Putting on a necklace and going outside and realising I have fallen in love with the sound of cars starting – or did I think that before I went outside? Rubbing my feet near the flower bed and looking down from the balcony not deciding if I was hot or cold and watching the people on the street who were each dressed for a different season, some delighted and some huddling as if just previous there had been a chill of magnitude, of inner-cringings and alleys run-long.
There are certain clothes that in wearing them I am ready to do different things. I have on an old woollen jumper that still smells of the sheep it nuded (it occurs to me now it has probably been washed only once, if at all) and when I wear it I can make a sketch and think to myself a few things about the human form, some twists anatomy makes so that an arm looks like a bunched scarf or a leg the backside of a favourite leather couch that sags now in its middle but you would never throw away because it was there your whole growing up’s worth, you did your homework here and lost a small bit of your virginity, small because before your ridged inside spread for that singular entry you heard who, on the stairs? Which sibling? And you pushed his half-inch out of you to go stand soundless in the hall and thought I do not care for him so much anyway tonight with his low slung arms and that prickle like fur around your womb an instant touch of cruelty. How could you not fall someway t’ward such a thing in its pain coming forth like a tongue to push down on your apple-sized womb and your ovaries too were shifted all for that movement of his arm against you, like a swing half-way swung after it’s been abandoned jumped from leapt from, it still carries some gust from the child who rode it (or not a child, you yourself still sometimes swing at your grandmother’s house - the tire that no one ever took down) and you felt there his hairs thin as yours and thought is it all accident, this touch? Anyone would lean into the heat of such a thing such wonderful pain and think it meant that sort of night was rising to precede long walks the next day to clear it away because you cannot think your own feelings in that house the house where you are now thinking No, best keep him out of me. Having felt the lip of his helmet ripple like a forced ledge as into you it squeezed is enough now to think about, enough to make a kind of love to once you’ve watched him scale the garden’s final gate. Who even dances anymore is, technically, the last thing he’ll ever have said to you.
A one-time love that could have brought about murder – or sickness,
I dislodged you from that.
You came away from the wall crumbling, leaving a silhouette in stone.
There are stronger things I would have made you of
had I foreseen some glimpse of my own dismantling.
Your tears, so hot now, they do not soothe but scald your face –
this is my fault, and I think of it whenever an outside light comes on.
Some marking; the only way I could be sure of staying near you, and
I am sure always that you think of me,
knowing that you cry so often.
Some mist curling around the back of an ear, as hair does in rain. Almost certain that I am not meant to be here but knowing also how cautious I’ve gotten to be. Unnecessary worries - crude ideas that I have made a promise to be somewhere else, far from and different to here. There is a place I can see ahead where angles meet, with maybe a locus springing. I could walk that way – the path facilitating, and still be back where I am meant to be in time. I have after all been at times adept with time keeping, I have been capable of making do, and now it seems at least plausible that I could by turning my ankles outward skid partially down to where I would like most to be. I am afraid of heights and I am afraid of the dark but the coolness of this mist and its pooling I cannot understate. I stand here and think of things touched repeatedly, of inconsistencies worn smooth. But it strikes me with my first steps that I am not dressed properly to be here. This becomes what I question the most, my bare arms and the skin of them puckering to form a toughened texture, the hair of them collecting as though remembering itself as fur and not a sparse collection of fine stalks, used to jumpers tugged to wrists as an aid against the cold. My feet will soon be wet, and later my back will stiffen, a whistling ache will shoot up my neck and I will most likely sit somewhere to rest and see my wrists grazed by vines and nettles. But I make for another step, another foothold makes itself seen, and I marvel at the quiet of the weather.
Julia Kristeva has written of subjectivity – be it of daily life, of aesthetic experience - that it still includes some aspect of the otherness, the alien quality persistently nudged to the peripheries, to a marginal existence. In our deepest introspection there is still the possibility that we can be seen, that we are not safe. Ironically, she believes that when total subjectivity is undergone we are in the gut of the abject; that which we would wish to propel from ourselves and ultimately eradicate. It is something we would render obscure because it references the limits of the body, its ‘cycles and fatality’, and we have trained ourselves to be limitless in our energy, our ability to absorb and propagate, hear and see.
Silence is not acceptable. We do not believe in it as a sensation with function. Words are superimposed and feelings assumed to counter the tension between attachment and detachment; the ‘psychic space’ must be filled, and in filling it we negate the possibility of a future, with all the means of experience available to us having been spent.
Our days are divided by quick hot batches of sunshine and then cloud cover again, determined as a blanket thrown. What do we do inside of this greyness? The sun tells us there is time for movement and loudness, but what do we learn from the grey with its smells of cold and smacking pavement? There are feelings here that have not quite become incarnate, that have not been fully appropriated. There are still things to be made manifest and in locating them we disassociate or divulge.
Kristeva links artistic creation to the maternal chora in that it is a place of reception, a place we move toward and into and fill then with the stuff of our own interiors. We fill it with beauty, or terror, or memory. There can be grand imaginings here, any degree of in-between can be cultivated. The ‘symbolic realm’ art is said to occupy need not be awash with symbols, only time is necessitated, a pausing and a giving of room. Such moments are feasible but they require of us practices we do not generally habituate. We must learn again stillness and its siblings and the steps it makes toward things undone and constructed again. There is much ambivalence in its dearth of words that we need to sleep and that we find ourselves unusual in seeking, a counterpoint allowing for frailty and a belief in what we are the only one to witness.
There is an interesting correspondence between psychoanalysis’ sublimation and art history’s the Sublime. Sublimation describes a means by which we redirect our ‘inappropriate’ feelings, an act within the subconscious instigated by fear of disapproval. The Sublime denotes a beauty that is terrifying in its scope, beautiful precisely because it can do you harm, and incomprehensibly vast. One is a defence mechanism and the other something we are drawn to because of the fear it inspires. A channelling of unaccepted feelings into the ‘norms’ of society and an image that transcends human endeavour in its power to obliterate all of its renderings. A means of concealing unacceptable urges and a word marking in history a developing taste for the rugged over the smooth, the forceful over the tranquil. By way of sublimation, we embed things within ourselves. In the artistic sublime, we are swept away and ravished. In one, we exercise a level of control to avoid such activities as violence. In the other, we are overwhelmed by violence, and choice evades us.
In both, a strong ambivalence is at play. The desire to act out, to act according to one’s inherently anti-social urges is overwhelmed by the want to go unnoticed. The pleasure of being consumed, even if consumption necessitates the acknowledgement that we are smaller and weaker than the forces at hand, seems for a moment the most perfect method of demise. The terror we feel is not in itself sublime, it is the abject that we attempt to sublimate. They are wound around one another. That which we want to envelope us, sourced in what we have long rolled our shoulders out of, and in shunning it we have ingested it, and it has returned in this remarkable hugeness, to return the favour. Is it unknowingly then that we make steps toward it? Skidding some, tripping some. Ill-dressed against the cold.
Poetry can be most broadly pinned in its ability to respond to the present and capture spontaneous feeling. It acts as a description of thought process and environment in an emotionally heightened or engaged state, forming a response to the daily that thereafter functions as a point of return to a particular moment in time. More technically termed an imaginative awareness, it is a succinct means of responding to the present because it requires above all else feeling, and the capacity to take heed of feeling.
The means of its making do not require anything outside of our daily existence save this ability to be impressed upon by experience and note those impressions. It can be made without a removal from environment, it can occur suddenly and without preparation.
Moyra Davey, an artist based in New York, has used similar terms to describe her love of the camera as a tool that becomes part of one’s life, a trait that drew her to photography and away from painting, stating that the process of the studio requires a cutting off of oneself from the conditions that first inspired artistic process, necessitating time alone.
In Where Art Belongs, Chris Kraus describes her work as a kind of gestural poetry, noting this impulse of Davey’s to work within and respond to the present moment, through the gesture of photography.
Davey herself, on the tension of the poised moment, and concentrating on the cusp of one moment changing into another, has written:
To be making something as yet unformed, unknown – to be living in a deferred moment – is the most seductive way to exist. When we stop this forward motion, we risk being sucked into a world of stasis and non-being.
It is this impulse that links the three artists I’ll discuss here, who employ photography as a means to respond to a precise moment in time and in doing so deal with altered concepts of time. In recent bodies of work they have literally compiled these moments in photographic form, requiring the spontaneity of the photograph to achieve a series of images that occurred by way of real-time accumulation.
In doing so they utilise time as a formative presence, questioning our taught knowledge of time versus how we actually feel it to be passing. They practice an accretion of images as a means to create meaning, images taken during a literal or emotional journey which they choose to undertake for the experience it will invoke, with the result that actual remnants of their experience are created or obtained, rather than representative substitutes.
Moyra Davey, Adam Jeppesen and Laurel Nakadate demonstrate the diaristic mode within their photographic practices in conjunction with these factors. Its facility in documenting changes occurring from moment to moment, day to day, and also its cohesion with relaying a trip or journey means a collection of moments can be obtained that achieve meaning by merit of their being grouped together. The practice of going on a journey necessitates both emotional and physical displacement, with melancholy playing a key role as a means of bringing daily experience to a heightened state.
These are undertakings that require a gesture of poetry to be realised, or where a poetry of sorts is intrinsic to their conception.
Moyra Davey’s exhibition My Necropolis at the Murray Guy gallery in Chelsea in 2009, included her work 32 Photographs from Paris (2009) The images – the 32 photographs, had originally been sent from Paris to friends as oversized postcards. Borrowed back for the show, they were wrapped around the room and bore the result of their exposure to transport and travel: folded, stamped, frayed and torn and now displayed in a gallery context, it was still possible to make out the postage marks. The photographs were of coffee shops, places and objects Davey came into contact with naturally, without planning or forethought. Their manner of display in the gallery, their being placed flush against one another, showed them as existing in close dependency, both taking and lending meaning. It also reflected the manner of their being taken, one after another, showing that the moments the images depict themselves existed in close proximity. The fact that they had been used as a literal means of communicating her time in Paris – their original use as postcards to friends, also ensured their status as tangible links to her experience there, operating at a functional level that precedes their artistic one. In describing the exhibition, Kraus writes
Davey had somehow evoked – in the chill of the commercial gallery – the feeling of energised hominess.. these images neither attempt.. to fabulate mess or document squalor. They simply depict the texture of spaces fully inhabited.
In her essay Notes on Photography and Accident, Davey writes that she shuns the ‘formal encounter via the institutions of galleries and museums, and gravitates to books and journals.’ The essay demonstrates her diaristic tendency toward not only documentation of experience but the means by which we should actually undergo experience, and accident as part of her gathering tangible remnants of contact with the outer world.
Accident and contingency allow for real, uncontrolled or uncontrollable happenings that are lived rather than staged moments – Quinn Latimer has indeed stated ‘The examined life might be said to be her very metier.’ The element of contingency and lived occurrences is important to her to the extent that she believes ‘accident’ is an anachronism for much contemporary photography, and refers to Walter Benjamin’s belief that a ‘spark of accident’ reaches out to the viewer and ‘collapses time’ so that one feels contemporaneous with the image.
This belief that photography must have a tie to the present, must respond to the present, and possess that inherently surrealist, contingent, ‘found’ quality of the vernacular photograph, is linked to her portrayal of time in other works. My Necropolis (2009), a video piece centred on her recording of graveyards in Paris interspersed with clips of friends being asked questions, employs dust as an emblem of slowness, a mode of living that has been slowed down to the pace of a flaneur. This denotes what Emma Cocker has termed ‘inner time’ over chronological time. Inner time, the way we encounter time on a personal level, can be made to speed up or slow down, and for Davey her compulsion to respond to the present sometimes necessitates an actual lengthening of the present. At the strolling pace of the flaneur, we are better equipped to absorb the impact of a moment and gather tokens as we go.
The talismanic quality of the photograph is fed by this compulsion to collect, linked to the diaristic tendency of seizing on the immediacy of a moment and the self’s presence within that moment, wherein random uninterrupted details can hint at truth. She treasures the ‘concreteness of form and clarity of address’ of happenstance fragments, in that in their simplicity they have a huge amount to say, addressing one’s interiority through uninterrupted correspondence.
In Notes on Photography and Accident Davey also references Roslyn Krauss, who recast photography as a form of automatism, writing that
As indexes or imprints, photographs constitute an unmediated transcription of the flow of the real onto a two-dimensional plane.
This is how faithfully it represents on several levels What has been, and Davey believes it should be represented to the extent that the photograph – as stated by Benjamin - collapses time.
This presence of melancholy and nostalgia, of looking back to a time and attempting to re-enter it, has been noted by writers such as George Baker as a prominent theme in contemporary photography, where melancholy and possibility are interlinked. Writing that ‘it seems to me melancholia has coloured photography’s fate’, Baker goes onto say that both melancholy and the camera represent ‘impossible connection’, that is seizing upon connection at the point of loss. Davey herself has noted the ‘negative, even decadent connotations’ attached to nostalgia within critical circles, acknowledging it as an ‘intellectual’s guilty pleasure’. Still she dwells on the ‘victims and vicissitudes’ of temporality and the etymology of nostalgia: the Greek words Nostos, meaning ‘return home’, and Algos, meaning ‘pain.’ Both meanings take root in an inevitable return, where the pain of confronting one’s origin and by association the human condition as a whole is located. Such grounding has led Latimer to describe ‘her oeuvre as a kind of epistolary practice, soaked with the past and stoked by the sublime terror of the present and future, of the anxiety of one’s creative and daily work, of its possible error or extinguishing.’ This presence of the epistolary is something that must be noted in discussion of Davey, stating as she has that she seeks to unearth a photography that takes ‘seed in words’.
For virtually the entirety of her practice she has ‘traced the literary quality of the photograph’, and the ‘photographic quality of literature’ through her interest in ‘..fragmentary and provisional letters’ - most often Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag - for the fixated moment they offer to the reader, a means of communication akin to that embodied by the photograph. This diaristic overlap has led her to seek the intimate address of the essay within images, drawing on interiority as a means of making work and the paradox that it requires an outside medium. To again quote Latimer:
‘Through a careful and causal limning of diaries, travelogues and letters that she favours for their diurnal intimacy and radical directness of address, Davey explores the impact external pressures have on one’s ability to make art and meaning – or, to construct one’s very interiority.’ This cross-over between artistic practice and personal life is of course a blatant factor within Davey’s work, concerned as she is with gathering experiential fragments that could occur at any time. Her love of words as a medium unto themselves has led her to proclaim herself as an artist, writer and reader, moving through life with the exacting slowness one associates with reading potent words from a page.
This endeavour to capture the fleeting moment and fixate with especial urgency well describes Adam Jeppesen’s The Flatlands Camp Project (2012). Most recently exhibited at Volta 8 in Basel, Switzerland, it is the result of Jeppesen’s journey through the American wastelands. Assuming the role of a solitary traveller for eighteen months, Jeppesen abstracted himself from the typical markers and practices of time, so that in being removed from any sense of routine, time in its traditional sensations faded away. In this way his photographs became a means of self-assurance that the world still existed, and that the moments he witnessed had actually taken place.
The images at Volta were displayed in a grid format, though their sequencing is not important in terms of exact order, as The Flatlands Camp Project reflects the insular and introspective, the time that we experience in dream or memory, not time as we know it in terms of beginning middle and end. There are sometimes only slight variations between photographs, relaying that subtle changes are at play from moment to moment, stating that ‘the world was this way one minute, and this way the next’, and that the meaning of overall experience comes from these incremental changes. With such concerns in mind, one representative image would not suffice; multiples are required to demonstrate transitions in mood and ambience. But one moment does not replace another, they feed into and alter one another, a process one image cannot easily or literally capture.
Jeppesen in this way uses time as a formative tool. His images, in depicting the happenstance alterations that space and time inflict on one another, negate the ‘basic dualism’ that would have them distinct. The interdependency of time and material is facilitated by his extensive solitude and merging meaningfully with his surroundings, becoming increasingly aware of his temporal passage within them: time does not occur independently of objects, and ‘materials have a temporal dimension in that they endure.’
In displacing himself from typical reality, Jeppesen also demonstrates that our experience of lived time can be willed to different speeds. Lived time is an endless process constantly changing path, dissimilar to a incessant passing of finite ends and beginnings, and in a similar way to Davey, Jeppesen indulges in and lengthens the present moment, surfacing such issues as the temporal experience of memory being totally at odds with the segmented means of conveying time we now accept as the status quo. Jeppesen’s photographs embody this other lived and inner time, so that the procedures of time are quite literally changed, with the chronological becoming segmented and personal.
Again, it as though the moments themselves are being collected, and become eloquent in their being placed next to one another, creating a fleeting testimony to what it was actually like to be in the desolate wastelands at that time.
Though incomplete, the insight obtained is arguably more worthy than the urge to render a fully representative re-telling, as something will always resist manifestation. Jeppesen’s images in this body of work create moments of description that don’t attempt to erase the complexity of space and time, but make simple affirmative statements, I am here, the world is here, that though simple in intent give way to deep interpretations. As stated by Cocker:
‘The dilemma is one of finding the means through which to capture the live and lived experience of a given situation, without simply excluding or ignoring all that is formless, difficult to rationalise or render into thought.’
Jeppesen allows the formless to take precedent in many of his photographs, with some so obscured by the markings of grit that found its way into the box of negatives or the lack of light, the flaws we see are the only indications a process of change has actuallyoccurred. The flaws are utilised as a means of gesturing toward his surroundings; they represent what the idiosyncrasies of the place have left to bear, and they are included rather than discarded as contingent markers of a specific point in space and time.
Unconcerned with truth in the optical sense, his images function as fragments of the actual experience, a kind of experiential residue, with the photograph acting as a representation of a flow ‘slowed down to the point that its state of flux becomes no longer discernible.’
Jeppesen’s Flatlands show this process of meaning accumulating as images are gathered and placed in dialogue with one another, and his work also references the accidental acting as a tangible link to the moment depicted; the grit as we have seen has functioned in this way, and hence the photographs are physically, gesturally tied to a place and period of time. These relatively humble inclusions emphasise the idea of the photograph as commemorative material, it having a life as an object.
The work is not diaristic in the typical sense, but the photographs encapsulate Jeppesen’s experiences as undergone on a momentary or daily level. The presence of Jeppesen as the protagonist behind the photographs is understated, documenting his life in terms of meaningful moments he witnessed rather than his literal, visible placement within them. It does however reference the traditional roots of diaristic photography in terms of representing indefinite or implied narratives, coming from a place of deep subjectivity, registering incremental changes available only to him because of the place and time into which he has interjected himself.
Laurel Nakadate employs diaristic photography in perhaps its most traditional form, in that her work takes the form of self-portraits, and she represents herself as a kind of outsider, creating angst from the peripherals of society. Her work 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears, shows the artists crying for a few minutes a day, every day, for 365 days. Having made the decision to ‘partake in sadness’ and photograph its manifestation, Nakadate chose a year, January 1st to December 31st 2010, as the amount of time needed to portray the emotion’s scope and effects on one individual. By undertaking a process of displacement and melancholy during the normal course of her life, Nakadate used her own body as a form of material expression, with the photographs taken being displayed together and achieving meaning in their bulk, relaying the extent of the project and the literal investment required of her. First fully displayed last summer in the Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects Gallery in New York, the 365 colour photographs measuring 8-1/2 x 11 inches each were installed in the main gallery space.
The photographs are intended as documentation of subjective, unexplained, emotive content; Nakadate depicts herself as alone, displaced and struggling to cope. In producing a document a day, she repeatedly sutured herself into the situation: the photographic image is again the most feasible means of capturing the spontaneity of a moment and the subtle or extreme changes occurring from day to day.
The photograph maintains the moment, and allows for compilation and real-time accumulation. In this case, the variance of the chosen emotion from day to day is the dialogue that moves the work.
Her gestures of inducing herself into a state of sadness, of incorporating it into her life, require photography as a medium which can seize on the spontaneity of fleeting instants, necessarily brief due to the intensity required.
The apparent simplicity of meaning, her portrayal of herself, sad, on a daily basis for a whole year, is certainly poignant. A decision was made to wilfully immerse herself in this emotion and present the results to the viewer, with her emotional journey creating a makeshift narrative, a pocketed series of realities.
This offering up of oneself as a protagonist links Davey, Jeppesen and Nakadate: Davey commits herself to resolutely portraying the present moment, Jeppesen relays the experience invoked by enacting literal and emotive solitude, and Nakadate acts as the protagonist of her own self-motivated story.
Often heavily criticised for coasting on the ideals of feminism and exploiting the individuals that appear within her other works, Nakadate’s series does seem a rather shallow dismantling of such a broadly addressed and frequently inhabited sensation as sadness. Her means of inducing sadness are concealed from the viewer, which is to be expected, but we have no evidence that the feeling she depicts is actually that which she claims, and her dependence on backdrops such as beaches and raindrop strewn windows to clarify the intended atmosphere of the images cheapens any real feeling she may manage to convey. The notion that one could step into the toilet of a train and purposefully undergo sadness to any meaningful extent is a powerful one, but not one that is really addressed or in any way proved by Nakadate’s images - the most obvious question is whether in the throes of actual sadness one could have the presence of mind to take a photograph.
Her remit to partake in sadness is ultimately only an insinuation of herself into the role of someone who is sad - not a flawed approach in itself - but the results are too extremist to withstand being displayed to such a large extent and in such close proximity. This may be linked in part to her other video works, where voyeurism – the manipulation of the male gaze, the manipulation of the innocent female – is the moving factor. This form of looking, now turned upon the artist by the artist, in a state of repeated vulnerability, carries with it all the sinister connotations and uneasiness of coming across something one never intended to see, but have now seen through the eyes of someone actively seeking such discreet views. This predatorial element is emboldened by the interruption of the camera between Nakadate looking at herself, and then us looking at her. The camera reads here as an unnatural intervention, not only because the notion of someone taking photographs of themselves in distress is unnatural, but because we read Nakadate as part victim, part voyeur. Her role is undistinguished in the images themselves, and though it makes for interesting readings and interpretations, when the works are installed they trip over these notions rather than emphasise them. In attempting to capture the present moment, we find Nakadate’s present to be confused.
Her intention to capture multiple displays of sadness in their unfiltered form, drawing from the ‘clumsy self-portraits’ people continuously upload onto Facebook, where the want to portray oneself is ardent but manifested poorly, has been described as ‘dissecting the practice of objectifying one’s interior life online’, the contemporary compulsion to broadcast oneself in a pseudo-diaristic mode. We must question however whether Nakadate has achieved a truer representation than originally intended in that her photographs seem insincere, with voyeurism leaking over. It is perhaps as simple that sadness is an interior feeling, that while it can be objectified still requires interior roots, and Nakadate has not achieved interiority but rather attempted to pluck sadness from the air. The practices of introspection and insularity, of time alone with oneself that Davey and Jeppesen have propagated and that are so intrinsic in responding to the present, cannot find foothold in a process where the emotion is consistently being contrived outwards; its sole purpose is to be projected rather than felt. In looking at the images, we ask such questions as:
Did Nakadate immediately stop crying once the photograph was taken? Was the sadness invoked enough to carry forth into the rest of her day? In short, is it at all possible to ‘partake’ of sadness for only a few moments? Is sadness as an emotion that allows for a dipping in and out of really viable?
Nakadate’s intention to lead a sort of double life for a few moments throughout the day, Jeppesen’s decision to separate himself from society for eighteen months, and Davey’s layering and heightening of her personal life fall under a theme which has been discussed by Emma Cocker.
The act of role-play or doubling, she writes, is generally accompanied by a special awareness of a second reality or of a free unreality, as against real life. There is an element of story telling, a reiterating of experience of one’s travels. Within this state of presentess, a space is created where things and responses that were not previously feasible can occur.
Davey has indeed admitted that Goethe’s ‘need to double his life in writing’ is her own.
In all three cases, the presentation of a series of images implies that no one image will suffice, and so resolution is constantly deferred, with a lengthening of experience resulting. This acts as a defence mechanism against what Benjamin termed ‘homogeneous, empty time’, which negates the meaning of the present and constantly looks to the concrete past or the unattainable future, rather than allowing for a continuous process of alteration that encapsulates both past present and future, as embodied by Henri Bergson’s theory of duration.
All three create a situation, undergo the experience of it, and report on it through photographs. Davey’s assertion that the photograph chooses the photographer also alludes to a concept of self as an instrument, where the artist must utilise whatever means available to them to create a tangible moment and render a link to it. This link is forged in the co-dependency of time and objects – neither occurs without the other, and each can fall prey to changes inflicted by the other. Time by its nature allows for a collective process, the collection of moments and the objects to which they correspond.
Gesture is present in these various practices in the form of accretion, travel, retelling, and is rendered poetical it its use toward responding to the present. Photography becomes an act of fixation, a further means of transporting the artist into some other fictional zone or psychological state of mind, a suturing of the self through repetition or mimesis. The physicality behind these methods is what distinguishes the artists’ use of photography; setting out with a mind to instigate and record experience. As phrased by Marcus Verhagen:
What is at stake is not just a series of discreet works, but rather an entire practice of engagement with the world, a reflection on possibilities or producing and consuming and on the psychic lives of objects.
Is the use of the photograph in these instances a compulsion or a necessity? An object incorporated into a practice or a straight-up artistic medium? It allows for both deep subjectivity and also a statement of truth; it is an object that allows room for the human gesture but we do not doubt the photographic image - there is room for interpretation but not disavowal.
The three artists discussed focus on the things inherent to the presentness of a moment, rather than solely a reflection on the protagonist’s presence within. There is a compulsion to undergo a process, and photography is employed as a visual medium that best adheres to journal-like documentation. Though the narratives themselves have now expired, we still have access to their experiential reality. Even if truth only occurs in a partial form through subjectivity and contingency it is genuinely uncovered.
In being made photographs, these moments are materialised so that they encounter qualities. This is perhaps the most prominent play of gestural poetry, in that in the manifestation of the moment, it gains the capacity for encounters with the viewer, and is altered by its passage through our own material bodies.
‘Grad Talks’ return for a third consecutive year at PhotoIreland Festival. The aim of the grad talks is to provide a space for current and recent graduates to present and discuss the theory behind Photography in front of an audience of their peers. The secondary intent is to allow graduates to experience presenting in front of an open audience as well as responding to questions on their chosen topic. This event is free to attend. All welcome.
Sue Rainsford – Diaristic Photography and Gestural Poetry in Contemporary Art
Since its inception, diaristic photography seems irrevocably tied to themes of deviancy, explicit behaviour and a general sense of disavowal. This extremist precedent, as embodied by such photographers as Nan Goldin since the 70s, has been subverted within recent contemporary practice, taking the original standpoint of a subjective moment, captured and rendered finite, and using it to incite new narratives that occur within the viewer.
Sue Rainsford is a writer based in Dublin. A History of Art and Philosophy graduate from Trinity College, she is currently pursuing an MA in Visual Arts Practices at IADT.
Two weeks or so ago I went to Basel, Switzerland with my masters class to visit the art fairs, to be generally informed, inspired, et cetera. The following is an extremely modest account of a fraction of the artworks I managed to see there, as well as some musings on the nature of the different fairs, and the various ethos they claim to propagate.
On Wednesday the 13th - the evening of our arrival, along the river Rhine was Art Parcours, a ‘sector’ of the Art Basel fair whose remit is to
present site-specific artworks and performances by internationally renowned artists and emerging talents, engaging with Basel and with its history by weaving elements of the sector into the fabric of the city.
The first piece we stepped into, a work by Danish artist Simon Dybbroe Moller, comprised of a Renault Avantime backed into an open garage (the building was originally an old granary, so the pamphlet tells us) and was a definite nod in this direction. Seated on stools we look into the glossy vehicle’s boot - which reared open in what seemed a very animate, very welcoming arc - and on the plasma screen therein watched what at first seems to be an ad for the car; there is a husky French voice, close-ups of the interior, demonstrations of its duress. And then, it proceeded to fail. High definition portrayals of its structural weakness and disintegration, in addition to the appearance of aubergines on its bonnet, gained speed ‘til the sultry commentary became comical and the Renault itself an earnest but unknowing husk. And throughout, acting as a fluid backdrop, was the river moving as one heavy, horizontal tug. The subversion of the Renault, of the garage, of the river itself, all seemed joined as one colossal concept prepared to ripple throughout the rest of the artworks (despite our having entered from the wrong end).
Eduardo Basualdo’s installation, a room of high-strung nerves and a twitching urge to look behind you, saw three large plastic bags hanging from the ceiling into a space from which we were fenced off. As I stood comparing them to recently vacated pods - the delfated allusion to a one-time fullness, the crinkled skin of the bag suggesting nutrients sucked dry - they began to emit a scuttling sound, with tight bouts of movement punching their away around the bags’ interiors. This motorised sensation of wakefulness and its animation of the materials high-lighted their supermarket aesthetic; mechanical mimics natural, plastic mimics organic. This added an extra layer to imagining the internal processes - not only what is inside, but how was the convincing falseness achieved?
Milling through another curtained doorway, we descended a (potentially treacherous) staircase into an industrial space that seemed to thrum with the vile experiments it hosted during World War II (it is in fact a water pump station), where there was a projection by Henrik Hakansson: Monarch, The Eternal (2008). This understated piece shows the return of the Monarch butterflies to their winter home in Michoacan, Mexico. At first all one thinks is how beautiful, how unrelenting, but then comes a realisation that they could do you great damage with their mindless surging, wave after wave - maybe throttle you with mass fluttering or asphyxiate you with the quick thrum of their wings, wings which are given volume as the 35mm film clicks its succession of frames into place behind you. The simplicity throughout - of the colour scheme, the endeavour of migration, the allowance of subject and material to speak for themselves - made for an odd resonance within the dankness of the space. There was an eerie sensation that it was a live feed of something happening above ground, the reason for all the watching bodies having to crowd below.
Moving up from the river and into the residential streets above, we walked into a seemingly innocuous building with its ground floor canteen being cleared for the evening (it was by now about 11.55pm) and upstairs stoof in front of a camera where our actions - expressions pulled, props wielded - are delivered by live feed to a young man and woman who watch us as we watch them. It was at first difficult to determine whether they can see us, and voyeurism flourished in all its traditional garbs as we stared with zoo-like fascination at this duo, who were no doubt enthused and happy to be there earlier in the evening. What city were they watching us from? Were they as close by as a room next door? The quirkiness and contrivance of the situation was - if possible, heightened as the man probed at the screen containing our image (off screen) with a feather duster, before copying my exaggerated bubble-blowing into the dregs of my cocktail with his two empty hands.
On Thursday, we attended the ‘main event’. Art | Basel - now of course not only Art | Basel, but Basel, Miami Beach and Hong Kong, was as confusing and disheartening as one may expect a fair of such a colossal scale to be. Though the viewing conditions of such an experience are always nodded to, with the usual allowances - ‘Of course it’s overheated, of course it’s overtly commercial, but you get to see all of these artists in the same place at the same time!’ - there is perhaps no sufficient preparation for the moment when finally, after following the map from A to B to C, you spot your Leon Golub, David Hockney, Walker Evans or Tacita Dean, and people have to excuse themselves for rubbing off it with a shirt sleeve, or negotiating themselves in front of you for a photograph (though at the entrance there was a line of people headed for the cloakroom to check their cameras - under duress - camera phones, iPhones and iPads were at their most prodcutive). This sad little voice of foiled expectation is generally met with such questions as ‘What’s so different to this than the hoards of tourists blocking your way at MoMA or the Louvre, determined to see every famed testament to modernism or the renaissance?’ I would think that with the latter there’s at least the option to have some sort of meaningful engagement, some small rippling epiphany you might take home with you. If you want to have an aesthetic response at Art | Basel, you must carve it out for yourself, whether this entails taking a statue-like stance two feet back from a painting or cornering a gallery worker and forcing them to take a breath from all the numeric banter. Does even this distract you from an actual viewing of the work? Is it possible to be an artist, art lover, art student or art writer here and not be appalled?
In the face of all this cynicism, I’m very aware that Art | Basel is explicitly an art fair, and the allowance for the deluge of buyers is what an art fair is for. But is this what art is for? Did the emergence of art as a high-end investment material (a crude birth in itself) really have to follow this route? I couldn’t shake the knowing pessimism of Robert Hughes in his documentary The Mona Lisa Curse as a voice-over as I walked around the fair. Made in 2008. Hughes’ lament is both a dramatic and stark as he mourns art’s new role as a cultural addition to consumerism, and he articulates a weariness and a genuine sadness that took hold of me like a glove throughout my visit.
All of this is not to say that the works themselves were not for the most part superb or provocative, or that the sheer quantity of images and artists pulled from every era and genre was not an experience incapable of producing meaningful results, with the conversations hosted perhaps offering a counterpoint to the impermeable white washed booth forming walls.
Liste 17 - titled ‘the young art fair in Basel’ which ran from June 12th - 17th - was our next patch of stomping ground on Friday. It is a fair serving the younger, lesser established gallery, who in turn present to the public artists in the process of emerging from across the world. Its website explains its positioning as the following;
The LISTE’s concept of introducing galleries in general no more than 5 years old and artists under 40 has been at the heart of its being one of the most important fairs for young art and still being considered one of the art world’s most important discoverer fair.
Walking around the fantastic Warteck Builing - the locale of Liste 17 and Listes before - this does seem to the be the case. The diversity of ethos, message and media - nevermind the range of curation within the individual booths, ensured the experience was shot through with stimuli both conceptual and visual. Many of the artists are still so early on in the stages of exposure that they’re difficult to suss out online, cropping up in obscure articles from a local newspaper or niche blog.
Deborah Ligorio was an artist who struck me as hugely interesting. Working in materials as diverse as cardboard and bronze, she renders small objects that merge the aesthetics of museum and bedroom, making things that you want to touch, and in a way feel you already own.
Timo Toots’ work Media Bubble (2008) is an interactive installation piece which requires the participant to provoke the work into action - in the same way that the media requires the consumer to propagate. Using your feet or body weight to set the wooden disc in the middle of the floor spinning, real-time news appears on the floor around you, radiating outward in concentric circles. With a hugely simple and innocently pleasurable gesture we are implicated in the coarseness and vastness of global media, an animal of epic proportions that requires something as small as me in a summer dress to get it moving.
Mother’s Tankstation represented Ireland at Liste 17, with works by Nina Cannel (among others, though many booths were solo shows). On Thirst (Rope) demonstrates a subtle unhinging of materials; they are held in a certain pose, maintained within a certain meaning, and yet the facility of their composure suggests only a temporary situating. There is something quietly beautiful in the looped hang, maybe only this sense of the temporary, the feeling the components are being held in place until used for a more complex purpose happening somewhere nearby.They are fleetingly poised and hence vulberable - even the chewing gum, reading as a slow-paced meditation on juvenile vandalism. The diminishment in scale would have us suspect some regulated process of change, some correspondence between the rope, the lead and the gum, an intrinsic presence in all three that is accentuated as it is masked by the downward pull, and the forms they strike in their hanging.
Andy Boot’s pieces at the Renwick Gallery, which seem flat as glass from a distance, are hugely textured, consisting of gymnastic elastic set in glue, solidified mid-ripple. The unassuming nature of both Boot’s and Canell’s materials, tampered with by gentle interventions, result in works which seem as if they are all talked out, but acting as testimony to what was a vital, full speed conversation.
Volta 8, the final fair I visited on my final day in Basel, again states its premise as platforming new and emerging art. In strict comparison to Liste, the curation was lacking in lustre. Rather than the industrial space with its overlapping exterior fire escapes and loudly echoing pipes, Volta had the unfortunate quality of the dance floor at an outdoor wedding; the plastic floors don’t quite line up with the ramp, and you’re fairly certain if it rained the whole roof would cave in. But by and large the work there was experimental, offensive and political. There were some breaches of consistency, with galleries composing booths based on which artist could scream the loudest, but there was on the whole a sense of peripheral practices being addressed.
Laurel Nakadate’s Good Morning Sunshine at the Anita Beckers gallery - based in Frankfurt, brimmed with Nakadate’s usual brand of perversion and conflict. Young women propositioned through an ad in the paper to meet with Nakadate are encouraged by the artist into a state of undress as she remains unseen behind the camera, eerily adopting the usual tropes of a sexual predator certain they’ll never be caught. But the encounter has of course been captured and documented, and is painful to watch knowing the artist’s practice of blending documentary and fiction; the subject of the video is real, but Nakadate has taken on a persona which best manipulates a young insecure girl into removing one item of clothing after another. Though I found her tone too exploitative to be believed - or even to listen to without cringing, the slow procedural method with which the privacy of the girls is disassembled was the core of the work. That it is usually the artist herself who is undone and objectified - in such works as Pretty Baby #1 - she is always the instigator of the situation, and exercises control from however unlikely an angle. Her facility in encouraging people to expose themselves has simply with Good Morning Sunshine taken on a more traditional form, with the quivering young female undergoing manipulation rather than the insular middle-aged man. Toppling the customary effects of us watching the man, who watches Nakadate, who watches the camera and us within it, we have only a diligently innocent victim to examine. Having in the past utilised her own body to behead notions of sexual deviancy, predator and prey dynamics and the stance of the young female within a patriarchal society, is Nakadate’s new work a reiteration of the female’s ability to take on the role so often occupied by the aggressive male, or a regressive step backwards, showing that women are still vulnerable, and still prone to voyeurism in all its guises?
The last three artists I’ll discuss I was drawn to because of personal interests in the cross-over between visual art and literature as a mediating object we hear or read, and the practice of writing. Their implementation in some form or another of the written word struck me as both self-evident and timely, with the artists coming from positions both emotive, gestural and historical.
Alexandra Makhlouf’s ink drawings reference a time when books took on a formative role within her daily life. Living with only 10% of her vision during 2007 and 2008, words and their existence on the page took on a new resonance, a literal embodiment of meaning she could now not grasp. Audio-books took on a new meaning for her, and she listens to them still while working. Her ink washes indicate the wavering capacity of vision; with nothing being quite obscured unless purposefully obliterated, there are layers of activity and perception present, all available for consumption but requiring variant levels of scrutiny. Though hesitant to claim the fantasy and science fiction she listens to have any direct bearing on the content of her images, she is conscious of the practice of story-telling as a formative medium as paralleling her creating subject matter. Her use of iodine as a slowly detrimental component means the figures within her images are enduring a long deterioration, a procedural trait that has been connected - perhaps contrivedly, to the Protection of Information Bill currently being proposed in the artist’s native South Africa. There is undoubtedly a harshness to these images being returned to a state of blankness. As they exist now they seem only to impose the sparsest trace, the most spare means of address, and they are not allowed even this tenuous link to the outside world.
Some of the images are small and detailed - the type of relationship that an author (or even narrator) has with a viewer or reader - at once intimate while also being quite removed. For me this strange relationship is so deliciously conspiratorial; a narrator telling you, just you, the words they’re made of and they’re allowed to come live in your head and maybe become entwined with bits of you for a while.
With more literal interpretations in mind, Jodi Alcaraz creates work that focuses on the most physical aspect of writing, namely the form it takes - words on paper, and subverts the idea of the book as the mediating point of literature, the place where we absorb the ideas of another. The polyster resin, with all its connotations of preservation, raises notions of the time imbued within a book, and the processes that occur around it. As Emma Cocker explicates in her essay in Apeirophobia (this is a beautiful publication by artists Karin Kihlberg and Reuben Henry, which explores the process of an artwork being translated into a book);
The length of a book is always indeterminate, for whilst its dimesnsions are measurable and the number of pages often set, the (length of) time that it takes to read is always variable, never fixed. More over, a book is a circular structure; it has the capacity to be read over and over and over.. As such, a book’s length is potentially infinite.
The very encasement of an object made for holding, removing it permanently from future touch, questions how much we associate the written word with the tangible, when in fact writing and its words are intransient and replicable, potentially appearing anywhere.
Finally - and again, in an increasingly literal process of appropriation, Claudia Angelmaier was represented by the Galerie Kleindienst with pieces from her new series, Text. Having studied geography, philology and art history at the Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig, she is well equipped to question how images are represented by their corresponding, insulating texts. The historical context of any artwork of course begins formation before a piece is even completed, and the act of writing a work into a context or setting - indeed writing it into history, is an area of artistic practice that receives relatively little attention, when its ramifications are considered. Angelmaier’s pieces, which are ‘art about writing about art’, elaborate on the opposing elements of text: words are powerful, they function as evidence, they can harm or elate, but if they can be eradicated so too can their content. It requires only the simplest of gestures to obscure irrevocably a word and its meaning, just as the writing about an artwork is potent with unrealised effect. A physical, literal gesture obscures metaphor and the intangible. Our point of access is denied, and we are left blinking at a black space where knowledge was once deposited.
In short, I returned to Ireland fully saturated and with eyes tingling, not knowing how I felt or what I thought about anything. The placement of art within an environment structured specifically for ease of fast viewing is troublesome from the outset. The open plan of the booths at Art Basel - their interconnection between one and the next - requires no commitment from a viewer. We can wander through effortlessly, grazing on Joseph Beuys and Yves Klein, taking a sip from Vera Lutter or Hiroshi Sugimoto. Are we liberated by the lack of assumption? Are the works liberated by the lack of historical or academic context? I don’t know. I do know when having exited, I looked back at the huge, semi-permanent structure, and felt an urge to run away very fast. Liste 17 and Volta 8 were different in that there was a sense of accumulative knowledge and experience: there was more dialogue between the actual works, probably on account of the range of selection being more narrow and cohesive, as all of the galleries and artists were operating within a frame of newness and uncertainty. Art Parcours - which is as stated above ‘sector’ of Art Basel, remained for me the place most fertile with correspondence and conversation. Maybe this is because we were there at night, running on over-time after the day of travel, carrying cocktails in plastic cups and continually being confronted with the cultural significance of our setting. Entering what felt like someone’s home, what was someone’s garage, the trip’s first encounter showed better than any other the annual meshing of art with local life and activity, so that it’s almost impossible to imagine the small city without installations pocketed along the river, or shuttle buses ushering the wide-eyed camera-clad masses from one fair to another.
*All images are courtesy of Basel Art Fair, Liste 17, Volta 8, the respective galleries and artists.