February 24, 2006

"Reading" Post-Conceptualism in "Post-Medium" Photography

Post-conceptualism can not only replicate or “re-present” the best of conceptual art’s theories but it can also result in a “style without substance” as contemporary practitioners shrug on the “cloak” of conceptualism and become the “metonymic avant garde.” Conceptual art’s intellectual discourse sought to re-invest the activity of art with a social “use value” that the conceptualists felt had been mislaid. Other theoretical issues advanced by the original conceptual artists were the divestment of the “preciousness” of the object, and the “dematerialization” of same, further expansion on minimal art’s concern with the temporal aspects of perception, and the consideration of documenting “actions,” not necessarily performative actions, both through “instructions” and a “deskilled” photography.

I would like to propose here that the photographic work of Hiroshi Sugimoto is work of a post-conceptual practice. For any artist to engage in the re-statement or appropriation of previous art theories and forms, it will be our assumption that they should not only adhere to the tenets of these earlier forms but they would be expected to advance these concepts, to add something to the discourse. The current Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s exhibition of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s work clearly makes the obvious point, through nearly 150 photographs, diorama and installations, that this artist has been more than dabbling in a few of the conceptual practices stated above. Whether he succeeds in “carrying forward” any of these earlier conceptual art issues is what I wish to consider.

For example, the idea of “de-skilled” photography was current in the 1970’s, during Sugimoto’s formative years as a photographer. But he says:

“I didn't want to be criticized for taking low-quality photographs, so I tried to reach the best, highest quality of photography and then to combine this with a conceptual art practice. But thinking back, that was the wrong decision [laughs]. Developing a low-quality aesthetic is a sign of serious fine art - I still see this. But to me, serious concepts are only shown through a highly mastered technique.”
(From an interview with art critic Martin Herbert published on Eyestorm http://www.eyestorm.com/feature/ED2n_article.asp?article_id=135 )

The apparent contradiction in Sugimoto’s mind, between doing “serious fine art” through “taking low-quality photographs” and the idea that “serious concepts are only shown through a highly mastered technique,” exposes an artistic conflict that was resolved by the 1980’s. It would be naïve of me to assume that successive generations of artists would stick to this original “game plan” of candid, “lo-fi” photography, when it became quite obvious that the “art market” would convert most of the 1970’s conceptual artists to the “real world” idea of “commodification.” This reversion to the “precious object” is clearly the operative nature of much of contemporary post-conceptualism, but those artists who still dispense with “commodity,” mostly performance artists, have taken a more difficult and (perhaps?) worthier path, better left to another discussion.

What I would like to address then is time. Sugimoto’s famous series of photographs taken in darkened cinemas has been discussed in terms of its depiction and engagement of “architectural concerns.” However, it is the very “concept” of this series by Sugimoto that appears most favorably related to the earlier conceptual art theories stated above, and is both historical in his respect and innovative in his approach.

If we suppose that the time for the exposure used for the photograph was the same as the projection time for the film, as has been stated by Sugimoto, this allows for a “compression” of the filmic event into a single frame. This temporal concern of compressing time clearly resonates as a critique of the “medium” of photography, a “medium” that by its very technical aspect exists in the “moment.” This “reduction” of the film into a “single” frame ironically “stretches” the time in its conception.

“What remains visible of the film’s time-compressed, individual images is the bright screen of the movie theater, which illuminates the architecture of the space. That its content retreats into the background makes the actual film a piece of information, manifesting itself in the (movie theater) space. As a result, instead of as a content-related event, film presents itself here as the relationship between time and spatial perception.”
(From http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/theaters/)

It is this foregrounding of “time and spatial perception” which supports my post-conceptual “read” of this particular series of photographs by Sugimoto. However, I would disagree with the idea that the dominant nature of film is “content-related,” especially within the context of Sugimoto’s photographic practice. For these post-conceptual, “post-medium” photographs to “work” one must truly consider the cinematic atmosphere of the theater itself, which does reference both “time” (duration of filmic event) and “space” (the theater itself), which further explores minimalism’s interest in the “temporal aspects of perception.”

(U.A. Playhouse, New York, 1978 by Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy of Gabriel Einsohn, Communications and Marketing, Hirshhorn Museum.)


Craig P. Webb said...

One question about your post. Early on you mention the "medium" of photography. Later on you revert to designating photography as "post-medium." During our last class we kind of went on a strange unresolved tangent that questioned what could be considered a medium. You had seemed uncertain whether to consider photography a medium. In light of this, and your dualistic references to medium in this post — is photography a medium?
At least in your post-structuralist opinion.

M. Cameron Boyd said...

Realistic, illusionist art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art. Modernism used art to call attention to art.
- Clement Greenberg, 1961.

Frederic Jameson offers a definition of what constitutes a “medium” (Liz Kotz, p. 110) which certainly gives one pause in reference to photography, hence my uncertainty. In brief, he posits that a “medium” is not only a “social institution,” but that it also must be a “specific form of aesthetic production” and “a specific technology, generally organized around a central apparatus or machine.” This launched our “strange unresolved tangent” of a discussion on what a “medium” is, or can be. I have no issue with photography being a “social institution.” But I hesitate to call photography a “medium” because of what Jameson proposed, since photography has a multitude of ways that visual information can be structured, disseminated and “formed” in its "aesthetic production,” and just as many varieties of “machines,” or technologies, that become its “form,” i.e., digital, celluloid, colloidal, etc.

Being a “poststructuralist,” I prefer my considerations on this juicy topic to be characterized as “pluralistic” rather than “dualistic” for, as you will discover, I am decidedly “uncertain” about a lot of things. Let me just offer this:

Rather than focusing on the “singleness of the art object,” postmodern theorists such as Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh, Craig Owens and Douglas Crimp were interested in art’s multiple contexts and meanings and its relationship with social and cultural influences. This change in focus from the external qualities to the internal content of art and thereby the rejection of the basic aesthetic inherence of originality, created a burgeoning interest in reproductive, mechanical media. Technology allowed for the creation of reproductive mediums, which denounced basic modern aesthetics and thus confirmed the movement away from traditional formats.

Photography was the favored medium of postmodernism as it, by its very nature, called into question modernist ideals. Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, “Photography in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, influenced the postmodern thought that “photography deconstructs the possibility of differentiating between the original and the copy” and thus the original’s “aura”, “singular authenticity” and its “authority” become obsolete.”

(From http://www.ibiblio.org/nmediac/winter2002/cultural_logic.html)

Which brings us to Rosalind Krauss and her view that art is now made in a “post-medium condition” because of the “media heterogeneity” that rejects those earlier Modernist, Greenbergian concerns with the search for “wholeness and purity” through a “self-critical” medium-specificity. This is why smart photographers like Jeff Wall, Andreas Gursky and Hiroshi Sugimoto are dealing with issues in their work that conflate time and space, art theory and art history, installation and architecture.

To conclude, I would have to say that photography cannot be a true “medium,” either by Jameson’s or Greenberg’s definitions, but perhaps will find its potential within this “post-medium” practice.

Craig P. Webb said...

I realize that one could use photography as straight mechanical reproduction - but certainly anyone who has used a darkroom realizes that the real magic happens when the artist's hand is applied. By this I mean that there are so many factors when printing prints by hand that technically they are all originals. Not only will the faculty admit how hard it is to come in years later and reproduce a seemingly exact print for a client, but there are so many factors to doing it in the same week - strength of chemicals, freshness of lightbulb in enlarger, scratches on the filters, and then there is trying to ape the same exact movements during the dodging and burning. Doing exact copies in the same day is still tricky do to this last factor. I guess one could just get semantical with the word EXACT as a defense?

Craig P. Webb said...

Mark what do you make of his use of subject matter. To me the powerful ones ring of a spiritual tone.

The buddhas are obvious.
The cinema is the golden alter of the Modern Age where we worshiped our cinematic idols in art deco temples.
Finally there is the view of the sea and let us not forget what Melville said about the ocean:

" Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles
to see it? Why did the poor poet of Tennessee, upon suddenly receiving two
handfuls of silver, deliberate whether to buy him a coat, which he sadly needed,
or invest his money in a pedestrian trip to Rockaway Beach? Why is
almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him,
at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage
as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration,
when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land?
Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks
give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this
is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story
of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image
he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned.
But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans.
It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all."

So is this spirituality intrinsic to your view of post-structualism, or is it a happy aside that has no effect on your categorization?

M. Cameron Boyd said...

A belief in post-structuralism would deflate any and all assurances of "meaning" being found within a signified, or "concept," such as "spirituality." Commenting upon spirituality is, in essence, the same as debating religion; it's neither provable nor productive, and generally speaking should be avoided at family gatherings and watering holes.

As for Sugimoto's "Buddhas," I saw them as so many simulacrum, sitting in a darkening gloom, contemplating the nothingness of “meaning.” As U2 sang, “Even better than the real thing.”

CP Webb said...

Now I know your not a nihlist - so I'm sure you are not advocating that there is no meaning behind our art. I'm assuming that we agree that there isn't just ONE meaning. That the viewer is not tied down to the artist's meaning, but rather is free to find their own meaning. Now I shouldn't be putting words in your mouth - cause there is obvious limits to letting viewers project their own meaning - such as when it crosses the line into slander. For example Anselm Kiefer was castigated by some as having his work being sympathetic to Germany's Nazi past. So if we include artist statements or work titles aren't we signaling that there is some spectrum of meaning? Don't we as humans have egos that need to be inflated?

By the way I'm old school U2:

"The Ocean"
A picture in grey
Dorian Gray
Just me by the sea.

And I felt like a star
I felt the world could go far
If they listened to what I said.
The sea

M. Cameron Boyd said...

Of course, there is “meaning” behind our art. The question is, whose “meaning” will prove to be the dominant discourse? If we look back over even the past 40 years, say to 1966, we can find there are multiple points of view, critiques, or ideas about any particular artist and their work. Depending on the intent, agenda, curatorial or critical “practice” afoot, a student of “art theory” may find it difficult going. To be “tied down to the artist's meaning” is optimistically dependent on the artist even knowing their “meaning.” But “meaning” in art is reliant upon the contrivances of various “cultural system[s] of signification”, like language, art history and criticism, all of which are truly fragile "constructs."

Yes, “viewers project their own meaning,” as an opening into the “discourse.” Artist’s statements, titles, especially curatorial labels, are also initiations of a discourse, under more controlled conditions, as they can project an “authenticity,” however vulnerable, of “real” intentionality, and function as obvious supplements to the art object.

CP Webb said...


What do you mean?


M. Cameron Boyd said...

Note to general readers: CPW is referencing an art world “inside joke” about the 1940’s New York painter Ad Reinhardt’s cartoon depicting an abstract painting “asking” a viewer, “What do you represent?”

Craig, only the artwork can ask this of the artist.

It's a pity that these recent discussions are buried under comments on a February post.

Andrej said...

They're still getting read.

Mark Cameron Boyd said...

And at 1:00 AM, no less.