Energies, Spectres, and Stars: In Search of Place, Part II

April 23, 2014 · Print This Article

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.

Stephanie Dowda. "Sense of Breaking Apart." 2014. Courtesy of Get This Gallery.

Stephanie Dowda. “Sense of Breaking Apart.” 2014. Courtesy of Get This Gallery.

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).

Stephanie Dowda. "Sense of Revenant." 2014. Courtesy of Get This Gallery.

Stephanie Dowda. “Sense of Revenant.” 2014. Courtesy of Get This Gallery.

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.

Stephanie Dowda. "Guardian." 2014. Courtesy of Get This Gallery.

Stephanie Dowda. “Guardian.” 2014. Courtesy of Get This Gallery.

Dowda’s photograph Guardian, taken in Desolation Canyon, UT, allows us to position our present in a broader temporality, one that takes note of the years required to create a stone and what it might have meant for those before us. During Dowda’s artist talk at Get This Gallery, Dowda described the sense of protection that these rock formations of the Canyon created for her. Some sort of energy emanated from this particular geology that affected her. Incidentally, those who inhabited this area before her also felt this energy; the rock formation contains a petroglyph depicting a man who is said to be the guardian of this valley. The particular shape of the formations serve as landmarks, guiding and orienting us in this landscape.

 

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.

Stephanie Dowda. "We Are All We've Got." 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Stephanie Dowda. “We Are All We’ve Got.” 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

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.




Taxonomy for the Goldish Queen: An Interview with the Institute of Critical Zoologists

December 27, 2013 · Print This Article

Blind Long-tailed Owl, Desert Variant of Little Owl from the series, As Walked on Water, 2011 Installation of vinyl print, 280cm x 194cm (Exhibition view)

“Blind Long-tailed Owl,” Desert Variant of Little Owl from the series, As Walked on Water, Institute of Critical Zoologists, 2011 Installation of vinyl print, 280cm x 194cm (Exhibition view)

Singapore based artist Robert Zhao Renhui is the Institute of Critical Zoologists, an organization that — for any Doctor Who fans out there — would be the environmental analogue to the Torchwood Institute.  The fictional Torchwood was founded to protect the Earth from supernatural and extraterrestrial threats; with that mandate in hand its employees must remain open and unperturbed by a myriad of strange and uncanny possibilities within the universe. Shrouded in secrecy, however, it attempts to perpetuate the myth of everyday banality, to keep their fellow human citizens free from fear. Although similarly invested in strange zoological proclivities of our non-human fellows, the ICZ is not a secret society. It delves into the multifarious world around us to expose the strange assumptions  humanity takes for granted about its surrounding landscape. Working primarily as a photographer, Renhui blends fact and fiction to emphasize the idiosyncratic relations between animals, their habitats, and the humans that categorize them. While the result is ecologically minded,  the dominant effect is uncanny. The ICZ affectively unearths little understood behavioral habits of animals and re-presents them within gallery settings as representational photography, encyclopedic texts, and multimedia installations. Currently ICZ currently has an exhibit, The Last Thing You See, up at 2902 Gallery in Singapore until January 5th that examines the act of sight. By demonstrating the shift in perception that would result from a sensitivity to ultraviolet light, ICZ reveals a world familiar to insects while being totally divorced from human experience. ICZ is going to appear in an upcoming series of shows I’m curating at Gallery 400 and La Box.
"A spider web which is a flower," Institute of Critical Zoologists, 2013 150cm x 100cm, Diasec From the series, How to eat bees?   Under ultraviolet light, certain parts of a spider web glow, forming a a pattern that looks like a flower - this is visible to bees, which attracts them.

“A spider web which is a flower,” Institute of Critical Zoologists, 2013, 150cm x 100cm, Diasec
From the series, How to eat bees?
Under ultraviolet light, certain parts of a spider web glow, forming a a pattern that looks like a flower – this is visible to bees, which attracts them.

Caroline Picard: How did the Institute of Critical Zoologists (ICZ) come about and what does “animal spectatorship” mean?
Robert Zhao Renhui: The ICZ came about mainly because of my interest with photography and animals. A long time ago, I was involved with animal rights activism. At that point of time, I was curious with how photography was used in animal activism. I contributed a lot of photographs to talk about the plight of animals living in captivity in Asia. I got too emotional and personally involved at one point. On the other hand, I was also using photographs to create my own fictional narratives about humans and animals. In college, my tutor asked me to look at my photographic narratives with my concerns of animals rights together, instead of two separate projects. Slowly, the ICZ took shape. Animal spectatorship, in my work, is very much about the conditions of looking and understanding animals.
CP: I feel like you’re interested in the way things are visible and invisible — for instance how a human can all but disappear in a suit of leaves, or what a spider’s web looks like in ultraviolet light, can you talk more about how this series of works came together.
RZR: My interests are very much shaped by my medium, photography. Photography has always been about a way of seeing. In this exhibition, I was interested in how not seeing is as important as seeing. For the longest time, nobody knew why certain spiders weave distinctive markings on their webs. It isn’t logical for spiders to make these markings because then they render an otherwise hard-to-see web visible. Scientists came up with a theory that the markings are made to warn larger animals to not walk into the spider web and destroy it. In other words, the insect trap had a defense mechanism.  It was not only recently that we realised that most insects see in the UV spectrum, a visual spectrum invisible to humans. Under UV light, the web mimics the shape of a flower. These markings are also visible on flowers in UV light. A spider web that wants to be a flower. I like that idea. A mimic and an invisible trap. Like a photograph.
Eskimo wolf trap often quoted in sermons 2013, Dimensions variable Installation of diasec, eskimo knife, polyurethane, 200 kg of sodium bicarbonate "Eventually, a wolf will approach the knife and begin to cautiously sniff and lick the frozen blood. After believing it is safe, the wolf will lick more aggressively. Soon, the blade of the knife becomes exposed and it begins to nick the wolf’s tongue. Because its tongue has been numbed by the cold of the frozen blood, the wolf is unaware that he is being cut, and the blood it now tastes is its own. Excited at the prospect of fresh, warm blood, the wolf will hungrily lick the blade all the more. In a short time, the wolf will grow dizzy and disoriented. In a matter of hours, it will die from blood loss, literally drinking itself to death. As horrible as this picture is, it illustrates an important truth."

Institute of Critical Zoologists, “Eskimo wolf trap often quoted in sermons,” 2013, Dimensions variable, Installation of diasec, eskimo knife, polyurethane, 200 kg of sodium bicarbonate.               
Eventually, a wolf will approach the knife and begin to cautiously sniff and lick the frozen blood. After believing it is safe, the wolf will lick more aggressively. Soon, the blade of the knife becomes exposed and it begins to nick the wolf’s tongue. Because its tongue has been numbed by the cold of the frozen blood, the wolf is unaware that he is being cut, and the blood it now tastes is its own. Excited at the prospect of fresh, warm blood, the wolf will hungrily lick the blade all the more. In a short time, the wolf will grow dizzy and disoriented. In a matter of hours, it will die from blood loss, literally drinking itself to death. As horrible as this picture is, it illustrates an important truth.

CP: Traps come up in several of your works —  I’m thinking of your bee trap for instance, or the wolf trap — in both instances I feel like you’re somehow able to tap into an animal semiotics, almost, using the bee’s attraction to blue to bring them into the gallery, or using the wolf’s appetite for blood to disguise its sense of pain. What draws you to traps? 
RZR: Michel Foucault said that “visibility is a trap.” He meant it in the case of the Panopticon, a prison where the all the inmates were visible to one another, hence creating a system of totalitarian, mutual surveillance. I’ve been thinking a lot about this statement, but with the trap not relating to the observed, but the observer. Visibility is a trap because we imagine we know a lot through empirical evidence. But what is beyond the visible? Even my interest with animal traps is linked to my interest with photography. A photograph can trap us rather than liberate us. Seeing can be dangerous and misleading because we always have an eye out for the truth. It narrows our vision and the price to pay is not really knowing the bigger picture. That’s how animals get trapped –  they fail to see beyond what is already presented to them.
"World Goldfish Queen," Institute of Critical Zoologists,  from the series A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, 2013

Institute of Critical Zoologists, “World Goldfish Queen,” 2013, from the series A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World,

CP: You have a book that just came out! How long did it take for you to make it? What does it contain?
RZR: A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World is an encyclopedia of man-made nature. It started of with the goldfish. Why doesn’t the goldfish have a scientific name? Why is it not included in any natural history encyclopedia? Today, the goldfish is a very common fish and in China, they recently held a competition for the World Goldfish Queen. I wanted to find out if there was a book that the goldfish can exist in other than a decorative aquarium trade fish. I started looking at other aquarium fishes that were artificial and slowly branched out into other animals and plants affected by aesthetic modification, ecological conservation, pollution, evolution and genetic-modification. It took me about a year to create the volume. Included in the book are my past projects like Acusis and A heartwarming feeling. So you can say the book has almost 3 years of my research. At the end of the book (there are about 3 books in this book, all housed in a box) there is a book that talks about Tropical Bonsai, specifically the Banana Bonsai Plant. My father keeps a dwarfed banana bonsai plant of 6 years at 15cm tall. Bonsai is the art of miniaturising trees. It is man controlling nature in a very obvious and aesthetic way. There are rules to create bonsai and there are also rules to view bonsai. There are front views, side views and back views. This is a very important part of the book.  It offers a way to think about the way we have controlled nature. As a species, we have always defined and controlled the way nature existed with us and this is nothing new. Brocolli and Cauliflower are not natural although we have become so familiar with them. Man has always determined what nature should look and feel like. The way we think and look at Bonsai may offer us a way to contemplate our complicated existence with nature.

 




Cosmic Images and Inner Realities: P. Seth Thompson’s “The Last One”

December 26, 2013 · Print This Article

Images: An Abridged History

This past semester I taught an undergraduate class at Emory University titled “Visual Studies: The Image.” Some of the questions the course focused on were: what is an image? what does it mean to make an image? how should we look at images? what do these images do to the way we think about the world? In a world saturated with images, I thought it important to encourage students to consider the long and complicated history of the image.

Just a few broad strokes to contextualize, a brief, abridged, and very limited history, a few mile markers:

5th century BC: Zeuxis and Parhassius engage in a painting contest. Zeuxis painted a scene of grapes. Birds, attempting to feed on them, flew into and pecked at the painting. Next up was Parhassius. Zeuxis demanded to see the painting that was hidden behind a curtain, but Parhassius revealed that the painting was in fact the curtain.  Parhassius wins: his painting of a curtain fooled Zeuxis, a fellow artist, while Zeuxis’ painting of grapes only fooled the birds. [1]

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in Book XII of his Republic tells a story of prisoners who are trapped in a cave and have only known a play of shadows on the cave wall, created by puppets backlit by the cave fire. These shadows are their only reality. In the event that one of the prisoners leaves the cave, his eyes, blinded by the sun’s light, can’t deal with actual reality. He chooses to go back to the cave unless he is encouraged to remain outside of its depths. However, in Plato’s Timaeus, the origins of the cosmos is attributed to its being the image of the eternal paradigm; this is a materialization that is divine. [2]

Sacred texts of the Abrahamic religions describe the function of the image. We find that man is made in God’s image, but we should not worship false images, idols. Fast forward to 8th and 9th century Byzantium and the clashes over the status of the icon; a debate that finds its roots in Greek philosophy along with Christian theology. The image is either sacred, or it is false and should be destroyed. [3]

Then, consider the birth of photography in the 19th century and the rise of cinematic propaganda. Now, reality television, Instagram, and the space program. Or, “Charlie Rules the World”: Episode 8, Season 8 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – the Gang gets sucked into an online game and their distinctions between reality and fantasy, actuality and virtuality, blur.

 

Outer Space and the Domestic Television

Atlanta-based artist P. Seth Thompson’s show The Last One, which closes on December 30, 2013 at {Poem 88} in Atlanta’s West Midtown neighborhood, presents the viewer with the artist’s confrontations between reality and image, truth and fiction. Using science fiction as the portal, Thompson shows us the strange and close encounters we have with the images that in/form us.

The center piece of the show, the video An Event Cannot Have An End Time in the Past, is an exercise in memory, news media, scientific teleology, and disaster. Made using primarily the artist’s childhood home movies, the video’s layers reveal a space-scape that fill in the contours of the family’s bodies on screen. In an abrupt ending, we witness the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion; its footage become home movie, entering the family’s domestic space on a screen that serves as the centerpiece for a living room. The sound, composed by Jon Ciliberto, takes the viewer on an ambient journey up to a transformative climax. As I finish this article, the TV program “How the Universe Works” on the Science Channel plays in the background at my friend’s mother’s home. I am here for Christmas. The lights of the Christmas tree bounce off the digitally rendered stardust and animated theaters of comet crashes, planetary orbits, and blackhole consumption. The TV viewer is informed of the Earth’s pending catastrophe; the Earth occupies a precarious position in the universe that is always on the precipice of doom.

P. Seth Thompson. "An Event Cannot Have an End Time in the Past." 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

P. Seth Thompson. “An Event Cannot Have an End Time in the Past.” 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Thompson’s statement accompanying the show claims that he is “co-opt[ing] and challeng[ing] the images to underscore our complicity in the suspension of belief in the digital era.” [4] What is the “challenge” he is posing to images? What does the rhetoric of challenge mean in the context of the Challenger’s explosion? What has our fascination with images of space done for our understanding of our position in the world? The American space program, more rigorously tended to after the launch of the Soviet’s Sputnik, serves as an entryway into the ways in which images – both physical and mental – inform policy and American everyday life. In America’s determination to win the space race during the Cold War, where two major nations became images of themselves, what gets covered over? How do these images of space and nation converge to influence everyday realities?

Thompson’s addition of his photograph Niels Bohr Through the Looking Glass, points further to American policy and its way of navigating science. Bohr, a Danish physicist who received a Nobel Prize for his contributions to the research on the structure of atoms and quantum mechanics, was also involved with the Manhattan Project, the project that developed the atomic bomb during the Second World War. Not only is Bohr an interesting figure to include here, an important scientist and public presence, but it is also his theories of light – that is, the discovery that light behaves as both a particle and a wave – that are important to the show. Light, the essential factor in the production of photographs, is itself unstable.

P. Seth Thompson. "Niels Bohr Through the Looking Glass." 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

P. Seth Thompson. “Niels Bohr Through the Looking Glass.” 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Reality’s Virtuality

Thompson states that “all we have is the world we create in our head, and if that’s not reality, then nothing is reality. We are left in a world of our own making and that is perfectly fine with me.” [5] Part of this statement may be a re-investment in the simulacrum, a concept made famously negative by Baudrillard [6]; a re-investment that I think needs to be seriously considered. In its Latin origins, the term “simulacrum” means merely similarity or likeness. This likeness, however, evolved to describe a likeness that is inferior, without substance. It is a likeness that does not have a model to fashion itself after. This substance-less image has the potential to open imaginative space, but in terms of a reality that only exists in our heads, I hesitate to fully jump into this spaceship. What does it mean to claim that all we have is what’s in our head? Going back further in time, is this a reclamation of philosopher René Descartes’ doubting of all things?

Descartes’ project, which was an attempt to discover the truly certain, rejected sensory experience because of its capability to deceive; the only certainty we have exists in the mind. This rejection of the corporeal led him, in his Meditations on First Philosophy, to reject physics (important to the premise of this particular exhibition), since it is a science based on corporeal nature; he turned instead to geometry. [7] Descartes’ dismissal of the body and the sensorial serves as the starting point for its own deconstruction in the project of phenomenology. For Edmund Husserl, the appearance is all we have and we must bracket out any notions of an underlying reality of the object. These appearances, taken as phenomenon, are images experienced in perception. They are both there for me as existing in my perception, but they also transcend my perception and are apart from me. These images can’t merely exist in my head; they have to have their own sort of actuality. [8]

 

Disintegrating Images

As I’ve mentioned above and in a previous article, [9] the image has been historically regarded as a dangerous falsity. It is not only not truth, but it is a danger to truth itself; it is only a shadow on the wall. Chris Marker’s short film that uses text from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave shows the potential danger of our fascination with cinema, a stance that Walter Benjamin writes of in his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” [10] Benjamin describes the way in which the film actor, in acting for the camera, uses “his whole living person, yet forgo[es] his aura” (229). This “self-alienation” opens the door for Fascism to render politics as an aesthetics (242).

Thompson’s layering and pixelation of the cinematic image exhibits a gesture of disintegration, not necessarily incorporation. What is the image disintegrating/dissolving into? Our collective imaginary? His photograph The Spaceman’s Disappearing Act, presents the viewer with an almost illegible image when viewed up close. However, when viewed from the side, the image reveals a person clad in a spacesuit. It is only from an oblique view that the spaceman reveals himself. In the Lacanian sense of anamorphosis, the viewer gazes upon the distorted image which conceals the Real and thus recognizes herself as the annihilated subject; she can’t be the privileged center. [11] She becomes aware of how she is seeing and therefore aware that she can be seen from such an angle. She is an image that can be perceived.

P. Seth Thompson. "The Spaceman's Disappearing Act." 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

P. Seth Thompson. “The Spaceman’s Disappearing Act.” 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Outer Space, as the final frontier, serves as an extreme example of our fantasies. However, more “mundane” images fill in our memories and bodies. As I wrote about in a previous article, [12] Jill Frank’s photographs, comprising her series Romance, approach similar issues Thompson addresses, of the ways in which cinema inhabits our everyday lives. However, what we find in Frank’s work is the bodily mimicry of the viewed. The cinematic image, not registered itself on film, is instead registered through the bodies of the photographed subjects. The image has been acted out, performed, incorporated into everyday bodies.

The Last One offers actual and virtual disaster with sentimentality. Thompson references the hero’s journey, a theory proposed by Joseph Campbell that organizes quintessential heroic journey stories into a definitive structure. The structure, formulated for the traveling male, is a formalization of the relationship between constructed narrative, everyday life, and mythology. This constructed narrative enables the space program and therefore constituted the situation in which the Challenger catastrophe, witnessed through the media, could occur. What happens when disaster is sentimentalized in the domestic sphere? The images in The Last One may occupy an oppositional pole to Warhol’s works on disaster, car crashes, and American violence. Warhol shows the viewer news media coverage of American disasters without sentimentality. They are cold and alienating. In a sense, Thompson’s works invite the viewer to engage with them in a way that bring her into the narrative fold. However, the danger here is that she can get too comfortable. The question becomes: in our everyday lives lived in the midst of disaster and violence, how do we navigate these images surrounding us in a way that simultaneously connects to and disengages from them?

 

Notes:

[1] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book 35, Chapter 36

[2] Plato, Republic; and Plato, Timaeus 

[3] See for example, Alain Besançon, The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm, translated by Jane Marie Todd (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000); Gerhart B. Ladner, “The Concept of the Image in the Greek Fathers and the Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversy,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, vol. 7 (1953): 1 – 34; and Marie-José Mondzain, Image, Icon, Economy: The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary, translated by Rico Franses (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).

[4] Statement for The Last One, http://www.poem88.net/p_seth_thompson_slide-2013.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, translated by Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1995).

[7] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy [1641], translated by Donald Cress, in Philosophical Essays and Correspondence, edited by Roger Ariew (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2000): 97 – 141.

[8] Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology [1931], translated by Dorion Cairns (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999).

[8] Meredith Kooi, “James Turrell’s Cave and the Unveiling Truth,” Bad at Sports (October 24, 2013), http://badatsports.com/2013/james-turrells-cave-and-the-unveiling-truth/.

[9] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1977): 217 – 252.

[10] Jacques Lacan, “Anamorphosis,” in The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Vol. XI, translated by Alan Sheridan (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998): 79 – 90.

[11] Meredith Kooi, “The ‘Celluloid Self’ and Spaces of Feminine Performativity,” Bad at Sports (Sept 26, 2013), http://badatsports.com/2013/the-celluloid-self-and-spaces-of-feminine-performativity/.




Episode 424: Sarah Conaway

October 14, 2013 · Print This Article

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Conaway
This week: Duncan live from LA! This week he talks with artist Sarah Conaway.

Sarah Conaway (b. 1972 York, Pennsylvania) makes seemingly straightforward photographs that invite us to think magically, imbuing mundane objects with mystery and potential. Her recent photographs—printed in a range of sizes and primarily in black and white, with an occasional work in vibrant color—capture a series of actions set up by the artist in her the studio. Beyond the objects or materials that they portray, they express a residue, aura, or presence that we sense but do not necessarily see depicted. Although the act of photographing her sculptural constructions and still lifes—at times as ordinary as a crumpled strip of canvas or a piece of string—reduces the subjects’ dimensionality, it focuses our attention on texture, light, and shadow—and the sheer pleasure of looking. Conaway’s techniques are deceptively simple: her touch is light, the scale of the forms uncertain, the color and contrast stark. These arrangements of simple materials and common objects reveal their potential as architecture, figure, landscape, fantasy, or apparition while maintaining a tenuous state of balance and compositional harmony.




The “Celluloid Self” and Spaces of Feminine Performativity

September 26, 2013 · Print This Article

The Hagedorn Foundation Gallery, located surprisingly in a nondescript complex of galleries and antique shops in Buckhead, a north-side neighborhood of Atlanta, curated a show focusing on feminism, performativity, and photography. The works in the show by the artists Jill Frank, Mónika Sziládi, and duo Double Zero (Hannah Ireland and Annie Vought) examine how to make a photograph of someone, a person, a woman (perhaps) and what that means. One of the organizing principles of the show – performativity, a buzz word indeed especially since the 1990s with Judith Butler’s work on gender – finds itself in relation to photographs that draw attention to the process of their making. Alongside considerations of gender and femininity as performative gestures, the works in the show investigate the apparatus of photography and imagistic representation itself – Jill Frank’s work in particular. Adding to this work by Frank is the Untitled (Projection) series by Steffani Jemison presented in her solo exhibition, When I Turn My Head, in the upstairs gallery at Hagedorn.

The works in Ready for My Close-Up evoke other images of women from history: paintings, film stills. These other images, not necessarily direct references, exist in an assemblage of representation with Frank’s, Sziládi’s, and Double Zero’s. When seen in conjunction with When I Turn My Head, the sphere of the imagistic medium, photography, opens itself to critical examination and self-reflection. Ready for My Close-Up seems to ask whether the question of female or feminine representation is the question of representation itself.

Jill Frank’s Menacing Romance

Four photographs from Jill Frank’s series Romance are presented in the show: Romance / Popocatépetl and Iztacchíhuatl (2012), Romance / Secret Sniper (2012), Romance / Vertigo (2013), and Romance / Un Homme et un Femme (2013). All images are chromogenic prints with rich colors that provoke fantasies, and with their large size (30” x 37”), the viewer feels as if she can initially step into the scene. The first two images, Romance / Popocatépetl and Iztacchíhuatl (2012) and Romance / Secret Sniper (2012), depict more unsuspecting narratives, whereas the last two images, Romance / Vertigo (2013) and Romance / Un Homme et un Femme (2013) start to take on a more sinister e/affect.

Jill Frank. "Romance / Vertigo." 2013. Chromogenic Print. Courtesy of the artist.

Jill Frank. Romance / Vertigo. 2013. Chromogenic Print. Courtesy of the artist.

A woman lays across a kneeling man’s knee with her head invisible to the viewer – it hangs down, exposing her throat where his his hand rests. Her knee hosts a series of bandages, the slingback of her shoe has slipped from her heel.

Two men stand at the edge of a dock. Wearing matching colored shorts, one holds the other from behind, grasping at his neck and chest. The man standing in front reaches over his head to hold onto the man behind him. The man in front looks up obliquely with an indistinguishable gaze.

These two photographs: Romance / Vertigo (2013) and Romance / Un Homme et un Femme (2013) exemplify the complications Frank creates for our traditional senses of Hollywood romance. Frank’s statement for the show describes her process and intentions behind the series:

“The photographs in this exhibition portray couples re-performing poses inspired by popular media images that were formative in constructing their own understanding of romantic interaction and presentation. The photographed performances challenge the authority and familiarity of the collective visual archive of American romance in order to engender a critical conversation about the influence of dominant representations.” [1]

The show’s title Ready for My Close-Up directly references the last lines aging Hollywood actress Norma Desmond speaks in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. The film, a story of a silent film actress gone mad yearning to occupy the space of the Hollywood picture again, ends with her face approaching the camera until it disintegrates into a haze of grey. Her closeness to the camera quite literally destroys her, but it was the years of distance which contributed to her delusions. [2] Hagedorn’s exhibition statement describes the cultural reference to the film in relation to the photographic works shown in Ready for My Close-Up:

“In the last half century, feminism and performativity have influenced contemporary photography more than any other cultural markers. The exhibition title is taken from the exit line of Sunset Boulevard, a film which questions female identity issues, the rehearsal of the self, the gaze of the viewer, and the use of the theatrical to command attention, all influenced by culture and all features of this group exhibition.” [3]

The works in the group show can all serve as critical responses to the film, whether the work is explicitly influenced by the film or not; they exist together in the sphere of representation’s history. Frank’s photographs play out the deranged romantic entanglement of the film’s Desmond and Joe Gillis. Mónika Sziládi’s photographs present the viewer with a crowded and disorienting perspective of cultures and practices of representation. Double Zero’s photographs and video portray a feminine masquerade pushed to hyperbolic extremes.

 

Mónika Sziládi. "Untitled (Ladies)." 2012. Archival inkjet print.

Mónika Sziládi. Untitled (Ladies). 2012. Archival inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Sziládi, The Montage-Paparazzi

Sziládi’s photograph Untitled (Ladies) (2012) sticks a fuzzy and blurred face into the foreground of the image. The close-up shot has gotten too close like Norma Desmond’s final close-up in Sunset Boulevard. The six photographs shown at Hagedorn are from her series Wide Receivers, possibly a play on the position in American football, the players that are able to receive passes from the quarterback and are often celebrated for those glorious catches. Her statement describes her interests in the “social sphere and its attendant behaviors” and her “aim to collapse the space between the physical and the virtual.” [4] The images, a flattening of perspectival depth, contain images of imaging or representational processes and those who are allowed representation. There is a sense that when one figure stands in front of another, there is no space between their bodies; one actually cuts through the other’s body.

Untitled (Blonde) (2011) can be read as representing representation itself. Through Sziládi’s inclusion of images of handheld cameras, subjects posing for snapshots, a woman putting on make-up reflected in a mirror, and a perhaps drag queen taking up the center space of the photograph, after whom the photograph is titled, the photograph seems to become a commentary on the practice of photography itself. Next to the blonde, a man was caught with his eyes closed. To the left of him, a man’s eye peers directly out of the frame towards the subject looking at the photograph. Michel Foucault states that the 17th century painting Las Meninas (1656) by Diego Velásquez

“presents us with the entire cycle of representation: the gaze, the palette and brush, the canvas innocent of signs (these are the material tools of representation), the paintings, the reflections, the real man (the completed representation, but as it were freed from its illusory or truthful contents, which are juxtaposed to it); then the representation  dissolves again: we can see only the frames, and the light that is flooding the pictures from outside, but that they, in return, must reconstitute in their own kind, as though it were coming from elsewhere, passing through their dark wooden frames.” [5]

 

Diego Velázquez. "Las Meninas." 1656. Image found at: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/Las_Meninas_%281656%29%2C_by_Velazquez.jpg

Diego Velázquez. Las Meninas. 1656. Image retrieved on Wikipedia at: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/Las_Meninas_%281656%29%2C_by_Velazquez.jpg

 

Sziládi’s digital composites of images taken at “public relations and networking events as well as trade shows and meet-ups of social segments that have connected online to interact offline” [6] comment on the constructed nature of the way we present ourselves in public and the ways in which we image those constructions. Like Velasquez’s painting, the apparatus of representation shows itself explicitly, drawing our attention to our own practices of presentation and public performance.

 

Mónika Sziládi. "Untitled (Blonde)." 2011. Archival inkjet print. Courtesy of artist.

Mónika Sziládi. Untitled (Blonde). 2011. Archival inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist.

Double Zero’s Revealing Masks

Double Zero’s photographs and video push these meticulous constructions of public appearance to the extreme. In their video Cha cha cha changes (2013), Hannah Ireland and Annie Vought dress each other up with unconventional objects or conventional objects in unconventional ways. Over the course of the video’s almost 23 minutes, the two women take on absurd costuming and masking. With materials that are used for make-up application and other cosmetic tools, their faces become covered in lipstick and face paint, their heads bound in bubblewrap and what appears to be foil that could be used to dye hair. Flower stems are stuck into the fabrics wrapping their heads, blooms sticking out from their faces.

 

Double Zero (Hannah Ireland & Annie Vought). "each other + self-portrait #3 'My left arm and your right arm together'." 2013 C-print. Courtesy of the artists.

Double Zero (Hannah Ireland & Annie Vought). each other + self-portrait #3 “My left arm and your right arm together”. 2013 C-print. Courtesy of the artists.

 

The two take turns transforming each other’s appearance. In what appears to be a reference to Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, particularly Cremaster 3, they go through processes of bodily manipulation and adornment. [7] If Barney’s Cremaster Cycle is about the development of the male testes, what can be said about Double Zero’s feminine transformations? Their statement reads: “We have united to use our 20 year friendship as the basis for investigating the ways we affect one another, the boundaries between us, and different modes of taking up space in the world. With the complexities of friendship and the trust we’ve built over time, we pursue these themes directly in the actions and objects we make together.” [8] Their photographs and video show a relational transformation. They affect one another whether they choose it or not. The silliness of the objects and the resulting ornate masks when coupled with their facial expressions in the video, the phenomenon of feminine friendship grows into a complex situation of acceptance and denial.

 

Double Zero (Hannah Ireland & Annie Vought). "Cha cha cha changes." 2013. Video.

Double Zero (Hannah Ireland & Annie Vought). Cha cha cha changes. 2013. Video.

 

Norma Desmond, after she convinces herself that her script for her film about Salome, the ancient femme fatale, will be directed by Cecil B. DeMille, she starts a rigorous beauty routine. She claims that she needs to make herself ready to be in the pictures again and a sequence shows her being massaged, prodded, wrapped, lotioned. At one point, while wearing products on her face and with her hair wrapped, she enters Joe’s room, but tells him not to look back at her; when she is made-up in this way instead of the proper way, he is not to gaze upon her. Desmond’s excessively vain self-consciousness, is a private practice made public. At another moment in the film, after gazing at herself in the mirror, eyes wide with frenzy, she rips off the cosmetic strips on her face before walking into Joe’s room to discover he is leaving her. She chases him as he exits the house. To get his attention, she shoots him. She shoots him again. This is the moment of her breakdown. After this moment, all she can do is sit in front of the mirror and prep for the camera.

 

Caravaggio. "Salome with the Head of John the Baptist." 1607. Image retrieved on Wikipedia at: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1a/CaravaggioSalomeLondon.jpg

Caravaggio. Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. 1607. Image retrieved on Wikipedia at: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1a/CaravaggioSalomeLondon.jpg

 

Concluding Remarks: does Jemison’s ink adhere?

Desmond lives in a world of cameras and characters. To her, cinema ended when dialogue began. She says to Joe “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces.” She then steps into the light of the film projector in her home movie theater that is showing one of the movies she had starred in. The woman actress need only have a face; she didn’t need a voice – this is the kind of cinema that Desmond supports. The voice destroys the perfect face; the face of 1932 Marlene Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily that Laura Mulvey gazes upon in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” [9] As Joe Gillis voice-over narrates, Norma is a “celluloid self.” [10] Is the celluloid flat? Does it have any depth? Is her self only surface, the merging of the surface with the underlying anatomy, her body? Or, is her self a thin veneer covering the surface of the filmic foundation?

The upstairs gallery of Hagedorn hosts Steffani Jemison’s show When I Turn My Head which “considers issues that arise when conceptual practices are inflected by black history and vernacular culture” and also “addresses the form and materiality of a photograph through the fugitivity of the image.” [11] Works from her series Untitled (Projections), photographs printed on acetate, explore the ways in which an image may separate from its support. The ink does not sink into the acetate; it rests on the surface, creating a depth of materiality. [12] Mary Ann Doane writes in her seminal essay “Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator” that “The masquerade, in flaunting femininity, holds it at a distance. Womanliness is a mask which can be worn or removed. The masquerade’s resistance to patriarchal positioning would therefore lie in its denial of the production of femininity as closeness, as presence-to-itself, as precisely, imagistic.” [13] Taken together with the works in the show on the ground level, what do we discover about photography as a tool and method for thinking through and creating structures of representation? How much does the image adhere to what it represents and the foundation which holds that very representation itself?

 

Steffani Jemison. "Untitled (Projection)." 2012. Inkjet print on acetate, gesso, hardware on panel. Image retrieve on Jemison's website at: http://www.steffanijemison.com/index.php?/untitled-projections/

Steffani Jemison. Untitled (Projection). 2012. Inkjet print on acetate, gesso, hardware on panel. Image retrieve on Jemison’s website at: http://www.steffanijemison.com/index.php?/untitled-projections/

 

Sziládi, the figure of montage-paparazzi, makes apparent the apparatus of representation while Frank’s photographs create scenes in which non-extraordinary people inhabit the characters of Hollywood in order to experience true romance. What Frank shows us, though, is that these typical narratives are not without their dangers. Norma murders the man she has come to love. Whether or not that love is true is a question we could ask. In considering Ready for My Close-Up, must this love be artificial? Double Zero’s work seen as a sort of parody of making-up for the camera, expresses the artificial nature of feminine identity construction. However, within the framework of feminine friendship, we can’t too quickly dismiss these gestures of dressing one another. The collage nature of Sziládi’s digital images is seamless. Before knowing that they were constructed, I stood in front of the photographs pondering what parties they came from: where do these people gather? Are they all in costume together, playing into some collective fantasy?

 

Jill Frank. "Romance / Un homme et une femme." 2013. Chromogenic print. Courtesy of the artist.

Jill Frank. Romance / Un homme et un Femme. 2013. Chromogenic print. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Frank’s series grew from an iconic image, at least in today’s age of Hollywood: the image of Baby / Jennifer Grey crawling towards Johnny / Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing. A recognizable image. What sets Frank’s later photographs apart is their subjects’ poses are initially unrecognizable. In some way, their illegibility may gesture towards an infiltration of our cultural imaginary that we now fail to recognize. The everyday performances of relationships and romance congeal in Frank’s photographs.  Ready for My Close-Up, a show curated around the issue of feminism and performativity, finds its complexity in Frank’s strangely unsettling images of menacing romance, Sziládi’s disorienting flatness, and Double Zero’s interplay of masking and revealing.

Desmond, an embodied image of the female hysteric, is deluded. Her wide eyes stare out at the film spectator. As the character Salome, a woman who has been historically represented as a seductress, she approaches the camera, staring directly out at us, outside the frame of the film. In this moment, is she re-living/playing her past traumas? Traumas that may have led to this moment? In the film’s final moments, when Desmond declares that she is ready for her close-up, what can we say is exterior? What is interior?  Who is she? And, gazing at her, making eye contact, who are we?

 

Film still from "Sunset Boulevard." 1950. Directed by Billy Wilder. Image retrieved from blog "Cinema is my Life" at: http://www.cinemaismylife.com/2011/02/sunset-boulevard-or-how-hollywood_28.html

Film still from Sunset Boulevard. 1950. Directed by Billy Wilder. Image retrieved from blog “Cinema is my Life” at: http://www.cinemaismylife.com/2011/02/sunset-boulevard-or-how-hollywood_28.html

 

Ready for My Close-Up
September 12, 2013 – October 25, 2013
Artists’ Reception: October 4, 2013, 6:00 – 8:30 PM

Panel Discussion with the artists and Wendy Vogel, Associate Editor at Modern Painters: October 5, 2013, 12:00 – 2:00 PM

Hagedorn Foundation Gallery
425 Peachtree Hills Avenue, Number 25
Atlanta, GA 30305

 

Notes

[1] Jill Frank, Statement

[2] Sunset Boulevard. Directed by Billy Wilder. 1950.

[3] Hagedorn, Statement

[4] Mónika Sziládi, Wide Receivers statement, http://msziladi.com/index.php/image/statement/13

[5] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage, 1994), 11.

[6] Sziládi, Wide Receivers statement

[7] I am indebted to Justin Andrews for calling this to my attention.

[8] Annie Vought, “Double Zero Videos,” http://annievought.com/category/double-zero/

[9] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, vol. 16, no. 3 (1975): 6-18.

[10] Sunset Boulevard.

[11] Hagedorn Foundation Gallery, Press Release for Steffani Jemison’s When I Turn My Head.

[12] During the panel discussion featuring Steffani Jemison, when I asked Jemison if she could describe the title choice and process of making these images, she replied that she was examining the make-up of a photograph: its support and its image. Panel discussion with Steffani Jemison, Rizvana Bradley (Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University), and Rujeko Hockley (Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Brooklyn Museum) on 9.21.2013 at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery.

[13] Mary Ann Doane, “Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator” in Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), 25. Reprint of the essay’s 1982 publication in Screen: Screen, vol. 23, no. 3-4 (1982): 74-88.