Conceptual Tension viewed through a Cracked Macro Lens: A Structuralist Essay on the ‘Photo + Graphy II: An Ontological Prosthesis’ Exhibition by James Aksman-Glosz

Photo+Graphy II: An Ontological Prosthesis, a group photographic exhibition, took place at Interlude Gallery, Shop 11 131-145 Glebe Point Road, Glebe NSW from 13th October to 22nd October 2016. 

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Photo + Graphy II: An Ontological Prosthesis, 2016, installation view. Picture courtesy of Interlude Gallery

I have a keen interest in history: often it is the case that our past catches up with us, or previous events that occurred hundreds of years ago has a profound effect on our way of thinking. Back in 2011, I was studying at Sydney College of the Arts; I remember being alone, in a rarely used common room on campus, and with no other students around, it was strangely quiet, you could hear a pin drop. A sharp contrast to the weather outside, as there was a high pitch howling wind like a pack of wolves baying in unison however, because of the room’s thick sandstone walls this noise was relatively muted. A large desk was directly in front of me, and a collection of objects (art history textbooks, art journals, printed images of artworks) which are commonly seen together with hard-working and dedicated art students who are getting ready to prepare for a class presentation.

The subject of this class presentation was the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1799), more specifically his series of fourteen copper plate etchings Carceri d’invenzione (Capricious Inventions of Prisons, ca.1749-50). An accurate description of this series of artwork is an imaginary depiction of prisons, executed through the use of the Baroque Classical style. An absurd subject, considering I was studying at an art school well-known for it’s conceptually based arts program with a strong focus on Postmodernism. For the moment, I gritted my teeth, ignored the absurdity and began my research. Shortly after, I was suddenly startled when the door to the room violently sprung open (much like the scene in Tarantino’s revenge film Hateful Eight, and an apparent cause was the strong wind outside) and in walked artist and senior lecturer Justin Trendall. As he walked further into the room, for a brief second, his spine elongated as he distinctly peered over to see what I was doing. Little did I know beforehand, that Justin Trendall had a sustained interest in Piranesi’s work. And this sparked an engaging conversation, which led to his theory that artists are trying to overcome similar challenges that artists of past eras had to contend with, such as how there is a correlation between Piranesi and installation art in their investigation into how an aberrant spatial experience could be brought about by architectural design.

This conversation spirited me away to my earliest experiences studying art history, in particular, the Industrial Revolution period (1760-1840). Published on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, was Edmund Burke’s influential philosophy A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). Relegating literature and poetry as being more capable of interpreting and expressing the sublime than painting, stripping painting of its hierarchical position in art history, forcing it to survive in unfamiliar territory. Moving forward to the present day, a similar conundrum of the past exists within the medium of photography (in relation to painting), and for it to develop a unique model of semantics, and intellectual awareness it needs to create conceptual tension viewed through a cracked macro lens.

Signalling the investigation of a new topography of Photography is Photo + Graphy II: An Ontological Prosthesis (2016), a group photography exhibition. Being held at Interlude Gallery, which features a diverse range of artists that include Benjamin Chadbond, Jordanne Chant, Adrian De Georgio, Max Goodman, Baki Kocaballi, Gabriella Lo Presti, Patrick Mason, Elizabeth McCrystal, Sara Oscar, Isabel R, and Talia Smith.

To establish a rationale for this exhibition, co-director of Interlude Gallery, Misael M. has written a short essay. His philosophical argument contains diverse subject matter ranging from the photographic technique of ‘bracketing,’ the German philosopher Edmund Gustav Husserl, in particular, his writings on the phenomenological concepts: epoché and scepticism. Also there is a story about a girl named Alice taking a photo of a chicken lemon sandwich, which briefly alludes to Baudrillard’s philosophical discourse Simulacra and Simulation (1981), and a couple of quotes from Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy (1951), that promotes absurdity and nothingness. Additionally, there aren’t any contextual signifiers representing any of these things; it’s akin to all the clocks in the world have smashed so that chaos can reign.

Leading me to the opinion, that Misael M’s essay may not, in fact, be an essay, but rather a deceptive (and clever) method of flipping back and forth between conceptual ideas about connection and severance, disrupting the formal language of photography for the participating artists in this exhibition. For example, at the beginning of the essay, there is a quote from Beckett’s novel Molloy (1951) “to restore silence is the role of objects,” however, in its proper context, this quote was never meant to be a literal interpretation. Instead, it’s about the idea that assigning a metaphor to an object (connection), makes that object mean something, yet as soon as that linguistic exchange takes place, you forever dispense with the opportunity (severance) for that object to be meaningful to someone else.

Disrupting the visual exchange between viewer and artwork can be seen throughout Photo + Graphy II: An Ontological Prosthesis (2016). However, because Misael M.’s curatorial essay is ambitious, consequently, raising the bar in what I expect from contemporary art, a few of the artworks in this exhibition have failed due to their lack of conceptual rigour. Not surprising, since, in more recent years, I rarely witness contemporary art, which expresses the counter struggle against our desensitisation to images and simple narrative. Without resorting to the use of sensationalism or controversy.

Baki Kocaballi, #hamburger 4:28pm 01/10/2016, #cat 3.13pm 02/10/2016, #flower 2.11pm 01/10/2016, #selfie 3.01pm 01/10/2016, digital inkjet print on photographic paper, 2016. Picture courtesy of Interlude Gallery

Baki Kocaballi, #hamburger 4:28pm 01/10/2016, #cat 3.13pm 02/10/2016, #flower 2.11pm 01/10/2016, #selfie 3.01pm 01/10/2016, digital inkjet print on photographic paper, 2016. Picture courtesy of Interlude Gallery

Nevertheless, ‘desensitisation’ makes a welcome return, as a common theme in this exhibition. Oxygenising the medium of photography, through how it generates conceptual tension within the individual works. There is often misleading hypotheses about conceptual tension and how fusing concepts in an artwork, gained from multiple sources, can produce it. The old modernist idea of ‘making something old new again.’ Preferably, it’s achieved through exploring the binary opposition of protagonist versus antagonist, opposing what is necessary or expected — the type of art that challenges convention and consequently aiding in bolstering Weltanschauung, an outlook of the world seen through the artist’s perspective. With a pertinent example being Baki Kocaballi’s remarkable series of work that creates a contradiction within the medium of digital print and investigates the culture of photography, which exists in social media. It’s best to describe Kocaballi’s digital prints as blurred imagery to the point of complete abstraction. Dominating the abstract qualities of these prints is a colour scheme consisting of muddy browns, fiery orange, and muted pink. A particular colour combination: provoking direful feelings, and is reminiscent of the calamitous imagery in J.M.W Turner’s famous painting Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and DyingTyphoon Coming OnSlave Ship’ (1840). Sentiments that are better suited to describing past events, than the present, and marks a dissension from the conceptual discourse that Kocaballi has interwoven in his digital works, which functions on multiple levels. Through how he has dismantled (through abstraction) a defining trait of digital imagery, namely its high resolution while avoiding methods, which are frequently used such as blurred photographic distortion and pronounced pixelated graphics. With much contradiction, installed in the gallery space with mechanical sequencing, and making it visible to the viewer that they are witnessing a digital reproduction of a set of images.

In Walter Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), he proposes that authenticity in art diminishes through the process of reproduction. Despite the fact that, in the context of the visual arts, ‘authenticity’ is identical to first-hand experience, and first-hand experience isn’t any more authentic than a second-hand account of an event. For instance, the Australian painter George Gittoes expresses the horrors of war in his paintings by illustrating events he has personally experienced, in Afghanistan, Mogadishu, and Rwanda. However, are his paintings any more authentic than that of the 18th-century painter, Francisco Goya (1746-1828), specifically, his famous painting The Third of May, 1808, or The Executions on Príncipe Pío Hill (1814)? Taking into consideration, that Goya didn’t experience this massacre first hand but conjured it up with the authority of artistic license. An artistic direction expertly analysed by the art critic Robert Hughes (1938-2012) who states “The truth offered by previous paintings of war is not raw but manifestly cooked; while Goya’s extraordinary image is not raw either, but cooked in a different and startling unprecedented way, so it looks raw.”

From this point of view, the majority of visual arts are contrived, no matter what medium it’s created in, and it boils down to the situation if the artist was able to persuade the viewer in believing their artwork is authentic. With Kocaballi’s digital prints, he gets four attempts at it (there are four prints). The first print provides the viewer with their first impression; the second print projects a surreal experience when the viewer notices subtle changes within the images, through repetition the third print becomes more persuasive, and the fourth and last print become the precipice where authenticity might be acknowledged. Coupled with titles (and accompanied by representational images displayed on a tablet device) such as #hamburger 4:28pm 01/10/2016 and #cat 3.13pm 02/10/2016 adds an extra layer of meaning to these prints. Providing a motif, social commentary on mobile phone photography viewed in social media, repeated photos of what most of us eat for breakfast or lunch, and cat memes, both characterised by their increased frequency into our social consciousness and their banality. Placed in close vicinity with abstract imagery, this motif is carried to a new destination, forming a narrative on photography within social media and the nihilistic effects it has on the human spirit. Consequently, spawning a reversed mirror image of the teleological motivation behind modernist abstract art. Let me explain, firstly, abstract art has had many influences, one of them being the writings of the German philosopher G.W.F Hegel (1770-1831). For Hegel, the visual world was full of symbolism charged with concrete connotations, corroding subjectivity in art, and to solve this problem, art needed to become an unmitigated artifice. Put more simply, abstract art that is not about anything, although philosophically it holds the objective to advance the human spirit. Placing Kocaballi’s digital prints in a framework marked by contradiction, both advancing the human spirit and denying its existence, at the same time. Therefore, forcing the perimeter that separates historical fact (Hegel’s advancing of the human spirit) with the present day (social media’s nihilistic effect on the human spirit) to become blurred, to the point, of complete abstraction.

Talia Smith, Seven Times over Seven Days (Time, Distance, Me and You), inkjet print on matte paper from a 120mm photograph, bricks, plywood, 2016. Picture courtesy of Interlude Gallery

Talia Smith, Seven Times over Seven Days (Time, Distance, Me and You), inkjet print on matte paper from a 120mm photograph, bricks, plywood, 2016. Picture courtesy of Interlude Gallery

One of the most visually appealing artworks in this exhibition is Talia Smith’s high contrast photographic work Seven Times over Seven DaysTime, Distance, Me and You’ (2016). Embracing the theme of ‘desensitisation’ that marks this exhibition, Talia Smith’s photograph is installed by having the work gently tilting against the gallery wall, comfortably resting on two small pillars of ordinary house bricks. This photographic work captures an empty backyard complete with a weathered wooden pail fence, and with a lowered horizon line, it gives the illusion that the viewer is seeing this yard from a child’s perspective. There is also a subtle light that is pushing its way through the narrow cracks of the fence, reminding me of the same kind of light that flickers through the dense curtain backdrop of a theatre production. And the more time I spend looking at this artwork, I become more and more convinced that the fence doesn’t prompt me to acknowledge it as a suburban wooden wall, but a thick curtain, the type of curtain, which you would find as a backdrop on a theatre stage. Conforming to the process of making (deciding on the subject matter of the photo) and remaking (modifying the contextual elements of the image). Further evident in how put on display to the viewer through a shallow depth of field, is the asphalt ground in front of the fence, much the same perspective, which an audience would view a theatre stage. And the asphalt ground is clearly illuminated, a spotlight, to gesture it’s time to take on the role you were born to play, be it Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Wagner’s Isolde, or maybe you just want to play a different version of yourself no one has ever seen to an imaginary audience. And to believe in such things, to embrace the imagination of your youth and express theatricality with few restraints, you have to perceive the world through the mind’s eye of a child.

The Theatre of the Absurd (c. 1950-1960), which included Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, held the philosophical stance that human existence no longer can be defined in any set terms. Interpreted through Beckett’s plays such as Waiting for Godot (1953) and Endgame (1957) by exploring the theme of ‘nothingness.’ Be that as it may, on account of how Beckett was directly influenced by the French essayist and novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922) the idea of ‘nothingness’ is frankly not a surface quality. Specifically, Proust’s theory that experiencing anguish in the void of ‘nothingness’ assists in determining the essential nature of an individual. Following with reckless abandon down this spiralling road to nowhere can be clearly seen in Isabel R’s installation work TobogánSlide’ (2016). This installation work consists of a mid contrast, mid-key, printed image of a metaphor for existential loneliness; a waterslide in an amusement park, except that it’s completely devoid of people. Printed on a suspended piece of lycra, with the lycra pegged on a piece of synthetic rope, comparable to an article of clothing, which one would see hanging on a washing line.

Isabel R, Tobogán (Slide), digital print on lycra, synthetic rope, 2016. Picture courtesy of Interlude Gallery

Isabel R, Tobogán (Slide), digital print on lycra, synthetic rope, 2016. Picture courtesy of Interlude Gallery

Now imagine a washing line, where a family, couple or group of friends has just returned from an overseas holiday. What would you expect to see? In Australia, many people, regardless, on where they grew up, or what their interests are, end up at the same destination. Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. So probability dictates, that you would most likely see Lady and the Tramp graphic tops, Captain Mickey Mouse tie-dye t-shirts, and since Disney owns the rights to Lucasfilm Ltd., maybe a black t-shirt with Kylo Ren’s lightsaber emblazoned on the front. What you wouldn’t expect to see is an image of a waterslide in an abandoned amusement park.

Knowing this, is Isabel R’s TobogánSlide,’ just an inquiry into the strict dichotomy between absence and presence, a simple visual game of playing opposites? People who embark on an overseas trip, advertise how much better their lives when compared to others by having Disney merchandise hanging on their washing line (for all their envious neighbours to see). And rather antithetically Isabel R’s installation artwork is candidly stating that in this world, there are no more rewarding fun activities to pursue, let alone advertise.

Although on closer examination, I realise the corner of the gallery is where her artwork was installed, which makes me fondly recall some poignant phenomenological concepts about architectural space in Gaston Bachelard’s treatise La Poétique de l’EspaceThe Poetics of Space’ (1957). In particular, the chapter in his book titled Corners; according to Bachelard the corner in a room is a psychological space, impregnable to our adult sensibilities, the last refuge for the imagination. Although sharp angles pretty much characterise ‘corners,’ an awkward space to enter, and much like being caught in a spider’s web, harder still to leave at the first sign of trouble. This memory brings to mind, other thoughts, especially, Romanian-French playwright Eugène Ionesco (1909-1994) and his address to a gathering of German and French writers in 1960. In his speech, he discusses the failure of the architect to design structures that can maintain artefacts, belief systems, and memories of its former inhabitants. Ultimately, it’s a philosophical argument about how among the ruins of dead legacies was the foundation for art to flourish. A pattern evident throughout history, the Renaissance was built upon the broken remains of Greek and Roman art, assembled from the failure of the Royal Academies of England and France to progress side-by-side with an ever-changing modern society is the long-lasting literary and art movement Modernism. And Isabel R’s TobogánSlide’ is constructed out of the dying legacy of consumerism, and its failure to provide comfort from existential loneliness.

Deeply embedded in Sara Oscar’s diptych photographic work Formalist Arrangement ‘with Clay Cup’, and An Allegorical Arrangement ‘the Cave’ (2016) is a dark conversation that oscillates between the limitations of perception and deconstructing historicism. Both of these artworks are in a landscape format, and their scale is identical, the first work is a still life photograph, in the mid-ground of the picture is a disassembled cube, a flat circle made from golden coloured paper and a pair of sharp, jagged metal objects. In the background, there is an identical golden circle, which closely resembles a sphere — glowing with sublime terror generated by its artificiality — through the use of distinct lighting. Along with a black ribbed cylinder (I would presume, refers to the clay cup in the artwork’s title), a pair of horizontally placed circles made from black coloured paper, and an ominous shadow, which appears to be the silhouette, produced by an ancient monolith.

The second artwork, An Allegorical Arrangementthe Cave,’ is a low contrast, photograph, capturing a winding deserted road — comparable to the compressed rhythm of an art nouveau whiplash curve — that leads to a cavernous tunnel inside the escarpment of a mountain. Without any doubt, the mountain significantly reduces the depth of field in how it devours the background. Ravaging the peripheral vision of the viewer, at which point, a sense of psychological trauma, close to claustrophobia begins to wash over the image.

In my opinion, these artworks are conceived — through their reaction — within a framework of a set of presuppositions discussed in Yve-Alain Bois’s essay “Painting: The Task of Mourning,” in Painting as Model (1990). With claims, such as the negation of the symbolic order, the game of modernist language has ended, and appropriation art solely exists to grieve the death of history. Leaving Sara Oscar’s Formalist Arrangementwith Clay Cup’ out in the cold, as the narrative it evokes is viewed through its historical position, and as the title suggests relates to formalism, a critical inquiry focusing on the visual elements within an artwork.

At a time of social change, in 1914, British art critics Roger Fry and Clive Bell through their writing initially defined formalism (within the visual arts). Later it was revised by American art critic Clement Greenberg in his well-known essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939). In a pattern not too dissimilar to the various iterations of formalism, Sara Oscar has frequently used history to create a dialogue within her extensive body of work. That includes Talbot’s Pencil of Nature (1844), the first published book of photographic images in her photographic work Law of the Series #1 (2012), and 1950’s American cinema in From Here to Eternity (2013). Making it evident that she has decided to go against the grain by sparking a discourse within the flames of history, with the exception that she has continually stoked this fire; history begins every morning.

Within the chronicles of contemporary art, brought to my attention through Gregor Schneider’s Totes Haus UrArchetypal Dead House’ (2001) is the cognitive fissure between the familiar and the strange. A set of labyrinthine rooms, eerie yet recognisable, a dystopian view of domestic bliss. Cramped spaces, best described as an amalgamation of a DIY home renovation with a World War II bomb shelter. There is also a room full of rubbish and a deflated sex doll, and in close vicinity is an antique wooden staircase, completely divergent, in past things seen concerning its level of palatableness. A visual recipe of the trivial combined with the unexpected, which assists Schneider in boosting up the levels of anticipation perceived in his work to a high degree, a familiar technique, employed to great effect by the director Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) in the manner he created suspense in a moment of crisis.

Sara Oscar, Formal Arrangement (with Clay Cup), An Allegorical Arrangement (The Cave), inkjet print on hahnemuehle paper, 2016. Picture courtesy of Interlude Gallery

Sara Oscar, Formal Arrangement (with Clay Cup), An Allegorical Arrangement (The Cave), inkjet print on hahnemuehle paper, 2016. Picture courtesy of Interlude Gallery

This method is also used to great effect in Sara Oscar’s latest work An Allegorical Arrangementthe Cave,’ a photograph, which can easily pass for a film still, and bears an unmistakable likeness to well-known imagery from David Lynch’s psychological crime drama Twin Peaks (1990-1991). Sara Oscar in a similar vein to Hitchcock and Schneider (or Lynch) captures and constructs imagery marked by their feelings of anticipation and suspense. Executed through cross dialogue between subject matter and content, and how they are incorrectly aligned. For example, the title of one of her photographic works “An Allegorical Arrangement, the Cave” makes reference to The Allegory of the Cave, a conversation between Plato’s older brother Glaucon and Socrates about the limitations of perception, documented in Plato’s epistemological dialogue Republic (c. 380 BCE). Excluding the fact that mirrored in her other work is content, which I would be counting on to see in this photograph.

In her other work, Formalist Arrangementwith Clay Cup’, laid bare for all to see is the displaced topic of The Allegory of the Cave. Visually, this photograph is equivalent to bringing together the act of browsing through the pages of Thomas S. Kuhn’s, history of science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, with the hypothetical situation of Galileo making modernist collages in his spare time. There is the image of an ancient monolith only visible through its silhouette, and much higher on the other side of the picture is a black circle, possibly representing an eclipse, a darkening of perception. It accurately brings to mind The Allegory of the Cave in how Socrates convinces Glaucon that freedom is a myth, which can only lead to an early death. In the centre of the picture, with the notion of slow dancing through time stands a disassembled cube, perhaps a symbol for geometry, specifically Charles Hinton’s Tesseract. And with a complete lack of unity, a cylinder, which reminds me of a ceramic barrel, the living quarters of the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (c. 412–312 BCE). Who would frequently eat lunch during Plato’s lectures, and whose presence falls in line with the artist’s quirky sense of humour. Consequently, summoning some of the same methods employed by T.S Eliot in his modernist poetry The Waste Land (1922), as a result of not having a unifying narrative. Also in the role of the outsider and how Sara Oscar’s redemption as an artist has been buried within an extreme action, beyond convention, creating displaced content that the viewer stumbles upon by accident. Being similar to the experience of reading an interesting article in a magazine. Then discovering the full-page advertisement for TAG Heuer watches — featuring a serious looking Leonardo DiCaprio, wearing an expensive watch overflowing with aesthetic appeal, with the marketing line “History begins every morning” — dominating the opposite page is strangely more fascinating.

Over the past year, I have had intermittent conversations with Misael M. about art history, in particular, the lack of artworks, which signify the transition from one framework of ideas, style or genre to another. The modernist painter Piet Mondrian didn’t begin with the grid, he discovered it through painting trees, its limbs, twisting, bending, and stretching towards the border of the canvas. Successfully, splintering abstract art to the point that only balance, democracy, and a sense of spirituality remained. He viewed progressiveness through a cracked macro lens, in the initial stages fixed on the past, and through experimentation ended up influencing the future of art, not just for his generation, but also for future generations. Although, photography is not painting, and for the artists participating in Photo + Graphy II: An Ontological Prosthesis a priority for them is flattening time within history, creating displacement without the motivation for shifting context (parallel to how an abstract painter flattens an image). Also during the creative process, the beginning and end of an artwork holds little consequence, it’s the journey (or back-and-forth method) that matters, taking their first steps into, what might be, an undiscovered country.

 – James Aksman-Glosz

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James Aksman-Glosz is an arts writer and a practising artist whose work places emphasis on painting, drawing and printmedia. He holds a Bachelor of Visual Arts (Painting) from Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney. Previously he studied at Kunstakadamie Düsseldorf. With further study at the Sydney Gallery School and at the NADC (Nepean Arts and Design Centre). More recently he was the Master Printer for Matthys Gerber with the works being exhibited in Hot Art—Cold Market (2012), Institute of Contemporary Art Newtown (I.C.A.N), Sydney.

Curatorial information on Photo + Graphy II: An Ontological Prosthesis can be found at http://www.interludegallery.com/13.10.16.html

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