Thursday, September 17, 2015

Protesting the Archive: The Artist as Producer (Notes)

Christian Boltanski heartbeat collection exhibit at the Grand Palais in Paris [III] 
In  this article  Jennifer Walden provides a summary of Jacques Derrida’s key points from Archive Fever A Freudian Impression.  For Derrida there is a dual function of the archive, the seeking of the memory and the ‘call to order’ through the collecting and organizing information.  Derrida conceives the search for the past as being in line with Freud's concept of the Death Drive.  Above all Derrida expands on Foucault’s understanding of the archive as key to the construction of knowledge.  For Derrida the archive is a technology for creating discourse.

1) The archive is about seeking after origins (arche- origin-e.g. archaeology) as, in Freudian terms, we can understand it has something of the ‘death drive’ about it- seeking that prime point from which ‘x’ came, in order to return to a stasis- hence the compulsion to repeat or in some collectors terms- the compulsion to complete.

2) Archive has something of a control- a ‘call to order’ and ordering or ‘bringing into discursive articulation’ about it. This connects with the philosopher Michel Foucault’s notion of the archive as the arch-originating ‘system’, the ‘order’ of knowledge and discourse of knowledge which Foucault sees a defining different historical ‘eras’; that which enables the conceptualization of the ‘era’ as such.

Art as document

Hal Foster argues that art functions as a document in an archive.  In an essay in his Design and Crime he refers to the archive as Michel Foucault has it as ‘the system that governs the appearance of statements’ and more specifically Foster refers to the archival relations of modern art practice, the art museum and art history and “the ‘memory-structure’ that these three systems produced through a kind of encountering of opposites or dialectics of seeing.” [Quotation modified] [See Foster’s Archives of Modern Art  65-82].

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Yasumasa Morimura’s Slaughter Cabinet II: Art and the Archive

Yasumasa Morimura’s Slaughter Cabinet II
What can the artistic cultural production tell us about the past?  What is its “truth” value and discursive authority?  Why do certain representations go into a museum while others go into an archive?  What is the relationship between the museum and the archive?  Here I will focus on the works of Yasumasa Morimura in a consideration of how the work of this artist engages with these questions.  Morimura is an artist who appropriates and recasts historically significant images in new ways.  In this way he recasts images that have “truth” value in new contexts or in ways that seem to “make light” of the original image or historical moment.  Is he questioning the veracity of the historical document or illustrating the subjectivity of the viewer?

In Morimura’s Slaughter Cabinet II, for example, he takes up the familiar image of the South Vietnamese General Loan killing suspected Viet Cong Officer Nguyen Lem (Bay Lop) and recasts it in his own city of Osaka, Japan.  Morimura creates a lightbox resembling a television out of a traditional altar and steps into the image casting himself as each of the four historical characters in the scene.  This can be read as a criticism of the staging of historical images.  Alternatively, we can read it as a commentary on how viewers see the original historical image through a personal and subjective lens.  If there is a visceral response to the historical image, the viewer experiences this through his or her own body.  Morimura makes this distance from the original evident in his version of the image.  Morimura’s lighthouse image is also cast in a present day instead of a historically accurate context.  Here one reflects on whether it is possible at all to see a historical image without seeing it through our experience of the present day.  Morimura makes this interpretive interference from the present evident in his work.
Eddie Adams' photograph of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing suspected Viet-Cong Officer Lem

Artistic representations like Morimura’s seem to parody important historical images in a problematic way.  Is it okay to appropriate these images and project them through these new filters?  Morimura’s image is easier to take in than the original gruesome photograph.  Is this softening effect fair to the original historical event?  On the other hand, Morimura’s image may be taken to be a more ethical representation of the past because it makes evident that it is a subjective rendition.  The photograph as a historical image makes claims to truth while being highly subjective.  Why was this particular scene captured in the original photograph? Who took the photograph and why was it preserved in an archive while other scenes were allowed to slip into oblivion?  How have the captions shaped how it has been viewed over time?  These are all factors that make the historical document subjective; possibly as subjective as an image like Morimura’s Slaughter Cabinet II.
Yasumasa's rendition of the well known image of Ernesto Che Guevara

Morimura’s work and the work of other artists (like Chieh-Jen Chen and Gerard Richter) suggest that the artistic cultural production may be a more ethical way of representing the past because of its very distancing and softening effects.  These artists’ works make evident the subjectivity of representation instead of making claims to historical truth.  They inspire reflection about the past through a personal and contemporary lens because there may really be no other way of seeing the past.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Comparto la foto no para que se vea la víctima, sino para que se vea el verdugo.

La víctima absoluta nunca puede dar su consentimiento para que se represente su experiencia porque no la sobrevive.  El testimonio esencial y radicalmente significativo que hace falta es el de Aylan Kurdi, pero como una víctima completa de los horrores de la guerra y de la crisis global de inmigración, no puede contar su historia.  No nos puede dibujar con crayones la manera que se mecía el barquito ni nos puede enseñar el tono azul exacto del mar.  Ser víctima absoluta significa perder la posibilidad de dar testimonio. 

A la hora de ver la foto del niño ahogado se lidia con la ética de representar el sufrimiento de otra persona.  Es más la foto nos despierta una serie de sensaciones que incomodan.  Primero la muerte de un niño inocente nos desespera.  Parece haberse quedado en reposo y uno naturalmente busca levantar y chinearlo para poder encontrar la sonrisa acostumbrada de un niño de tres años.  Nos inquieta quedarnos suspendidos sólo con la impotencia de querer hacer algo pero sin manera de intervenir en esa realidad. 

Pero por otra parte lo que nos molesta de la imagen es vernos acusados en lo sucedido.  La foto nos señala como cómplices en la muerte sin sentido de ese chiquillo.  Nos interrumpe la narrativa cultivada en países del primer mundo de ser sociedades humanitarias civilizadas; desenmascara el salvajismo y la barbarie a que hemos llegado.  El que mira la foto en la portada de un periódico o en la pantalla de su computadora forma parte de ese mundo “civilizado” que se rehúsa a acoger a niños como Aylan que piden amparo.  Nosotros somos lo realmente abyecto de la foto; no un niño muerto que parece dormir.  En la foto no es sólo la víctima que aparece sino también nosotros, el verdugo.  Vemos la apatía de la sociedad en que participamos en la extensión y la insensibilidad del mar; en ese profundo gris reconocemos la sociedad con que colaboramos a diario.  La brutalidad que nos molesta de la foto no es del niño siriano ahogado, es la nuestra.  Comparto la foto no para que se vea la víctima, sino para que se vea el verdugo. 

WJT Mitchell — Notes on Picture Theory

In analyzing the “pictorial turn” in his book Picture Theory, Mitchell begins by raising important questions about how images reference t...