To Reconsider the Possibilities of Image-making
by Mariah Brusatore
Fantasia Four Hands, 2002
Imagery is the main reality through which we come to know the world. Rooted historically as a mechanical recording device, the camera emerged as a tool to document; to capture the surrounding world, a fleeting moment in time, within a portable and intimate reproduction. Photography’s birth into the world and subsequent infancy can be understood as candour records or reflections. Perhaps the token origin of the medium is why we often consider the photograph to be genuine, albeit the artistic interventions that may be present.
If a photograph is staged, but appears to be natural, what does this suggest about the artistic intention? If a print has been manipulated either perceptibly with another medium, or subtly in postproduction, how does this change the way we see the work? How do multiple images within a series of photographs contribute to the overall message and aesthetic? These significant questions relate to many of the artworks within Rennie Museum’s Summer 2016: Collected Works, a group exhibition on photography.
Photography, unlike other artistic mediums, has the capacity to present fiction as fact, to suggest contrived and deliberate moments as natural ones. Artists’ imaginations or even irrationalities can be given the appearance of an objective reality, despite their staged or manipulated origins. Due to these subtle dualities, interpreting the work may be challenging, and thus encourage us to question content and context. What is presented to us within the image may, in fact, be a symbol, suggestion or reference; it may reveal to us artists’ own unique perceptions of themselves or the worlds in which they live.
Using photography to examine the self, Rodney Graham’s Fantasia Four Hands (2002) exemplifies this sentiment. Initially appearing as an inverted photograph, his diptych suggests a candid performance of two gentlemen playing a piano together. Despite these valid preliminary observations, the photographs actually contain multiple artistic interventions that bring humour and introspection into the work.
Graham, in the foreground, captures our attention with an intense, staring gaze. His dramatic hands prance upon the keys, matching the theatrical raise in his eyebrows. Donning a lighter coloured suit and glasses, the character beside Graham has similar features, but is looking intently at the instrument upon which his hands are affecting. Although only the profile of his face is shown, after a moment’s consideration, it is noticeable that both characters are in fact the artist— the photographs have been altered to include Graham playing the piano with himself. Graham, through staged manipulation, invites us to consider the interplay of these deliberate elements. Two opposing presentations of the self suggest that we could be looking at contrasting sides of the artist’s persona. Through direct eye contact, the persona in the front captures our attention and invites us into his performance. The artist appears in the spotlight of the public as a grandiose and exaggerated performer. Graham’s background persona deflects our gaze through differing body language, thus suggesting that we are encroaching on a secluded act. He is privileging us to witness the humble moment of the private self.
The presentation of Fantasia Four Hands also emphasizes the duality of Graham’s personas. Appearing as a reflection of each other upon first impressions, the images mimic an inversion. Grasping our attention more intensely, we are thus viewing four performances by Graham’s four personas; two of which are making direct, theatrical eye contact with us. His bold expressions and dramatic playing accentuate the display of his public persona. Contributing to the satiric energy of the work, the artist’s four eyes stare attentively at us as we move.
It is as if the artist is also amplifying his shameless performance by appearing to compete against himself. The duality of personas within the photographs looks as if they could be duelling; perhaps Graham is duelling the self four times over. Deliberate and subtle inclusion of differing foot placement gives away the guise, however, revealing that the work is, in fact, two separate photographs. The artist wants us to know the images are not what they initially appear to be, he encourages us to examine the work closely and to question what we observe. Graham, alongside the other artists within the exhibition, urges us to persuade our interpretations past initial perceptions.
Inverting the subject, recontextualizing the work of another artist, or adding text are some of the ways in which the artists in Summer 2016: Collected Works challenge our readings. David Claerbout progresses the dialogue further by redefining the boundaries of photography in Dancing Couples (after: Couples at square dance, McIntosh County, Oklahoma, 1939 or 1940) (2007). In this single channel video installation, the artist’s distinctive work skips between the confines of a still or moving image. Leaving us in a state of pensive contemplation, Claerbout’s marrying of technique and subject matter invigorates us to reconsider the possibilities of image-making.
Much like Graham’s Fantasia Four Hands, Claerbout’s work also encourages a transformation of initial insights. Spending more than just a brief moment with Dancing Couples (after: Couples at square dance, McIntosh County, Oklahoma, 1939 or 1940) reveals a subtle movement. The artist brings the work to life by manipulating the bold lighting. He slowly shifts only the illumination. Through this action, emphasis interchanges between couples as the light gives the appearance that they are moving; they are performing. By isolating and modifying a single detail within a still scene, the once stationary tableau takes on another, three-dimensional form. Can we still consider this a photograph? As Claerbout moves us away from traditional modes of photographic reception and consumption, it becomes clear that questioning our definitions of the work is perhaps one the artist’s intentions. By challenging the boundaries of the medium, the artist is inspiring us to reconsider our own relationships to image-making; he is encouraging the artist within us all to explore the photograph.
Dancing Couples (after: Couples at square dance,
McIntosh County, Oklahoma, 1939 or 1940), 2007
Involving us further within his work, Claerbout creates an exclusive experience as our eyes make contact with those of the gentlemen’s. The artist invites us into their impassioned dance as our eyes connect with the gentlemen’s brief expressions of surprise. As such, Claerbout is allowing us to move into the performance ourselves, feeling the emotions and movement of those within the tableau. The artist’s gesture thus challenges the physical boundary between us and the art; we become a part of the performance. Our focus is crucial for completing the work. Graham also utilizes the gesture of the gaze with Fantasia Four Hands but unlike Claerbout’s exploration, his audacious persona reinforces a physical distance between us and the work. Graham’s presence is commanding. His eyes grasp ours from the moment we enter the room, inviting us to physically step back to absorb the zealous energy the diptych is emitting.
Both Graham’s capturing of his artistic performance and Claerbout’s art of portraying a performance dramatically move away from photography’s initiation to the world. Graham and Claerbout, as well as the other artists within the exhibition, lead us on a journey of discovery. Not only are we exploring the realms of possibility within image-making in photography, but we are also able to investigate our own relationships to art and how this affects our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us.