Archive for the ‘Longer Review’ Category

Bolaño Decompression

April 25, 2009

I finished The Savage Detectives on the flight back from Los Angeles Monday night, thus ending my sustained encounter with Bolaño’s longer novels. (I read 2666 in an exhilarating 11 days in January.) The first of piece of his fiction I read was an excerpt from Nazi Literature of the Americas, published in Harper’s Readings section in March 2008. The Savage Detectives was published in November 2007, so I imagine I’d heard the buzz by the time I read “Luz Mendiluce Thompson.” This sharp, ironic portrait of an exiled Nazi poet reflects Bolaño’s ongoing interest in literary hagiography, not least a self-constructed one. Indeed, I’ll admit to being leery towards the cult of personality surrounding Bolaño, one that was cultivated and tended during his lifetime.

“Luz Mendiluce Thompson” owes a lot to the fictional reviews, biographies and re-writes of Jorge Luis Borges—to whom Bolaño acknowledges a great debt, along with Julio Cortázar. But it also adds another layer in its acknowledgement of the close relationship between literature and politics that is central to 20th century Latin American culture. The Savage Detectives satirizes many of the entrenched relationships between oppressive governments and the hacks willing to write paeans in exchange for salaried appointments and protection. For those not completely versed in this particular cultural history (myself included) it can be dizzying to track who is on which side of the Octavio Paz debates, evidently the most important aesthetic and ideological demarcation for a poet in the milieu of Mexico City circa Bolaño.

26662666 swirls around a violent moral abyss, while The Savage Detectives instead focuses on losses in literature and love—a bildungs roman both of its protagonists and of a generation. 2666 begins similarly with “The Part about the Critics,” but becomes increasingly ominous before descending into the unflinching litany of murders with “The Part about the Crimes,” a catalogue of the hundreds of women in Santa Teresa (Ciudad Juárez)that are mysteriously killed as though through a conspiracy in which an entire culture is complicit. A number of reviewers have described this long section, with only minimal advances in plot, as difficult and slow, but almost all agree that it is the core of the book. Jonathan Lethem sums it up brilliantly:

If the word “unflinching” didn’t exist I’d invent it to describe these nearly 300 pages, yet Bolaño never completely abandons those reserves of lyricism and irony that make the sequence as transporting as it is grueling. The nearest comparison may be to Haruki Murakami’s shattering fugue on Japanese military atrocities in Mongolia, which sounds the moral depths in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Bolaño’s method, like Murakami’s, encapsulates and disgorges dream and fantasy, at no cost to the penetration of his realism.

Like Murakami, Bolaño describes a world unhinged. Although the five parts of 2666 are each arguably capable of standing alone, the totality is awesome; the very structure seems calculatedly perfect. But the very notion of the novel’s structure and Bolaño’s intentions are open to dispute. The Frieze editors’ blog recently included a post (via AFC Fresh Links) about the ethics of posthumous publishing in relation to the recent discovery of two additional manuscripts of novels by Bolaño, as well as what is thought to be a sixth part of 2666. This first made headlines over a month ago, so it is unclear why Sam Thorne is writing about it just now, but for my purposes it is timely.

Hypertextual dialogues abound within Bolaño’s ouevre, so it might be appropriate to disregard the boundaries of each book’s cover. The very notion of a proper form for his work may be irrelevant in considering Bolaño’s literary project. Bolaño’s notes evidently suggest that 2666’s narrator was intended to be Arturo Belano, a stand-in author and one of the picaresque protagonists of The Savage Detectives. While the year 2666 is never mentioned in the actual book, reviewers frequently point out that it does appear in his novella Amulet. What they also fail to mention is that it is alluded to in The Savage Detectives. The last section of that earlier novel finds the young visceral realist poets in Sonora (the setting of 2666) where they finally track down the obscure original visceral realist poet Cesarea Tinajero. In their sleuthing, they interview a former acquaintance of the poetess who recalls Tinajero making a detailed map of the canning factory where she works, explaining it is for “times to come;” pressed further about what time, she mentions the year 2600-something. Might not this be related to the “hidden center” of 2666 that Bolaño noted? Tinajero works at one of the maquiladoras along the US-Mexico border, also where many of the murdered women are employed fifteen years later in 2666’s Santa Teresa . At the chronological (but not sequential) end of The Savage Detectives, Arturo Belano has become a journalist, reporting on civil wars and internecine violence in Western Africa. Ever the “detective,” it is easy to imagine him returning to Sonora (the site of his own violent past) and recording the atrocities taking place there. That it would coincide with his adolescent interest in Tinajero provides another return, a literary hall of mirrors in which pasts converge on a single point on the horizon, spiraling towards the ominous year of 2666.

Elad Lassry: Three Films

April 1, 2009
Untitled (Agon), 2007, Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

Untitled (Agon), 2007, Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

Like a generation before him, Israeli-born, Los Angeles-based artist Elad Lassry works with an awareness of the problems with pictures. But rather than exclusively adopting a position of skepticism, Lassry reinvests the image through formal and connotative means, creating complex temporalities within photographs and films, as well as historical dialogues in the multitude of signs he employs. With a self-reflexive approach to image-making appropriate to his base in Los Angeles, Lassry conflates historical moments, utilizing filmic and photographic conventions to manifest pictures with a multiplicity of meanings. While using the language of structural investigations, Lassry insinuates ruptures in the reception of familiar imagery, allowing a reconsideration of the image according to the ways in which pictures conceal and reveal themselves.

Lassry utilizes existing pictures as sources for his photographs, approximating the formats of the textbook and magazine as pedagogical forms in which the sincerity of the image is not questioned. This same interest in the didactic role of pictures extends to Lassry’s works in film. Lassry’s current exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art offered the opportunity to consider his films in greater depth. Titled Three Films, the exhibition emphasizes the medium of the works on display, foreshadowing filmic representation as its subject. Significantly, all three 16mm films are silent and almost entirely comprised of static camera shots, underscoring their relationship to photographic representation. Only one film, Zebra and Woman, 2007, incorporates a minimum of camera movement, consisting of two slow horizontal tracking shots, deliberately moving across the contours of a zebra’s stripes and an actress seated in profile. The other two films, Untitled, 2008, and Untitled (Agon), 2007 each take photographs as their source material, using film’s duration to unhinge the temporal stasis of photographic representation.

Untitled (Agon), 2007 depicts two dancers performing the pas-de-deux from Balanchine’s 1957 ballet Agon. Lassry used a diagram from Doris Humphrey’s 1958 book The Art of Making Dances to determine the placements of the camera, resulting in long static shots isolating parts of the dancers’ bodies, never revealing the full breadth of the space in which they move. Although the ideological collision of Humphrey and Balanchine creates its own dialogue, plenty is happening in front of the camera, as the static shots create strange abstractions of the human body. Based as they are on still images, the viewer is initially inclined to uncover what original diagram Humphrey’s text may have proposed. But the still qualities of the photographic composition cannot be re-captured; instead they open up the temporal filmic dimensions for consideration in ways that expand beyond the confines of the frame. If a single photographic moment in a dance choreography might be instructive, it becomes negligible when considering an extended interval of time, in which movement and gesture are more important than line and pose. But likewise the scripted camera positions never offer a broad view of the dance, prohibiting any gestalt comprehension of the scene.

Untitled (Agon), 2007

Untitled (Agon), 2007

Long takes in close-up of both performers reveal the dancers’ nervousness, their heavy breathing and their boredom as they apparently await their director’s cue to begin. They sweat. We notice her muscular neck, the rise and fall of his chest, the change in deltoid tone when she must have put her arm out to rest on the barre. Dances, after all, are not made of images; they are made of movements in space. Along with the reference to divergent aesthetic histories, Agon operates through a further procession of abstraction, depicting a series of positions, rather than representing the time of the dance. Drawing on the strategies of Structuralist film, one camera position does not sequentially lead to another, enabling montage to construct narrative; rather each shot is relatively autonomous, asking for a formal consideration of the frame as well as the subjects that inhabit it.

Untitled, 2008, Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

Untitled, 2008, Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

A similar effect is at work in Untitled, 2008, which re-conceives several 1970s photographs used in textbooks to illustrate perspective. Actors and actresses are roto-scoped on the crude illustration of a house: a man and a woman appear to sit on the roof of the house as another woman stands in the doorway. But the depiction and the actors never quite occupy the same sense of perspective. The longer the viewer watches, the stranger the presence of these people in their illusionary environment becomes. These tableaux vacillate between shots of two actors in conversation, presumably off set. We are unable to hear their dialogue, instead reading their gestures and expressions for any clue. Rather than the mechanics of vision, this film redirects the viewer to consider other possibilities of filmic representation, namely the subjectivities of the actors in the photograph. As with Untitled (Agon), by introducing the element of time into the original representation, the people in the film become subjects rather than merely figures. No longer functioning as illustrations, the images become unhinged, able to take on different modes of meaning beyond their didactic functions.

By re-constituting pedagogical images, Lassry is able to remove himself from authorial decisions, putting historical forms into dialogue as he exposes the manner in which film composes time. Writing about Deleuze’s books on cinema, John Rajchman has said,

They have another selective aim: to extract from the generality of films those singular non-linguistic signs and images invented by great film-makers to express time or movement in our own situations, milieus or worlds. They are thus not a-historical. Rather, they are abstract in another way, tied not to eternity but to the present and new problems, at once artistic and philosophical. It seems important to preserve this experimental aesthetic zone of questioning with which history is linked but to which it is not reduced.

One might take the same approach to Lassry’s works. Visiting Three Films, the viewer might sit on the ground, scooting like a crab between projection stands or sitting back to take in multiple films at once, the only sound being the whir of the projectors. Each film loops but runs at different lengths; thus chance encounters between each film surprise each viewing, inducing whiplash spins to check, and double check, if in fact the same actress appears in Zebra and Woman, 2007 and Untitled, 2008. Here the viewer is physically within the flow of images, faced with the opportunity to re-read these re-constituted pictures.

Lassry’s pictures are constructed in such a way that both formal and psychological readings are unavoidable in an image, manifesting “a world of illumination without revelation” (Rajchman). The formal construction of the image is not reconciled with the connotative effects, instigating a generative friction in the picture, in which the codes and conventions are laid bare. Out of its generic qualities emerges a capacity for distinction, assuming a place of difference; the very abstraction of the picture’s address displaces its innocuousness. Here we might comprehend the capacity for pictures to transcend their status as products of a society of the spectacle, taking on historical and emotional resonance. By introducing such multiplicities, seemingly mute images are endowed with a voice, speaking the many I’s and You’s in which pictures speak to us and we speak to them. Even in foreclosing the truth-claims of a photograph, an image can unfold to tell it’s own time.

Moyra Davey: Long Life Cool White

March 16, 2009

Long Life Cool White sounds like the name of a Miles Davis album, so I’ll admit I looked at the titular image of Moyra Davey’s book probably five times before I realized it was referring to the product description on the tube lighting at the top of the frame. Such incidental—or perhaps accidental—details are to be discovered throughout Long Life Cool White, which serves as the catalogue to the exhibition of the same name last spring at the Harvard University Art Museums.9780300136463

Davey’s work indulges in the descriptive, indexical potential of photography. She acknowledges her anachronism, writing about her anxiety in the face of the Gursky phenomenon. After all she photographs dust, bookshelves, whiskey bottles, and pennies, shoots film negatives and usually prints 20×24. Her photographs are intimate forms of domestic poetry, communicating a reverence for the material world, and the magical translation of making an image. She redeems the worn and used, exalts the analogue and melancholy.

I have admittedly seen her photographs in person only twice, in Photography on Photography at the Met and Arthur Ou’s The World Is All That Is the Case at Hudson Franklin earlier this winter. But the images trigger something, like memories already possessed and then stumbled upon in the dusty corners of the mind. In her photographs, my eye drifts across her desktop, picking up details in the array of objects. A Laura Nyro album, covered by an opaque sheet of wax paper that is slipping away, barely reveals the chanteuse’s dark eyes. The shallow depth of field focusing on fluorescent tubes makes for a decidedly minimalist composition. Weighted heavily to the top of the frame, the eye wanders, looking for the sharp focus and alighting on these surprisingly fascinating objects. If one keeps looking the background begins to emerge: Along the back wall an MTA Subway map is pinned. Atop a table in the lower right appears to be view camera, its back open to the viewer. In Davey’s work objects are embedded with poignant emotional content.

Crucial to this lovely little book is Davey’s essay Notes on Photography and Accident. Davey leads us on a peripatetic, personal journey through her favorite writers on photography. Amidst quotes from Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag, Davey tells us about her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, her struggle to take pictures, her ruminations and changing judgments on a book of Annie Leibovitz photographs. The writing is sharp but accessible, tactfully dealing with theory but forgoing the jargon. Inhabiting a mix of genres, it could be called confessional criticism, wonderfully honest in its contradictions and personal admissions. One of the many interesting sections is her appraisal of the relationship between images and the printed page:

I am convinced that reproducibility in book form is part of the vocabulary of the photograph … Is it that, as Benjamin and Brecht speculated, photographs are more at home with, even in need of, words? … I notice that [students’] photographs become vastly more interesting to me after I read what they’ve written about them; I like seeing their images shrunken and recontextualized, embedded in paragraphs of descriptive text.

This ode clearly conflates her love of reading and photography while acknowledging photography’s historical origins from William Fox Talbot’s earliest bound volumes. In contrast to many recent developments in photography, it is very interesting how Davey focuses on the image (rather than object) qualities of a photograph. She delicately uses the “image in book” criteria to redeem classical Eggleston work and indict recent Wolfgang Tillmans large-scale abstractions.

Davey is generous enough to share her candid appraisals on numerous historical and contemporary photographic practitioners—sometimes with surprising positions. So it is exciting to discover shared appreciation for Liz Deschenes, James Welling, Zoe Leonard, and Francesca Woodman. Likewise she uses Leibovitz as an unusual foil for her own work:

Leibovitz describes her method as personal reportage, an expression I’ve never heard before, and she says that when she dives advice to students she tells them to “stay close to home.” My own work could not be further from Leibovitz’s, yet both these terms could be used to describe what I do. And while I don’t want to make what she makes, I do want to look at it, and on a fundamental level I subscribe to the ideas that underpin this particular work.

Just as her writing drifts among quotations and diarist confessions, the viewer of Davey’s photographs is encouraged to wander amidst her possessions, perhaps picking up an open book or album one recognizes, and listening for just a moment, a polite domestic flaneurie.

A Twilight Art

February 12, 2009
Liz Deschenes, Left/Right, 2008; Courtesy Harris Lieberman, New York

Liz Deschenes, Left/Right, 2008; Courtesy Harris Lieberman, New York

Harris Lieberman

January 17 – February 28, 2009

Kodak and Fuji are shuttering plants. Ilford is discontinuing favorite paper stocks. And Polaroid film has gone the way of the dodo. So it is only inevitable that contemporary artists—not exclusively “photographers,” that second-class breed—have taken up these expiring media. Whether motivated by a sense of urgency, nostalgia, or some misplaced desire for purity in the face of an exclusively digital age, this is ostensibly the jumping off point for the exhibition A Twilight Art. But rather than this technological dialectic, the more satisfying critical lens may be the final two essays in LACMA’s Words Without Pictures project, organized by photography curator Charlotte Cotton. The essays by artist Walead Beshty and art historian George Baker (titled “Abstracting Photography” and “Photography and Abstraction,” respectively) are too much to go into here, but each is concerned with questions of photographic abstraction (more semiotic than formal) and social process. (The essays are archived as pdfs at Words Without Pictures)

Most notably the selection of artists and works marks a stark turn away from the cinematic, narrative photography of the past decade. Still, the curators seem inclined to avoid these linear developments, and the press release suggests a desire to look “across generations.” But other than the inclusion of early works by Allan McCollum and Barbara Kasten, it’s hard to find supporting evidence of this claim, as the show has three 25 year old works along with 30 other pieces made in the last five years. While the desire to curate an exhibitions exploring both synchronic and diachronic relations is a noble one, the idea could have been developed further. As it stands the exhibition seems poised between comparing contemporaneous works by artists of different generations and relating past and present modes of production. Wolfgang Tillmans is a worthy stand-in as leader of the pack, but the omission of James Welling is glaring. Kasten could easily have been substituted by Eileen Quinlian’s ubiquitous Smoke and Mirrors. Sigmar Polke may have a place here too.

Still, there is no shortage of opportunities on hand to consider the history of photographic production. A number of works transparently belie their debt to Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray. The inclusion of Amy Granat might have transcended such a comparison, as her recent photograms of quotidian objects were violently torn at the edges, forgoing any reference to the rectangular photographic frame and suggesting a limitless field of such exposures, from which the displayed object was arbitrarily chosen. On hand here, Matt Saunders’s silver gelatin print from a hand drawn negative starts with Gerhard Richter and goes in reverse. Like a sudsy windowpane awaiting the squeegy, it suggest early experiments with photography by Mel Bochner; the vertical band bisecting the canvas is a Barnett Newman-like zip, but also evokes the unexposed frame between individual negatives.

McCollum and Tauba Auerbach each made photographs enlarged off television screens, installed adjacent to one another here. While McCollum’s Perpetual Photo still carries a modicum of information that can suggest at form, Auerbach’s is pure surface static, something that will soon disappear from our airwaves when broadcast television goes completely digital. Ultimately the concerns of these two works are different, and any contiguity rises from their formal qualities. Conceptually McCollum’s contribution has more in common with Carter Mull’s work, presented immediately to the left of Auerbach’s. Both use processes of repeated re-photographing to the point of subsuming the original indexical function of the camera, creating images that are worn to illegibility.

Deschenes, Charlesworth, Charlesworth, Dybbroe Moeller, Pearson

Installation View; Left to right: Deschenes, Charlesworth, Charlesworth, Dybbroe Moeller, Pearson

Elsewhere nice curatorial sequences emerge, employing comparisons that are variously formal, material, structural, conceptual and content-driven. A row of works by Walead Beshty and Marcus Amm play off similar textures and surfaces as traces of chemical processes. Visual puns function almost syntactically as a stunning Liz Deschenes builds sound wave-like peaks from Left/Right, leading to a Sarah Charlesworth composition of colorful dishes (alluding to chemical processes in photographic developing) in the shape of an arrow, which points to another of her images of a cube in perspective; lastly, this resonates with four small folded photogram abstractions by Simon Dybbroe Møller that also hint at perspectival space in their square forms. Anthony Pearson’s contribution is a large vertical c-print showing striations of lens flare, enlarged to exclude all other content, and is placed on an otherwise awkward column dividing the large storefront windows at the front of the gallery. Though this viewer only saw the exhibition in the evening, one imagine it plays well when the south facing gallery is overtaken by bright winter sunshine.

A Twilight Art takes up a worthy mantle. Something is clearly beginning to coalesce in contemporary photographic practice and theory that might be better served by the additional research and resources available to a larger institutional. Some of the issues facing curators Lisa Oppenheim and Jessie Washburne-Harris may have to do with the limitations of working with consignments from other commercial galleries and the availability of work. The artists’s galleries may be less inclined to mete out superior works by their artists that they might (at least until recently) have been able to sell easily. Eponyanymous rightly brings up the point that for all the talk of renewed materiality, almost all the work on hand fits nicely into a frame. In other exhibitions a number of these artists use sculptures (Beshty, Pearson, Laura MacIntyre, Mull) or painting (Amm, Auerbach, Saunders) or video (Erika Vogt, Dybbroe Møller) as integrally related to their photographs, complimenting the materiality or production process of each format. This exhibition seems to lack the energy that such an expanded field could offer, as it never quite sates the desire for more impassioned discourse between works. Nonetheless, the artists are effectively united by their self-reflexive approach to the medium and concern for way in which photographic meaning is produced. With A Twilight Art, To Be Determined up now at Andrew Kreps, and previously Untitled (Vicarious) at Gagosian last fall, there is clearly ambivalence about the critical language of contemporary photography. With outlets like Words Without Pictures leading the way and promising exhibitions like A Twilight Art, expect good things to come.

On Kawara: One Million Years

February 10, 2009

Courtesy David Zwirner, New York

David Zwirner

January 14 – February 14, 2009

Time is not abstract, per se, it is rather so concrete, so indelible as to be all encompassing. It defies easy representation. As a result we are left with a multitude of metaphors—a line, a river, a train—of varying degrees of usefulness. (Daniel Birnbaum’s book Chronology is a wonderful essay on the phenomenology of time and how contemporary film and video artists have created their own models of time.)

As theme (and medium) time is a basic concern for any artist. Yet few have taken it as their subject matter as unflinchingly as On Kawara. A monumental work in every sense of the word, Kawara’s One Million Years is currently being recorded live in an exhibition at David Zwirner gallery. The project is made up of two parts, One Million Years (Past) and One Million Years (Future), compiled in a 20 volume collection. Together these projects contain the written dates of 2,000,000 years, one million years each going back and forward. Thus the two volumes include the years 998,031 B.C. through 1969 A.D. and 1996 A.D. through 1,001,995 A.D. Each volume is comprised of 2,068 photocopied pages, each page containing rows of ten years.

The scale of One Million Years is almost unmatched by any contemporary artwork. Parallels might be found in Allan McCollum’s Shapes Project (2005-), where he produces unique graphic emblems for every person on the planet, or Douglas Huebler’s Variable series, in which Huebler attempted to photograph everyone on the planet. As the figures involved in each of these projects approaches the millions (and billions), there is an element of the sublime; the successes and failures to enact and complete these projects reveals the actuality of what those numbers represent, essentially moving from abstraction—in which these numbers are “beyond recognition”—to the concrete and comprehendible.

Although in its original form One Million Years is exhibited like archival records, the performed and recorded presentation places it within the conceptual framework of real, lived time. Moving away from the bureaucratic, to consider the bound volumes as scripts is to realize their true form, existing and unfolding in time.

The on-site sound studio records readers working in two-hour shifts, with the even years read by a female and the odd years by a male. My partner and I signed up to read about a week ago, on a Monday when the gallery was closed to the public. Coincidentally, gallery owner David Zwirner and his wife were the readers preceding us. Even without the distractions of a viewing public, performance anxiety was inevitable; I was concerned about growing bored, about making too many mistakes, about mumbling, about struggling through my cold. But once we started, all of that receded. We were dealing with immense, wordy numbers, the kind that get stuck in your teeth and roll on your tongue like cotton balls. Nine hundred forty six thousand six hundred thirty three. I had to focus. We would go long streches in perfect rhythm, and then suddenly make many mistakes in the course of ten years. One of us would accidentally read the other’s year. In counting, the numbers, despite their inescapable logic, begin to seem arbitrary. The scale of the task is so immense, why this number now?

Courtesy David Zwirner, New York

Courtesy David Zwirner, New York

I couldn’t help thinking of the fact that the original volumes of One Million Years, given their creation dates, must have been hand produced on a typewriter. Today a programmer could write a few lines of code in a couple of hours and have a computer generate each of the dates. The same process could similarly enact a digitally generated “reading” of the dates. But human labor is an important component of the project as well, as it brings the geologic, monumental scale of the project to the level of human experience. My partner asked if many of the readers had accents, and the sound engineer replied that while Kawara wanted a sort of “level American accent” for the recording, in fact the readers represented a diverse range, with English readings accented by Italian, German, Japanese, Argentinian, South African readers. The result is inevitably a polyphonic, and populist, experience.

About Time and in time, the reading of One Million Years makes manifest this incomprehensible collection of dates. But in the litany of years, a caesura opens between the actuality of eons and their representation as a list of numbers. Each year takes a couple of seconds to read. At the ambitious rate of 27 CDs recorded per year, it will take 100 years to record the entirety of Kawara’s project; through this process of representation, two million years will be compressed into a single lifetime. Even compressed by a factor of 20,000, this conception of time astounds. Without a leap of the imagination, one stands over the vertiginous chasm opened by this representation. One wonders then why Kawara chose not to include the years 1970 through 1995 in either of the volumes Past or Future. This omission is clearly not incidental, and yet only partially overlaps the years between the creation of each volume. What was the intention—was it personal, autobiographical? A conspicuous absence, such a gap humanizes an otherwise overwhelming system.

Nobuyoshi Araki: 1960s Photographs

February 5, 2009
Ginza (3205-1), Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, NY

Ginza (3205-1), Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, NY

Anton Kern Gallery

January 8 – February 7, 2009

Araki is best known for his erotic photography, but this exhibition attempts to expand the historical and critical reception of his work by folding it into the dominant, accepted narratives of Western street photography. In this traditional incarnation, the art of photography lies within the ability to convert looking into seeing. Editing, or the process of reduction (and ontologically, exclusion), is essential to photography, particularly photography of the street. The exhibition at Anton Kern, with the insipid title 1960s Photographs, clearly attempts to place Araki in the grand tradition of street photography running through Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and innumerable others by calling on the what is arguably the apotheosis of the genre via John Szarkowski’s Photographs Department at the Museum of Modern Art. In fact the best comparison might be to Garry Winogrand, particularly for anecdotal reasons. At the end of his life, Winogrand’s compulsion to photograph relentlessly drained any art from the process. Szarkowski writes:

At the time of his death in 1984 more than 2,500 rolls of exposed film remained undeveloped, which seemed appalling, but the real situation was much worse. An additional 6,500 rolls had been developed but not proofed. Contact sheets (first proofs) had been made from some 3,000 additional rolls, but only a few of these bear the marks of even desultory editing.

*(quoted in Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment 242 but originally from Szarkowski’s The Works of Garry Winogrand)

One imagines a factory in which commodities on the assembly line never reach the next stages of production, moving along lonely conveyor belts before eventually falling into a pile at the end. With over 350 books, and nearly 300 prints just in this exhibition, Araki’s scopophilia seems restrained in comparison to Winogrand’s unfulfilled mania. Nonetheless, the installation at Anton Kern is visually daunting, with two long walls covered by large prints from the Ginza series, and another in sparse rows and groupings vaguely resembling Braille covers Subway. A fourth wall contains a dozen small vintage photographs of a familiar Araki trope: the vogueing nude model. Other than these last works, all of the images are black and white prints, directly pinned to the wall. It is a fortunate choice: Framing and glazing the photographs would inhibit the collisions and accumulations that are vital to the force of Araki’s work.


2009 Installation View, Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, NY

To comment on the structural logic to the exhibition’s presentation, a quote from Brian Massumi’s helpful introduction to Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus is useful:

Nomad thought replaces the closed equation of representation, x = x = not y (I = I = not you) with an open equation:… + y + Z + A +… (arm +brick+window+…). Rather than analyzing the world into discrete components, reducing their manyness to the One of identity, and ordering them by rank, it sums up a set of disparate circumstances in a shattering blow. It synthesizes a multiplicity of elements without effacing their heterogeneity or hindering their potential for future rearranging (to the contrary). The modus operandi of nomad thought is affirmation, even when its apparent object is negative. (Univ of Minnesota Press, xiii)

The gridded presentation normalizes a syntactical structure within which to understand the Ginza series. Placed within the grid, no single image outstrips any other in importance; sequencing and linearity become arbitrary. But Araki’s work is also anti-typological. Contemporaneous to the Ginza series, Bernd and Hilla Becher were developing their seminal studies of industrial forms. The dominant relationship between the images of the Bechers may be understood according to the closed equation of representation (water tower = water tower =not grain silo), while Araki’s installations adopt a different linguistic strategy altogether (…skirt + hair + jacket + school girls + old man… ad infinitum).

The Subway series invites inevitable comparison to Walker Evans. But while Evans was content to frame single images as discrete works, Araki has chosen to include sequential rows of images of the same subjects. Whatever he may have been after on these subway rides through Tokyo, one look wasn’t enough. Frequently he includes a three or as many as five shots of a single subway passenger. In one particularly poignant grouping, the photographer’s lens seemingly centered on the view between a woman’s legs (covered by pants) across the aisle, includes five images of the poor woman looking every which way except for at Araki. Clearly she knows she is being photographed, or at least watched, and tries to ignore the photographer’s intentions; inevitably this forms the very content of the sequence. The Evans mythology emphasizes him hiding his camera from his subway subjects; one wonders if Araki was so discrete, but suspects he might be more bold. The Subway series is installed in bands of groupings in about eight rows along one wall. The irregular gaps between images suggest that these are evoke splices in a timeline, bits of journeys documented and shown here as a partial record. The viewer is left to imagine the gaps in these subterranean voyages, privy only to a selection of private moments.

Installation, 2006, Anton Kern Gallery

2006 Installation View, Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, NY

Araki’s previous exhibition at Anton Kern in 2006 included a section presenting highly saturated close-ups of flowers with his bondage images: an overly facile and adolescent, if standard comparison of objects of male desire with, ahem, flowering. These images were arranged in a way that referenced the magazine or book spread, with opposing groupings of two or three images. This gives rise to a familiar linear and rote reading that quickly becomes predictable once the conceit is recognized.

It is almost impossible to imagine Ginza reading effectively as a book, in which a reader is forced to turn the page to find more images. Araki simply doesn’t seem to have patience to wait for the turning of the page. The installation of Ginza simultaneously denies the imperative of any single image while highlighting discrete details in each photograph. No picture tells a story or reveals much about it’s subject. Instead there are tightly framed faces. A trio of skirts flipping as they cross the street. Old men encountered on the sidewalk. Araki’s style might be described as restless, and certainly a bit rapacious. All of the images begin to feel like minor transgressions, at least impositions in the snapping of the shutter. In this sense the work does take on an erotic quality. The viewer need not truly see all of the images to understand and appreciate the body of work. It is instructive to simply notice the way in which details emerge. Ultimately, Araki can’t stop looking, and once enter his system of seeing, neither can we.

While some reviewers of the exhibition suggest that the images in 1960s Photographs are incongruous with the erotic images that Araki is best known for, it seems that the Ginza and Subway series are clearly extensions, or precursors, to the explicit scopophilia that characterizes his bondage and fetish photographs. If Winogrand gave in to the machinic capacity of the camera to endlessly reproduce, attempting to Xerox the world, by contrast Araki uses the camera nomadically, accumulating maps of his desires from the world around him.