The Importance of Asking Questions
by Darya Kosilova
Popular culture is dense with information and images that over-stimulate and desensitize the viewer. The result of this has us skimming through large quantities of content but only fully processing a small portion of the information. We often find ourselves turning a blind eye towards the more uncomfortable aspects of everyday life because we have been taught to screen and sift information. This leads us to ask the following questions: just because we are looking at something does that mean we are truly seeing everything it has to offer? What if what we see on the surface is only the tip of an iceberg that requires further critique and investigation? The Summer 2016: Collected Works exhibition at Rennie Museum challenges the viewer to consider the ways in which they see and interpret images. The exhibition hosts 23 artists, who take the viewer on an unusual journey through the possibilities of the photographic medium. In such a vastly growing visual culture where nothing is new or shocking, it is common for the viewer to crave intensely stimulating and loud imagery. It is, however, sometimes the things which are the most modest and slight in their form that can be the heaviest in their meaning and perception. One such work in this exhibition is Twice Untitled (B/W) (2004/05) by Louise Lawler. Much of Lawler’s photography practice is around documenting the works of other artists within the context of their physical location— whether it is a museum, a gallery, or an art collector’s home thus raising a discourse fuelled by institutional critique.
Twice Untitled (B/W), the smallest work by scale, is hung beside Marlo Pascual’s Untitled (2010), which ironically is one of the larger works in the exhibition. Despite its humble physicality, Lawler’s Twice Untitled (B/W) anchors itself conceptually as one of the most critical and thought provoking works in the show. As one leans in to investigate the black and white photograph, a simple, yet highly intentional composition is revealed. Sitting on the floor are two carefully placed frames against a white wall with their backs turned to the viewer. The only thing separating the frames from the concrete floor is a rag-like material that protects them from harm and simultaneously suggests that these are objects of value. The composition is divided directly in the middle of the horizontal plain, the top half consisting of the white wall and the bottom half taken up by the two frames and floor. The far edges of both frames are cut off from the viewers’ sight, making this photograph appear as an abstract composition upon first glance. The small labels on the back of the frames remain the only detail identifying the objects: they are photographs by Felix Gonzalez-Torres.
With Twice Untitled (B/W), Lawler denies her viewer the privilege of seeing Gonzalez-Torres’s works, but rather utilizes this instance to unveil a different kind of truth. By showing the viewer the backside of Gonzalez-Torres’s works, she is showing the “backside” of the art world; revealing to the viewer things that they may never see or hear about behind the closed doors of a museum, gallery, or an art school. An art institution will always strive to uphold the public image of their cultural capital. It is important for an art organization to be thought of as the home of intellectual knowledge and creativity that transcends the messiness of the everyday politics of life. However, below the surface lies an extremely complex web of personal, political, and financial relationships that act as the support beams for what the public experiences on a day to day basis at these institutions. In reality, not all of these relationships are as romantic in their exchange as you would expect from the creators and facilitators of culture. In 1969, the artist Takis attempted to physically remove one of his sculptures from an exhibition at MoMA in New York as protest against certain policies that the museum had at the time. His actions led to the creation of the Art Workers’ Coalition, an organization whose influence still lingers in the way the public experiences art at museums.* It is because of the AWC that today’s museum goers, for example, can attend a museum, such as the MoMA, free of charge once or twice a week. These events in the history of modern art make up for half of the driving force behind the institutional critique that Lawler addresses in Twice Untitled (B/W). The other half is rooted within the personal history of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Torres, who was openly gay, passed away in 1996 at the age of 38 from AIDS, following the AIDS related death of his partner, Ross Laycock, in 1991. The frames allude to two gravestones, memorializing their deaths.
Just a few feet away from Twice Untitled (B/W) is Christopher Williams’ Tenebrionidae, Asbolus Verrucosus, Death Feigning Beetle (1996), which yet again engages the viewer with hidden messages and quiet happenings. Upon first glance, the work appears to be of dead insects lying on their backs. The pristine sterile environment in the photographs is reminiscent of a morgue where an autopsy would be performed. One puzzles for a moment as to what makes these dead bugs so special and deserving of our time and consideration. The viewers may not realize that what they are actually seeing is a grand performance. For the beetles are not actually dead, they’re playing possum. Similar to a great actor, the beetles convincingly stage their own death as a survival mechanism; fooling their predators into thinking they’re nothing more than an unsavory carcass. Our gluttonous consumption of images on the day-to-day has turned us into predators of visual culture. As consumers of visual culture, especially with the rise of photography based social media platforms such as Instagram, we inhale images like air. Rarely do we stop to think and ask ourselves what any of these images mean, where they come from, and what they’re trying to say. Whether it is what is heard on the news, taught in a classroom, or seen at a museum there is always further investigation that needs to be conducted. With this playful manner, Williams manages to break our clouded gaze, similar to the way our parents taught us to never judge a book by its cover, and challenges us to question everything we see at all times. Nothing is ever what it seems at first glance.
If the current exhibition at Rennie Museum can teach us one thing, it is just that: question everything because nothing is what it seems. Photography is a two-dimensional medium (with certain exceptions) but it is certainly not something that should be accepted for its face value. Behind every image captured there is meaning and intent. It is our job as viewers to then follow up with the question: why? Louise Lawler and Christopher Williams are two of the more cryptic artists to decipher but, rest assured, not a single work in the Summer 2016: Collected Works exhibition will surrender its meaning upon first glance.
*Rochette, Anne and Wade Saunders. “Takis”. artinamerica.com. Art In America, 04 May. 2015. Web.