Op-ed in the Cincinnati Enquirer

On November 18 I published an opinion piece in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Its subject, the use of cameras in public spaces, relates to my exhibition “Eyes on the Street” at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

How many times were you photographed or videotaped yesterday? The answer is likely higher than you think. In the last two decades, the rapidly decreasing cost of image-capture technology has meant a proliferation of cameras in both public and private spaces. At the same time, the widespread use of smartphones means most of us now carry a camera everywhere we go.

When a news story brings this proliferation to our attention, it’s often because a camera has captured something that, in the past, would likely have gone unrecorded. Think of the role cameras have played in bringing us information – instantaneously – about protests in far-off places like Hong Kong or the Middle East. Or how, closer to home, news of the deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has been shaped by cell-phone footage. When public spaces and cameras enter the news together, it is often at socially or politically contentious moments.

It is important to try to understand more fully the ways our lives are now intertwined with cameras.

To read the rest, click here.

“Findings”—On Jochen Lempert

Several years ago, the literary scholar and biographer Richard Holmes told the story of the “second scientific revolution” in Britain. Beginning with Captain James Cook’s first round-the-world expedition, which departed in 1768, and ending with Charles Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos Islands, begun in 1831, Holmes described how enterprising figures brought “a new imaginative intensity and excitement to scientific work.” These men laboured in disparate fields—from astronomy to chemistry to biology—yet, Holmes claims, “the notion of wonder” united them. Reacting against the idea of a purely mechanistic universe, they took exploratory voyages and dwelt in mystery and inspiration. By the mid-nineteenth century, this “Age of Wonder,” as Holmes called it, would give way to a Victorian science more recognizably modern—cooler and more restrained. Yet the notion of Romantic science Holmes explores is worth retaining, not least because it highlights the acts of imagination that are an important part of any scientific enterprise.

In a similar vein, art historians and critics have recently examined the “Romantic” side of Conceptual art, itself commonly understood as wedded to notions of logic and rigor. As Jörg Heiser noted in a 2002 article, Conceptual artists such as Bas Jan Ader attempted “systematically treating the unsystematic,” such as emotional states. In the course of exposing the tensions of modern art, these artists collapsed its primary distinctions—“analysis versus beauty, thought versus desire”—in what Heiser described as a kind of “alchemy.”

The echo of scientific inquiry in the term alchemy is apropos of German artist Jochen Lempert, who trained as a biologist before turning full-time to art making in the early 1990s. His seemingly casual photographs of flora, fauna, and ephemeral natural events benefit from his scientific training, though their analytical rigor is less obvious than their “poetry” (that other Romantic specialty). His images are unprepossessing when encountered individually: a pigeon on a sidewalk, a stick bug on an outdoor table, leaves swept upward by an unseen wind. Yet they are animated by a savvy observational acuity, one honed by Lempert’s years studying dragonflies. And his installations, for which he devises novel combinations of photographs, possess a quietly mesmeric force. By carefully controlling the progression of focus, scale, and other features, Lempert performs alchemical transformations in his own right, and makes of his modest endeavors something enchanting.

The first thing one notices about Lempert’s photographs is their peculiar physical presence. In a world dominated by on-screen JPEGs and the smooth color gradations of inkjet prints, Lempert always works in black-and-white and prints his photographs using analogue techniques. He often manipulates them as he processes them in his studio lab. After a rigorous editing process, he hangs the finished artworks un-matted and unframed, taped to the gallery wall in such a way that their rippling edges sometimes lift off its surface. The paper he uses has a relatively loose weave, giving each picture a softer effect; even his most sharply focused images seem, upon first glance, like charcoal drawings or finely detailed pencil sketches. In a world of digital C-prints the size of billboards, the material properties of Lempert’s artworks reveal a sensibility rooted in timeless concerns.

These photographs are recombined for each presentation of Lempert’s work. Pictures from the early 1990s bump up against phenomena he observed recently. Some of Lempert’s sly juxtapositions are based upon formal allegiances. A subtle dark pattern on a butterfly’s hind wing is revealed more fully after Lempert juxtaposes it with a similar-looking tattoo on a woman’s upper back. An isolated piece of coral acquires zoomorphic attributes when placed next to an image of a flamingo’s body. Or consider, as in his recent retrospective at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, which garnered him the nomination for this year’s Deutsche Börse Prize, the berry of a deadly nightshade plant with light bouncing off its spherical surface; the toxic specimen parallels the eye of a squirrel in an adjacent picture.

Jochen Lempert, installation view at Norma Mangione, Turin, 2013.

Jochen Lempert, installation view at Norma Mangione, Turin, 2013.

Other combinations and series perform different tasks. Some are homages to figures in his initial field, as with his photographs of the title pages of Charles P. Alexander’s research papers on crane flies. The papers span several decades, and Lempert’s photographs of them are a paean to the unheralded task behind such research: dedicated, long-term observation. That dedication, however, can admit whimsy. Several photographs of four swans floating in a pond, included in the series Constellation, never quite create a perfect square. In that imperfection, they bring to my mind John Baldessari’s inimitable 1973 work Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts).

Other photographs celebrate pioneers of scientific photography, as with his photograms made by pressing light-sensitive paper to a computer-screen display of images from Anna Atkins’s 1843 volume British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, considered the first book illustrated with photographs. In a further reference to Atkins, Lempert has also made his own photograms with algae, as well as with other subjects, such as lily pads and frogs. One such artwork tracks the path of a glow-worm across several sheets of light-sensitive paper; the image it produced was exposed solely by the subject’s own bioluminescence.

But whether observed in the field or produced in a darkroom, Lempert’s photographs can also raise vexing philosophical questions. One of my favorite artworks he has made comprises six photographs of waves cresting on a roiling sea, each with an identical horizon line. They hint at the unremitting and yet futile attempts we make to organize perceptual phenomena; the images are similar enough that a viewer is tempted to devise a category into which to slot them—a fundamental human impulse, and a linchpin of scientific inquiry. (Linneaus is famous today for regularizing binominal nomenclature and his pioneering taxonomic classifications, not his collections of specimens. That deadly nightshade plant is also known as Atropa belladonna.) But what category might these pictures of waves slot into? And once you’ve outlined its contours, how would you fill such a category with photographs? Photographing the sea with any systematic intent is a Sisyphean task. As if to drive home the point, Lempert has also photographed the patterns created by raindrops splashing on the surface of a body of water—two impossible-to-visualize systems interfering with one another. He frequently tests the camera’s vision against the natural world, and then encourages us to dwell upon how the natural world trumps human perception and understanding.

By acknowledging those limitations, we open the door to doubt and uncertainty, for which we compensate with the poetic imagination. For all his training in science, and despite the scientific principles his photographs illustrate and the utilitarian information they may carry, Lempert’s pictures are also undeniably lyrical. In the catalogue accompanying his recent retrospective, Frédéric Paul asserts that it is “a human error to see a poetic invention in the behavior of a bird”—yet I’m confident that, like me, Paul succumbs to the impulse when looking at Lempert’s photographs. Lempert’s photographs are not controlled experiments, but rather explorations, voyages of discovery.

Jochen Lempert, installation view at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, 2013.

Jochen Lempert, installation view at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, 2013.

It is another literary scholar, the late Guy Davenport, who describes what I take to be the impulse animating Jochen Lempert’s work. In an essay on the “amateur archeology” of family trips to hunt for American Indian arrowheads, Davenport writes, “what lives brightest in the memory of these outings is a Thoreauvian feeling of looking at things—earth, plants, rocks, textures, animal tracks, all the secret places of the out-of-doors that seem not ever to have been looked at before. . . . [Thoreau’s] daily walks [had] a purpose that covered the whole enterprise but was not serious enough to make the walk a chore or a duty.” Davenport continues, “our understanding was that the search was the thing, the pleasure of looking.” Foraging, that prehistoric impulse, has not been bred out of us. Lempert’s modest voyages of discovery—often no more than day trips around his hometown—result in photographs that give us twin pleasures: that of the hunt, of course, and that of attending closely to what he has found.

This essay is published in the catalogue accompanying the 2014 Deutsche Börse Prize exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, London. The exhibition is on view until June 22. For more information, click here.

Recommended Reading, Late 2013–May 2014

Kara_Walker1

Kara Walker

Around this time last year I posted a number of articles, essays, and interviews that I had enjoyed reading. Here is an equivalent list for 2014. Once again, the selection is of pieces I was able to save to Instapaper, and does not include things I read in print. These are listed in the order in which I read them; a quote accompanies each link.

Nick Faust, “Get Off,” The New Inquiry. “Artists are giving themselves over and opening themselves up to those things that stick out, that linger, that give pause, that provide both evident visible pleasure and inwardly-kept satisfaction, that they can’t get out of their head, that horrify them but they come back to, that humiliate and punish, that build and nurture, that annoy and tease, that they find themselves needing more and more of.”

Arthur Krystal, “The Missing Music in Today’s Poetry,” Chronicle of Higher Education. “Simply put: I miss what I used to enjoy. I miss the poetry I used to hear in my head after reading it on the page. I miss the sound it used to make. Very little of what I read now seems truly memorable in the sense that it lends itself to memorization.”

Thessaly La Force, “A Teacher and Her Student: Marilynne Robinson On Staying Out of Trouble,” Vice.  Robinson: “Consider this incredibly brief, incredibly strange experience that we have as this hypersensitive creature on a tiny planet in the middle of somewhere that looks a lot like nowhere. It’s assigning an appropriate value to the uniqueness of our situation and every individual situation [that is the mind's role].”

Pico Iyer, “Hyderabad in Five Colors,” New York Review of Books online. “Now India is drawing from some of the global order’s latest fads, but only by superimposing them upon what still, poignantly, remains one of the most uncared-for and impoverished populations on earth.”

Mike Sperlinger, “Two Slight Returns: Chauncey Hare and Marianne Wex,” Afterall online. ”In their choices, the vicissitudes of their reputations, and the political valencies of their work, there are parallels which suggest how vocations can unhinge careers, and how giving oneself over entirely to the work might mean abandoning it altogether.”

Jacob Mikanowski, “Papyralysis,” Los Angeles Review of Books. “The very fact that books are frail physical objects is part of what makes them endearing. They’re like us. We don’t live in a realm of pure thought, and neither do they.”

Brian Droitcour, “Splay Attention,” The New Inquiry. “For me, ten seconds can feel like an excruciatingly long time to look at a painting or a photograph. If I’m writing about a work, maybe I’ll suppress my impatience and give it a full sixty seconds. Looking at an image for fifteen minutes—even five!—is hard to fathom.”

Zadie Smith, “Man Vs. Corpse,” New York Review of Books. “I stared at this drawing, attempting a thought experiment, failing. Then I picked up a pen and wrote, in the margins of the page, most of what you have read up to this point. A simple experiment—more of a challenge, really. I tried to identify with the corpse.”

Suzanne Hudson, “Last Call,” Artforum.com. “This trip to Venice was something else. My curiosity about what happened after the official story ended got the best of me.”

Mark Slouka, “Nobody’s Son,” The New Yorker online. “I lost my father this past year, and the word feels right because I keep looking for him. As if he were misplaced. As if he could just turn up, like a sock or a set of keys.”

Andrew O’Hagan, “Ghosting,” London Review of Books. “The left-wingers I have known are always full of questions, but Assange, from the first, seemed like a manifestation of the hyperventilating chatroom. It became clear: if I was to be the ghost, it might turn out that I was the least ghostly person in the enterprise.”

Rebecca Solnit, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable,” The New Yorker online. “Public space, urban space, which serves at other times the purposes of the citizen, the member of society establishing contact with other members, is here the space in which to disappear from the bonds and binds of individual identity. Woolf is celebrating getting lost.”

Leslie Jamison, “Which Creates Better Writers: An MFA Program or New York City?“ The New Republic. “I think the volume asks quite a bit more: Not so much whether writers can be taught but what it means that they are getting taught, and what it means that we keep asking this question about the legitimacy of the discipline; what our anxieties about the institutionalization of writing might teach us. The volume asks who pays the bills, and how; and also how these flows of money—the pressures they generate and the institutional affiliations they produce—affect the work itself.” [N.B.: Jamison also just published an essay collection titled The Empathy Exams, one of the best books I've read this year.]

Haley Mlotek, “Tracing Ana,” The New Inquiry. “There was no label large enough for all the art that Mendieta made. That is, until she died, and there was one label for what she was: gone.”

Hilton Als, “The Sugar Sphinx,” The New Yorker online. “The diary [Kara] Walker keeps is not explicitly personal; it’s a historical ledger filled with one-line descriptions about all those bodies and psyches that were bought and sold from the seventeenth century on, when slavery became the American way of life and its maiming shadows pressed down on black and white souls alike.”

Ruth Margalit, “The Unmothered,” The New Yorker online. “I had a mother, and now I don’t. This is not a characteristic one can affix, like being paperless, or odorless. The emphasis should be on absence.”

Where’s the Rage? Kamila Shamsie and Pankaj Mishra In Conversation,” Guernica. Mishra: “It’s then that you begin to suspect that the asymmetries of power that have shaped relations between the West and the rest of the world also exist in the realm of literary criticism.”

Nick Thorpe, “Why We Should Love Material Things More,” Aeon. “If Western consumer culture sometimes resembles a bulimic binge in which we taste and then spew back things that never quite nourish us, the ascetic, anorexic alternative of rejecting materialism altogether will leave us equally starved. Who, then, can teach me how to celebrate my possessions with the mindful, celebratory spirit of a gourmet?”

“A Different Kind of Order: The ICP Triennial”

EVRON_A_Free_Moment

Nir Evron, still from A Free Moment, 2011.

The first three ICP triennials were given titles that imparted their organizing themes: “Strangers,” in 2003, considered street photography and images of people unknown to us; “Ecotopia,” in 2007, was about environmental change; and “Dress Codes,” in 2010, examined fashion’s role in our lives. The title of this triennial, “A Different Kind of Order,” which includes 28 international artists (only eight of whom are women), brings to the fore the wholesale shifts that have upended photography during the ten-year span since the 2003 exhibition. What had been subtext is now the central focus, and there are nearly as many moving-image works as still photographs. The primary medium of several artists is not even lens-based.

No single theme emerges, despite the curators’ insistence that the apparent chaos of our moment is the titular “new kind of order.” What patterns the four curators discern feel kaleidoscopic, liable to sudden shifts, rather than stable and self-evident. Keywords defined in the catalogue’s introduction—“Analog,” “Collage,” “Community,” “Self-Publishing”—are hashtags as much as principles, and suitable for our transitional moment.

Viewers could trace their own through lines; I was repeatedly struck by the sense of accumulation translated by the artworks, and by the ways lenses are being used to capture and represent bodies under duress. The acquisitive impulse was manifested simply, as in Roy Arden’s rather dull Quicktime slideshow of thousands of images he has gathered from the Internet, and in the selection of photographs from Michael Schmelling’s project The Plan (2009), which documents the efforts of Disaster Masters, a New York company that counsels hoarders. The emphasis on bodies in particular places at particular times is expressed with haunting clarity in London-based South African photographer Gideon Mendel’s photographs and video from his project Drowning World (2007–). What would have been full-length frontal portraits of flood victims in such places as Nigeria and Thailand are, sadly, converted into three-quarter or half-length portraits by the brackish waters that have risen up to their subjects’ knees, waist, or chest. The seven-minute video of people trying to go about their daily lives in these conditions is particularly poignant.

Jim Goldberg, Proof, 2011 (detail).

Jim Goldberg, Proof, 2011 (detail).

These two themes converge in some of the strongest contributions to the exhibition: Jim Goldberg’s Proof (2011), an affecting wall-length installation of contact prints depicting undocumented immigrants, and Thomas Hirschhorn’s Touching Reality (2012), a wall-size projected video of a woman’s hand swiping an iPad to scroll through images of bodies torn asunder by violence. The intimacy of the hand’s gesture is contradicted by the distancing effect of the screen (and that of the projection). It offers unvarnished proof of just how vulnerable our bodies are, while also reminding viewers that privilege—and our mass media—largely spare us the evidence of bodily harm.

If the exhibition felt like a grab bag, it nonetheless was stuffed with engaging works. Every inclusion that seemed weak or out of place—Huma Bhabha, Mishka Henner, Sohei Nishino, Elliott Hundley—was offset by revelations. The Israeli artist Nir Evron’s film A Free Moment (2011), presented here as a wall-size high-definition video projection, is at once rigorously structured and disorientingly unstable. Evron installed a dolly track inside the unfinished summer palace in Jerusalem begun in the 1960s by King Hussein of Jordan. The film begins with a commanding view over the city; the camera then pulls back along the track into the concrete shell of the building and begins rotating and panning in a 360-degree circle. Ground and sky are confused; detailed views of the concrete ceiling look like the surface of the moon; the film’s apparatus—the track, the camera—at times edge into the frame. Reminiscent of work by the Canadian artist Mark Lewis, A Free Moment is compulsively watchable. In its balance between order and disorder, Evron’s film is an elegant microcosm of the exhibition’s concerns.

Published in Art in America, September 2013. “A Different Kind of Order: The ICP Triennial” was on view from May 17–September 22, 2013.