Friday, July 28, 2017

Dioramas @ Palais de Tokyo

Jean Paul Favand,  Eruption of Vesuvius on the Bay of Naples at Night, 2012
In usual Palais de Tokyo style, this exhibition of the Diorama and its evolution into contemporary art is ambitious, original, and utterly engaging. For people who have never seen a diorama—most people alive today—the first couple of rooms are a revelation. I was thrilled to be walking through with some young people who had never seen anything like the objects on display. They were mesmerized. Seeing their eyes filled with wonder as they watched day turning into night through the manipulation of light behind the Polyorama Panoptique slides of London, Paris and other cities filled me with joy. That these 19th century forms of visual culture are still a source of wonder today inspire faith in the capacity of history to engage and extend the imaginations of the next generation. In an era when young people seem are eternally glued to their cell phones, it’s a encouraging to see their eyes light up in these early rooms. Many of these 19th century forms of visual culture are as exciting now as they were back in the 19th century.

I am not convinced that all of the pieces on display are actually dioramas, so the title is a bit misleading. It’s more accurately a collection of early forms of visual culture that show the seeds of contemporary visual entertainments such as cinema, photography, video and virtual reality. All of the material and conceptual concerns of the cinema and cinematically inspired entertainment are already identifiable as far back as the 18th century. Light as a medium to create movement, the passing of time, the transportation of the viewer to faraway (exotic) places, the continuity between painting and three-dimensional forms such as architecture, visual display and spectatorship, the interrogation of the line between illusion and reality, the challenge to perspective that comes with still and moving photographic images, the possibility of seeing the world differently, and on and on, are the concerns of visual forms such as the diorama, polyorama, panorama, and of course, their relatives in the museum of natural history. There is nothing that film studies talks about today that was not explored in this period.
Mark Dion, Paris Streetscape, 2017
Thus, one way of looking at Dioramas is to see the exhibition as being not about what the diorama spawned and influenced, but where contemporary visual culture comes from. Religious scenes, landscapes that replicate nature in motion, the display of taxidermy animals made for Natural History museums, in windows stuffed full with figures, objects and activities, wax figures so clearly not mimicking life but reaching towards an audience prepared to believe in the possibility that illusions can be brought to life, are all the ancestors of the image world that we live in. The spectacles of entertainment, and their manipulation of the line between reality and fiction as they journey all the way to fake news begin in the magic seen in these vitrines and theatrical scenes.
Richard Barnes, Man with Buffalo, Ottawa, 2007
Wandering around the first part of the exhibition visitors will be struck by the bourgeoise colonialism and annexation of the nation state that are represented again and again in these forms. Black people in three dimensional spectacles of servitude and oppression, to say nothing of all the animals that were killed for taxidermy and inclusion in scenes to be ogled at, continued to entertain well into the twentieth century. The cruelty to animals and exploitation of certain communities was not the concern of those who made these visual narratives. It’s impossible for today’s viewer not to notice this, and as I moved on, I began to wonder whether the curators were also oblivious to the ethically, politically, and environmentally problematic, even egregious, nature of the displays. And then, directly after the 19th century British fantasy of imperial power, Richard Barnes and Diane Fox’s works confront us with what goes on behind the scenes in the creation of these spectacles. From this point on, the exhibition takes a turn. In Barnes vitrine, Man with Buffalo, Ottawa  (2007) a janitor hoovers the buffalo’s window display. and in another, a giraffe is wrapped and hoisted on the end of a cable in what looks like a theater space.  Breaking the illusion of the scenes in the window also prompts us to recognize the cruelty inflicted on the animals. In Fox’s prints, a lion leaps in reaction to hunters with spears—she is skewered and obviously killed by painted hunters. The lion cannot tell the difference between illusion and reality, and we can only because Fox draws attention to it in order to underline the horror of the scene. In all of her photographs in the exhibition, the tragedy lies in the confusion of the taxidermy animal, its mistaking of the painted for reality being what leads it to its death.
Diane Fox,  Milwaukee Public Museum , Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2006

The contemporary works that follow are all sophisticated plays on the confusion of reality and illusion and a simultaneous engagement with the diorama as museum display, wax works and taxidermy window. There are works that question the human diorama as a colonial propaganda tool and the making of black men into a spectacle. Sammy Baloji for example has crafted an installation in which hunters in the Congo in the colonial days collect people and animals to be put into a museum. Or in Paris Streetscape, 2017 Mark Dion collects the trash and places it behind glass for us all to look at. His vitrine is complete with pigeons, parrots and crows feasting on the refuse made by humans. This is not quite the picture we have of Paris’s streets. Thus he undoes the idealized vision of both the diorama as a visual entertainment of enchantment and wonder, and the streetscape of Paris, the modern city that comes to life at the very same time as these forms. In addition, works such as Dion's, like many of the other contemporary installations, take on a whole new attitude towards and create a whole new meaning of ecological sustainability. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Walker Evans @ Centre Pompidou

Walker Evans, Subway Passengers, 1938
Even for those of us who are not Walker Evans fans, it’s difficult to dispute the importance of his work. However, his influence on the development of photography as art and documentary in the twentieth century is so great that there’s a risk visitors will find the current exhibition at the Centre Pompidou predictable. So much of what Evans did with the medium has become household, to the point where it’s as though many of his inventions are no longer his. Yet, there is still much to gain from a visit to this huge exhibition.
Walker Evans, County Church near Beaufort, S C, 1935
The exhibition text claims that Evans wanted to find an identity of America through his camera lens. Certainly, his images cannot be divorced from Depression-era America, even if there are elements of international modernism at work in them. It’s interesting to think about what that image of America is, particularly, as it is so clearly driven by capitalism as it was developing in the first half of the twentieth century. Evans’ focus on advertising, shop signage, window displays, objects and of course, poverty as its fall out represent the substance of his vision of America. Even though he clearly chose to photograph the everyday people, I’m not sure that Evans' sole impetus was to draw a very political image of America. Because his interest in form, structure, and replication says as much about the photograph as medium as it does about the thing being represented. Surely, the social and ideological critique is just one element of his life's work?

Walker Evans, Floyd Burroughs,
cotton sharecropper
, 1935/36
Nevertheless, the photographs still have a strong political and social message. Now Let us Praise Famous Men, Evans project with James Agee in the Depression-ridden American South includes perhaps some of his best known images. Their exposure of American poverty as the flip side of modernity was acclaimed at the time in the 1930s. For me, there’s something shocking about the same photographs today. Namely, their resonance a century later when American poverty might look different, but it is as crushing as it was following the great depression. Seeing Evans’ photographs again reminded me that even though American artists have been exposing these injustices for 100 years, the country (by which I mean those in charge) continues to ignore the unrelenting divide between rich and poor.

I did have a couple of problems with the exhibition, and the first was the display of Allie Mae Burrough’s photograph in a room of its own at the midway mark. Given Evans’ use of photography to represent everyday life, his emphasis on repetition, on the published photograph as one of thousands, placing a single image in a shrine-like display so that viewers can bestow adulation on it as if it were the Mona Lisa seems to disrespect everything about the photograph. This is a curatorial choice that reinforces the arbitrary iconic value of a single image over the thousands he produced, and thus, panders to, rather than extends, popular conceptions of art. I found it to be an extremely odd decision.
Walker Evans, Roadside Stand near Birmingham, AL, 1936
Secondly, while there is much to learn from the exhibition, particularly thanks to the sheer number of photographs on display, there could have been more transparency with regard to Evans’ process. To give an example: in arguably his most exciting and apparently most aleatory photographs, Evans took hundreds of photographs on the New York subway with a hidden camera for a project, again with James Agee, Many are Called. The 1930s photographs are striking for their raw and “honest” depictions of faces unaware of being photographed. The assumption is that because they are depicted unknowingly, their guard is down and, similarly, the photograph itself is “unmanipulated.” It is true that the photographs are touching and intimate, offering a peek inside the inner life of the subjects on the other side of the subway car. However, the exhibition makes no mention of the fact that Evans very heavily edited the photographs in production. What we see are far from the “fly on the wall” images that might otherwise be assumed.
Walker Evans, Sign into Truck, 1928-30
These flaws aside, together with the sometimes frustrating oscillation between chronological and thematic presentation of the work, as I say, it's a lovely exhibition. Evans’ meticulous and obsessive focus is made apparent through the groupings, particularly of photos of wooden houses, street signs, and portraits. That is, through the repetition across images and from theme to theme, visitors can easily identify the photographer’s concerns. In addition, because of its documentary nature, despite the huge number of photographs on display, Evans’ work is easy to look at, and the passage through the exhibition is relatively smooth. I also enjoyed seeing the way his photography consciously took the vernacular focus of documentary photography and made it into art, again something that is revealed across obsessive repetitions from theme to theme and photo to photo. And lastly, even for those who think that they have seen these photographs before, Evans’ analogue images yield much more in the flesh. Thanks to the cameras he used and his production process, the images don’t have the slickness or size of those of most art photographers working today. This gives them a delicacy and an intimacy that cannot be reproduced in books.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Gregory Crewdson Cathedral of the Pines @ The Photographers' Gallery, London

Gregory Crewdson, The Shed, 2013
For the first time, the Photographer’s Gallery in London has given three floors of exhibition space to a single artist. And to mark the occasion, they have chosen Gregory Crewdson’s creepy, visually sophisticated, photographs from Cathedral of the Pines. As I seemed to do everywhere I went in London last weekend, I started at the end. Which, in the case of Crewdson’s photographs, made the experience even more unsettling. Beginning on the second floor, I was thrown by the early images in which naked women with aging bodies stand in deliberately staged postures contemplating something to which we as the viewer have no access. “What on earth is going on here?” I kept asking myself. Soon realizing I was not going to figure out what had happened at this scene of the crime, I started searching for clues of what the photographs were doing.
Gregory Crewdson, Beneath the Bridge, 2014

I began to realize that my inability to understand why the figure was standing naked, surrounded by nature and often near a decayed or abandoned structure, but showing little concern or anxiety despite the apparent threat was indeed the point. Even before thinking about where they are placed, the bodies themselves are unsettling: they are often aging, deformed, misshapen, and some of them even have the trace of death. And then, we realize, the figures don’t belong in the wilderness of nature in which they find themselves. Clearly, something has happened, but it is as through it happened elsewhere, in a different narrative, in a different life even. Perhaps the figure is a ghost, or a fantasy, that has wandered into the wrong time and space? The displacement in the photographic image gives it a sense of temporality it can’t otherwise have. Because photography is about stillness and death, about a moment frozen in time. And yet, in Crewdson’s images, photography captures ongoing narratives from different eras, different places and spaces. This is what makes them so unsettling. The water flowing at the bottom of a landscape is like oil or another thick glutinous fluid, churned up by a photographic production process as it is transformed into something else. Again, the water gives away the time lapse photography that is clearly part of the production process, and simultaneously, sees photography do something technically out of its reach: transform the everyday into the supernatural, mythical or otherworldly.
Gregory Crewdson, Reclining Woman on Sofa, 2014
There is a lot of nakedness, but very little vulnerability in these images. The figures are in command of their bodies, contained and in contemplation, making them closed off from the world they are in. They are not bothered by the presence of the viewer, and neither are they threatened by their environment or the others in their image. This contemplation through posing speaks to the performance, the staging of the mise-en-scène that makes the photographs like films (again the temporal longevity captured by the photograph). Apparently, Crewdson uses a crew of 15 produce images, a production process that again, pushes at the boundaries of the photographic and its claims for truth, for a kind of evidence of that which it sees. Clearly, there is much more happening in Crewdson’s images than can be instantaneously articulated.
Gregory Crewdson, Pickup Truck, 2014
From a formal point of view, the perspective is also unsettling. The images are placed on the walls at an uncomfortable height, a little low, so that we look down at the grass, the river, or the snow in the foreground of each image. They are, I realize halfway through the exhibition, placed as if they are windows for us to look through. We are thus standing inside the structures, looking into those that entrap the participants in the image. Windows, doors, mirrors, even water in the form of rivers are all conventionally used to open out the image, both to the spaces that cannot be included within the frame, and to the world beyond that of the photographic (or painted) mise-en-scène. And yet, in Crewdson’s images, mirrors and other reflective surfaces are always used to close down the space – there is no way out of even the opening in the forest in which the scenes are staged. If something can be seen through the window, it is either more of the same, more of what is inside, or it is a forest, out of which it is unlikely there will be a way out. When the figures are inside and we look through windows at them, it’s the same. They become the image in the window through which we look, but of course, it is a window that opens up to nothing. And yet, to reiterate, everyone is at ease, in contemplation, unthreatened. And so, these spaces of entrapment are simultaneously places of safety and protection.
Gregory Crewdson, Woman at Sink, 2014
The photographs are also highly political, even though at first glance they may seem like fairytale fantasies. Because in the middle of the forest, the structures are always abandoned, cars look as though they are broken down, vans look as though they have been appropriated as homes for poor people. The world in the image is always that of the lower classes, even when the landscape is classless. The iconography of the environments – trailers, underneath of bridges, wooden houses, old cars, outhouses – tells of poverty. Again, the unsettling placement of the viewer in relationship to the images gradually reveals itself as replicated within the photograph. This is the American Dream gone horribly wrong. Even if the locations are placeless, they reek of homes and families, people who never connect, and who are isolated in their contemplative reflections. If ever we thought that the American dream was within reach, these photographs remind us that it was only ever a fantasy.