Ben Tufnell, Days Like These, Tate Publishing, 2003

Tim Head's work is about instability and uncertainty: of images, of perception and of the individual's relationship with the wider world. Over the past thirty years he has made work in an extraordinary range of media - including installations, photography, paintings and now digital media - guided and underpinned by a consistent set of concerns. His work might be characterised as a search for visual equivalents for the tension between what we perceive to be the truth and what we know to be the truth.

Head first came to prominence in the early 1970s with a series of subtle installations which he referred to as 'speculations about spaces'. [1] These works typically inhabited seemingly empty spaces which were activated by Head's intervention. Initially they employed just mirrors and projected light, but in doing so focused attention on the physical nature of the space they occupied. Head's installation at MoMA, Oxford, in 1972 entailed a series of projections of photographs of the walls of the gallery with mirrors leaning against them, onto the walls themselves. For the exhibition the mirrors were moved into different positions. The combination of physical space, projected space and reflected space created a highly ambiguous experience. Head has stressed that such works were not attempts to simply create visual illusions - the projectors were fully visible, the means by which the installation achieved clearly apparent - but rather to activate a physical and psychological space and in doing so to question our experience of that space. Critic Marco Livingstone has suggested that in such works Head 'took perception as a basic premise, while simultaneously throwing into question what we see, giving form to an essential mistrust of the process of vision as a way of gaining an understanding of the world.' [2] The installations were further complicated in the mid 1970s in works such as Displacements 1975-6, with the introduction of both real and projected everyday objects such as ladders, buckets and clocks. Later projected works, such as Appearance/Apparition 1977, included the human figure.

In the 1980s Head began to focus less on the space within the gallery, and more on the tension between 'real' and 'artificial' seen in consumer culture. This was paralleled by a move towards 'pure' photography (i.e. work in which a print would be presented as an object in its own right, rather than as a projected component of a larger installation). His photographs exploited the saturated colours of cibachrome and the high production values of advertising. Sex toys, erasers, pills, pocket calculators and such like were combined to create future cityscapes, apocalyptic landscapes and heraldic devices. Head's 'toxic landscapes' such as Alien Landscape 1985 and Petrochemicaland III 1991 make explicit the tension between the artificial and the natural; both highly seductive and repellent, they evoke the contemporary crisis in the environment.

Towards the end of the 1980s Head made the surprising decision to start painting. That he took up painting simply as an expeditious way of achieving a particular kind of surface in his work points to an ongoing concern: that of finding the appropriate medium to test an hypothesis or present an idea. Head's paintings in flat, decorative colours use the repetition of generic motifs including a milk company logo, cuts of meat and chromosomes to evoke a world of multiples, loaded with the possibility of genetic mutation. The paintings were anticipated by his interest in different kinds of pictorial space, particularly the flat space of scanning technology (such as photocopying), and the use of machine processes in works such as Digital Alarms 1985. This fascination with space has led, in turn, to his digital works.

Since the late 1990s Head has been working with a multi-media developer, Simon Schofield. [3] One of his first digital works was A Hard Day's Night 2000. [4] It featured animated areas of saturated colours presented on a computer monitor, and clearly referenced Modernist abstractions by painters such as Josef Albers. Since then Head's research has led him to use the technology in ways that force it to its (currently) available limits. Treacherous Light 2002 is a projection in which each pixel of the computer screen has been enlarged to become a distinct visual element. He describes this process: 'The work explores certain features of electronic space, specifically the digital space generated on screen by a computer program. It attempts to isolate some of the intrinsic properties of this electronic space stripping it down to certain prime elements to carry a raw skeletal electronic message. Attention is focused on the peculiar and unique physical properties of the digital medium itself and specifically on the computer-generated array of light-emitting pixels that form the illusive fabric of the screen's surface.' [5] Colours are randomly generated (from a palette of over 16,000,000 colours) at the edges of the screen and then move, pixel to pixel, across the image, both horizontally and vertically. The work is 'live' - not pre-recorded or looped - and takes place in real time in front of us, never repeating itself. It resembles a vast kaleidoscope, or veils of colour which move past each other in an indeterminate space. Close up, the process is clearly visible and the sensation of movement is strong. At a few metres distance the image becomes a swarming amorphous mass. Areas of colour and density coalesce and disperse before it is possible to fix our attention on them. From further back it is a pale grey, still rectangle of light. One is reminded of the pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat, or the densely marked spaces of Mark Tobey or Jackson Pollock. Indeed, Head feels that the experience of this work is as much like looking at a picture as a film or computer screen.

The work is motivated by the search for a kind of pictorial and spatial reality which is intrinsic to the computer, and a desire to expose the 'treacherous' nature of the digital space. Head is fascinated by the supposed perfection of the computerised image and the fact that much effort is devoted to creating ever more refined images which eliminate any evidence of the pixel. However, Head is not opposed to such technology per se. Treacherous Light is not about subverting the computer. Rather, in common with so much of his work of the past thirty years, it is about taking a medium (or an idea) and 'laying it bare, making it transparent, showing it for what it is'. [6] It is a part of an ongoing project: a probing but non-judgemental questioning of the world we live in and the technology we surround ourselves with.

[1] Tim Head quoted in Marco Livingstone, 'The Return of the Body-Snatcher', Tim Head, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery 1992, p.19
[2] Ibid., p.22
[3] With initial support from DA2 and the Slade Centre for Electronic Media
[4] Published by www.eyestorm.com
[5] Tim Head, unpublished statement, 2002
[6] Conversation with the author, 19 July 1992

Ben Tufnell

Published in Days Like These: Tate Triennial of Contemporary British Art 2003, edited by Judith Nesbitt and Jonathan Watkins (Tate Publishing, www.tate.org.uk). © Tate 2003. Text is not to be reproduced without the permission of the publishers.