July 22, 2016

From the Archives: "Reading" Post-Conceptualism in Post-Medium Photography

Administrator's Note: Currently in semi-retirement, I am focused more on specific art, music and curatorial projects of late. As such, I will be re-posting selected popular essays from Theory Now's archives. Readers can expect updates on my creative endeavors. Meanwhile, here's a post from February 2006, "Reading" Post-Conceptualism in "Post-Medium" Photography, with nearly 10,000 views over the past 10 years; original link has contextual comments and discussion.

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 na├»ve 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.)

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