Exhibition dates: 18th October 2008 – 19th April 2009
“Archives contain elements of truth and error, order and disorder and are infinitely fascinating. As both collections of records and repositories of data, archives are able to shape history and memory depending on how, when and by whom the materials are accessed. Their vastness allows for multiple readings to be unravelled over time.
Photography is naturally associated with archives because of its inherent ability to record, store and organise visual images. With this in mind, this exhibition brings together artists drawn largely from the permanent collection of the NGV who explore the idea of archives as complex, living and occasionally mysterious systems of knowledge. Several of the selected artists act as archivists, collecting and ordering their own unique bodies of photographs, while others create disorder by critiquing the ideas and systems of archives.”
Text from the NGV International website
New Zealander 1962–, worked in Australia 1989–
Writing in a library 1996
photocopies, oil stick, card
169.4 x 127.2 cm (image); 180.2 x 137.2 cm (sheet)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
© Patrick Pound
“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”
An interesting exhibition is presented in the permanent third floor photography gallery at NGV International, Melbourne on a subject that deserved a much more rigorous investigation than could been undertaken in this small gallery space. Presenting single works by Ed Ruscha, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Patrick Pound, Robert Rooney, Simon Obarzanek, Penelope Davis, Candid Hofer, Linda Judge and Charles Green and Lyndell Brown the works seek to investigate the nature of the relationship between photography and the archive, between the semi-permanences of an archival memory and the spaces of a transgressive intertexuality marked by fragmentary, ironic counter-performances.
As noted in the catalogue essay by NGV curator Maggie Finch the archive is a place for holding knowledge that contains elements of truth and error, order and disorder; archives are able to shape history and memory, depending on how, when and by whom the records are accessed. Any disruption of order, governance and authority can lead to alternative readings and interpretations as the arcane ‘mysteries’ of the methods of classification are overturned. Since Victorian times when the body came under the self-surveillance of the camera and was found wanting, photographs have documented the faces of criminals, the physiognomy of degeneration and the fever of war.
As Yiannis Papatheodorou has observed when reviewing Jacques Derrida Mal d’Archive
“Derrida declares that since the dominant power of the archive derives from the economy of knowledge, it also provides the institutional responsibility of the interpretation. The localisation of the information transforms the inscription, provided by the function of the archive, into the impression of a memory’s trace, conscious or unconscious …
The preservation of memory, the access to information, the “resources” of the sources and the working environment are not just the representation of a future memory. They are active practices and discourses that create hierarchies and exclusions. The archives are the languages of the past, activated however dialogically, according to scientific and social demands. The content of our choice is marked by the way we are seeking information. Far from being an abstract principle, our choice is an ideologically oriented negotiation closely related to the politics of interpretation.”1
An there’s the rub. Not only is this exhibition a reordering of an unpublished memory by the artist (for that is what an archive is, a unique unpublished memory whereas a book has multiple copies) it is also a reiteration of the authority of the gallery itself, the “institutional responsibility of the interpretation.”2 Deciding what was in this exhibition and what to leave out creates hierarchies of inclusion and exclusion – and in this case the inclusions are mainly ‘safe’ works, ones that challenge the ontology of existence, the cataloguing of reality in a slightly ironic way but oh – nothing too shocking! nothing too disordered! Nothing here then of the archive of images that substantiate the horrors of war, the trans/disfiguration of men in both World Wars for example. There are few images to haunt us, none to refresh our memories in a problematic way.
Every building on the Sunset Strip 1966
artist book: photo-offset lithographs, letterpress, concertina, cardboard cover, silver-coated plastic-covered slipcase, 1st edition
17.8 x 760.7 cm (open); 17.8 x 14.4 x 0.8 cm (closed); 18.6 x 14.6 x 1.4 cm (slipcase)
Private collection, Melbourne
© Ed Ruscha, courtesy Gagosian Gallery, New York
The more successful pieces, the works that challenge the order of the archive (“what is no longer archived in the same way is no longer lived in the same way”)3, are the ones by Ed Ruscha (above), Penelope Davis and Simon Obarzaneck (below).
Ruschas vertical inverted cityscape is trapped in a display cabinet opened out on the horizontal plane in concertina format, like one of those optical illusion images in which you see an image looking from one direction and a different image from the other direction. Ruscha’s personal experience of driving down Sunset Strip in Los Angeles and his anthropological recording of the urban experience has been disseminated in a mass produced ‘artists’ book. No unique unpublished archive here. Beneath the facades of the shops other narratives emerge – images are stitched together, cars chopped off, people dismembered – all in a very linear, conceptual way; a journey from one point to another, one that is both subjective (the voice and hand of the author) and objective (the en masse production of the book).
As Chris Balaschak has noted, “The images, taken during the day, capture only the facades of the buildings. Ignorance is given to cars or people, both of which are often cut in half between separate exposures. The imperfections of matching the facades are cracks along Ruscha’s drive. Through these cracks we find Ruscha, not such an anonymous author after all. Splitting cars in two, and mismatching facades we become keenly aware of the passage of time. The facades of buildings may appear as stage sets but they are active points on other itineraries, anticipating future and past narratives.”4
This is Ruscha’s trace through the city but also our intersection with his journey, our chance to make our own itineraries as Balaschak in his insightful writing rightly points out. The fragmentary dismembering becomes the space between, the disorder of the linear into a heterotopic space of remembering. We the viewer create our own narrative, flitting through the cracks in the archive of memory, the photographer, the author of our own journey.
from the Fiction-Non-Fiction series 2007–08
type C photograph
90.0 x 70.0 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2008 (2008.100)
Penelope Davis photograms are luminous objects. She makes resin casts of the spine of discarded books and places the casts directly onto photographic paper and then exposes them to light. The books glow and hover in the blackness, the words on the spine reversed. Stripped of their context, of their memory, they become ethereal books, phantom texts, liminal images that hover between what is known and what is imagined. As Davis has said, “Most people assume that when they look at a photo that they are looking at the thing photographed – but they are not. They are looking at a photo. Books and photographic images and archives are enigmatic – you can’t be sure of a singular definition or meaning.”
Davis is ‘messing around’ with the idea of veracity, the truth of photography and the ordering of the archive of our mind through the images we collate. We seek to grasp the original memory of an event, of the reading and ordering of our life through images and none is available to us, for as Foucault has observed memories are only ever fragmentary and distorted representations, partial truths a best. Like Jorge Luis Borges’ journey into the infinite universe of The Library of Babel for Foucault the psyche is not an archive but a mirror, like the shining silver foil surface of the cover of the Ed Ruscha book:
“The search for the self is a journey into a mental labyrinth that takes random courses and ultimately ends at impasses. The memory fragments recovered along the way cannot provide us with a basis for interpreting the overall meaning of the journey. The meanings that we derive from our memories are only partial truths, and their value is ephemeral. For Foucault, the psyche is not an archive but only a mirror. To search the psyche for the truth about ourselves is a futile task because the psyche can only reflect the images we have conjured up to describe ourselves. Looking into the psyche, therefore, is like looking into the mirror image of a mirror. One sees oneself reflected in an image of infinite regress. Our gaze is led not toward the substance of our beginnings but rather into the meaninglessness of previously discarded images of the self.”5
This leads us nicely onto the images of Simon Obarzanek.
In a great series of photographs, the only ones of this exhibition that seemed to haunt me (as Susan Sontag says images do) Obarzanek photographs people in an ordered almost scientific manner. Photographed face on against a non-contextual background using a low depth of field, these repetitive, collective, unnamed people remind me of the images of Galton. But here the uniformity is overwhelmed by quirky differences – the placement of eyes and lips seem large offering a strange, surreal physiognomy. These images resonate, the challenge, they remain with you, they question the order of things as no other photograph in this exhibition does. From simplicity comes eloquence.
Israeli/Australian 1968–, worked in United States 1995–2001
6 faces from 123 faces (2000–02)
gelatin silver photographs
(a) 33.1 x 25.4 cm; (b) 33.4 x 25.4 cm; (c) 33.2 x 25.3 cm; (d) 33.4 x 25.4 cm; (e) 33.4 x 25.4 cm; (f) 33.4 x 25.4 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with funds arranged by Loti Smorgon for Contemporary Australian Photography, 2003 (2003.86.a-f)
© Simon Obarzanek
To finish I must address the elephant in the room, in fact two elephants!
There is not one digital photograph contained in the exhibition, the work being collage, Type C colour or black and white silver gelatin prints. There is no mention in the catalogue of the crisis of cultural memory that is now permeating our world. Some believe the ever expanding digital archive, the Internet, threatens our lived memories “amidst the process of the ‘digitisation of culture’ and the new possibilities of storing.”6 This vision entails the fear of loosing cultural contents, hitting the delete button so that memory passes into forgetting. This is a vision to which I do not subscribe, but the issue needed to be addressed in this exhibition: how are digital technologies altering our re-assemblance of memory, altering photography’s ability inherent ability to record, store and organise visual images? What about the aura of the original or was there never such a thing?
Furthermore, it would seem that with photographs becoming less and less a fixed essence, with the meaning of the photograph more and more divorced from its referent, with the spectators look the key to reading photographs and the performance of the photograph a cut and paste reality then perhaps we are left not with the two polar opposites of order and disorder but some orthogonal spaces in-between.
The second elephant in the room in the gallery space itself.
Whilst the curators of photography at the National Gallery of Victoria do an amazing job running large exhibitions such as the Andreas Gursky and Rennie Ellis shows that have starred this year, the NGV ‘International’ is shooting itself in the foot with the current permanent photography gallery space. Small, jaded and dour it seems an addendum to other larger spaces in the gallery and to be honest photography and Melbourne deserves better. Personally I feel more alive in the fashion gallery that is on the floor below and that, for an photographer, is a hard thing to say.
As the theme for this exhibition deserved a greater in depth investigation so the gallery needs to expand it’s horizons and give the permanent photography gallery a redesign and overhaul. Where is the life and passion of contemporary photography displayed in a small space for all to see in a gallery that sees itself as ‘International’? In an occularcentric world the key word is intertexuality: the gallery space should reflect the electri-city, the mixing of a gallery design ethos with images to surround us in a space that makes us passionate about contemporary photography. Now that would really be a new order of things!
1. Papatheodorou, Yiannis. History in the promised land of memory. Review of Jacques Derrida, Mal d’Archive, Paris, Éd. Galilée, 1995 [Online] Cited on 20th March 2009. http://www.historein.gr/vol1_rPapatheodorou.htm
2. “The archive is understood as collective reservoir of knowledge fulfilling diverse functions and conditioned by three main factors: conservation, selection and accessibility. How are contents stored and which media are used to conserve them? What is selected for storage and what is decided to be cleared out and thus forgotten? Who decides what is archived and who has access to the resources? All these questions paint the archive as a political space where relations of power cross aspects of culture and collective identity.”
Assmann, A. (2003) Erinnerungsräume, Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnis. [Memory Spaces, Forms and Transformations of Cultural Memory] Special paperback editon, 1st edition publ. 1999, München: Beck, p.343-346.
3. Derrida, J. (1996) Archive Fever, A Freudian Impression. Transl. by E. Prenowitz, p.18 orig. publ. as ‘Mal d’ Archive: une impresion freudienne’ in 1995, Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press.
4. Balaschak, Chris. Itineraries [part 3] [Online] Cited on 20th March 2009. http://glowlab.com/lab2/artist_project.php?project_id=114&artist_id=5
5. Hutton, Patrick. “Foucault, Freud, and the Technologies of the Self,” in Martin, Luther and Gutman, Huck and Hutton, Patrick (eds.,). Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. London: Tavistock Publications, 1988, p.139.
6. Featherstone, M. (2000) “Archiving Cultures,” British Journal of Sociology, 51(1): 161–184.