Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Into the Picture

Among the many fascinating things about yesterday's conference on photography as an art form by Delfim Sardo at the Culturgest, the one that confused me most was the setting.
Since the small auditorium where the conference took place filled up quickly, the organizers decided to allow the remaining spectators (about 50 of them or more!) to sit in the tiny entrance and listen to the conference while watching it on a TV screen.
This is not an uncommon practice. Still, there was something about it that made one wonder. We could hear the speaker, but the image on the TV screen showed only the images that were projected to accompany the lecture (because of the size of the TV, it wouldn't make sense to get the general view of the stage). Delfim Sardo read his lecture, and although I couldn't see it to confirm it and he is an excellent reader, often stopping to tell an anecdote or two, the bulk of it was there in the text. So there we were, all 50 of us, sitting in a hallway, some of us standing or sitting on the ground, to listen to a lecture and see a series of images.
What was it about the event that made it so unique? Was it because we had all traveled that far and didn't want to leave empty-handed? Or was it because it was free? Or because it was so original? One thing was certain: one can hardly say it was because it was live. The conference could very well be an illusionist trick, there could be no one there and what we would have gotten would have been the same: a recorded voice and recorded images. The 'live' aspect of that event was a pure convention. Yet, nearly no one left in the middle.
There is something in the idea of witnessing that is more powerful than the actual thing.
The conference was mainly about the possibilities of using photography as a means of transforming reality, their origins and their impact. We saw the impressive, huge Russian constructivist images and compositions, and the comparable Nazi posters, and the contemporary works of the likes of Jeff Wall - with the references do Velasquez and Monet... All this on a small TV screen reproducing the reproduction that Delfim Sardo made of a reproduction of a reproduction. And yet, it was the real thing.

Now, see the work of Thomas Wrede, photographer. Thomas Wrede seems to be enjoying the idea that it is still, and yet again, the real thing. It can start off with the pleasure of bringing pieces together to create a certain impression of reality:
This impression of reality takes its power precisely from the fact that it does not correspond exactly to what we feel is real. Only here, reality is an issue of the past. It is something that has been disposed of and now is being reinvented. The question is - what does it mean to re-invent? What is the reference?
What do we need to know? Which is real? What would be the point? The comfortable feeling of recognition, maybe. But what we get is hardly different.
Let's go a step further, then:
Don't laugh - this is serious business. What we have here is an image of nature. It is an image of landscape. And that is precisely why what we have here is landscape. Because if we swim in the lake, than it stops being a landscape, doesn't it? Or is what we need the possibility of swimming in the lake? But if we can swim in it, what is left of our contemplation?

The possibility of touching. Of talking about. Of having witnessed. This is a road. This is snow. This is the light from another place, from another landscape. I recognize this.
(But what is the work here - the picture of the snowy landscape or the picture you see above, with the spectators included?)
Finally, let's move out of this tight exhibition room or hall, let's go out.
How different is this? It seems just as constructed, just as formally challenging. Just as distanced from what I would think a place is, a landscape is, a view is.
Oh, how I enjoy this hesitation, this pleasure of falling into the trap, into the work, out of the auditorium where the comfortable presence of the speaker would have made everything transparent and much, much too plain.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Who owns art?

The excellent newsgrist has several articles about appropriation and the issues related authorship.
So who does own art?
And what is art ownership about? Only in the simplest of all versions is it about owning an object. The thing is, it has been increasingly clear that ownership is one of the most delicate - and taboo - issues of contemporary art. Yes, we have the art market which helps us keep it all together. But the fragility of the system is impressive.
Once you get to Manzoni's Artist's Shit, and keep on going all the way to Cattelan's provocations, something strange happens: not only is the value of the work conventional, but the convention can change quite abruptly. In the case of Manzoni's work, we still have an object. But the further we go into the conceptual & performative realms, the more difficult it is to speak of ownership. After all, how can one own Yves Klein's emptiness?
If art is intellectual property, then what about the image of the work? Is it mimesis? Or a copy of the thing, i.e., a sub-product of the original work? How different is my picture of something from that thing? We often assume it's close - possibly because it's simpler this way. A reproduction is another example of production. But then, what can be reproduced?
If the question is old, new technologies seem to give it a reality bite. We are all photographers. Reproduction is so easy, it seems impossible to judge it by the same strict rules. The tiny video cameras and cell phones make it all-too-easy to take a piece of the world with you.
There's the rub: we somehow feel taking a picture is taking a piece of the world. Reproduction is re-production. Are we therefore constantly stealing the world away? Doesn't that seem a bit naive? Isn't the problem rather in the authorship, and ownership? That is what is happening: by taking the picture of a picture, we are re-apropriating it. Its original value, given by the convention of authorship ('it came out of the head of this person') and ownership ('it belongs to that person'), is questioned. Or maybe rather, challenged, since we can easily imagine someone acknowledging the copyright and taking care of all the related formal issues. (see this article about copyright and contemporary art). There are several issues here. One of them is the question of what exactly constitutes a work of art. If my work includes someone else's work, or copies it, is it a simple legal issue for me to regulate? What if I somehow took the same picture as someone else? Contrary to Joy Garnett, I do believe this can be a serious issue and is not about the public space being public domain. The image, even if it is "just a photo", is still a work. And the difficulty seems to be in acknoledging it every time, that is, even if we just happen to bump into the same view as someone else. Is it a question of recognition? It seems it simply stopped making sense to acknowledge every single picture taken from somewhere else, every picture of a picture of a screenshot of a security camera... But what is the alternative?

What complicates this is that some contemporary art already focuses on challenging the idea of authorship and ownership. That's where the really strange paradoxes appear. That's where one can very well own an 'original' that was made as a questioning of the idea of the original, where the remains of a performance that was a statement for the ephemeral gain the status of permanent art value, etc.etc.
We might be used to this, but there is something incredibly hypocritical about our easy acceptance of it. Why shouldn't we consider that a work of art can actually have a self-eliminating value, that is, have its value limited to an experience that excludes any form of later valuing. This could mean the creation of an exhibition of works not for sale, but it could also mean acknowledging all the works that have been created, often by celebrated and expensive artists, into the void. Such as Gordon Matta-Clark's public, 'illegal' works. They fascinate us today precisely because they seemed destined to disappear, challenging the very idea of an object of value.
Another way of seeing this is attacking (yet again) the very notion of copyright by exposing it to the test of the world. Do we really live our lives in a way that makes room for copyright? Or is it just so out of date that it would need a serious rethinking? See the iMoma, where pictures from the New York MOMA are published. Those are illegally taken pictures, pictures of the visitors, pictures that make the ownership of art-as-image problematic, to say the least. And the officials trying to fight this 'crime wave' seem like ridiculous bureaucrats. But on the other hand - what are they supposed to do? Let it go? And what remains?
Read the story about the iMoma and the image pirates issue at Newsgrist.

Bruce Nauman, Human/Need/Desire (currently at the MOMA)

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Sam Taylor-Wood's vanitas

Sam Taylor-Wood, Still Life (video stills), 2001

Still Life is one of the most classical works of contemporary art I know. It inscribes itself in art history with hardly any commentary. This is not just a Still Life. It is a vanitas, a particular type of still life developed in the 16th and 17th centuries in the Flanders and Netherlands. Its specificity was the showing of the vanity of the worldly things through often subtle signs of elapsing time and decay. Some of the vanitas had obvious references like skulls, but others yet had simply a watch, or a slightly rotting fruit. Sam Taylor-Wood's work is another step in that direction: the image, beautiful as ever in Taylor-Wood's universe, decomposes itself. By the end, nothing is left but a grey amorphous mass.
On closer inspection, one thing distinguishes this picture from its predecessors. The ball-point pen. A cheap, contemporary object. One that doesn't seem to decay. That is not part of the universal, self-disappearing life. Is it here to stay? This nothingness, this ridiculous signature of us?
This is a poor vanitas. We are more accustomed to rich interiors with gold and crystal. But we don't need more: we got the point. And nothing more is necessary. A simple basket, some light. Time. And a cheap pen. Oh, and lest I forget: an extremely good camera, top of the line, to catch this delicate, beautiful insurgence of death.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Do-Ho Suh - Moving On

Do-Ho Suh is an immigrant.
See the nostalgia of this Staircase. See how suspended it is, how volatile and fragile, yet how present and precise. Apparently the artist waited 6 years to ask the landlord of his house in Seoul if he could measure the house to reproduce the staircase. This is another hint: it is a replica. A precise replica. As if someone tried to have the memory here, at his service. Which is common, maybe, if you're an aging artist going back to what once was. But hardly if you are 40. Unless this home is too far away to be a home. Unless the only sensation you have is that of a volatile present, a parallel world where things are not quite palpable... and still. Made of red nylon, made of air. It goes nowhere (Stairway to Heaven?? Come on...), yet it brings about the change a staircase does: it hints at another space. And indirectly, it divides: there are other levels. And it cuts through, diagonally, like a clean razor.
What is this floor that is a ceiling that is not a floor? What is this carpet-red sky? How am I to deal with it - and with this strange, unaccessible space that suddenly appears in-between? Don't count on the stairs - they are what they are, a suspended image of an all-too-precise memory, and they aren't even touching the ground. Count on the absence. On what you think might be there, or might have been there. Count on the distance that helps you travel.

Oh, the elegance of memory. The title is Uni-Form/s: Self-Portrait/s. All My 39 Years. And those are indeed all the uniforms Do-Ho Suh wore during 39 years of his life. This boat is exquisitely neat. Just observe the lines, the purity of form. Notice how Do-Ho Suh focuses on the essencial: there are no trousers, very few additional items (bowtie, shirt). The only real intervention, beyond the selection and maybe the neat construction (the wheels...), is the adjustment of the uniforms to the lower line. That, for me, is the stroke of genius. This work, as the previous one, is not like a clay sculpture, but like a stone one: it is made by chopping away. The context, the environment, the whole which over-justifies the object. Its power, to me, lies in the new framing, where the elements are picked out very carefully, hardly even re-arranged, but above all, re-framed. Here, more than in the Staircase, it is the framework that makes the picture.

One small detail: The work was made in 2006. The artist was born in 1962. Meaning he was 44 when creating this work. Which suggests he spent 5 years without a uniform. Infancy? Or recent years? Where is the place of freedom?


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