This essay was written in 2009, and is published in Alexander Gutke (Fundação Caixa Geral de Depoósitos – Culturgest, 2011). For more information on the artist and images of his other works, visit his page on the Galerija Gregor Podnar website.
On September 26, 2003, the Eastman Kodak Company declared, in a press release, that it would stop making and selling slide projectors by the following June. “In recent years, slide projectors have declined in usage, replaced by alternative projection technologies,” the announcement noted. Alternative, of course, was a code word for digital, and for many people the decision represented yet one more nail in the coffin of analogue technology. Yet, as art historian Pamela M. Lee observed soon afterward, “Given its ubiquity in both studio and art-historical pedagogy, the modern slide projector… has played more than a supporting role in the visual arts from its inception.” Thus Kodak’s decision prompted a brief spurt of commemorative activity, including “Slideshow,” an exhibition held at the Baltimore Museum of Art in early 2005. Though not consciously a response to the Kodak announcement, Alexander Gutke’s slide-projection pieces Exploded View (2005) and Lighthouse (2006) stand out amid the stream of artworks and texts that it occasioned for their rigor, their austere beauty, and the conceptual complexity embedded in their seemingly simple execution. Like the staple technique of the art history class, these two works offer what can be termed a “slide comparison.” But, rather than juxtapose two images, Gutke’s artworks place two ways of understanding analogue projection technology side by side: Exploded View examines what a projector is; Lighthouse demonstrates what a projector does.
Exploded View appears to be a vivisection. Its eighty-one slides lay bare the innards of another Kodak Carousel projector. To create the work, Gutke had a technician slice apart a projector one slide bay at a time, a process that the artist documented in photographs. Each successive cut revealed more of the machine’s plastic, metal, and glass guts; each image projected onto the wall presents a different combination of wires, lenses, bulbs, small screws, and the body housing these elements. The images progress from representational to abstract and back again, as distinct elements of the projector’s body come into view and are diligently excised. (Since the carousel loops, the process never ends.) The precise articulation of the projector’s component parts calls to mind Albert Renger-Patzsch’s ultra-clear Neue Sachlichkeit-style photographs of industrial machines. Gutke’s images, tissue samples of an outmoded technology, could perhaps be used to reconstruct the machine.
Lighthouse substitutes lyricism for Exploded View’s quasi-scientific astringency, without lapsing into sentimentality. In this work, a rectangle of light is slowly rotated through 360 degrees, over the course of eighty-one slides. What begins as a flat plane of light resting on the surface of the wall seems to become an incision into the wall’s surface. At the carousel’s midpoint, the narrow sliver of light is ostensibly “perpendicular” to the wall onto which it is projected. As the slides progress, the “image” of light swings back into parallel alignment with the wall. Then the cycle is repeated. The work’s title evokes a tower erected by the coast, its searching beam of light aligning with the seafarer’s eyes once per revolution. But Lighthouse suggests other equally romantic interpretations. The light’s waxing and waning, for example, calls to mind charts of the lunar cycle.
Exploded View and Lighthouse are attempts to find intrinsic content in a machine that is usually subservient to the images dropped into its bays. Gutke demonstrates how the projector can generate meaning on its own, without the assistance of Tintoretto paintings or technical diagrams or family photos slotted into its carousel. One way this can be interpreted is as a subtle rejoinder to the inexorability of the switch from analogue to digital projection technologies. The works remind viewers that something particular and distinctive is lost in the transition. What basically is this insistence on medium specificity, other than a protest against supersession? If the Kodak press release announced the “death” of the slide projector, then perhaps Exploded View is less like a vivisection and more like an autopsy. According to this view, having explored the projector’s guts and found something estimable, Lighthouse, with its “voided” image, becomes the scene of resurrection. The images have fled to some great beyond, but the autopsied machine returns to life and exhibits its essential dignity.
The way Gutke isolates particulars about his chosen medium to highlight their specific properties has an art-historical precedent in the experimental and conceptual artworks created in the 1960s and 1970s using film, slide projectors, and then-new video technologies. Exploded View and Lighthouse recall works by Dan Graham, Anthony McCall, and others. Lighthouse, in particular, through its tracing of a circle, brings to mind Robert Morris’s infrequently exhibited film installation Finch College Project (1969). For that work, Morris instructed cameraman Robert Fiore to film a crew of workers installing and de-installing a grid of mirrored squares and a gridded black-and-white photograph on the opposite walls of a room. Fiore set the camera on a turntable revolving at one revolution per minute, and the finished work was projected into the same space; the projection rotated around the now blank walls at the same speed. But, whereas Morris’s projection relied on filmic imagery to create a palimpsest of past and present, Gutke’s work deploys a contrived, though plausible, “function” of the slide projector to create a palimpsest of real and fictional space. Lighthouse and Exploded View are works in which the seemingly direct efforts made by the artist produce uncanny, manifold effects.
The slide projector’s historical antecedent is the magic lantern, which is generally thought to have been invented in the mid-seventeenth century by the Dutch scientist Christiaen Huygens. The relationship of this device to death and to haunting was noted early in the lantern’s history. A 1671 description of the lantern in Athanasius Kircher’s Ars magna lucis et umbrae was accompanied by illustrations depicting projections of a soul in purgatory and a skeleton holding an hourglass and a scythe. (Huygens’s device, used to entertain elites and royals, was called “the lantern of fright.”) The “phantasmagoria” magic lantern show would remain popular throughout the first half of the nineteenth century in both Europe and the United States. Gutke’s focused explorations of the slide projector ostensibly remove the “magic” from this magic lantern–like technology. There certainly seems to be nothing hiding behind Exploded View. Yet something ineffable and entrancing remains.
One might contend that what lingers is mere nostalgia for an obsolescent technology, though it’s hard to see how these two artworks are nostalgic. Art historian T.J. Demos has observed that a slide projection, by “locating the viewer between memory and anticipation, opens an indeterminate zone between the autonomy of the single-frame photograph and the uninterrupted continuity of filmic illusion.” This observation is astute, but does not seem to account for the particular effect of Gutke’s two slide-projection works. It seems to me, rather, that the enduring power Gutke confers upon the humble Kodak projectors arises from a tension between finitude and infinitude. Gutke’s exploration seems to have reached a logical conclusion (and is therefore finite) yet in doing so it highlights something endless: the circular carousel’s loop. His incisive reduction of the slide projector to its barest essences—what it is, what it does—coexists with the recognition of the machine’s ability to imply ceaselessness. And it is precisely this sense of perpetuity that counters any fatalism about the death of the medium. At the moment of the slide projector’s ostensible “death,” Gutke has invested the humble contraption with a dignified sense of life.