Archive for January, 2012

Icons as Fact, Fiction and Metaphor

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

Essay: Icons as Fact, Fiction and Metaphor –

Truth-telling is the promise of a photograph — as if fact itself resides in the optical precision with which photography reflects the way we see the world. A photograph comes as close as we get to witnessing an authentic moment with our own eyes while not actually being there. Think of all the famous pictures that serve as both documentation and verification of historic events: Mathew Brady’s photographs of the Civil War; Lewis Hine’s chronicle of industrial growth in America; the birth of the civil rights movement documented in a picture of Rosa Parks on a segregated city bus in Montgomery, Ala. Aren’t they proof of the facts in real time, moments in history brought to the present?

Of course, just because a photograph reflects the world with perceptual accuracy doesn’t mean it is proof of what spontaneously transpires. A photographic image might look like actual reality, but gradations of truth are measured in the circumstances that led up to the moment the picture was taken.

In John Szarkowski’s seminal book, “The Photographer’s Eye,” Robert Capa is referred to as “the great war photographer.” Capa’s most famous picture, “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, Cerro Muriano, Córdoba Front, Spain, September 5, 1936,” commonly known as “The Falling Soldier,” was taken in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. Though long considered a defining war picture, its veracity has also inspired decades of debate among scholars, curators and critics. While the picture’s iconic stature rests on the precise moment captured when the Spanish soldier was shot, the possibility that it was staged undermines the historic proof it has come to signify.

New evidence reported by the Guardian has reignited the debate. José Manuel Susperregui, who teaches at the University of the Basque Country, recently published a book that includes research challenging the stated location of “The Falling Soldier.” Several previously unseen Capa pictures in the archives of the international Center of Photography, taken in the same sequence as “The Falling Soldier,” show a broader view of the landscape behind him. Mr. Susperregui uses these additional images to make a convincing case that they were taken in the Espejo countryside, some 25 miles from Cerro Muriano. This information, along with the many stories about Capa staging the picture, add to the intrigue, now rekindled in the Spanish press on the occasion of the International Center of Photography‘s traveling exhibition, “This Is War! Robert Capa at Work,” which just opened at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.

“Everyone engaged with this photograph is trying to find out the truth,” Willis Hartshorn, the director of the center, said in a phone conversation. “The new information about the landscape is compelling.” Nothing is conclusive yet, Mr. Hartshorn added “We’re all trying to build the research together,” he said.

The impulse to define, perfect, or heighten reality is manifest in a roster of iconic photographs that have come to reside in the world as “truth.” Mathew Brady, for instance, rarely set foot on a battlefield. He couldn’t bear the sight of dead bodies. In fact, most pictures of the battlefield attributed to Brady’s studio were taken by his employees Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan — both of whom were known to have moved bodies around for the purposes of composition and posterity.


In “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg, 1863,” by Gardner, the body of a dead soldier lies in perfect repose. His head is tilted in the direction of the camera, his hand on his belly, his rifle propped up vertically against the rocks. There would be no question that this was a scene the photographer happened upon, if it weren’t for another picture by Gardner of the same soldier, this time his face turned from the camera and his rifle lying on the ground.


In the Library of Congress catalog, the photograph “Dead Soldiers at Antietam, 1862,” is listed twice, under the names of both Brady and Gardner. In the image, approximately two dozen dead soldiers lie in a very neat row across the field. Could they possibly have fallen in such tidy succession? Knowing what we do about Gardner’s picture of the lone rebel soldier, the possibility lingers that he moved some of these bodies to create a better composition. Or it could be that other soldiers had lined the bodies up before digging a mass grave for burial.

Whatever circumstances led to this picture, it is at least verifiable that the Battle of Antietam took place on this field. We know that many, many soldiers were killed. Evidence of the battle remains — the soldiers that died on that date, the battlefield on which they fought, the clothes they wore, and so on. Just how much of the subject matter does the photographer have to change before fact becomes fiction, or a photograph becomes metaphor?


Lewis Hine’s 1920 photograph of a powerhouse mechanic symbolizes the work ethic that built America. The simplicity of the photograph long ago turned it into a powerful icon, all the more poignant because of its “authenticity.” But in fact, Mr. Hine — who cared about human labor in an increasingly mechanized world — posed this man in order to make the portrait. (In the first shot, the worker’s fly was open.) Does that information make the picture any less valid? Isn’t it a sad fact that the flaws in daily life should prevent reality from being the best version of how things really are? In our attempt to perfect reality, we aim for higher standards. A man with his zipper down is undignified, and so the famous icon, posed as he is, presents an idealized version of the American worker — his dignity customized, but forever intact. Still, the mechanic did work in that powerhouse and his gesture was true enough to his labor. The reality of what the image depicts is indisputable. Whether Hine maintained a fidelity to what transpired in real time may or may not be relevant to its symbolic import.


Despite its overexposure on posters and postcards, “Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville, 1950,” (“Kiss at the Hôtel de Ville”) by Robert Doisneau, has long served as an example of photography capturing the spontaneity of life. How lovely the couple is, how elegant their gesture and their clothing, how delightful this perspective from a café in Paris! What a breezy testament to the pleasure of romance! But despite the story this picture seems to tell — one of a photographer who just happened to look up from his Pernod, say, as the enchanted lovers walked by — there was no serendipity whatsoever in the moment. Mr. Doisneau had seen the man and woman days earlier, near the school at which they were studying acting. He was on assignment for Life magazine, for a story on romance in Paris, and hired the couple as models for the shot. This information was not brought to light until the early 1990s, when lawsuits demanding compensation were filed by several people who claimed to be the models in the famous picture. Does the lack of authenticity diminish the photograph? It did for me, turning its promise of romance into a beautifully crafted lie.


Ruth Orkin was in Florence in the early 1950s when she met Jinx Allen, whom she asked to be the subject of a picture Ms. Orkin wanted to submit to The Herald Tribune. “American Girl in Italy, Florence, Italy, 1951” was conceived inadvertently when Ms. Orkin noticed the Italian men on their Vespas ogling Ms. Allen as she walked down the street. Ms. Orkin asked her to walk down the street again, to be sure she had the shot. Does a second take alter the reality of the phenomenon? How do you parse the difference between Mr. Doisneau’s staged picture and Ms. Orkin’s re-creation?


The birth of the civil rights movement is often dated to a moment in 1955 when Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to give up her seat on a crowded city bus to a white man. Many people assume that the famous picture of Mrs. Parks sitting on a bus is a record of that historic moment. But the picture was taken Dec. 21, 1956, a year after she refused to give up her seat, and a month after the United States Supreme Court ruled Montgomery’s segregated bus system illegal. Before she died in 2005, Mrs. Parks told Douglas Brinkley, her biographer, that she posed for the picture. A reporter and two photographers from Look magazine had seated her on the bus in front of a white man. Similar photo opportunities were arranged on the same day for other civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Here is a staged document that has become a historic reference point, and a revealing parable about the relationship of history to myth.

As a witness to events, the photojournalist sets out to chronicle what happens in the world as it actually occurs. A cardinal rule of the profession is that the presence of the camera must not alter the situation being photographed. The viewer’s expectation about a picture’s veracity is largely determined by the context in which the image appears. A picture published in a newspaper is believed to be fact; an advertising image is understood to be fiction. If a newspaper image turns out to have been set up, then questions are raised about trust and authenticity. Still, somewhere between fact and fiction — or perhaps hovering slightly above either one — is the province of metaphor, where the truth is approximated in renderings of a more poetic or symbolic nature.

Jack Pierson – Broken debris of glamour

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

Frieze Magazine | Archive | Archive | Jack Pierson.

Cluttered with the broken debris of glamour, the universe of Jack Pierson is one in which personal and collective dreams are always incomplete. His recent exhibition was fitted out with such alluring fragments spanning more than a decade, from shattered text pieces to an installation of collected ephemera. Room keys hanging on the pegboard of a vacant motel, plastic letters on two oracular diner menus reading ‘Breakfast: Hope’ and ‘Dinner: Fear’ – through these fits and starts of evocation Pierson’s work describes big dreams underscored by even bigger disappointments. Although it traverses a shared set of American fantasies, its final emphasis rests on sentiments of loneliness and psychological isolation.

Pierson’s art is built on reference and counter-reference. The allusions forming his world are familiar enough: Diana Ross and the Yellow Brick Road, Vegas motels, empty corridors and Marilyn Monroe. The cultural and even emotional landscape suggested by his work is instantly recognizable as one of tawdry glitz and glamour, melancholy and nostalgia. There is an ethos of specificity involved here; every object, whether a book or a photograph or a single scrap of newspaper, carries with it a culturally conditioned sense of significance. In this aspect his work is deeply set into its chosen context and historical period. Nonetheless, individual pieces seem designed to function as a rebuttal of context. A single unidentified page from Joan Didion’s seminal collection of essays The White Album (1979) floats in a white frame; elsewhere a spread of pages clipped from a Diane Arbus monograph reads as blank space, with images removed and only captions remaining. In these works Pierson seems preoccupied with isolating iconic artefacts of culture and stripping back their acknowledged meaning.

The specific quality of Pierson’s work lies in the contradiction between these two impulses, between the overproduction of allusion on the one hand and its near obfuscation on the other. Deftly playing with notions of meaning and interpretation, it hinges on the simultaneous evocation and denial of context. The fragmentary elements that constitute his work are never restored, and their meaning never wholly fixed. In Pierson’s world dreams perennially elude their context and interpretation, and it is for this reason that they are so haunting.

That question of allusion and subversion of reference is closely linked to Pierson’s use of cliché. The sentiments aroused by his work arrive to us cloaked in trite and formulaic language. In many ways Pierson’s art draws its vibrancy from that vocabulary’s persuasive power – from its universality, its emotional efficacy and its sometimes over-determined naivety. At the same time he signals the fundamental paradox of cliché: for all its potential richness of signification it remains simultaneously hollow and unyielding. Certainly there is an element of insistent flatness in Pierson’s work. I (Cracked) (1990) features a gilded capital letter ‘I’, shattered but still intact; similarly the photographic work A Million Dollars (1992) simply features a literal representation of its title.

If Pierson is able to manipulate tired clichés with such skill, it may be because he manages to integrate an ironic self-referentiality into the very world he evokes; a distance that is itself a part of the language of camp. However, the most persuasive exhibits here were those that collapsed his cagily maintained distance, integrating expressions of pathos and, at times, something approaching despair. In the best cases, as in the ‘Yellow Brick Road’ pieces, Pierson even managed to revitalize the power of sentimentality. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Part II (1990), a segment of ‘pavement’ composed of individually inscribed yellow soap bars, communicates a strong sense of loss even as it remains embedded within a particular set of camp references to Judy Garland, mus-icals, fantasy and the glamour of Hollywood. The brick-like soap bars engraved with the names of friends and strangers resolve into the familiar form of the magical yellow brick road from The Wizard of Oz (1939) and the later Diana Ross disco remake The Wiz (1978), but not without subverting their associations. Pierson’s road leads nowhere; it provides neither hope nor solace. It is in this multi-tiered fashion that his work exceeds the limitations of camp knowingness and referential smarminess, reaching a sustained pitch of emotional power. These may be fragments, but it is as bits and pieces that they achieve their total meaning – as the remains of times past.

Katie Kitamura

Jack Pierson – Self-Portrait as Obscure Object of Desire

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

Self-Portrait as Obscure Object of Desire; Jack Pierson’s Autobiography, of Sorts, in Photographs of Unidentified Men – New York Times.

 Jack Pierson, Self Portrait #19

A new book of photographs by Jack Pierson features 15 images of beautiful men, arranged to suggest the arc of a lifetime — beginning with a young boy and progressing to old age with men in various stages of undress. There’s nothing surprising about that; Mr. Pierson has been photographing beautiful naked men for years. In this case, though, the photographs are offered under the title ”Self Portrait.” But none of the images is of the artist himself.

Mr. Pierson has fashioned an autobiography from a collection of images of unidentified men. His photographs affect the casual look of a vacation snapshot, one you might expect to find clipped to a page of a personal diary. Often there is an implicit, offhand eroticism to his pictures of men, as if something sexual is in the cards, or might have just taken place.

While there is a canny intimacy to these new pictures, languorously attuned to the temporal glamour of ordinary moments, the subject of this self-portrait series is desire — when it begins, how long it lasts, what it tells us about ourselves or, at least, about the artist.

Mr. Pierson is part of a group of photographers known as the Boston School — David Armstrong, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Nan Goldin and Mark Morrisroe, among others. All of them knew one another in the early 1980′s and photographed their immediate circle of friends in situations that were, or appeared to be, casual or intimate. Mr. Pierson was often the subject of Mr. Morrisroe’s photographs, and the object of Mr. Morrisroe’s desire. The photographs in this self-portrait series take their cue from the template of pictures of the artist taken 20 years ago. In an attempt to establish a mythology of self, Mr. Pierson is presenting new photographs of other men in the manner of his own portrait, claiming their appearance to represent his own identity. The book is published by the Cheim & Read gallery in Chelsea, where the exhibition ”Jack Pierson,” featuring other works of his, runs through Jan. 3.

”Self Portrait” is the flip side of what Cindy Sherman accomplished in her series ”Untitled Film Stills.” Dressing up to enact a wide variety of female archetypes, Ms. Sherman photographed herself in fictional scenes alluding to Hollywood films. That body of work expresses an idea about the way identity is formed by the cultural forces all around us; yet, despite Ms. Sherman’s insistence that her ”film stills” are not self-portraits, the series flirts with the very idea of identity and self-portraiture. Mr. Pierson, by eliminating his own likeness from his ”Self Portrait,” comments on the same postmodern idea about the cultural construction of the individual, but in this case the work suggests that assumed identities both define and obscure the individual in society.

The idea of the constructed identity is nothing new. In an age of cosmetic surgery and on-line communication, it’s easy to customize our appearance or hide behind an invented persona. How often do we look at a picture in a magazine and imagine ourselves with that haircut, in those sunglasses, on that beach? No matter how strong our own sense of who we are, the lust for some idealized version of ourselves is invariably summoned in the barrage of images endlessly flashing before us. Mr. Pierson’s self-portrait series attests to this, underscoring at its core his own erotic impulse to be as desirable as those he desires, to become the very object of his own attraction.

In naming his pictures of others ”Self Portrait,” Mr. Pierson also owes a nod to the Dada legacy of provocation. The catalog of ”The First Papers of Surrealism,” a 1942 group exhibition in New York organized by Marcel Duchamp and André Breton, used the self-portrait as a symbolic equivalent in photographs and drawings of completely unrelated or unknown people. Titled with the names of the participating artists, these ”ready made” portraits, or found faces, took on new meaning in place of other expected identities.

Jack Pierson - Self Portrait #16 - 2003 - stmpa ai pigmenti - cm 134x109,2 - ed. di 7 - courtesy Cheim & Read, New York

In an essay for a show of portraits at PaceWildenstein Gallery in 1976, Kirk Varnedoe wrote, ”If, in the extremes of modern portraiture, the artist sees the other almost wholly as himself, so in the self-portrait he often sees himself as somebody, or something, irrevocably ‘other.’ ”

Portraiture has always revealed as much about the artist as the subject. If you think about the difference between portraits by Richard Avedon and Robert Mapplethorpe, each photographer has a signature style. Remove the names of their subjects and you’re left with a collection of portraits that become as much a self-portrait as the artist’s own likeness. In effect, Mr. Pierson has taken that idea one step further by omitting the names of his subjects, assuming their identities and calling his collection ”Self Portrait.”

Picasso, unsatisfied with the face of his portrait of Gertrude Stein after 80 sittings, painted one based on a mask of an Iberian sculpture. When people protested that the portrait did not resemble the subject, he is said to have commented: ”Everybody thinks she is not at all like her portrait, but never mind. In the end, she will manage to look just like it.”

Published: December 18, 2003

The Long Nineties

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

Frieze Magazine | Archive | The Long Nineties.

Revisiting art’s social turn and the 1990s – the decade that has yet to end


Art Club 2000 Untitled (Conran’s I), 1992–3, c-type print

Mocked and ridiculed, the 1980s met a pitiful end at the hands of a generation of artists who considered a market-friendly, object-based art their ideological nemesis, and punished it summarily for its false richness.

This is an exaggeration, of course, but ask around in my (Northern European) corner of the world, and I would guess that many of those who were working back then will confirm this picture of a generational showdown. By contrast, faded and forgotten as they may be, ‘the long nineties’ remain unsubverted.1 The symbolic revival of Félix Gonzáles-Torres at the 2011 Istanbul Biennial, for instance, echoed his status as a guiding star of curating and art theory of that decade.

However, during the last five years, as the historicization of the ’90s gains momentum, the jury has gradually reconvened. The case being weighed is that of art’s relationship to the social. In 2007, Ina Blom published On the Style Site: Art, Sociality and Media Culture, examining the practices of many of the prominent artists of the ’90s and after; a 2010 symposium at Tate Britain was entitled ‘Art and the Social: Exhibitions of Contemporary Art in the 1990s’; and Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship will be published by Verso in 2012. The art-historical claim of the latter is that the ‘social turn’ should be ‘positioned more accurately as a return to the social, part of an ongoing history of attempts to rethink art collectively’.2 I will proceed more sceptically – or counter-socially – by revisiting the ’90s through the social as a problematic not only for art, but also in relation to the ‘governmentality’ of our time – Michel Foucault’s term for the economics and relations of power that shape a society as a field of possible action.

Unlike the slippery ’90s, which haven’t yet found their closure, there is some certainty to be found in the ’80s. The art of that decade took distinct forms – such as appropriation or neo-expressionism – whereas ’90s positions were summed up in a single term: ‘contemporary art’. Not a new term, exactly, but indicative of a new state of connectivity and synchronicity, in which contemporary art experienced a major upgrade (or was it a paradigm shift?). Art’s markets and modes of circulation changed, as did professional and political attitudes towards it. Art became animated by biennials, magazines and art fairs; by artists who strayed from the studio and integrated their mobility into their work; and by curators who shed the historical baggage of the museum’s archive. The general activity that surrounded art – its media, infrastructure and social activity – became as prominent and energetic as art itself.

Around the same time, art’s social turn occurred. This gave visual art a new lease of life at a point when it had otherwise been declared dead (along with the avant-garde, the novel, the human being, the author, etc.). The idea of the social contradicted the demonization of reality and presence of much of the work of the ’80s. No longer something remote, academic and monumental, art became a situation or a process. A work was now a club, a bar, a meal, a cinema, a hang-out, a dance floor, a game of football or a piece of furniture: think of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s soup kitchens, Angela Bulloch’s bean-bags or Apolonija Šušteršicˇ’s public structures. The sole author and the contemplative beholder were atomized in works that called for togetherness, and were often created by collectives or self-organized entities. The art institution started to reflect on itself as a critical space, and exhibition formats opened up in turn. Art took place anywhere – in front of a video camera, on an answering machine, in the urban space. Everyday life became meaningful again, even a refuge from late capitalism.

This is how artists escaped the melancholy slipstream of Modernist painting and sculpture, and no doubt a reason why the young art scene at the time greeted the reintroduction of art’s social dimension enthusiastically. Importantly, however, the affirmation of the social indicates an ambiguity with which social space, and history itself, had become imbued. On the one hand, the artist was no longer Postmodernism’s agent, hovering above the delta of history, selecting and copying styles from all times. The artist was now down in it. On the other hand, history had ended – a claim put forward by conservative thinkers vis-à-vis the end of the Cold War, but which was also argued from a different perspective by critical minds such as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, who saw no outside to the present order.

The ‘no outside’ predicament was an attempt at reality-checking the effects of ideological conflict cancelled by Tony Blair’s and Gerhard Schröder’s ‘Third Way’ paradigm. Left and right merged, state and economy were integrated in increasingly informal ways, and politics lost its fixed points. Foucault described neo-liberalism as sociological government: in this model, the realms of the social and cultural – rather than the economy – are mobilized for competition and commerce.³ During the 1990s, a new economy began brimming with imperatives to socialize through email, mobile phones and, later, social media, and as social and economic processes were pulled closer together, both art and power became ‘sociological’. The reification of the social form became almost indistinguishable from social content. In other words, the social can also be a simulacrum: an instrumentalization of models and tastes that are already received and working in the culture at large.

Management theory expanded into art, as Richard Florida’s notion of the ‘creative class’ (2002) and James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine’s The Experience Economy (1999) submitted aesthetic concepts to socialization. In some cases – such as the UK’s New Labour government, who came to power in 1997 – cultural policies organized art around the economic centre of society in much the same terms. It wasn’t just a case of management theory colonizing aesthetic concepts, though: the art system was itself involved in rationalizing the idea of the artist as manager.

These factors contributed to art being pulled up from the underground, down from the ivory tower and in from the margins, making it part of governed reality in new ways. From the point of view of a ‘creative’ economy, aesthetic concept and artistic behaviour became models for productivity. This doesn’t turn the art that artists created into a passive symptom; but it was a development that placed high stakes on the cultural analysis inherent in the art work, if the work were to avoid melding with the manifest social needs and ends of the state, society or any other milieu.

Simon Grennan and Christopher Sperandio We got it!, 1993, billboard design for 40 locations in Chicago as part of ‘Culture in Action’, 1992–3

In September 2011, the exhibition ‘Spectersof the Nineties’ opened at Marres Centre for Contemporary Culture in Maastricht. Curated by Lisette Smits, in collaboration with Matthieu Laurette, the project proposed a reading of critical artistic practices of the ’90s, but via a materialist analysis that took the technological revolution as the cause of the change not only of society but of artistic practice itself. The organizers presented these as cases to contest both the forgetting of artistic practices of the decade and the way some of these have been dismissed as ‘affirmative of the system’ and of neo-liberalism.4 Even if one shares this materialist analysis, it looks like Smits and Laurette don’t agree with my position that the ’90s are unsubverted. But I could counter that significant artistic positions of the decade have rarely been associated directly with power the way that the works of Jeff Koons, for instance, were read as unambiguous symptoms of Reaganism.

However, I do agree that a historical look at the ’90s is relevant in light of artistic practices that dealt (or deal) with social space through meta-strategies of semiotic playfulness or forms of structural critique, such as those of Renée Green, Jens Haaning, Pierre Huyghe and Aleksandra Mir. In 1996, Haaning relocated the entire production line of a Turkish-owned textile factory in Vlissingen in the Netherlands – including immigrant workers, goods and machinery – into De Vleeshall, a Kunsthalle in neighbouring Middelburg. Self-referentially titled Middelburg Summer 1996, the work showed art and the social to be ever-changing placeholders for each other that would never coincide: it was part of the social world where it was created, and at the same time its aesthetic content set it apart from what already existed.

One could also speculate that, without Postmodernism’s keen sense of historical repetition, the ’90s was also the long decade that forgot it was part of the 20th century. Let me quote works by some of the big names: Olafur Eliasson’s Green River (1998–2001) was, apart from its locations, identical to Nicolás García Uriburu’s Coloration du Grand Canal (Dyeing the Grand Canal, 1968) in Venice; Maurizio Cattelan’s sub-letting of his allotted space at the 1993 Venice Biennale to an advertising agency in principle repeated Poul Gernes’s 1970 collaboration with Citroën and Bang & Olufsen for the Louisiana Museum’s ‘Tabernakel’ exhibition; and Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006) echoes the film Fussball wie noch nie (Football as Never Before, 1970) by Hellmuth Costard, which followed George Best through an entire football match. When comparing these works, should one look for copies or coincidences? Were these artists in their own way creating a reception of postwar art that art historians had failed to write? Or did a global culture industry make it possible to reproduce the 1960s neo-avant-garde because art was now legitimated through powerful spheres of circulation (institutional, commercial and mediatic) that didn’t exist then?

One can only begin to answer these questions by acknowledging that the social signifies something fundamentally different at different historical times. The category of the social evades an understanding of historical continuity because it privileges space over time, presence over form. It is fundamentally contemporary, a concept without speed and virtuality – and this is how it may fail as a chronopolitics. At the same time, apparatuses inherent to the social sphere also synchronize by creating bubbles in time: the marketplace creates simultaneity in consumption, and because the spectacle wants art big and easy, it disregards the archive and its tedious historical perspectives. When synchronizing functions such as these pull things closer together around the existing moment, contemporary art may end up performing an eternal return to the present as a temporal effect of sociological government.

Nicolás García Uriburu Coloration du Grand Canal (Dyeing the Grand Canal), 1968, colourant, Grand Canal, Venice

In Relational Aesthetics (1998), Nicolas Bourriaud fixed the monstrosity and megalomania of the historical avant-gardes by proposing the more flexible artistic ‘micro-Utopia’.5 This was a Utopianism that didn’t resonate with Modernism’s five-year plans and personal sacrifices, but was closer to the manageable time-spaces of Foucauldian micropolitics and Hakim Bey’s idea of temporary autonomous zones. Some 20 years earlier, Roland Barthes questioned the fantasy of privileged political orders, whether micro or macro in his Sade / Fourier / Loyala (1980): ‘Can a Utopia be otherwise than domestic?’ he asked, suggesting a measure of un-freedom in the very concept.

The social sculpture of the ’90s was never really a discussion about freedom. Emancipatory thinking figured as modestly on the agenda as it had in the post-Structuralist theory that informed so much ’80s art. In the preface to his 1983 anthology The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Hal Foster proposed a ‘Postmodernism of resistance’ informed by the ‘desire to change the object and its social context’, against neo-conservative attempts at severing the cultural from the social. Ironically, however, while it re-established the political on the agenda, Foster’s notion of an ‘oppositional Postmodernism’ can be seen to have helped pave the way for what also became a retro-Modernism (including the return of Utopia). His position prefigured a tendency to conflate the aesthetic with political conservatism, thereby turning aesthetic concepts into epiphenomena. This was the case for big categories of aesthetic collateral such as spirituality and metaphysics, but also staples of form, autonomy and pleasure (for instance, what Barthes had called le plaisir du texte, or ‘the pleasure of the text’), were ditched in the social turn.

At the same time (and somewhat counter-intuitively) former keywords of artistic and social critique – conformism, alienation, negation – were likewise ejected from the vocabulary. It is difficult to escape the feeling that the highs and lows of aesthetic experience were truncated, and art lost some of what Theodor Adorno called its infinite difficulty.6 Polemically speaking, where this was the case the social turn was neither a social critique that addressed misery, exploitation and inequality, nor was it an artistic critique of risks deriving from the dominance of utilitarian thinking.7 This lack was not necessarily indicative of the art as such – after all, a video of the artist dancing can be seductive; a living unit can be a negation – but of a critical vocabulary that revolved around concreteness, a can-do attitude and art on a human scale. Aesthetic experience is compromised when aesthetic problems, and the aesthetic as a problematic, are resolved in social space.

Today, the managerial rhetoric of creativity is fading quickly with yesteryear’s economic optimism. Still, the social is hardly a cold case. The 2012 Berlin Biennial will be curated by the artist Artur Zmijewski, author of the manifesto ‘The Applied Social Arts’ (2007). Here he encourages artists to strive for ‘social impact’, arguing that ‘since the 1990s, art has been growing increasingly institutionalized [and] anodyne’. However, it remains an open question whether one can cure art with the ‘radical forms of expression’ Zmijewski recommends, seeing that the social was a constitutive theme in the decade that, in his own analysis, turned the screw of institutionalization.

As the social persists as a theme in artistic practice and art history, as well as in the ‘social practice’ programmes of art schools, it seems urgent to articulate the limit of art’s integration into society. Perhaps it is time to re-conceptualize the aesthetic as a mode of thinking in order to articulate difference, new outsides and the transcendental, understood as the condition of historical practices and that which lies at the edge of social relations. The present cannot only be changed from its inside. To regain its futurity it must be reconfigured from afar, too.

1 Tom Morton talked about ‘the long 1990s’ in his review of the 8th Lyon Biennial in issue 95 of frieze (November–December 2005)
2 Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells, book manuscript, p.3 (to be published by Verso in 2012)
3 See Michael Senellart (ed.), Michel Foucault: The Birth of Biopolitics. Lectures at the Collège de France 1978–79, 2008, Macmillan, chapter six
4 Email conversation between the author and Lisette Smits, 13 September 2011
5 In addition to Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics and Peter Weibel’s Kontextkunst (Context Art, 1993), Nina Möntmann published Kunst als sozialer Raum (Art as Social Space, 2002), Sarah Lowndes published Social Sculpture: The Rise of the Glasgow Art Scene (2003), Craig Saper talked about ‘sociopoetic art’ (in Networked Art, 2001), and I wrote about ‘social aesthetics’ (in an eponymous essay in issue one of Afterall, 1999)
6 For Adorno, ‘Art is indeed infinitely difficult in that it must transcend its concept in order to fulfil it.’ (Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 1970, p. 103)
7 Eve Chiapello distinguishes between social critique and artistic critique in ‘Die Kritik der Künstler am Management’, in Angewandte Sozialforschung (Applied Social Research), 2006, vol. 24, no. 1–2, pp. 19–24

Lars Bang Larsen

teaches at the Städelschule in Frankfurt, Germany, and at HEAD in Geneva, Switzerland, and works with Maria Lind on the exhibition project The New Model at Tensta Konsthall in Stockholm, Sweden. His book, Art is Norm, will be published by Sternberg Press in 2012.

Stan Douglas – Double Take

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Frieze Magazine | Archive | Double Take.

Stan Douglas talks about history and landscape, puzzles and storytelling


Nearly two decades after puzzling Canadian TV viewers with his ‘Television Spots’ (1988), originally conceived as cryptic 15- or 30-second adverts selling absolutely nothing on commercial networks, Stan Douglas has gained a reputation as an enigmatic artist; his films, videos and photographs refining an aesthetic in which meaning is provisional and migratory. It should come as no surprise that he has made a film reworking the idea behind Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece. In Klatsassin (2006) Douglas constructs a coastal rainforest Western, populated by a cast of unreliable narrators whose multiple accounts of a violent incident are as much a philosophical statement as they are episodes in a film narrative.

Douglas understands history as a string of contingencies. This recognition sets an elegiac tone for much of his work, marked by a fascination with those moments when historical events might have taken a different turn. What if the Cuban Revolution, the colonization of Vancouver Island, the political unrest in Paris in May of 1968, had turned out differently? In posing these questions he constructs lost histories in the guise of newly imagined narratives. These re-imaginings reflect on their own conditional nature, and their way of telling mirrors the tale being told. Douglas’ films and videos have no beginning and no end. As he says, ‘life is all middle’.

Before we talked at his Vancouver studio, Douglas showed me his most recent project, Vidéo (2006), which conflates two extant film sources: Samuel Beckett’s Film (1965) and Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962). Hybridizing the style and tone of his sources, he sets his story in contemporary Paris and comes up with a haunting narrative that insinuates a sense of disturbing watchfulness and past and present danger.

Robert Enright: How did you come to make Vidéo using the two sources you chose?

Stan Douglas: Early last year I was teaching in Berlin and being harassed, for odd reasons, by the university administration. One evening I was to meet two curators from the Centre Pompidou in Paris to discuss the possibility of me doing a new work for the Beckett exhibition. I had been thinking about Beckett’s Film as a kind of cinematic lipogram, in which we never see a reverse shot of the protagonist until the very end, but I didn’t really know what I would do. As I was getting ready to go to the meeting I noticed a copy of Kafka’s The Trial (1925) on a bookshelf in the apartment where I was staying and everything clicked: I remembered seeing Orson Wells’ version of The Trial, filmed in the derelict Gare D’Orsay and, what I presumed, were the then-new Paris suburbs, then I remembered that I had been staying in the same apartment while the riots were going on in Parisian banlieues during the fall of 2005. Wells actually shot his exteriors among housing projects in Zagreb but I stuck with my original inclination and used locations on the outskirts of Paris. It turned out that the place I was most interested in, La Courneuve, was the site of the most violent demonstrations in November 2005, and the tower I liked best was the fictional home of the heroine in Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know about Her (1967).

RE What’s notable is the way film history is implicated in your making of a film.

SD Yes, people often say that it’s impossible to have an original idea because everything has already been thought of, or that every book is the rewriting of a book that has already been written. I try to be honest in the way I work with these source materials and admit freely and immediately what I am elaborating upon. But since these stories are very basic and shared in a certain way, it is the time, manner and matter of the telling that makes one thing unique or different.

RE Does it matter whether people are as aware as you are of the sources and references in the film? Does the viewer need to bring the same knowledge to the seeing that you bring to the making?

SD It is, and it isn’t necessary for the viewer to be as aware. At a certain point, if you can’t parse the work just by experiencing it and having everyday knowledge of television and film – if it doesn’t work from the level of a person coming at it cold, then it really isn’t successful. If you have to have an exterior text to explain what the work is, then the work isn’t complete in itself. Somebody who does know these historical references can have a more complex understanding of what’s going on, but it’s absolutely not necessary.

RE Can you ever look at a film innocently?

SD Of course, but no filmmaker is truly innocent. They’ve looked at other films in order to make their own, so they’re never pure to begin with. And being aware of other approaches helps any filmmaker break their habits, especially when they discover their own habits in the work of someone else.

RE Is your looking invariably a kind of research?

SD I can go to a film just for fun or distraction. But I do have a memory. I never imagined when I watched The Trial that I would make a film either based on it or that refers to it. But it was somewhere in the back of my mind so that I was able to make the connection when I needed it. This is how intuition works. An artist’s experience becomes a tool kit, an inventory of techniques, that can be put together in a quick fashion.

RE You may start with intuition, but you are quite serious about inquiring into every aspect of what making the film might entail.

SD Yes, but a lot of the research turns out to be of no use. I do research to a point where I know enough about a situation that I don’t have to think about it anymore. That’s what the research is for; it’s not to illustrate something you’ve researched directly, but to have an understanding of the flavour of a situation or a moment in time. This is the difference between what Marcel Proust called ‘voluntary’ and ‘involuntary’ memory.

RE Is it an inevitable development that your work gets more complicated? If I think of what happens in Overture (1986) and compare it to Inconsolable Memories (2005) or Klatsassin, I realize how much more layered these later projects are becoming.

SD They’re certainly more complicated than Overture, which was just a matter of taking the Edison Company’s pre-existing film and Proust’s pre-existing novel, chopping them up, duplicating them and then putting them together in a certain order. Now I’m writing the words and making the pictures myself, with the help of a 30- or 40-person crew. Those two pieces are certainly less complicated than a studio film, but I got a taste the kind of work that any independent filmmaker has to do in order to make a feature.

RE Do you think of yourself as an independent filmmaker?

SD Because I’m self-trained, I’m still a little uncomfortable when I’m around a real filmmaker. Neverthless something I really enjoy these days is working with actors and learning to work with their skills in maintaining a character over a period of time. A lot of what I asked actors to do before was quite technical but the recent projects have allowed me to develop dramatic situations. It took me a long time to figure out what a director’s responsibility was, but I was able to deduce it from what the cast and crew expected of me. You don’t go too far into the minutiae of your collaborators’ respective crafts, or you will just piss them off, but you have to be either extremely precise or confidently vague about what you want in order to avoid some nasty surprises. Editing is extremely important also, it’s something I like too because it is, in effect, the time when you make the final draft of your script, if there is one.

RE You spent the good portion of a year researching and working on a Beckett project, so he’s obviously been a seminal figure for you.

SD I was interested in theatre when I was in high school, and particularly in Waiting for Godot (1952). I guess teenage angst played a certain role, but then I forgot about Beckett when I went to art school. Towards the end of my studies I found a copy of Company (1979) and I realized Beckett was still alive and writing. I thought he wrote Waiting for Godot and Endgame (1957), then gave up. I was so impressed that I started reading Beckett in reverse order and discovered that his later books were much more successful than the canonical ones.

RE So he re-seduced you back into his world?

SD Exactly. For example, Not I (1972) became my favourite work of art: a voice talks about herself coming into being through language. Language is something she doesn’t really trust, but it is the only thing she has to make herself exist. That’s the fascinating tautology of the work: the writing is suspicious of itself, but it’s the only thing it has to realize itself. The thing I owe to Beckett is an understanding of the impossibility of communication as something a priori but not absolute. The received wisdom is that his work circles around an endgame and collapses into pure interiority, but I think it stages a condition of doubt and suspicion from which communication can begin.

RE You seem invariably to start from the interstitial, from the in-between.

SD Yes. Working in the form of loops with these recombinant pieces you can’t really talk about beginnings or ends, which are arbitrary and often produced by the ideological or formal requirements of a narrative form. I mean, life is all middle.

RE You’re articulating a lack of certainty inside a frame that has a certain degree of certainty about it. Isn’t that an inherent contradiction?

SD Sometimes the certainty is false. To instil confidence in the people you’re working with as a director you have to pretend to know what you’re doing, even if you don’t. Sometimes you have to make leaps that allow the process to continue. You also have to allow a space for improvisation. So it’s a matter of creating a space that’s flexible enough that things can go wrong, where you can let other people contribute ideas to make the project more than you expected. If it’s not different and more than you had planned originally, it’s probably not worth doing. It should have probably remained a script. What I end up with is never what I expected and always different from what I intended. When I was developing Klatsassin, I was inspired to revisit Rashomon after walking through Stanley Park one day and seeing dappled light coming in through the trees. Kurosawa shot the trial scenes in direct sunlight and the contradictory versions of the murder under the cover of trees with only specks of light punctuating the scene. We planned to shoot our murder scenes in a similar way but the weather didn’t cooperate, it was cloudy. This meant that the visual metaphor would change. It was not what I had imagined, but it still works.

RE There is an interesting sense of layering in Klatsassin; you go to Kurosawa and you end up with a Western set in British Columbia. How did that work?

SD Kurosawa was criticized for being too Western. He often took Western narratives and applied them to his films, or people in the West would make Westerns from his Samurai stories.

RE There’s a murder that happens outside 11th-century Kyoto in Kurosawa’s film, and there’s a murder in Klatsassin as well. How much play do you allow yourself with the narrative you inherit from Kurosawa?

SD There was a lot of play. In Rashomon you have a bandit, a ronin and his wife; in Klatsassin a thief, a deputy and his prisoner. In both cases there is a scene with rain, from which the strangers who meet are seeking shelter, but the ruin of a city gate is very different from a relatively new roadhouse. In Rashomon the characters have arrived by chance, in Klatsassin they are where they are because of their different reactions to a gold rush.

RE It’s a pretty fantastic-looking cast of characters evident in the related photographic portraits you made. They seem more filmic.

SD They all have great faces, faces with peculiar kinds of experience, but they were all types. In that historical situation you would meet people and not care to know them well, but you would care about their function. Are they useful to you or will they be a problem? What is their function up here and how will it affect me? I never gave them names: they all go by their profession or function.

RE Do you always develop photographic work out of a film, either prior or afterwards? Has that become a necessary part of your practice?

SD It’s not necessary, but it’s a parallel thing. It’s often a way of understanding where I am and what I’m looking at. For the recent ‘Western’ series (2006), I followed the Gold Rush Trail up the Fraser Valley to Barkerville in order to understand the landscape. Obviously it’s not the same as it was in the 19th century, but I could at least start to imagine the situations miners were walking through. I visited a spooky ghost town at a place called Quesnelle Forks that I didn’t expect to find. But I must say that my ‘destination’ was a bit of a disappointment, when I discovered that Barkerville had been made into a theme park, with actors walking around in 19th-century clothing, speaking with English accents and doing street theatre.

RE It’s interesting that very few people appear in the photographs you made in Cuba in 2004–5. There is evidence of human activity, just not much human presence.

SD I consider those photographs to be less about absence than the stage of an action. As soon as you put in a person, it becomes theatre. We try to understand what they are doing there, what they are thinking, instead of viewing it as an architectural space or an environment with some kind of social potential.

RE You say you want to avoid theatre, but there’s a lot of theatricality in the film work you’ve been doing.

SD It’s very easy for me to do moving pictures of people, but still images I find very difficult because in a moving picture the person exceeds your expectations in some way. They’re always moving, they’re always fleeting; you can’t hold them and say ‘this is what they are, this is what they represent’. When they’re static, it imposes a certainty on their condition with which I have trouble.

RE The Cuban photographs for Inconsolable Memories (2005) seem to function differently from the ‘Nootka Sound’ photographs (1996), where you’re doing more traditional landscapes.

SD The ‘Nootka Sound’ pictures cover an area which to the untrained eye seems like a natural situation. But if you look at it carefully, you realize it’s been logged at least twice. Plus I was looking at different traces of human presence there: either swamps created by the run-off from logging, a fish trap that is 3,000 years old and still in use, a well that was built by the Spanish when they were there in the 18th century or the replica of a longhouse inside a Catholic church that was a gift from the Spanish state, perversely commemorating their conquest of the area.

RE So your engagement with a place is always implicated in its political uses?

SD In this work I was conscious of doing an anti-Group of Seven piece [A group of Canadian landscape painters from the 1920s]. Instead of being a landscape ready for exploitation because it is supposedly empty, I wanted to show a landscape that was full of people, that was full of human presence, native as well as European.

RE So in that sense it’s the same as what you call your ‘re-purposed’ places in Cuba. There is a history of political and economic use in both those places.

SD For me it was like a microcosm of the revolution itself. You re-purpose a state or a country when you have a revolution, but you still see what it was prior to that. You can’t completely revolutionize a country. In a way it’s an analogue of what was going on in a larger scale in Cuba.

RE You can’t tell from the Cuban photographs whether this is a place that is being rehabilitated or an image that traces the destruction of that place.

SD That’s exactly what it’s like. Is this going forward, is it going backward, is it in stasis? A lot of the locations in Cuba are like that.

RE Is looking for places like that your reckoning with the failure of Modernism? I guess what I’m thinking is that all places carry a similar sense of failure. The Modernist project wasn’t the only one to put forward that notion, but don’t all Utopias fail? By its very definition, Utopia is ‘no place’.

SD Or they don’t last forever. Maybe there was Utopia in Cuba for a little while and it’s not there any more. Maybe it’s working towards a future that it can never realize but that desire is the Utopia. Literacy in Cuba is higher than in the US even now, and there were probably moments in the 1960s when the revolution was functioning very well, in spite of the fact that the US was actively attempting to depose Fidel Castro. Maybe it’s just me, but there had always been something mythical about Cuba. I went to Cuba because I was curious. I’d met a lot of Cuban artists, and I wanted to see what their home was like before it changed, because it will be a very different place once gerontocracy is over.

RE So much of your work has been concerned with finding a notion of social justice and freedom inside society. Where did that come from, and why has it seemed so persistent a search in your work?

SD It would seem self-evident that these things are important. The social utility of art is that it provides a language to talk about something that is very complicated in a very condensed manner, or to experience something that you thought was familiar in a new way. In my work I am addressing things I don’t initially understand. I try to make a model of transient or mutable conditions in order to understand them. Hopefully, it will have the same use for other people.

RE People remark on the complications of your looping. You have a piece that the viewer has to look at for three days before they see all the permutations. Why not make a simpler version of that narrative?

SD It’s not a matter of seeing every possible combination, because it really doesn’t change that much after a certain point. Once you’ve seen all the elements, it’s there in your head as a possible construct. It’s just that I’m not forcing a certain narrative sequence that determines its being understood in a particular way – I’m allowing associative possibilities for an audience, depending on when they arrive and when they decide to leave the work. These aren’t linear works, there is no beginning or end, and there’s absolutely no reason to see all the permutations.

RE I’m not Gary from the ‘Monodramas’ (1991) is a very focused example of how we can thoroughly misunderstand the notion of race: maybe in a benign way, maybe in not so benign a way. How much has your being black played into your work? The question of the Other and its relation to mainstream culture seems so central to much of what you do.

SD I grew up black in Vancouver, which in my youth was a mostly white culture with a large Asian and South Asian component, but not so many people of African or Caribbean descent. So I felt quite isolated and was always in that condition of being the Other. There is an outsider figure in all of my works, who is, I suppose, a surrogate for myself. If you want to psychologize – which I don’t. In any event, the situation in I’m not Gary actually happened to me. I was walking down the street and some guy said, ‘Hi, Gary, how are you doing’, and he seemed so certain I was Gary that for a second I doubted myself.

RE You have resisted the autobiographical as a way of reading your work, haven’t you?

SD Yes. Even though I began this interview with a personal anecdote. I just don’t think that works of art should be treated as symptoms of an artist’s biography. It’s bad enough to say that a work of art is a riddle to be solved, what’s worse is to say that the artist’s personality is the key. The suggestion that a work of art is an effect of personality is highly reductive and shuts down interpretation unless, as in the case of Warhol but very few others, persona is your medium. We know very little about Shakespeare, but Shakespeare is still interesting to us.

RE Has film been the thing that has interested you the most? Why did you choose that medium as the principal focus of your practice?

SD Is that true? I guess it was always ‘film’ in quotation marks. It didn’t begin there; I began with video, and even then I wasn’t a real video artist, I made ‘video’ so I could work with television — and those videos were all shot on 16 mm film. I have used different idioms of representation – silent film, news broadcasting, musical entertainment, television programmes – working within the language and vocabulary of a pre-existing medium.

RE The ‘Television Spots’ and the ‘Monodramas’ are absolutely perplexing for a television viewer. They don’t follow through on the delivery of our conditioned expectations for the medium or the message.

SD I suspect they’re obsolete by now because we’re used to teaser ads which seem to have no apparent point. When I was first invited to do Hors-champs (1992) at the Centre Pompidou, I think I was invited to make French Television spots. But when I finally saw French television, I realized they wouldn’t work at all because the look of their TV was already heterogeneous. The strict genre rules of advertising and broadcasting that we knew in North America didn’t really exist there, and I had to look at something else.

RE The two-sided screen in Hors-champs allows you to see what’s happening off-screen. Where did the idea come from for structuring the piece in that way?

SD Good question. It had to do with the Hors-champs – the out-of-field, the thing you cannot see. I didn’t know what would happen until it was actually made in space. I just thought of un-opposing things being withheld in a certain way. But having one image surrounded by the halo of an absent image was quite powerful.

RE Do you ever set yourself a problem in making a work of art?

SD The idea of a work of art being a puzzle that has a solution is not very interesting. Why wouldn’t you simply state the problem and the solution? Why go through the process of making the thing? The ambiguities or, to put it positively, the possibilities of an image that does not have a clear-cut answer allow me to be productive in different and unexpected ways. The thing I always wait for is to be told something about a work of art that I didn’t anticipate.

RE A filmmaker like Peter Greenaway sets a problem in his films, or uses a puzzle as a point of departure. Then the film is an elaborate way of inquiring into that puzzle, as if there were a solution to it.

SD In Greenaway it’s sort of a mannerist Structuralism, where you’re taking these systematic notions and applying them to a narrative form. In my work the systems are there, but they’re not as important. The recombinant ones are typically for maximum distribution of the narrative elements so that they don’t repeat the same sequences too often. In Win, Place or Show (1998) I adopted a technique from Serialist composition and from Arnold Schoenberg, where you don’t repeat any note until you’ve played all the notes in the tone row.

RE How important are music and sound in what you’re doing?

SD Sound has become more and more important. Early on I would run out of money before I got to the sound mix, but now it plays a crucial role. Suspiria (2003) is intimately involved with being there while the music was being recorded, and then breaking it down to be reassembled by the computer system.

RE The music in Hors-champs also carries heavy political associations, in that it’s connected to May 1968, a period when France had no government for three days. This is one of those times when a revolution almost happened, when things could have turned out differently.

SD This was in the early 1990s, when Wynton Marsalis was saying that Free Jazz was a mistake, an experiment of youth. In a way the revivalists were saying this period of experimentation didn’t happen, and that they should legitimate jazz by making a new museum of its tradition. When I was in Paris doing research, I met various expatriate American musicians who felt betrayed. They had been intimately involved in the culture, and their music was an emblem for a revolutionary idea. Then, as the people who were involved in 1968 became part of the status quo, they either associated the music with a mistake, or they were reminded of revolutionary ideas they had abandoned. So on the one hand the music was being ignored in a general sense, and on the other it was being ignored in France for a very specific reason.

RE We’ve discussed the influence of Beckett, but someone else who seems to have informed your work is Bertolt Brecht. Brecht allows us to engage a work of art by being conscious of what are our choices as viewers. Your work also invites that.

SD Sure, although the alienation effect has a pretension to objectivity that I don’t really agree with. Probably more important for me were the writings on music by Theodor W. Adorno, the idea that in music, which we assume to be either the most expressionistic or formal of media, could be found very discrete social residue or indices. And in the very musical structure of the sonata or the symphonic form he could discover social content. What I found interesting were his close readings of Richard Wagner and Ludwig van Beethoven. His critique of jazz is notoriously dubious, probably because he never really heard it, but his sociology of European music is amazing. I came across his work the year after art school. Typically in art school there was an antagonism towards reading in general, so as an antidote I decided to take on some long books, including Under the Volcano (1947) by Malcolm Lowry, The Making of Americans (1925) by Gertrude Stein, and Doctor Faustus (1947) by Thomas Mann, for which Adorno was the musical adviser. I said, ‘Who’s this Adorno guy?’ and that led me to The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), In Search of Wagner (1938/52) and The Philosophy of Modern Music (1949).

RE Did you read theory because it was useful?

SD It just helped me understand things. As I said before, the function of art is to help me make a model of how the world works, or an aspect of how the world works, in order to understand it better. That’s what a theory is. In the social sciences, or in physics, theory is a proposition, ‘Maybe the world is like this,’ and then pursuing your research according to that idea. In my work I’ve said maybe globalization feels like Journey into Fear (2001).

RE You also seem to be attracted to stories that have been told filmically at least twice before. It seems like doubleness appears a lot in the work.

SD It’s a bad habit, which I hope I have kicked by now. It was something that occurred a lot early on in my work, things always had this binary structure; in Hors-champs, in Der Sandman (1995), in Nu•tka• (1996) in Win, Place or Show and in Journey Into Fear.

RE Did you feel it was a structural limitation in the way you were using it?

SD I just felt it was becoming a bad habit. It began because two is the smallest unit with which you can have conflict. But lately I have shied away from the double screens that I was using.

RE Does one piece of yours naturally lead you to the next? Is there that kind of causality in the practice? I guess what I’m asking you about is musing, about the source of inspiration.

SD I try to start from scratch with each new project, but obviously by now I have a tool kit of techniques I use and ways of working with actors and language and the camera that appear again and again. I try to make them as different as possible from each other.

RE But it seems that story is often a point of departure for you…

SD I’ll have to think about that. The stories tend to come from a place rather than from a story itself. It’s not like ‘I have a story, so let’s find a place where I can make that story’; it’s more like, ‘Here is this place – what is its story?’

RE I’m struck every time I come to Vancouver at how distinctive and pervasive a place it is.

SD I’ve noticed that people who are born here don’t like to leave. I tend to make works that alternate between something very local and something that is away, so it’s away and at home, away and at home. Klatsassin was the home story, but then Vidéo was shot in Paris. But Vancouver has been important to me, absolutely.

RE What about your role inside what is recognized within the art world as the Vancouver School?

SD I wasn’t a really a part of it. Ian Wallace, Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham and Ken Lum were a group of artists who’d met every week at the bar. They’d do projects and exhibit together; they’d discuss and write about each other’s work. They developed a very productive relationship. Even though you had the Western Front being part of the Fluxus network, Ian and Ingrid Baxter as N.E. Thing Company establishing international connections within the museum world, it was those four artists who made Vancouver a go-to place for curators and critics. But it’s easier for critics to talk about the Vancouver School brand than it is to talk about the more complex conditions that really exist here. They really can’t get over the fact that so many good artists have developed in this tiny out-of-the-way place on the edge of North America called Vancouver. The really disappointing thing in this city is the general indifference to its own history and culture. Beautiful buildings get torn down all the time and are replaced by monstrosities that aren’t built to last. This neighbourhood is so unhinged because drug dealers and users have been given no-go zones elsewhere in the city. The neighbourhood has been left to go fallow, but that will change because there is only so much real estate here, with mountains on one side and the ocean on the other.

RE Are you optimistic about this area? You’ve built your studio here.

SD Yes. I always had studios in this neighbourhood, from a time when my milieu was not so much just artists as it was artists and poets. The formal and informal discussions instigated by the first incarnation of a writers’ collective here called the Kootenay School of Writing, was a fundamental influence on my practice. The level of conversation at art school wasn’t all that satisfying but the series of artist/writers talks sponsored by KSW were great, if only because there was something one didn’t understand about the other’s medium and you had to explain things that you otherwise took for granted.

RE Are you surprised by the success you’ve had?

SD Right place at the right time.

Robert Enright

The Architectural Vision of Michelangelo Antonioni – The Eclipse (1962)

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

dvisible magazine | Exploring our Creative World » Archive » The Architectural Vision of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Eclipse (1962).


When a film by the late Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni comes to mind, I think of a quiet, contemplative place full of bold, mysterious, almost overwhelming images. Not since the silent era has a director placed such dependence on the image to convey his vision. His films, in fact, indicate a clear lack of faith in words and dramaturgy, which he felt only served to conceal the truths he sought to discover. If he failed then as a “conventional” dramatist, he succeeded in so many other ways: as a photographer for his exquisite fragmented compositions, a poet for his dedication to divulging the essence of a moment, and a painter for his feeling for light and texture. But perhaps, above all else, Antonioni’s vision, like Jacque Tati, is that of an architect.

Antonioni once said, “The subject of my films is always born of a landscape, of a site, of a place I want to explore.” This sounds more like the words of an architect than a filmmaker, but then Antonioni is both. In the third film of his so-called alienation trilogy, he created his boldest and most architectural work, The Eclipse or L’Eclisse, which focuses on the Roman suburb of Esposizione Universale Roma (EUR).

EUR came as result of Italy’s miraculous economic boom in the post-WWII period when the country’s landscape was forever changed as man-made structures began to dominate, cities expanded and rural areas became suburbs. Although EUR was commissioned by Benito Mussolini in 1935, it was not completed until the 1950s. Italians found its rather odd geometric shapes and sterile surfaces inconsistent with the sensuousness of their culture. Antonioni, on the other hand, was inspired. He was curious about what psychological effects this environment could have on people.

In The Eclipse, Antonioni transforms EUR into a sci-fi-esque backdrop for the existential anguish of Vittoria (Monica Vitti), a young bourgeoisie woman and translator. For much of the film, Vittoria wanders around EUR puzzled by its apathetic residents and bland modernist architectural design. It’s as if she is living on a distant alien planet at odds with human feeling. After her miserable break-up with Riccardo (Francisco Rabal), she becomes reluctant to start a new relationship with Piero (Alain Delon), a materialistic stockbroker. She doubts whether genuine love is even possible in a place like EUR.


To address this issue, Antonioni creates a mise en scène in the form of a maze that confines and constricts the feelings of his characters. He separates Vittoria and Piero through various man-made barriers, like a large marble pillar at the stock exchange when they first meet, and, when Piero calls on Vittoria at her apartment, a steel balustrade near the sidewalk and a wooden balcony fence, which creates a large empty gap between them. They couldn’t reach each other with a ten foot pole. Furthermore, bars are utilized to signal doomed or lost love. As Riccardo tries to rekindle his relationship with Vittoria, he is framed through the bars of her apartment window. Later on after she promises to see Piero again, we now see Vittoria imprisoned through diagonally crossing bars, foreshadowing the end of their relationship.

Antonioni also isolates his characters within the geometric lines of doorways, crosswalks, curbs, and rails. This further complicates his mise en scène and, metaphorically speaking, leaves the characters emotionally dazed. It is during these instances when the future of Vittoria and Piero’s relationship is at its most uncertain. On the other hand, even when the characters are freed from these constrictions in spacious wide shots, the modernist structures of EUR overwhelm them, so that by comparison they look like little toy figures. Here Antonioni emphasizes how man has been outsized by his own creations.


The Eclipse concludes with a chilling seven minute abstract sequence that brings the incompatible relationship between Vittoria and Piero and to their surroundings full circle. After they make love and promise to see each other again that night at their meeting place, Antonioni’s camera lingers on the iconography of EUR, which he had established in the first two acts of the film – the rows of housing complexes, the mushroom-shaped water tower, the white lines of the crosswalk, a wooden stick that Vittoria put in a barrel of water, a horse-drawn carriage passing by, etc. He intersperses these images with varying angles of Vittoria and Piero’s meeting place – both from ones we have seen before and newer ones, including wide shots connecting the half-built housing project, a metaphor for the incompleteness of their relationship, with the contours of the intersection.

The difference this time is that Antonioni almost completely vacates the environment. Our focus instead turns toward its geometric lines, spaces and objects, while we contemplate the glaring absence of Vittoria and Piero, who, for some reason, have not showed up at their agreed upon time and place. In this way, Antonioni metamorphoses EUR into an architectural model to re-examine and investigate how its architectural and spatial design serves the characters. Although it may conform with Piero’s unfeeling material existence, its cold modernist rationality conspires against the earthier Vittoria. So when night falls and the blinding light of the street lamp fills the screen and fades to black, human feeling and Vittoria and Piero’s relationship have been obliterated.


Coupled with the mushroom-shaped water tower, the nuclear imagery here is quite frightening yet appropriate. The astounding advances of scientific man (i.e. the A-bomb and, in general, his modern designs) have been so great that his capacity to work out his problems on a moral level (i.e. the US and Soviet Union conflict during the Cold War) cannot measure up. Antonioni, thus, foregrounds The Eclipse’s undertones of science fiction and presents a nightmare scenario. The problem lies not with man’s designs, but with moral man. Moral man must somehow adjust to the modern environment and advance forward or he will cease to be human or, in the worst case scenario, face extinction.

>Written by d/visible contributor Kevin Hogan.

Tacita Dean – The history of future technology

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

TATE ETC. – The history of future technology.

Tacita Dean, Palast, 2004

In the mid-1920s, Austrian novelist and reporter Joseph Roth wrote a series of articles on the metropolitan frenzy of Berlin, a city which, as its citizens and visitors have seemingly never ceased noting, appears always on the edge of reinvention. According to Roth, the city is a giddy blur of movement, much of it circular, mechanical, repetitive. And yet these circuits are always new, ever about to spin out of control: he is thrilled by the noisy tangle of a railway junction, a roller coaster ride in Luna Park, a department store’s escalator (“it doesn’t even climb, it flies”), the hot centrifuge of a six-day indoor cycle race. All of this circular speed has the odd effect of making time slow down: “Everything is spinning, only time stands still. The rotation goes on forever.” At the same time, another observer, the exiled Vladimir Nabokov, was watching the Berlin traffic with an equally visionary eye, but coming to a less enchanted conclusion. In the twenty-first century, he conjectured, “some oddball of a writer” would look at a tram from the Berlin of the 1920s and see only a kitsch remnant, an obsolete exhibit fit for “the Museum of Past Technology”.

Tacita Dean is not quite that oddball writer, nor does her work exactly curate the defunct machinery of the past in the manner imagined by Nabokov. It is instead something like a deft amalgam of the vantage points of Nabokov and Roth: a cultivated perspective that is both spiralling towards the future and unravelling into the past. In the essay that accompanies her film Fernsehturm (2001), Dean writes, with Stanley Kubrick in mind: “The revolving sphere in space still remains our last image of the future, and yet it is still firmly locked in the past.” The film itself is a sort of terrestrial 2001 . Atop Berlin’s iconic television tower, a restaurant suavely revolves: a space Dean first visited on an art college excursion in 1986. At that time, it took an hour for the surrounding city to orbit the tower. It has since speeded up, but although it now takes only 30 minutes for the view to complete a single revolution, everything else seems to have stood still. The visitors are mostly elderly, and have probably been coming here for years; West-Berliners show little interest in this revolving allegory of the East. Before Dean’s static but mobile camera, the tower looks to be adrift, airlocked and serene, above a history which is visibly being rebuilt by the cranes below. At the end of Fernsehturm, the dimly lit restaurant is suddenly aflare with light as the staff prepare to close, and Berlin has vanished, as if, all along, this televisual ghost had dreamt it into being.

Dean’s art has long been exercised by this sort of spatial and temporal confusion. She is intrigued by eccentric images of the future that have been abandoned, left to leach their enigmatic energies into the surrounding territory. Such structures seem to bypass the present, setting up instead a strange relay between past and future, between utopia and nostalgia. Which is not to say that they partake merely of that generalised retro-futurist sensibility that has been everywhere, for example, in the cinematic futures of the past twenty years or so. Dean’s anachrony is altogether more precise and more mysterious than that: it appears, specifically, in the relationship between the hectic and fuddled history of the object itself and the long, calm meditation of the artist’s camera. It’s not, in other words, a matter of iconography, but of lingering presence, of a time that allows the historical shadows to gather.

In Sound Mirrors (1999), for instance, the vast concrete listening devices erected by the British military in the 1930s to detect German aircraft approaching the coast of Kent are not only images of an abandoned future (the kind of cheap frisson you get looking at a resurrected airship, say), but evidence of a protracted and uneasy accommodation of artefact and landscape. These ghosts are tragic, palpable, doleful presences. (Until recently, the largest of the mirrors bore this graffito: “I hate myself and I want to die.”) In Bubble House (1999), Dean had already discovered – on the Caribbean island of Cayman Brac, while searching for the abandoned boat of Donald Crowhurst, whose story formed the basis of her Disappearance at Sea (1996) and Teignmouth Electron (2000) – another misplaced and decayed relic of a time never to come: an unfinished, futuristic dwelling abandoned by an imprisoned fraudster. And in Boots (2003), she essayed a more complex reflection on architecture and memory, as an old man reminisces about (actually, invents) the past of an art deco villa in Portugal.

Tacita Dean, Sound Mirrors, 1999

Tacita Dean
Sound Mirrors 1999
© Courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris
Film still

But time and again it is Berlin, Dean’s adopted city, that has allowed her to give a special sort of historical resonance to her experiments in architectural time travel. (The Berlin films are also, as it happens, among her most beautiful: irradiated by sunsets so extravagant it seems the city, or the film itself, is on fire.) In the most recent, Palast (2004), she turns her attention to one of the city’s most controversial buildings. Among the last edicts of the old GDR in 1990 was an order to close the vast Palace of the Republic on Schlossplatz (then Marx Engelsplatz) when it was found to be riddled with asbestos. The building has stood empty ever since, and will soon be demolished. Opened in 1976, it was in part designed to demonstrate the ostensible modernising of the GDR, to foster a new cultural affinity between East and West. But in the era of actual unity it has come instead to symbolise a past many would like to accelerate away from as swiftly as possible.

Dean’s Palast is an effort to frame this doomed edifice, briefly, in the rear-view mirror of history. As always, however, the chronology turns out to be more convoluted. On the soundtrack, a modernity that Nabokov and Roth would have recognised can be heard: the traffic circles noisily out of shot, and occasional voices rise above it for a moment. But the building, clad in a pale brown glass that turns everything to gold, reflects mostly, at first, empty sky. Or rather, a sky roiling with ravishing, golden cloudscapes: the Modernist grid of the building’s façade encloses a slowly swirling turbulence that is practically Romantic in its hazy allure. Each expanse of glass is a screen on which is projected a separate scene from the city’s transformation. Gradually, other buildings and objects are reflected, but only ever obscurely: gleaming curves and spikes that might be glimpses of the nearby TV tower turn out to be streetlights, then the spire of a church, and finally, recognisably, the Fernsehturm itself. Equestrian statuary, rearing up in silhouette, is suddenly weak and hobbled beside the bold figures of contemporary graffiti. The city that the palace reflects might be already ruined, so dismembered does it look here, caught between the twin screens of the condemned building and Dean’s film (itself shot on the ruined, anachronistic medium of 16mm film). It is impossible to see these fragments of the city without recalling photographs of a bombed and shelled Berlin half a century ago.

Palast, however, is also a timely intervention in another era of the rebuilding of Berlin. The Palace of the Republic was constructed on the site of the Baroque Royal Palace, which had been damaged by bombing and finally demolished (as a supposed symbol of German militarism) in 1950. The now imaginary Schloss has been the object of a complex sort of nostalgia: itself the image of a future curtailed by the Communist regime, it may now be rebuilt as a monument to a future Berlin. In such a circumstance, both the supporters of the reborn Schloss and of the fading palace (there are predictably fewer of these) seem to oscillate between the roles of reactionary and renovator. Dean’s film sets this perplex of historical emotions into spectral movement, revealing the fabric of the city as a screen on which are projected wholly enigmatic impulses, unknown even to the citizens themselves.

Tacita Dean, Pie, 2003

Tacita Dean
Pie 2003
© Courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris
Film still

In her book The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym writes:”Berlin is a city of monuments and unintentional memorialisations. In contrast to major monumental sites connected to German history, the involuntary memorialisations are material embodiments of this transitional present and are themselves transitory. With time they will only be preserved in stories and souvenir photographs.” The memories of the city are as fragile and as persistent as the bereft photographs Dean collected from the flea markets of Berlin for Floh (2001), or the mysterious opera programmes (with inexplicable holes cut in their covers), acquired in the same way, which are the subjects of her recent work. They are as fleeting as the magpies that she watches from the window of her Berlin studio in Pie (2003), and as certain to return. As Nabokov put it: “The future is but the obsolete in reverse.”

Tacita Dean: Berlin Works at Tate St Ives 8 October -15 January 2006. Tacita Dean will be published by Tate Publishing in October.

Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet magazine. His book In the Dark Room: A Journey in Memory is published by Penguin.

Tacita Dean: Boots

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

Tacita Dean: talks about Boots, 2003 – 1000 words | ArtForum | Find Articles.

Image of: Boots

In the voice-over to Sans Soleil (1982), Chris Marker offers a typically aphoristic remark: “We do not remember; we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.” The linkage between history and memory, their common constructedness, is also evident in the films of Tacita Dean, who, while ostensibly celebrating the formal languages of structural film–duration, framing, sound, and editing–engages the process of memory and resignification that sets in when history lets go of its protagonists, and their actions, objects, and characters become forgotten. Almost all of Dean’s films center around one simple element–such as an observed event, a discovered place, or a forgotten story–that seems obvious and miraculous at the same time. She has made films about a lighthouse off the Scottish coast of Berwickshire (Disappearance at Sea, 1996); the sound-reflecting concrete walls built on the Kent coast in the 1920s as an early-warning system against air raids (Sound Mirrors, 1999); a total solar eclipse as observed on a dairy farm in Cornwall (Banewl, 1999); the torso of a sailboat found on a tiny island in the Caribbean (Teignmouth Electron, 2000); and the leftover traces of Marcel Broodthaers’s Section Cinema in his Dusseldorf studio, now a storage space for a local Kunsthalle (Section Cinema, 2002), Dean’s films take issue with sites or found objects and point to the narratives behind them, which are often fascinating accounts of arcane footnotes of history, discarded utopian experiments, tragic events, or personal defeats. For Boots, 2003, which comprises three films in German, English, and French, Dean situates her protagonist in an unfurnished Art Deco villa in Portugal. In each version, “Boots”–an eccentric old friend of the artist’s family–moves through a different sequence of rooms while recounting anecdotes from the life of the quasi-historical persona he has spontaneously chosen to inhabit.

“I have an unmade film project: something I carry around with me for the future. I’m always surprised by how it transmutes into other works. The project has at its center a dialogue between Oedipus, which means “swollen foot,” and his daughter/sister Antigone. Antigone is my sister’s name and an old fascination. Twelve years ago, while still a student, I made a small drawing of three boots hanging from the top of the paper. Under the first boot was written OEDIPUS; under the second, BYRON; and under the third, BOOTSY. So Boots was on my mind even then.

Boots was my sister’s godfather. (I find it strange suddenly to be speaking in the past tense, because he has just died.) His real name was Robert Steane, but we knew him as Boots because of his orthopedic boot, which he would have elegantly handmade in the style of his other shoe by a top London craftsman. Multiple car accidents added to his rather baroque appearance and left him blind in one eye, but his charm transcended everything. His father was almost certainly the illegitimate son of King George V who left England to become a silent-movie star in Germany in the ’20s. So Boots grew up in Bavaria. He met the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo and lived a truly cosmopolitan life traveling with his parents from one film set to another across Europe. One of the many things that attracted me to Boots was exactly this undatable urbanity that he carried around with him without conscious nostalgia. He was somehow the perfect anachronism.

In 2002, I had a show at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto and visited the pink villa in the park, used by the museum as a second exhibition space. I learned that there were plans to renovate it in the autumn, which precipitated my desire to film it. The villa is an oddity in the French Art Deco style. The owner, Carlos Alberto Cabral, was obsessed by beauty and filled the house with extravagant detailing. He married a French model, Blanche, who pined for Paris, and even today the house retains a sort of melancholy. It was already a stage set, but for me it was the shabbiness and slight neglect that held its atmosphere.

I wanted to animate the house very specifically. So I got fixated with the idea of asking Boots to be in the film. He was an architect, and I wanted a fictional architectural account of the peculiarities of the villa. I also wanted someone who would not clash with the building, who would seem of its time. I had never worked with a person before in my films, and quite apart from whether he’d be any good or not, Boots was seriously disabled, in England, and unable to fly because of his pacemaker. But it had to be him; no one else would do. And it’s a testament to Boots’s courage, imagination, and probably vanity that he agreed to come.

It was no easy feat getting Boots by train to Portugal. I had by now taken the decision to film in the three languages he spoke: English, German, and French. I took with me three anamorphic 16 mm cameras. We had only three filming days, and it soon became obvious that Boots’s energy was limited. I also wanted to shoot only in the late afternoon and at dusk. Boots took a dislike to the villa and refused, even for the sake of fiction, to play the architect. Instead he took the part of Blanche’s lover. He picked up on the atmosphere of the house quickly and was unscripted. He spoke, when I pushed him, some German but less French. I was not, as I never am, organized enough, but I knew from the first take, when he walked across the main hall and the villa resounded with the sound of his boot and walking sticks, that alchemy was possible.

The heart of my process is the editing. It’s almost as if I court chaos in the filming because I know I have this period later when it will just be me and it. I always cut alone on a Steenbeck. On this occasion, I had the added complication of having my sync sound on magnetic track. I decided to cut the film into separate English, French, and German versions. Each version would show a different facade of the house, and Boots would enter a different room on the ground floor. As I hadn’t decided this when we were filming, it created no end of difficulty: For example, in the French version, he said only one word in French–”toutes”–in the designated room, so I had to edit around that moment using cutaways and artifice. In the end, each version is twenty minutes long and has its own personality–and each is a valediction that ends at night.”

COPYRIGHT 2003 Artforum International Magazine, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

Bookwise – Burgin – Grundberg

Thursday, January 19th, 2012



“Our relations with cities are like our relations with people. We love them, hate them, or are indifferent toward them. On our first day in a city that is new to us, we go looking for the city. We go down this street, around that corner. We are aware of the faces of passers-by. But the city eludes us, and we become uncertain whether we are looking for a city, or for a person.”

Victor Burgin recalls some of the cities he has known in a way familiar to all who have traveled, by showing photographs and telling anecdotes. Some Cities gathers places and moments along a life route that the author has taken from the north of England to his present home in northern California. Stops on the way include such disparate sites as London, Berlin and Warsaw; Singapore, Woomera and Tokyo; New York and San Francisco; and the islands of Stromboli and Tobago.

Some Cities is unlike anything Burgin has ever done before, although it explores characteristic themes of his earlier theoretical and visual works, such as the dimensions of politics and sexuality in everyday life.

“Burgin traces his life’s route from the north of England through such metropolises as London, Berlin, Singapore, Tokyo, New York and San Francisco in brilliant black and white photographs and in anecdotes presented in immaculate prose.”

Michael Schmidt

Thursday, January 19th, 2012


Michael Schmidt, o. T., aus Porträt, 1983, © Michael Schmidt, Courtesy Galerie Nordenhake.

Analogue Photography, when the Color is in the Grey Tones

Michael Schmidt, o. T., 1980, © Michael Schmidt, Courtesy Galerie Nordenhake.

Michael Schmidt, o. T., aus Berlin Wedding, 1976-78, © Michael Schmidt,

Courtesy Galerie Nordenhake.

Michael Schmidt, o. T., aus Berlin Wedding, 1976-78, © Michael Schmidt,

Courtesy Galerie Nordenhake.

Michael Schmidt, Meer #3, 2007, © Michael Schmidt, Courtesy Galerie Nordenhake.

Michael Schmidt, o. T., aus Irgendwo, 2001-04, © Michael Schmidt,

Courtesy Galerie Nordenhake.

Michael Schmidt, o.T., 1983, © Michael Schmidt, Courtesy Galerie Nordenhake.

Haus der kunst
Prinzregentenstrasse 1
+ 49 89 21127-115
Michael Schmidt, Grey as Colour:
Photographs until 2009

May 21-August 22, 2010

Michael Schmidt has been taking photographs since 1965, analogue and in black-and-white, and with an unusually broad range of grey tones. “For me black and white are always the darkest grey and the lightest grey.” (Michael Schmidt 1996). Micheal Schmidt’s images lack all superficial attraction; they are without incident and as far removed from the photographic concept of the decisive moment as possible; they are neither striking nor narrative. For decades Michael Schmidt has abstained from making composition samples that prove to be exceptional single frame images. He prefers the series, in which the artistic expression is not exhausted in the individual image, but in which one image refers to another instead. In each of his series Michael Schmidt is looking for a new point of entry, one that appears to be appropriate for the specific subject matter. This includes the individually designed artist’s book that accompanies the publication of a series. His unusual and thorough production process has made Michael Schmidt an example for the younger generation of photographers.

With the exhibition of photographs by Michael Schmidt, the Haus der Kunst presents another formative position in contemporary photography. Works by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Robert Adams, Lee Friedlander, Andreas Gursky and William Eggleston have already been shown as part of this exhibition series.

With 390 original photographs Grey as Colour is the most extensive overview of Michael Schmidt’s work to date. A third of the pieces are new works or — like 89/90, which only existed as working proofs until now — have been edited as a series for the exhibit.

On view will be the series Portraits (1970-74); Stadtlandschaft (Urban Landscapes) (1974-75); Berlin Wedding (1976-78); Berlin Wedding. Menschen (Berlin Wedding. People) (1977-78); Berlin, Stadtbilder (Berlin, Urban Images) (1976-80); Innenaufnahmen (Interior Views) (1979-80); Berlin nach 45 (Berlin after 45) (1980); Waffenruhe (Ceasefire) (1985-87); Selbst (Self) (1985-88); 89/90 (1989-90); Architektur (Architecture) (1989-91); Ein-heit (Un-ity) (1991-94); Ihme-Zentrum (Ihme Center) (1997-98); Frauen (Women); (1997-99); Irgendwo (Somewhere) (2001-04) and Meer (Sea) (2008-09). The series will not be presented chronologically but in a network pattern.

Until the 1990s Michael Schmidt mainly worked in the city in which he was born in 1945: Berlin. The Wall, which characterized the city and divided her, became a central focus for him in 1987 with his series Waffenruhe (Ceasefire). Since the 1990s the radius of Michael Schmidt’s activities has expanded: He photographed in Hannover for his series Frauen (Women), and he then created the work group Irgendwo (Somewhere), which resulted from journeys through the German province. The newest works in the exhibition are views of the sea.

Portraits of people
People and urban landscapes are the two dominant motifs in the artist’s work. From 1977-78 he created a series of double portraits that depict people both in their place of work and at home; the formal principal of similar situations suggest standardized behaviour: During working hours the portrayed individual sits behind his desk and, in the evenings, on the sofa in his living room. From punk to rocker, from the system analyst to the local politician, the childcare worker or educational psychologist, from the social worker to the lawyer working at the District Office in Wedding or the head of public relations at Schering AG — they all take refuge in a similar position and their particular environment imparts a certain sense of narrowness. The double portraits can be regarded as both a succession of different ways of life, as if he was playing with different identities, and as self-questioning.
The portraits from the 1980s seem to be more spontaneous and to have been created in an almost casual manner. The social and spatial contexts and backgrounds are reduced to details, before which the individual can better unfold. Yet, once again, viewers who look a bit closer sense that the portrayed individuals experience a kind of homelessness in their social environments. Michael Schmidt once described himself as a “photographer of dead ends”. Beyond the mere documentation of zeitgeist, fashion and milieu, the photographer’s images of people formulate the desire to blast open the behavioural patterns of their surrounding environment.

Michael Schmidt will be represented at this year’s Berlin Biennale with his series Frauen (Women) (1997-99). This series’ models stood in front of the camera either clothed or naked and, without explicitly wishing to stage, attempt to hold their own in the orchestration. Conscious of their exposed state, they repeat a specific repertoire of poses and postures: They place their arms on their hips or across their chests; push their hands in their pockets and turn partially or completely away, revealing only a part of their body. The photographer, though, declares his solidarity with the models’ vulnerability and their lack of practice and ease. The fragmentary perspective allows him to emphasize individual characteristics, thereby measuring anew the distance between such images and the standardized female portraits found in contemporary glossy magazines.

For his photographs of urban landscapes Michael Schmidt often chooses in-between places whose architecture is not specifically defined, spaces such as empty lots or open areas. The individual images only provide a limited amount of information about their structural contexts: A centrally placed obstacle impedes a view into the space, or an empty area becomes the work’s focus. The loading ramps, parking spaces, bits of wall, corrugated iron walls, household supply stores, bars with advertisements for Schultheiss beer, and even playgrounds for children: all these places appear to be pieces of locationless utilitarian architecture.

Certain series, for instance Berlin-Wedding from 1978, were regarded as documentations of unsuccessful urban planning when they were first published — as if Michael Schmidt wanted to accuse the wretchedness of the tenement blocks, “with which one could kill people as with an axe”, as Heinrich Zilles described the “stony” Berlin. When viewed today, however, Michael Schmidt’s images do not convey such an explicit accusation but rather pose the question: What chance does the individual have here? What does a successful way of life in this kind of urban landscape look like? The spaces, areas and highlighted details in these photographs are not a mere representation of reality: they also have the quality of abstract paintings. They allow one to recognize the inwardly directed gaze of the author, who is not just interested in objective documentation, but in the development of an unmistakable individual style as well.

In a solo exhibition in 1996 at the MoMA in New York, Michael Schmidt presented the series Ein-heit (Un-ity) (1991-1994). The series — a collection of 118 individual images about the German reunification — included not just his own works but also images he had found in magazines, newspapers and propaganda material. In this way he connected individual memories with collective ones, mixed images from East Berlin with ones from West Berlin. Because of an intentional dearth of information provided by the individual image, it is once again impossible to categorise them as belonging to a specific place, moment or political system. Gymnasts forming ornaments, military parades, factory workers, portraits of Göring, Adenauer and Honecker, they are all collectively resulting in one big question: East and West, what was that anyway? The symbolism of political systems and their image of people seem to be universally the same.

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Weski.

89/90 will be accompanied by an artist’s book published by Snoeck Verlag; with a text by Chris Dercon (English / German), 104 pages, 18,3 x 22,1 cm, and 48 photographs; 39.80 €, ISBN 978-3-940953-43-8

Michael Schmidt, o. T., 1965-67, © Michael Schmidt, Courtesy Galerie Nordenhake.