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The Armory Art Show takes the idea that art isn't a commodity to be sold like the machines and tools on display at the Hannover industrial trade show (that I used to visit as a teenager) and dispenses with it neatly. If any of the Show's objects at some stage were in the presence of an artist toiling over their meaning and worth (I'm not talking about money here), you wouldn't know that once you encountered them at the Piers in New York City. Make no mistake, I had no illusions about the Armory Show before I went. So I did not undergo the kind of shock treatment that someone with romantic ideas about the commercial art world would experience if she or he was exposed to such an abomination of the human spirit for the first time. That said, the Armory Show still was a soul crushing experience, where your soul is not only crushed, it's actually slowly and steadily ground into a fine powder.
A short editorial interlude of sorts: If you can't imagine that a soul can be ground into a fine powder, you might enjoy the Armory Show. Also, if you have a problem with someone using such imagery - after all how can a soul, which is not a solid entity, be ground into a powder? - then, well, you might enjoy Twitter.
Experiencing the Armory Show is a bit like going to the mall before Christmas: You know in advance that the experience will suck the life out of you completely, to leave you behind poorer (literally and figuratively), owning a bunch of junk that your loved ones don't really need. But you still end up wondering how every year the combination of crass commercialism and fake happiness can be so toxic. Maybe it's the music? How much canned "holiday" music can one take before resorting to creatively adding some not-so lyrical flourishes ("Oh fucking Tannenbaum")?
Well, the Armory Show doesn't have any music, Christmas or whatever else. Maybe it should? Instead, the atmosphere the day I went (Saturday) was more like a really crowded, run-down second-world airport: Outside a bunch of tremendously ugly concrete. I entered using a very narrow escalator. Inside it was crowded and noisy, it smelled funny, and the VIP lounges contained an odd mix of presumed entitlement, bad free coffee, and overpriced junk food.
Needless to say, the idea that there actually are VIPs in anything art related is revolting. I am fully aware that I am nothing but a sorry egalitarian.
Of course, there is a reason why the Armory Show bothered me so much. There actually is good art on display, and I still want to believe that at least some of the artists who might have toiled over their art are profoundly distressed about seeing it reduced to... yeah, to what?
If you didn't like my comparison with Christmas at the mall, here's another attempt: It's like going to an IKEA, except that IKEA will guide you through the store so that you really look at literally everything they got, regardless of whether you need four hundred dozens cheaply made candles for $5.99 or not. IKEA also doesn't have booths. The Armory Show has booths but no predestined path for its visitors. Still, it's positively IKEAish. The funny thing is that the booths, which, I suppose, are there to divide the space to get things more organized, only add to the visual clutter.
So once you enter the Armory Show your first experience is a bit like opening your closet door and having the entire contents of the upper shelves fall into your face.
I'm glad I did not commit to blogging about the photography at the Armory Show, because the task of having to systematically walk through the aisles and jot down what there is to be seen strikes me as daunting. If you're interested in seeing such a list head over to the DLK Collection blog where they're in the process of publishing just that, in six parts. Very impressive.
What I did do instead was to walk down the various aisles in what I thought was some sort of systematic fashion, looking left and right, and finding quite a bit of noteworthy and even more not so noteworthy photography. I'll talk about some of what I found over the next few days.
The Armory Show - or in fact, any other such trade show - is interesting in one aspect: What you get to see is what galleries want you to see. The successful work. The work that they hope or know will sell. So in that sense, the Show gives you an idea of what that work is.
Of course, assuming the last paragraph is correct the flip side of the Show is that if you have followed the photo (or art) scene for a while, there will be few - if any - surprises. The surprises will mainly be at the galleries whose existence you've never heard of before, which, at least for me, means those in places like, for example, Moscow. There has been a lot of talk about how the internet has brought photographers together - but seeing so much work I had never even heard of before made me wonder what I had been doing these past few years. After all, I have been spending what occasionally strikes me as a freakishly large amount of time looking at and/or for photography online.
In any case, here's the thing. You can't really look out for experiences like that, the experiences where you stumble upon the unexpected. As an early 21st Century person living in the Western world you're actually trained to avoid just doing that. Or at least I am. Going to the Armory Show is like going to a very, very big store without a list of things to buy. I don't think the brain is set up to process a huge amount of visual information without running into some serious problems.
Oh, I know, young people are very good at multitasking and video gaming etc., but a lot of those assertions are based on little more than the hype generated by the makers of the various electronic gadgets and websites. How all these people are supposed to leapfrog hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, to be able to do things that the human brain is not evolved for, I'd still like to see an explanation for.
This all might strike you as tremendously old-fashioned, but just think of the combination of driving and texting or even "just" talking on the phone. Most people are terrible drivers without being on the phone, and adding their friend call in to talk about that cute guy/girl they just met usually does not help very much. I'm just saying.
Of course, I could just be the real exception, and everybody else could have just tremendously enjoyed the Armory Show. Maybe. Maybe not. It is true, there actually were people drooling over the art at the Armory Show. I saw at least two of them. Of course, they both were less than a year old each, so maybe that doesn't mean that much.
Having basically no life force left, I dragged my body's shell over to the art show called SCOPE (Why are they yelling?). I ended up being very positively surprised by SCOPE. I suppose in part that's because it was smaller and less overrun. But all in all, the experience was so much nicer since it didn't come across as such an obvious art-meat market. People seemed to be a bit younger and the art seemed a bit fresher.
I'm sure the New York art scene, where you just got to have an opinion about which show is better than which other show (for reasons which are not entirely obvious to someone like me who lives in the countryside and is thus - hopefully - excused), will have an opinion about me proclaiming that SCOPE was "fresher" than the Armory Show. Be that as it may, SCOPE renewed my faith in the art world a little bit.
One could have long - and probably partly fruitless - debates about art and the gallery world and the pros and cons. You know what, I don't have a problem per se with art being shown in a gallery. It is true, galleries are like hospitals; but all things considered, a good gallery show can be a tremendously exciting and uplifting event. I'm a real sucker for seeing art work on the wall somewhere, and right now, the most likely place to have such an experience is at a gallery (especially since so many museum shows are dedicated to celebrating the 50th anniversary of that body of work or whatever else has been established for a long, long time).
An art fair/show, though... That's one of those supposedly fun things I'll never do again.
I had been looking for Roger Ballen's Outland for a while, being under the impression that the first edition was actually sold out (I think someone had actually told me it was sold out). This past weekend, I found a copy, a 2009 reissue, in New York. However, having done a little research online, it looks like the original 2001 edition never sold out? And I also couldn't find anything about a 2009 reissue. So regardless, if you're looking for Outland you can simply order it.
Regular readers of this blog I'm sure will be familiar with Lydia Panas' work (if not, find my conversation with Lydia here). The Mark of Abel work is now on view at Foley Gallery (until April 20, 2010; click on the image above for a larger view).
It is always exciting for me to see work I'm quite familiar with hanging on a gallery wall. Rarely, if ever, does it look just the same as on the computer screen. It does happen that it looks worse, and of course, that's always disappointing. Usually, it looks better - as in Lydia's case, and part of the fun is to experience just that.
It is tempting to think that differences in size and/or between an image that reflects light and one that is backlit are responsible for whatever it is that creates that experience. But it seems to me that trying to pin down the reason(s) ultimately is a futile endeavour, and certainly one that is taking away a lot of the essence of the experience. Or maybe I'm just not that kind of critic.
Maybe talking about photography and its qualities is a bit like talking about wine and trying to describe it, adding some sort of rating to it. Does anyone really know what the following means? "It has a dark garnet color and a complex nose of boysenberry, truffles, wild game, soy and black pepper. On the palate, the wine has a silky mouthfeel and an elegant, long finish with a slight tannic grip." (source - picked at random) Fruit mixed with wild animals (which might or might not have antlers) and some sort of insanely expensive mushroom, plus soy - hmmmmmm, sounds delicious. And what does the difference between a wine rated 91 and 93 mean? But phrases like "silky mouthfeel" (I had no idea "mouthfeel" was a word!) - is that so far from what we see in a lot of art reviews?
When I go to an art gallery what I typically watch out for is the combination of what you could call my gut reaction and my intellectual response. This, I need to add, puts a handicap on work I know: while my gut reaction will respond directly to the work, my intellectual response works against the background of all the various thoughts I've had in my head before I went through the gallery's door. My gut typically is as opinionated as my brain (no surprise there, I suppose), and I've had many exciting experiences when they clashed (they always end up on good terms, so there's never any need to worry), and plenty of not-so exciting ones when they just agreed with each other.
But so much of art viewing is based on what we expect, isn't it? Maybe I'm not following debates carefully enough, but people never seem to admit the following: they expected something, and they got it confirmed. Maybe that's because writing "I went to the show by XY thinking it must surely suck, and boy, it did!" makes you sound like a total jerk - even though in reality, it could be really insightful! Just think about it! A critic thinks about a show and has some reasons to think a show must be bad, and then it is (that) bad. Doesn't this mean that the critic is very perceptive? And, in contrast, to read that a critic was really looking forward to a show, to then find that, yes, it was a good show - is that necessarily such a good thing? I can think of lots of cases where it's a good thing, but there are other cases where it might just point to intellectual laziness (at best!).
I personally usually don't go to a show thinking/expecting that it will suck or be great (even though it happens occasionally). In Lydia's case, my predominant feeling was one of curiosity. How would something I had seen online, something I had come to appreciate in not necessarily the most straightforward way, look like on the walls? I had come to like Lydia's portraits mostly through a couple of them, which - for me - had really stood out, and I had then spent time with the rest, to discover a rich vista.
Seeing the show added flourishes to the vista, with unexpected discoveries here and there, some of which, alas, might really only make sense for me I'm afraid (what kind of useless review is this you might wonder now, and I won't blame you). But I think that a critic ultimately will fail when she or he is trying to explain everything, because there has got to be some wiggle space left. Writing a review of a show should not be confused with smothering someone with a pillow (again, that's just me again; I'm sure lots of people will disagree).
I was slightly surprised by the sizes of the prints; somehow I had thought they would be a little bit smaller. I don't know why I would even think I'd know about the print size. That said, while at first I thought they were slightly overwhelming, they ended up working very well for me.
What I really would like to stress is the visual richness of the work and the connections these group portraits force upon the viewer. They will pull you in, whether you want it or not, and that certainly is something that any photographer can only wish for. The work is also intensely beautiful.
The Mark of Abel - highly recommended.
Just like Thomas Ruff's well-known portraits, Hein-kuhn Oh's Cosmetic Girls asks the viewer to try to look beyond make-up, poses, and photographic conventions. Also, don't miss the older, b/w, work!
A few days after the Buchenwald concentration camp was liberated in early April 1945, German civilians from the nearby town of Weimar were made to tour the camp, to see with their own eyes what had happened just a few miles from their homes. On one of these days, photographer Margaret Burke-White was present, to record such a visit (see this link; in the above image, that's MBW taking a reading with her light meter). Up until the Allies' armies found the many concentration camps, photographers had covered the war in the usual ways, with the usual imagery. But at the camps, the liberators were staring into an abyss of utter horror, and much to their credit the photographers did not hesitate to record it so that everybody could see. The people of Weimar were made to see. Everybody else, who was not there, was made to see, too - newspapers and magazines all over the world reprinted the photographs taken by Margaret Burke-White and her colleagues.
The other day, after I had featured the work of Isabella Demavlys, a reader emailed me to write
"What is the point of this photography and all photography similar to this? It is shameless."
I'm probably not the best person to write about this; but I thought I might just give it a shot, having not done this before. I've noticed that occasionally, reservations such as the one by this particular reader are raised, and I'm not always happy with the responses. Needless to say, I don't know whether I can do better. But I can try.
"Read about? yes absolutely, but seeing? What was going through the mind of the photographer who was watching a man get stoned to death and actually photographed it happening?"
I know quoting Susan Sontag is the thing to do when writing these kinds of articles, but I'll try without. I don't think I'm smarter than her (that's very unlikely), but I want to see where I will be getting without using intellectual crutches. Plus, there's a lot in her writing that I don't agree with.
Let me start out by writing that I don't see photography by Margaret Bourke-White (or other photographers) from the concentration camps described as being shameless. Let's keep that in mind. That said...
First of all, what everybody needs to realize is that many, if not all, of the photographers who record horrendous events experience them more or less the same way we would experience them, if we happened to be there. What was going through the mind of the photographer who was watching a man get stoned to death and actually photographed it happening? Well, the photographer was probably mortified and shocked and sickened just like most people would be. Do I know this for a fact? No, I don't. But I have reasons for saying that. For example, I had a long conversation with Bruce Haley, who recorded how a man got executed with a knife. The photos are on Bruce's website, and he writes:
I also remember having a long conversation with a photographer who had just come back from Afghanistan. He told me he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder - just like the many soldiers coming home from there.
"when he carried out the executions, it was unimaginably savage and shocking - much of the worst of it I did not capture on film..."
Of course, you could argue that I just managed to speak to the wrong people. Maybe. But I think the assumption that photographers are just like the rest of us and are reacting in basically just the same ways is a good starting point for debates about photography that deeply disturbs us (see Colin Pantall's recent post about a debate centered on images of a stoning).
If you still believe that photographers are somehow different beings, just remember what happens when there is an accident: A lot of people will stop to look, and with cell phone cameras so ubiquitous now, a lot of people will take pictures. The recent explosion in what people now call "citizen journalism" points to the fact that photographers aren't any more "shameless" than the rest of us - which, of course, makes the whole debate a bit uncomfortable, doesn't it? In the end, our aversion to look at horrible images taken by photographers really might just be the discomfort we experience knowing very well that if given the chance we would do the exact same thing, namely to stare in disbelief and horror - and maybe to get our cell phone out to snap a few pictures.
When I see comments like something I read a little while ago, that a photographer taking pictures of a stoning was somehow "collaborating" (it's in here somewhere), on the surface that's just absurd, but deep underneath, it points to a nagging guilt: I see something, and I'm not doing anything about it, so I am a part of this (even if I know that being far away means I can't do anything about it). This is then projected onto the photographer, because that's the only easy and simple step left: To take all our own guilt and to heap it onto the photographer. Problem mostly solved, and whatever residual guilt is still left over can be channeled into writing angry words about the photographer supposedly collaborating.
But make no mistake: The horror won't go away if we don't look. We're not children any longer. We can't make things go away by not looking, by pretending they don't exist. You can entertain yourself philosophically about falling trees and the woods, wondering whether there's any sounds or whether things are really happening if nobody is there to record it. But in the real world, people are starving to death or are being stoned to death or are being killed as collateral damage by missiles raining from the skies (our missiles) - regardless of whether we look or not.
There is no such thing as an innocence here.
So let's turn to the idea of Isabella Demavlys's images (just to use the original example that made my reader email me) being shameless. Are they?
Of course, they are in the same way that pretty much all photography is shameless. That's not a good approach to the topic.
But to decide about whether they're shameless or not, we might want to think about the woman who agreed to have her portrait taken, despite her face being horribly mutilated because of what we call a hate crime. Can we imagine what her life must be like? And if we don't look at her, aren't we then really collaborating with the person who threw acid into her face, to disfigure her and to cast her out from the world - our world? And by "our world" I truly mean the world that includes us, the survivor of the acid attack, and the attacker.
And what about the women who in the future will be victims of such attacks? By refusing to look, aren't we also averting our eyes from their fate?
Of course, as individuals we cannot possibly be concerned about each and every injustice in the world, that would be overwhelming (there's a wonderful article about Peter Singer, a moral philosopher, in the current print edition of the New York Review of Books, which talks about this and a lot more I'm going to indirectly use/apply in the following). But as a society we should be concerned about as many injustices in the world as possible, because the sum of all the different individual contributions and efforts will hopefully result in some real... (may I use this following word, besmirched as it might be by its recent political abuse?) change.
This also means that we need to see all these images that are almost impossible to bear, so that some people in our midst will be moved to act, in whatever way.
But not looking or saying it's shameless to look... It seems to me that there is more morality involved here than just one. There's the morality of looking into the face of someone who had acid thrown at her. There's the morality of all the different efforts that are working hard to prevent such attacks from happening again. There's the morality of not wanting to look at things like that happening because it's just too hard. There's the morality of knowing that no single person can possibly deal with each and every injustice in the world.
It's a lot to juggle.
To focus just on one, and to pretend that one morality is the only one we need to decide - that I find problematic. And I find it even more problematic to solve the problem by blaming the photographer who, in many cases, risks her or his life to bring us images of all the things that we find so hard to look at.
To say that we want to read, but not see... That just seems like an easy way out. Seeing is not the same as reading. What I read about I can file away, because it is being processed while I take it in. What I see - there is a lot of processing, but there also is the unbearable immediacy. We need to experience that unbearable immediacy. It's not about a cheap visual thrill - even though certainly, in this day and age it is often used for that. But even though images these days are often misused for the spectacle, that doesn't mean that we have to toss them aside. We still need to see, and part of that need to see also involves rejecting those who use images for the sheer spectacle, for the ratings, for the profit. That, after all, really is just shameless.
I don't know whether any of this will convince anyone that we must see. It might , or it might not. I'm sure there are lost of aspects I missed, which means I'll have to come back and revise what I wrote. I've felt for a long time that we had to see, and this post is an attempt to put the feeling into words.
Email me to let me know what I missed, what you think needs to be added, etc.