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Kathryn Smith
"Psychogeographies: The Washing Away of Wrongs," 2003-2004

[English] [italiano]

Kathryn Smith’s series of embossed photographs on cotton paper, “Psychogeographies: The Washing Away of Wrongs” are accompanied by a narrative text. Smith enacts a concurrently forensic and artistic search for the spaces formerly inhabited by a British serial killer. She describes the simultaneous fear and desire of approaching this psychology as she searches for traces within his former environment.

Ironically, it is this ‘overall sameness’ that provided cover for Nilsen’s crimes in the first place, much as his semblance of day-to-day existence acted as a disguise. Thus the rhyme that Smith recounts in the work is indicative: ‘As I was going up the stairs, I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today. I wish, I wish he’d go away’. For Smith, Nilsen is both ever-present and never there. His ability to disappear within the visible links him to other perpetrators, such as the subject of Smith’s 2009 the lowercase: South African serial rapist, Johannes Mouwers. Mouwers was arrested in 2006 for holding two girls hostage in a burrow excavated from a river bank in the south-western Cape. He was known in the region as ‘Die Skim’ (‘the phantom’) and used to cover his face with clay in an attempt to become invisible.
Although Mouwers’s burrow differs from Nilsen’s suburban killing rooms, they may all be regarded as excavations beneath or behind the public surface of ‘normal’ life. As such, they become, in Smith’s words, ‘spatial materialisations of mental or emotional space; secret chambers created in which to perform and enact dark and often deadly desires’. Smith suggests that the ‘secrecy and invisibility of these spaces is something of a black hole, which is in fact a metaphor used to describe such sites in forensic geographical profiling’. The metaphor of a ‘black hole’ may also describe the abyss within representation: in the face of excessive cruelty, the possibilities of ‘adequate’ representation seem limited and insufficient.
In this regard, it is perhaps fitting that Smith’s photographs often ‘fail’ to bear convincing visual witness – due to blurriness, a lack of focus, photographic ‘accidents’, hidden subtexts, and visual disturbances. These layers and interferences hint at the unseen, evoking the suggestion of trauma not overtly witnessed by the camera. Her photographs mirror her viewpoint as researcher, looking up at the façades of Nilsen’s suburban homes and sensing – yet failing to ‘see’ – the trauma that lingers behind the veneer.
Given these various blind-spots and black holes, Smith’s works underscore the impossibility of seeing and representing the full extent of serial rape and murder. She delves into these ‘architectures of trauma’, armed with forensic/photographic methods of making visible and making known, and yet her vision is persistently thwarted by the unthinkable. Appropriately, then, her work can only provide sporadic, chilling glimpses into spaces devoid of light.
M. J.

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