Between Memory and Archive
This exhibition explores the relationship between photography and the archive in contemporary art practice.
At the time of its invention, it was thought that photography was the cultural space where nature drew through the medium of light. Today, however much we know that photographs are basically constructed objects, we still often find it hard to abandon a belief in the unassailable truth effect of a photographic image.
Indexicality is the term that refers to an image that is the outcome of a unique impress of something in the physical world: a footprint, a plaster cast, a wax mould. Indexicality describes the photograph as a trace of the real. But it is also indexicality that governs the principle whereby archives are formed, determining what is archivable. Like the photograph, the archival object is possessed of a condition of singularity, where contingent time is registered in the form of discrete traces of unique events. This happened then. The transformation of indexical trace to historical/archival record occurs through a system of registration, organisation and classification. In order to operate as a system, taxonomic or otherwise, the archive requires that each item it contains be distinct from – even if similar to – its neighbour.
If, by its indexical nature, photography has played a singular cultural role as witness, the documentary evidence it contributes also renders the photograph a quintessential archival object. The passage of memory through the evocative objects that contain and represent it, is a complex and often tangential one. The aspiration toward completion that an archive embodies – its dream of conclusive discipline – is always a shattered promise. At the intersection of testimony and fetish, of bureaucratic and administrative reason and personal recollection, the archive – as methodology, or as medium – has been a central trope in the production of art over the past half century, though its roots lie in the earlier twentieth-century vanguards.
Within the archive’s classificatory system, items are consigned to a place. But this function of consignation has another, related, meaning: in his book Archive Fever, French philosopher Jacques Derrida observes that con-signation also suggests the act of depositing signs through gathering them together, synchronising separate signs within a single configuration. Such consignation arrests time and mobilises the archive’s unique remit to convert everything – including what is discarded – into culture.
In this room, we see diverse criteria for such consignation. Two artists are represented by miniature archives of their own work. Marcel Duchamp’s work exemplifies the ways in which the incursions of chance affect the archive at all levels. Playing off hallowed notions of “original” and “copy” in infinite regression, Duchamp conceived his Boîte en valise as a comprehensive compendium of all his works in photographic representation, gathered in the suitcase of a travelling salesman, which also includes one diminutive “original” or handmade copy of one of his works. In clear dialogue with this famous precedent, Wolf Vostell’s Suitcase V40 is conceptually a more traditional archive, where photographs and screen prints track the happenings (temporal events translated into records) that Vostell organised up to 1974.
Helena Almeida’s photographic series chart the posed movements of her own hands in elegant compositions that play upon the constituent part of traditional pictorial representation: form, shadow, depth, surface, frame and edge. Gabriel Orozco’s unassuming photographs fit into a contemporary vein of non-virtuoso photography. These comprise an open-ended set of images, neither fully relics nor properly speaking documents, but snapshots of something ephemeral, wittily exploring the notion of photography as social practice in an age of mass travel.
José Luís Neto stretches the notion of both the photograph and the photographic archive, since each photograph in the series shown here strictly speaking registers “nothing.” These prints were developed using as negatives small glass photographic plates dating from the 1920s or 1930s, chemically processed at the time, but clearly “useless,” since they contain no indexical imprint, only dust, smears, fingerprints: the material effects of the plates having been handled. Over time, and through diverse chemical processes, “nothing” was hyperbolised and aestheticised, even as it was transported into the cultural arena designated as “art.”
Typologies and variations
The age of mechanical reproduction brought about the possibility of producing works that were copies without an original. Repetitions and variations became part of the photographic lexicon. In the works in this room, we see the ideas of “typology” and “variation” in both form and substance explored, teasing the notions of similarity and difference, and with them, the conceptual underpinnings of photographic and archival records. Here, the archive is not simply a system of abstract rules imposed from the outside: rather, its rules are constituted in tandem with the statements/events/records they also help to formulate.
In the work of Allan McCollum, the rationale of serial photography is applied in a deadpan way to sixty similar-but-different drawings. Each presents a symmetrical, opaque, Rorschach-like form with the facticity of a document. In Pedro Quintas’ photographs, we see the same logic applied to apparently unremarkable details of everyday life or studio practice. Focussing upon them in slick digital prints, Quintas grants these details a pristine, structural beauty. A darker sense of banal beauty and order pervades Robert Wilson’s paired, enlarged Polaroid portraits, where each sitter appears in colour and in black and white, revealing nothing of either an interior life or social context.
For Bernd and Hilla Becher, collecting and categorising structures of the industrial age in an unemotional, documentary style, and presenting them in grids, chimes with the serial production of minimalism, while announcing the procedures of conceptual art. Here, the lack of any contextual clues highlights an inbuilt obsolescence: the innovation of today is the ruin of tomorrow. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s works are filled with a more atmospheric melancholy. Like the Bechers, he understands that it is through reprises of the apparently similar that the viewer’s attention is sharpened to the nuance of difference. For these luminous drive-in screens, Sugimoto has adjusted the time exposure on his camera to the length of each film, arriving at the final white screen through the aggregation of light entering the camera for the duration of the film.
Performing the body
In the nineteenth century, photography was appropriated by both medicine and criminology for the purposes of surveillance and regulation, and became the principle means of visualising otherness. The photographic archive thus became a powerful means of implementing the bureaucratic control of the individual and social body.
In the interstices of performance and conceptual art, and increasingly with the analytical tools introduced by film studies, psychoanalysis and feminism, artists in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have been charting the relationship between body and archive with varying degrees of critical acuity. Questions of voyeurism and exhibitionism, and concomitantly of power and surrender, are frequently raised by such works.
Chantal Joffe’s small scale, loosely rendered paintings constitute an album of sorts, for they are clearly indebted to the conventions of snapshot photographs in the organisation of light and shade and their capture of spontaneity. Umrao Singh Sher-Gil’s photographs, constituting a family archive spanning several decades, are the earliest works on this exhibition, and those that most straightforwardly embrace the archival paradigm, recording the life of a cosmopolitan Indo-European family. This archive includes surprisingly unembarrassed self-portraits. The self is also the starting point of Francesca Woodman’s photographs, though it is never entirely their subject. In unnerving ways, Woodman inserts her naked body, or that of her models, into a dilapidated domestic space, a ruined and broken set. Even when not pictured, her own body is always implicit in the field of vision; in the field where she establishes the parameters of the formal problem she addresses.
What happens when a corporeal performance changes place with its own documentation? In the context of art actions of the 1970s, Ernesto de Sousa wished to diffuse the boundary between the body of the self and the body of the other, here using the format of the photographic contact sheet as an archival grid. Augusto Alves da Silva too has employed the gridded, archival format in 91 images of a go-go dancer performing for him in his studio, selected out of a vast number of initial shots. If this series plays out the traditional gendered economy of the photographic gaze, where voyeuristic pleasure is based on controlling the object of the gaze from a distance, Jemima Stehli hyperbolises this relationship by placing her own naked body at the centre of the visual field. Her performances with Lewis Amar, and their photographic records, explore the notion of the performance artist as narcissist, positioning the viewer as an incontrovertible voyeur.
From history to fiction and back again
Traditionally, the archive has been at odds with narrative: stories do not accord with lists, nor (apparently) history with imagination. But with the perception that the photographic archive might constitute the form and the very medium of a work, artists have also challenged notions of history as a discourse based upon evidence, chronology and documentation. The works in this section depend upon – while also mistrusting – historicising processes, allowing history and narrative to interact in recursive ways.
Set in outback Australia, Tracy Moffatt’s Up in the Sky explores, in dislocated, monochrome narrative tableaux, social and racial relations of extreme – if banal – violence, through layered allusions to other works of art, including the early films of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Peter Weir, and 1940s documentary photography. A different kind of layering occurs in Vivan Sundaram’s Re-Take Amrita, using images digitally “montaged” from the photographs of his grandfather Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, to create a palimpsestic and melancholy family archive, haunted by the ghostly presence of Sundaram’s aunt – Sher-Gil’s famous daughter, the painter Amrita Sher-Gil, who died at the age of twenty eight. The imbrication of temporalities destabilises notions of the archive as a repository of singular historical facts.
A different kind of passage through history and memory is realised in the works from Daniel Blaufuks’ Exile Series. Like Tracy Moffatt, Blaufuks borrows the idioms of various other artefacts – the scrapbook, the family album, travel photography, film noir, the literature of exile. The gathered fragments loosely collate personal memories and family records with shards of collective memory in acts of composition that meditate upon the mnemonic uses of photography. Christian Boltanski forces the act of recollection into alignment with historical catastrophe, while throwing light on the instability of the role of both photography and archive in the articulation of history with memory. In his use of found photographs, he brings to the notion of traumatic remembering the deadpan mood of the ready-made. With images culled from the obituary section of contemporary Swiss newspapers, Boltanski’s 364 Suisses morts converts fiction into archive, sharpening the problematic nature of memorialisation and the dangers of conceiving the past too placidly as done and dusted.
Bernd and Hilla Becher
José Luís Neto
Umrao Singh Sher-Gil
Augusto Alves da Silva