February 24, 2006

"Reading" Post-Conceptualism in "Post-Medium" Photography


Post-conceptualism can not only replicate or “re-present” the best of conceptual art’s theories but it can also result in a “style without substance” as contemporary practitioners shrug on the “cloak” of conceptualism and become the “metonymic avant garde.” Conceptual art’s intellectual discourse sought to re-invest the activity of art with a social “use value” that the conceptualists felt had been mislaid. Other theoretical issues advanced by the original conceptual artists were the divestment of the “preciousness” of the object, and the “dematerialization” of same, further expansion on minimal art’s concern with the temporal aspects of perception, and the consideration of documenting “actions,” not necessarily performative actions, both through “instructions” and a “deskilled” photography.

I would like to propose here that the photographic work of Hiroshi Sugimoto is work of a post-conceptual practice. For any artist to engage in the re-statement or appropriation of previous art theories and forms, it will be our assumption that they should not only adhere to the tenets of these earlier forms but they would be expected to advance these concepts, to add something to the discourse. The current Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s exhibition of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s work clearly makes the obvious point, through nearly 150 photographs, diorama and installations, that this artist has been more than dabbling in a few of the conceptual practices stated above. Whether he succeeds in “carrying forward” any of these earlier conceptual art issues is what I wish to consider.

For example, the idea of “de-skilled” photography was current in the 1970’s, during Sugimoto’s formative years as a photographer. But he says:

“I didn't want to be criticized for taking low-quality photographs, so I tried to reach the best, highest quality of photography and then to combine this with a conceptual art practice. But thinking back, that was the wrong decision [laughs]. Developing a low-quality aesthetic is a sign of serious fine art - I still see this. But to me, serious concepts are only shown through a highly mastered technique.”
(From an interview with art critic Martin Herbert published on Eyestorm http://www.eyestorm.com/feature/ED2n_article.asp?article_id=135 )


The apparent contradiction in Sugimoto’s mind, between doing “serious fine art” through “taking low-quality photographs” and the idea that “serious concepts are only shown through a highly mastered technique,” exposes an artistic conflict that was resolved by the 1980’s. It would be na├»ve of me to assume that successive generations of artists would stick to this original “game plan” of candid, “lo-fi” photography, when it became quite obvious that the “art market” would convert most of the 1970’s conceptual artists to the “real world” idea of “commodification.” This reversion to the “precious object” is clearly the operative nature of much of contemporary post-conceptualism, but those artists who still dispense with “commodity,” mostly performance artists, have taken a more difficult and (perhaps?) worthier path, better left to another discussion.

What I would like to address then is time. Sugimoto’s famous series of photographs taken in darkened cinemas has been discussed in terms of its depiction and engagement of “architectural concerns.” However, it is the very “concept” of this series by Sugimoto that appears most favorably related to the earlier conceptual art theories stated above, and is both historical in his respect and innovative in his approach.

If we suppose that the time for the exposure used for the photograph was the same as the projection time for the film, as has been stated by Sugimoto, this allows for a “compression” of the filmic event into a single frame. This temporal concern of compressing time clearly resonates as a critique of the “medium” of photography, a “medium” that by its very technical aspect exists in the “moment.” This “reduction” of the film into a “single” frame ironically “stretches” the time in its conception.

“What remains visible of the film’s time-compressed, individual images is the bright screen of the movie theater, which illuminates the architecture of the space. That its content retreats into the background makes the actual film a piece of information, manifesting itself in the (movie theater) space. As a result, instead of as a content-related event, film presents itself here as the relationship between time and spatial perception.”
(From http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/theaters/)

It is this foregrounding of “time and spatial perception” which supports my post-conceptual “read” of this particular series of photographs by Sugimoto. However, I would disagree with the idea that the dominant nature of film is “content-related,” especially within the context of Sugimoto’s photographic practice. For these post-conceptual, “post-medium” photographs to “work” one must truly consider the cinematic atmosphere of the theater itself, which does reference both “time” (duration of filmic event) and “space” (the theater itself), which further explores minimalism’s interest in the “temporal aspects of perception.”

(U.A. Playhouse, New York, 1978 by Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy of Gabriel Einsohn, Communications and Marketing, Hirshhorn Museum.)

February 16, 2006

"Studied Ignorance" of Post-Conceptualists?

Earlier this week I waded into a discussion going on at Edward Winkleman's blog (http://edwardwinkleman.blogspot.com/2006/02/artist-of-week-021306.html) concerning whether a female artist's work was "minimalist" or not. After re-reading Liz Kotz's essay, Video Projection: The Space Between Screens, I was struck by her condemnation of Douglas Gordon's 24-Hour Psycho:

"Gordon's cultish ignorance of the avant-garde precedents that made his work possible furthers their institutional erasure."

which was footnoted nicely with:

"Particularly in the UK, a studied ignorance of the recent past seems to provide endless license to refashion viewer-friendly knockoffs in the present. While a degree of historical amnesia can sometimes free artists from blatant academicism, it also deprives them of the conceptual underpinnings of the strategies they use. . . Embracing ignorance, successful younger artists all too often demonstrate their complicity with these patterns of historical erasure."

This supports my previous post about that "minimalist" artist whose work I critiqued as being not indicative of Minimalism (proper) at all:

". . . those original Minimalists did provide a "conclusive" construct within which their concepts could be continued by others. Isn't this what is supposed to happen in art? Previous art forms and theories that pave exploratory pathways for succeeding generations should and ought to be continued, but with an authenticity to the originary principles, i.e. gestalt theory, phenomenology, even Fried's ironic critique of "theatricality". . . we can currently see a crop of recent art school grads who pillage, borrow and "recast" the earlier art concepts, yet don't add anything to the discourse or carry the original concepts forward. This is exactly why today's artists that are enamored of earlier styles like Minimalism or conceptual art must immerse themselves in the relevant art theories so that they can understand the ideas more fully, to make these earlier, historical art forms "live and breathe" again, rather than creating superficial "citations," or "style without substance."

My concern is that there seems to be also a "studied ignorance" afoot within art world discourse itself, with various art blogs, writers, critics, commentators offering up "judgments of taste" without stating clear positions on art issues at stake. If we can hope to open up an alternative "venue" for new art and artists like the Internet, then shouldn't we be prepared to establish it as a viable, valid and intellectually sound space for both aesthetics and theory?

February 13, 2006

Academy, Bauhaus or "Advanced?"

I have received a request to initiate an "open thread" discussion on Thierry de Duve's "When Form Has Become Attitude - And Beyond" particularly in reference to what Steven was talking about in his class presentation. So does the Corcoran follow one of these visual arts education "models," or any of them at all? What would be the desirable arts education format?

February 9, 2006

Official Launch of www.markcameronboyd.com

Today I officially "launched" my website: http://www.markcameronboyd.com/

The site includes samples of my current text-based artwork, selections of my writing, exhibition reviews, and news of upcoming exhibitions, lectures and courses. I have future plans to post archival footage of "works in process" and to spotlight select essays on art theory issues by current and former "Theory Now" students. Please contact me if you would like to submit your writing.