Exhibitions

I’ve built up a backlog of exhibitions on which to post comments. In order to address this, I am going to try to set appropriate expectations so that the comments can be short and focused. As these are for the CRJ, I am going to focus specifically on the relationship between the exhibition and the development of my own practice, in general, and, in particular, on the development of my final project (and associated work). That also means thinking about the form and design of the exhibition, which I haven’t much considered before. I also want to use it as the beginnings of a kind of database of exhibition related resources. So, to get to grips with the scope of the catching up exercise, here are some of the exhibitions I’ve been to since starting the course in May (plus Another Kind of Life, which was a bit before, but I am revisiting in print now), on which I will post something over the next couple of weeks.

05.04.18 Barbican, London. Another Kind of Life

04.05.18 Fotografiska, Stockholm

Christian Tagliavini, The Extraordinary World of Christian Tagliavini

Hans Strand, Manmade Land

Anna Clarén, When Everything Changed

02.06.18 UNSW Gallery, Sydney. Christian Thompson, Ritual Intimacy

03.06.18 NSW State Library, Sydney. World Press Photo 2018

03.07.18 Photographers Gallery, London

Trish Murtha,  Works 1976-1991

Alex Prager, Silver Lake Drive

25.07.18 Barbican, London. Dorethea Lange/Vanessa Winship

01.08.18 Tate, London. Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art

07.08.18 Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris. Junya Ishigami, Freeing Architecture

08.08.18 La Villette, Paris. TeamLab, Beyond Borders

08.08.18 Pompidou Centre, Paris. Ryoji Ikeda, continuum

 

Reflection on Barthes on/and/in photography

Whilst it is unsurprising that Barthes is very widely cited in photographic theory and by practitioners (having dedicated a book to analysis of photography), coming to this with a familiarity with his work from other disciplines (sociology, cultural theory, linguistics), it is interesting that the form of this influence is tangential to, from my viewpoint, his major contribution to 20th Century thought. Camera Lucida, published just months before his untimely death in a traffic accident, for a large part, focuses on subjective responses to photographic images. The early sections draw heavily of the language of semiotic analysis (to which Barthes’ contribution has been remarkable, and has left a mark on diverse areas of scholarship, research and practice). In fact, it is difficult to see how much sense can be made of some of these sections without some knowledge of semiotics. This passes quickly (with periodic reprise, through the ebb and flow of unexplained semiotic analysis and personal reflection), however, and through the application of the distinction between studium and punctum, focus shifts from semiosis to interest, rumination and emotional response.

The question here is, do we actually need Barthes (the semiotician) in order to think through the relationship between our image making and the interest of the reader? What exactly is, for instance, Idris Khan saying, in describing how he made his composite images, when he states that ‘I used 70 to 100 images for each picture. I wouldn’t necessarily take the whole image, but fragments of images, and bring them together on the computer. I would try to choose something that really stands out in the photograph. Roland Barthes called it the punctum’ (New York Times Magazine, 2012)? What is gained by invoking Barthes (to say that in selecting parts of images, Khan looks for those which are likely to be of interest to the viewer), and what does Barthes have to offer in understanding the appeal and impact of Khan’s work? The idea of the punctum, certainly as it appears to be understood by many photographers, sits apart from Barthes’ theory and analytic method. So having invoked Barthes, there is nothing of further value to be gained from engaging with his work in making sense of these particular images. Khan undermines his own apparent point, as Barthes places the punctum beyond the direct control of the photographer.

Barthes’ analysis of this particular aspect of the photographic image, besides providing a ready at hand point of reference for a relatively mundane (as utilised but not as conceived) concept (outside the wider semiotic project), thus offers little scope for development. That sits in contrast to the richness of forms of semiotic analysis, which flow from his conception of the sign and the processes of signification, and the exemplary cultural analyses that he offers. So, to what extent do we need Barthes to say that an image has a visceral point of interest to a reader? And is there more that we can gain from engagement with the more challenging, and conceptually developed, aspects of his work?

As a work within the corpus of Barthes’ writing, Camera Lucida stands as an example of application and extension of his method, not as an induction into the form of analysis and the concepts on which this is founded. This poses a problem for those with a specific interest in photography, but without a grounding in semiotics. The book has clearly entered the corpus of ‘critical theory’ in the study of photography and acts as a point of reference in photographic discourse (as in Khan’s commentary on his own work), but isolated from its intellectual base (as a lone reference to Barthes work, and semiotics, and its extensions, more widely), can offer only a truncated resource for critical and analytical discourse. The citation signifies a form of familiarity with ‘theory’, but is otherwise empty of meaning. There is so much more to be gained from engagement with Barthes.

Pretty as a Thousand Postcards, The New York Times Magazine, 1st March, 2012 , http://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/03/01/magazine/idris-khan-london.html?_r=0

The challenge of storytelling

As a primary school teacher, I used to keep a collection of images (postcards, photographs, cuttings from magazines mounted on card, and so on) to act as a stimulus for imaginative writing. The task was to draw four cards at random, look at and think carefully about them, form a sequence, and then write a story that in some way brings the four images together. The story was a construct of the reader come writer, and not inherent in the images themselves. Close to forty years on, I find that photographers commonly state that through their images they are attempting to tell stories. At the level of intention, this makes some sense, in that, through engagement with the world they can make, select and sequence images in such a way to, they hope, convey a sense of related events, or a set of relationships or circumstances. The reader then has to reconstruct that narrative, or at least some kind of narrative, through their engagement with the images. The question here is, to what extent is this possible without some prior knowledge or experience of that which is presented in the images, or, lacking this, some set of assumptions about the lifeworld or circumstances being presented?

This bears resemblance to making sense of metaphors. In trying to convey some notion, for instance, of what a fraction is, I can say that a fraction is like a slice of cake. Yum. But what particular qualities of a slice of cake do I wish to invoke, and associate with a fraction, through the metaphor. We, you and I, as readers, clearly have a idea of what a fraction is, and in what sense it resembles a slice of cake. But without already having this, possibly only vaguely formed, notion, what sense can we make of the metaphor? And, beyond that, how prepared are we for the utility of that understanding to collapse when we start to try to do things like multiply and divide fractions (this is like no cake I have ever known). The point here is to raise the question of the extent to which storytelling through images can do any more than reinforce already existing understandings (or prejudices), that is, can only tell stories that we (as readers) already know, or think we know?

Rather than lead us down a dead end, we can turn this into a challenge. What might we do to produce images that have the potential to transform, challenge, enlarge or enhance the understanding of the reader (in a fundamental sense, not just giving detail or texture to existing knowledge, such as the knowledge of Russian dress gained by Barthes (1981) from engagement with William Klein’s Moscow photographs)? One approach might be to consider storytelling as the primary practice, and photographic images as a principal (and not necessarily sole) resource. We might also consider what, distinctively, photographic images (and different modes of presentation of these images) can add to the practice of storytelling, and how the different resources available to storytellers can work together, particularly in creating an experience that shifts us away from the familiar and subverts the habitual.

Juxtaposition of images provides one resource for constructing, or invoking, a narrative, for instance in Esther Teichmann’s installations . Looking at these, however, leads to me to turn the relationship between images and storytelling around again, and place both as alternative means of enhancing understanding or addressing the ineffable, and each can draw on the other to that end. The story need not act as an intermediary between the images and the affect.

Barthes, R. (1981). Camera Lucida. New York: Hill and Wang.

Esther Teichmann, http://www.estherteichmann.com

 

Public private writing

I am still struggling with the idea of producing a reflective journal that is both a public document and a component in the assessment of an award bearing course. This struggle is both intellectual (I am having difficulty in getting my head around it) and emotional (I am not sure about how I feel about it). I am not going to be able to resolve these struggles here, but should, at least, produce a practical resolution (how I am going to deal with it). And, of course, that resolution might only be momentary, and subject to revision as I progress through.

The simplest resolution might appear to be performative. Treat successful completion of the degree as the primary function, and manicure the postings to project the image of a successful student. This is a tried and tested approach to any form of reflective journal (I am relatively sure that Erica McWilliam has written something about this in relation to the journals produced by beginning teachers, which I need to check). It is high risk, though, as, to be successful, it requires the writer to have a clear sense of the principles of assessment of the programme (what are the assessors looking for), and the ability to produce appropriate evidence. So, to a degree, you have to be an adept to be able to produce a text that passes as that of a successful student. And there are complexities as the tacit criteria might require failure (and recovery) as part of the process. That is that, the writer may have to walk the tightrope of manufacturing a sufficient vulnerability on the path to ultimate success. There may also be a requirement for a degree of perceived authenticity, or revelation of a sufficient sense of self to authenticate the postings (bearing a watermark). A thought about blockchain technology has just come to mind, where ‘who you are’ is encoded and preserved for future authentication (though that is an excessively static conception of self). I’m not going to pursue that here. Anyway, here we are only addressing the inward (course assessment) element of the journal. Managing this alongside projection of a public persona  adds a further, very demanding, level of complexity.

This is, in any case, an excessively cynical approach, to my mind, and there is the strong odour of bad faith. However, it does not have to be a total strategy, and in making any statement in this kind of environment there will always be a degree of self-checking (what are the consequences of publishing this?). So performativity as a total strategy stinks, but a degree of performativity (a manicured projection of self) is inevitable. The act of writing (and the reflection that that involves) means that we can never just ‘get it all out there’. Writing requires selection and expression and slows things down, though tweeting clearly allows people to just ‘blurt it out’ (to millions of others in some cases). This is not the place to wrestle with Derrida (there’s a post coming on that in due course).

To bring this post to a hasty conclusion, I think my approach is to treat this as a genuinely educational opportunity. To formulate and convey emerging thoughts and practices in a new (for me) domain of endeavour produces something to think about that moves practice forward in, potentially, dialogue and engagement with fellow travellers. To do otherwise is a lost opportunity to learn. Of course, to learn is the primary objective for me in doing this course, and the stakes are relatively low in that there are no professional or life-chance consequences to success or failure (and only a few personal consequences, mostly related to self-esteem). To a degree, posting to the blog enables me to formalise and organise my thinking, to put down markers and to remember (and there will be a post on memory ‘prosthetics’; aids to supplement ageing cognitive functioning). It is a place to build something in public view.

Why not do this in private? That, maybe, is to do with the positive pressure that the public exposure exerts to take some care in expressing thoughts (but not the degree of care needed for a published paper or book). And it provides a framework for organisation of thoughts and experiences around a particular project (growing as a photographer, and understanding the field), that might also offer something of value to others. And memory is important, too (‘but you said …’). How do I feel about the bleeding out of what is written here to other domains of practice? That’s uncertain. This is for a pedagogic purpose, and it is about exploration not exposition. It’s a supplement to, not replacement of, identity and practice in other areas of life.

Artists on the cutting room floor

Putting together the draft presentation for this module provoked me to think about my engagement with the work of particular artists. I can’t say artists that have influenced me, as I don’t, as yet, have a sufficiently mature practice to have been influenced. These are artists that I have encountered as a viewer, and have been engaged by their work. None of this will go into the presentation, but I want to continue to think about my relationship with particular bodies of work, so some simple blog posts might help to do this.

The artists that immediately came to mind were: Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, Helen Chadwick, Peter Greenaway, Simon Hantai, Richard Long and Keith Arnatt. In each case there are either particular exhibitions or particular works that have left an impression (sometimes both, the latter leading to the former or vice versa). All except Hantai have produced photographic work. It would be mundane to just take the artist and write about them, and this kind of cataloguing wouldn’t provide a sufficient motivation for me to do it. Rather, I will take a theme to explore in each case. First throughs are: blur (Richter), myth (Twombly), self (Chadwick), process (Hantai), classification (Greenaway), movement (Long) and performance (Arnatt). But that might change. And there are others in the waiting room.

Global image

This is the image I have chosen to present (in addition to the ‘re-make’ images) for the Week One online seminar. The photographs were taken in a ‘hard to reach’ school (i.e, one that takes days to get to from the city, and, if it rains, can take much longer to get back from) in 2001 when I was working with the Ministry of Education in Bangladesh. The degraded black and white image makes it difficult to place the photographs in time. The images also have a painterly quality, which challenges the aspiration to mechanical (and now digital) veracity. The activity and objects depicted (books, schoolrooms and literacy practices) also span the history of photography (with mass schooling, based very much around literacy, numeracy and the regulation of behaviour, developing in the UK, through the school boards, from the mid-nineteenth century). Literacy is also particularly important for me; I didn’t learn to read until the age of 8, and when I did, it totally transformed my life, and has shaped my subsequent trajectory. In the case of Bangladesh, and other similar contexts, female schooling and literacy is particularly important. In presenting the images, I wanted to experiment with the triptych format, which invokes an earlier, pre-photographic (and pre-industrial) era in the west.

Christian Thompson, Ritual Intimacy

In a recent trip to Sydney, I went to the Christian Thompson exhibition Ritual Intimacy at the UNSW Gallery. Thompson describes his work as ‘auto-ethnographic’. He features (indeed, is the primary focus of) almost every image (and performance piece) in the exhibition, which explores dimensions of identity and relationship with community, culture and language. As part of his PhD studies at the University of Oxford (he was one of the first two Aboriginal Australians to be admitted in the history of the university) he engaged with a collection of nineteenth century images of Aboriginal people held in the ethnographic collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum. As Marina Warner observes in the exhibition catalogue ‘images of non-Western people were collected as ‘specimens’ rather than as fine art objects or portraits of individuals, and were therefore not assigned to the photography archives at the National Portrait Gallery or the Victoria and Albert Museum’ (Warner, 2017, pp. 64-5). From this, Thompson produced a series of images entitled We Bury Our Own. Wary of re-appropriating, and re-vivifying, the troubling, and fundamentally racist, images, he adopted an approach of ‘spiritual repatriation’, in which he engages with and responds to the artifacts and images held by the museum, without reproducing them. For the Week One task, I chose to re-make the image Danger Will Come, a response by Thompson to a daguerreotype of an Aboriginal man from the 1860s. I have incorporated the current exhibition catalogue showing a plate of Danger Will Come in my image. The re-making, I hope (as best I can in a hotel room), highlights the ironic and paradoxical circulation of contemporary images in the gallery system, and the consequent danger(s) of colonial re-appropriation. In relation to the global images theme of the first week, we have three layers of global image: the initial (unseen by us) objectifying anthropological trophy image, bringing news from distant lands, its spiritual repatriation by an Aboriginal Australian (global) contemporary artist and its pedagogic re-making in a task for an online (international) higher degree programme. There are a number of themes to explore further in the development of my own practice. In relation to my MA project, the relationship of Aboriginal people to the land is clearly important to understand, particularly if I am to explore ‘edgelands’ and ‘non-places’ in Australia as part of this work. More broadly, there are issues relating to auto-ethnography, identity, community and experience to explore, and the fundamental challenge to western conceptions posed by indigenous forms of knowledge.

Christian Thompson, We Bury Our Own [Exhibition], Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, 26th June 2012 – 17th February 2013, https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/christianthompson.html (last accessed 5.6.18)

Christian Thompson, Ritual Intimacy [Exhibition], Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 27th April-8th July 2017, Griffith University Art Gallery, Brisbane, 20th July-23rd September 2017, UNSW Galleries, Sydney, 4th May-28th July 2018.

Warner, M. (2017), ‘Magical Aesthetics’, in Christian Thompson et al, Ritual Intimacy, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne pp. 63-76.

First post

I’m not convinced that, in fact, the first cut is the deepest, but certainly the first blog post feels like the toughest (as does the first note in a notebook, or the first paragraph of a essay, or anything that potentially soils an as yet clean page, and which sets a path that can never totally be erased). Anyway, I’m going to use this ‘first post’ to reflect on the transition to being a student. Of course, it’s not transition at all. To an extent, I’ve always been a student. The nature of my work, as an academic, teacher and researcher, places me constantly in the position of a learner (in a positive sense) and (more negatively) as constantly lacking (in the face of the lecture to be prepared, the paper to be written, the data to be analysed, the thesis to be read, the essay to be marked – homework never completed to satisfaction). The dread feeling of not being adequately prepared for what is to come is disconcertingly familiar, as is the counterbalancing excitement of potential engagement with new ways of thinking, experiencing, doing and being. So, not so much a transition to a new identity, but a supplement, and a shifting of the locus of control, risk and uncertainty. The first post sets us off into a forest of unknown unknowns. Should I enable the breadcrumb widget? So much to learn, even before the programme starts. Must be quick to post some more to bury this short text. There’s the motivation.