Aside from Roger Ballen’s now legendary shadowland monologue, and Simon Norfolk’s making cream corn of an unfortunate festival goer who asked “that question,” (more on that later) Tim Barber’s “Various Photographs” exhibit merits some discussion.
It was apparent from the git-go that someone was not happy, I missed out on the early brouha but it seems the show is not hung the way Tim envisioned. Donald Rumsfeld to the rescue: you go to hang with the space you have not the space you want…
I think TB backpedalled a little too soon, while a single line would have been different and more like his website, I don’t believe the net effect would have been much different. He says it himself, it is a “mish-mash” and whether one row or three, there are a lot of pictures to look at, all sized and framed exactly alike. Three rows creates more narrative connections between different images, so I am not sure what the fuss is about. More likely it was an apology for curation, or curation 2.0 as we are supposed to call it.
Tim’s stated mission was to create “an accessible neutral venue” for a large body of work from all over the world. In this he succeeds completely. He also wanted “an exquisite corpse” and I can see that also. There is always this populist democratic streak in photography, an anti-elitism. I think it is just the same old process where the new overturns the old. But this dogma comes up again and again, this kind of neutrality, objectivity, democracy. I think it is completely misunderstood.
This is obviously Tim’s show. If there has been a complaint that the NY photo festival is too much about the curators, I respond, so what? We NEED curators, now more than ever, and Tim’s show represents what you get when a curator abnegates responsibility. The point of curation is not to be neutral or accessible, the point is take care of the work and assume responsibility for revealing its meaning. So point one, you have to stand by what is on the wall, regardless. There is no spilled milk here. I think it is extraordinarily irresponsible to distance yourself from what you have done because of contingencies beyond your control. So what, get on with it.
The real issue is the work on the wall and does it stand up and what is the effect? There are great individual images in the show. But what does it mean to create a group show of hundreds of photographers? For me what happens is the net effect is to de-authorize, horrible phrase, the work. It negates authorship. Suddenly a McGinley could be a Cox, a Kane could be a Traegeser, a Heller a Sutherland, and X could be a Y. What you are seeing is Barber’s own hand, you could interchange this show with a number of his own person galleries and be none the wiser, there would be smoke clouds, random livestock, people in baggy underwear and bloody noses in both. So he strips the work of the original author and substitutes his own imprimatur, and then takes the back door out by saying it is accessible and neutral, and oh, by the way, not what I intended.
I don’t believe it is fair to the people included in the show to be honest. It is reductio-ab-absurdum. One of the panel discussions was Curation 2.0 with Jen Bekman and Laurel Ptak. Guess who was wearing the ironic trucker hat? And really did not have a presentation to make. It was embarrassing compared to many other presentations. And this was one of the festival CURATORS. Breaking news, there is a responsibility there, take it.
Katherine Wolkoff’s presentation on her work also springs to mind, this is one example of you not wanting to hear an artist talk about their work. And maybe we should not expect artists to do this, I don’t know that it is their job after the work is up (but see SN below..). Basically she is really enamoured with a pseudo victorian scientific sensibility coupled with the opposite Romantic sensitive artist streak and throw in a little 60′s environmental crunchy-granola for good measure. Yes it was that painful, sensitive and tortured. Just go see the pictures…
Kathy Ryan misattributes Simon Norfolk’s love of painting and gets a soft glove in the face…but don’t worry, they will hug it out…
Did I hear Rothko invoked again? I thought this was a photography festival, but it seems to be a painting festival. NOthing boils my blood faster than hearing that olde chestnut proffered about how much better a picture is because it evokes a painting…Dammit please can we just have our own medium thank you? I don’t hear people saying that book was so much better or that sculpture was so much better because it was based on a frick’n painting. So SN got up there and said, I don’t like painting, and these examples I am going to show you are crap, which they were. I am being hyperbolic here, I do know that good work evokes and speaks to other work, there are resonances, references, riffs. Can I just for once hear someone say that picture is better because it is based on a Coltrane track? Then it would just be a reference, and not rationale. Painting and photography have nothing in common except they are a flat thing hung on a wall….and you need your eyes, altho I suppose the blind can enjoy paintings by touch. Oh no, another way in which photograph is deficient…
Simon Norfolk’s presentation was very smooth, this guy has a mind you don’t want to meet in a darkened alley. How this guy gets access to the places he does is a miracle. He basically makes you want to give up photography because the rigor of his ideas sucks all the oxygen out of the room faster than a fuel-air explosion. I think we all felt our innards leaving our mouths at the end.
Two things: he says he does not want to see another photograph of an orphan baby in a refugee camp because he was told that if he bought the bracelet and donated to this other thing and supported the whatever that he would never have to see another orphan baby photograph. In other words he thinks that the emotional confrontation photography sometimes employs is a dead strategy. He prefers the cool intellectual “unpacking” of the black box, although his rage is white hot. His own emotion on the subject tells you the weakness in this argument. To see his work without his own calculated tirade is actually less effective. SN is as much the picture as the picture. I wanted to suggest that he go on the road with the slideshow like Al Gore, because it was a great display. I think you need the emotion, you cannot help but begin in emotion. SN chooses to then take that and sublimate it to a more rigorous intellectual photograph, but I don’t believe it relieves us of having to witness pain, and I think we are on worse ground if we do. Anyway that is just his choice.
Second thing: that choice became the subject of an unfortunate question, does the aestheticization of suffering (in either mode, emotional or rational) diminish and exploit suffering? This was the the first question posed after the fuel-air bomb went off. SN ripped him a new one. It is a sensitive point, the charge that creating beautiful photographs of destruction somehow trivializes the evil underneath. He said, well, do you feel that way about this work, and the questioner blanched, and then SN asked the entire audience if anyone else felt that way, and I had the perverse feeling that I wanted to raise my hand simply because it would be fun to see what happened. There was no way you were going to have this argument with this man, the old admonishment, never argue with someone with a microphone applies. The vehemence of the response suggests that it has been thought about however. So there are two parts to this, there is SN’s own personal commitment to his work, which is unassailable, and there is the responsibility that art has in the world at large. Is it enough? What is the function of beauty in photographs of conflict? What is the function of photography itself? I think it circles back to painting sorry to say. There were painters and illustrators sent to most of the major american conflicts, the World Wars, the Korean War, Vietnam, possibly even BushOne v. Hussein and BushTwo v. Hussein. I don’t think anyone ever criticized these artists for making battlefield drawings or paintings, or suggested that it was somehow exploitive. Yet photography is always criticized for precisely this insensitivity. But can you remember a single War painting in the same way as a Nick Ut?
SN employs his own “shock and awe” in this, by creating seductive work he gets you to look, and then he hopes you consider and think. In this way he is no different from the orphan baby photographers. Essentially this is all you can do with photography, or art, regardless of how tragic, awesome, sublime or liminal it is. What is unfortunate is that the photographer in making the work also assumes the responsibility of how it gets received and used in the world. Different populations will regard the images differently. The context of a coffee table book is different from a gallery wall is different from a personal slideshow and artist talk. Yet the photographer somehow has to control it all and that is impossible. His own explanation was the best I have heard, that going out in the world making pictures causes him to come into contact with people, and their stories are horrific and he feels absolutely responsible to act based on those realities. It is amazing that such an emotional man can create such cool work.
If you are still with me, I thank you for hanging in this long. I want to go back today and see the rest of the typologies exhibit so I might have more to add.