Veronica's Revenge + Judy's Dream

Mireille Juchau: Veronica’s Revenge, MCA & World Without End, AGNSW

Weegee, At the movies - sleeping vendor (1940), silver gelatin photograph

Weegee, At the movies – sleeping vendor (1940), silver gelatin photograph

Weegee, At the movies – sleeping vendor (1940), silver gelatin photograph

Ruined Dreams

Man Ray’s photograph of dust drifting like grey tumbleweed on the surface of Duchamp’s The Large Glass perfectly evokes the death of aura that might once have determined an artwork’s status as reified relic or authentic original. Part of the Veronica’s Revenge Perspectives on Contemporary Photography at the MCA, Dust Breeding reminds me that dirt and time can transport once vital, precious objects to a fuzzy, faded netherworld. For Walter Benjamin, who famously diagnosed photography’s link to the death of the aura, dust is a metaphor for the ruined nature of dreams in modernity. No longer able to evoke the romantic state of imagination, dreams, he proposes, are doomed instead to enter the degraded sphere of everyday life (Celeste Olalquiaga on Benjamin’s “Dreamkitsch”, The Artificial Kingdom. A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience, Bloomsbury, London, 1999).

By documenting exactly this degraded sphere—a kind of domestic, low art performance-without-subjects—then elevating it to high art status, Man Ray transports us from the realm of sight to the space of thought and imagination. Both Dust Breeding and Mike Kelley’s 1994 interpretation—a frieze of dust balls in close up—symbolise the concerns of Veronica’s Revenge and the Art Gallery of NSW’s World Without End, Photography and the Twentieth Century. Photographs are not presented in either exhibit as a means for capturing ‘the real’, but as a springboard for contemplating the internal life of dreams, the imagination and subjectivity within specific historical, cultural and political contexts.

From the death of the aura to the death of the author, issues of reproduction and representation are evident in the postmodern works of Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman at the MCA. Levine takes a leaf from early photographer Karl Blossfeldt’s oeuvre and kills the author at the same time. His contemporary reproductions of Blossfeldt’s intricate plant studies of the 1920s (featured at the Art Gallery) are some of her many reappropriations—she also rephotographs works of Walker Evans and Edward Weston. Levine’s ‘stylized kleptomania’ is often considered deconstructive (in the way it highlights the impossibility of originality, inserting herself into a predominantly male canon of modern art) but more interestingly as an enthusiastic, devotional act of fandom. (See Susan Kandel’s “Stalker”, Art &Text, 59)

Sherman and Prince reframe familiar gender types from advertising, film and TV. Prince enlarges details from Marlboro cigarette ads to subtly expose unseen aspects of the original, giving them fresh significance. A sepia close up on the cowboy’s hand reveals his skin is more leathery than the gloves he grips but also emphasizes the smoking cigarette between fingers; this tough guy’s nicotine dependent. Prince’s bucking horse-and-cowboy composition reveals another version of freedom that’s literally being reined in; the cowboy’s lasso makes a halo round the animal’s head.

These works suggest the curatorial agenda of Veronica’s Revenge—a kind of incandescently-lit, jam-packed trip through a contemporary art supermarket; pause at Warhol’s Brillo boxes, race past Sherman’s festering foodstuffs and Barbara Kruger’s sloganeering ‘I shop therefore I am’ and abandon your trolley at Matthew Barney’s cultish fiestas (Goodyear Chorus). These are worlds drenched in the grainy pixels of TV stills or the sleek, over-bright articulations of film and advertising. Fully aware of the vicissitudes in trying to capture a singular reality, many of these artists seem more interested in providing new frames through which ideas and associations might accumulate. Knowing that to represent is to conceal as well as reveal, theirs is an aesthetics of excess (Janine Antoni’s pregnant, three-legged Momme in 70s cheesecloth) and humour (Damien Hirst’s cadaver portrait With Dead Head, Paul McCarthy’s Girl with Penis) as much as it is of loss.

Prince and Sherman suggest the performative rather than the essential qualities of gender ‘types.’ As does the work of Claude Cahun, the French photographer (regarded as an early Sherman) featured in both shows. Cahun’s theatrical cross-dressing and playful interpretations of character from the 1920s-30s were the private activity of herself and her female lover, never intended for public consumption, while Sherman’s photographs are a most public series of acts. Sherman’s take on the Madonna-with-child suckling a plastic breast (Untitled No. 223) from 1990 continues to resonate. I think of toxic residues from leaking silicon appendages passed to the child through breastfeeding. From this corrupting view of maternal nurture, it’s no big leap to contemplate Sherman’s over-sized, candy coloured abject matter, congealing and mouldering on a nearby wall and then reflect on Kruger’s gnomic warning (and exploding cigarette?), You are an experiment in terror (1983).

The Unhomely: Rites and Rituals

Personal exposure is both the subject and fascination of Nan Goldin’s narrative sequence featuring the life of her friend, Cookie Mueller, at the MCA (Goldin’s accompanying text in a childish script begins, “I used to think I couldn’t lose anyone if I photographed them enough…”). Shot with the flattening blare of flashbulb in claustrophobic interiors, Goldin exposes with great tenderness the social rituals of a very specific life, and death. After the image of Mueller in a coffin, the final print reveals the empty, familiar interior of her loungeroom, a space that requires human presence to dream it into homeliness. The fishbowl sits without signs of life, and 2 stuffed unidentifiable animals perch as if in eternal vigil at either end of the couch.

Goldin’s work has all the tender empathy that Larry Clark’s Tulsa (1968-71) lacks in its frank sequence on heroin addiction. Emerging from an interest in the anti-sublime of the everyday, such exposures might invite the voyeur’s impulse but suggest to me how rituals, whether productive or destructive, reveal our difficulties with contemporary life and our great capacity for it. They call up what Susan Sontag calls the photograph’s talismanic quality, its capacity to “contact or claim another reality” (On Photography, Penguin, London, 1979).

A close encounter with the ‘Other’s reality’ is the subject of Nigerian Fatimah Tuggar’s blended first and third world scenes. These digitally composed, inkjet prints pick at problematic rhetorics on ‘globalism’ and the liberating power of new technologies to break down cultural borders. In People Watching (1997) the double meaning of the title is played out through the superimposition of a jeep full of camera-laden tourists on safari who gaze back at a duplicated figure in tribal costume. These grainy shots of tribal life evoke the 60s colour and style of that armchair traveller’s guide to ‘otherness’—National Geographic. Tracey Moffat’s Up in the Sky offers a less clear cut, but just as politically pointed, narrative about black/white relations in postcolonial Australia, though these remote, dusty settings, dreamy inhabitants and nightmarish scenarios evoke the anywhere of a Paris Texas.

Gregory Crewdson and Barney offered glimpses of the underside of the real at the MCA. Crewdson’s abject, unhomely landscapes (Natural Wonder, Mutated Gourd), leaking stickily or butterfly-plagued, have all the mortifying drama of museum dioramas. (Bizarrely, a billboard promoting the Sydney Morning Herald’s property liftout features a butterfly infested front lawn of a desirable property and seems to have taken its cue from Crewdson.) Barney’s fauns, nymphs and extravaganzas of corporate uniformity in Cremaster I: Goodyear Chorus and Orchidella investigate the secret excesses of underworlds whose exteriors promote propriety and restraint.

False Documents

August Sander’s Blind Children of 1921 represents as much about the nature of photography as it does about its subjects. Sander’s portraits of human ‘archetypes’ hang at the Art Gallery alongside Blossfeldt’s gelatin silver prints. Where Blossfeldt’s plant studies are architectural and sensual, Sander’s work is more ennobling than it is classificatory (and was sufficiently sympathetic in its treatment of both Jews and Gentiles to be confiscated by the Nazis). The arrangement of these works highlights photography’s roots in the endeavour to objectively record, its links with science and its paradoxical relationship to the real.

Despite a staunch belief in his own objectivity, Sander is of course doomed to capture only what blindness might look like to him; what it feels like, its particular sensory nature can only be suggested. Neither sympathetic nor ‘scientific’ in her depictions, Diane Arbus’ vision is harsher, less elevated. Her New York subjects from the late 60s (Teenage Girl on Hudson Street, Two Women Smoking at the Automat) might ‘compose’ themselves for the camera, yet Arbus’ gimlet eye famously seeks out that which they might not wish to reveal.

Curator Judy Annear does not attempt a comprehensive survey of 20th century photography here, but represents aspects of particular artists’ works within the context of photography’s proliferation in recent history. Glass cabinets containing historical, theoretical and journalistic texts on photography jut through the exhibit prompting us to consider the role of the photograph throughout history—as convicting evidence, a tool for propaganda, an instrument of power and conquest in anthropological studies, and as part of art and popular culture.

The photograph as widely circulated record of atrocity comes reappropriated by Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura who transforms Eddie Adams’ famous 1968 photograph of the street execution of a Viet Cong soldier into an illuminated memorial inside a wooden cabinet (Slaughter Cabinet II). Morimura restages the original with himself playing soldier and executioner. Opposite and blown up wall-sized is Adams’ original (Vietnam Execution) and Australian Frank Hurley’s composite works from WW1. Hurley’s sepia drenched, bombed-out buildings or sludgy fields beneath spectral clouds present war as stunning spectacle; theatrical and almost sublime. They remind me of the Futurists’ description of war as “beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns…creates new architectures, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages…” (Marinetti in Walter Benjamin, Illustrations, trans. Harry Zohn, Collins, London, 1970). Their proximity to Morimura’s cabinet and the oversized original makes the Adams shot look stagy. Interestingly, Hurley’s composite arrangements are not revealed as such in their labelling—perhaps to suggest the composed nature of all photographs…

Morimura’s funereal frame with its carved hearts has the ornate claustrophobia of a coffin (a kind of final frame in itself) and functions like a miniature stage. It gives Adams’ famous shot a new gravitas and suggests Maurice Blanchot’s warning—that what is truly disastrous about the disaster is the process of forgetting, the dissipating evidence of our passivity to events. Slaughter Cabinet II counters the dulled sensory impact (compassion fatigue) of widely reproduced images.

The world opens up in works that document the experiences of childhood and old age. American Weegee worked in the cloying darkness of cinemas to capture the unconscious gestures of rapt young thumb-suckers and chair-grippers mesmerised by the screen. Like Walker Evans’ surreptitious Subway Portraits of the same period (late 30s early 40s), the subjects here are caught unaware and appear suspended in a halfway place—less brutal, gentler seeming than William Klein’s gritty child-dramas taken a decade later on rundown New York streets.

Wendy Ewald’s works also have a dreamlike aspect—but Ewald gives cameras to children to capture their intense rituals and preoccupations. The resulting view is direct and unsentimental and records the delicate attention that kids across cultures pay to all areas of their lives. Denise Dixon depicts the cocooned, flattened features of her twin brothers, their stockinged heads dreaming themselves up as aliens in an armchair spacecraft. This intimacy is also evident in Donigan Cummin’s Pretty Ribbons (1988-91) which depicts the last stages of an elderly woman’s life. Framed in a context which suggests both the accumulation and sloughing off of life’s last moments—stranded objects, a stained bare mattress, ornately beaded eveningwear—the subject of Cummins’ rich colour and black and white portraits reveals the bone-shapes of her ageing body in a series of frank exposures. All these works evoke Sontag’s dictum that “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability…all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt” (Sontag, On Photography).

Relics and Traces

The MCA title Veronica’s Revenge refers to the woman who wiped the brow of a suffering Jesus and came away with an imprint of his face on her cloth. Now a holy relic (in St Peters, Rome) this transfer of bodily emission retains only the trace of Veronica’s (and Jesus’) visceral, sensory experience. Like the photograph, which according to Marguerite Duras, “promotes forgetting” by replacing the physical, sensual realm of experience and memory with a “fixed flat easily available countenance…a confirmation of death”, Veronica’s reified cloth with its trace of bodily suffering can’t evoke the sensory aspect of Veronica’s encounter (Duras, Practicalities, Flamingo, London, 1991).

Which brings me back to Sander’s Blind Children posed in concentration over the white leaves of their braille books. One girl faces the camera to reveal only the opaque parts of her eyes, a blank stare reminding me of what can’t be represented or retained, what lies beyond, beneath and inside.

Veronica’s Revenge. Contemporary Perspectives on Photography, curator Baroness Marion Lambert with Susan Kramer, LAC-Switzerland, MCA, January-March 4; World Without End. Photography and the 20th Century, curator Judy Annear, AGNSW, Sydney, December 2-February 25

RealTime issue #43 June-July 2001 pg. 36

© Mireille Juchau; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2001