Guest post by Virginia Konchan
Photography must annihilate itself as medium to be no longer a sign, but the thing itself.
Ben Gest’s photorealist photography, comprised of stark, neo-classical tableaux, depicts alienated subjects engaged in workaday and domestic tasks, and carries a full fetishistic load in an image saturated culture—that of the evacuated figure, from painting, as well as the signature of the “author,” as declared dead by structuralist critics. The “surface reading” strategies of Sharon Marcus’ and Stephen Best, Francois Dosse’s call for the “descriptive turn,” and Bruno Latour and Erving Goffman practice of “flat” reading based on actor-network theory (the game model of human interaction) connect to the “flat” or two-dimensional evacuation of depth fields, suggesting that as the text is now being “read” like a screen (the orthographic significance of the word alienated from semantic, affective, and cognitive percepts), so too are the visual images (in figurative art, the appearance of the other), we consume.
For Roland Barthes, this surface quality was a limitation of medium (the photograph is undialectical, as a denatured theater where death cannot be contemplated, reflected and interiorized: the foreclosure of the Tragic excluding catharsis), yet this slickness of surface is also a function of the occluded depth of capitalist subjects, wherein intimacy, futurity, and affect, because unable to be represented (priced, and sold), ceases to exist first as a cultural value, then, as a cultural experience (temporally, of duration rather than instantaneity). A privatized market first commodifies then distributes the sensible (Marx’s dream of the ’liberation of the senses’ of unalienated individuals in unalienated communities) fueling desiring-machines to demand, yet never receive, aporias of meaning: presence, aura, soul. [i]
The digital reproduction of the photograph and the text share an analogous relationship, foremost in hierarchies between the word (letter, or sign) and image (symbol, or referent). Today’s medium specificity (Clement Greenberg’s belief that “the unique and proper area of competence” for an art form corresponds with the ability of an artist to manipulate those features specific to a medium) is now metaphorized in the relationship between a reader and a text, or a viewer and an artwork, not as an encounter or relationship, but an interfacing, between user and electronic text, or screen (N. Katherine Hayles’s media specific analysis in “Print is Flat, Code is Deep”). Barthes’ descriptions of photography as “messages without a code” describes the limitation of the medium, for the photograph, yet this obviation of meaning has become an conscious aesthetic in post-structuralism, evacuated of content and intention. For Hegel, “art” was only art in subordination to meaning: modern art, in a post-Reformation world, for Hegel, wasn’t therefore “art,” but rather abstracted potential. [ii] The desire to decode photography’s “message without a code” may be what constitutes the dream of absolute (not reified) presence (Barthes’ Winter Garden Photograph): the “the text of pleasure” or sublime (dynamic or technological, wherein perceptual synthesis temporary collapses in experiencing the material force of a supersensible idea, whether of beauty or horror).
Affect theory provides a rational-empirical account of what we know intuitively: the sublime has a life of its own. The jarring quality of paintings such as Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” Francis Bacon’s apocalyptic friezes, and Frieda Kahlo’s self-portraits, fix such images forever in our collective imagination, for giving form to a mediated, yet still felt, aspect of human experience. Just as Cézanne sought to capture the “apple-ness of apples,” and Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky the “stony-ness of stone,” any discussion of the sublime returns us to logos (language’s ability to embody, and evoke, objects).
(Francis Bacon, “Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X,” 1953)
The absence of meaning in photography is its power, conveying its “message” through semiotic rather than semantic means. In writing, an absence of meaning can take, according to Derrida, three forms: mathematical meaning; agrammaticality (“abracadabra”); and the social contexture of meaning (preestablished symbolic and linguistic codes), implying that the limitations for what one can “say” are scripted, in photography, by medium, and in the text, by culture as well as genre: the associative logic of poetry requiring a different reading strategy than that of linear prose.
Modernist paintings, like Egyptian hieroglyphs or the intricate symbology found in the Lascaux caves, complicate the boundary between image and text (Cy Twombly’s abstract expressionist paintings were inspired by texts from Stéphane Mallarmé to Alexander Pope, incorporating baroque themes and titles, such as Apollo and the Artist and traces, or erased marks of textual inscription). Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte, of course, creating the watershed moment in art history when the act of visual representation was, in his 1928 “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” rendered counterfactual (ironic) through the insertion of text.
Flatness is not always the image’s refusal to yield meaning: it can be its apotheosis. As Aloïs Riegl says: “Bas-relief brings about the most rigid link between the eye and the hand because its element is the flat surface, which allows the eye to function like the sense of touch; furthermore, it confers, and indeed imposes, upon the eye a tactile or rather haptic, function . . . ensur[ing], in the Egyptian ‘will to art,’ the joining together of the two senses of touch and sight, like the soil and the horizon.” [iii]
During the 1920s, Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov explored the technical potential of montage, developments new media theorist Lev Manovich claims to underlie the aesthetics of contemporary video. Eisenstein believed montage could create ideas or have an impact beyond the individual images (two or more images edited together create a “tertium quid” or third thing making the whole greater than the sum of its individual parts). How is this “tertium quid” experienced in a photograph, or, for that matter, a text? Gests’ figures are “all end” (terminal subjects, trapped in contingency) and flat to the point of disappearing from the surface of the plane. To say, however, that flat images are a “realist” or photorealist art, or that visual art depends upon language to enter signification has troubling implications, refusing to consider the bounds of perspective (from the artist, the medium, and the spectator). Yet, in exploring photography’s medium (indexical and reproducible), we can begin to understand how the assignation of “post-photography” relates to that of “post-literacy.”
Even Dickinson understood depth perception (phenomenologically, and politically, in the granting of subjecthood, rather than treating the other as an object or manipulable industrial machine – vending, milking – in the service economy) to be predicated upon metaphoric hierarchy: “ . . . We can find no scar,/ But internal difference,/ Where the Meanings, are–”). The rise of the image and subsequent degradation of language to emoticons is a function of technocapitalism, advertising and marketing blitzes, and bipartisan racketeering, whereby independent thought is crushed by neo-fascist fears of the unknown (the wizards behind the screen?)
Rather than aspiring to the denotative powers of text (a Gordian knot, interpretatively), highly stylized photography (Gest, Thomas Struth, David LaChapelle) suggests a desire for the image to become purely connotative, appropriating the iconicity of the mirror (the only purely indexical object). Struth: “Photographs that impress me have no personal signature,” and yet this depersonalized aesthetic doesn’t impede the sheer pathos of his museum photographs, juxtaposing spectators at the Louvre with, for example, the shipwrecked figures in Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. Struth’s museum-goers observe rather than participate in history (religious and mythological narratives), formalizing Western Art’s debt to Christian symbolism, but not attempting to subvert or parody this tradition.
(Thomas Struth, Hermitage 1, St. Petersburg, 2005)
Reading demands, as Guy DeBord says, making judgments at every line; how does this description of literacy accord with an accurate perception of the imago, as a two-dimensional object? [iv] Modernists’ dream to find forms of representation adequate to experience of phenomenal “reality,” once declared a failure, in morphing from the rejection of authority, the subject, and meaning, to a worship of the object, now worship the frame (material context) itself. For visual art the context of the image is doubled: the literal frame, as well as the cultural space in which the work is displayed, distinguishing it as an objet d’art, worthy of consecration in a public space.The shifts, in constructivist and futurist movements, between art’s use-value (e.g. painter Alex Rodchenko’s poster art, furniture, wallpaper and fabric), to l’art pour l’art, had aesthetic and economic implications (the feared aestheticization of politics and politicization of aesthetics): today, conceptual art trumpets its value-lessness as a form of waste aesthetics: resistance to cooptation by the market, and utilitarian ideals.
Following suit, Gest’s figures, while ranging in age, largely white and middle class, are pictured in nuclear family couplings, or alone, tending to tasks in well-appointed homes and state-of-the-art kitchens, en route to work, or at the workplace itself.
(Gest, “Joe Finishing Lunch” 2005)
In Gest’s work, these quotidian scenes (shaving, shelving books at a library), are a form of anti-epic: representing the habitus of daily living. In “Ben and Dawn” (below), the couple is preparing dinner: Dawn manifesting the vacuity of non-presence, and Ben, absorption in his task (forming meat patties). How to read these allegories in which narrative is supplanted by the gaze (either off-center or vacant)? Gest heightens the post-Enlightenment collapse of progress narratives and a unified self by refusing the viewer a vanishing point or horizon line: his subjects’ expressions are frozen in shock or ennui. The unmitigated solitude of many of Gest’s subjects also suggests the impossibility of self-knowledge or consciousness, particularly of class. Mired in transitional situations, and rarely facing the camera directly, these subjects, as they water the lawn, or pause before exiting a brand-new SUV, manifest an innocence of themselves as complicit agents in or victims of commodity culture—or, as posed subjects. Sentience is indeed on display in Gest’s portraits, but this sentience is often in the service of material entrapments rather than the subject’s experience, shown benumbed in these portraits of status quo maintenance without the promise of deliverance (through class ascension, religion or theater). As Baudrillard says, we live in a “jungle of fetish-objects”: in order for an art object to free itself from fetishization it must first emerge as a “newly victorious fetish,” then work to destroy itself as a familiar object by becoming monstrously unfamiliar. “This foreignness is not the strangeness of the alienated or repressed object,” he adds. “It excels through a veritable seduction that comes from somewhere else . . . by exceeding its own form as a pure object, a pure event.” [v]
The fantasy of art qua object is a desire for it to eventually become, in a Zarathustrian sense, event: Brechtian theater, Jerzy Grotowski’s “theatre laboratory” (Teatr Laboratorium), the Opernhaus Wuppertal of Pina Bauch. Michael Fried opposed art and objecthood in his 1967 essay relating objecthood to theatricality, wherein the reader or viewer is necessary to bring the interpretive act to completion: in other art forms, however, the line is easily blurred. A wholly intentioned work of art, or Frankensteinian, bioengineered production of human life (dramatized in movies such as Synechoche, New York, The Truman Show, and the Tom McCarthy novel Remainder) enact the fantasy of a subject with the power to micromanage contingency (i.e. weather), creating others as a pure extension of the author-producer’s will (the sinister sine qua non of formalist aesthetics)? From Remainder: “Opening my fridge’s door, lighting a cigarette, even lifting a carrot to my mouth: these gestures had been seamless, perfect. I’d merged with them, run through them, and let them run through me until there’d been no space between us. They’d been real; I’d been real without first understanding how to try to be: cut out the detour.” McCarthy contemporizes the Wagnerian dream of the “total” work of art, by attempting to solve for indeterminancy in plot, language, nature: the post-industrial spectacle of by which citizen-consumers, are already, albeit unconsciously, enthralled.
Fried turned to photography with the 2008 publication of Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, exploring works by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Jeff Wall, and Andreas Gursky, asserting that the poles of anti-theatricality and absorption are central to the turn by recent photographers towards large-scale works “for the wall.” The tableaux vivant of these photographers, and the work of Gest in particular, attenuates the politics of spectatorship by rendering the viewer complicit in the subject’s performance not of self-consciousness, but the lack thereof. In Gest, we observe, voyeuristically, subjects in media res, or engaged in repetitious labor (domestic and corporate): these scenes may be “for the wall” but their very nature is theatrical (constructed), forecasting the transition from art as object, to event.
(Gest, Kate Fixing her Earring, 2005)
Narratives of subject formation (or, in painting, a reconstitution of the figure, whether rendered as grotesque by Dana Schultz, or pornographized, in Egon Schiele), continue to be elided by the neoliberal death of extra-aesthetic context, heralded by Francis Fukuyama as the end of history (therefore allegory, Manichean and otherwise, and narrative): the fracas of the negative sublime (eco-catastrophes, Warhol-inspired readymades, appropriated and digitally reproducible art).
Art-as-event (the “revised sublime”) has the potential to loosen the hypnotizing inertia of the image, encouraging passive spectatorship, and the dangers of pure formalism (the reduction of art to ornament, or frame, and language to citational and ironic metacommentary, ceasing to exist in or interpolate with the world) allowing space for critical reflection, eroticism, and presence-as-grace.
Whether all art is reification, as Hannah Arendt said, or whether the war is still being waged between aesthetic reification and the counter-concept of aesthetic use value (both prey to commodity fetishism, whether by cognitariat aesthetes and/or the market), the final criteria for artistic “value” or proof of art’s autonomy may not be decreed by the moral majority (popular or critical opinion) or its price tag (floating or fixed), but its participation in a sacrificial economy, for the purposes of extirpation: to reject the bankrupt calculus of credit economies and fiat aesthetics to risk annihilation, so as to rise from the death of ontological and literal debt (posthumously, for Van Gogh) into the shock of signification (G.H. Hardy’s aesthetic criterion marrying unexpectedness to inevitability): the real.
[i] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), p. 90.
[ii] Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978) p. 45.
[iii] Qtd. in Gilles Deleuze’s Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).
[iv] Guy DeBord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (Verso Press, Brookyn, 1998), p. 29.
[v] Jean Baudrillard,“Simulation and Transaesthetics: Towards the Vanishing Point of Art” (International Journal of Baudrillard Studies), web, Vol. 5, No. 2: July, 2008.
Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in Best New Poets, The Believer, The New Yorker, and The New Republic, her criticism in Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, Quarterly Conversation, New Madrid, and Boston Review, and her fiction in StoryQuarterly and Joyland, among other places. The recipient of grants and fellowships to Scuola Internazionale di Grafica, Ox-Bow, and Vermont Studio Center, Virginia is co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary. She lives in Chicago.
“Tumblr is a great way for people who don’t create content to share content thus lending their life some kind of creative import.” This is the somewhat omniscient Jayson Musson’s tweet from a couple of weeks ago. The more I think about it – and I have been thinking about it way too much – the more I realize that he’s probably right. There are a lot of people on Tumblr and I am one of them. And I cannot get enough. But you know what, I don’t care if these people haven’t created the content they’re posting, at least they’re posting content – which, in of itself, is a creative act. And it’s visual, and I personally am constantly learning from it. It’s a visual literacy of the highest import.
My own Tumblr, Installator, is a curated (for lack of a better term) blog of other people’s content. Installator (wrapit-tapeit-walkit-placeit) is essentially a compendium of art in a state of movement – being installed, de-installed, moved, crated, knocked down, hung, lifted, cleaned, screwed together, and on and on. It’s about art as an object, but decidedly not the object that most people understand it to be. Not precious, or in some cases priceless, well-lit aesthetic nuggets that just seems to appear on walls, or pedestals, in fields, on buildings and above couches. These are images of artworks that are not static.
Sometimes I wonder if people who go to museums or galleries think these things just kind of magically appear overnight – like some sort of aesthetic fairy flitting down to delicately place a painting on a wall with their sparkly fairy-dusted level. Well they don’t, and there is a magical coterie of individuals who do make it happen: art handlers/preparators/riggers/etcetera. I am not an art handler, though I have done my fair share of handling art (I’m also married to a former preparator). It is with the utmost respect for these folks that I showcase them in the photos that make up Installator. Other people are impressed too. Of the many comments I do get on one photo or another – a common one is some form or another of: “I want to do this for living!”
Looking for images can be a pain in the ass, but when I find a good one I get really excited. I have a loose set of criteria that I stick to when finding them; ideally it’s a large jpeg; includes an image of a person(s); is of an artwork or artist that I admire; is visually representative of the act of installing or de-installing and has to be stimulating to look at. Funny pictures help, as do process-oriented sets of images. I mostly start with a Google image search including an artist’s name (or sometimes an artwork) and the word “installing”. Another route I take is plundering the Facebook photo albums of museums. I find that European museums do the best job of documenting their behind-the-scenes, but there are a few museums with their own oft-updated Tumblrs, blogs and websites (the Dallas Museum of Art, Contemporary Museum of Art, Houston and the Walker Art Center are tops.)
At this point it seems as though a lot of Museums are catching onto this peeking-behind-the-curtain-thrill. Many of them are sharing much of the work that goes into setting up an exhibition, not only by posting more and more images for the public, but also using it as a form of education about the lives of artworks. This can only be healthy. It humanizes the pricelessness that these objects are assumed to have once they enter the institution. It also showcases the care for these objects from a preservation standpoint. I thought this quote from the Chrysler Museum of Art was interesting, even though the images they did post were some of the most beautiful I’ve come across: “We generally do not discuss anything related to the movement of art. There are lots of reasons for this, ranging from the obvious (security) to the obscure (proper protocols and handling). …. We rarely if ever actually photograph art being moved. This is [a] field where mistakes are not an option, and a great work of art being damaged because somebody tripped over a photographer just can’t happen.”
There is also what I cannot find. I have a mental list of artists whose work I would very much like to see installed. There are also museums that simply aren’t interested in showing how work travels from the bowels of their storage to the walls of their galleries. Outside of Instagram, commercial galleries very rarely show images of their artists work being installed (though Salon94 has a great blog that features this). Along the same lines, it’s often difficult to find images of art fairs being loaded in. Artists who have their own websites also rarely show images of their work from this viewpoint (Sterling Ruby and Martin Eder (?) are a couple of exceptions). Holy Grail images would include almost anything pre-1980, better yet pre-1950. The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art (watermarks excluded) is by far one of the best resources I’ve found. As far as mediums go, who knew it was so hard to find images of drawings and photographs being installed?
A short wish list, in case anyone was inclined to do some of their own digging and submit: Morris Louis (a good one, though this one is pretty good), Allan McCollum, Eve Hesse, Cady Noland and On Kawara.
What’s next? I thought an old fashion artbook might be a good way to harness a lot of what’s happening on the Installator tumblr. There is more to mine here: from the relational aesthetics of it all to the art historical precedents of installing art. However, after looking into it and making a couple of inquiries, I realized that it would never happen. I don’t own these images and I certainly wouldn’t want to deal with the red tape (from artist to gallery to museum) about ownership and rights. Nonetheless, I do worry that with the fleeting nature of screen-scrolling, people aren’t really looking. Good old fashion page-turning sounds nice to me – maybe one of these days. For now, I’ll still be looking for content and posting it for my 137,507 “followers”.
Bio: Britton Bertran ran 40000 from 2005 to 2008. He currently is an Instructor at SAIC in the Arts Administration and Policy department and the Educational Programs Manager at Urban Gateways. An occasional guest-curator, he has organized exhibitions for the Hyde Park Art Center, the Loyola Museum of Art and several galleries. You can find him trying to be less cranky about the art world on twitter @br_tton. Stay tuned for a couple more guest posts where Britton will be waxing poetic on what’s wrong with the Chicago art world circa 2013, while thinking out loud about how to fix it and another post about looking forward to 2014 (and maybe a top 10 list of sorts too.)
- “KULTÚRA NAPJAINKBAN, dan perjovschi után szabadon” (via richardlivesus)
- “The Acrobatic Sculptures of the Rooftop Garden”. Alexander Calder’s “Man” being installed at SFMOMA
- MoMA staff dismantling Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937) for shipment to Spain. Photo taken on September 8, 1981 by Mali Olatunji. Image © The Museum of Modern Art, New York
- “Monumental wall sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly installed on Dartmouth campus. This major site-specific work, titled Dartmouth Panels, was commissioned by longtime arts patrons Leon Black ‘73 and his wife Debra, who contributed $48 million towards the creation of the center.” (artdaily.org)
- “This piece is made of ceramics, a medium which Robert Arneson helped bring to a full-fledged, independent art form. Typically, large-scale works such as this would be made out of bronze or marble. Luckily for our installation crew, this piece is hollow, meaning it only weighs between 500-700 lbs. Heave-ho!” (SFMOMA)
- “This incredible sculpture by Turner Prize-winning artist Anthony Gormley, consisting of 40,000 clay figures, has been put on display at an empty Tudor manor house…. It took five days to place the humanoid characters into position across the ground floor of Barrington Court, a National Trust Property near Ilminster in Somerset. The installation ‘Field for the British Isles’, was originally created in 1993 and has been loaned to the property by the Arts Council Collection through its Trust New Art Programme.”
- Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Placebo), 1991. Installation process. Image courtesy of the Williams College Museum of Art; photo by Roman Iwasiwk (curatedobject.us)
- Dominique de Ménil supervise l’acrochage d’une toile de Barnett Newman en 1991. | Dominique de Ménil oversees the hanging of a Barnett Newman’s painting in 1991. (Marc Riboud, circa 1991, 38 x 52 cm via Galerie Verdeau, via tongue depressors; via bruvu)
Last Monday, a woman Tweeted that her water broke moments after the event occurred. And it was a long Tweet too – close to the 140 character limit. I guess it was bound to happen. Now, to be fair, she’s not just any woman, she’s Sara Morishige Williams, the spouse of Twitter founder Ev Williams–probably the only person one would expect to Tweet at such a moment–and it was very early on in her labor. But still. I’m not one of Williams’ Twitter followers, but upon learning of this news of course I had to know how far into the labor she got whilst hanging on to her iPhone (wow–you’ve gotta be pretty good with that thing if you’re able to type on it with clenched fists).
Turns out, not too far. Her last Tweet before officially becoming a mother read: “Epidural, yes please.” I can’t help but think she kinda punked out by not Tweeting throughout the delivery. I mean, she’s the wife of Twitter’s CEO, for God’s sake, shouldn’t she feel some sort of cultural responsibility when it comes to this sort of thing?
Just kidding. Mostly.