Playing It Again: Post-Modernism On The Move

By Paul Hester

"Frankly, part of what drew me to the idea of rephotography was the fact that I'd never really liked my work. I'd sold paintings since the early 70s, had solo shows, was successful. But I never liked my work. Ever. Because I did it. Obviously if you don't like your work, a logical alternative is to take someone else's — and call it yours. The activity of taking seemed reasonable. I started to think of the camera as a pair of electronic scissors. The public images I would take didn't really need anything done to them. They didn't need to be silkscreened or painted on or collaged. The photograph that I presented had to resemble, as much as possible, the photograph that hadinitially attracted me. It was a matter of being as pre­sumptuous as the original picture."
Richard Prince, in Aperture.
Confronted by the bewildering ap­pearances of new photographic strat­egies, the photographic audience needs a new guidebook.
In the mid sixties, the Museum of Modern Art in New York published John Szarkowski's The Photographer's Eye, in which he defined his criteria of what made a photograph photo­graphic in terms of form and de­fended those criteria as if they were inherently photographic. Although supposedly limiting what is photogra­phy and what is not, it relied heavily on the existing tenets of modern composition, and became the bible of photography's growth movement in the seventies.
Several publishing ventures since then have attempted to mark out the territory of more recent photo­graphic enterprises, but these have primarily appeared in the form of collected essays; ironically, most have been long on words and short on pictures. Perhaps the cost of photo­graphic reproductions has directed most of these publications toward images considered safe enough for the coffee table. But for whatever reason, much of the writing has been lost to internecine statements be­tween competing camps. Neither of these approaches has been useful to those of us wondering just what the hell is going on in photography.
So it is refreshing to come across the efforts of curator Sam Samore and the Center for Contemporary Arts of Santa Fe in Playing It Again: Strategies of Appropriation, a show of appropriated images by twelve contemporary photographers. The best way for someone looking for a way to educate their prejudices after initial rejection of such unfamiliar works is through the exhibition's $3 tabloid catalogue. By way of intro­duction, Samore has written a play in one act between Old and New in which all our dumb questions are asked and answered.
NEW: Post-modernism seeks to dismantle the modernist agenda — autonomy, authenticity, originality, self-referentiality. Post-modernism believes in the power of mass-production — with the concomitantloss of the art object's "aura" — as Walter Benjamin so aptly postulated. In fact the mod­ernist hallmark, self-expression, is strongly denied by these artists.
Also included in the catalog are reproductions of the work, state­ments by the artists, and essays by Douglas Crimp, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, and James Hugunin. All the ingredients are there for the post­modern movement, including a usual dosage of obfuscation. Not all the artists statements are helpful, but the statement by Barbara Kruger in­dicates her advanced position among these workers by its clarity: "In the hope of coupling the ingratiation of wishful thinking with the criticality of knowing better, I replicate certain words and pictures and watch them stray from or coincide with your no­tions of fact and fiction. I see my work as a series of attempts to ruin certain representations and to wel­come a female spectator into the au­dience of men."
OLD: Didn't Duchamp do this sort of thing already with the Mona Lisa?
NEW: Certainly Duchamp gave us the "ready-made", but his functional manufactured objects were jabs at the "optical" painters of his time. His intention was to introduce the everyday object into the realm of esthetic discourse....[Sherry] Levine attempts to uncover not issues of esthetics but how we have come to know art through reproductions. How photographs them­selves simply duplicate reality.... Hers is a strong denial of originality and authorship. The artist "quotes" from culture's cookbook, assembling pictures in the manner of a magazine editor. The idea of copying, of the multiplicity of reproductions, is a part of the post-modernist agenda.
Kruger is represented in this ex­hibition by several 11x14 prints, most of which have been seen before in Houston at the show of her work at the Contemporary Arts Museum. Even in their small size and minus her red frames, they draw you up. You recognize a specific position, but are not involved in any closure. The implications of the graphic, bold­faced letters are sufficiently open-ended to allow her challenges to our assumed knowledge to reverberate. You keep thinking about what she means, wondering, reapplying it to your own actions.
Kruger is adamant that she is not a moralist, but her works involve a definite point of view. Whether her position implies judgment depends upon the viewer's reading of the work. Are you defensive about her challenge to the status quo?
The positions of male and female within Kruger's work are rendered more problematic by her use of the gender-neutral pronoun "you". On the other hand, the other piece in the show which I found to be the most provocative is more specific. Patrick Clancy's "Hawaii nei (Fish Out of Water)" begins or is based on a photograph from a travel brochure depicting the arrival of a luxury cruise ship with a middle-age couple in the foreground being greeted by a young Hawaiian woman in native dress. It is a point of departure. This photographic worker is unconcerned with the making of an original image, but instead has aimed toward deconstruction of an existing image from the world of advertising.
Clancy has pulled apart the travel ad, rephotographing the cast as indi­viduals and as pairs, in a sense framing the competing and overlapping relationships which he sees in the whole. These rephotographed parts are presented in reverse, with the grain of the four-color printing dots con­tributing to its alteration in size. These fragments form a consistent frieze along the top of the piece, run­ning fifteen feet in length; beneath are white letters reversed out of black in which different size letters differentiate the distinct functions of the text. Uppercase letters just be­neath the pictures serve as titles and link photographs together into subgroups. "HOLIDAY DISCOVER EMPLOYEES AND REPLICATES A VARIABLE DOMESTICATION" begins at the left of the work, fol­lowed by "FORGOTTEN DREAMS IN PERPETUAL FORMATION ENCOUNTER MATERIAL GENER­ATION;" the center of the frame is so designated, and EXOTIC INFOR­MATION is itemized through FAN­TASY, NATURALIZATION, FOCUS (OBSESSION), TRANSLATION, MOBILITY.
The lowercase text beneath NATURALIZATION reads:
"Delighted, she turns to him''
The Photographer has dedicated the cover of the travel brochure to his fan­tasy. He returns her look.
BlT-uh TSIGH-gen zee meer
(Please show me.)
Jerusalem 3pm 60 Partially cloudy.
Layers of photographic technique, dialogue from the actors' structural analysis of the picture, clues to possi­ble readings of the evidence, pronun­ciation of Hawaiian greetings, ex­cerpts from Captain Cook’s diary suggesting other associations of ar­rival, departure, and the larger issues of colonialism and discovery and ex­ploration, this mix of voices repro­duces a sampler of readings available through the image, enlarging the viewer's possibilities of understanding.
It appears not as the photogra­pher's voice, but instead as the chorus of an audience (similar to Samore's play, but with more characters). It is the culture speaking through daily read-outs of time, temperature, and weather from the exotic cities of a would-be traveler's fantasy.
I am reminded of an illustration from Scientific American that present­ed a plotting of one viewer's eye as it tracked back and forth across a simple drawing. Each node represented the eye's resting place before it proceeded to the next point of information. Rather than the usually implied quick, single glance, this experiment had broken down "a look" into its con­stituents and revealed the complexity inherent in visual comprehension.
I have written at some length about this one piece because it is a complex work capable of sustaining a great deal more examination, and it is in my mind a careful exegesis of photography in the late 20th century. Clancy has produced a diagram that is representative of the working methods of several photographers engaged in strategies of appropria­tion. It is both a presentation of a work and the documentation of its theory. It is particularly photographic in its framing and reversal of an existing "reality", and in the weaving of its sub-texts suggests a narrative of both insight and drama. It is provocative in its attempt to bring together within the work a partial listing of associa­tions and link them with the actuali­ties of place that are also embodi­ments of fantasy. And he offers hints for the viewer of his starting points within the voices of the characters. "I was investigating the idea of vacation . . . writing copy about certain ideal contemporary fictional models."
All the work within this exhibition is challenging the authority of pho­tography's claim for truth, to insert the subversive suggestion that there is more than one way to see the pic­ture/read the picture. It is a power struggle for the control of meaning.
"Few of us question the source of these images: who is producing them; under what circumstances they are be­ing produced, edited, framed, distrib­uted, collected and installed. The single image, or linear narrative, is the chosen form of most image producers, yet we in the general public must con­stantly grapple with the myriad of agitated associationsand meanings, both random and intended, that these pictures produce when leaving the photographic tributaries and entering the vast mainstream.... Our work as artists, using photographs, began as a personal effort to examine, and sometimes challenge, visual conven­tions, mechanisms, and interpretations now commanding the pictorial facade of history." (Suzanne Hellmuth and Jock Reynolds).
OLD: Clearly, there is something different about these artists. Whether or not it is a distinct break from the past remains to be seen.
NEW: I think there is a real change taking place.All these artists, who've grown up in the 1950s and 60s and lived in a world filled with images, have learned how to manipulate the syntax, the strategies of mass culture — adver­tising film, television in a self-con­scious, 'enlightened' manner. At least they haven't blithely succumbed. At least we have a group of individuals whose work is politically active. Either we continue letting someone else — corporations or government — dictate how we conceptualize the world, or we can begin redirecting the images to­wards a more sophisticated inquiry.
Rather than camouflaging the "real" issues, perhaps we can perceive them dearly for the first time.
OLD: Let's hope so.