Culture- ART FEATURE- Mind games: Gaskell's missing memories

The "unreliable narrator" is a device employed by filmmakers and writers involving a character who reveals key information about a past event— but from a skewed perspective that fails to disclose the whole truth (think The Usual Suspects or Memento). The trick is difficult to pull off, but it's when done effectively, it keeps the audience enthralled and off-balance as they try to figure out what really happened.

Celebrated photographer and video artist Anna Gaskell twists this device to expose memory as the ultimate unreliable narrator. Her photographic installation "1991" and video "Erasers"– on view at Second Street Gallery in the exhibition "Everything that Rises"– probe how memory betrays us as we try to grasp and make sense of life's most poignant moments.

In the main gallery, "1991" grew out of Gaskell's realization that she and her three brothers diverge in their recollections of the death of their father, whose body was found in a park across from the family's house 15 years ago. The 10 C-prints, ranging in size from 8" x 10" to 4' x 5' (after all, some memories are larger than others), hang in a spare, non-linear arrangement that compels viewers to fill in the gaps, adjusting and re-adjusting their interpretation of what Gaskell presents.

Parental mortality transforms us all into bewildered children, and Gaskell intentionally blurs the line between make-believe ("bang, bang, you're dead") and real-life trauma. The faces of her recurring characters remain hidden, sometimes falling outside the frame altogether. In one image, a little girl hangs from a tree with her head thrown back, but it's unclear whether her expression is joyous or anguished. 

Gaskell pushes the viewer off kilter by playing with the boundaries of her images, often abruptly truncating action while glorifying seemingly extraneous details (e.g. the pinkness of a cherry tree). She also defies viewers' expectation of receiving the camera's factual point of view by reversing some photographs' orientation. 

The 10-minute black-and-white video "Erasers" is more straightforward. In a variation on the game of "gossip," a series of 12-year-old girls face the camera to recount the accident that killed Gaskell's mother when Gaskell herself was 12. Some narrate the event as if it happened to them, while others remain detached, speaking in the second- or third-person. Several are exquisitely explicit– for example, recalling ashes in a carpet– while others' fudge and fabricate details. 

Gaskell's work, at once tender and violent, playful and somber, crisp and hazy, uncovers the way we each lovingly lie to ourselves in order to live with the past.

Anna Gaskell's exhibition, "Everything that Rises," is on view at Second Street Gallery through September 30. 115 Second St. SE (in the Charlottesville City Center for the Arts). 977-7284.