Gary Sauer-Thompson: February 2009 Archives

beyond modernism

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 Dom Ciancibelli raises an interesting issue about contemporary photography at haphazart! Contemporary Abstracts. The issue raised is transgressing modernism and shifting to a postmodern photography practice. It raises the question: can photography be a postmodern art form as well as a modernist one. If so what would the former look like?

This excellent picture----- new year in gaza-----by Mark Valentine would be generally interpreted as a modernist picture: it is abstract, expressionistic and associated with music.Yet it also refers beyond itself as photographic art:

Ciancibelli starts his discussion by quoting from linkwise, who says that:

At the risk if bursting some inflated egos, many images that we see in this forum are at best reiterations and regurgitations of visual issues that modernist painters and photographers resolved decades and indeed centuries ago. Thus there is not a lot to discuss.
My concern here is not to pass judgment on the quality of modernist abstractionist photography but merely to note that abstraction in art has been around a long time---most of the 20th century---and that it is no longer part of the avant-garde movement.
Can we speak of dialectical pictures or images. If so,  is the picture below---- entitled The end of oil 11  by  Peter G.A. Rosén aka  Kritisk massa on Flickr---- an example of one? If it is, then what can it offer those interested in cultural criticism? 


Walter Benjamin understood a dialectical image as an image of the past which carries the desires of the past generations into the present; an image that crystallizes antithetical elements  and where the  "synthesis" of these antithetical elements  is not a movement towards resolution, but the point at which their axes intersect.

The antithetical elements in the above picture is the promise of freedom by the car and  the negative effects of the car on both the environment (dirty air + emission of greenhouse gases)  and our urban fabric.These contradictory tendencies are not resolved in the picture --they intersect ---petrol station and the unsettling garish, greenish tinge. 

reading landscapes

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This picture --entitled IMG_1860---- by Lone Receiver  raises the issue of how we read landscapes. In this case it is to edge-ness of the sea/land borderland and we recognize that such a landscape is multilayered,  contingent, unstable, unpredictable.  One tag references  Raymond Moore, the British photographer of the1960s -1980s,  whose work helped break down the boundaries between traditional photography and 'fine art', He created photographs of the commonplace that suggested there was something uncommonly strange about the scene or landscape.


So we a photo that is about  place, history and is very Enligish both in terms of  northern (gray) climate, and a down to earth "documentary"  images that is  down to earth  (the commonplace) and  informed by Romantic  melancholy that appreciated the desire for an intimate communion with nature  is forlorn. What we have is a form of historical  life (industrialism) that appears as natural history. 
This picture----200812-02-03---- is by Guy Batey and it is from his The Melancholy of Objects set. It has been selected because it is a good example of the return to the world of objects after the turn away from the  modernist's preoccupation with the abstract image.

This  is the world of the found object,  and Guy's Flickr set begins with things----often trivial, humble objects--- and the way we apprehend them. This set of pictures of objects is more a phenomenological approach to things, than one that works within art history---eg., the object as an arsenal in the surrealist avant garde expressing the return of the repressed. The  uncanny  is present but it avoids collapsing things into fetishism or the return of the repressed desire as understood by psychoanalysis. 
 Is there a connection between  representation and responsibility?

The standard response is yes and the answer is usually given in terms of either the artist being responsible for  the truth of the representation, or the artist being ethically responsible in relation to their audience. In this picture---Close----  by Incognita Nom de Plume the responsibility  would refer to the Spanish culture, the family of the dead,  and to the power of the picture and its  possible diverse interpretations by Flickr members.


The standard response goes against, or is a response to,   the notion of art or photography as a lie, or   just fooling around; or the modernist account of art as representation only being responsible to itself--its own form, genre, necessity, etc.  

It is not just the artists who produces the representations who have responsibility ---we, the interpreters of the picture,  have responsibility as well, since our interpretations and the way we frame the image in discourse, is also a representation within a network of social relations.
In concluding Picture Theory WJT Mitchell raises the issue of representation  and what lies beyond it. This picture by casually, krystina  is not just a representation of reflections in a window--it points, or refers, to what lies beyond this particular representation. It suggests that something lies beyond this object (a picture) that seems to stand before us, a thing  standing for something else. The "something else", as suggested by the light in the background,  is some form of transcendence.  

There is a tradition that makes a distinction between visual representation and what is represented. However Mitchell also mentions the aesthetic tradition that holds there is nothing outside representation. Is this picture a way of emphasizing the unpresentable?


Are there different visual ways of allowing the unpresentable to be put forward?

Mitchell says that this is the tradition of the aesthetic sublime, which posits a realm of a negation, of  radical otherness,  and unknowability. The sublime located in pain, death transcendence and the unknowable, is precisely the unrepresentable.

Okay, we are one week late,  but we've kicked off photo of the week from the altfotonet Flickr group with this picture  by barb.   It is within an abandoned soviet army  barracks near Berlin taken during a photo walk with streunerin. Streunerin is Birgit Richter and she has  more on the Soviet barracks. 

The picture appeals to me because it is both a great image and it situates itself within the modernist tradition that repudiates linear perspective and is an image/text.  Therefore,  it deconstructs the American (Greenbergian)  modernist's appeal to visual purity.

 This takes us to a space where  we can acknowledge the dialectic of image  and word and give us a perspective on our culture where can see the protracted struggle for dominance between pictorial and linguistic signs. Personally,  I am not sure why we have this history of conflict between image and word; a conflict that many see as a struggle for territory and a contest of ideologies.

First impressions of the concrete canvas issue (or online exhibition?) indicates  that none of the images selected  by the curator include fragments of a figure or a text.  So these pictures  remain within  modernist  boundaries in terms of their photographic ethos or comportment. The majority of the pictures are abstractions that work within what could be loosely called abstract expressionism,  whilst a few are minimalist. 

As such, the pictures cannot be considered as the avant garde overturning tradition,  since abstraction in the visual arts belongs to an era that is passing from living memory  into history. It  is becoming tradition, albeit a powerful one with a lot of life in it, especially  in art photography. Or may this  online exhibition represents a revival of abstraction that resists the assault of the avant garde, since abstraction in the visual arts continues to have a lot of institutional and cultural power. 

One description that comes to mind in looking at the pictures  is that they are photo poetry. Many of the pictures are very poetic in terms of their expression and force.  Therein lies their fascination and their seductive power.

Of course, this raises the question: 'what is poetized photography'?  I  don't really have much of an idea other to point to the liquid, flowing quality of the pictures---their nonverbal, improvisational musical quality  or force if you like--that refers to the more hidden aspects of everyday life.  It is not the art photographer's job to make normal comforting images given that we live in the world of images of  an aestheticized consumer culture.'

the grid

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The grid has functioned to declare the emergence of modernism. It declares the autonomy of art; walls the visual arts into a realm of exclusive visuality and defends them  them from the intrusions of text;  signifies art turning its  back on nature and its embrace of  geometry with its ideal forms and perfectly precise lines;  and rejects linear perspective and its representation of reality.

If the grid is the figure of modernism, then the "formal layout" of the grid signifies the prefabricated order  of a mathematical coordinate system. Right angles and straight lines were deemed to be so quintessentially modern, so expressive  of the machine age, that it functioned as the cornerstone of Western visual culture for much of the 20th century.


This picture entitled Burning by Mark Valentine and Floebee transgresses the grid of modernism by undercutting it as a figure of static repose and introducing dynamic movement. The flow of energy within the spaces of  the grid indicate that grids are obsolete in network culture.

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This page is a archive of recent entries written by Gary Sauer-Thompson in February 2009.

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