12
Apr
11

Review: ‘In Spates’ by Sam Shmith at Arc One Gallery, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 29th March – 23rd April 2011

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Spate, definition: A sudden flood, rush, or outpouring

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This is a visually strong body of work by Sam Shmith that thematically hangs together beautifully in the Arc One Gallery space. The mystery, the sublime and the journey are well handled by the artist. As a spectral ‘body’ the photographs work together to create a new form of hallucination, one that haunts and perturbs the mind, like a disturbing psychological thriller a la David Lynchian ‘Twin Peaks’. The work, as a whole, becomes a meta-narrative and as Shmith develops as an artist, they seem to me like work that has journeyed to the point of departure. The viewer is (not really) flying, (not really) floating above the clouds observing the meta-narrative, creating a visual memory of things. Spectral luminescences, not-quite-right perspectives, the photograph as temporal hallucination.

Shmith’s photographs are constructed from “30-40 photographs per pictorial narrative” taken during the day and then digitally darkened: the clouds from Queensland, the cities from here, the cars from there. To be honest the clouds and cities could be from anywhere they are just part of the process. Shmith’s technique is interesting to know and then is quickly forgotten when looking at the photographs – like reading, it does not become the meaning (just a layer) of the work. The images, when constructed (however!) take me to other spaces and memories, opening up new vistas in my imagination.

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The Digital Punctum

Shmith’s series acts as a punctum, working to create an unitary impression on the mind that pricks my consciousness. The whole work becomes punctum. This is a very interesting and powerful proposition.

The punctum, as argued by Barthes in Camera Lucida, relies on the QUESTION OF INTENTIONALITY – the detail that pricks and wounds is an unconscious act on the part of the photographer – not one of intention. It cannot be perceived by the photographer or indeed anyone else in the present. In other words, when the photographer photographs the total object, he cannot not not photograph the part object, which is what the punctum is:

“Hence the detail which interests me is not, or a least not strictly, intentional, and probably must not be so; it occurs in the field of the photographer thing like a supplement that is at once inevitable and graceful; it does not necessarily attest to the photographer’s art; it says only that the photographer was there, or else, still more simply, that he could not not photograph the partial object at the same time as the total object … The photographer’s “second sight” does not consist in “seeing” but in being there. And above all, imitating Orpheus, he must not turn back to look at what he is leading – what he is giving to me!” (CL 47/CC 79-80)

As Michael Fried observes in his analysis of Camera Lucida, the punctum is “antitheatrical” in the sense that we see it for ourselves and are not shown it by the photographer: it is not consciously constructed by the photographer but unconsciously captured as part of the total object:

“As Fried has argued, the experience of the punctum lives or dies for Barthes according to the absence of presence of intentionality on the part of the photographer; if there is visible intention, there is no punctum. That the punctum can exist only in the absence of intention is consistent, Fried claims, with his distinction between “seeing” (understood positively as antitheatrical) and “being shown” (understood negatively as theatrical). The possibility of the punctum is cancelled if bound to the photographer’s intention – if we are shown what can only be seen. As Fried states: “The punctum, we might say, is seen by Barthes but not because it has been shown to him by the photographer, for whom it does not exist; as Barthes recognizes, ‘it occurs [only] in the photographic field of the photographed thing,’ which is to say that it is not a pure artefact of the photographic event.”1

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This changes in digital photography, especially with photographs such as Shmith’s constructed from 30-40 photographs. Here the construction can only be intentional (or can it?), dissolving the relation between referent and photograph, the unseen nature of punctum and the ability to not not photograph the part object:

“Fried mentions the subject I have in mind when he says digital photographs undermine the condition of the punctum by making it impossible that “a partial object in the photograph that might otherwise prick or wound me may never have been part of a total object, which itself may be a digital construction” (Michael Fried, “Barthes’s Punctum,” Critical Inquiry 31, Spring 2005, p.563). In the sentence just preceding that, Fried notes that digitalization “threatens to dissolve the ‘adherence’ of the referent to the photograph,” thus ending the fundamental claim that “the photographer could no not photograph the partial object at the same time as the total object.”2

But the digital punctum still exists. Shmith’s work is evidence of this. It exists in the mind of the artist and viewer, external to rather than strictly “in” or “of” the image:

“Curiously, however, Barthes does claim in Camera Lucida that the punctum may also be of the mind, or at the level of remembrance, rather than strictly “in” or “of” the image: “…the punctum (is) revealed only after the fact, when the photograph is no longer in front of me and I think back on it. I may know better a photograph I remember than a photograph I am looking at, as if direct vision oriented its language wrongly, engaging it in an effort of description which will always miss its point of effect, the punctum” (Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 53.) Indeed, the punctum is a most difficult thing to pin down, or, should one say, to prick. Fried recognizes the truly aporetic nature of the punctum when he points to certain affinities between the literalist work of the Minimalists and the punctum, whereby the Minimalists understood the relationship between the literalist work and the beholder as ’emphatically not determined by the work itself’, suggesting that meaning in literalism was essentially indeterminate.”3

As James Elkins has observed, the punctum, or the image’s antitheatricality, is not necessarily threatened by digitalisation either through the detaching of the referent from the photograph or through the detaching of the part object from the full object within the image itself.

“The presence and efficaciousness of the part object are independent of digitalisation because the concept of the part object arises from a certain understanding of the internal structure of pictures and objects. Part objects can be found as readily in photographs of galaxies, which are assembled from layers of cleaned and enhanced digital images, as in the background of Wessing’s Nicaragua. Nor does the detachment of the photograph from its referent threaten the operation of the punctum because photographs with subjects that are wholly digitally constructed can be understood as having overlooked elements waiting to be discovered by each viewer.”4

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My belief is that the digital photographer can evidence punctum in the construction of image through an anticipation of it’s affect – either consciously or unconsciously. Not through the ‘placement’ inside disparate texts but a holistic embedding through intertextuality. The punctum becomes the (non)intentional ground of discovery – the part part object if you like – the prick among many photographs now created as one, in this case 30-40 turned into one pictorial narrative. The punctum does not have to be part of a total object and digitalisation does not undermine the punctum; it may even enhance it so that, in this case, the whole series becomes punctum.

Shmith’s series and individual photographs within the series work best when the artist lets go of his consciousness and lets the ‘thing itself’ emerge, like a Japanese haiku poem. While consciously constructed by the artist the haiku takes on a life and meaning of it’s own outside the confines of intentionality.

“The artist can proffer a ‘releasement toward things’ (Heidegger, Martin. Discourse on Thinking. New York: Harper & Row, 1966, pp.55-6), a coexistence between a conscious and unconscious way of perceiving which sustains the mystery of the object confusing the distinction between real time and sensual time, between inside and outside, input and output becoming neither here nor there. The mystery of the image is not to be found in its emasculation (in the sense of it’s deprivation of vigour) but by being attentive to the dropping a way of awareness, of memory, imagination, and the fixed gaze of desire through the glimpsing of a coexistence between a conscious and unconscious way of perceiving, a ‘releasement towards things’ which enables the seeing of the ‘Thing Itself’.”5

While Shmith’s series works as a whole and there are some wonderful individual images occasionally the artist has become too conscious of the punctum, the marks he intentionally makes. There are too many planes in clouds, the marking of these planes loosing their aura of (in)significance. They should be discovered afresh, “overlooked elements waiting to be discovered by each viewer,” not intentionally placed and shown by the artist. The series needed other themes embedded within them to allow the viewer to discover, to journey – more! As I said in the opening paragraph the photographs seems to me like work that has journeyed to the point of departure.

And what an exciting departure it is, for what happens next is in his, and our, imagination.

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Many thankx to Angela Connor for her help and to Arc One Gallery for allowing me to publish the text and photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Sam Shmith
‘Untitled (In Spates 14)’
2011
50 x 30 cm
Pigment print on archival rag

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Sam Shmith
‘Untitled (In Spates 2)’
2011
125 x 75 cm
Pigment print on archival rag

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“Sam Shmith’s photographs resemble the opening scenes of a Hollywood blockbuster. By harnessing our collective imagination, each image is charged with mystery and intrigue, leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions about the narrative embedded in each of the works.

Digitally layered from an image bank of over 60,000 self-shot images, Sam’s twenty-two new landscapes choreograph a series of temporal clues into single images that simultaneously obliterate all references to a particular locality. His works are a hybrid of images from his personal archives, composited so that each journey is no longer distinct, but melded to create their single, artificial realities.

Influenced by François Truffaut’s film Day for Night (1973), the works are shot during the day, and meticulously transformed into twilight scenes. Reworking and repeating particular motifs, these elaborately constructed works are broken up into four distinct groups – sky, mountains, cities and roads. The centre of the frame concentrates an immediate human intervention enveloped by mountainous panoramas, vaporous clouds or close foilage to create a murky tension between the encompassing landscape and specks of synthetic light. Intuitively composited from between 30 to 40 photographs per pictorial narrative, the works are shot from cars, aeroplanes and hot air balloons producing mood scenes that have athematic unity.

Through his methods Sam fashions an unconventional approach to landscape photography. Citing the melancholic landscapes of Bill Henson, the suburban malaise of Gregory Crewdson and drawing motivation from Alfred Stieglitz’s Equivalents, In Spates communicates the artist’s devotional dedication to the emotive importance of the genre. Though isolation appears as a common theme in his work, Sam’s observations should also be considered as an arbitrary moment viewed from afar, evoking a feeling of alienation and disengagement between the environment and ourselves.”

Text from the Arc One Gallery press release

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Sam Shmith
‘Untitled (In Spates 5)’
2011
125 x 75 cm
Pigment print on archival rag

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Sam Shmith
‘Untitled (In Spates 21)’
2011
125 x 75 cm
Pigment print on archival rag

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1. Fried, Michael. “Barthes’s Punctum,” Critical Inquiry 31, Spring 2005 quoted in Hughes, Gordon. “Camera Lucida, Circa 1980,” in Batchen, Geoffrey (ed.,). Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.

2. Elkins, James. “What Do We Want Photography To Be?” in Batchen, Geoffrey (ed.,). Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009, pp.176-177.

3. Haraldsson, Arni. “Fried’s Turn,” on Fillip website [Online] Cited 12-04-2011. fillip.ca/content/frieds-turn

4. Elkins, Op. cit.

5. Bunyan, Marcus. “Spaces That Matter: Awareness and Entropia in the Imaging of Place,” 2002, on the Marcus Bunyan: Image Maker website [Online] Cited 12-04-2011. www.marcusbunyan.com/papers_d.html

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Arc One Gallery
45 Flinders Lane
Melbourne, 3000
T: (03) 9650 0589

Opening hours:
Tue – Sat 11am – 5pm

Arc One Gallery website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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