Living Things, Carte grise à Roy Arden – Stephen Horne

[Fall 2010]

Living Things
Carte grise à Roy Arden
Dazibao, Montreal
May 22 to June 26. 2010

True to its title, this exhibition consists of photographic images grouped thematically by way of their subject, “living things.” In this case, the sample extends from images of algae in a pond, to a dog’s foot, to a family portrait. What these photographs all have in common is that they are “of” some “thing,” they all depict a living thing (with the exception of one dead rabbit). Which leads me to wonder, is my emphasis to be placed on the living or the thing? Or perhaps living should be understood as the verb, to live? This is what we’re doing right now, we’re living events, living as event, we’re living this text right now; my writing, your reading, is a living through of this thing. My text exists as event, as do the photographs and the exhibition that are the subject here. Such a perspective must fail to accord with the model of photography as pictorial reportage, which for curator Roy Arden functions as a premise.

What that “thing” is must be a simple question to answer: it’s just what is out there in front of me – basically, the world. It’s there, no doubt about it, and I’m seeing it, looking at it (it looks at me too!). As Susan Sontag put it, “For the photographer, the world is really there.” I would add that this is true also for all pre-reflective perception. There is, however, a weird “fold” taking place in front of my eyes as I scan the photographs on the wall. What I take to be “there” in front of my eyes is also, in some fundamental way, “not there.” When, on looking at a photograph by Wols, I tell you that I see a dead rabbit, I mean to say that there must have been a dead rabbit somewhere else, some other time, that is profoundly not “here.” And so that rabbit on paper in front of me is ostensibly a report from some source, which I am now passing along to you, the reader, the world. This particular reportage of the rabbit I’m looking at has been put together by pictorial means – specifically, as a photograph, which might be thought of as a technical substitute for a drawing and which I am now translating into a verbal description. By technical substitute, I mean to refer to the existence of the photograph as some thing made by way of a machine, another thing, but distinctly not organic, not a living thing. And we perceive these pictorial markings as meaningful by way of another construct, the realm of symbolic communications, a field from out of which the image is constructed, but from the event perspective, the image visually “explodes.” Henri Cartier-Bresson intuited all this when he said, “It is the photograph that takes you.”

All of this leaves me with a feeling of mediation’s weight, and the wait that is part of mediation. But when I come face to face with, for example, Moyra Davey’s image of a dog’s foot, just one, very close up, shallow focus just on the dog’s toes, standing, in the midst of a blurred other world, all that weight is lifted into the feeling of a now that has no before and no after, nothing either side of this moment. This is a photograph. This is what a camera produces, perhaps with the participation of a person, the photographer. This is without doubt the outcome of a complex relationship, an explosion of unpredictability out of this intertwining of human and machine vision. The floor on which this dog’s foot is so firmly planted continues in a second image placed adjacent but in its own frame. In this image, the space is squeezed into a horizontal slot shape by the floor with its perspective lines rising upward toward the middle of the photograph and a looming formless but also receding shape hanging down from the top of the image. What’s left is a long view between these two toward the centre of the image, where, against a far wall, a shapeless pile of fabric, perhaps clothing, is lying on the floor. The dust bunnies accumulated on the floor (no reference to Wols’s dead rabbit) give this away in certainty as a shot passing under a bed toward that distant wall. There is a glow to this image that can come only from a low-angle sun, late afternoon, in this apartment with its accumulations, its dog, and its dust-wrapped hair.

The model of enduring (living through) things and then producing commentaries after the fact suggests the insistence of narrative. This poses a problem for the would-be describer: description is typically subordinate to narrative. And that implies loyalty to a linear conception of time as inherently flowing and sequential, a view accompanied by a melancholy vision of history. This is the familiar view in which the photograph as a temporal fragment is a “cut” out of an otherwise ongoing, flowing “river” of time. Obviously this is far too reductive an understanding of what makes a photograph.

A contrary version follows from the understanding of a photograph, not as description, but as event – or, as Moyra Davey has put it, as “accident.” This locates photographic practice closer to the avant-garde activities of surrealism, which is a view well supported in the writings of Sontag and Rosalind Krauss. Certainly, the two images contributed to this exhibition by Geneviève Cadieux are consistent with this interpretation. Both images are presented as tightly formulated fragmentary selections: an eye, and an upwardly stretching hand. The emphasis is directed by a strong sense of the work’s existence within the event of composition as fragmentation. As I invoke avant-garde, I don’t mean to refer to it as a historical and stylistic category but as a mode of relating to time and temporality. Time is obviously the stuff from which photography is made. Avant-garde, as a future-oriented way of working with the present, is ontological. A model of photography based on the notion of “accident,” of radical openness to the unknown, provides an alternative to the Benjaminian melancholy of so much commentary. Surrealism recognized another model of the affirmative relating of present to future, a distinctly non-utopianist yet speculative experience of the present as a site of possibility. Where the question of the fragment appears, as it usually does in the context of photography, what avant-garde perspective offers is a version in which the fragment is one not of the past but of the future.  This could be interpreted as an example of Villem Flusser’s definition of the photograph as a projection on an environment rather than a description of it. Taking this as the point of view, depiction is an arrière-garde model.

Stephen Horne is an artist and a writer whose essays have appeared in periodicals (Third Text, Parachute, Art Press, Flash Art, Canadian Art, C Magazine, Fuse) and anthologies in English, French, and German. He edited Fiction, or Other Accounts of Photography (Montreal: Dazibao, 2000) and published Abandon Building: Selected Writings on Art (Press Eleven, 2007). Horne was an associated professor at NSCAD from 1980 to 2005 and taught MFE seminars at Concordia University from 1992 to 2000. He currently lives in France and Montreal.

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