Jason Oddy

An Epistemology of Space

Craig Burnett

Fastened to a greying, scruffy wall, a few electric fixtures. Although the subject matter is mundane, even drab – with three temporary devices, and the trace of a torn-off fourth, fixed haphazardly to an anonymous wall – the composition of the photograph has a neo-classical repose. Whoever installed these fixtures attempted, in some modest way, to bring a structural solidity to the ephemeral. Jason Oddy emphasises this structure, this desire to overcome impermanence, with a photograph of meditative deliberateness.

Jason Oddy is attracted to architectural spaces that are haunted by fear and anxiety, and he poses eloquent questions about these spaces by depicting them with rigorous clarity. When we talk about the meaning of a picture, we usually begin with the content or subject matter: what has the photographer chosen to depict, what has he captured with his camera? Whether the photograph halts a passage of fleeting beauty, a deliberate pose, or a fugacious snap of violence, a photograph offers an interpretation, or perspective, on an event. A photograph is an incarnation of something that the photographer has witnessed, the flow of time interrupted by the click of a shutter, preserving it for memory and for others to see. Or this is, at least, one way to think about photography, and perhaps the one that comes to mind most immediately.

Yet why not consider photography a model for how to look? Is it possible for the camera's mechanical gaze to offer an exemplary approach to how we perceive space? Even how space might perceive us? Oddy has a subject matter – the built environment – but he also photographs the places he visits, from the UN headquarters in New York to the Central Officers' Club in Minsk, Belarus, in a particular and distinctive way. The locations are usually abandoned, whether temporarily or permanently, and the compositions are at once hyper banal and highly structured. Angles are usually straight and hard, the pictures geometrical, built on an internal rhythm. Many also feature a preternaturally stretched depth of field, which Oddy achieves with long exposures. The compositional severity of his work, combined with sharp focus that extends deep into the space of the places he depicts, becomes a metaphor about looking: the duration of the aperture’s squint brings a measure of time into play, suggestive of a meditative stare shared by both artist and viewer.

Oddy has always been attracted to sites of dereliction. Over a decade ago, in the series 'Waiting Rooms', it was the leftover grime, the disorder, that interested Oddy: the apartments of those who died without family or friends, their homes abandoned to entropy, the mould around the tea mugs just the first hint of invasion and decay that will erode and disperse any trace of a life lived. Waiting Rooms is a resonant title, for it foreshadows the nature of his practice: we are all in 'waiting rooms' of some kind or other, spending our daily lives in spaces that somehow reflect our fear of death, perhaps even our desire to defeat it.

Oddy analyses, through photography, how different cultures attempt to thwart the inevitable through the structure of their spaces. Even while most of his photographs depict cold and empty spaces, some verging on the antiseptic, the human body, its grime and spirit both, are palpably present. Look at the corridor leading to the hydrotherapy rooms in Mishkor Sanatorium, nr. Yalta, Ukraine: we can gaze deep into the elongated vanishing point, shiver with dread at the deadpan rhythm of the doors that line the corridor, the alarming red lights. Rather than a place to be cured of aches and pains, the architecture looks like it would induce a repetitive stress injury of the mind. The body shuffled into chambers, treated and tossed back into the corridor, the space calibrated to treat everyone efficiently and in exactly the same way. It has the utilitarian deliberateness of an abattoir. But even contemporary capitalism can have a similar effect. In Dream State I, taken at the Volkswagen museum in Wolfsburg, Germany, entrapment is the overall mood, as if the architecture was designed to impel the human figure to swerve in one direction – this space offers not so much a kinaesthetic experience as an inculcation.

Oddy revels in these patterns that take us away from a specific location and into the ideas that created them. He unlocks the banal to open up a kind of epistemology of space.

Pattern and the structures of interiors are blueprints of human anxiety. Look at the curtains from Central Officers' Club, Minsk, Belarus. The translucent, wave-like rhythm hangs like a kitschy, consolatory veil over the events beyond the window. If architecture is frozen music, the patterns we find in institutions, however crumbling or faded, are vestiges of frozen ideas. We try to give life a dimension, a solid form that might freeze forever the evanescence of things, even though we know that life is scruffy and dimensionless. These patterns are everywhere, but they are easily overlooked – if we did notice them, we might be reminded of how desperate our attempts are to postpone death. It is a measure of Oddy’s achievement that he apprehends them without agitation.

Craig Burnett is a writer and curator and author of Jeff Wall (Tate Publishing) and Philip Guston: The Studio (Afterall Books).