Jessica Tai’s medal award-winning project To Shadow a Failure is a series of photographs that explores the pioneering salt print process. Here’s how she describes it:
Stemming from William Henry Fox Talbot’s initial paradox “to fix a shadow,” my thesis work To Shadow a Failure challenges the foundational desire to fix the ephemeral through the creation of impermanent images. Although Talbot was successful in creating the first photographic images on paper, it was several years before he found a method that removed all light sensitivity from his prints. Through a contemporary adoption of the first “failed” methodologies of the salt print process, material anomalies are embraced, subverting the historical conventions around the permanence of the art object, and calling into question the role preservation holds in the maintenance of those traditions.
What inspired you and motivated you to do this project?
When I started creating this body of work I was looking at the very first photographs made on paper over 170 years ago. Thinking about how those original images no longer exist, or are embalmed in the dark storage boxes of museums prompted my revival of this historical process, and inspired my exploration into the value of a “failed” way of making imagery.
What part of the process of creating this project did you learn the most from?
With such specific historical connotations, I thought a lot about how my work would be read by a contemporary audience. What I learned the most throughout creating this work was how important the relationship was between image and medium, and how in order for that relationship not to be arbitrary, process must conceptually parallel content.
What part of the process of creating this project are you the most proud of?
Photography always lies at the root of my process, but I am interested in how incorporating other mediums such as sculpture and installation can change the context in which the photograph is read. In To Shadow a Failure I felt that the use of institutional methods of display such as plinths and viewing shelves were successful in creating a museological context. Here one could consider the paradox of an ephemeral piece of art infiltrating a space of supposed preservation.
How did you react to the news that you won a medal for your work?
Finding the grounds on which I stood behind my use of an antiquated photographic process was continually challenging, especially within a digitally dominated medium. When I received the medal it was a great validation of the relevance of the process within contemporary art.
What’s your fondest memory from your studies at OCAD U, and what will you miss the most?
Most of my time at OCAD U was spent in the darkroom, working with historical processes. Even though they often fell outside the curriculum taught at the school, I was very fortunate to find staff and faculty that were encouraging and helpful in my learning endeavors. I greatly appreciated and will deeply miss the support and facilities that aided in the creation of my work.
What are you planning to do next?
I plan to further my education in photography, particularly in photographic preservation. I plan to continue making work, and have a show in the vitrines at Gallery 44 in June 2014.