by Robert Evans
Robert Bean’s photographs in the series Études (for Marconi), though seemingly straightforward in content, continue the artist’s investigations of obsolescence, its myriad relationships with and the surprisingly malleable notions of past, present, and future, and their outcomes. Each image is dominated by a flat composition of intricately connected and criss-crossing wires and birds in various configurations on a background of skies. Entry into the picture space is difficult; the viewer’s gaze is kept at the surface through a composition that is dominated by pattern, rhythm, and repetition. However, despite the strong graphic elements in Bean’s work, the series is certainly not a formalist retreat from the everyday world. These are rich and compelling images that are open to numerous productive readings and interpretations, some of which are informed by Bean’s own statements on his work and some based on a history of looking and the often frustrated promise of photographic images. The thoughts offered below are starting points for more discussion and, like Bean’s photographs, are intended to provoke reflection on the images without offering definitive interpretations.
Bean, a professor in the Media Arts Department of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, has been investigating notions of obsolescence for a decade, producing series and works such as Metamorphosis, Verbatim, and Equations, each of which considers objects, artefacts, and processes that are no longer viable, useful, or common in our hyper-linked contemporary world. Even his project Illuminated Manuscripts, based on the handwritten manuscripts of media theorist Marshall McLuhan, touches on the nostalgic novelty of physical inscription and the information bleed that occurs in a two-sided analogue medium. (Screen-based digital information is emphatically one-sided; even the transparent gesture-controlled displays in the fifteen-year-old futuristic movie Minority Report are essentially one-sided.) Bean’s recent oeuvre is heavily weighted with works that look simultaneously backward and forward, situated at a topological knot in which the threads of the past, present, and future are profoundly intertwined and impossible to untangle. Indeed, his Equations series is literally an exploration of historical physical models of mathematical knots that were long ago replaced by computer modelling and are now part of a museum collection. Their narratives have changed from powerful and revelatory tool of visualization to quaint, almost crafty examples of how things were done before everyone started carrying powerful computers in their pockets that we call “phones.”
Discussions of the “truth value” of photography may seem quaint and dated in 2016 – do we really believe photographs anymore? Should we ever have believed photographs? – but working toward a final art product that is printed and displayed in discrete locations, such as an art gallery, references a time when photographs were resolutely considered emblems of, as Roland Barthes so famously phrased it in his investigation of the ontology of photography, “that has been.”1 The referential power of photography, its status as a document, has been decimated in the world of critical theory, and the contemporary digital version of the medium has been elevated in the art world to yet another means of active and authored image making. But despite the dominance of digital sensors over light-sensitive silver salts, the transition from photography to photography has been relatively painless. We still tend to read photographs as photographs. I would argue that ostensible naturalism, even when fantastic or surreal, is one of the reasons that we continue to read photographs as photographs. However, this can lead to a tautological and frustrating definition of photography: photographs are photographs because we treat them like photographs.
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