Easier Said than Done
John Divola, SCAPES, Skinnerboox, 2022
‘Easier said than done’. An essay written for the book John Divola – Scapes, published by Skinnerboox
Edition of 750
Designed by Federico Carpani
For all of his artistic life, John Divola has concerned himself with photography itself, as a medium. Its qualities, conditions, properties, possibilities. One of those qualities, its illusionistic power to describe of the world before it, means that photography is never only photography. The medium requires the presence of something external to it, off which light bounces, to be gathered by a lens before leaving its mark. If the external world is essential to photography, then perhaps it is really part of the medium. This is where the definitional trouble, or fun, begins. And this is where I find John Divola. Figuratively, and sometimes literally he is there, convening encounters between his camera and the world.
There is a passage in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness in which the writer describes a person walking alone in a forest, feeling at one with it, and momentarily losing their sense of self. The person comes to the edge of a clearing. Looking across the clearing, the person glimpses another person in the distance. The stranger is far enough away that no details about them are discernible, beyond being human. But the presence of this stranger changes everything. Neither person can be at one with the space, which is now shared, charged, social. There is an ethical demand, and a focussed sense of self that results from being perceived by another.
Sartre was a very imagistic writer. He described scenarios for us to imagine. Although the forest encounter seems simple, when I think carefully about how I am actually picturing it, in my mind’s eye, it becomes more complex. I imagine it from the point of view of the person at one with the forest. I imagine it from the point of view of the stranger. I imagine the scenario from above or to the side, as if I were an invisible witness, observing without being really present or seen. I imagine other eyes in the forest, perhaps human, perhaps not. Sometimes the scenario feels dangerous. Sometimes it feels liberating. And I imagine how others might imagine this scenario. Sartre keeps its simple, in order to allow for multiple responses. Universal and particular. I know John Divola has read Being and Nothingness, and that it means something to him, because he once made an artwork about it (The Green of This Notebook 1995).