It may seem a little odd that some of the most confident pronouncements upon the identity of photography are to be found in the literature about painting. Particularly when some of the major theorists of photography (John Tagg, Victor Burgin and Alan Sekula) insist, as Geoffrey Batchen points out, that photography has no identity and no inherent or essential qualities ("Photogrammatology"). Why should writers on painting be so sure about the identity of photography when writers on photography are not? This conundrum is partly explained by the longstanding rivalry between these two arts, but, more importantly, it can also be attributed to the undeniable dominance of photography. Or rather, to different perceptions of the dominance of photography - what could be termed the quantitative versus the qualitative dominance of photography.
Photography's critics focus on the sheer quantity, ubiquity and diversity of photography; its thorough penetration into, not just the high art institutions (and the diversity there alone is considerable, from Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston to Sherrie Levine and Barbara Kruger), but also into every corner of our everyday lives in the form of family snap shots, press photography, ID cards, advertising and fashion photography. Understandably, given this enormous range, these critics argue against a totalising theory of photography. Tagg, for example, argues that: 'photography as such has no identity. Its status as a technology varies with the power relations which invest it. Its nature as a practice depends upon the institutions and agents which define it and set it to work' (qtd. in Batchen "Photography, Power and Representation" 9).
In contrast, writers on painting see photography's dominance in qualitative terms - photography becomes a metaphor for the profound effects of modernity - industrialisation, consumerism etc. - upon the visual arts. Thus photography's dominance is not so much based on its ubiquity (although this is clearly a factor) but rather because it is emblematic of the qualitative changes brought about by modernity. Thus photography becomes that determinate thing (in comparison to the wider changes in society) against which painting has struggled in order to achieve its modernity.
The ubiquity of photography and its indeterminate identity, versus its determinate identity in relation to painting, is one of the themes addressed by Bette Mifsud's work about photography. Three of her installations: Hallucinations and Other Facts (Artspace 1988), Mute (Art Gallery of New South Wales 1990) and her most recent work for the 1991 Perspecta, directly address this particular problematic. Her work combines these polarised positions by acknowledging photography has an identity in relation to painting while also insisting this identity is not static or fixed. Indeed her work renegotiates the relationship of photography to painting by suggesting that both are still becoming.
The rivalrous and indeed violent relationship between photography and painting has a very long history; stretching from the painter Paul Delaroche's legendary prognosis on the birth of photography that: 'From today painting is dead' (qtd. in Crimp 75), to the slightly acerbic asides from more recent writers on painting, such as Norman Bryson, about the dearth of theoretical writings on painting in comparison to the amount of critical attention lavishly bestowed upon photography (87). It appears the more dangerous and deadly the rivalry is perceived as being, the more confident are the pronouncements about the nature and function of photography. This is well illustrated by Charles Baudelaire's infamous Salon review of 1859. He declared:
I am convinced that the ill applied progress of photography has contributed much, as do indeed all purely material advances, to the impoverishment of French artistic genius already so rare ... industry, in breaking through into art, has become its most mortal enemy and the confusion of art and industry impedes the proper functioning of both.... If photography is allowed to stand in for art in some of its functions it will soon supplant or corrupt it completely thanks to the natural support it will find in the stupidity of the multitude. It must return to its real task which is to be the servant of the sciences and of the arts, but the very humble servant, like printing and shorthand which have neither created nor supplanted literature. (qtd. in Scharf 145-146)
This line of thinking about photography is curiously repeated (minus the vitriol), by Yves-Alain Bois, Douglas Crimp and Jean-Francois Lyotard in their writings about painting. Indeed their work seems to confirm Baudelaire's worst fears. Photography for all three is aligned with the mechanical, the industrial, and in some way has contributed to, or produced, what is variously referred to as 'the crisis' 'the end' or 'the mourning' of painting. Yves-Alain Bois succinctly summarises this now familiar argument thus:
The crisis is well known - it can be termed industrialization - and its impact on painting has been analysed by the best critics, following a line of investigation begun half a century ago by Walter Benjamin. This discourse centres around the appearance of photography, and of mass production, both of which were understood as causing the end of painting.... Mass production seemed to bode the end of painting through its most elaborate mise en scène, the invention of the readymade. Photography and mass production were also at the base of the essentialist urge of modernist painting. Challenged by the mechanical apparatus of photography, and by the mass produced, painting had to redefine its status, to reclaim a specific domain (30-31).
Bois argues that the response to this crisis has been the slow but steady incorporation of the mechanical in painting. For Bois, Robert Ryman is the key figure in this historical development. In his work, Bois states, 'the feeling of an end is worked through in the most resolved way' (31). Ryman, he argues, mechanically decomposes the uniqueness of the pictorial mode so that 'Painting had reached the condition of photography' (32). A thought which no doubt would horrify Baudelaire.
It would seem that not only has photography challenged painting, and indeed gained ascendancy over painting (if one concedes, as Lyotard does, the technoscientific world has more need for photography than it has for painting), it has also, to add insult to injury, become the very model for painting to follow. Regarded in this frame, the violence of photography would surely preclude a productive encounter between these two rival arts. Even Barthes, one of the most enthusiastic theorists of photography, subscribes to this rivalrous coupling; adding his own piquant twist to this drama by recasting it as a thoroughly Oedipal scenario with painting as the murdered father (and mother in this case) and photography the murderous offspring. As he puts it
Photography has been, and is still, tormented by the ghost of painting (Mapplethorpe represents an iris stalk the way an Oriental painter might have done it); it has made Painting, through its copies and contestations, into the absolute, paternal Reference as if it were born from the Canvas... (Camera Lucida 30-31)
What Barthes alerts us to is not just the reciprocity of this competitive familial relationship, but also the continued relevance of painting to photography. It is by building on this continuing relevance that Mifsud is able to suggest a productive encounter between these two warring relations.
One of the ways in which this encounter is effected is through a subtle critique of the dialectical model which informs these accounts of photography. A model which, in the hands of Bois and Crimp, only allows painting mastery - only painting comes to know itself by struggling with its photographic other. If painting has indeed reached the condition of photography then it follows that painting is not only an equally violent participant in this dialectical struggle but is also the victor - it has reasserted itself by absorbing its other and reducing it to the same. Painting reproduces photography. In effect, painting contains and thereby conquers the photographic threat. But where does this leave photography?
Only Lyotard gestures towards the fate of photography and thus towards the question which guides Mifsud's work: "What is photography?". However he too follows the developmental dialectical logic which is at work in Bois' and Crimp's analysis. Lyotard suggests both photographic art and the concomitant enabling question 'what is photography?' are possible on the cusp of the twenty-first century, because photography has been supplanted or relieved of its ideological function (66-67). Photography is now drawn into the dialectical field exemplified by the painterly avant-garde. Photography, like painting before it, can pose the question of its identity only because it is now relatively autonomous - photography no longer serves an end that is foreign to it. According to Lyotard the State now has greater need for data, know-how and wealth; photography's imaging of the world has been superseded. Baudelaire's prescribed role for photography as mere hand-maiden to art and science has thus been negated.
If photography is indeed now part of the dialectical avant garde then it is perhaps because, as Victor Burgin suggests, the rise of the computer has raised the question of the end of photography (Batchen "For an Impossible Realism" 9). The computer provides the necessary other for photography to realise its identity. But how does this place photography vis-à-vis painting? Is photography continuing the essentialist urge of the early avant-garde, asking about its identity in order to discover its irreducible essence, while painting enters the next phase: the end of the end, that is the end of the essentialist urge - its deconstruction à la Ryman. This would tend to suggest that photography remains modernist in a thoroughly Greenbergian manner; exploring its 'intrinsic capacities' as outlined by John Szarkowski : detail, frame, thing itself, time, vantage point. 1 Certainly this is not how Mifsud handles this question. Her work does investigate these themes but in a highly critical manner.
Yet Mifsud's work could be argued to be part of this end of photography genre in so far as she incorporates new visual technologies in her work. Her installation at Artspace, Hallucinations and Other Facts, included a computer-scanned landsat image of the Murray River, and a black and white photocopy frieze made from a micrograph of butterfly sperm. Similarly, Mute, her installation at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, included two computer "false" coloured images: one a detail from a landsat image, the other a micrograph of the AIDS virus. Her Perspecta installation included micrographs and x-rays. However these high tech images were as Mifsud puts it 'set alongside older hand-made images'. In Hallucinations and Other Facts an image made up of multiple colour photocopies of Fragonard's Rinaldo in the Garden of Armida was on the opposite wall to the computer scan. Mute included a black and white transparency of a sixteenth century painting of the Palace of Versailles. And her work for Perspecta included a handmade reproduction of an object found in a photograph. "Intermediate" reproductive techniques were also included: a photocopy of a stereoscope slide of the Arc de Triomphe appeared in Hallucinations and a wood block print was included in Mute. It is precisely in this setting alongside of all these different visual technologies - this archaeology of the visual if you like - that the dialectic is engaged and displaced.
Her work is not simply about photography discovering itself through this engagement with new technology. Mifsud retains the question "What is Photography?" but only in order to complicate it: to indicate both its unanswerability and the need to keep asking it. In this fashion she demonstrates that we cannot say photography has a determinate identity, even in relation to painting. Yet nor can we deny that it does have an identity, and thereby reduce it to a transparent tool entirely subservient to the powers which use it.
In Mifsud's work new technology transforms photography, and indeed the relation between photography and painting, but this does not enable the final delivery of photography's essence. In other words, her work uses new technology to keep the ontological question moving but not as if it were headed towards the end, the final truth of photography. In effect, Mifsud does not deny the force of a dialectical history of art, in that she does not stand against the constant transformation of the visual which this history aims to order and explain, however her work points to another way of understanding this transformation.
Rather than a dialectical history - which regards the past as either dead and radically separated from the present, or as having an after-life, insofar as its essential spirit is elevated and preserved in the current avant garde - Mifsud suggests a very different history. She emphasises that the past persists, transformed no doubt, this is not the past as it once was, but its continued value in the present, even if only to signify the past for the present (and hence also the present for the present), indicates its ongoing role; a type of continuity not able to be assimilated by the dialectical model. Hence high tech images and handmade images can indeed sit peacefully side by side in Mifsud's installation, not as equivalent images, history has not been erased here, but as images which in Saussure's terms give one another value (110-120). It is a sense of intertextuality with debts and exchanges that is suggested rather than the more familiar and familial rivalry.
The break with earlier techniques of imaging which photography is argued to have enacted is qualified by this type of quasi continuity - this setting alongside. Mifsud's work exemplifies Derrida's rejection of the notion of absolute discontinuity. As he puts it 'I do not believe in decisive ruptures ... Breaks are always, and fatally, reinscribed in an old cloth that must continually, interminably be undone' (Positions 24).
In Hallucinations and Other Facts (Figure 1) the new is literally inscribed in the old cloth - the computer scan of the Murray river is printed on canvas. Similarly the micrograph images of butterfly sperm are presented as a frieze - a high tech figurative version of the old and venerable egg and dart. The frieze is a long thin strip of paper made up of multiple photocopies of the photographic image adhered directly to the wall; indeed it looks like it is part of the wall. The installation thus borrows from the traditional architectural frieze and also "cites" it as a useful historical precedent for installations or even site specific work. The frieze allows art and architecture, image and space, to merge, become indissociable. This frieze wraps round the walls of the installation; becoming part of the architecture - or perhaps the architecture becomes part of the work. This makes the frame of this photographic work virtually impossible to locate; thereby problematising the frame as an "inherent property" or norm of photographic work.
The frieze plays out in miniature the theme of cross fertilisation of new and old which the whole installation addresses. It penetrates and passes through the landsat image and glides above the other images; it is, as it were, the rebus under and through which the other images are read. One can read this by moving round the room anti-clockwise, as the older images impregnating the landsat image, or, moving back round in clockwise direction, the landsat image is disseminating its seeds of change to the older images. Indeed time and influence are not unidirectional here. At the turn of a heel the present informs the past, rather than simply vice versa. If photography is supposed to assure us of a fixed moment in time stolen from the continuum of before and after - the 'having-been-there' as Barthes puts it ("Rhetoric of the Image" 44) - this linear unfolding is disrupted here by this folding back which enfolds the pictorial past. Photography here does not fix time - it gently unhinges it.
However even clockwise and anti-clockwise still suggest a simple backwards and forwards motion whilst the images in this installation demonstrate a far more complicated form of cross pollination. This cross pollination is underlined by the title of the exhibition: Hallucinations and Other Facts, or, to rephrase this in terms of one of the current theoretical preoccupations: virtual and real.
This opposition is indeed one of the traditional ways in which photography is distinguished from painting. Realist painting is posited as illusionistic, creating virtual space within the frame, whereas photography is, to use Susan Sontag's phrase 'something directly stencilled off the real' (154). It is supposed to be the trace of the thing rather than an illusion of it. Painting, so long theorised with recourse to a notion of imitation, what Bryson has called the essential copy (13-35), is, so to speak, let off the hook with the advent of photography. Henceforth photography can perform this task previously assigned to painting. This shift is compounded by Greenberg's interpretation of modern painting; an interpretation which rendered "copy" as the despised spatial illusion painting should eschew.
However the debate does not end there. With the rise of the computer, illusion has again come to the fore. The computer image is argued to be, like painting before it, an image without a material connection to the thing it represents. Photography is thus bordered by painterly illusion that precedes it and computer illusion which follows it, seemingly hemming photography into a mimetic documentary role.
Photography, it would seem, is firmly anchored in the real, the factual. Yet this neat chronology and assignment of roles is disrupted by the recasting of photography, in the form of the stereoscope, as the antecedent from which computer induced virtual reality traces its lineage (Rheingold 64-66). Photography, in this form, participates in illusion, but more importantly, in hallucination. Hallucination, from the Latin 'to wander in the mind', is defined as a perception without objective reality and only loosely as a delusion. It is precisely in these terms that Oliver Wendell Holmes described the experience of viewing a stereoscope slide:
the mind feels its way into the very depths of the picture.... At least the shutting out of surrounding objects, and the concentration of the whole attention which is a consequence of this, produces a dream-like exaltation...in which we seem to leave the body behind us and sail away into one strange scene after another, like disembodied spirits. (qtd. in Krauss 138)
But is this not also the effect of the frame in realist painting - to concentrate the attention on the illusion within the frame?
In Mifsud's installation this connection between painting and the stereoscope is underlined: multiple reproductions of Fragonard's painting Rinaldo in the Garden of Armida are stereoscoped (Figure 2). The image is made up of sixteen colour photocopies on paper, eight of which are overlaid with colour photocopies of the same image on acetate, with each overlay in a slightly different position. This gives the reproduced images texture and an illusion of depth and movement. The images are almost cinematic; in each double image there is a slight blurring as if everything is moving, and, as in each image the movement is different, the overall effect of the ensemble is rather like a cross between Muybridge's time lapse photographs and Futurist painting. The repetition, far from reducing the image to banality à la Warhol, underlines the organic swirling structure of the image, which is echoed across the room by the vortex of the Murray River.
A highly complex set of exchanges and returns occurs in this image. A photographic technique, that works against the flattening effect of photography, but which was designed to surpass the illusory effects of painting, 2 is returned to painting via photocopy. Yet the depth and movement is indeed a perception without objective reality - two thicknesses of paper slightly offset produce it.
By way of contrast, the photocopied image from a stereoscope card of the Arc de Triomphe is barely perceivable. But even in this form, a type of hallucination takes place. The viewer draws on the memory of this very famous monument in order to see its familiar contours. The observer can only "see" the image by "wandering in the mind", by drawing on memory and the imagination; seeing is thus not simply registering what is objectively there to be seen. This type of hallucination may well be a fact of every perception; that is, in order to see things, we also need to see what is not there. Vision we might say, paraphrasing Saussure, does not deal with positive identities.
The landsat image is also a perception without an objective reality, in that it doesn't simply correspond to the land it claims to merely re-present. The landsat image, and indeed the micrograph image, transform our perception. It is not a question of simply seeing more or finally seeing the micro and the macro as they really are, but rather of experiencing a different way of seeing. If these images have not been seen before the advent of this technology, then these images are not re-presenting an already seen thing. The technology is thus a constitutive and indissociable part of the thing. The thing does and does not have an objective existence independent of the technology. It does insofar as the technology has constituted it as a visible thing - the observation of it is known and repeatable. But it doesn't, in that without this technological identification it doesn't exist. Hallucination and fact merge.
This of course is not discontinuous with older modes of seeing. The microscopic butterfly sperm is posited as a discrete figure dissociable from a ground, just as moving to the macro, the idea of "the land" as a gestalt or unified totality, equally has a long history. Thus we don't get an unmediated glimpse of the previously unknown. Once again the new emerges in the old cloth: the sperm in a frieze, the landsat image on canvas. It is this construction of the new through the old which means the new is never fully present - it constitutes itself through the difference of the old.
The notion of full presence is further questioned by Mute (Figure 3). The title of the show deliberately denies that photography allows objects to speak for themselves. Mute challenges the decidedly phonocentric model which reduces photography to a transparent conduit for the full speech of things. This challenge is enacted with wonderfully wicked irony. Mifsud demonstrates that photographs are not simply transparent conduits by making all the images in the installation transparent. The installation is actually comprised of five transparent images: four slightly larger than body size transparencies (approx. 7 ft x 3 ft) suspended from the ceiling and one smaller image mounted on a mirror on the wall. When the viewer tries to see the thing in the image, Szarkowski's thing in itself, s/he cannot help seeing right through the image. Like the man with the x-ray eyes, they end up seeing much more than they bargained for. Because the surface of the images are highly reflective, they can not only see through the images, but also see themselves and the other images reflected in the image. Even the movement up to the image to identify it, to, as it were, "pin it down", results in quite the reverse; the image flutters and crackles in response to the movement of warm bodies in space.
Photography ceases to be a transparent conduit for the full speech of the referent; with the embodiment of this metaphor it begins to falter. Yet this embodiment also points to the conditions which enable it to work. The opacity of the photographic support is clearly a necessary condition to see something "in" a photograph. The opaque material acts like a backstop to stop the eye at the surface - at the image to be seen. Yet the material on which the photograph is presented is perceived as immaterial. In Szarkowski's intrinsic categories of photography the material is never mentioned; it is simply the erased, yet taken for granted, ground. The ground, as one of the enabling conditions of photographic illusion, is at one and the same time a screen and a window, opaque and transparent. It is a screen insofar as it is a blank to be filled, a two dimensional surface to be projected onto. But once the viewer projects themselves into the image, the backstop screen which allows the image to appear then disappears, it becomes immaterial; the photograph becomes primarily a photograph of something, a photograph of the world, a window onto the world. In other words, the viewer sees through the material in two different ways. The material allows the image to appear and the materiality of the photograph is effaced when the referent "appears".
The photographic illusion depends upon the negation and yet the necessary presence of this blank opaque support. When this is removed, or rather replaced with a transparent support, and the image is suspended from the ceiling, the photograph becomes primarily a three dimensional material object situated in space, and only secondarily, an image of something. The referential gesture is not lost, but rather qualified. The photographs are still "of something" but this eidetic function of representation is complicated by the emphasis on the materiality of the photograph
In this installation, photography, without the terra firma of blank paper, is opened up to a textual play akin to another mute performance - Mallarmé's mime Mimique. Derrida describes Mimique as 'a textual labyrinth paneled with mirrors'("Double Session" 195). This is also an extremely apt description of Mute. Like Mallarmé's mime, Mifsud's Mute is a critique of mimesis and the simple notion of referentiality which subtends it. If making the image transparent queries photography's transparency, then it also problematises the simple notion of referentiality which Barthes argues is one of photography's defining attributes (Camera Lucida 5). Rather than each photograph mirroring, re-presenting or referring to one thing, in Mute the images are caught in an infinite web of reflections. The mise en scène of the individual photograph-as-mirror opens up to the mise en abîme of the hall of mirrors.
Again, this theme is presented in miniature in one of the installation's components. The transparency mounted on a mirror is of the Palace of Versailles, so famous for its Hall of Mirrors (Figure 4). However there is yet another ironic twist here, for the image of the Palace is a detail from Pierre Patel the Elder's painting: View of the Château of Versailles of 1668, which was painted prior to the massive remodeling and enlargement projects of Le Vau and Mansart and thus prior to the construction of the Hall. Indeed, this painting has become famous, in architectural circles at least, precisely because it is thought to record how the palace looked before these massive changes took place.
This is one of those instances when a painting is treated like a photographic document. The painting is assumed to be a true reflection of the building at a particular moment in time - a mirror-like image of the scene. Here again the metaphor is realised even as it begins to falter. Viewed in the usual viewing position - that is, the salutary, polite two to three feet away from the image - the observer becomes part of the image. Or the more mobile observer can play with different viewing positions, including part, or all, or none, of the rest of the installation in the image. With this movement the image of the Palace of Versailles also changes: this quintessential image of order, of tamed nature and static symmetry, is animated. Depending upon the angle from which it is viewed, the image blurs or comes into focus, as the transparency and its reflection on the mirror behind it come together or move apart. Indeed in this work the image and its double never quite coincide.
The observer can play an active role in the construction of the image - the amount of possible mirror images is endless. This multiplicity, and in particular the incorporation of the viewing subject, does not quite tally with the usual use of the mirror as a metaphor for the true image of something. The mirror as true image is informed by the correspondence theory of truth, where the representation is true if it corresponds correctly to the appearance or essence of the thing. 3 In this formulation the subject must be detached, external to the image, when making this "objective" assessment about the accuracy or inaccuracy of the representation. Mute throws the subject right back into the image, suggesting there is no outside position from which to judge true mirror images - the subject is always implicated.
Mute suggests there are no simple mirror images which objectively reflect the truth of things, not in photography nor in painting and certainly not in mirrors. (Lacan's rewriting of the mirror also casts some doubt upon the mirror's ability to deliver the truth to the inquiring subject looking into it (1-7).) Rather, what Mute demonstrates is how the interpenetration of texts and subjects makes a simple mirror image a truly impossible thing to capture. Images which are given mirror status are always dependent upon the complex web of reflections which enable this truth effect to appear.
This is further underlined by an image from the past; an image now torn from the web of reflections which once allowed it to represent the truth. This is an image of what looks, to our contemporary eyes, like a mythical beast; however it was produced as a true image of a boar whale based on the documentary account of Olaus Magnus. The image is from the five volume Historia Animalium produced by the so called father of zoology, Konrad Gesner between 1555 and 1563. 4 The image is to us a mythical beast, a fantastical animal, yet once it counted as a true image, which was believed to correspond to the true appearance of an existing animal.
These now lost views, of palaces that no longer exist, and of animals we can no longer believe in, represent perhaps a more comforting spatial order than the modern micro and macro images which sit alongside them. Science's view of the gigantic and the miniature is "horizontal" rather than "vertical"; objects are viewed from above with no horizon or vanishing point. If the vanishing point, as Bryson puts it, 'incarnates the viewer' (106) and, if as Brian Rotman further argues, it makes possible the very idea of a subject with a point of view (19-21), then these scientific documentary images demonstrate the death of the subject's phenomenological certainty.
Whereas in the earlier documentary images the object of the image has disappeared, in these images it is the viewing subject that disappears. On the micro level the viewer is confronted by that most modern image of death, a micrograph of the AIDS virus, and on the macro level, the landsat image of the desert in East Africa, reduces the human to less than a pixel. The remaining image demonstrates the disappearance of both the object and the subject. It is a photogram - a colour image made without a camera - a photographic abstraction. Photography has here reached the condition of modernist painting. The absence of the camera, the prosthesis for the photographer's eye, means this photogram cannot substitute for the vision of the photographer.
If the "human" scale of photography is provided by the alignment of viewpoints - it is usually assumed that the photographer, the camera and viewer see the same viewpoint of the scene - then in the images of the gigantic and the miniature, where the vantage point of the camera does not correspond to that of the viewer or the producer of the image, the human appears to be lost. The landsat point of view is an impossible viewing position for most subjects, just as the electronmagnetic spectrum which the micrograph records is not part of the human eye's visual range or register. 5 Similarly, because the photogram doesn't re-present a visible thing, this cameraless photograph cannot refer to human vision.
This would seem to suggest a transcending of the human. And yet the installation demonstrates that there is no such external transcendent position - the subject is incorporated in these images as an image in the reflecting surfaces and literally as a body walking around amongst the body size images. There is no outside viewing position - no safe aesthetic distance from which to view this work. There is no outside of this text, just as conversely there is no framed, fixed and bordered inside.
These images are all produced for the subject to see and be seen in, so clearly they are not "beyond" the subject. What is being put into question here is the accepted notion of the vantage point of photography; vision in these images is being redefined and viewpoint rewritten. Thus, rather than the death of the subject, what Mute bears witness to is the reconfiguration of vision, the transformation of both the subject and the object of vision through new visual technology.
The theme of death, or more accurately the after-life, is also explored in Mifsud's installation for the 1991 Perspecta exhibition (Figure 5). This work is a photographic "study" of several early Renaissance altarpieces. In keeping with this religious subject matter the installation is in three parts - each in a sense a self contained work and yet related to the other components. The installation was in a corner of the gallery where the floor to ceiling window meets the gallery wall. The three works formed the base of the triangle with the corner as the apex. This setting rehearses the themes of the installation - the meeting of the seemingly immaterial and the material, transparency and opacity, inside and outside.
The centre piece, which dominates the space through its sheer size and solidity, is a large coffin-like box titled Vault. Death appears centre stage. But whose death is being announced or memorialised here? Is it the long awaited death of painting? Or perhaps it is photography, the latest intern on dialectical art history's death row. Yet Vault, although seemingly an indisputable image of death, is also an image of restoration, and most importantly transformation. Death is linked here to reconstruction. It is not after all the final moment of painting or photography's existence; it is not the end, the last judgement when the essence of its being will finally be judged, weighed, assessed, and handed down or delivered up.
The image printed on one side of the box is a photograph of the back of one panel from Jacopo di Cione's San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece used to reconstruct the appearance of the now dismantled altarpiece. Significantly the back is seen as a more accurate guide than the iconography on the front to decide the original appearance of this now dismembered body of work. This diagnostic photograph is here literally restored to matter, just like the original work: to a slice of poplar roughly the same dimensions as the original panel.
This restoration is indeed so artfully done that, whilst it is apparent something has been done to the face of this box, it is not altogether clear what. None but the careful eye can discern the doubling of wood textures - a photographic veneer of wood melds with the "real" wood. A veritable trompe l'oeil.
The other side of the box is a hand-made reproduction of the back of the panel. Strangely, the real repetition of chiselled wood becomes like the rough reverse side of the smooth photographic surface. The rough chiselled side becomes as it were the back of a work which has two backs. A type of reversal takes place with a higher priority given to the mechanical reproduction than the hand made production. It is our knowledge of paper which informs this reading as much as our knowledge of the rough backs of panels. Yet the trompe l'oeil front doesn't present us with anything to see. It is the ultimate trompe l'oeil; we don't even see the image as an image, we see it as the material it is imitating. Even touching the surface will not confirm or deny whether the material is what it seems. Indeed it is what it seems to be - it is wood.
What is being enacted here is the adhering of representation to the real, or more precisely, the constitutive role of representation. The photograph, supposedly merely a secondary tool used as evidence of the true state of the panel, becomes indistinguishable from the "real" matter of the panel. An issue so often ignored by the scientific utilisation of images is precisely this constitutive role of the photographic image. Indeed, as Derrida notes, empirical science has to repress the in-forming or constitutive role of these representations in order to appear to be dealing with objective facts (Of Grammatology 27-28).
But, whilst death is linked to reconstruction, significantly reconstruction is also linked to death. Reconstruction is the end of the old life but also the beginning of the new. On this point Gadamer's comments are particularly illuminating and worth quoting at length.
The reconstruction of the conditions in which a work that has come down to us from the past fulfilled its original purpose is undoubtedly an important aid to the understanding. But it may be asked whether what is then obtained is really what we look for as the meaning of the work of art, and whether it is correct to see understanding as a second creation, the reproduction of the original production. Ultimately, this view of hermeneutics is as foolish as all restitution and restoration of past life. The reconstruction of the original circumstances, like all restoration, is a pointless undertaking in view of the historicity of our being. What is reconstructed, a life brought back from the lost past, is not the original.... [A] hermeneutics that regarded understanding as the reconstruction of the original would be no more than the recovery of a dead meaning. (148-149)
Gadamer concludes by arguing what is important is not the original meaning, but rather the meaning the work takes on for us in the present. This then is the new life, what Marcel Proust called 'the after-life of the work' (qtd. in Adorno 181). As Adorno observed, Proust rejoiced in the death of the original intentions of the work and in the disintegration and decomposition of works of art, as these events represented for him the beginning of the work of art's second life (181-190).
The title of this component of Mifsud's work, Vault, is echoed in the other two components, to which this title could equally apply. In contrast to the opacity and solidity of Vault these two components are transparent and airborne. Against the window is Crypt (Figure 6), a large arch of perspex with three transparent images arranged in a triangular shape. The two images which form the base of the triangle are a pair of x-rays of two quite dissimilar, and yet here strikingly similar looking, types of arched vaults - the arched cavity of a person's chest and a painting surmounted by a sort of Gothic arch. This juxtaposition suggests both are being subjected to a similar process: to x-rays that penetrate beneath the outside surface and disclose the inner state of their matter. This suggests a common mortality - both are made up of ageing and decaying matter.
Death is immanent here, yet there is hope of an after-life. Above them is a detail titled Christ's Mulberry Coloured Loin Cloth - a cross-sectional micrograph of paint as matter. Detail doesn't correlate here with the close up, it doesn't show more of the figurative surface image. Rather it shows the depth, the three dimensionality of paint. So the detail provides a completely different view of the image, not as an image, but as matter disintegrating and changing. Significantly it is a detail from a Crucifixion, suggesting that even after the death of the body there is life. The promise of painting's after-life is presented, in a thoroughly Proustian manner, by this new view of disintegration. This then is not photography as a lifeless reproduction or re-presentation of the painted image, a process which steals its soul and its unique and singular existence. But it does present photography as the re-animator, as a productive force presenting new and different views of old objects. As Mifsud puts it:
the possible views of a painting might be as infinite and varied as the imaging technology producing them. Continued developments in such technology might make the life of a painted image infinitely extendible and multiple, revealing that it is yet to be fulfilled - that the painting is thus still becoming whilst its matter is deteriorating.
On the other side of Vault is Untitled: two more transparent coffin-like images of the back of the altar panel - the same image which appears on the box. Here also the mechanical reproduction of photography is questioned. The images are lined up and scaled so that when viewed from the coffin end they appear the same size. One image is a positive image of the panel, the other a negative. Yet they do not resolve into a distinct third image which either negates both, making the image disappear, or affirms both and forms a solid image without detail. The two don't quite match despite the alignment. This reminds us that the transformation of the image occurs even from negative to positive and that this is not a simple reversal. The material processes of photography do not allow the referent to simply speak for itself. This transfer from negative to positive, which is often treated as if it were immaterial, is here made into a matter for consideration.
The usual assumption would be that these two transparent images are images of the box. The box becomes the referent and thus is granted a priority - it is the original, the transparencies the copies. Yet they are actually all from the same readymade image simply printed on different supports. The box could equally be argued to be an image of the transparencies. Indeed this is the usual order of appearances in design, sculpture and architecture; that is, the two dimensional drawing precedes the three dimensional object. Yet, in the case of photography, it is always assumed the photograph simply succeeds the object, it does not draw it, plan it, or bring some further action into being - it only reproduces it.
Here the readymade photograph did indeed serve as a plan for the production of three objects. Photography is as productive as any other type of drawing. The images assembled in this installation all served as plans - the image of the back of the panel served as a plan for the restoration of the altarpiece, the x-ray and the micrograph act as plans, as preliminary sketches for restorative surgery.
But what is it that allows Vault to appear to be an object rather than a reproduction, when indeed it is just as much a reproduction as the transparencies? On this point Ingrid Schaffner's comments on photo-sculpture are particularly interesting. She argues:
As a two-dimensional medium, the photograph can be regarded as passively signalling absence. Alternatively, sculpture exists in real time. It is a physical presence which invades the viewer's space, requiring one to actively experience it. The photo-sculpture is thus a collision between contradictory constructs of time and space and different concepts of memory and experience. 6
Mifsud's photo-sculptures proceed in a slightly different manner; they complicate Schaffner's starting position, her initial distinctions between photography and sculpture. Vault indicates that sculpture is a reproduction of something and thus signifies absence, just as the transparencies emphasise that two dimensional painting and photography are three dimensional matter existing in real time and space. And yet the photo-sculptures themselves reproduce a split between two and three dimensional works; the transparent images seem more like two dimensional reproductions than the solid Vault. This insubstantiality is emphasised by their suspension well above the floor, unlike the three colour images in Mute whose bottom edges actually curled on the floor. Thus, as befits a work produced around the 1991 Perspecta theme of three dimensionality, this installation leaves one with the imponderable question: what counts as a three dimensional object?
One by one the so called intrinsic features of photography have been called into question: frame, time, thing in itself, vantage point, detail, have all been carefully interrogated by Mifsud's work. As have many of the operational metaphors which ground its theory and practice: photography as document, photography as mirror, photography as transparent conduit, photography as mere mechanical reproduction, photography as the art of the industrial or post-industrial age. Further the processes and even the material of photography have also been subjected to a critical investigation. All in all the ground of photography has been given quite a shake.
Mifsud's work aptly combines this thorough going investigation of the medium with a postmodern or post-photography critique of representation. So that Peter Bunnell (McAlpine Professor of Photography and Modern Art at Princeton University) could not say of Mifsud's work, as he does of Cindy Sherman's, that it is interesting as art but not in terms of the photographic medium (qtd. in Solomon-Godeau 79). Mifsud incorporates the insights and strategies of postmodern post-photography work; she, like them, queries the high art/low art distinction, the notion of subjectivity, originality and authorship (Solomon-Godeau 80). The images she uses in her work are almost all readymades (except for the photogram in Mute). She does not take pictures of scenes - thus she does not show us her "original" subjective vision of the world. However Mifsud builds on certain conceptual insights; they become the raw material for her own ends.
By using readymades she is able to underline the ubiquity of photography, the thorough incorporation of photography into the weave of the cultural fabric. Thus there is, as Abigail Solomon-Godeau puts it, 'an insistence on what Roland Barthes termed the déjà-lu (already-read, already-seen) aspect of cultural production'. However in Mifsud's work this does not result in, as Solomon-Godeau concludes this sentence, 'a shift from production to reproduction' (75); a shift from painting as model to photography as model, from original, authentic, subjective painting to the objective, mechanical copy. Photography is not simply a metaphor for the postmodern condition of the arts. It is also a medium. Its attributes can as it were be put under erasure, but it is none the less not simply a transparent conduit or an instance of mere mechanical reproduction.
It is precisely because Mifsud combines this postmodern sensibility with a renegotiation of the relationship of photography to painting that she is able to dispute this notion of photography and the idea that photography has produced a decisive rupture. The teleological view of art is displaced by a becoming without origin or end. Thus her work profoundly complicates the distinction between the modern and the postmodern, reproduction and production. Her work calls for the question: What is photography? to be called into question all over again. The matter of photography, she suggests, is by no means settled.
1. These terms were originally used by Szarkowski in the introductory catalogue essay to the 1966 Museum of Modern Art Exhibition The Photographer's Eye. Victor Burgin argues that, whilst Szarkowski is clearly following a Greenbergian program, this list of intrinsic attributes does not strictly follow Greenberg's concern for 'the medium in terms of material substrate'. Burgin argues that to do this would mean the elimination of the camera altogether, returning simply to drawing with light. For Burgin the retention of illusion means photography is not fully modernist in Szarkowski's formulation. This of course presumes Burgin is correct that the essential characteristic of photography is to be found in its etymological derivation and that anti-illusionism is the goal for modernist photography. See "Seeing Sense", 66-67. On the other hand Abigail Solomon-Godeau argues Szarkowski's inherent properties are useful for theorising postmodern photography. They sidestep the usual art historical categories: artist, style, oeuvre; and thus allow virtually any photograph to be included in the photographic canon. See "Photography After Art Photography", 82.
2. See Jonathon Crary's discussion of the aims of Sir Charles Wheatstone (the inventor of the stereoscope), 122-4. See also Geoffrey Batchen's essay in this volume for a more extensive discussion of the theorisation of the stereoscope.
3. On this point see Jacques Derrida, "Double Session", 193; and Richard Rorty, 12.
4. See Wily Ley's Exotic Zoology for a discussion of Gesner's work.
5. For a description of the processes of photomicroscopy and, in particular, the use of the electron microscope, see Bede Morris, 134-161.
6. Ingrid Schaffner, Constructing Images. Thanks to Geoff Batchen for drawing this work to my attention.
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