Thursday, 22 March 2012


(c) Alison Jacques Gallery
We are used to portraits of remarkable people: kings, scientists, actors, politicians. They sit or stand still. High Wire is a portrait of a remarkable man - in action. Yass comments 'a portrait can make you feel quite secure. It says 'I'm here and you're there'. If you suddenly take that person away and leave an empty gap, all you're left with is a hole to fall into'.

In 2008 Catherine Yass persuaded  Didier Pasquette, the French high wire walker, to try to walk between two spectacularly tall 1960s tower blocks in Glasgow. You can see the remarkable events which followed in a perfect setting: three giant screens (3.6m x 4.8m) in a self contained room, dimly lit, octagonal, with a ravishing but reassuringly solid mosaic floor. It's the room where Mark Wallinger's unforgettable video Threshold to the Kingdom (Blog 53) was shown last year.

Alas, a still image can do little to convey the visceral experience of watching High Wire, which I did, my back pressed to the wall, keeping vertigo at bay. The cameras toss you around to follow Pasquette's progress from four different angles, including one from a small camera mounted on his helmet. (His helmet cannot be there for Health and Safety reasons...). He's walking in the air above an estate of  tall grey slabs, an adventurous social housing experiment built with indoor baths, central heating and aspirations of a better life for everyone.

Pasquette's walk, like the estate, does not turn out quite as was expected. He starts by walking fast, with confidence, then about half way across he wobbles and falters. 'Most people on the ground thought it was a test run and weren't alarmed', says Yass, ' but I heard him shouting so I knew he was worried. It was an awful moment'. He begins to retrace his steps, without looking backwards. All his skill is focused on aborting the project.

I learnt afterwards from the notes that high winds - heard with alarming veracity on the soundtrack - made Pasquette's walk too dangerous. He commented, 'It was a very short stroll. And we didn't have time to do it again. But that's life.'
(c) the artist
Tower blocks, alas, are now associated with fractured families, faceless neighbours, social unrest and poverty. Yass comments,' I was interested not only in the dream of walking in the air, but also a sort of broader, wider social dream. I was thinking about Utopias or dreams of better societies...'

Yass's work is rooted in the camera which we rely upon as an impartial recording instrument. But she can move the viewer into a strange place between reality and fantasy. She was shortlisted for the Turner prize in 2002. Lizzey Carey-Thomas, writing about her  in the Tate's 2002 book on the Turner, talks of 'a gap...a space always present at the centre...a space left vacant into which viewers con project their fears, fantasies, desires'.

There are some lovely images of her work on the internet.
Turner Prize 2002 book ISBN 1 85437 465 6

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