Art Histories, VOX Centre de l’image contemporaine

(Art Papers, July-Aug 2012)

Laibach, Opus DEI (Opus), still, 1987, video clip, 4 min. 30 sec. Courtesy: VOX

For the inaugural exhibition in its new space, VOX Centre de l’image contemporaine presented a head-heavy exhibition titled Art Histories [March 16–May 20, 2012]. Curated by Marie-Josée Jean, it featured a disparate selection of artworks from the established Western canon—Marcel Duchamp, Rodney Graham, and Louise Lawler, for example—as well as several examples of work from the former Eastern bloc. Although the artworks differ in both means and ends, they all use strategies of appropriation and repetition. As such, the exhibition focused on the lowest common denominator—the effect of destabilizing the neat categories of stylistic “-isms”—rather than the artworks’ historical context or its reception outside of the art world.

The show opened with Mondrian ‘63–’96, 1987, a lecture by “Walter Benjamin” some forty-odd years after the philosopher’s death. The videotaped Benjamin is charming and quizzical, fast-tongued and incredibly verbose. For twenty-five minutes he waxes passionately about the value and theoretical implications of Mondrian copies to a full room of students, only a few of whom stay to hear the inconclusive ending: “[These paintings] simply hover, and the only comprehensible sense of their existence which we can accept with certainty are these questions themselves.” The impossibility of locating or confirming the meaning of copied work (and identities) rung like a mantra throughout the exhibition.

The first impression of the room designated for the Retro-Avant-Garde of the former Yugoslavia was one of institutional stuffiness: a wall-sized didactic panel covered one wall; the rest of the space was dominated by a recreation of The Last Futurist Exhibition of 1915, in which Kazimir Malevich first exhibited Black Square and other influential Suprematist paintings. But nothing was as it first seemed: the recreation (The Last Futurist Show, 1986) is the work of a certain Kazimir Malevich from Belgrade, an artist who has assumed the identity of the famous Russian avant-garde painter in order to frustrate the idea of authorship. The installation is a recreation of the iconic black-and-white photograph of the exhibition that is included in almost every compendium of art history; in an accompanying letter published in the September 1986 issue of Art in America, Malevich (Belgrade) writes, “Why? Why now, after so many years? I have a feeling that this photograph is becoming even more important than my Suprematist paintings.” The ersatz Malevich’s Autobiography, 2009—of odd kitschy pointillist paintings of Malevich’s Black Square, 1915, as well as of his deathbed, coffin, and funeral procession—hung nearby. But rather than producing copies of Malevich’s work in the manner of postmodern artists such as Mike Bidlo and Sherrie Levine, who claim the authorship of their gestures in a market-driven art world, Malevich (Belgrade)’s anonymous recreation and stylistic translation participate in a different economy, one where the market in scarcely present and the institution of art is still firmly authoritarian.

Also included in this room were videos clips and documentary footage of the infamous Slovenian noisemakers Laibach. In Opus Dei, 1987, for example, Laibach turns the original Austrian pop song “Live is Life” into a parody of fascist anthems. The video is set in snow-clad mountains with waterfalls, harts, and scenic valleys. Uniformed men sing, stomp, and salute to the beat. The lyrics, too, take on a sinister twist: “Because we gave all the power / We gave all the best / And everyone lost everything / And perished with the rest.” Laibach’s eerie, all too convincing use of totalitarian forms is well exposed in the military-style television interview ZY Unsolved, 1983, which resulted in a formal ban of their activities. Five uniformed members of the group sit motionless in front of drawings of what seem to be Nazi rallies while one member recites pre-prepared responses in an indifferent, alienating voice. Their faces are lit dimly from below. When asked about their sources of inspiration, the spokesman replies: “Our basic inspiration … remains industrial production, Nazi-Kunst, totalitarianism, bruitism, … and, of course, disco.” Laibach’s continued critical edge lies in their ability to inhabit and subvert various aesthetic forms by literally repeating them.

The wall-sized didactic panel ties Malevich (Belgrade)’s installation and Laibach’s music together. Contrary to first impressions, it is an artwork in itself: Retroavantgarde, 2000, by the Slovenian collective IRWIN. Retroavantgarde maps out a constellation of key Slovenian artists, complete with originals, copies, or reproductions of their work. Also incorporated into the panel is a citation from Marina Gržinić’s essay “Mapping Post-Socialism,” in which she discusses the artists as a Hegelian triad, with Stilinovic (and Laibach) as thesis, the latter-day Malevich as antithesis, and IRWIN (and the projects of the political art collective of which it is a part, Neue Slowenische Kunst) as synthesis. Like the artists, she repeats the term “retro-avant-garde,” which was first proposed by Peter Weibel, and comments on its definition as the “new ‘-ism’ of the East.” This theoretical framing aids in the integration of these practices into the modernist canon of art, but not without irony, for the artists work against the notion of linear progression, genealogy, and universality.

The tone changed drastically in the next room, which was replete with examples of the “ironic critique” mode of artistic self-reference we are now so familiar with. In the video Painter, 1995, for example, Paul McCarthy depicts a slovenly, heavy-breathing, painfully anti-heroic abstract painter whose “expression” is more fecal than artistic. In the large backlit triptych The Gifted Amateur, Nov. 10th, 1962, 2007, Rodney Graham also casts himself as an abstract painter, albeit an immaculate one. We see him clad in blue silk pajamas with a cigarette dangling loosely from his lips. He nonchalantly pours cans of paint on a tilted canvas without a trace of angst. But to what end? These transgressions are part of the art system and do little to undermine its foundations.

Securing a place within the system may be more lucrative (for some) than playing a role in cultural and political history. Michael A. Robinson seems to suggest as much in his hermetically sealed white cube titled End of Career Privilege, 1998–2012. Through a small window one may peer into the artist’s “studio”: a stack of monographic tomes on the coffee table, Saab keys, a Starbucks cup, business cards. A small fluffy white dog lies in a black leather armchair; it is serving as a model for the drawing we see on the drafting table. In End of Career Privilege, success is devoid of rigor: it looks like a recipe for vanity and conspicuous consumption. The airless cube depicts a type of professional envy completely other to the collective and activist ambitions of the retro-avant-garde.

Marcel Duchamp’s La boîte-en-valise, 1936/1968, which was set aside in its own room, was the conceptual keystone of the exhibition. Here the artist has recreated his own work: reproductions and maquettes of his ready-mades fill a handy valise like a portable, collectible dollhouse museum. It is both original and copy, art and museum, all collapsed into a Pandora’s box of theoretical implications for concepts of authorship and originality. Like Duchamp, the artists in Art Histories play with the assumed arrow of time and successive -isms of art history and ironically mimic museological practices. If there is a winged hope in the bottom of the box, perhaps it is this: that the continuous looping of art references practiced by artists is not an end in itself but rather a means to resist containment, whether academic or totalitarian, through deliberately dysfunctional posing.

—Anja Bock

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Pascal Grandmaison: Half of the Darkness, Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art

(Prefix Photo 25, May 2012)

Pascal Grandmaison, “Half of the Darkness,” 2010
360 color ink jet prints (10 x 8″ each), 4 pedestals
Installation view, Casino du Luxembourg Forum d’Art Contemporain, 2011

“Contrary to photography’s naturalization as utterly congruent with the world, photography’s real is an encounter with the otherness of rupture, internment, and disinterment…. In this way, photography’s real is deeply other to that set of desires for the medium that we allow ourselves to make manifest to consciousness, that we can bear to make manifest to consciousness.”Eric Rosenberg, “Photography Is Over, If You Want It”

 

Pascal Grandmaison, “Half of the Darkness,” 2010
360 color ink jet prints (10 x 8″ each), 4 pedestals
Installation view, Casino du Luxembourg Forum d’Art Contemporain, 2011

Pascal Grandmaison’s photographic practice attempts to discover the shape of the under-illuminated and not-exposed. Through strategies of reversal, doubling, turning and inversion, he endows otherwise familiar objects and situations with a peculiar air of strangeness: rocks turn into mythic landscapes, plastic tubing into hieroglyphics, and crumpled paper into “involuntary sculptures.” Take, for example, his series of frontal portraits entitled Ouverture (2006). The camera’s eye is blinded by the light coming from behind the subjects, rendering their faces as amorphous black objects with stray hairs and ears. Or consider Fake Imagery of a World Upside Down (2010), a negative photographic print in which a figure tumbles through an inverted landscape into a black, bottomless sky.

Freud and Lacan meet in their insistence that the unconscious and the “real” must be approached through strategies of indirection; they must be viewed awry, through, for example, screens or dreams.[1] In Grandmaison’s series Verre (2003–06), immediate access to the object of desire is precluded: a pane of glass separates the “I” of camera from the “seen” object, a person whose eyes are cast downward. Even though the glass is as transparent as the camera’s lens (rhetorically speaking), the light reflected off its surface is sufficient to capture the photographer in the space. Thus, the photographer or “seer,” rather than being positioned at the diagrammatic apex of modern optics, is implicated in the perceptual field. In Verre, both seer and seen are objects of vision, ensnared in the intersecting and reversible lines of sight that Jacques Lacan calls the “gaze.” Teasingly, however, the pane stands slightly to the side, fostering the wish to access the beloved, to approach the real.

In her essay “What is a Photograph?” Margaret Iverson demonstrates Lacan’s influence on Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. Specifically, she argues that Barthes’ punctum—“that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)”[2]shares with Freud’s trauma and Lacan’s real an uncoded, unassimilable quality.[3] Just as traumatic experiences cannot be understood through language, the punctum cannot be subsumed dialectically into the studium; that is, it cannot be confined to the photograph’s established interpretation or, in Barthes’ words, “a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment.”[4]  Rather, the punctum bursts out of the frame and “pierces” the viewer,[5] thus disturbing the photograph’s coherence and (re)activating a trauma.  All three unclaimed experiences—trauma, real, punctum—are unsymbolizable. As Iverson writes, “There is, then, a blind spot in the orthodox perceptual field that Lacan calls the stain (la tache), defined … as ‘that which always escapes from the grasp of that form of vision that is satisfied with itself in imagining itself as consciousness.’”[6] Barthes takes up this concept when he describes the punctum as a “speck” (petite tache).[7] In contrast to the transparency normally associated with vision—and by extension, with photography—this “staining” stresses the opacity and negativity of the gaze.

If Verre suggests this negativity by setting a pane of glass in the middle of the visual field, like an obstacle to be overcome, Grandmaison’s No Black Light (2007) renders the pane literally absent. In this sequence of images, a pane of glass rotates in space or, perhaps, the camera rotates around it. Rather than being transparent, however, it appears in the photographs as a variable black rectangle. To make these images, Grandmaison painted the glass green and then photographed it using a chroma-key or green-screen process, which allowed the glass to be keyed out. Traces of this operation can be discerned in the ghostly contours of the profile of the glass, where the colour was not totally eliminated.[8] These “holes” in the image—black voids—can be thought of as photography’s blind spot, which, following Lacan, allows the real to seep into the image. Or, to extend the Lacanian reading, the holes can be thought of as the objet petit a, “the hollowed out bits of one’s being”[9] not (full)filled by language.

For all its strangeness, there is no pretence of surrealism or expressionism in Grandmaison’s work. It is with incomparable conceptual rigour and technical acuity that Grandmaison makes strange. Consider the diptych Hoping the Light Will Save Us (2007), in which an outstretched hand holding a heavy rock is doubled and inverted, seeming to defy gravity and playfully evoking the unsettling confusion between past, present and future that is inherent to photography. The green tinge, the result of the use of coloured gels, has the effect of fictionalizing the documented event, suggesting that it required extra-human, “Hulkian” effort. Or consider The Inverted Ghost (2009), which perhaps belongs more to the genre of horror than that of science fiction.  The black, viscous form, which shines under the studio light, bears a deep hole. One cannot help but read the images, presented in diptych form, as a face, an eerie incarnation of an unimaginable entity—a ghost, a mind without a body.

Barthes writes that the photograph is “a bizarre medium, a new form of hallucination: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time … a mad image, chafed by reality.”[10] He associates this madness with an absolute realism beyond “the civilized codes of perfect illusions.”[11] Taking a quick account of Grandmaison’s themes so far—ghosts and black holes, glass and unformed masses, eyes without bodies and heads without faces, blind spots and “hope that the light will save us”—it is possible to infer a certain disillusionment with the “perfect” illusions created by photographic technology. Despite its dispassionate, clean aesthetic, the work is far from dry. Rather, it is melancholic, repeatedly trying to imagine and present something that is inherently evasive, invisible and unthinkable without subjecting that “thing” to the tyranny of “tame” conventions. It is precisely the “chafing” that Grandmaison depicts.

This quest is, of course, doomed from the outset: not only is the camera limited to a single-point perspective that is at odds with phenomenological perception, but also, by definition, the real is “intractable” (to use Barthes’ word) and impossible to codify. Iverson writes, “Only when the position of illusory mastery is vacated does the gaze come into full view. The two positions are mutually exclusive: the world of representation is given only if the immediacy of the real is sacrificed, and conversely, the real is glimpsed only when the vanity of the world conceived as my representation is renounced.”[12] Grandmaison, through technological savvy and strategies of indirection, allows the real to be intuited, but he fails, of course, to capture it.

More precisely, he succeeds in failing. This is most apparent in his photographic series Void View (2010). Comprising twenty-eight photographs of ashes—the powdery residue of images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which Grandmaison burned—this work attempts to reclaim the unimaginable, the infinity of the universe, by way of a rhetorical non-image. Speaking of this work, Grandmaison stated that he “wanted to … point out the fact that we try to deny the incomprehensible by destroying it[, and, more] generally … that human thought cannot really plan and envision without producing a sort of visualization ‘error.’”[13] The iconoclastic gesture in Void View is an attempt to claim the failures of imaging technologies as a positive and necessary cultural force, for without these “errors,” the transformation of the world into image would be complete.

Not all of Grandmaison’s work shares this goal. Sometimes “failure” is the subject of the work, instead. Take, for example, the video Soleil Differe (2010), which features Montréal’s Isle Sainte-Hélène and Isle Notre-Dame, the fabricated site of Expo ’67. Shot in documentary style with a (seemingly) indifferent eye, Grandmaison here offers a non-narrative sequence of stunning video extracts: a leaf caught in mid-air by a spider’s thread; birds chirping on their woodland perches; waves coursing around a boulder in opposing directions; Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome shrouded in fog; crumbling concrete ensnared in a tangle of cobwebs; leaves fluttering against stone; water trickling over walls; and a black-clad surfer riding the giant waves, caused by the man-made islands, that crest in the canal.  Overall, the video presents the forces of nature at their most elemental—the collision of water, rock and air—and the vegetal- and animal-kingdoms’ ability to thrive despite human intrusion. Soleil Differe points to the failure of the modernist dream to realize an era of technological ease and leisure. Rather than showcasing human action and progress, this man-made stage is now eroded and overgrown.

And, rather than serving as a reliable witness to the unfolding narrative of Enlightenment humanism, the camera can only archive the incoherence of our contemporary dystopia. Modernism has passed into history, taking hyper-rationalism and positivism with it.

 

Nowhere are the biases, limits and strangeness of photography—“the ultimate art form of modernity”[14]—better exposed than in Grandmaison’s monumental Half of the Darkness (2010). More than two hundred and fifty negative photographic prints are laid out across four large plinths: images of craters and canyons, technological inventions and Arctic expeditions, fungal spores, prisms and dinosaurs, enormous robotic hands, rockets and chimpanzees, to name just a few, are featured. The photographs are variously candid or posed, aerial or close up, but in every case, “man” is depicted at his best, conquering the world with his footprints, flags and a variety of optic instruments. Astronauts and spaceships, as well as an old steam engine, lie alongside a bearded woman and a man covered in butterflies. Together with a defunct Ferris wheel, these disparate photographs speak of an age passed by. Half of the Darkness functions like a memorial to the discredited dream of modernity.

In his essay “Photography Is Over, If You Want It,” Eric Rosenberg declares that “Our mistake, as well as our necessity, has been to account for photography as part of modernism’s taxonomy, its evidence.”[15] Photography was put to two impossible tasks, which continue as its burden today: on the one hand, it is the “primary instrument of self-knowledge and representation.”[16] Take, for example, the photograph, in Half of the Darkness, of the fisherman who proudly holds aloft his catch of the day, or that of the young family looking at a giant waterfall, or the photographs of various athletes at the height of their leaps or at the summit of a mountain. In each case, what is depicted is a wished-for identification between the subject and their representation. On the other hand, as a technology that promises a “mechanical form of objectivity,”[17] photography advances a positivist approach to the world.[18] The numerous close-up photographs of various scientific specimens illustrate this well; their mysteries are exposed, turned into objects of knowledge.

Because of this “double indexicality,”[19] photography was heralded as a means of knowing the world and as a means of understanding the self. But more than drawing a parallel between self and world, the modernist investment in photography renewed the eighteenth-century promise of uniting inner and outer realities in a process of self-realization.[20] This alleged congruence is connoted by many of the images in Half of the Darkness. Consider, for example, the photographs of men (and they are exclusively men) wielding various optical devices designed to extend the parameters of their vision. In one image, a man in a lab coat peers through a microscope: he is positioned as a unitary “I,” the sovereign subject of sight (as opposed to an object of the gaze), and through the lens he discovers a reflection of his powers of cognition. This thoroughly Kantian congruence serves as the cornerstone of Western thought.

Julia Kristeva argued that “the rationalist attempt to transform the world into its own image is only one more interpretation which cannot see that it embraces a void.”[21] As Grandmaison so vividly exposed in Void View, photography, as well, embraces a void; it assumes that the presence of the world is visible and available to its aperture when, in fact, its perception is partial and finite. Photography materializes a painful disjunction between the world and self, which Rosenberg describes as violent. He writes, “By violence, I mean that photography itself … is a phenomenon always at a disjunctive, perpendicular counterpoint to our actual experience, to our being.”[22] Precisely because it can record only half of the darkness, photography cannot go to the heart of darkness.  “Photography allows us to enter a realm of pure fantasy based solely on connection with utter reality and yet [it is] a reality of ease, of dormancy, of sleep”[23]—a reality that (for Joseph Conrad as well as Barthes) is a “kind of education” in “civility.”[24]

In Half of the Darkness, photography’s promises and corollaries are depicted as absences rather than presences. What takes on a presence here are the unilluminated aspects of the image that the camera did not capture. By exposing the “negatives,” Grandmaison interrupts habitual ways of viewing images and slows down their consumption. Snow appears black and pupils white, and the whole world looks inside out. In a conversation about this work, Grandmaison said: “I like [the] idea that truth can reveal itself more fully in darkness. The title Half of the Darkness seems to direct us to only half of the truth. But, in revealing that which is hidden, dark, real, aren’t we bringing a certain subjectivity, or classification, to bear after all? Doesn’t claiming to reveal the truth in fact upend it, subjecting it to opinion? One half of the truth—the other half lost in illustrating it—a little like infinity.”[25] Half of the Darkness puts into question the authority of visual information by calling attention to the “visualization ‘error’”[26] of the photographic (and modernist) viewpoint.

In Grandmaison’s selection of images, which parade a variety of human achievements, the dream of human liberty through technological progress takes on a nostalgic tone.  These spectres of modernist ideology find an appropriate burial ground in the modern institution of the museum. Grandmaison’s staging of Half of the Darkness is oddly reminiscent of Edward Steichen’s infamous Family of Man exhibition in 1955, which promoted a universal humanist agenda. In a scathing review, Barthes described The Family of Man as follows: “Everything here, the content and appeal of the pictures, the discourse which justifies them, aims to suppress the determining weight of History: we are held back at the surface of an identity, prevented precisely by sentimentality from penetrating into this ulterior zone of human behavior where historical alienation introduces some “differences” which we shall here quite simply call “injustices.”[27] This exclusion of differences, of the other, reaches its logical conclusion in the practice of genocide, a connection that Grandmaison makes blatant: the museological stagecraft of Half of the Darkness is similar to that found in Holocaust museums—row after row of black-and-white photographs, documents of the lives destroyed by the Nazi regime.

Barthes described his experience of photography as “a fascinating and funereal enigma.”[28] By means of the uncanny white shadows and horizontal display, Half of the Darkness invokes the inverse of the studium, the other side of civilization’s “polite interest.”[29] What are “enlightened” here are the camera’s blind spots: blacks too deep to be penetrated by the mind and eye alike.  Visual constructions of historical “truth” come to look like so many permutable memories. “Memory is photography’s ultimate archive,” writes Rosenberg, “but it is a chimerical one, for memory in the end will always go its own way, refusing to contain an object outside of itself, a technology other to its own formation.”[30] Rather than being sequentially arranged as a directly transmittable historical narrative, the abundant images of Half of the Darkness constitute a non-hierarchical, non-linear and nearly nonsensical archive of ghostly impressions.  It is as if Grandmaison had opened the shadows to allow the viewers’ subjectivity to flow in, thereby reclaiming what had been lost in the process of objectification and supplementing the photograph’s partiality—its mask of meaning—with the spectre of otherness.

  

Let us return to the Ouverture series with which this essay began.  Pascal Grandmaison’s practice is cumulative, so now, after considering several subsequent works as well as his stunning Half of the Darkness, the impact of Ouverture is easier to articulate: in the contours of these portraits, we fail to recognize their identity. Grandmaison thus points to our inability to know ourselves in the face of the photograph. Regarding these portraits is like confronting the obstinacy of a mute, enigmatic child, or trying to respond to the impossible question “What are you thinking?”[31] The studium cannot encode the other that lies at the heart of the self—the half that is necessarily lost in illustrating it.

The more we look at Grandmaison’s work, the more it becomes clear that the challenge he poses is deeply philosophical—the task of reclaiming what is lost, what falls by the wayside in the process of signification, and uncovering the value of all sorts of voids. His photographs and videos are neither elaborate conceptual puzzles nor demonstrations of discursive virtuosity; they are not meant to be decoded, to provide the ephemeral satisfaction of a completed crossword puzzle. Rather, Grandmaison counters hyper-rationalism and positivism with a certain kind of romanticism, a romanticism that seeks pre-binary plenitude. We could, perhaps, designate this romanticism an “updated realism.” The reality that Grandmaison confronts has nothing to do with empiricism; rather, it has to do with the Lacanian real, without which we would be perpetually limited to the “civilized code of perfect illusions.”[32]


[1] Margaret Iverson, “What Is a Photograph?” in Photography Degree Zero, ed. Geoffrey Batchen (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009): 66.

[2] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, tr. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981): 27.

[3] Iverson, “What Is a Photograph?”: 63.

[4] Barthes, Camera Lucida: 26.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Iverson, “What Is a Photograph?”: 65.

[7] Barthes, Camera Lucida: 27. See also Iverson, “What Is a Photograph?”: 65.

[8]  I rely here on Diana Nemiroff’s description of this work in “The Big Day.” See Sara Knelman and Diana Nemiroff, Pascal Grandmaison: Double Take (Hamilton, ON: Art Gallery of Hamilton, in collaboration with Carleton University Art Gallery, 2009): 34.

[9] Iverson, “What Is a Photograph?”: 66.

[10] Barthes, Camera Lucida: 115.

[11] Ibid.: 119.

[12] Iverson, “What Is a Photograph?”: 65.

[13] Pascal Grandmaison, in conversation with Béatrice Josse, in “Before Beginning and Beyond the End,” in Kevin Muhlen, Pascal Grandmaison: Half of the Darkness (Luxembourg: Casino Luxembourg, 2011): 295.

[14] Eric Rosenberg, “Photography Is Over, If You Want It,” in The Meaning of Photography, ed. Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008): 191.

[15] Rosenberg, “Photography Is Over”: 190.

[16] Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997): 6.

[17] Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson, “Photography’s Double Index,” in The Meaning of Photography, ed. Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008): xii.

[18] Urs Stahel, Well, What Is Photography? (Zurich: Scalo, 2003): 8.

[19] Kelsey and Stimson, “Photography’s Double Index”: xi.

[20] Ibid.: xvi.

[21] Julia Kristeva, cited in Richard Appignanesi and Chris Garratt, Introducing Postmodernism (Thriplow, UK: Icon Books, 2004): 104.

[22] Rosenberg, “Photography Is Over”: 191.

[23] Ibid.: 192.

[24] Barthes, Camera Lucida: 28.

[25] Grandmaison, Pascal Grandmaison: Half of the Darkness: 295.

[26] Ibid.: 295.

[27] Roland Barthes, cited in Geoffrey Batchen, “Palinode: An Introduction,” in Photography Degree Zero, ed. Geoffrey Batchen (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009): 5.

[28] Ibid.: 9.

[29] Barthes, Camera Lucida: 27.

[30] Rosenberg, “Photography Is Over”: 191.

[31] See Stahel, Well, What Is Photography?: 7.

[32] Barthes, Camera Lucida: 119.

 

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Valerie Blass, Musée d’art contemporain

(Art Papers, May – June, 2012)

Valerie Blass, “Femme panier,” 2010. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay. Courtesy: Musée d’art contemporain.

Valerie Blass assembles and refashions kitsch objects and common materials into strange hybrids that look unmistakably like objets d’art [February 2 – April 22, 2012]. One cannot help but think “Brancusi” when looking at the stacked and shrink-wrapped columns of trinkets (Distortion et alignement animalier, 2007), or “Joel Shapiro” when looking at wooden beams wearing skin tight jeans (Touche du bois, 2009). Blass’s spindly, ceramic, and life-size hairy sculptures also bring to mind Giacometti, Jeff Koons and Nick Cave, and a pair of fishnet stockings stretched over a thin wooden framework (Pont à poutre en porte-à-faux, 2009) is oddly reminiscent of Moholy-Nagy.

In the exhibition catalogue Blass states, “I want to upset our ability to identify, or rather I want the tendency to automatically link a work to a set of pre-established references to be submerged by a simultaneous loss and surplus of meaning.” Certainly she succeeds: viewing her work is like scanning an index; the various pop and art historical references instantly conjure up images but they do not, by co-presence alone, coalesce into a meaningful whole. Their sense is lost, or at least their sense of purpose. The question poses itself: do Blass’s sculptures use de rigueur irony to demonstrate a superior knowingness?

The “I get it” effect of the various allusions has the unfortunate effect of cutting down the work’s duration and reducing its materiality to a language of signs. It is as if the sculptures dematerialize in the process of gaining significance, for the leap from signifier to referent can only be taken by denying the facticity of the artifacts themselves: cast hands and little glass booties; combs, knives and shovels; teapots, light bulbs and baskets; shirts and shoes; string and hair, to name a few. These objects and materials have a direct relationship with our bodies and, thus, keep us embodied in the here and now. In this way Blass builds duration into the viewing experience, which is at odds with the initial “a ha,” and which opens a space for the viewer’s subjectivity to play with the work.

Furthermore, the material juxtapositions of Blass’s work set in motion a process of synesthetic exploration. Like the lingering taste left in your mouth by the thought of Meret Oppenheim’s infamous fur-covered cup, the flock-covered assemblage S’il te plait (2009) invites caresses; the wooden torso of Femme planche (2010) leaves a splinter as we imagine our hands running down her back; and the monumental Étant donné, le Loris perché sur son socle néo-classique (2008) is unbearably heavy, teetering precariously on its disproportionate high-heeled feet. These sense-to-sense translations, along with the sculptures’ duration, keep fixed interpretations at bay. The resulting “loss” of significance harbours much more potential than the referential “surplus” as it makes the sculptures what Jeanne Randolph calls “amenable.” That is, due to the ambiguous elements of Blass’s work, there is no definitive line between its significance and the viewer’s own subjective notions: the sculptures can absorb many stories.

However, as Amelia Jones writes in the catalogue, “we find ourselves…suspended between a belief in appearance and a suspicion that something else is going on.” On close inspection our expectations meet with deception: some solids are hollows, some wood is Styrofoam, and bronze and rock could both be plaster. “Truth” to materials is not even an issue for Blass (who worked as a stage set designer), and what looks like an odd material juxtaposition could be all of the same matter. But what then of embodiment and sensual empathy? No materials are free of ideological inscription but they can (and do) resist it; this is the special power of sculpture. But how does faux-finishing figure in this debate? What would we talk about, the “raw” material or its mimic? To cite Jones again, “the joke, uneasy as [these] innocuous object[s] [have] made us feel, is on us.”

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The Quebec Triennial: The Work Ahead of Us, Musée d’art contemporain

Art Papers (January – February 2012)

Steve Bates, Concertina, 2011. Photo: Thomas Kneubühler. Courtesy: Musée d’art contemporain.

The Quebec Triennial is a massive act of triage by the curatorial team of the Musée d’art contemporain (Marie Fraser, Lesley Johnstone, Mark Lanctôt, François LeTourneux and Louise Simard) of the province’s artistic production [The Work Ahead of Us, October 7, 2011 – January 3, 2012]. Although he team’s travels were limited to the geographic boundaries of Quebec, a regional identity is not sought for, proposed or prerequisite. Instead, the curators limited the demographic to (mostly) thirty-somethings in an effort to define the prevailing ideas in this generation’s work. The result: a remarkably consistent exhibition that looks exactly as one would expect a contemporary art exhibition to look, just about anywhere.

This is for better and for worse: it makes for an interesting show that demonstrates a high degree of professionalism: curatorial sparks, synapses of sorts, criss-cross the exhibition in every which way, lending intelligence to the selection without belabouring it into over-reaching “themes” or ideologically loaded “statements.” However, given the narrow channel through which (most of) these artists passed (one of Montreal’s two art programs), the professionalism that the artworks demonstrate is less exciting, nearing a new orthodoxy of post-Bourriaudian-production.

The curators’ research discovered several recurring subtexts: a strong interest in the dynamic established with the viewer; a continued investigation into medium-specific perception; a reiteration of modern forms and ideals; and an extenuated, sometimes painful use of boredom and the banal. These rubrics are only tentative and, for many artworks, more than one applies. Their usefulness is limited to conveying the “feel” of this large sampling of Québécois art.

The viewer, no longer a modern monad nor a postmodern subject nor a ‘90s collaborator, is now more of a target: the type and degree her participation is decided and demanded by the artwork, implicating her in its logic on its terms. In the case of the spectacular “interactive” light show by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Intersection articulée (2011), the logic is one re-appropriating control technologies for artistic ends: by way of a computer interface, the public activates powerful light beams more commonly used in border surveillance to make designs in the city’s night sky.

In other cases the viewer’s physical presence is the déclencher. This is true of the architectural installation by of Alexandre David, Une ou deux places (2011), a large convex plywood structure that, like some of the Minimalist works before it, facilities a phenomenological experience of our (somewhat precarious) verticality. (David’s inclusion of book-shop is an ironic reminder of how avant-garde aesthetics end up filtering into design and mass-production.)

Steve Bates’ Concertina (2011) also implicates the viewer. Bates transmits a signal through a long spiral of concertina wire (barbed wire with razor blades). The ambient sounds of the passersby perturb the wire, modulating this signal accordingly, and making the wire operate like a low-pitch microphone. The resulting hum, sober and somewhat threatening, differs drastically from the cacophony of voices rising from the bar in the rickety sailboat stranded in the museum’s foyer. Ship in a Bottle, Barbados Rhum (2011) by Dean Baldwin awaits the viewer like a treasure island of sweaty pleasure and free-flowing moonshine in the “bottle” of the museum, a comparatively prohibitive but necessary container.

Alongside these obvious examples of “relational” art, the exhibition includes many artworks that initially appear resolute in their boundaries and indifferent to the viewer. In Chris Kline’s almost all-white paintings, for example, the reference to a self- or media-contained modern model of art making is blatant. His three large paintings on translucent poplin (Divider, # 1, 2, 6, 2011) bear subtle stripes of blue that shimmer briefly when seen from a particular angle and under particular conditions of light. As such they seem more responsive than Robert Ryman’s, for example, and less strict than Frank Stella’s pinstriped black paintings.

Olivia Boudreau’s video projection L’Ètuve (2011) and Lorna Bauer’s installation of photographs, Èminence grise (Documentary Photographer) (2011) are similar to Kline’s paintings in this regard, each probing her medium and the viewer’s subjectivity simultaneously. Bauer’s very dark photographs of herself taking photographs in a very dark reflective surface are so dark that they recede into abstraction and near impenetrability. In Boudreau’s video, a sauna slowly fills with steam, obscuring the women then dissipating repeatedly. The steam has the effect of blurring the distinction between the video- and gallery-space. This prompts a rather cynical reading: viewers, like the women in the sauna, are in the fog (or perhaps, à la Bauer, they are left in the dark).

Charles Stankievech’s video installation LOVELAND (2009-2011) takes medium-specific perception as its subject while also, like Boudreau, seeking to immerse the viewer and, like Kline, harking back to Modernist painting. It is a performance of Jules Olitski’s painting Instant Loveland (1968): in the snow and ice of the Far North, Stankievech ignited a smoke grenade, which sent a cloud of purple haze drifting across the white horizon. In order to facilitate immersion into the illusionistic space of the video, Stankievech painstakingly prepared the gallery room like one would a stage set: light-grey linoleum covers the museum’s hard-wood floor, making it look like the polished concrete of Chelsea’s prominent galleries, and white paint collects in the corners and under the bench like snow.

A different approach to medium-specific perception can be seen in the work of Fabienne Lasserre, Ève K. Tremblay and Nelson Henricks, who each attempt to move between them. Tremblay, for example, recites by rote long passages of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and humorously attempts to capture the “becoming-book” of immersed readers by photographing them reading (Jonathan Lutes Becoming Pale Fire, 2007, for example). Lasserre makes whimsical but modest artworks out of banal, indeterminate materials such as felt, fabric and paint. They are neither paintings nor sculptures but something other, like Unthought (2010), a large amorphous ball of painted linen set on an old vinyl chair.

Nelson Henricks’ 2287 Hz (2011) makes a subconscious auditory experience visible. The installation consists of two rooms: in the first is a wall-sized (silent) video projection of an androgynous figure, a dancer, spinning in rapid circles; in the second are various objects that make the soundtrack for the first: a turntable, two video monitors, various speakers and two light bulbs perched on microphone stands. 2287 hertz is the frequency that corresponds with a 15 centimeter wavelength, the distance between two human ears. Sounds at this frequency are the most piercing, like police sirens, for example, and the wailing of a newborn baby. On the monitors we see a woman signing these sounds, while the spinning record makes a cyclic thud that sounds like it is coming from the dancer’s feet. Taken together, these various embodiments of 2287 hertz are, paradoxically, objective and poetic accounts of a subjective state.

Overall (over-generalizing), despite the sheer quantity of artists included in the Triennial – more than 50 – and the vast variety of the artworks’ forms, this sampling feels pessimistic and repressed, as if daunted by the avant-garde movements it reiterates. Perhaps the “post” in Nicolas Bourriaud’s articulation of post-production has overreached itself, leaving the now and the future strangely in the past, as well as any hope the avant-garde held for social change. Thérèse Mastroiacovo’s large graphite drawings of the covers of art books featuring the word “now” (Art Now, 2005-ongoing) are aptly placed at the entrance to the exhibition: they speak to the art world’s compulsive effort to define the contemporary moment one tentative line at a time, smudgy and erasable.

Anja Bock

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Kendra Wallace: Peripheries

Art Papers (November – December, 2011)

Kendra Wallace: Peripheries, Installion View, 403-372 St. Catherine W., 2011. Photo: Lorna Bauer. Courtesy: Kendra Wallace

Blue: a blue so intense that we don’t know if we’re looking into a depthless summer sky or an imaginary infinity within. Square: too perfect to be anthropomorphized yet as welcoming to the eye and mind as a calm embrace. Flat: the surface slips away from tactility all the while asserting its material presence by echoing the gallery wall.

These three adjectives – blue, square, flat – force themselves upon us when entering Kendra Wallace’s exhibition Peripheries [403-372 St. Catherine W., August 16 – 20, 2011]. The space is occupied by many squares in various densities of blue, about body sized, frameless, and spaced approximately one inch from the wall (Horizon 1 to 11, 2011). They beckon us to stare into their centers where the blue is ever-so-slightly less dense, obscurity drifting to the images’ (and our eyes’) periphery. Within each square darkness has sunk to the bottom like sediment in water, or perhaps lightness is rising. The lower edges of some of the pictures are the deepest blue-black one can imagine.

The precision and lustre of their surfaces identify these images as photographs yet they come close to failing all pictorial conventions. Only a vague sense of landscape shines through the blue’s intense atmosphere. Indeed, one may detect in some of the pictures traces of landscape, or more accurately, seascape – a typical shoreline with surf and sky over ocean. According to Wallace, “If the image is somewhat elusive and withholds its factual information, some of the pressure to identify the objective world is relieved. What opens in its wake is the space for one to break from the ongoing pre-determined world to the openness of the unforeseeable.”

Here, in a gallery filled with blue haze, the “captured” moment of photography is multiplied into a reproduction of narrative (or a narrative of reproduction). By way of this repetition, the overt subject (a seascape) is displaced by an experiential encounter with uncertainty. What is it we are looking at? Is this an interior or exterior image-world? The luminescent blue is seemingly so distant and ethereal yet feels familiar and intimate. Under close scrutiny, squinting almost, we enter into something almost filmic. The horizon seems to oscillate, or is it our vision?

Other strange tensions ensue: the effect of immersion is abated by the exaggerated flatness of the artistic object. The horizontal axis of the landscape tradition is confounded by the XY exactitude of the square. And the clarity of an absolute color is at odds with what, for everyday seeing, would be an experience of great obscurity. Wallace asks: “our individual and lived worlds are filled with uncertainty and paradox; how could I make a photograph that is not?”

To further explore the inherent paradoxes of photography, Wallace included a second work in a separate room, a diptych (Untitled, 2011). On the left is an image of water, this time in sober shades of black and white. The horizon is off center and so close to the top that it almost falls out of the frame. On the right is an almost-all-white image. On both there appear to be small rips, tears and punctures, traces of the image’s former life as a “lost” snapshot. We can extrapolate that it had been discarded for its lack of documentary value: it wasn’t “good” enough. Wallace draws attention to this double loss (actual and technical) by, first, enlarging it so that the damage becomes part of its image-value and, second, showing both the recto and verso of the “found” snapshot. Set side by side, the two images seem to open a synesthetic space between the photograph’s visual and the tactile being.

Overall, this exhibition balances the transcendental resonance of the blue Horizon series with the immanent facts of material existence. The exhibition’s title, Peripheries, is apt: Wallace’s work proposes that, in the region of peripheral sensory experience, there is more to see and inhabit, not less.

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Chris Salter + LabXmodal: Atmosphere, FOFA Gallery

Art Papers (May-June, 2011)

Chris Salter + LabXmodal, Atmosphere, Installation View, FOFA Gallery, 2011. Photo: Guy L'Heureux. Courtesy: LabXmodal and FOFA Gallery.

Atmosphere: it sticks to objects, buildings and celestial bodies like an auratic energy, or lingers like an obfuscating fog of innumerable factors. According to Bruno Latour, the conditions that create our collective “atmosphere” are always plural – natural and cultural, scientific and political.  Moreover, whereas formerly “[o]utside the laboratory was the realm of experience – not experiment” – today “the laboratory has extended its walls to the whole planet.”[1] That is, today there is no longer a clear distinction between human experiences and technoscientific or technocratic experiments: “experiments are now taking place on a life-size scale and in real time.”[2]

It is this “delicate sphere of climate control”[3] that Chris Salter and his research team of LabXmodal (Marije Baalman, Elio Bidinost, Shannon Collis, Fernando Leppe, Harry Smoak, Robert Tomes, Matthieu Tremblay, and Tobias Ziegler) explore in their multi-media environment Atmosphere [FOFA Gallery, January 10 – February 11, 2011]. At the beginning of the 20 minute cycle, it is difficult to know what to expect: the gallery is darkened and seemingly empty, except for the ghost in the room – the technology. Then, slowly, coloured light, sound, infrared heat and haze fill the space with waves of stimuli that ebb and flow, stutter and glide, sometimes rising to an overwhelming crescendo, sometimes retreating to near imperceptibility. Three planes of light hang in the middle of the space like rhetorical screens. Blue streams out, then green, then sudden flashes of red, or a Morse-code-like rhythm of pink, or nothing. They cleverly anchor our visual concentration, all the while announcing the continuity of the atmosphere that passes through them. A strobe light adds sudden bursts of clear white light. The sound composition is strangely ethereal and strangely familiar, conjuring up images of rushing water or traffic, thunder, electrical crickets and cicadas, the ding of an elevator, and the meditative music that often accompanies savasana, “corpse pose” in yoga. Overall, the effect of Atmosphere is one of allowing our senses to be washed over and carried away in all directions, only to find ourselves self-contained and consolidated at the end of the cycle.

Atmosphere, as well as Salter’s previous environments, habitually participate in the new-media festivals, such as Ars Electronica and Transmediale, rather than being exhibited in art galleries. As if announcing this shift in discursive context, he transformed the gallery into literally half white-cube and half black-box. The “white” half points to American minimalism of the late 1960s, particularly the “light” works by Dan Flavin, Carl Andre’s alleged materialism, and Fred Sandback’s large-scale geometric planes made of coloured string; the “black” half points to the cultural thirst for immersion, the composition’s flirtation with narrative, and the dissolution of selfhood that is the work’s stated objective.[4] But how can Atmosphere be both? More specifically, how can it engage with the Minimalist dictum of phenomenological perception – which, it is important to note, required an intellectually prepared viewer to play the role of “I perceive” – and simultaneously address the dispersal of this “I” into the many technologies it uses to extend and displace itself? Salter negotiates this tension well: rather than confronting the viewer with a definable object that stands as his rhetorical equal, Atmosphere proposes an ephemeral, even volatile object that emphasizes the temporality and changeability of the encounter. As such, it suggests complicity between viewer and object, in this case a room filled with technologically induced effects.

Without the technological savvy to know what was required of the research team to produce this work, Atmosphere’s exploration of how ever-evolving new technologies impact the evolution of the human sensorium seems more metaphoric than scientific. Yet, if we accept Latour’s argument that the sphere of “experience” is not separate from the sphere of “experiment,” then this distinction is irrelevant. In either case, our physiological and intellectual response to this particular experiment is informed as much from our “up-dated” sensorium as it is from the stimuli itself. The interface between inner and outer is as permeable as Salter’s “screens.”  


[1] Bruno Latour. “Atmosphère, Atmosphère.” Olafur Eliasson: The Weather Project, The Unilever Series. Susan May, Bruno Latour, Israel Rosenfield, et al. London: Tate Publishing, 2003. 31.

[2] Ibid. 32.

[3] Ibid. 40.

[4] The press release states: Atmosphere explores four conceptual/technological areas of research: cross modal sensory phenomena, perceptual thresholds, questions about the dissolution of self-hood inside sensory reduction environments and ecological concepts of perception.

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Pascal Grandmaison, Galerie René Blouin

CV Photo 89 (Fall 2011)

Pascal Grandmaison, Desperate Island, Installation View, Galerie René Blouin, 2010. Photo: Richard Max Tremblay. Courtesy: Galerie René Blouin.

Blue-tinged icebergs? Hand-made plaster sculptures? The sleek cool signature of Pascal Grandmaison is hard to discern when first entering his recent exhibition at Galerie René Blouin [November 27, 2010 – January 8, 2011]. His new work holds several surprises: while it continues his investigation of the mediated photographic act, the figure-ground relationship, and the representation of the invisible, the three works included here are rich in metaphor, melancholy, and artistic modesty. 

The “icebergs” that occupy the main space are collectively titled Desperate Island (2010). Cast in Hydrostone plaster, they are undeniably massive and unmoving, yet appear light, as if floating on the gallery floor. Like over-blown crumpled papers balls scattered by some disgruntled writer, or sculptures by John Chamberlain without the chrome and gloss, the nuances of their creases and shadows quietly await exploration. The passage of time is more geological than performative in face of these “islands,” which has the effect of making our own movements seem manic and disconnected. This effect is central to the conceptual integrity of Desperate Island: Grandmaison used blue photo-studio background paper to make the moulds, traces of which are embedded in the surface. However, if we extend the logic of the actor’s dissociation with the matrix of action that background paper is designed to facilitate, then these islands are not only awaiting their contemporary castaway as an unexplored ground (rhetorically represented by the paper), but they themselves also embody the figure of the castaway, lost in the ground of a context-free white cube.

Unlike islands “desperate” for human action, the islands featured in Grandmaison’s latest video, Soleil Différé (2010), were literally built as a stage: Montreal’s Isle Sainte-Hélène and Isle Notre-Dame, the fabricated site of Expo ’67. Shot is documentary style with a (seemingly) dispassionate eye, Grandmaison offers a non-narrative sequence of stunning video extracts: a leaf caught in mid-air by a spider’s thread; birds chirping on their woodland perches; waves coursing around a boulder in opposing directions; the Buckminster dome shrouded by fog; crumbled concrete caught in a tangle of cobwebs; leaves lapping against stone; water running over walls; and a black-clad surfer riding the giant waves that crest in the canal due to the man-made islands. Over all, the video points to the forces of nature at their most elemental – the collision of water, rock and air, and the vegetal- and animal-kingdoms’ potential to thrive despite human intrusion.

In light of this modern ruin, the site’s name, Terre des hommes, seems ironic: rather than serving as show-case of human action and potential, the forces of nature are eroding its shores and over-growing its edifices. But it is an irony that is more melancholic than humourous, as it points to a failure to follow a straight arrow of time into an era of technological ease and leisure. Grandmaison taps into the Romantic preoccupation with ruins, in this case the loss of the promised future, but does so without crossing the line into didacticism or kitsch. As such, Soleil Différé manages to leave a place for the derangement that the beauty of “natural” imagery can instigate in stale aesthetic codes.

It is this point – that the particular power of beauty or, generally speaking, the aesthetic, lies in the fact that it only available to intuition and remains forever outside the faculties of comprehension and the frames of representation – that the final work in the show, Void View (2010), addresses, albeit (over-)aggressively. Comprised of twenty-eight photographs of ashes, in this case, the powdery residue of images taken by the NASA Hubble space telescope that Grandmaison destroyed by fire, Void View attempts to reclaim the unimaginable – the infinity of the universe – by way of a rhetorical non-image. Speaking of his work, Grandmaison asks: “doesn’t claiming to reveal the truth in fact upend it, subjecting it to opinion? [An image reveals only] one half of the truth – the other half lost in illustrating it – a little like infinity.”[1] Void View’s iconoclastic gesture seems to be asking: how can an image-maker in today’s hyper-mediated cultural milieu succeed to isolate a subject worthy of critical attention and mobilize the out-of-frame in a way that harnesses (and liberates) its potential to disrupt our understanding of the very subject in question?  

In this small sampling of work, Pascal Grandmaison demonstrates once again that, at its best, his work is both formally exquisite and theoretically rigorous. These three new works cohere in the sub-text of their own limits of representation, thus suggesting the necessity of a sustained artistic engagement with the nourishing but frightening uncodifiable real.

[1] Grandmaison in conversation with Béatrice Josse, “Before Beginning and Beyond the End,” in Pascal Grandmaison: Half of the Darkness [exhibition catalogue], curated by Kevin Muhlen, Casino Luxembourg, 2011.
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