Aspex Portsmouth

Spectators, Catherine Yass

Bringing together multiple works from her series Portraits, ‘Spectators’ was an opportunity for Catherine Yass to examine the complexity of ‘looking’ and our relationship to the subject.  

The exhibition included previous works Portrait: Artist, Portrait: the Selection Committee of the Arts Council England, and a new work Portrait: Viewers – which consisted of two cibachrome lightbox photographs specially commissioned by Aspex Gallery, with financial assistance from Hampshire County Council and Southern Arts Board New Work Fund. 


The photographs of Portrait: Viewers were taken within the gallery when it existed on Brougham Road, a contemporary art space within a Victorian Gothic church.  Yass explored the idea of ‘looking’ within this work by choosing the arched south-facing window as the object to be gazed upon; inviting integral member of the gallery, Treasurer, Henry Mundy, …….,  and a member of the public to act as the ‘viewers’ within the photographs; acknowledging that the role of a person within a gallery space is that of ‘looking’.


The photographs were taken from behind and slightly below the ‘viewers’, who stood gazing upon the window with their backs turned on the camera.  Visitors to the exhibition found themselves also being challenged as ‘viewers’ and questioning their involvement in the act of ‘looking’, as their gaze follows the gaze of those within the photographs.


In an essay written by Janice Hart for the book ‘Portraits’, Hart discusses how “we expect to see these images as if in front of them. By reversing our expectations, Catherine Yass provides us with the opportunity to become shadow spectators who can watch without being watched.”


“Perhaps when we look at a portrait we imagine a reciprocal gaze which acknowledges us. Or perhaps when there is someone in the image who is turned away, who is also looking at something, we imagine we are looking with them for the same confirmation. In some ways a portrait is more like an impossible mirror, where we try to return our own gaze through an image of another person or of ourselves.”

  • Catherine Yass


‘Spectators’ was curated by Lisa Moran, who also edited the book Portraits spanning Catherine Yass’ work, which emerged as a result of four talks that took place at Aspex during this exhibition.  


Catherine Yass

Best known for ‘turning the tables’ on those who commission her to produce new work, Catherine Yass does this by using the members of the commissioning body (such as curators, directors, etc) as subjects in her photographs and often positions them within a site that is (or is significant to) the commissioning organisation; using this as a way to explore the relationship between the two. 


The technique of her work, cibachrome lightboxes, in which she layers prints using the negative side of an analogue slide over lightboxes which are in turn mounted on the wall, intensifies the blue hues within the photographs giving them a fluorescent feel.