Focus on a double life

In its images of institutional space, the photographic work of Catherine Yass discloses a world hovering between clairvoyancy and reality.
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One evening last February I found myself standing in a disused swimming pool 50ft beneath Tottenham Court Road. Above me eight illuminated photographs cast their fluorescent light over the place. Mirroring the spot where I stood, they were of empty 19th century bath-houses in the German spa town, Baden-Baden. But while my immediate surroundings - all peeling paint and chipped tiles - bore the unmistakable stamp of verite, the pictures on the walls were like windows onto another world. Glowing in feasible shades of yellow, green and aquamarine, these were not your typical photographs. Instead they were closer to hallucinations hovering somewhere between history and dreams.

Five months on and Catherine Yass - whose works had lit up that dark winter night - has just scooped the Irish equivalent of the Turner Prize. The prestigious Glen Dimplex Artists' Award, worth pounds 15,000 and open to anyone who has exhibited in Ireland in the past year, was presented to her for a series of sumptuous photographs of empty urinals and unoccupied capsule hotel rooms for Japanese salarymen in Tokyo. Like the pictures of Baden-Baden, the colours in these depictions of "contained male spaces" are wildly distorted. Brighter areas turn a vivid, almost impenetrable blue and occasionally lines of sharp white light intervene at points where different elements of the composition meet.

Yass, 36, studied at the Slade before going on to Goldsmiths' where she did her MA. She makes her work by taking two photographs of the same subject one directly after the other on a large format plate camera. The first is shot on normal transparency film. The second is taken on the same film and processed as a negative, which has the effect of turning everything blue. The two are sandwiched together and from this composite a finished piece is created which is subsequently mounted on a light box.

When she left Goldsmiths' Yass found herself spending so much time approaching galleries and businesses in an effort to get herself exhibited that she decided to make the people who wielded the power in these institutions the subject of her photographs. Gallery directors, fellow artists, heads of companies, even the entire selection committee for the Arts Council of England, all passed before her lens.

Needless to say the results have little in common with standard photographic portraiture. Executed in an unsentimental manner, the pictures do not encourage personality to shine through. The people in them are described not by their names but by their job titles, that is by their positions within the hierarchy of the art world. More strikingly her signature blue seeps into every component of the image including the sitters themselves.

If having your photograph taken is generally thought to memorialise and reaffirm you, then the way Yass approaches her subjects has a distinctly corrosive effect on their identities. Blobs of light attack and bleed into them, particularly if they move between the two exposures. As a result of her technique we are not only reminded that photographs should not be mistaken for reality, but we also see how all matter is vulnerable to the effects of time.

When, in 1995, Yass undertook a project to document the doctors and patients at Springfield Psychiatric Hospital, she found herself confronted with an ethical dilemma. Worried that taking pictures of the inmates might turn them into objects of pseudo-scientific speculation in the worst traditions of 19th century photography, Yass decided that the only images she would exhibit outside the hospital would be those of the building's empty corridors.

Investigating institutional space is a fashionable pursuit amongst artists nowadays. The work of husband-and-wife team Langlands and Bell is a case in point. Their cool reduction of prisons, asylums and government buildings to minimal white maquettes allows viewers to readily examine the controlling structures of these places, and they provide an interesting counterpoint to the way in which Yass has broached the same theme. Whilst theirs is an overarching, analytical approach, Yass's manipulation of light into impossible, lurid colours dramatises the environments she chooses to photograph. The effect wrought by her technique on the hospital corridors is at once seductive and sinister. The eerie sheen of the ubiquitous gloss paint is brought into sharp relief. Doors stare at you like huge pairs of eyes. You can imagine what terror the hidden powers of such a place might induce. Yet for all that they are still conspicuously beautiful. "Institutions", according to Yass, "are both frightening and comforting. They raise a lot of unconscious desires."

This uncanny ability to register what normally remains unseen is the hallmark of her output. In her photographs of people their frailty and even their mortality is exposed. Her rendering of places draws our attention to ideologies and histories that might otherwise remain undisclosed. It is a vision of the world which owes as much to clairvoyancy as it does to photography, and it may be no coincidence that her splurges of intense colour are reminiscent of the ectoplasm appearing in Victorian spirit photographs.

Since the Springfield project, Yass hardly photographs people any more. The uninhabited sites of human activity which are now the subject of her work are designed to invite the viewer in a way she believes the portraits could not. "A portrait can make you feel quite secure. It says `I'm here and you're there.' If you suddenly take that person away and leave an empty gap, all you're left with is a hole to fall into. When you look at the photograph there is no longer anyone in it to use as an alibi."

Yass wants to create void "psychological spaces" into which the viewer can project his or her own fantasies and states of mind, and she believes that the literal emptiness of her recent work is doubled by the very process she uses to create it. "The two images that go towards making the final piece, because they are a positive and a negative, equal a nought. They cancel each other out."

In the last four years this young English artist has taken her camera to all manner of places. For the most part they are fairly desolate sites. The inside of prison cells, an Edinburgh graveyard, Smithfield Meat Market, Port Talbot steelworks and the underbelly of the bridge over the River Tay have all been visited. The images she presents us with fall between fiction and reality and for the viewer this uncertainty can be unsettling. Her vividly coloured photographs that at first sight might appear alluring, can also seem apocalyptic - especially when picture after picture contains not a single human being.

In the Baden-Baden series the copious green steam which I had initially taken to be the result of a painterly whim, partly conceals discreet references to Nazi ideology. Neo-classical statues emerge like petrified apparitions of Aryan perfection and somewhere in amongst the mists, showerheads lurk.

Wherever Yass asks us to look she asks us to look again.

The double exposure of her technique becomes the double vision that defines her work. What she leaves us with is a picture of the shadow and its world.