Seaside postcards: Spencer Tunick in Folkestone

June 6, 2014 · Print This Article

MSBASjune14

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.




Walking to Mordor

June 3, 2014 · Print This Article

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.




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/.