Photography and Beyond:
New Expressions in France
at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through June 3
In recent decades French intellectuals have revolutionized modern critical thinking, as structuralism, semiotics, deconstruction, and lesser-known methodologies have crept into, and in many cases taken over, academic discourse. While many scholarly articles on art or film are still reasonably accessible, others--chock-full of footnotes citing Lacan, Derrida, Althusser--are comprehensible only to the initiated.
Now artists are using these sorts of theories as they investigate the ways in which cultural products make--or fail to make--meaning. Each of the seven photographers in the exhibit "Photography and Beyond: New Expressions in France" at the Museum of Contemporary Photography seems to be exploring issues such as the relationship between the photograph and the thing it depicts, and the difference between photo imagery and other visual signs. This is done most often by combining photographs with other elements--three-dimensional objects, fragments of text. These artists might as well be called sculptors or installation artists; indeed, Christian Boltanski still considers himself a painter.
But, mirabile dictu, much of this work is quite fine. Issues that seem muddy in essays, sometimes because the writers realize there are no easy answers, are presented by several of these artists with the clarity that comes most readily from aesthetic imagery, even if they aren't resolved here either.
Many of these works exhibit a large number of the properties that have been asserted at one time or another to be essentials of the photographic medium. But the works combine these properties, in classic modernist fashion, with their opposites: Photos are presented as icons in installations that devalue each image. Photos that remind one that every photo is a record of a previous time are combined to underline the irretrievability of past time. Photos that seem to be literal pieces of documentary truth are seen in an installation that also suggests they add up to playful fiction.
The French critic and semiotician Roland Barthes argues in his book on photography Camera lucida that the photograph "is never distinguished from its referent"; in it can be found "the wakening of intractable reality." In Pascal Kern's large color photos of industrial objects, often metal parts he's retrieved from junkyards, the thing depicted seems to almost leap off the wall. Each of the eight photos of Culture is nearly filled with a curved piece of metal, the picture shape matching the scrap almost perfectly, convex and concave curves alternating. Light beams shine off the metal in broad bands, highlighting its gentle curve.
Some surfaces are smooth, others rough and discolored, giving each metal piece some of the variety and randomness of things one finds in a real junkyard. Yet the curves are barely noticeable. Each piece glows yellowish tan; Kern is said to have painted the machine parts before photographing them. This flattening and the aestheticizing of the metal is emphasized by each photo's frame: thick, somewhat discolored black metal, some of its edges rough, others with gills like the underside of a mushroom cap. As real as Kern's metal scraps look, the difference between them and the metal frames remind us that the photos are illusions.
In fact each installation sets up differences between the photographs and the other materials that encourage the viewer to question how the photos produce meaning. Ariele Bonzon's Archeologie photographique imaginaire is an installation of nine metal pillars arranged irregularly on the floor; atop each sit glass plates, a fragment of a photo transparency sandwiched between them. At first the work looks like a mysterious ruin, the columns elevating the photos to the status of cult objects. But the transparencies themselves, torn at the edges and varied in content (some depict actors, one shows a classical statue), seem less extraordinary. Many appear to be of a play, and in fact all are images of a stage production of Euripides' The Trojan Women. Suddenly the pillars seem like actors or members of a chorus; the asymmetrical arrangement makes them seem alive. The photo images of actors substitute for a performance, but they can also be seen as strange shards recovered on some fantasy dig. Because they're pieces of film, one can regard them as a modernist assertion of the materiality of the medium; yet they're also mysterious and ghostlike, recalling stained-glass windows. They're mere emulsions and odd icons. Rather than devaluing both extremes, Bonzon succeeds in making both seem true at once.
At first Christian Boltanski's Les habits de Francois C. seems to be based on Barthes's identification of the photograph with its referent. Twenty-five photos of different pieces of a young child's clothing, each in a shallow box, are arrayed in a five-by-five grid. No child is visible in these images, yet a child presumably once wore the clothes; these photos are records of times past, but they also suggest an even earlier time. While each shot powerfully evokes the absent child, each shot is also fuzzy, which distances the viewer. The clothes are neither neatly laid out nor a mess; there are odd angles and wrinkles, but no illegible bundles. As a consequence one thinks neither of a child's careless toss nor of a mother's neat placement. This ambiguous arrangement suggests a photographer's studied eye. Consequently this work of "facts"--images of the clothing of a child--also becomes a work of fiction, a story about an imaginary child whose absence is double: no longer visible in the pictures, which at first seem documentary, he could also be a construction of the artist.
Boltanski's work, like many of the pieces in this show, ultimately portrays a kind of impossibility. Each photo is in a separate metal frame, and each is mounted separate from all the others. Every moment, every article of clothing in Francois' life is broken off from the whole; in no image do the different articles form an ensemble. The metal frames monumentalize, memorialize, and almost fetishize, but the absent life that's suggested seems forever lost--and perhaps never was real.
The fragmentation in Annette Messager's Reconciliation des petites effigies is even more radical. The artist, who says she likes "bric-a-brac, tinkering, mixing up genres," clusters toy animals and tiny photos, each in a separate frame, in a large glass case that hangs on the wall. Several of the animals have their arms around each other, as if they're friends in some fantasy world: the photos are of fragments of adult human body parts--a foot, a breast, a tongue, a nipple. Hanging by strings, the photos recall the tradition of cameos of loved ones worn as reminders or substitutes.
There's playfulness and "tinkering" here, but a powerful awfulness as well, a kind of horror beneath the surface that gives the work its strength. The photos are not substitutes for whole people; all one can grasp is a nipple or an ass. A world of dehumanized adult sexuality is counterposed with the gentle embraces of furry toys, which serve children as substitutes the way photos serve some adults.
Impossibility and loss are given autobiographical form in Sophie Calle's The Husband. Five large photos and accompanying wall texts document Calle's recent marriage and its apparent dissolution. There's a photo of her husband and of the Las Vegas drive-in chapel where they were married. Two other photos are blowups of tiny notes the husband wrote: the first is of his two New Year's resolutions ("no lying," "no biting"), the second is addressed to another woman. These blowups monumentalize the notes, emphasizing that her husband's words--and the misdeeds they imply--are at least as important as his picture. But Calle includes her own inadequacies as well. Below a text in which she records her determination to remember the color of her husband's eyes and "the shape and size of his sex" is a picture of a nude man with his "sex" invisible, tucked between his legs. Calle's story of her marriage suggests she's a bit nutty: she married knowing he was "unreliable....For our first date he showed up one year late." It also places her behavior in a drama of images and texts in which each, no matter how much it's enlarged or how truthful it seems, will always fail, always lie.
And in a way, that's the story of this exhibit and of a major trend in current photography. The photo image, once considered to have a certain truth because it was a chemical imprint of things in the world, is now in danger of becoming merely another relative mode of representation. But while some postmodernists have gone so far as to completely devalue photography's uniqueness, these artists preserve some trace of its power to invoke a real object even while questioning that power. Calle's piece records falsehoods, but it also presents her and her husband's lies as lies. If Boltanski's Francois were perceived only as fiction the photo grid of his clothes would not be so moving. Kern's frames turn his photo imagery into the illusion of metal, giving his metal frames the feel of absolute solidity.