Continuing from June.
A few quick reactions to other things which I saw at the Cantor Center after I finished looking at The Art of Water.
Lewis Hine (and Jason Francisco)
There was a Lewis Hine show consisting of small prints of his child laborer photographs. It was nice and focused and played with the idea of childhood as depicted in the photographs. The kids are working, but unbowed still. So in addition to being a time capsule of a moment in American history, these photos also capture a fleeting moment in our development where we’re reminded of what childhood itself means. The catalog by Alexander Nemerov looks interesting to read too.
These photos were paired with modern photos by Jason Francisco which, while not exactly rephotographs, complement to sense of fleetingness in the Hine photographs in how we not only have child labor anymore, we don’t have any labor anymore. Francisco’s photos aren’t exactly my cup of tea (too much tilt-shift for my taste) but they work well enough when paired with Hine’s.
I really liked the Art++ experiment. As with the previous Rodin’s Hands exhibit, this exhibit brought iPads into the room and set them up with augmented reality so, when you point the camera at one of the articles on display, a whole bunch of digital overlays become available for you to explore. In addition to providing additional context, these overlays also explained how the artifacts have been constructed, retouched, reconstructed, etc.
I’m excited to see where they go next with this idea.
Blood in the Sugar Bowl
This was wonderful. But then I’m a sucker for when an exhibition brings a whole bunch of different media together and puts them in conversation in an unexpected way.
In this case, the objects were all about the theme of sugar and slavery. So we had portraits of plantation owners and prints from the plantation estates. Books about the atrocities committed on those plantations. Sugar bowls and decorative objects and how those were used culturally. And the wall text pulled no punches and got its politics absolutely correct.
I’m kidding. While the Cantor Center is laid out by region and segregates Asian from Native American from African art from everything else, those are not relegated to the basement or any other remote corners of the museum. So it’s relatively straightforward to walk through these galleries just to see if they’re doing anything interesting—or anything that’ll piss me off.
The African galleries are still very much like how they were a couple years ago in focusing a lot on contemporary African art and treating it all from a post-colonial point of view. It’s a point of view which still works for me.
I was very pleased to find that the Native American rooms were also focusing on contemporary artists. In this case though the theme was contemporary artists working within native traditions.* Highlights include Kent Monkman, Calvin Hunt, and Art Thompson. I also particularly liked Lucy Lewis’s work. One of my pet peeves is recent art displayed in ancient rooms as ancient craft, so I took great joy in finding a room which highlights how these traditions are art which is still being practiced and taught today.
*This isn’t Cantor-related but this SFMOMA blogpost by Linda Yamane is worth looking into for more information on this kind of thing.
The Asian gallery meanwhile took a completely different approach by focusing on ceramics and grouping everything by technique. Thankfully they clearly labeled contemporary stuff as “artist, country, year” instead of forcing the “country, dynasty/period (years)” label on everything.
The Stanford Museum’s Art of Water show is one of the most California exhibits I’ve ever seen. It’s very very interesting and very very good as it uses art’s depictions of water to tell California’s environmental history. Stanford’s press release is actually a great primer on what the exhibition is doing so I don’t need to rehash much of that part. But in short, while water access is one of, if not the, biggest issues in California, art has presented the opposite reality for much of California’s history.
Since artists are drawn to water as a subject, they gave impression that water is more prevalent than it really is. Combined with the way that early photography is often either “land which needs to be tamed,” or “land which has just been tamed” there’s a real sense of California as being the land of unlimited resources.
As someone who’s not normally interested in American landscape painting, I was very excited to look at the paintings with this context. It also forced me to think about the way my perspective is biased* in terms of the subjects I’m attracted to, the places trails take me to when I’m hiking, or the open space destinations I’ll drive to.
This view continues well into the 20th century as photographs of water infrastructure tell a story of continued development. I was reminded of the Edison Archive and how the increased water infrastructure is intimately tied to the creation of suburbia and the white consumer class. There’s still a sense of water being infinite and something that we should completely harness to power homes and fuel agriculture.
It’s only later when the environmental movement kicks off that we start to get more critical views of water usage. While there’s not much “traditional” environmental photography showing unspoiled nature which is under threat,* instead we jump straight to ironic views which riff on the expectations and show how we’ve depleted what little resources we actually had.
*While not photographing California, Eliot Porter is the best example of this type of thing.
In these cases we see how fragile water—and access to it—is. Lakebeds are drying up. A single pipe snakes vulnerably through the mountains. There’s not enough water to go around and the resulting ecosystem is an alien landscape of salt deposits which looks nothing like the lush depictions we’ve become used to.
Robert Dawson’s work is particularly noteworthy here. He just photographs the quixotic nature of water infrastructure but it’s so effective because of how much we’ve internalized what rivers and lakes and waterways should look like.
What I enjoyed most about the photography portion of this show though is how it not only tells the history of California but it also neatly fits into the old topographics vs new topographics story of photography. This results in a much-more-focused and much-more-coherent version of SFMOMA’s California and the West exhibition. It’s missing the social aspect of things but with regard to landscape photography, it makes a lot more sense.
As I’ve been ferrying my kids to various indoor birthday parties I’ve started to accumulate a decent collection of photos of the outsides of the warehouses which house the various bounce houses, gyms, etc. in which the kids will be entertained.
I really liked SFMOMA’s other photography show, About Time. Maybe a good pun is all I need. But the show was literally about time and how the essence of photography is in messing with that element. It works well as both a history of photography and as a nice slice into the permanent collection.
At its most-basic level, photography is about depicting a moment of time in the photographic image. Sometimes we’re conscious of the motion because a subject is blurred—as seen in old photos where motion blurs due to the technical limitations of the media or in newer ones which blur motion on purpose—or whatever you want to say is going on in Hiroshi Sugimoto’s movie theaters—in order to make an artistic point about time. Similarly, John Divola’s “As Far As I Could Get” series is explicitly about having time in the frame.
Other times the photograph is clearly about stopping motions which are too fast for our eyes to see. These photos often feel more like science experiments than art but for every Doc Edgerton there’s someone like Aaron Siskind. This section also includes works by Eadward Muybridge and Paul Graham which get at the way that photography both captures and replays motion for us.
As much as photography education still focuses on the “decisive moment” it’s important to see that a “moment” can be anywhere from the thousandths of a second to many hours. And that even after that, there might be nothing decisive and instead the combined moments tell the story.
We’re also very familiar with photography as evidence that something has happened. Rather than being about the moment of time in the frame, it’s about what happened before the photograph—or what’s going to happen afterward. These photographs rely on our understanding the image’s context. These are the photos which come closest to the ways that we all use photography every day.
Everyone uses photographs to mark the passage of time. Family albums, kids growing up, parents growing old, the photographs are waypoints which we’re all familiar with. Fittingly, this show dedicates an entire gallery to The Brown Sisters* since Nicholas Nixon’s project is one of the best examples of photographs telling a story about what happens over time.
*Though I found it interesting the latest print was missing.
Similarly, there are many photographs of cities which show their change over time. While SFMOMA had no series which covered a period of change, we saw photographs marking what’s about to be lost—e.g. Zoe Leonard’s storefronts or Janet Delaney’s South of Market—or, as with Eugene Atget’s photos of Paris or Alfred Stieglitz’s photos of New York, what’s being built.
Instead of gradual change, photographs also document what just happened. This show has photos by Rineke Djjkstra and Frank Gohlke which require us to know the story about what’s being depicted. This context isn’t optional. We need to know that the bullfighters have just come from the arena or that Mt. St. Helens just erupted to really understand what we’re seeing.
There are also some wonderful George N Barnard photos which show the impact that war has on the land. These photos of the Sherman campaign are both about evidence of what’s going on—both before and after the photo was taken—but also hint at larger-scale time issues in photography. Namely that you don’t have to photograph evidence of an event immediately after the event has occurred.
Photography is wonderful for revisiting a place where something happened a long time ago. We need the same context about what happened but we’re no longer looking at the evidence of that event. What’s of interest is what’s happened in the time since that event happened and what our understanding of that history brings to our understanding of the scene in the photography. In addition to Mark Ruwedel, I enjoyed being introduced to Drex Brooks’s photographs of locations from the Indian Wars.
What I loved most about this show though is that it dealt with photographs as objects in and of themselves. It’s not just that photographs capture time in the image, they also exist as physical things which are subject to the forces of time.
Phil Chang’s unfixed photographs reminded me of Rauschenberg’s white paintings in how they’re about the concept of repeated aging despite being essentially blank. They critique how art, especially photography, is conceived of as being something which doesn’t change once it’s been hung on the wall.
Matthew Buckingham’s work takes this a step further in that it also involves how technology will age. His work isn’t just about the slide projector destroying the image which it is projecting, it’s also a race between the projector and the slide as to which will vanish first. Photography, by being so interwoven with technology, is also subject to the way technology changes over time—whether it’s the technology of the image making or the technology of the image display.
Jason Lazarus’s work is worth special comment here because of how it’s about both how we try to attach extra context to the photographs and how that content is often hidden and forgotten. Rather than focusing on the photographic image, Lazarus shows us the backs of the photos where people have written notes about who’s in the photo, when or where it was taken, notes to the intended recipient, etc. None of these things is typically art but they’re all part of the medium and how we relate to it.
For a relatively new medium to already be wrestling with issues of preservation and aging and the way that the art is a physical object beyond what it depicts is a lot of fun to see. I don’t see these discussions in most museums. Preservation is performed on an artifact, but the art itself doesn’t usually concern itself with how it wants to be preserved. I’m looking forward to further explorations along this line in future shows.
This post has been sitting in the back of my mind since I saw Richard Misrach speak a month and half ago. He came to Princeton to talk about Border Cantos and I jumped at the opportunity to see him and get my book signed. I enjoyed the talk—especially Guillermo Galindo’s performance of small musical instruments from the BorderCantos collaboration—but there wasn’t enough for me to write another blog post.
Given the most-recent election results and the way we’re grappling with processing and protesting the results, the audience reaction to Misrach’s photos is now worth remembering and commenting on.
First though, a long pull-quote from a blogpost by Sean Bonner about his 6-year-old son taking an “I Love Cats” to an anti-Trump protest.
“Hi, can we talk to you for a moment about your son’s sign?”
“It’s very cute, but we are concerned that if someone sees it and takes a photo it will misrepresent the feeling of this event.”
“Lots of people have taken photos of it all night, everyone has been enjoying it”
“That’s the problem, it’s sending the wrong message – I Love Cats? This isn’t about cats”
“He’s 6, that’s what he wanted on his sign. I’m not going to put my politics on a sign and make him carry it.”
“He doesn’t support immigrants rights?”
“There are lots of kids here with political signs”
“Sure, that their parents wrote for them”
“But what will people think if they see this sign”
“I don’t really care”
“YOU DON’T CARE?”
“Are you really upset that a 6 year old isn’t protesting correctly?”
“You wouldn’t be saying that if you weren’t a white man, maybe you should meet an immigrant and find out how they feel, you are mocking the serious people here… Racist!”
I’ve seen similar stories and reactions on Twitter or Facebook between people who are upset but still willing to have some fun and people who are upset at anything which threatens the seriousness of the situation. I’ve had that debate in my head too. Is it in poor taste to carry on posting stupid jokes and kid photos? Am I being too serious by posting a lot more political content? Is it wrong or bad to find the humor in things that, despite their ridiculousness, are incredibly dangerous?
Which takes us back to Misrach. At his talk, when this photo came up on the slideshow, the audience laughed. As they should. It’s ridiculous and stupid and captures everything about the sisyphean futility of building the wall and thinking that it will make any difference to our security. Misrach encouraged this humor with his sequencing where we saw increasingly porous border walls and then this image was the punchline.
I didn’t find out about it until later but this really upset some of the gente students. My immediate reaction upon learning how upset they were was complete surprise. I couldn’t imagine Misrach’s work being upsetting since it’s so quiet and detached. Only once I took a few moments to reflect about where the students were coming from did I realize that that was exactly the problem.
The students who were upset are not photography aficionados. They came to the project from the point of view of individuals for whom the border, and its security, is intensely personal. The wall isn’t an abstract concept or laughing matter. They have family members who have crossed. Family members who have failed to cross. Where I saw saw a useless ridiculous hilarious waste of government resources, they saw a kill zone where you’re more likely to be shot.
Of. Fucking. Course. This. Is. Triggering.
That said, that they got this triggered indicates that Princeton failed to adequately warn them about what to expect. I think this was billed as just “border photography” without any explanation about how this is a landscape photographer working within that tradition first. It’s white guy photography except that Misrach isn’t positioning himself as the expert on border issues.* He uses his whiteness to give him access and protection from the Border Patrol but that‘s about it.
*Though this is a case where the speak over a slideshow format fails since it pushes things toward the “I’m the expert, hear me lecture” side of the spectrum.
I get the sense that the students expected something more overtly political and instead got something which, to them, prettifies and trivializes a life or death situation. They are not wrong.
I on the otherhand see Misrach’s work as subverting the myth of The West, its freedom of movement, and promise for reinvention and infinite travel. This is a political statement. As is demonstrating the quixotic absurdity of the concept of s national border. I am not wrong either.
So where do we go from here?
First, both reactions are correct and valid. That something is triggering does not mean it’s bad or that anyone who likes it is bad. The same with finding it to be funny. It’s good—I’d say imperative—to laugh and keep your sense of humor about even the darkest subjects. Laughing doesn’t always mean minimizing or dismissing, it also means you’re coping and holding on to your humanity.
But if you’re laughing and someone challenges you? Taking the time to reflect on where they’re coming from is a much better reaction than telling them to “lighten up,” lecture them why they’re wrong, or get defensive about your position.* And it’s definitely better than immediately centering your feelings over the complaints of someone who’s been triggered. You might have the privilege to laugh because it’s not as life or death for you. Learn why it’s that serious to other people.
*Also please please please don’t use any defense about how your spouse or friend is a member of the group for which this is life and death as an excuse for why you don’t have to listen to that group’s concerns.
Two trips this summer. Usually I only get to go once. It’s funny, as much as I prefer the local-focus of aquariums, I’ve been finding myself trying to rationalize that with how zoos are generally much much better in terms of animal husbandry and acquiring their exhibits. I love that zoos provide a place for rescued animals and are actively involved in trying to save species through breeding programs. I just dislike that they all seem to focus on the same charismatic megafauna and none of them really explain what the local wildlife scene is.
Aquariums meanwhile are almost always local but it seems like most of the animals on display are captured from the wild. I find myself increasingly wondering what the cost of this is both in terms of how many animals don’t survive their capture—or their captivity.