Dark Matter: David Penny’s Fragments, Monoliths, Portals

Laura Guy, 2015



Matter figures centrally in David Penny’s Fragments, Monoliths, Portals. It is palpably there. The material that appears to fill up his photographs takes the form of singular objects. No two of these objects are alike. Yet as the title of the work suggests, they simultaneously appear to be isolated from larger structures. These fragments are often architectural in character or else vaguely recognisable as the parts of other things. They are thus singular and yet, entirely constituted by their ordinariness, they are also generic. Perhaps we might best refer to these forms, which slip between the commonplace and something more ambiguous, as stuff.

In Fragments, Monoliths, Portals, images of found objects produce reflections of their surrounding environments or else fade into their backgrounds. The effect registers as something of a mise en abyme. The photographs of objects that curve in their frames are legible themselves as objects. When they were first exhibited at the Holden Gallery, Manchester, the photographs were not displayed in linear series but rather hung on the walls in clusters. These compositions muddled with the institutional architecture of an old art school including statues, ornate brickwork, pipes and light switches. The objects within the photographs seemingly multiplied as pictures of things were placed alongside the things in the space.

How do we think of the stuff that threatens to spill out of the photographs in relation to material culture, a discipline that has taught us to look, not toward the generic but rather, to the specific ways in which objects are bound up in our lives? Formally the objects in Penny’s photographs are ones that speak to photography. A circular optic calls to mind the apparatus of the camera whilst a flat white form dissolves into the surface of the print. A crumpled backdrop is suggestive of the studio space. Objecthood is thus delineated within a process that is specifically photographic. Returning to objectivity in or – perhaps more accurately – through the photograph, Penny draws our attention to the debates that engage with the ontology of the medium.

But what is this idea of photography that the images are getting at? Are they about photography ‘in itself’, as the critic Douglas Crimp once put it? Writing on the method of double printing used by Degas, which registers the negative-positive process of photography, Crimp expressed the idea of modernist self-reflectivity in which a specifically photographic process was manifested within the print itself. Here an image becomes a metaphor for photography. It was something like this ‘preposterous’, (as Crimp would say it later) idea that first drew me to Penny’s work. Along similar lines, Patrick Henry once recalled the early experiments of photographic history in an essay on Penny’s work. There he wrote that ‘perceiving that photography has consumed too much of the world, Penny has decided to empty it out and start again’. But even if we could empty photography out, what would be the point? I think the images produce something altogether messier. They seem not to empty photography out, but rather to feel its fullness.

The dark matter pictured in Fragments, Monoliths, Portals has fallen from the edges of our material existence. It is the stuff found wasting on the peripheries. Our primary relation to objects is as consumers. Junk is the logical conclusion of the commodity. In Penny’s images, junk objects that are found elsewhere are recycled. Detached from the purposes and systems they once served, they generate new meanings as they take on apparently autonomous lives. Yet the images appear parasitic as they cling to frames that are as though bodies that sustain them. We often think of the forms that, through photography, are allowed to travel. But what of the bodies that enable the parasitic form of the image to come into the world? In Fragments, Monoliths, Portals it is not the photographs that work to place the objects but rather objecthood that gives life to the images. Carried by their excessive materiality, Penny’s images do not seem to speak about photography in itself but rather to the complex ways in which images exist in the world. In turn, it is here through photography that we can come to think of how objects are effective in our lives as they frame, mediate, or, in other words, perform as though as lenses.


Laura Guy is Laura Guy a lecturer based between the School of Fine Art and School of Design at Glasgow School of Art and a Postdoctoral Researcher at Edinburgh School of Art,