Museum and Medium: the Time of Karen Knorr’s Imagery

Karen Knorr: Genii Loci, Black Dog Books, 2002

The encounter between two disciplines doesn’t take place when one begins to reflect on another, but when one discipline realises that it has to resolve, for itself and by its own means, a problem similar to one confronted by the other.

Gilles Deleuze (1)

Like the mutilated classical statue, a photograph seems to result from the artwork’s encounter with a scythe of real time, showing the bruise imprinted upon an artwork by a clash with a time not its own.

Denis Hollier (2)

Karen Knorr’s photography isn’t particularly easy to think about. It seems easier to think with it orthrough it. That is, with or through its subject matter. There is so much to think about within the images, that the images themselves become elusive. We cannot see the wood for the trees. Yet her images are in many ways particularly photographic. I think this reveals itself through their way with time. It wouldn’t be quite right to say that the meaning of Knorr’s images is a complex experience of time, but the layers of possibility within them are inextricably linked to their temporal character. So what I have to say here isn’t so much a free-standing account of Knorr’s photography as a speculation on the time structures that allow the images to mean whatever they mean.

I shall start with the past. Karen Knorr’s work deals with cultural heritage. This has been her most continuous theme since the late 1970s. She deals with taste, power and histories older than photography. She looks at how the culture and ideology of conservatism seek definition. She looks at how they seek this in a past that sometimes never really was. This is why the museum, which constructs a representation of the past from the ideological needs of the present, recurs throughout her work as a theatre for making photographs. Within this theatre she photographs, among other things, works of art. This is a practice with its own long and complicated lineage. Indeed the photography of art has a pedigree as old as photography itself. Consider this short list:

A crumbling facade of Queen’s College, Oxford; an elevated view of a Parisian boulevard; four shelves of China pottery; three shelves of glassware; a bust of Patroclus; an open door with a broom; a leaf of a plant; two shelves of books; a printed page of text; a haystack; a lithographic print; the bridge of Orleans; Queen’s College Oxford again; three men and a ladder; Lacock Abbey; Lacock Abbey, again; the bust of Patroclus, again; Christchurch College, Oxford; Lacock Abbey again; some lace; The Martyr’s Monument, Oxford; Westminster Abbey, a drawing of Hagar in the Desert; an arrangement of fruit.

This is an itinerary not too far removed from Knorr’s own subject matter. No doubt the repetition of Lacock Abbey alerts the reader to the figure of William Henry Fox Talbot. In fact it is a list of the subjects that comprise his book The Pencil of Nature from the 1840s, a publication that aimed to outline possible uses for the medium. The list has a remarkable variety. In plotting out a range of potential applications of his technique, Fox Talbot anticipates so many of the ways in which the photographic was eventually exploited. Documentary, architecture, topography, tourism, modern publishing, advertising, taxonomy and modern art history are all ‘pencilled’ in here, in their nascent states. The abundance of artifacts and commodities before Fox Talbot’s camera is in part a consequence of his class and social standing. As an educated man of means, he photographs what he owns, where he travels and what interests him. On top of this, such artifacts are inanimate and portable, which means they keep still and can be placed in the light (considerable advantages for early photography). But perhaps there is more at stake in the recurrence of art and artifacts in the list. Why might a photograph of an artwork be so well disposed to ‘demonstrating’ the medium?

A provisional answer might be that it allows two versions of time to clash – the time of the artifact and the time of the medium of photography. In clashing they emphasise each other’s particular characteristics. The answer is provisional because the reality is more complicated. For example, it could be said that all photography clashes with a time not its own. It brings a moment into another moment. We might also say that any artifact clashes with a time not its own in so far as it is a representation. Moreover an artifact might be further wrapped in other times by the activities of collecting, exchange, display and so on. Still, there is some truth in the provisional response, for when media are made to clash they tend to suppress their own internal complexities in order to offer up the more obvious differences to each other. We tie ourselves up in knots attempting to define ‘painting’, or ‘sculpture’ or ‘photography’ in isolation, and opt for the ease with which media appear to clarify themselves through comparison. Perhaps only much later are we able to grasp – or in Karen Knorr’s case, stage – the problematics within and between media at the same time. But let me keep things simple for a while longer.

Very early on art photography had a spell of a few decades in which it took up artworks as subject matter. These were decades before the understanding of all art came to be percolated through mass reproduction. In the 1850s and 1860s the photography of artworks was a recognised genre of art photography. Interpretive expression of the essence or spirit of the artwork was the aim. (3) Artistic photography and the photography of art were not mutually exclusive. It was a rich, strange and frustratingly brief period, cut short when art history was rationalised and expanded by the more utilitarian and artless deployment of photography as publicity. The photography of art soon became so ubiquitous that it began to mask rather than reveal the character of both artwork and photograph. Modern art history established itself by using photography mechanistically. It exploited the photograph’s powers of description and reproduction to give us the slide lecture, the catalogue, the journal, the monograph, the popular print and the portable history. It isn’t a coincidence that the great and false battle over the ‘soul’ of art photography, the battle between the painterly and the ‘straight’ image that replaced that earlier hybrid moment, took place against the becoming mass, the becoming popular through reproduction of the art of the past. All that uncertainty as to whether art photography should mimic painting’s crafted singularity or Modernity’s multiplicity was in effect a consequence of the fundamental shift in understanding of the very category of ‘art’ itself that was wrought by mass reproduction. Photography became art firstly as homage, then as imitation of the painterly and eventually became modern only within this new concept of art that was tacitly organised and regulated by reproduction. Since then photography has had two roles in modern art history: as an art itself, and as a mute, nameless mediator of all art. This of course puts it schematically. These aren’t so much roles as poles of the general tension between the photograph’s objectivity and its subjectivity. On the one hand art photography has always negotiated with the utilitarian aspects of the medium, and on the other the photography of art regularly has its utility undermined by accusations of partiality. The ambiguities of Knorr’s photographs derive from this polarity. Somehow we expect a photograph of an artwork to function as a record of it. We expect it to be trustworthy and silent, and there certainly is this aspect to her photographs – they do tell us what artworks look like and what particular museum installations looked like.Yet at the same time – but with a different relation to time – the images are not just objective but critical. This is because they are themselves artworks. They are put back into the spaces and discourses of art.

Knorr’s photography stages the clashing of times in very specific ways, although to my mind the results are far from specific. In general, the art of the twentieth century is not present ‘in’ her work. With rare exceptions the artworks described or contained in her ouevre predate photography. This has three consequences. It gives both the photography and the subject matter space to breath before they come to ‘clash’ with each other. It gives the images a deceptively simple entry point (on some level photographs are always easy to look at). It also means Knorr neatly leapfrogs all those bad infinities and arguments about copies of copies that so preoccupy more excitable speculations about reproduction.

Much art of the twentieth century, concerned as it was with the ‘nature’ of art and conceived wholly within the time and the aegis of the modern art museum, was either aspiring to unattainable timelessness (for example, abstract expressionist painting) or bouncing around with ecstasy or horror (usually both) in the excesses of industrial image multiplication (for example, Pop Art). Knorr’s work loops back to set up a dialogue far more complex than such rejection or repetition of the time of the museum. But it is not simply a dialogue ‘with’ the artworks she depicts. It is a dialogue with what the modern museum did with them for us, good or bad. It is a dialogue with the layers of time that build up on these works as surely as the dust is removed from them.

All of this begs some difficult questions. Can an artwork carry ‘its time’ with it like some kind of melancholic passport through all the trauma of displacement and historical change? The ideology of the museum encourages us to accept, or expect that a painting or a sculpture might be able to cling to a sense of time and place that is ‘true’ to it. As if we see it in the museum but not belongingto the museum. Can photography do this too? Or do we expect that photography, by taking on, byassuming the character of other times and places, keeps nothing for itself? Does it have a self to keep? Perhaps like the filmmaker Woody Allen’s allegorical figure Zelig, it clings only to nothing but the circumstance in which it finds itself. What happens then when photography clings to painting or sculpture? Onto what layer of time can it hold?

We can see now that a simple notion of ‘clashing’ is not really going to account for the complex registers of time in Karen Knorr’s photographs. These images are temporal puzzles. Perhaps the allegories they speak, and speak of, are in the end only available to us through a more mute allegory of time. The late Roland Barthes once spoke of the punctum – a rare occurrence whereby a photographic detail or disposition might prick the viewer’s consciousness and throw them out of the time of the image and into disjunction with their own unconscious, their own history. If I’m honest, I hadn’t thought Knorr’s photography would really allow for such inadvertencies of spectatorship. They appear so controlled. So conscious. Nevertheless standing before her imageIn the Green Room installed in the Wallace collection in London, I was struck by a particular detail. Lurking below the frame of Fragonard’s painting The Swing is a little sign, made up of two icons: a silhouette or shadow of a human profile, and a pair of headphones. It indicates that a headphone commentary on this is available. One may borrow a ‘Walkman’ and be guided around the museum by a commentary in one’s head. I hadn’t paid much attention to these signs until I caught sight of this one in Knorr’s photograph. In a rebus too dense to grasp fully, images and words raced through my mind: all those versions of ‘The Origin of Painting’ in which the cast shadow of a profile is traced on a wall… all those books in which photography is described as ‘the art of fixing a shadow’… all those reproductions of allegorical paintings in art history books accompanied by written elaboration of their half-defunct codes… memories of gallery visits watching people crane to read titles and descriptions… my own first use of such a headphone commentary which threw me into the time of the art but out of the social time of the museum. I was involuntarily fixed beforeIn the Green Room. Not transfixed. The image didn’t swallow me. It occupied my eyes while my mind went elsewhere momentarily. My vision and my knowledge were allegorised for me, by a detail that is not actually in Fragonard’s painting (although it depends on it in some ways) but is in Knorr’s photograph. At such moments one feels one’s eyes both alive and dead at the same time. They are stimulated but not connected to a consciousness, like an automaton or a mannequin… or a stuffed bird.

We could see the presence of animals in some of Knorr’s photographs as irruptions into the decorum of the museum. If they are, they are as much irruptions in time as space. For what is the time proper to an animal? They mock the distinction between ancient and modern. And their taxidermy mocks photography’s ability to freeze things in time (a stuffed bird will look more alive in a photograph than anywhere else).

In an essay published while Roland Barthes was writing Camera Lucida, his reflection on photography and memory, Thierry de Duve attempted a different dissection of photographic time.(4) Barthes preoccupied himself with the stillness of the portrait, but de Duve saw two different times in photography. One is melancholic, the other is traumatic. For de Duve melancholy surfaces in the ‘time exposure’, an image made of the world at rest. A still image of a still world. The time exposure doesn’t seem to stop the world, rather the stillness of the photograph finds consonance in the stillness of the scene. By contrast, traumatic time expresses itself in the ‘snapshot’, which freezes the world and separates the stillness of the image from the movement of the scene. We call this the ‘decisive moment’. What is interesting about Karen Knorr’s photographs that contain artworks and animals is that they are time exposures and snapshots at once. It’s not easy to see if the images are arresting the world or simply depicting an arrested world.

The time exposure and the snapshot coexist and complicate each other in the same frame. What’s more these images were taken in museums. Museums are places where history is arrested, where things are plucked out of time and out of place but made to look natural, calm, ordered and still. As if they truly belonged there. What better describes both the time of Knorr’s images and the time of the museum than a complicated coexistence of melancholy and trauma?

Perhaps this uncanny effect is most pronounced however, not in her photography but in the video work The Visitors. Here we are offered a delicately slow sequence of motionless images of monkeys, roaming amid the marble sculpture of the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. It is difficult to tell if these are freeze frames of live animals, or long takes of stuffed animals or a mixture of both. (5) While video is so often associated with the constant jittery flow of everyday life, Knorr realises that it might be equally well characterised as a medium of fixity, pause and repetition. She approaches the medium of video as being somewhere between film and photography. It has an integral relation to both but belongs to neither. And it has its own time.

By way of conclusion, and in the spirit of the work I have described here perhaps I should loop back to repeat my earlier remark: It wouldn’t be quite right to say that the meaning of Knorr’s images is a complex experience of time, but the layers of interpretation within them are inextricably linked to their temporal character.


1 Gilles Deleuze, ‘The Brain is the Screen. An interview with Gilles Deleuze.’ Gregory Flaxman, editor, The Brain is the Screen. Deleuze an the Philosophy of Cinema, Routledge, 1997.

2 Denis Hollier, ‘Beyond Collage. Reflections on the André Malraux of L’Espoir and of Le Musée Imaginaire’. Art Press, no. 221, 1997.

3 Anthony J. Hamber (1993) ‘Photography of Works of Art’ in Jacobsen, Ken & Jenny, Etude D’Apres Nature. 19th Century Photographs in Relation to Art. Ken & Jenny Jacobsen, 1997.

4 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography, Noonday Press, 1981. Thierry de Duve, ‘Time Exposure and Snapshot: The Photograph as Paradox.’ October no.3. MIT Press, 1978.

5 The are echoes here of a passage in Chris Marker’s celebrated photo- film La Jetee. The hero recalls a dreamy afternoon in a Parisian museum of natural history spent with a lost lover. They lose themselves amid the stuffed birds and assorted mammals. The sequence of still frames places the animals and the people in the same register of time, somewhere between the living and the dead, just as the hero’s memory places events somewhere between ‘now’ and ‘then.’


  • Copyright © 2024