Reality Check II
The problem of the Real vexes and perplexes photography like no other area of contemporary art. Photography’s direct access to the visually immediate means that our culture charges it with a particular responsibility to visual truth and condemns it all the more fiercely when it reneges on that trust. Of course this problem is and always has been irresolvable; the trust that allows photography to enact objectivity can equally become the seduction through which it manipulates subjectively.
Photography is all the more fantastic because of its mechanical realism, the mis-recognition of lived reality in the image made all the more compelling by its analogical conviction. For too long the field of photography has been carved up between a semiotic theory that denounces the operation of ideology in the manufacture of photography, while psychoanalytic discourses have compensated for the loss of the real by rediscovering it in the unaccountable realm of the subjective and the fantastic.
‘Reality Check’, a British Council touring exhibition with The Photographers’ Gallery, exposes all the uncertainties and possibilities of lens-based image practice, now that the high tide of theory has receded for the moment, and the experience is as frustrating as it is interesting. For all their achievements, many of these artists still operate in the shadow of the stars of the theory/market boom that hit photography in the mid 90s, most obvious in the number of artists working with photography’s difficult relation between the indexical, the authentic and what’s real.
This tension is vividly expressed in the work that turns to the human subject as the last bastion of photographic truth. Bettina von Zwehl, Roderick Buchanan, Shuzuka Yokomizo, Dryden Goodwin and Leslie Shearer all want to re-enchant the presence of the human subject; the trouble is that human expression in photography is still fraught ground. Between the shakily naive documentary of Nan Goldin and the cold, sceptical empiricism of Thomas Ruff, the photography of personal and social types is precariously compromised. Perhaps as a way out of this impasse, many of these artists look for different indices of authenticity. In her ‘Profiles’, 2001, von Zwehl forces a starkly scientific frame on her anonymous, uniformly dressed subjects, a technique that still produces an intense individuality through its obsessive intense detail. Shearer, in her ‘Falling’ series of 2001-02, forces her sweaty, drowsy sitters to the limit of conscious lethargy, through a combination of hot studio lights, long sessions and booze, whilst Buchanan observes his steaming subjects in the knackered aftermath of a long run. This artificial de-subjecting of a sitter, and the use of techniques that distance or objectify the artist’s intervention in the image, are the odd consequences of a sensibility that wants to readdress the empathetic experience of human subjects in the photographic, yet is still self-conscious about the partly constructed nature of this exchange.
This heightened sensitivity to the cultured nature of portraiture also underpins work by Goodwin and Yokomizo. Yokomizo goes to the extreme of never meeting her subjects, preferring to write, informing them of an appointed hour when she will be outside their house ready to snap them if they feel like it. Goodwin’s slowed down, dreamy four-screen video installation, Wait, 2000, which comprises close-ups of people in moments of joy, surprise and consternation, equally questions its desire for proximity, even as his voyeuristic/surveillance techniques of telephoto scrutiny exclude this. Representing the Real in art nowadays seems a bit like science’s Schrödinger’s cat: observing the phenomenon risks changing it, so these artists seem intent on divesting themselves and their subjects of any sense of implication in the cultural, synthetic, social meanings which are the real product of that encounter.
The problem doesn’t go away in the world of things either. Ori Gersht and Nigel Shafran attempt to capture the Real through photography’s capacity for austere taxonomy and empirical clarity. Gersht’s ‘Knowledge Factories’, 1999-2001, depict the modernist frontages of 50s British state schools, while Shafran records mundane scenes of everyday objects, from the washing-up in his kitchen to the goods in a charity shop. Yet this work invariably struggles if it isn’t linked to an implicit, and often arbitrary framing narrative. Gersht’s documentation of school buildings makes sense if framed by an existing consensus that is critical of modernist rationalism and education as a form of social control, while Shafran’s minutely detailed scenes are dreary unless one accepts its celebration of the everyday as its own kind of poetry. In each, the Real is both flattered and denigrated; reverently representing the quotidian becomes a way of muting the productive potential of the photograph, then filling the gap with cultural truism. A similar theoretical dogmatism betrays the psychological and subjective fantasy of Michelle Williams’ Sunday afternoon II; its depiction of a female figure lying prone in an old-fashioned drawing room, while greyhounds nuzzle, paw and lick her face is erotic, transgressive, perverse and so on, but so loaded with psychoanalytical self-assurance that it remains closed to any other register of experience.
Luckily, much of the other work here adopts a more flexible and dynamic approach to both the representational capacity of the photographic image, and the more complex question of what reality is being represented. Kr buxey’s two videos, negrophilia — a romance, and Such a Feeling’s Coming Over Me, are more critically troublesome; in the first, buxey narrates a (white) female subject’s obsession with the size of her (black) partner’s penis, while the other sees the artist transformed into the vivacious, willing female recipient of copious ejaculations, in a parody of bukkake, a particular Japanese porn genre. Buxey is wise to the limits of mainstream sensitivities, her wilful appropriation of her own subjugation, complicity, and power directed at the audience’s liberal good taste. Similarly complex interactions between form, narrative and interpretation are obvious in the strain of laddish comedy and unlikely bullshitting that runs through work by Alan Currall, Graham Fagen, David Shrigley, Luke Gottelier and Keith Tyson, all of whom in one way or another disturb any easy discovery of the real in the situations they set up. Currall’s disarmingly lame to-camera confessions are delivered with such feigned naivety that they immediately lose any claim to authenticity, exemplified by Currall’s humdrum explanation of his status as an alien who crash-lands in Scotland, and is now enjoying some success as an artist (Jetsam, 1995). Fagen’s mock museological documents of improvised housing-estate weapons in the eponymous series ‘Weapons’, 1998, and his modern pantheon of cultural gods, ‘Owners’, 2001, turn the studious documentation of artefacts into a fiction that throws light on how cultural categories of inquiry form and obscure our understanding of reality. Gottelier’s comically abject photographs — using the most dismal materials to produce even less convincing illustrations — confuse image, document and the imaginary in a slick of underperforming signification. Shrigley pursues his laconic-hysterical comedy of the ordinary (a snail, with ‘Your Name Here’ Tipp-Exed on its shell), while Tyson warps the present with his time-repeating arrangements of photographic doubles.
The greatest fiction here might be Saskia Olde Wolbers’ video Kilowatt Dynasty, 2000, a story in which the narrator has not yet been born: the future parents fall prey to the dual afflictions of not being able to tell truth from fantasy, dreaming from waking. Kilowatt Dynasty nevertheless draws all its elements from the present, reworking them into a future that hangs in strange counterpoint to our own present. The Real is neither an absolute fiction of signs we can do nothing to alter, nor an immediately revealed fact that has merely to be recorded, but as the phrase ‘Reality Check’ should suggest, an active process through which its underlying dynamic is probed, understood and given shape.
Reality Check: Recent Developments in British Photography and Video was at 14 Wharf Road, London from October 24 to November 24, and tours to Zagreb, Prague, Cracow and Riga through 2003.
This feature was originally published in December/January 2002-03 / No 262, pp7-9.
JJ Charlesworth is an artist and critic.