Filling Interpretive Gaps

Teju Cole declares his intention in Open City was to write a la Cartier-Bresson — “on the run” — and urges others to do the same.

What does this entail?

Henri Cartier-Bresson said photography is not like painting. It requires both seeing “a composition or expression that life itself offers you” in a flash, and acting “in that creative fraction of a second”. [1]  In painting, by contrast, more time and labor are needed to fashion an object with comparable expressive content.

John Berger characterizes the difference between the process involved in producing a photograph and the process involved in painting as that of “quoting” versus “translating”, “receiving” versus “making”. The photograph requires both a mediated choice, which is a cultural construction, and an immediate, natural, and unconstructed trace produced by the particular configuration of light entering the camera. The photographer “quotes” from appearances that lie in front of the camera. The photograph is a quotation based on the photographer’s instantaneous judgment. A painting or drawing, on the other hand, is the result “of countless judgments…. [E]verything about it has been mediated by consciousness, either intuitively or systematically”.*

And what about writing? How does an attentive writer capture a moment “that life itself offers”? Is it not a long step away from producing a photograph, different in kind from a photographic image? How can we compare them?

If we go back to the passage (in the previous post) from Berger’s essay — gazing onto the courtyard from a window far above — maybe we can find an answer.

Berger sets the scene in a long picture gallery with tall windows overlooking a sunlit courtyard two stories below. We can imagine a few people, perhaps some children playing down below. Then, suddenly, the perspective shifts to a reverse view from below looking back at Berger, a “vision” of the narrator “alone and stiff in his window”. A “chiasm” emerges — a reflexive relation. The narrator says, “I see myself as seen. I experience a moment of familiar panic.”

Click. The image is captured, the text cuts as the narrator turns back to the framed images in the gallery.

The reader is left with an image and several questions. What is the function of this image in Berger’s story? Will the image come again? With what effect, what meaning? What light will it shed on what we’ve read?

So there may be a way of simulating an “image on the run” in writing. Its value would be poetic. We anticipate connections that do not immediately appear, we look for them. If they don’t show up, we create them.

Photograph of Alberto Giacometti by Henri Cartier-Bresson

But notice the difference in our expectations when we’re looking at photographs. In a photograph by Cartier-Bresson, for example, something is immediately given — a fuzzy-haired man in a dark suit and tie holding a small sculpture walks briskly between two similar but much taller figures. The image, half again as high as it is wide, captures a moment. In what appears to be a relatively empty room containing several other artworks — busts of human heads on the floor and several small paintings or drawings resting against the wall — the man is moving objects around. To what end? Is he in a museum, an art gallery, a studio? Is he the artist, a curator, a dealer? When did this occur?

When a scene such as this is described in a novel or a short story, we assume the answers will eventually be given. No such assumption arises when looking at photographs. Very often the only additional source of information is the title, the name of the photographer, and the year the photo was taken. If it is part of a larger suite of related images in a book or magazine, the context may provide additional background information.

But when it is taken out of its original context and placed, as it was in this case, in a Wikipedia article on Cartier-Bresson which I came across this morning, I’m given no date, only the image labeled “Photograph of Alberto Giacometti by Henri Cartier-Bresson”. Looking up the image in an exhibition catalog**, I see that it was, in fact, one of seven photographs that appeared in a British magazine under the title “A Touch of Greatness: Giacometti”. The catalog places the image in Cartier-Bresson’s oeuvre, but provides very little on the photograph itself — taken in 1962 as the artist installs an exhibition of his work. I’m given information about the object. But I create whatever meaning and expressive content I can get from looking at the object. I contribute in this way, looking from a distance — a distance the image itself may shorten, but never eliminate.

*John Berger and Jean Mohr, Another Way of Telling, New York: Pantheon, 1982, 93.
** Peter Galassi, Henri Cartier-Bresson: the Modern Century, London: Thames & Hudson, 2010.

The Reflective Moment

Reading with great pleasure Teju Cole’s Open City, I’ve naturally found myself wanting more context, background information, insight into the writer and his process. I recall hearing an interview in which he mentioned the influence of Henri Cartier-Bresson on his writing, but can’t remember the interviewer.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris. 1953. 8th arrondissement. Courtyard on the rue la Boétie

Today, while trying to track down the source, I discovered Cole’s “Eight Letters to a Young Writer” and the following passage:

It’s worth learning how to move the ‘camera’ of your mind’s eye over a written scene, taking note of what a camera would see: the lighting, the small movements, the seemingly insignificant things. Then the decisive action happens and, gbosa, you cut out of it, and let it resonate in the reader’s mind. Don’t try to explain everything. Street photography, of the kind practised by Henri Cartier-Bresson, brought this idea of the decisive moment to a very high state of polish. From Cartier-Bresson, one can learn that elements such as background or setting, in combination with a key movement or instantaneous action, can be heartbreaking, can be breathtaking. All the elements click into place, and the finger clicks the shutter: you’ve captured something.

This, in turn, reminded me of a passage from John Berger’s essay “Past Seen from a Possible Future”:

From the walls of the long gallery, those who never had any reason to doubt their own significance look down in perpetual self-esteem, surrounded by gilded frames. I look down at the courtyard around which the galleries were built. In the centre, a fountain plays sluggishly: the water slowly but continuously overbrimming its bowl. There are weeping willows, benches and a few gesticulating statues. The courtyard is open to the public. In summer it is cooler than the city streets outside: in winter it is protected from the wind.

I have sat on a bench listening to the talk of those who come into the courtyard for a few minutes’ break — mostly old people or women with children. I have watched the children playing. I have paced around the courtyard, when nobody was there, thinking about my own life. I have sat there, blind to everything around me, reading a newspaper. As I look down on the courtyard before turning back to the portraits of the nineteenth-century local dignitaries, I notice that the gallery attendant is standing at the next tall window and that he too is gazing down on the animated figures below.

And then suddenly I have a vision of him and me, each alone and stiff in his window, being seen from below. I am seen quite clearly but not in detail for it is forty feet up to the window and the sun is in such a position that it half dazzles the eyes of the seer. I see myself as seen. I experience a moment of familiar panic. Then I turn back to the framed images.*

Sometimes what you capture is reflective — a play of images startlingly and disconcertingly bouncing back at you.

* From Selected Essays: John Berger, “Past Seen from a Possible Future”, edited by Geoff Dyer, New York: Vintage, 2001, 238-39.

Summary of “Participation and Spectacle”, Claire Bishop

On 18 May 2011, Claire Bishop gave the first in a series of talks sponsored by Creative Time. The lecture series provides a context for CT’s fall exhibition Living as Form, a “project that explores over 20 years of cultural works that blur the forms of art and everyday life, and emphasize participation, dialogue, community engagement, and activism around social issues”. [From the website for Living as Form.] CT’s project is part of a much larger critical response to the “social turn” in art, to which Claire Bishop has contributed a number of publications and critical analyses.

Christoph Schlingensief, "Please Love Austria", 2000

In her lecture, “Participation and Spectacle: Where Are We Now?”, Bishop makes an appeal for artistic practices that critically engage social and political phenomena, without compromising their status as art. What follows is a summary sketch of Bishop’s lecture based on my notes. Fortunately, the full presentation, with a Q&A following, has been posted on the CT website. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes below are from Bishop’s lecture.

Four Observations

Bishop begins informally with four observations that come out of her recent participation in a discussion organized by Tania Bruguera, as part of Bruguera’s Immigration Movement International, sponsored by CT and the Queens Museum of Art.

1. In discussions of social practice today, the term “art” tends to drop out of the picture — the emphasis shifting to “practice”, a term typically understood to denote an ongoing process which takes precedence over the making of objects.

2. The standard triad of artistwork of artaudience is also re-conceived as producer of situations [cf. Jeremy Deller’s claim “I don’t make things, I make things happen”], project (an ongoing process, often with an unclear beginning and end), and participant (as collaborator or co-producer). This approach and shift comes as a challenge to traditional modes of artistic production and consumption under capitalism, and thus to art history, exhibition making, and spectatorship. As a result, the performative dimension (lecture, panel discussion, conference) supersedes the exhibition of objects.

3. Mediation — the visual aspect and aesthetics typically associated with art — is not addressed by the artists and, thus, tends to drop out, as well. Nor is much attention given to follow-up in the communities where the art/social interventions take place.

4. Artists engaged in social practice adopt an “antinomic” relation to visual art. But given that most of their projects are endorsed by visual arts organizations, the claims of these artists to stand outside the art world are “disingenuous”. The institutionalization of social practice is also found in the large number of MFA programs popping up in the U.S. and the prizes targeted toward social practice.

What, Bishop seems to ask, are we to make of all this? To answer that question we need a broader historical perspective.

Spectacle — Participatory Art’s Adversary Since the 1960s

Looking back through the 20th century, we find participatory art opposing itself to spectacle, with the realm of images compromised by market capitalism and presented in ways that minimize viewer engagement and agency. Participatory art in this situation sees itself as an antidote to alienation, repression, and the numbing effects of mainstream culture.

Artists’ motivations for pursuing socially participatory practices tends to be underwritten by a common claim — “Contemporary capitalism produces passive subjects with very little agency or empowerment.” This concern, for example, is the focus of Guy Debord’s Marxist critique of late modern culture of the spectacle, which is organized around alienating forms of capitalist production. “Given the market’s near total saturation of our image repertoire, so the argument goes, artistic practice can no longer revolve around the construction of objects to be consumed by a passive bystander. Instead, there must be an art of action, interfacing with reality, taking steps, however small, to repair the social bond. As the French philosopher Jacques Rancière points out, ‘The critique of the spectacle often remains the alpha and omega of the politics of art.’”

What do we mean by “spectacle”? In the writings of critics associated with October it takes on a number of characteristics. For Rosalind Krauss, writing about late capitalist museums, spectacle includes “the absence of a historical positioning and a capitulation to pure presence”; for James Meyer, writing about Olafur Elliason’s Weather Project, “it denotes an overwhelming scale that dwarfs viewers and eclipses the human body as a point of reference”; for Hal Foster, “writing on the Bilbao Guggenheim, it denotes the triumph of corporate branding”; and for Benjamin Buchloh, “denouncing Bill Viola, it refers to an uncritical use of new technology”. For Guy Debord, spectacle denotes not works of art but social relations under capitalism and under totalitarian regimes. This characterization of the spectacle is followed by futher elaboration of the critiques of Debord, Jean Baudrillard who claims the society of the spectacle has come to an end, and Boris Groys who argues that we’ve reached an age of “the spectacle without a spectator”.

Participatory art sees the present as calling for “a new understanding of art without audiences, one in which everyone is a producer”. But the audience cannot be entirely eliminated — the audience is, in some sense, always there. Not everyone can be a participant.

The new approach to the audience is against contemplation and passivity. Collective, co-authoring and social engagement is the goal. This has been attempted, for example, through constructivist efforts to oppose injustice and proposing an alternative, or “through a nihilist re-doubling of alienation, which negates the world’s injustice and illogicality on its own terms”. While both seek participation and collaboration, one does it affirmatively “through utopian realization”, the other indirectly or negatively “through what we might call the negation of negation”.

The array of participatory works in the 20th century cuts across boundaries separating the left and right — futurism and constructivism, Paris Dada, the Situationist International and Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel, Happenings (negation of negation), and with different meanings, forms, and effects in Argentina, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and England.

In short, the anti-aesthetic refusal today is not a radical break but a kind of continuation of the recent past.

Analysis of Artistic vs. Social Criteria

Anti-aesthetic refusal characterizes many recent participatory projects. Several binaries, e.g. art vs life, underwrite these attempts to go beyond art to affect social and political change.

There’s a question, Bishop notes, that’s repeatedly raised: “Surely it’s better for one art project to improve one person’s life than for it not to happen at all.” To get some critical distance, Bishop asks what that question is a symptom of and finds it’s related not just to the (false) dichotomy of “art vs. real life”, but to several additional binaries currently in play — equality of access to the work of art versus quality of the resulting project, as well as participation and spectatorship — all of which reveal that “artistic and social judgments don’t easily merge, indeed they seem to demand different criteria”. This problematic comes up repeatedly today in discussions of participatory art and social practice. Humanist ethics are evoked in the social discourse, but eschewed in the artistic discourse. Art is accused of being focused exclusively on reflection and representation of the world and, thus, amoral and ineffective, while the social discourse is accused of “being stubbornly attached to existing categories and focusing on micropolitical gestures at the expense of sensuous immediacy as a potential locus of disalienation”. The overriding tension here is between morality and freedom.

Next comes a theoretical elaboration on this binary opposition as it appears in a recent analysis of the critique of capitalism by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello. Bishop draws on their fundamental breakdown of artistic and social critique.


Filling in a bit here and to highlight some of the key issues in Bishop’s argument, I’m inserting the following excerpt from Sebastian Budgen’s review of The New Spirit of Capitalism in the New Left Review (January-February 2000). Note that Budgen’s review is not mentioned in Bishop’s presentation.

[The book’s] starting point is a powerful statement of indignation and puzzlement. How has a new and virulent form of capitalism — they label it a ‘connexionist’ or ‘network’ variant — with an even more disastrous impact on the fabric of a common life than its predecessors, managed to install itself so smoothly and inconspicuously in France, without attracting either due critical attention or any organized resistance from forces of opposition, vigorous a generation ago, now reduced to irrelevancy or cheerleading? The answer to this question, Boltanski and Chiapello suggest, lies in the fate that overtook the different strands of the mass revolt against the Gaullist regime in May–June 1968.There have always been, they argue, four possible sources of indignation at the reality of capitalism: (i) a demand for liberation; (ii) a rejection of inauthenticity; (iii) a refusal of egoism; (iv) a response to suffering. Of these, the first pair found classic expression in bohemian milieux of the late nineteenth century: they call it the ‘artistic critique’. The second pair were centrally articulated by the traditional labour movement, and represent the ‘social critique’.

These two forms of critique, Boltanski and Chiapello argue, have accompanied the history of capitalism from the start, linked both to the system and to each other in a range of ways, along a spectrum from intertwinement to antagonism. In France, 1968 and its aftermath saw a coalescence of the two critiques, as student uprisings in Paris triggered the largest general strike in world history…. Gradually, however, the social and the artistic rejections of capitalism started to come apart. The social critique became progressively weaker with the involution and decline of French communism, and the growing reluctance of French employers to yield any further ground without any return to order in the enterprises or any increase in dramatically falling levels of productivity. The artistic critique, on the other hand, carried by libertarian and ultra-left groups along with ‘self-management’ currents in the CFDT (the formerly Catholic trade-union confederation), flourished. The values of expressive creativity, fluid identity, autonomy and self-development were touted against the constraints of bureaucratic discipline, bourgeois hypocrisy and consumer conformity. […]

Capitalism is conceived here, in Weberian fashion, as a system driven by ‘the need for the unlimited accumulation of capital by formally peaceful means’, that is fundamentally absurd and amoral. Neither material incentives nor coercion are sufficient to activate the enormous number of people — most with very little chance of making a profit and with a very low level of responsibility — required to make the system work. What are needed are justifications that link personal gains from involvement to some notion of the common good. Conventional political beliefs — the material progress achieved under this order, its efficiency in meeting human needs, the affinity between free markets and liberal democracy — are, according to Boltanski and Chiapello, too general and stable to motivate real adherence and engagement. What are needed instead are justifications that ring true on both the collective level — in accordance with some conception of justice or the common good — and the individual level. To be able truly to identify with the system, as managers — the primary target of these codes — have to do, two potentially contradictory longings have to be satisfied: a desire for autonomy (that is, exciting new prospects for self-realization and freedom) and for security (that is, durability and generational transmission of advantages gained). [emphases added.]


Bishop’s Concluding Summary Argument

1. Distinction Between Artistic and Social Critique

Drawing on the historical and philosophical writings of Jacques Rancière, Bishop builds a case for sustaining the tension between spectacle and participatory practice and the distinction between art and everyday life, rather than blurring these distinctions.
Bishop’s concluding argument begins with a survey of twentieth century activist and avant-garde works of art that employ various participatory, interventionist, and often “spectacular” tactics, giving particular emphasis to the group of artists brought together in Tania Bruguera’s Useful Art event (23 April 2011)— Mel Chin, Rick Lowe, Not an Alternative (Beka Economopoulos), Patrick Bernier & Olive Martin, and Pase Usted (Jorge Munguia).

The claim that emerges from this overview is that “the most striking projects…unseat all of the polarities on which this discourse [of participatory art] is founded — individual vs. collective, author vs. spectator, active vs. passive, real life vs. art — but not with the goal of collapsing them”. Christoph Schlingenspiel’s Please Love Austria performance from the Vienna International festival of 2000 is singled out as an example of participatory art that manages to make productive use of these polarities.

2. Distinction Between Democracy in Art and Democracy in Society

Bishop contends that the tension between artistic and social critiques today is, in large part, derived from a desire to sustain some measure of autonomy in art, while simultaneously engaging real world concerns and recognizing the role of the spectator as a creative agent. This entails, at the very least, confronting the paradox noted by Rancière “between the logic of art that becomes life at the price of abolishing itself as art, and the logic of art that does politics on the explicit condition of not doing it at all”. [Jacques Rancière,“Problems and Transformations in Critical Art”, which appears in Bishop’s anthology, Participation.]

Rather than allowing the work of art to drop out of the picture by giving way to political action, the work must be sustained as “a mediating object — a spectacle that stands between the idea of the artist and the feeling and interpretation of the spectator…. The artist relies upon the participant’s creative exploitation of the situation that he or she offers, just as participants require the artist’s cue and direction.”

An underlying assumption here is that social practices (critiques) do not have the same structure as artistic practices. Bishop suggests that the disparity follows from the fact that forms of democracy in art do not have an “intrinsic” relation to the forms of democracy in society. Artistic criteria are more “paradoxical”.

3. The Historical Nature and Limits of Artistic Participation

To bridge the gap separating artistic production on the one hand and social change on the other, Bishop argues, artists would benefit from aligning with actually existing political organizations. Such connections, well established in historical avant-garde movements of the past, have been lost today, giving way to a kind of free-floating anti-capitalism. “As a consequence,” Bishop claims, “artists have internalized a huge amount of pressure to bear the burden of devising new models of social and political organization, a task that artists are not always best equipped to undertake.” Part of the solution, according to Bishop, would be “a viable international alignment of leftist political movements and the reassertion of art’s inventive forms of negation as valuable in their own right”. This would involve re-positioning art as a source of representation, critique, and experimentation that engages the public and contributes to politically progressive projects.

Problems and Prospects

There’s considerable room for debate about the details, and for some, I suspect, Bishop’s fundamental approach. In various ways, her argument sharpens the focus on concrete, as well as theoretical, issues about the interpretation, nature, and effectiveness of “social practice”.

  1. In what sense can we talk about “democracy” in art?
  2. How, and to what extent, does it differ from citizenship and democracy in society?
  3. Are the two linked, as they must be if artistic activity has the capacity to inform social and political change?
  4. What can we conclude about the nature of the relationship between art and social critique beyond acknowledging art’s complexity and paradoxical criteria?
  5. And how are we to understand the relationship of art and ethics? Are they parallel to one another, similar in structure but focused on different phenomena, interests, and needs?
  6. Can they work productively together?
  7. What do we risk in conflating them?

These are crucial issues, discussion and analysis of which goes well beyond the constraints of a public lecture on recent trends in contemporary art. As it was, Bishop’s talk moved briskly, covering both theoretical and practical issues. Fortunately, the discussion will continue with subsequent talks and the release of her forthcoming book, Artificial Hells, from Verso Press, on which the Creative Time lecture was based.


I have the sense — and it’s no more than a vague notion — that artistic attempts at “social practice” have great difficulty gaining the traction they need in the social world to produce substantial long term change.

The social world is not the art world. They’re materially different, demanding distinct and important things from us. We need to exercise practical intelligence to grasp those demands and to act in ways that enable us to make productive contributions. This is one of the things that distinguishes art from “mere” entertainment.

Consider the distinction between imagining things as being other than they are and making things be other than they are. Imagination is a key, perhaps essential, element of art. And it’s a characteristic that also plays an important role in ethics and social relations. This is just one of the many points at which art and ethics overlap. When characteristics overlap in this way, the boundaries between the two realms is blurred, making it easier to overlook the differing needs, interests, strengths, and weaknesses of each realm.

So the response from those engaged in art, it seems to me, is not to avoid the ethical dimension, but to understand how art can contribute to progressive social change by drawing on its strengths — as art.

Jan Gossaert, Double Portrait

Jan Gossaert, An Elderly Couple

Jan Gossaert, An Elderly Couple

There is one image — and only one — that remains with me after looking carefully at the Jan Gossaert exhibition at the Met two days ago. A portrait of an elderly couple. Why has this one painting completely overwhelmed all the others by Gossaert and his contemporaries?

There are several reasons that come to mind almost immediately. Some point to the anomalous character of the composition and subject matter. An Elderly Couple is the only double portrait in the show and the only known double portrait by Gossaert. Why are these two — man and woman — pictured together? Are they husband and wife? I assume they are. It seems somehow self-evident.

But here’s another reason for my fascination. The identity of the sitters has never been established. No one knows who they are or why Gossaert painted them.

These facts alone would not add up to much, I suspect, if it were not also the case that the artist has taken such extraordinary care with every aspect of composition and detail. Not in a showy or self-aggrandizing way, but rather with the utmost sensitivity, warmth, love, and respect for the man and woman memorialized in this particular painting.

What we see are two older people dressed nicely, in ordinary clothes, but likely their best.* There is something “common” about them, about their intimate presence to the viewer. They occupy the foreground. There is nothing else in the picture — nothing between them and us. No distance. No assertion. No confrontation. The man, his lips tightly pursed, looks upward to his left. The woman, pale grey but with a quiet determination and beauty, looks downward to her right. The man clutches his long fur collar and holds firmly the top of his walking stick.

There is a badge on the front of his hat on which we can barely make out the image of  a young couple, nude, with a cornucopia. On the fur collar and the straps hanging loosely from his hat you see several strands of grey hair fallen from his head. At first this struck me as a slightly excessive display of virtuosity. Too clever, but easily forgiven, I thought. But now, looking at these loose strands, they take on a subtle vanitas quality, playing off the vitality of the youthful couple displayed on the hat.

Gossaert has lavished the rendering of the elderly couple with a kind of longing and poignant skill. The large room at the Met is filled with other portraits by Gossaert of the powerful, influential, and wealthy. Some are painted intelligently and with great facility. Others are done well enough, but clearly uninspired. In this large group, among the northern european elite of the sixteenth century, the elderly couple stands out — shines. These two individuals and their image come from another place.

But where?


*In Lorne Campbell’s essay on the NGA website, he points out that the man’s clothing suggests wealth. “His silver-topped staff and his fur-lined purple gown show that he is prosperous. The cap, with its two trailing ribbons, is of a type found fairly frequently in North Netherlandish portraits; it was perhaps a North Netherlandish fashion to wear such hats, which might conceivably have come to denote a certain status.” [tq, 3 Aug 13.]

Zoe Leonard

Zoe Leonard, Analogue (Ludlow St., New York City, 1999)

Zoe Leonard, Analogue (Ludlow St., New York City, 1999)

Sometime in the late 1990s, Zoe Leonard began taking photographs of the neighborhood around her studio in New York City’s Lower East Side. Her first impulse, as she recalls, was purely personal — just making notes for herself, an aide-mémoire, so that she could more easily remember, to hold on just a bit to what she was accustomed to seeing around her every day. But the scene was rapidly changing — socially, politically, economically, and in relation to her own perspective, emotionally.  [Video interview, Documenta 12.]

So she began shooting what she saw, maybe not thinking so much about the quality, composition, how the images might look to others. I imagine these early photographs (which she’s mentioned but have not, as far as I know, been shown) capture the feel of the busy downtown street life. Pedestrians outside My Lucky Coffee Shop on Delancey Street. The cars and taxis honking at the intersection of Broadway and Grand, jockeying for position as they hustle their fares down to Wall Street, City Hall, over the Brooklyn Bridge, or through the Holland Tunnel.

Did she see the tailor setting up a display in the window of his shop at 94 Rivington?

Were sales picking up on the “drastically reduced” jackets and suits in the store on the corner at Ludlow, across from the sportswear shop?

Had the Joy Boutique, wholesale and retail company at 152 Orchard Street, with its metal rolling door down, already gone out of business, while the next occupants cut a deal over the terms of the lease for their new nightclub?

And was it a particularly cold morning the day she came across a used Rolleiflex camera in the second hand store?

How soon after she bought the camera did it occur to Zoe Leonard that her casual note-taking was becoming a much larger project? That her fortuitous acquisition would be the means for systematically collecting images of a time and place where local and global commerce are intertwined, for better or worse? Where improvised makeshift store fronts and window displays, unfashionable clothing, and outdated appliances were becoming the remnants of a displaced way of life?


Analogue, the archive of photographs that Zoe Leonard created between 1998 and 2007, contains approximately 400 images culled from the 15,000 or so photographs that she took in various locations in the U.S. and abroad. The archive provided the raw material for Leonard’s installations at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University (2007), Documenta 12 in Kassel  (2007), and at the Hispanic Society of America in Washington Heights and Dia-Beacon (2008-09). A smaller group of photos were selected by the artist for a book, Analogue, produced in conjunction with the Wexner exhibition, which also includes “Continuous Signal” — quotations and excerpts from other artists and writers, compiled by Leonard, evoking the multiple interests at play in the Analogue project.

The images in Analogue trace a line from neighborhood storefronts in the city—the Lower East Side, Harlem, Crown Heights, Williamsburg, Greenpoint—to unspecified local warehouses where used clothing is sorted and bundled for export, much of it destined for Africa.

Some inference is required to tease out the implied narrative. We don’t see inside the bound bundles on the sidewalk or the workers in the warehouses where the sorting and bundling are done. What we do see, I suspect, is “what was there”, what Zoe Leonard saw as she wandered the streets of New York with her trusty Rolleiflex in hand. There is no indication that she took photographs inside those warehouses, or talked with the workers, managers, and owners involved in the used clothing trade. But the message is clear enough: “This is what I saw” becomes “This is what I found.” The evidence, the trail, is there, seen through the lens of the street photographer, laid out for us, the spectators.



Two articles on Analogue and Zoe Leonard’s work, one by Tom McDonough and another by Sophie Berrebi, are in the Autumn 2010 issue of Afterall.

From Letterkenny to Dublin by Way of Havana and Limerick

I was in Letterkenny in June and made a point of visiting the Donegal Regional Cultural Center (RCC).

The center, designed by MacGabhann Architects, a longstanding Letterkenny firm, has been praised by critics for its clarity of design, sculptural presence, and the collaborative process throughout its development and construction.

[See “A Beacon for Donegal”, Marianne O’Kane Boal, Irish Arts Review, 24 #4 (Winter 2007).]

While talking with one of the staff members, I noticed a small display of publications on a rack next to the front desk, which included several copies of OPEN e v+ a 2007 — a sense of place, a catalog from the e v+ a 2007 group exhibition in Limerick.

One work in the catalog that caught my eye was CHE (2007), by Sean Lynch, which includes a reproduction of Alberto Korda‘s photograph of the Cuban revolutionary Ernesto “Che” GuevaraGuerrillero Heroico (Heroic Guerrilla) — taken at the memorial service in the wake of the La Coubre munitions explosion in Havana harbor in 1960, which killed over a hundred Cubans.

The very appearance of this classic image of Che in an art catalog inevitably appears as a cliché given its widespread dissemination on…well, you name it — posters, films, books, magazines, t-shirts, bustiers, scarves, watches, tissues, pesos (paper and metal coins), coffee mugs, dolls, cigarette packages, lighters, and papers, ice cream wrappers, vodka adverts, maracas, mouse pads, etc., etc., etc. “[It’s] considered the most reproduced image in the history of photography”, according to Trisha Ziff, curator of the 2005 exhibition, Revolution and Commerce: The Legacy of Korda’s Portrait of Che Guevara, organized by UCR/California Museum of Photography. (This past spring Ziff’s film, Chevolution, was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival.

In the e v+ a catalog, Lynch’s framed image of Che is accompanied by another reproduction, this one of a newspaper article, along with the following contextual information provided by the artist.

A brief article appeared in the Limerick Leader on 15th March 1965. Written by Arthur Quinlan, it describes the visit of Che Guevara to Shannon Airport and Limerick. Guevara stayed and drank at Hanratty’s Hotel in Limerick. Its residents’ bar was nicknamed the Glue Pot. The previous weekend, at a conference in Algiers, Guevara denounced the Soviet Union for failing revolutionaries across the globe. As he drank in Limerick, he know that his return to Cuba would be a difficult one, since Fidel Castro was a close ally of the Soviets. When back in Cuba, he informed Castro of his intention to become a roaming revolutionary, and then left for the Congo. Quinlan was the last journalist to interview him. Guevara was killed in Bolivia two years later. (Incidentally, Guevara and I are related. His grandmother shared my surname, Lynch, and we both originate from 17th-century Galway.)

Jim Fitzpatrick, the Irish graphic artist responsible for wide dissemination of the image in Europe, claims to have seen Che while working in a bar as a young man. Che, according to Fitzpatrick, was passing through Ireland on his way to Moscow.

I came across an article about the iconic image of Che on the BBC website. The author quotes Fitzpatrick, but does not give the location of the bar. I wondered if, perhaps, it was at the Shannon airport or Hanratty’s in 1965, Kilpatrick’s recollection being a few years off the mark. Then, in a recent interview with Fitzpatrick by the artist Aleksandra Mir, I found a more extended account of the meeting in which he says the bar was located in a hotel in the seaside town of Kilkee.

(Incidentally, Arthur Quinlan’s more recent recollection of his 1965 meeting with Che Guevara is archived on the website of the Society for Irish Latin American Studies (SILAS). And writer Martin Hannan’s article about Che, with a focus on his interview with Quinlan, is also informative.)

I found the story of Che’s links to Ireland a little surprising, but didn’t think much more about it while in Letterkenny. We were heading off the next day to a cottage on the Isle of Doagh and I was drawn more by the lure of sea, sheep, and rocks than with archives and revolutionaries.

I was back in Dublin about a week later and spent an afternoon at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. In one of the temporary exhibition galleries, I found an intriguing and somewhat enigmatic suite of photographs. The piece, it turns out, was about the artist’s search for a lost bicycle linked to Flann O’Brien and his well-known novel, The Third Policeman, which I’d been reading back in New York. The artist was Sean Lynch.

Now it also happens that I’ve been working on a project having to do with the absence of contextual material in contemporary art and was struck by the fact that this particular work, as well as the Che piece, seemed to buck the rather prevalent tendency in conceptual-oriented photographic practice to put the “burden of contextualization” on the viewer. Lynch was, in fact, providing the backstory for CHE and, in the work installed at the IMMA, incorporating both a newspaper excerpt relating a tale about O’Brien’s “lost bicycle”, as well as a follow up letter from the artist describing his failed attempt to locate the bike. I made some notes and wandered on through the rest of the exhibition.

Later that afternoon I came across a small display adjacent to the main entrance. The IMMA has an “artists’ residency programme“, which provides studio space on the premises. I discovered this program several years ago on my first trip to Dublin and, visiting one of the artist’s studios, learned about the Burren and Kilmainham Gaol, which is a short walk from the museum.

The display listed participating artists along with short bios and descriptions of their work. One of the artists currently in residence was Sean Lynch. The next morning, just before catching my flight back to America, I decided to look him up. By coincidence, we crossed paths in the museum lobby and had a lovely and very informative discussion in his studio.

Christopher Williams, Kiev 88

Sean was very generous with his time, showing me a number of recent projects, while I relentlessly pursued the question of “the mute object”. I explained that I was thinking, in particular, about artists such as Christopher Williams, Simon Starling, and others who draw on a rich set of historical events linked politically, socially, culturally, or economically to the objects they exhibit, but not necessarily referred to directly in the presentation of the work. They demand an active and curious viewer willing to engage with the work by finding or reconstructing a larger and relevant context.

So, given Sean’s research-based practice, which links him to these other artists, I was interested in his rationale for providing info on the backstory as part of the installation of his work, rather than taking the Williams/Starling approach and leaving it to viewer to puzzle it out through their own initiative. More on that later…

Green Rooming

There are some interesting projects afoot at Bard, The New School, and at the PARC Foundation gallery.

Maria Lind, the CCS (Center for Curatorial Studies) graduate program director, is organizing a large scale exhibition and research project on “the documentary turn in recent contemporary art practice and its heritage in relation to the history of film, documentary photography, and television”. The Greenroom

aims to situate these contemporary documentary practices within current cultural production, and will explore their role within mainstream media. Artist and theoretician Hito Steyerl will collaborate with the Center on all aspects of the project, which [began] in March 2008 and [will] run for approximately three years.

More information is available on the Bard website.

This week, two nights of screenings have been organized with the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School. The “Greenroom” screenings include works by selected artists participating in the exhibition at Bard in the fall.

I was particularly struck by the pacing of Chantal Ackerman’s film, D’Est: Au bord de la fiction, which must have captured the rhythm of life in eastern Europe and Russia in 1993 “before it was too late”. She’s been using it as a multi-channel video installation in museum and gallery spaces. I haven’t seen these installations, but wonder if it retains the same temporality and rhythm in that format.

Matthew Buckingham’s work, Situation Leading to a Story (1999), is nicely layered with shifting voices that address his own narrative of four found films and the search for their owner, the marketing of home films by Kodak to wealthy consumers in the ’20s and ’30s, as well as colonialism and economic globalization driven by Frick, Rockefeller, et. al. in the early 20th century. Buckingham’s piece was originally intended as an installation utilizing two rooms — one with a carpet, speaker, and projection through a small opening in the wall and onto the lower right side of an adjacent room, also carpeted and with speakers. I haven’t seen that installation either, but again wonder what effect it has on the viewer’s experience and also how Buckingham feels about its being screened as a stand-alone film.

Another exhibition, Up River: Points of Interest on the Hudson from the Battery to Troy — new work by the Center for Land Use Interpretation, opened May 9 at the new PARC Foundation gallery at 29 Bleeker Street. More on that in another post.

Serra Interview with Lynne Cooke at MoMA

Having read Serra’s book of writings and interviews, and having watched and listened to the long interviews and discussions spawned by this retrospective and other recent exhibitions, I went to the MoMA  discussion last night assuming I would hear nothing new.  I was wrong.

Serra is an exceptionally thoughtful man who takes even the most conventional questions seriously, i.e. as an opportunity to think through a situation or engage with an idea as if he were confronting it for the first time.  He turns the conversation around, Serra-style, on his own terms and makes it an “event” in the Deleuzean sense of the term, avoiding at all cost the media-event or spectacle.

He said he doesn’t like doing too many interviews, particularly around occasions such as the retrospective, because it tends to encourage a debilitating self-consciousness and repetition.  There’s a hidden danger in taking yourself as the subject of investigation and viewing your work from the outside, particularly in public.  This practice of disengagement, done too often and over a long period of time, can distort your relation to and involvement in your work.

So, what we saw was Serra at work.

When asked if there was anything new that occurred to him during the course of the MoMA show, he said the one thing he noticed in this and his other recent exhibitions was “people gathering to see the work together”.  He didn’t elaborate but I take it he was impressed by the combination of pleasure and collective fascination viewers experience as they walk around and through Band, Torqued Torus Inversion, and Sequence. There’s a perceptual and intellectual curiosity induced, particularly by these large steel works, which gives rise to questions, observations, and discussions.  That happens less and less frequently in exhibitions of contemporary art.

Serra noted, perhaps with a touch of disparagement, that when he became involved in the arts, museums were experienced as either banks or churches.  The placement of this statement suggested that the reception of the work at MoMA was a welcome change.  While I’m inclined to think that the scale and force of his recent work both promotes and benefits from a return to the “reverence” and respect required in a church, there may be something different going on here.  Serra and MoMA have created a high-brow “Exploratorium” for the viewer.  And I say that without irony or criticism.  There is no photography allowed in the galleries.  You don’t have the distracting and annoying cell-phone photo-tourism going on around you.  You’re there to walk and look at the work—nothing else.  It’s a controlled public space which approaches ideal viewing conditions.  This makes it more likely that you’ll engage the work as Serra does. You sense the weight—”how your body senses weight”—and, at the same time, the non-material realization, geometrical elegance, and grace of these objects.  They make present what Serra refers to as “the concentration of mass” and “substance of the void”.  And then the “skin”.  “When the weight gets to the skin, it really becomes weightless.”

Regards from Morton Feldman

Looking back beyond the ’60s and reflecting on the art scene in New York, Morton Feldman produced one of his most memorable and characteristic essays — “Give My Regards to Eighth Street”.  It was written in 1971, in the wake of pop art, specific objects, and minimalism.  The artworld was rapidly expanding; the number of galleries and collectors increasing. And assumptions about what mattered in art were changing.  Artforum had been around for nearly 10 years.  A new generation of university-educated critics and art historians were using structuralism and phenomenology to analyze works of art and “artistic production”.  Richard Serra was doing Stepped Elevation, a site-specific work on the Pulitzer’s property. Robert Smithson had completed the Spiral Jetty. And  Art News published Linda Nochlin’s provocative essay, “Why have there been no great women artists?”

It’s from that vantage point that Feldman recalls the ’50s — Cage, Guston, Greenberg, Rauschenberg, Tomlin, Mitchell, the de Koonings — and what it meant to be an artist.

Nietzsche teaches us that only the first five steps of an action can be planned.  Beyond that, on any long-range basis, one must invent a dialectic in order to survive.  Until the fifties the artist believed that he could not, must not, improvise as the bull charged — that he must adhere to the formal ritual, the unwasted motion, the accumulated knowledge that reinforces the courage of the matador, and that allows the spectator the ecstasy of feeling that he too, by knowing all that must be known to survive in the bullring, has himself defied the gods, has himself defied death.

To survive without this dialectic is what the fifties left us.  Before that, American painting had concerned itself with efficient solutions.  The Abstract Expressionists were making bigger demands on their gifts and their energies.

Their movement took the world by storm.  Nobody now denies it.  On the other hand, what are we to do with it?  There is no “tradition”.  All we are left with is a question of character.  What training have we ever had to understand what is ultimately nothing more than a question of character?  What we are trained for is analysis.  The entire dialectic of art criticism has come about through the analysis of bad painting.

Take Franz Kline.  There is no “plastic experience”.  We don’t stand back and behold the “painting”.  There is no “painting” in the ordinary sense, just as there is no “painting”, for that matter, in Piero della Francesca or Rembrandt.  There is nothing but the integrity of the creative act.  Any detail of the work is sufficient to establish this.  The fact that these details accumulate and make what is known as a work of art, proves nothing.  What else would an artist do with his time?

Now, almost twenty years later, as I see what happens to work, I ask myself more and more why everybody knows so much about art.  Thousands of people – teachers, students, collectors, critics – everybody knows everything.  To me it seems as though the artist is fighting a heavy sea in a rowboat, while alongside him a pleasure liner takes all these people to the same place.  Every graduate student today knows exactly what degree of “angst” belongs in a de Kooning, can point out disapprovingly just where he has let up, relaxed.  Everybody knows that one Bette Davis movie where she went out of style.  It’s another bullring, with everybody knowing the rules of the game.

What was great about the fifties is that for one brief moment – maybe, say, six weeks – nobody understood art.  That’s why it all happened.  Because for a short while, these people were left alone.  Six weeks is all it takes to get started.  But there’s no place now where you can hide out for six weeks in this town.

Well, that’s what it was like to be an artist.  In New York, Paris, or anywhere else.

There’s something offbeat, amusing, and compelling about these remarks, which is typical of Feldman. It stopped me dead in my tracks this morning — what you need is to be left alone for six weeks to start something new.  It’s as if that gap — not knowing — gives you the space you need to experiment. You’re left alone without your usual devices, in the absence of expectations and constraints. It reminds me of the state described by Coltrane when playing with Monk’s group — he said it was like stepping into an empty elevator shaft. You’re forced to come up with new licks to survive.  And fast!

But Feldman is not just talking about the psychology of individual creation. He’s making the far more extravagant assertion that six weeks, give or take a few, of relative uncertainty enabled abstract expressionism to emerge! Now that’s a social thesis.  A provocative and useful gesture — the sort of thing one rarely encounters outside the best late night conversations. Not to be taken too literally, nor to be dismissed out of hand.  Thanks, Morty.  That’s an interesting idea. I’ll see what I can do with it.

[Feldman’s essay is in Give My Regards to Eighth Street, Exact Change, 2000, 100f.  Photo courtesy of iCamp, Munich.]

Math + Mass

The contemporary retrospective of a living artist is, depending on their influence and will, an occasion for contemplating the motivation and trajectory of a mature body of work.  It’s also an opportunity to return to familiar works, examine first-hand some seen only through reproductions, and discover those previously unknown.

Richard Serra’s retrospective at MoMA is all of that and a good deal more.  While there are, unfortunately, no drawings on view, the exhibition is supplemented by Serra’s films, articles, lectures, discussions, and numerous interviews [see below] with the artist in which Serra offers his own articulate and determined view of the work, from the early process pieces created collaboratively with Philip Glass (whom Serra is quick to acknowledge), to the prop pieces, the installations, and culminating in the elegant and sublime works of folded steel, three of which were created specifically for the current exhibition.

Serra argues that there is a clear and consistent development from the cut, lifted, and folded materials of the late 1960’s to the recent torqued toruses and ellipses.  We can argue about how convincing those relations seem to us, and we should given that out of the hundreds of works illustrated in the exhibition catalog, only twenty-seven are included in the show.

The works on view have been carefully chosen to reinforce very particular lines of development from To Lift of 1967 to Band of 2006, and from Belts, 1966-67 to Sequence, 2006.  For the visitor walking through the galleries, the exclusion of the numerous scattered, torn, splashed, and draped pieces from the ’60s, which recall the work of Eva Hesse, Barry LeVa, Robert Smithson, and Robert Morris, sets conveniently to one side the chaos of the late ’60s and early ’70s as artists looked for a way out of what appeared to be the limiting constraints of a minimalist orthodoxy.  And while these additional subplots complicate the story by dragging us back into the pessimism and disorder of those formative years, what you can’t help but appreciate in this careful and numerically limited array of sculptural objects is the extraordinary grace and power of Serra’s destination.

I’ve seen many of these dramatic and monumental steel works over the years.  But I’ve never been so impressed, walking through them and following the towering and descending flow of lines and shapes, by the way they realize the beauty of pure mathematics on a scale that is nearly overwhelming.  This grand conjunction and contrast of math and mass is a tribute to the strength of Serra’s effort, intelligence, and vision.  Whatever one may think of the man and the controversies surrounding him, the compelling quality of the work he is currently producing has to be acknowledged.

Interviews: Charlie RosePhong Bui

Slides of Serra’s works: Slate, MoMA

Image courtesy of The New York Times, 20 May 07