result of a movement which had once been idealist, and in China at the moment there is this great cel­e­b­ra­tion of capital, and that’s become their Utopia, as far as I un­der­stand it.’

The med­it­at­ive, almost elegiac quality of Yass’ film in­stal­l­a­tions masks, then, a dis­t­inc­tly am­bi­val­ent view of the struc­tures she films. They are also more than dry essays on the re­la­tion­ship between man and his sur­roun­d­ings. ‘I wouldn’t have done any of them if there wasn’t a strong personal element,’ Yass admits, ‘Wall, for example, had a lot to do with thinking about how your own mind can get blocked up, how you can create barriers in your own mind, and not think ima­gin­at­ively around the corners of things.’

These two sources of in­spir­a­tion - the public and socio-political matched with the private and personal - dovetail neatly in High Wire, with the fantasy of walking in the air allied to what Yass calls the ‘social dreams’ expressed in the high-rise ar­chi­tec­ture of the Red Road de­vel­op­ment. ‘I was thinking about dreams and fantasies and what happens when we try to put them into reality,’ she says, ‘In this case, that was with respect to Modernism and Modernist ar­chi­tec­ture - these towers were maybe built with a sense of Utopia, and later people began to see the problems with them - and the dream of walking through the air. Then there’s the re­la­tion­ship between that dream which might be very personal, and a social dream.’

For those who lack a head for heights, viewing High Wire might well be less a dream, more a nightmare. The four projected loops - three track Pasquette’s progress from different angles, the fourth is a view from the skywalker’s head-mounted camera - combine to form a ver­ti­gin­ous vista that is little short of ter­ri­fy­ing.

Watching it on a small computer monitor in Yass’ London studio, I found myself hanging on to the arms of my chair as if my life, or Pasquette’s, depended on it - blown up to three by four metre pro­jec­tions, High Wire ought really to come with a health warning.

And then, well, there’s a twist. Something happens, something which Yass has asked me not to reveal, pre­fer­ring that visitors to the in­stal­l­a­tion find out for them­selves. Suffice it to say that, while Pasquette’s walk in the sky did not - thank goodness - end in tragedy, nor was it an un­qu­al­i­fied success. ‘My heart,’ says Yass of this un­ex­pec­ted turn of events, ‘was in my mouth.’

This un­fore­seen incident flags up something of a shift in Yass’ practice. For, while High Rise follows the precedent set by earlier pieces in terms of its central themes, it is the first time the artist has added a human actor to her work; where before her moving cameras were always precisely con­strained, attached to cranes, tracks, and, in one case, a remote control aeroplane.

‘In all of these works, the camera has become the eye, and in that respect this one is no different,’ Yass says, ‘But what happened when we actually did it - what made it in­ter­est­ing in the end, what made it the project what it is - happened because the camera was on a person and not a machine.’

That human element re­sur­faces in the pho­to­graphs that complete the High Wire in­stal­l­a­tion. Yass has enlarged negative prints of the Red Road blocks and mounted them on light boxes, having pain­s­tak­ingly scratched the surface of her original negatives, marking out the lines of the high wire rope. As with the restraint shown in the filmed work, an ap­par­ently simple gesture stands in for a densely layered set of concerns.

‘If you’re printing a negative,’ Yass says, ‘It always has the potential to become something other than itself. It’s on the way somewhere, rather than being something very final. We think of pho­to­graphy as in­dex­ic­ally recording something, but you can think of it as a kind of drawing - Fox Talbot called pho­to­graphy the ‘pencil of nature’ - so I was in­ter­es­ted in linking drawing and pho­to­graphy, and was thinking about ar­chi­tects plans, where again we have that tran­s­form­a­tion from one thing to another.’

In the end, tran­s­form­a­tion might be the key to un­der­stand­ing the work of Catherine Yass: she has tran­s­formed a private dream into a public spectacle, and tran­s­formed the spectacle into a work that, ul­ti­m­ately, seeks to transform our un­der­stand­ing of the struc­tures that surround us.

This feature was first published in The Herald in March , 2008.