Archive for the ‘Convergences’ Category

Revisiting the Valley of the Shadow of Death

June 22, 2009
Roger Fenton, Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855; Courtesy Getty Museum

Roger Fenton, Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855; Courtesy Getty Museum

Often cited as the first war photographer, Roger Fenton was dispatched to photograph the Crimean War in 1855 at the behest of publisher Thomas Agnew. Documenting a widely unpopular military campaign, Fenton avoided turning his lens upon the destruction produced by the theater of war. The slow exposures and photographic technology of the time were prohibitive in freezing any motion and actions, making depiction of actual scenes of battle impossible. But whether by editorial bias or his general Victorian sensibilities, unlike his counterparts in the American Civil War, Fenton declined to make images of the dead and wounded. The resulting exhibition of photographs from over 300 wet plate negatives primarily depicted portraits of soldiers in camp, as well as the barren plains upon which they pitched their tents.

Fenton’s most famous photograph, Valley of the Shadow of Death, of which there are two exposures, was taken in the Crimea. A Martian landscape recedes before the camera, the packed dirt road winding to the distance, pocked by scattered cannonballs lying in the ruts and gutters. No tree breaks the horizon, no solitary figure wanders the road. For a photograph of a war zone it is remarkably silent; I imagine not the sound of cannon fire, but perhaps merely the low whistle of the wind. It is an image of a landscape devastated, admitting no life. Fenton adopted the soldiers’ name for the valley, evocative in its Biblical associations. The 21st century viewer might call to mind Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic settings in the American west.

This image has captivated subsequent historians and photographers alike (witness Errol Morris’s recent investigations into Fenton’s “stagecraft” of the photograph), so it is worth considering what about the image is noteworthy. As suggested earlier, Fenton’s work does not easily fit into a modern conception of war photography, marked as that genre is by notions of the event and action. Instead it is truly a landscape photograph, conforming to certain conventions, and suggestive of an archetypal quality even in its specific elements. It is exceedingly spare and elegantly composed, seeming to admit no extraneous details in order to communicate an idea of the landscape through a great economy of means. This restraint, I believe, is what makes the image so iconic. Thinking reductively, the contents of the picture can be cataloged thus: earth, horizon, road, cannonballs. Its very title speaks of death, and of an epic suffering, but also of divine faith (23rd Psalm).

Joe Deal, Road Cut (Homage to Roger Fenton) Diamond Bar, California, 1984; Courtesy Robert Mann Gallery, New York

Joe Deal, Road Cut (Homage to Roger Fenton) Diamond Bar, California, 1984; Courtesy Robert Mann Gallery, New York

Spare and understated, formally precise by with a minimum of inflection, and certainly depicting a “Man-Altered Landscape,” it comes as no surprise that Fenton’s picture was echoed over a hundred years later by one of the principal artists associated with the New Topographics style. Working on his surveys of suburban development in Southern California, Joe Deal made Road Cut (Homage to Roger Fenton) Diamond Bar, California, 1984.

Deal’s homage shares many of the same elements as Valley of the Shadow of Death, so it is illuminating to see where they differ, and how Deal’s citation of photographic history suggests the stakes of his own project. As with Fenton’s photograph, Deal’s relies on information provided by the title to endow the image with meaning, both in the invocation of Fenton and in the naming of the “road cut.” Deal replaces the cannonballs of the 19th century with the moist dirt clods of suburban development—his is not a landscape that bares witness to violence, it is a landscape under attack—the “cut” of the title a scar across a hillside, marked by human disturbance. In Fenton’s picture there are artifacts of violence whereas in Deal’s there are traces.

25 years after Deal plodded the subdivisions around Los Angeles, the political contexts of the work of Sophie Ristelhueber and Guy Tillim are considerably different, but they also make use of the iconic status of Fenton’s photograph in order to buttress their own notions of landscape and war.

Sophie Ristelhueber, WB #48, 2005; Courtesy Blancpain Art Contemporain, Geneva

Sophie Ristelhueber, WB #48, 2005; Courtesy Blancpain Art Contemporain, Geneva

Ristelhueber’s series WB depicts roadblocks in the West Bank. A number of photographs in the series resemble Valley of the Shadow of Death, but WB #48, 2005 most explicitly echoes the composition of Fenton’s picture. Like Deal’s photograph, cannonballs have been replaced by earthen matter, here rocks and boulders lining the road and finally piled into a barrier. If Deal’s image depicted a landscape disrupted by human development, here human action has folded the landscape back upon itself, negating the earlier action that created the road. But if it is a return it is hardly an innocent one. One hardly needs the presence of cannonballs to understand (again aided by the knowledge that this is the West Bank) that this is a contested landscape. In this sense we can also consider Ristelhueber’s well-known photographs of scarred human flesh to be landscape pictures.

Guy Tillim, Game of petanque, Porto Novo, Benin, 2007; Courtesy Michael Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town

Guy Tillim, Game of petanque, Porto Novo, Benin, 2007; Courtesy Michael Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town

Guy Tillim’s photograph Game of petanque, Porto Novo, Benin, 2007 comes from the series Avenue Patrice Lumumba. With this body of work Tillim photographed across Sub-Saharan Africa, where many avenues, streets and city squares are named after the assassinated leader who remains an icon of post-colonial nationalism. In many ways the citation and relationship of this image is an inversion of the negative connotations at play in the previous photographs. It shares many of the pictorial conventions again, but with significant reversals. Notably the landscape is urban, rather than suburban or rural, and depicts a person, barely encroaching on the edge of the frame to let us know this is a scene that is unquestionably populated and existing in a specific moment. Also of note is the motion blur of one of the petanque balls; whereas the photographs by Fenton and Ristelhueber suggest stasis, crucially this is a landscape as yet in motion, dynamic and unfolding in its potential. (Deal’s landscape seems a fresh wound, not entirely realized, and speaking of further disruptions to come.) While the cannons, dirt clods and roadblocks are explicit in their forms of violence, the petanque balls are much more ambiguous. On the one hand they evoke play and forms of conviviality and leisure. But also lurking is the subtext of colonialism, the game itself a legacy of French rule in Benin. For all of the promise and subsequent strife of post-colonial African politcs, this is a landscape still very much open to determination.

Each of the photographs by Deal, Ristelhueber and Tillim builds upon the citational politics of Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death. But taken as a whole, they each propose politicized views of landscape through their pictorial means. At the heart of these images is the road, a social space constituted by bodies in transit. Formally it introduces depth, and according to a classical pictorial conception of landscape allows the viewer to follow a path into the picture, and ultimately into the world created by the camera. In Fenton’s version (and according to his narration of the day) the road was too dangerous to admit passage. Deal’s subdivision speaks of the inevitability of more roads, more houses, and more development, and eventually those families who will make their homes there. Ristelhueber’s landscape has already foreclosed admission; it denies movement to marked bodies. Finally, Tillim shows a public space still carrying the legacy of its past, but with a potential for advancement into the future, a battlefield morphed into a public space of convergence. Each picture is therefore a question of passage and the politics of movement within a landscape: at the most basic, who can go where? It is a small leap to then consider border disputes as well as notions of property and sovereignty, urban planning and ecology, as being related to notions of landscape. In introducing questions of violence and access into the discussion of landscape, we can begin to examine the political potential of the genre.

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Picturing Monument Valley: Cindy Sherman and Martin Kippenberger

May 4, 2009
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #43, 1979

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #43, 1979

Certain discourses in contemporary art frequently arrive at a critique of Fordist production, but the term usually references automotive factories rather than Western films. Currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art are two works by significant contemporary artists, each self-consciously engaging the iconic landscape of Monument Valley, the preferred backdrop to many a John Ford film. In their respective works Untitled Film Still #43 and If You Can’t Handle Freedom, Try Seeing How Far You Can Get With Women, Part I, Cindy Sherman and Martin Kippenberger each make photographic portraits of themselves deliberately engaging the generic conventions associated with the Western landscape in cinematic representation.

Sherman’s 1979 Untitled Film Still #43 is included in the photography exhibition Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West. The image has been used extensively in promotional materials for the exhibition, adorning poster’s on the subway and the homepage of the museum’s website. The corresponding image by Kippenberger (only one of ten photograph’s making up If You Can’t Handle…, and part of the retrospective exhibition Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective) is also likely familiar to many readers, as it enjoyed cover placement for the February issue of Artforum. While Sherman’s #43 was made in 1979, Kippenberger’s piece comes from 1984, and there is a knowingness that suggests that he is directly citing Sherman’s earlier photograph. Discussing If you can’t handle…, George Baker’s review in Artforum points out, “Kippenberger would offer – perhaps in ironic, backhanded solidarity with the “women” of his title, if artists like Cindy Sherman are to be taken among them – an autotypology of male-artist clichés: so many portraits of Kippenberger as tourist, criminal, drunk, well-hung exhibitionist, rock star, cowboy, prankster, bohemian, or inept terrorist.”

Both Sherman and Kippenberger thrive on the generic and the cliché; what better location than Monument Valley: a site that is eternally a picture, ripe with associative possibilities. Against this backdrop it is interesting to consider the similarities and differences in how each artist has staged their photograph. Sherman appears in period dress, barefoot astride a gnarled, ancient desert juniper. Absurdly coifed hair frames her familiar face (Sherman’s photographs are all of her, and yet she is in none of them), chin uptilt, one armed suggestively braced on the bough of the tree between her legs. One wonders whether her coach or home is nearby, explaining her bare feet? But no, Monument Valley is always passed through; it is a site on the way to other places, to other areas of civilization and development. As such it is a battleground and proving place, most generally in which the masculine hero asserts himself. The female role then is one of general passivity, waiting in the shade to be rescued perhaps. And yet Sherman’s photograph implies no such narrative possibilities—we simply glean them from the iconic backdrop. It is a picture out of action, Sherman’s character seeming to exist only for the purpose of being at subject to be looked at, simultaneously available and yet vacant.

Artforum, February 2009: Martin Kippenberger

Artforum, February 2009: Martin Kippenberger

By contrast Kippenberger is framed out in the open, astride a (too-small) stead. He would seem to be placed in the space of action in which the male is tested, and yet we also guess that Kippy is merely at the edge of a parking lot or highway turnout, riding a rented pony intended for the children who spill out of Winnebagos. Saddled in, the artist wears a mohair wool sweater and black slacks along with his incongruous cowboy boots rested in the stirrups. He looks stridently out across one horizon, highlighting his jaw and earnestly attempting to look the part of John Wayne. But the sad-faced horse and eurotrash costume are too much. It is a failed enactment of the cowboy Western. Yet it is helpful to recall the Germanic affinity for Cowboy and Indian narratives, as well as Kippenberger’s own failed attempt to become a movie star, strangely enough in Florence, Italy. Describing the dubious culinary taste implied by “Italian pasta made for a German palate in the City of Angels,” Baker mentions Kippenberger’s habit of calling pasta “noodles.” Appropriately, this photograph might be his Noodle Western. As Baker points out, one of Kippenberger’s primary aesthetic strategies is inversion and negation.

We might then consider Kippenberger to be deliberately inverting Sherman’s photograph, at taking up the guise of the male hero to her female object of desire. But we see it to be a poor masquerade, and Kippy certainly knows it as well. But that wouldn’t stop him from trying.

Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West is on view through June 8.

Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective is up through May 11.

Killed Negatives: Lisa Oppenheim and Etienne Chambaud

February 20, 2009

I am frequently drawn to occasions when artists arrive at similar results in response to very different modes of inquiry. To use a term from evolutionary science, this might be called convergence.

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Etienne Chambaud: Personne, 2008

Both Etienne Chambaud and Lisa Oppenheim have recently created work using the publicly accessible Farm Security Administration archive of the Library of Congress, specifically appropriating “killed negatives” by Walker Evans. Killed negatives were those rejected by the Farm Security Administration (early on program administrator Roy Stryker was primarily responsible for editing contact sheets); often variants of other images, these negatives were punched through with a hole to destroy their reproductive capacity.

Chambaud’s recent exhibition A brief history of the twentieth century used one of these killed negatives as the turn key to the rest of the show. Titled Personne, 2008, Chambaud sees the subject as a (now) nearly 100 year old child, and says that the exhibition is made for Personne. The artist has re-presented this killed negative, but has chosen to print the negative as a lenticular print. Seen from one angle, the scar of the punched hole is black. Seen from another the hole is white, dissolving in the bleached out details of the child’s shirt. As if by magic, the photo editor’s bullet hole seems to disappear. Chambaud performs a resurrection of the image. Personne as object and as protagonist provide a framework for entering an exhibition which takes a series of fragments and interrogates their representational capacity. In the press release Chambaud writes, “the question is of the object of the objects presented here, in the way these objects unveil or hide, conceal or expose theirselves, in the way some are reflected in others, luminate or simply regard them.” (sic, translated from the French)

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Lisa Oppenheim: Killed Negatives: After Walker Evans (Corn 2), 2007

Lisa Oppenheim’s series Killed Negatives: After Walker Evans similarly works from the abandoned negatives. Oppenheim re-photographs at or near the location of the original image. She then apparently re-enacts the killing of her own negatives, leaving a punched out hole. This is then printed, with the “chad” placed in the same position as its inverse in the original Walker Evans image that Oppenheim prints. This process of reconstruction creates a complex circuit of temporalities. In contrast to Chambaud she is not “resurrecting” the image; in fact she performs the same violence on the negative, but then rescues the inverse space—the excised chad. This is further complicated by a number of strategies. Oppenheim sometimes presents multiple variants of her modern exposures. Evans’s images are from black and white negatives, Oppenheim’s are color. And of course, by analogue means she could never arrive at a perfect replacement for the excised chad of the original negative. Oppenheim’s presentation acknowledges this as she does not attempt to overlay the two image fragments—rather than a purposed unity, multiple possibilities are invoked. The title of the works quotes Sherrie Levine’s now canonical series, but one senses that the “after” of the title emphasizes a temporal relation, as well as suggesting the artist “chasing after” Evans.

Both artists clearly share an interest in the archeology of visual culture and highlight the subjective processes which have left these images out of the dominant, official histories. But Chambaud is less concerned with material (or medium) specificity than in the overall theoretical underpinnings put into play by the constituent parts of an exhibition. By contrast Oppenheim’s investigations are explicitly photographic. The checklist information explicitly notes that the photographs are “hand printed,” another anachronism in comparison to the technological sophistication of Chambaud’s lenticular print.

Etienne Chambaud is currently exhibiting at the Palais de Tokyo. Lisa Oppenheim co-curated A Twilight Art at Harris Lieberman, reviewed here, up through February 28.