by Sabrina Greig
With the recent cascade of Black Lives Matter protests last month, the exhibition Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem, comes at an opportune moment. On view for its last month at the Art Institute of Chicago, photographs from the exhibition document America’s continued struggle with racial inequality. It successfully captures the robust Black Diasporic culture of Harlem in the 1940s through the artistic partnership of Ralph Ellison, author of the canonical text Invisible Man, and the first Black photojournalist of Life Magazine, Gordon Parks.
The exhibition focuses on imagery and passages from Ellison and Park’s collaboration on the magazine essays “Harlem is Nowhere” (1948) and “A Man Becomes Invisible” (1952). Both photo essays, however, were never published. The show Invisible Man therefore showcases unreleased photographs, contact sheets, and handwritten drafts by Ellison and Parks that have never been seen before by the public. They give viewers a glimpse of the social climate that inspired the groundbreaking novel Invisible Man.
The exhibition’s subject matter ranges from socially infused black and white street photography depicting the 1943 Harlem Riots, to abstracted photomontages of urban ghettos. Select images,such as an enigmatic photograph like Emerging Man, are subtly accompanied by excerpts from Ellison’s writing printed beneath photographs on the exhibition walls (see above). The curator’s choice to merge text and photography further illustrates the artistic continuities that existed between the creative minds of Parks and Ellison.
The interplay of text and imagery more overtly demonstrates how both men inventively reimagined the sources of racial injustice in American society through the photographic medium. They playfully synthesize the characteristics of real spaces, such as depicting the first interracial psychiatric clinic of Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic, while also intertwining obscured dystopic visions of city streets submerged in shadows of dark and light.
Untitled (Harlem, New York), 1952, Gelatin silver print, from the series
“A Man Becomes Invisible” (1952), 26.9 x 34 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago
The glowing technicality of Invisible Man Retreat, Harlem. NY best exemplifies this style. It shows how the friendship of the two creative geniuses constructed an Afrofuturist aesthetic that found Black joy in the midst of poverty, racism, and urban strife. With New York’s skyline in the background, Ellison serves as Park’s muse to represent a principal scene from his novel where the protagonist seeks a safe space during the Harlem Riot. It connotes the concept that this fictive world he constructs was both a place of refuge, as well as an isolating space to become invisible from the racialized chaos of the outside world. The photograph perhaps symbolizes the contradictions of protesting during heightened moments of racial strife, where one wants to become hyper-visible to combat collective struggles, yet emotionally removed to preserve their individual sanity.
Though overtly male-centered, Invisible Man convincingly showcases the artistry of two artists who innovatively problematized the prevalent reductive representations of the Black experience in Harlem, New York. Ellison through compelling prose, and Parks through striking photographic documentation, introduced a corrective portrayal of Black culture that negated stereotypical expressions of African-Americans of the time. Doll Test, Harlem, NY is a chilling reminder of how easily white supremacy subconsciously seeped into the veins of little Black boys and girls beginning at the tender moment of childhood. Images like these introduce more complex narratives that surpass radicalized conceptions of Black culture.
Doll Test, Gordon Parks, 1947, Gelatin Silver Print,
7 15/16 x 9 15/16 in, The Art Institute of Chicago
Notes for Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, 1947,
The Gordon Parks Foundation.
The plethora of archival documents in the show include some of Ellison’s notes throughout the process of constructing the two photo essays for publication. In Pictorial Problem, the final sentence states, “The point photographically is, I believe, to disturb the reader through the same channel that he receives his visual information.” This strategy reveals the conceptual approach adopted by both artists. Photos such as Battered Man and Off on my Own, (Harlem, New York) are eerily uncomfortable documentations of the Black experience that American History often aims to brush under the rug.
Off on My Own (Harlem, New York), 1948 Gelatin silver print,
from the series“Harlem is Nowhere” 33.8 x 24.8 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago
Battered Man, 1948 Gelatin silver print
23.5 x 18.6 cm (9 1/4 x 7 5/16 in.)
The Art Institute of Chicago
The series of photographs present in Invisible Man at the Art Institute thus point toward an earlier form of archiving the social repercussions of racialized prejudice. Similar to role that cell phone recordings and police body cameras have played in the Black Lives Matter movement in the 21st century, Parks and Ellison understood the power of creative visions. The visual components of these recent technologies make the ubiquitous nature of police brutality and racial inequity a visceral experience for all viewers in the same manner that some of Park and Ellison’s work was revealing of similar issues. Invisible Man is exemplary of how Ellison and Parks implored an unprecedented method of documenting racialized violations of social injustice, that has finally been given visibility in the two year anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder.
This interview was originally published on Bad at Sports on Dec 27, 2013.
Museums at Night appears yet to reach the US, but if any cultural impresarios are reading, this concept is ripe for import. In the UK it’s an annual extravaganza which sees nearly 500 museums throwing open their doors after hours. It generates crowds, good will and new audiences, taking its cue in turn from continental Europe where the phenomenon first took root in Germany in 1997.
On May 17th, event co-ordinators Culture24 sent me to a small coastal town in Kent which, thanks to the festive circumstances, was hosting a world famous artist. The venue was Georges House, Folkestone, and the big name draw was Spencer Tunick, known best for photographing nudes in their hundreds and thousands. Yes, whole crowds of people in the buff.
This project, which often gets the wrong kind of attention, makes most sense when you learn about Tunick’s upbringing. His father was a photographer and an entrepreneur. He would shoot folk on holiday, develop the film as fast as possible, then return to the scene to sell back his images to his more or less willing subjects. Tunick became an apprentice who learned early what it meant to deal with crowds.
His Museums at Night project has been developed with arts organisation Strange Cargo and entailed the capture of more than 150 nudes on the Folkestone seafront. The results were slotted into key-chain viewfinders, such as his father would have used. Tunick calls these scopes, and the show here in Folkestone involves the installation of these colourful creations, each one lit with LED lights.
The installation is in reassuringly good taste. Perspex housing hangs from the ceiling and divides the room. As you peer into each scope, you cannot but be aware of the people to your right, left, and on the other side of the divide, the people in front. There is nothing furtive about the experience, which may be why participants all appear to be so happy with the results.
One woman even hands me her scope, giving me little choice but to put the plastic gizmo to my eye and get an eyeful. I tell her the photo is “beautiful” and we go on chatting about other things. Well, it is certainly an icebreaker. It turns out she too is a photographer, with a specialism in self portraiture, also nude. “Sara’s an artist,” Tunick tells me. “You should discover her!”
Certainly, there are plenty of discoveries to be made here. Another woman searches for her scope and asks, “Have you seen me yet?” In truth, people look so different with their clothes off that is is hard to say for sure. The installation is a parade of male and female bodies, most in good shape. All stand on a jetty facing the camera. It is about as erotic as a nudist colony, ie; not very.
But the punters here in Folkestone don’t seem to mind. The venue and the street outside are buzzing. Visitors have to queue to scrutinise the scopes. Looking at people with no clothes on turns out to be the most fun you can have with your own proverbial clothes on. The high spirits might worry you just a little; after all art is supposed to be a serious endeavour, not a peep show.
Tunick, mind you, comes across as perfectly sincere. And as he has said, his work falls between land art, sculpture and performance art. The critical faculties may be stunned by mass nudity, but the format here in Folkestone calls to mind the unimpeachable Marcel Duchamp. His final artwork of course, a nude by the name of Étant donnés, also employed the keyhole approach to viewing.
Comparisons should probably end there. Duchamp’s faceless, depilated nude spreads her legs for the viewer and is quite the opposite of this surprisingly wholesome show in Folkestone. You would also have to visit Philadelphia to see Duchamp’s installation, whereas for the art lovers of Folkestone, these nudes have come to their doorstep. But in any history of the nude in art, you would surely have to mention both contrasting angles.
My wife and sometime collaborator Stephanie Burke and I recently completed a 140-mile walk as a perforance piece called “Walking to Mordor.” The walk was based on an Easter egg introduced in Google Maps three years ago: if you asked it for walking directions from “The Shire” to “Mordor,” instead of the usual “Walking directions are in beta” warning, a pop up announced, “Caution: One Does Not Simply Walk Into Mordor.” The line is Boromir’s, from The Fellowship of the Ring. Ignoring his naysaying, the two hobbits Sam and Frodo proceed to do exactly that.
The line, as spoken in the 2001 film, spawned an Internet meme which consisted of a still image of Boromir, hand in mid gesture, coupled with a line of text reading, “One does not simply…” followed by whatever the author wished to decry. Instances date back to at least 2004. In 2011, Google Maps joined the party by adding the Easter egg to their walking directions. Along with the warning, however, Google actually did provide a map and directions, from a restaurant called “The Shire,” in Chehalis, Washington, to a tattoo shop called “Mordor Tattoo,” in Arlington, Washington, 138 miles away.
When I showed Stephanie the joke, she mentioned that, coincidentally, she has family in Chehalis, and had spent some time there growing up. It didn’t take long for us to decide that it would be fun, and funny, to take Google Maps’ directions at face value, and walk the route. Almost immediately thereafter we realized we had to commemorate the journey by getting tattoos at Mordor, and that the tattoos should be of the map of the route. We documented the project with a series of photographs called “Instagram vs. Holga.” Stephanie, a trained photographer, shot on the cult classic crappy medium format film camera, while I, with no more than a couple of undergraduate photography classes under my belt, used my phone’s camera and the everyman’s favorite app.
As has happened with more than one previous project, we didn’t set out to make art. Our process is more often that we have an idea for something we’d like to do, and then, almost against our wills, we realize that it is starting to look quite a bit like art. Or at least like things that other people call art. And certainly, going for a long walk has quite a history as a form of performance art. It has spawned books, blogs, and even a society. Well-known examples include Francis Alÿs,Regina José Galindo, Simon Faithfull.
The history of walking as a form of performance art can never be severed from its history as a form of protest. Galindo’s 2003 walk from the Congress of Guatemala to the National Palace, her feet dipped in blood to leave red footprints, was intended as a protest against Guatemala’s former dictator, José Efraín Ríos Montt. Montt had formerly led a military regime known for widespread human rights abuses, and at the time of Galindo’s performance was running for President in a democratic election.
Not all of those who have walked in protest have identified as artists. Perhaps the most famous example, internationally, is Ghandi’s Salt March or Salt Satyagraha. By directly and pointedly disobeying a British law against domestic salt production in India (forcing Indians to buy imported British salt), the march essentially started what became the international Civil Disobedience Movement.
Inspired by Ghandi, A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march itself covered barely more than a mile, from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, though the 250,000 participants (60,000 of them white) had traveled from much farther away by bus, rail, and plane. Some spent 20 or more hours on buses traveling as far as 750 miles. Two years later, voting rights activists marched 54 miles, from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery. The Selma to Mongomery marches are commemorated by a National Historic Trail.
America’s racial history (obviously still in the making) continues to inspire performance artists. In 2009 I reviewed Meg Onli’s Underground Railroad project for Art Talk Chicago. (Five years later, her work holds up better than my early efforts at writing.) Presented as part of Twelve Galleries Project and curated by Jamilee Polson (who is also this blog’s managing editor), Onli’s project consisted of her retracing, on foot, the route of the Underground Railroad: a 440-mile journey, in Meg’s words, “in search of blackness.”
Exploring another form of blackness entirely, Chicago-based curator Amelia Ishmael co-edits Helvete, a journal of Black Metal theory, in the first issue of which was published David Prescott-Steed’s “Frostbite On My Feet: Representations of Walking In Black Metal Visual Culture.” (If you’d like to read the article for yourself, the entire journal is presented for free, as a downloadable PDF, at the above link. A print edition, also available, is well worth the price.) “Frostbite” tracks a few reference points linking walking with Black Metal culture. Principally, it finds the common ground between a grueling trek into the Norwegian tundra, led by Gaahl (former Gorgoroth frontman), and the author’s own experience walking the mundane streets of an Australian metropolis while listening to Burzum:
In this case, “blackened walking” is seen to be less about the activity of walking itself and more about the circumstances under which one can move through space—walking not just for the sake of exercise, pleasure, or getting to the shops on time. With the modern world (invested in trains, planes, and automobiles), the slow, simplicity of a walk (Walking? How pedestrian!) seems to have lost some of its value. However, walking is capable of bringing one’s focus back to a fundamental question of what a body physically needs to do in order to transition through, and therefore go on, in the world. Perhaps mourning the forgetting of the existential significance of walking, “blackened walking” pays respects to walking as the chance to explore self-determination and a readiness for the unknown.
We hadn’t conceived of the “Walking To Mordor” project initially in terms of its connection to Black Metal, but as we walked, Prescott-Steed’s phrase “blackened walking” echoed in my mind. The connection, however ephemeral, clarified itself in my mind as I looked over Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth, and researched his languages. Two of the bands mentioned in “Frostbite” take their names from Tolkien’s writing. Gorgoroth is an arid plateau in the northwest corner of Mordor, surrounding Mount Doom; the name comes from Sindarin (the Gray Elven tongue) and means “dreadful horror.” The name of another band, Burzum, means “darkness” in the Black Speech of Mordor.
Far from the tradition of protest marches, whether as performance art or otherwise, “Walking To Mordor” was in some was a playful exploration of what happens when a joke is taken 138 miles too far. A linguist became an author. His book became a movie. The movie spawned a joke. The joke became a meme. The meme became an Easter Egg embedded in the principal means by which Americans today naviage their world. With every breath spitting in the face of Alfred Korzybski, originator of the phrase, “the map is not the territory,” most of us today confuse a glance at Google Maps, followed by a drive in the car, with exploration. We think of distances first in minutes of driving, or hours of flight. The landmarks we note are gas stations and Starbucks locations. Google Maps has become the average person’s understanding of the world. Moreover, our culture is becoming one of remakes and mashups. References have taken the place of wit: “that’s clever” has been replaced with “I have heard that before.” Tolkien has been reduced, in the public imagination, to the origin of nerd-chic Internet memes, and we have tried in our way to be true to his work by dragging a piece of derivative humor, kicking and screaming, into meatspace.
For Heidegger, the work of art is that which sets up a world and sets forth earth; “the work lets the earth be an earth” (Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” 1936, 172). He says that the temple that sits atop a hill shows us, for the first time, the stoniness of stone. In describing a Van Gogh, he claims that we must look at paint’s color thus: “[c]olor shines and wants only to shine. When we analyze it in rational terms by measuring its wavelengths, it is gone. It shows itself only when it remains undisclosed and unexplained” (Heidegger 1936,172). The work of art is tied to the world and the earth from which is springs forth.
To continue my article last month that dealt with recent sculptural works made/shown in Atlanta that exemplify this setting to work the materials found in our urban environment, I’d like to address two recent image/photography-based projects by Atlanta-based artist Stephanie Dowda. Namely, her projects Topophilia and We Are All We’ve Got. These works, in their dealings with landscape and the cosmos, we find an intricate layering of space that spans prehistoric to astronomical time.
The Uncanniness of Topophilia
Dowda’s Topophilia, which gets its name from philosopher-geographer Yi-Fu Tuan‘s 1974 book Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values, consists of 14 photographic works – all 20″ x 24″ silver gelatin prints. Made using an idiosyncratic medium-format camera, these soft, and often romantic, photographs are the material manifestations of energy emanations. Dowda states that the camera she uses “becomes a vessel [that] capture[s] the sensation” from and of the places she visits. Her process involves letting the camera decide how the light waves will write themselves onto the film. Dowda claims to be taking a step back during the process of making; she lets the landscape itself create and determine the exposure. For an artist intent on photography-based practice, the camera taking over can create an uncanny sort of situation.
Uncanny, unheimlich in the German as an adjective means eerie or frightening, though taken as Unheimlich, a noun, the term becomes an ontological condition, which for Heidegger means a not-being-at-home; in other words, a being-not-familiar-with (Being and Time, 1927, 182). In our everyday dealings, we become “tranquilized” by our familiarity with our habitual world. However, as Heidegger notes, the uncanny emerges when “everyday familiarity collapses.”
Two of the photographs in Topophilia, Sense of Revenant and Sense of Breaking Apart, come from the Walter de Maria Lightning Field. Both of these photographs capture spectral energies – both human and nonhuman. Standing in front of Sense of Breaking Apart feels like splitting. The photograph’s horizon disintegrates into the haze and so does my gaze. Without knowing where this photograph was taken, I felt the energetic pulsations of a place filled with electrical activity. Sense of Revenant combines a sense of the ghostly and the dreamy. Who is visiting this camera, filtering through its shutter? For Freud, the revenant figures as the dream visitor, a “reincarnation” of someone from the dreamer’s life and past. (Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams 1899, 523). But the revenant is also a spectre (i.e., Roland Barthes‘ Spectrum).
Witnessing the ghost throws us into an unfamiliar yet familiar situation. We know this person, but this person should not be here now. The visitation is a strange rupture in our space-time experience. In his book The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of the Uncanny, Dylan Trigg, writes that
“The relation between aesthetic experience and ontological disruption is not incidental. As an aesthetic gesture in itself, the freezing of the life-world means that, what is taken-for-granted is thus shown in its transcendental givenness. This, indeed, constitutes a necessary estrangement from the world, insofar as it is precisely the everyday world in its familiar assurance that is most susceptible to sudden reversal” (2012, 26).
For Dowda’s photographs, there is this freezing, but also simultaneously a putting into motion. The energetic pulsations of past lightning and the visitor pass through the shutter and make their mark on the silver of the film. These emanations reach out to the camera. However, Dowda, as photographer, reciprocates this reaching. Trigg describes how “our bodies reach out into the world, so a mimetic interplay arises, in which our sense of self becomes fundamentally entwined with the fabric of the world” (2012, 9). For Dowda’s photographs, we can see the camera as an extension of her world and thus it extends out into the world, becomes a sort of being itself.
Prehistorical Time and Astronomical Time
Lucy Lippard’s 1983 book Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory starts with her tripping over a stone – a stone she realized “had been placed there almost 4,000 years ago” (2). For Lippard, her interests do not lie in the use of “prehistoric images in contemporary art”; rather, she is interested in the relationship between the prehistoric and the contemporary. To do this, Lippard uses the figure of the “overlay,” which for her has multiple meanings:
“It is temporal – human time on geologic time; contemporary notions of novelty and obsolescence on prehistoric notions of natural growth and cycles. The imposition of human habitation on the landscape is an overlay … so are the rhythms of the body transferred to the earth, those of the sky to the land or water … Artists working today from models of the distant past are consciously or unconsciously overlaying their knowledge of modern science and history on primal forms that remain mysterious to us despite this knowledge” (Lippard 1983, 3-4).
The stone in the landscape carries with it a richness through its slow accumulation of history. Over time, geologic material adds to material, rock formations develop then deteriorate and change. These stones always rest underfoot. The trip, a certain kind of temporal and spatial disruption, causes us to pay attention, bring us back to the stoniness of the stone. Our bodies, composed of the same material, are inherently part of this earth. Those who were there before us are also part of this landscape. When we step on this ground, we connect to the organic material underfoot.
In another gesture towards spatial orientation, Dowda’s installation We Are All We’ve Got, which was installed at Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum for its event Veneralia, memorialized the extinct star constellations Antinous, Quardrans Muralis, and Argo Navis. Using slides culled from Emory’s Physics Department that are no longer used, Dowda projected these constellations creating a layered human orientation. These projections constitute an “overlay” of our place in this universe.
Where we are at any particular point in time changes our view of the celestial bodies. Our vision is always contingent upon our position in space and time. Stars are born die. We are created from their dust. These cosmic beings provided our cartographic orientation as well as our bodily one. Socrates argues that the human head rests at the apex of the body so that it is closer to the heavens. From Plato’s Timaeus:
“Now we ought to think of the most sovereign part of our soul as god’s gift to us, given to be our guiding spirit. This, of course, is the type of soul that, as we maintain, resides in the top part of our bodies. It raises us up away from the earth and toward what is akin to us in heaven, as though we are plants grown not from the earth but from heaven” (90a).
Considering Our Place
It may seem a strange move to discuss works that were not “made in” Atlanta in order to follow up a discussion of Atlanta as place. However, these works serve to broaden the horizon of our place in time and space. For phenomenology, the horizon is what allows us to perceive. According to philosopher Edmund Husserl, we perceive in terms of the horizon and background:
“What is now perceived and what is more or less clearly co-present and determinate (or at least somewhat determinate), are penetrated and surrounded by an obscurely intended to horizon of indeterminate actuality. I can send rays of the illuminative regard of attention into this horizon with varying results. Determining presentiations, obscure at first and then becoming alive, haul something out for me; a chain of such quasi-memories is linked together; the sphere of determinateness becomes wider and wider, perhaps so wide that connection is made with the field of actual perception as my central surroundings” (Husserl, Ideas I, 1913, 49).
In other words, the indeterminate haziness of the horizon gives determinacy to the object perceived; the object emerges from this horizon. For Dowda’s photographs and projections, the horizons of time and space constitute the images that we are presented with. These images, of this world but completely otherworldy, throw us into uncanniness. Instead of being destroyed by this mood as anxiety, however, it provokes us to consider where we stand. Where we are. When we are. As Dylan Trigg states,
“[t]he uncanny is strange rather than shocking, weird rather than annihilating. Often, we fail to recognize the power of the uncanny, its workings registered only belatedly and in parched fragments. At that time, we turn to ourselves in order to ask the following question: What just happened to me? A feeling of disempowerment occurs. The unity of self-identity becomes vulnerable. No longer do we feel at ease within ourselves. The uncanny leaves us in a state of disquiet, unnerved precisely because we lack the conceptual scheme to put the uncanny in its rightful ‘place.'” (2012, 28)
It would be too easy to deal with this uneasiness by passing it over, by claiming that there is no place that needs dealing with. I realize that the noplace of Noplaceness also gestures towards the duplicitous definition of utopia: utopia as good place and no place. However, since utopia holds within it a non-existence, it in fact is a nowhere, it is no place at all, it is the here, this place where we stand, that we must consider.