Dust to Dust: A Conversation with David Campany
Dust might be the enemy of photography, but for curator David Campany, the recent exhibition A Handful of Dust was a “dream show.” In this interview, Campany discusses with Brendan Embser the strange career of a surrealist photograph.
In 1920, Man Ray visited the Manhattan studio of Marcel Duchamp to photograph a section of what would become Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (1915–1923), otherwise known as The Large Glass. Strapped for cash, Man Ray had agreed to photograph works of art for the modern art collection Société Anonyme. But first he needed some practice. He set up his camera and focused on the plane of glass, which was perched on sawhorses and covered in dust, opened the shutter for a long exposure, and left the studio with Duchamp for a bite to eat. The word “surreal” is overused and misappropriated these days, but the resulting picture is truly weird. And now it’s the centerpiece of the beguiling exhibition A Handful of Dust, organized by David Campany and on view at Le Bal in Paris through January 17, 2016.
The dust picture is hardly a documentation akin to the copy work for which Man Ray was ostensibly preparing. Within two years, the picture appeared in André Breton’s journal Littérature with a playfully bizarre caption: “Behold the domain of Rrose Sélavy / how arid it is / how fertile it is / how joyous it is / how sad it is! View from an aeroplane by Man Ray – 1921.” (Rrose Sélavy was Duchamp’s feminine alter ego.) With its vertiginous view upon an alien landscape, the dust picture toggles alarmingly between the microcosmic and macrocosmic, defying any settled interpretation or photographic genre. As such, the images collected in A Handful of Dust (the title is borrowed from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land), deftly installed and beautifully reproduced in the accompanying catalogue, are transformed by their association with Man Ray and Duchamp’s visual experiment.
For an exhibition about something filthy, A Handful of Dust glitters with brilliance. At Le Bal, Dust Breeding (one of the photograph’s eventual titles), is juxtaposed with works by Walker Evans and Edward Weston, postcards of American dust storms, and a vitrine of magazines and books charting the strange career of the dust picture in print. The soundscape to a short clip from Alain Resnais’s 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour pervades the space and sets an atmospheric tone. In the main gallery downstairs, Campany has selected an array of contemporary artworks that derive their intensity from associations with dust. Driving a through line from Dada to the Gulf War, the dust picture proves to be one of the most mind-bending objects in the history of photography.
Brendan Embser: I imagine you must have long known about the “dust picture,” as you call it, in the context of twentieth century art history, specifically in relation to photography and surrealism. Although it’s appeared in many different ways and in various publications, without A Handful of Dust the picture might have remained something of an oddity. Now it has star billing. When—and how—did the dust picture become the protagonist of this exhibition?
David Campany: Before it became a protagonist of the show, that photograph had been a protagonist in my own understanding of photography, for quite a while. A signpost, or force field in my own mental landscape of photography. Around decade ago I wrote a short essay about it and thought I’d got it out my system. But something nagged away. I felt there was a whole history of the last century that could be extrapolated from that one image. No more than a hunch, really, but when Le Bal in Paris asked me for my “dream show,” I thought … Why not? Let’s see if it will work. It’s a risky idea, but Le Bal is a risk-taking institution. Dust Breeding has been claimed for Dada, Surrealism, Abstraction, Conceptual Art, Land Art, Performance Art, and Postmodern Art. It belongs to all of them and none of them. It’s an unlikely counterpoint to military imaging, forensics, documentary practices, photojournalism, and reportage. In it we see an exploration of time, an embrace of chance, spatial uncertainty, ambiguities of origin and authorship, institutional instability, a blurring of photography, sculpture and performance, a meditation on process, a stand-off between image and text, and a scrambling of distinctions between document and artwork, the formal and the formless, the cosmic and the domestic. Big claims, I know, but they’re worth proposing, at least.
BE: T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was published in The Criterion in October 1922, the same month as the dust picture was published in Littérature. What is the connection between Eliot and the dust picture?
DC: There’s no literal connection. But connections are less important to me than affinity, suggestion, association, resonances. There was plenty of dust after the First World War. Modernity and “progress” create dust on an unprecedented scale. Tearing down and starting again, coal-fueled factories, war. But modernity and progress also despise dust. It’s the waste product, the extraneous stuff, the marginalia that clogs and clumps and must be got rid of. Meanwhile, in order to track and set up a critical distance from modernity so much of the great art of the last century has, understandably, looked to that extraneous stuff as subject matter and as metaphor. A thickness of dust is a measure of time. It’s also a latent sign of actions or processes. It’s domestic but cosmic, too. To see the world from the point of view of dust will give a different perspective of history and civilization.
BE: As you write in the catalogue, “America’s vast ‘empty’ landscape symbolized boredom of the promise of escape. It’s rarely the space of real anxiety or aesthetic breakdown.” At the same time, you show images of the Dust Bowl, the catastrophic period in the 1930s when dust storms destroyed American farmland, particularly in Oklahoma and Texas. In the dust picture, do you see something particularly foreboding?
DC: Well, dust is a sign both of entropy and foreboding, I think. Everything comes from dust and goes to dust (not wanting to be too Judeo-Christian about it!). What happens in the middle is what counts, but it never runs smoothly. I’m fascinated with images of the dust clouds that tormented the mid-western states in the 1930s. Dust is the enemy of photography—you don’t want it in your camera, or on your negatives—but it is also profoundly photogenic.
BE: The images in the catalogue roughly follow a chronological trajectory, but they appear without captions or dates. The structure of the dust picture—its seeming aerial view and the physical property of dust itself—provides a kind of associative road map. Did you have this concept in mind when you began to design the catalogue? Or was this a result of your collaboration with Le Bal and MACK?
DC: Yes, I had that concept in mind, but when you work with a publisher as good as MACK, and with great designers, they understand what you’re trying to do. Together you refine it until you’ve really got something that expresses the original idea. For a while now I’ve been circling around the possibility of the associative sequence of images being a form of “writing”—using images in such a way that they articulate and bounce off each other. In my last twenty or so publications, I’ve been selecting and sequencing the images before even beginning to write. I did this when I wrote the long essay for The Open Road for Aperture, for example. That essay should make a lot of sense simply as a sequence of images, before you’ve even read a word. For the Dust project, I had written a long essay, maybe 30,000 words, but I was quite prepared to junk it as the necessary labor that got me to that particular selection and sequencing of images. In the end we found a lovely format for the book. The text is a separate supplement that sits in the image sequence but can be removed entirely. You can make your way intuitively through the image track, or you can read my historical/theoretical text. I was so pleased to have found a format that worked both ways. I think it’s pretty innovative and a good sign of how I’d like to be thinking about images and writing in the future.
BE: You’ve included an enormous range of objects spanning nearly a century—vintage prints, books, postcards, vernacular photographs, video clips. No medium is privileged over another. Was this curatorial strategy meant to show the promiscuous nature of photographs—the cross-pollination of images between art, documentary, forensics, and war?
DC: It’s not a curatorial strategy. It’s just how I think about images, and how I think they should be thought about. If you don’t follow the canon, or the museum histories or the money, you can see the richness of photography for what it is: dispersed and anti-hierarchical. We know that great work, or significant work, can be made in the name of art, as a press photo, as a vernacular postcard, or as a scientific document. And on any given day we might consume all those things. This seems perfectly normal to see, not a strategy at all. In fact, it’s only strategy that will exclude that promiscuity. Museums tried to do that for decades, thinking that was the way to make photography special. Now they realize that its specialness is quite the opposite.
BE: The exhibition at Le Bal features multiple works by contemporary artists, including Sophie Ristelhueber, Nick Waplington, John Gerrard, and Xavier Ribas. How have these recent projects created a further permutation of the dust picture?
DC: I wanted to put together a project about resonances. But there is one work that was made as a result of influence. When Sophie Ristelhueber photographed the deserts of Kuwait in 1991, in the wake of the retreat of Saddam Hussein’s army, the image she had in mind, as a template or program, was that image of dust on Duchamp’s Large Glass taken in 1920. I find that remarkable. A photograph made in a completely different circumstance, of a completely different subject can become your point of reference. It just shows the strange and barely conscious ways that images can affect us so deeply. But I also take Ristelhueber’s project as an instance of what elsewhere I have called “Late Photography.” In the wake of TV, video, and internet coverage of world events, still photography has been eclipsed. It’s not obsolete, but it is secondary. Events are often left to the moving image, while many photographers prefer to come along afterwards, as a second wave of more circumspect or even allegorical image-makers. I touch on this in this book and the show as being one of the most significant changes in photography in the last generation. And in shifting from the events to their traces or aftermaths, photography has come into new relations to dust.