June 30, 2009
Critical Fragments: Documentation
“Since the mid-1960s, conceptual artists have denied any interest in photography per se. To hear the artists tell it, photography was only useful or interesting to them insofar as it was instrumental in conveying or recording their ideas. Time and again artists describe the photographs themselves as either brute information or uninflected documentation.”(1)
As ironic as it was necessary, the photographic archiving of conceptual art provides a test case for documentation as a separate and relevant critical issue. When conceptual artists began to consider what it is that artists do, their consequential investigations lead to exercises in information theory and epistemology, measurements and statistics, actions and situations. All this knowledge produced “documents” that embodied the art but not the “art” itself. This premise would become a conceptual dictum of such pervasive and evidentiary power that few academic overviews of conceptual art do much more than re-state this mantra of “art is the idea not the object.”
Within its limited aesthetic, object production was a low priority for conceptual artists. However, some conceptualists realized that other than following Fluxist maneuvers of indexical, momentary events that may or may not be witnessed, their documentation of staged actions and situations would be easily photographed to provide documentation. This gave rise to a term known in art theory as “de-skilled” photography. This early photographic documentation of conceptual art, without aesthetic pretense or intention, has been lifted from its down-played status through an elegant sleight-of-hand by museums and curatorial practice. Museums have manipulated these conceptual art photographic documents as “fine art” in their own right, and represent it through accepted formalist language previously established in the appreciation of “high art” photography.
In a cobbled-together exhibition currently at the Whitney Museum, we see the “greatest hits” of “Photoconceptualism” as represented in work by Bruce Nauman, Gordon Matta-Clark, Robert Smithson, Mel Bochner, Dan Graham and others. Apparently the curators propose that these photos yield a double-appreciation as photographs that may be superficially pleasing as objects as well as manifesting a concept. Matta-Clark, Smithson and Bochner can be eliminated from such a theory, as their photos clearly represent first order documentation of other work, i.e., a “cut,” a “Mirror Displacement” and a book about photography.(2)
Nauman and Graham fare better as “photoconceptualism” since their work really has little to do with formalistic issues such as framing or tonality. Graham’s selection, in fact, has been excised from his well-known “Homes For America” and loses all potency of context. Nauman’s multiple examples either visually document his fascination with pun (“Waxing Hot”) or dead-pan actions (“Burning Small Fires”). They provide an expanded methodology of “documentation” as we simultaneously view them as conveyance of the idea and address how documentation may function critically and not aesthetically.
Image: “Burning Small Fires” (1968); artist book; © Copyright 2006-2009 Bruce Nauman / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; Courtesy UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
1. Soutter, Lucy. “The Photographic Idea: Reconsidering Conceptual Photography”, Afterimage, March-April, 1999.
2. Charming as it is, the questionable inclusion of Bochner’s book demonstrates the curatorial haste of this show; notes about photography by famous people are not exactly photographs: “Bochner’s handwritten quotes on the power of photography are attributed to such indisputable sources as Marcel Proust, Mao Tse-tung, Marcel Duchamp, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the Encyclopedia Britannica. It turns out that Bochner has made up three of the quotes, although he never reveals which ones.” “Persuasive Images: Selected Works from the Art Collections at the University at Albany”, University Art Museum, Albany, 2000, 12.