Physical Space, Image Space, Psychical Space

Bombas Gens Centre d'Art , 2018

Physical Space, Image Space, Psychical Space

an essay written for the catalogue of the exhibition The Pulse of the Body: Uses and Representations of Space, Bombas Gens Centre d’Art, 14.03.2018 – 20.01.2019. Curated by Nuria Enguita and Vicente Todolí. Publication edited by Nuria Enguita

 

Physical Space, Image Space, Psychical Space

David Campany

This book and exhibition gather together the diverse work of nearly fifty artists, from many countries and many eras, under the title The Pulse of the Body: Uses and Representations of Space. Some of this work has conspicuously “bodily” subject matter; some of it does not. Indeed there is a marked distinction here, a tension even, between representations that involve human bodies quite emphatically, and representations that appear to absent them. What kind of curatorial premise could align the exploratory self-portraits of Francesca Woodman and the cool eye of Gabriele Basilico’s photographic survey of northern French urban scenes? Or Timm Rautert’s photos at the Parisian cabaret Crazy Horse, and the inscrutable images of supercomputers made by Lewis Baltz? Or David Goldblatt’s intimate pictures of the bodies and clothes of his fellow South Africans, and José Guerrero’s muted imagery of London’s Thames river?Some artists are represented here through contrasting projects. For example, Manolo Laguillo has made intimate photographs of nudes andstudies of urban architecture.

In one form or another, most of the work here is photographic, and most of it has resulted from the artists’ various searches: searches for meaning, searches for subject matter, searches for ways to depict, and searches for modes of putting those depictions together into larger projects. Photographers physically move through the world, working with their equipment to frame scenes and translate them into flat imagery. As a portable practice then, photography always speaks, directly or indirectly, of physical encounters mediated by a camera. Furthermore, the camera’s lens takes in the light that reflects off the surfaces of the world before it, and to this extent at the very least, it is inevitably spatial. We might say that photography is an embodied activity and also a located activity, and this line of thought may be one way of drawing together the apparent range of these works. So, what follows here is a series of thoughts on how this collection might prompt us to think about representation in terms of pulsing bodies and space.

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In a recent documentary, the Swiss photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank was asked what he remembered of the eighteen-month period in which he was on the road making the photographs that would eventually be published as the book The Americans (1958-1959). Frank sighs, scratches his head, shrugs, and says: “I was in good shape back then”. The reply might be a deflection, Frank’s way of keeping the interviewer and the eventual audience away from what has become perhaps the most celebrated and discussed photographic project of the twentieth century. But in another way his answer is quietly revealing. In the course of those months, Frank had exhausted himself with his wandering, speculative, reactive street photography. It’s a practice that takes its toll on the body and on the nervous system. Frank’s equipment, the lightweight 35mm Leica camera, was designed to make photography quick and easy, but do it at the highest level, attuned acutely and honestly to the world, making pictorial and symbolic judgments in the moment, is demanding. In their off-kilter compositions and grabbed moments Frank’s images of anxious and uneasy American citizens, along with his earlier street pictures made in Spain in 1952, are profoundly embodied, and speak as much about his ownanxious and uneasy presence as an outsider in those societies. Understandably, street photographers working in this idiom often do their best work at quite a young age, when the body and the mind are supple and responsive—look also at the early photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Helen Levitt in this collection. They might manage to sustain it, through the habit of making similar pictures for a lifetime, but those early heights are rarely bettered. Frank walked away from street photography, never to return, although his attention to the body and the mind—his own and his subjects’—grew even more intense in his later work in photo-collage and film.

Around the time Frank published The Americans, the German couple Bernd and Hilla Becher were beginning what would become a half-century of photographic documentation of industrial architecture in Europe and North America (water towers, gas tanks, lime kilns, cooling towers, and so on). On the face of it, the Bechers’ work seems the complete opposite of Frank’s. They adopted the techniques of “straight photography” first honed by technician-photographers in the nineteenth century. They used a slow and cumbersome large format camera and tripod to pursue just one photographic convention—the formal, calm, centred, clear, detailed, rectilinear visual document devoid of the dramas of movement, shadow, or human presence. Making thousands of photographs in this manner was painstaking work, and it did not change over decades. It seemed to be a detached kind of photography, negating the human body, denying subjectivity, and even its own position within space. However, to look at the Bechers’ vast body of work as a whole, in a survey book or large exhibition, is to confront the epic physical and human scale of their achievement. For all the apparent “neutrality” these photographs did not make themselves. This is not detached and indifferent image making. The Bechers’ commitment was total, unwavering and all consuming. But to what, exactly, was it a commitment? To the structures they photographed—an architecture built and operated by unknown technicians. As Europe and North America enter a post-industrial phase, the Bechers’ photographs begin to seem more like monuments to the anonymous manual labour that built and operated those structures, and to the idea of photography as a form of selfless and anonymous manual labour. So, despite its apparent denial of the pulsing body, the Bechers’ work can also be understood as a sincere and profound homage to it.  This complicates the idea that there is an easy distinction to be made between “subjective” and “objective” photography.

The Bechers’ work came into the orbit of art in the late 1960s, in relation to Minimalism and Conceptualism. Their photographs echoed the exploration of seriality, industrial form and cool strategy that rejected overt subjectivity, craft, and humanism. A similar impulse informs the work of Humberto Rivas, Bleda y Rosa, or Lewis Baltz.  But all art is made, whether that making is physical or intellectual; whether it’s done by the conspicuous hand of an artist, by unknown technicians, or by artists mimicking unknown technicians. Think of Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades, those industrially produced objects selected and presented as art a full century ago. Duchamp’s labour may have been purely intellectual, but that urinal, bottle rack, and snow shovel weremade objects, and were also objects closely connected to the pulsing flesh of human form. Duchamp’s deflection from the body was in fact another way of evoking it.

In many ways then, photography’s relation to the body can always be understood beyond and around what is literally depicted. The same is true of its relation to space.  There is the space in front of the camera, which may or may not contain bodies, there is the space beyond the frame, and there is the space occupied by the embodied photographer. The embodied space and act of photographing can be made overt, as in Francesca Woodman’s self-portraits, for example, or the immersive and expressionistic documentary work of Takashi Hamaguchi. But very often it remains a hidden dimension of photography. This is partly because of the way in which a lens can produce such a strong impression of the space before it, an almost illusionistic impression of transparency that swallows all the viewer’s attention. This force is still harnessed by the discourses of science, topography and reportage to allow the photograph to stand in as a supposedly adequate record or substitute knowledge of the world, rather than a selective impression of it.

Photography carried forward and industrialized an understanding and perception of space that was rooted in the western theories of perspective. Those theories rationalized external space and tended to cut it off from the embodied presence of the observer. In western perspective, the space of the observable world is set apart, as if seen through a picture window. In this way space is turned into an object of science or aesthetic contemplation, and even a domain of power and property. From its beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, photography was easily recruited to extend the assumptions of western perspective. So easily, in fact, that it has been tempting to assume that those assumptions are built into the very apparatus of the camera, that as a technique of instrumentalised vision it symbolizes and enacts an entire episteme and ideology of disembodied spatial domination.

We can contrast this idea with the Japanese concept of ma. There is no satisfying translation of the word, since ma refers to something substantially alien to the western understanding of disembodied vision. Roughly translated as a combination of pause/gap/interval, ma designates the spaces between the observer and the observed, and between the various elements of what is observed. Marecognizes that this negative space may not be physically real, but it is psychically real, playing an active part in the observer’s understanding of themselves and what they observe. The greater the intensity of seeing, the more palpable this experience of ma, and this can be translated via the image for the viewer. David Goldblatt’s series Particulars(1975) is not only an affectionate and fascinated documentation of human dress and gesture: it is also a documentation of the photographer’s observant movements and encounters with those he chose to depict.

As we have seen already in the case of the Bechers’ photographs, it is perfectly possible to interpret “against the grain” any image that at first appears to deny or disavow the embodied presumptions of its making. A photograph commissioned by an expanding railway company to survey topography, a medical photograph intended to help diagnose hysteria, or a crime scene photograph intended to help convict a criminal can all be analysed in terms of their institutional and discursive determinants, and in doing so the embodied nature of photography becomes apparent. Indeed this way of reading against the grain has had a profound effect on the understanding of how photographs function in society at large. And, in many ways, this was how photography became a significant modern art. As is often recounted, in 1910s and 1920s vanguard photographers dropped their too-literal associations with painting along with their anxiety about the documentary character of the medium being at odds with artistic intention or subjectivity. Instead they embraced the look of photography found in the rest of the rapidly expanding visual culture: the snapshot, reportage, fashion, the commercial still life, advertising, the scientific photograph, the film still, the architectural photograph, the archival document, and so on. This reconnected photography in art to the complex and contradictory social life around it. In doing so it put art into a new set of relations to the world of the mass media and the illustrated press. It also let in all the wildness and unpredictability of photography: the machinic automatism, raw indexicality, chance, and all manner of unexpected encounters with the modern world’s changing appearance.

From there, vanguard photography began to understand the gallery space as an operating table or a stage set, to which the different potentials and non-art practices of the medium could brought, rethought, and even re-pictured. Think of Walker Evans understanding the photographs he exhibited as not being documentary but “documentary style”. It is not that the context of art allows “style” to trump every other aspect of the photographs, but art does suspend the documentary function, in an important way that makes that function thinkable. Part of what becomes thinkable in this shift is the question of how the space of the encounter between the photographer and the depicted subjects may have shaped the image we see.The work of Luigi Ghirri and Paul Graham comes to mind here. Ghirri’s intelligent framing of everyday scenes, often in northern Italy, is gently and unemphatic, but in the space of art it becomes disarming and reflexive.

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Most of the images collected here as The Pulse of the Body belongs to a set, suite or sequence. Just a few are presented here as singular images to be contemplated in their isolation. Another of the consequences of photography becoming a modern art in the early twentieth century was a shift away from the primacy of the single image towards the internally organized body of work, or project. Somehow the single image was deemed either insufficient or too susceptible to a narrowly formal or pictorial reading. In its place came the feeling that since each and every photograph is presumed to be essentially fragmentary and incomplete, the medium’s response to the world ought to be a matter of assembly, of putting those fragments together in order to cover adequately a subject or theme, or experience. Think of the reportage photo-essay as it came to be developed by mass media magazines in the last century or the book of sequenced photographs, or the arrangement of images in a photo album. All have had major influences on the potential uses and artistic possibilities of the medium. As László Moholy-Nagyput it in 1932: “The series is no longer a ‘picture’, and none of the canons of pictorial aesthetics can be applied to it. Here the picture loses its identity as such and becomes a detail of assembly, an essential structural element of the whole which is the thing itself. In this concatenation of its separate but inseparable parts a photographic series inspired by a definite purpose can become at once the most potent weapon and the tenderest lyric”.[i]Or, as the August Sander wrote in 1951: “A successful photo is only a preliminary step toward the intelligent use of photography… Photography is like a mosaic that becomes a synthesis only when it is presented en masse”.[ii]Indeed, one can find countless similar expressions of this attitude across the last hundred years or so, even among image-makers entirely capable of making striking singular pictures.

In general then, photography in art, as just about everywhere else in our culture, has become a matter of assembly. Whatever the power, aesthetic pleasure or knowledge gained for one photograph is extended, displaced, modified and complicated by its relation to other photographs. As the writer Blake Stimson has noted, the photo-essay“was born of the promise of another kind of truth from that given by the individual photograph or image on its own, a truth available only in the interstices between pictures, in the movement from one picture to the next”.[iii]

What is unseen and not pictured but implied becomes as significant as what isseen and pictured, as in Sanja Ivekovic’s The Right On (Pearls of the Revolution)(2007-2011), with its different gestures that hide the truth one of the partisans. Of course, the grouping of photographs never quite overcomes the fragmentariness of the individual elements. All representations are inadequate descriptive systems, regardless of the authority invested in them. What Sander called the “mosaic” of the photographic assembly is an expression of the mosaic nature of bodily and spatial experience. That experience is psychical, internal. The camera’s lens might cohere space according to the laws of optics, but that law is quite unsuitable for mapping the unconscious processes at work in responseto experienceand interpretationof images. As the artist and writer Victor Burgin asked rhetorically: “Why should we suppose that the condensations and displacements of desire show any more regard for Euclidean geometry than they do for Aristotelian logic?”[iv]The camera’scold and deadeye cannot account for subjectivity and the body, which comes to warp space and undo its coherence. The individual photography might remain intact, but in becoming part of a “mosaic”, the gaps become apparent.

Consider Nomads 2008, Xavier Ribas’s multi-part photographic installation. It isresponse to a very particular space in Barcelona. In 2004 around sixty gypsy families were pushed out of an empty industrial plot where they had settled, first by intimidation and then by the arrival of diggers that broke up the concrete surface to make it uninhabitable. Without secure finance or coherent plans to develop the site, it was left empty, suspended cynically between its past and an unknown future. The chaotic forms of the site are made all the more striking by the diligent, quasi-forensic documentation and the geometry of Ribas’s presentation. There is a formal grid of thirty-three black and white prints of the broken ground although Ribas leaves spaces in the grid, perhaps as an acknowledgment that “complete” grids are often deployed to suggest complete authority, a complete account. This grouping is flanked by a prosaic Google Earth satellite view looking straight down at the site, and an expressive diptych of storm clouds photographed from the site looking straight upwards. Although its form is finely calculated, Nomads attempts no authoritative assessment of the space, nor of the politics, economics or social tension they symbolise in Ribas’s hands. The compelling descriptive power of photography as a seeing machine is balanced by the inevitably subjective nature of human vision, human knowledge, and the human body.

Perhaps this imperative to assert the body as an ever present and mediating force in representation is itself a response to the feeling that the body is under threat. Although there have always been claims that photography as a “vision machine” denies the body, there is now an overwhelming feeling that the remote imaging of drones, satellites and surveillance, and the automated interpretation and dissemination of that imagery now amounts to an altogether unprecedented assault on photography as a mode of resistant expression. And there can be no expression without bodies.

 

[i]Moholy-Nagy, László: Telehor no. 1, 1936, unpaged.

[ii]August Sander’s letter to the photographer Abelen, January 16, 1951, cited in Sander, Gunther: August Sander, Citizens of the Twentieth Century, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1986, p. 36.

[iii]Stimson, Blake: “Introduction”in The Pivot of the World: Photography and its Nation, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2006, p.41. A similar point is made by Bensmaia, Reda: “From the Photogram to the Pictogram: On Chris Marker’s La Jetée”, Camera Obscuran. 24, 1990, pp. 138-161.

[iv]Burgin, Victor: “Geometry and Abjection”in In/Different Spaces: place and memory in visual culture, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1996, p. 47.