By Ernesto Menéndez-Conde
Filip Dujarcel is a Belgian architect who also approaches photograph, creating imaginary buildings through montages of hundreds of images taken from actual architectural projects. In his Untitled (2009) the building seems to challenge the law of gravity and viewers may wonder if this structure would be possible in the actual life, as suggested in the verisimilitude achieved in the manipulated image. Young American artist Matthew Jensen works with pictures he finds in Google Earth, giving them the look of shots gathered during a road trip all over the United States. In Jensen’s work pictures taken outdoors are not the sources for online images, but the other way around. Jensen posits the question about how we should define the term ‘experience’ in a world heavily mediated by technology. Google Earth becomes the starting point from which the artist produces the resemblance of an actual trip and the experience of browsing the web seems to replace the visit to actual spaces. In an uncanny picture about potential horrors related to genetic experiments, Bradley Rubinstein depicts a girl with dog’s eyes. In The Valley (2012), by Kelli Connell, two women, who appear to be twins due to photographic manipulation, stare at their skins as if their flesh were landscapes to explore. In this, Connell superimposes the notion of incest over a homoerotic relationship. When I Grow Up I Want To Be A Cooker (1998), a video by British artist Maria Marshall, features images of a child smoking. The video is obviously disturbing, but viewers are aware that these are just visual effects, comparable to the ones we see in contemporary films. So, there is not outrage since the artist is merely manipulating images.
The above-mentioned are some works from the collective show After Photoshop. I would have expect this provocative curatorial project at MoMA or the New Museum, but the show is on view at the second floor Metropolitan Museum in a space which, during the last few years, has been devoted to contemporary photography.
Just in front of this hall there is a ‘black cube’. It is the first time I have seen these types of dark rooms at the Met. British artist James Nares (b. 1969) screens his hour-long video Street. It is a slow motion film about outdoors spaces in Manhattan, turning the proverbially accelerated rhythm of everyday life in New York’s streets upside down. According to the artist, he intended “to give the dreamlike impression of floating through a city full of people frozen in time.”1 The use of slow motion for suggesting dreamlike impressions has been frequently used in films, at least since Pedro’s nightmare in the Mexican film Los Olvidados (1950), by Luis Buñuel. But, unlike the cinematographic convention, Nares doesn’t depict someone having a dream. Instead of the vantage point of a particular character, the spectator seems to assume the viewpoint of the camera, putting viewers in the position of the dreamer.
It seems he also aims to leave aside the realm of the unconsciousness, and oneiric images, in order to take shots from the everyday life. The slow motion helps him to enhance some motifs that suggest a dreamlike environment. First, there are images of flying. At some point we see a man drop a cigarette to the floor. The slow motion produces the effect of an object moving in the air. We also see small bubbles slowly floating among pedestrians, and birds flying, suddenly disrupting the flow of people in the streets. Secondly, there are portraits. Nares grasps particular faces among the crowds. We see their countenance, which usually reveals some anxiety, like grimaces frozen in time. There are also characters that stare directly at the camera, helping to produce the dreamlike impression described by the artist.
Hands play a relevant role in these portraits. Nares takes advantage of slow motion in order to explore the expressiveness of hands. We frequently see characters pointing to a direction. There are gestures of people trying to say something. In his video, even the act of holding a cellular phone, or taking a picture with a small digital camera becomes meaningful.
Another dreamlike feature is the coexistence of multiple temporalities. The travelling of the camera goes faster than the slow motion images we see in the shots. In the video some characters from the group are motionless in an expressive posture, while the camera keeps recording movements of other pedestrians. The slow motion also helps to notice how surrounded we are by commodities, advertisement, and merchandizing. The overwhelming presence of the shop windows, stores, restaurants, and neon lights are features that configure our contemporary streets. We are so accustomed to them that we may fail to realize how invasive they are, and how much we are integrated to this visuality brought by the advertisement industry and the market.
All these visual effects help to produce a concomitance between the Street with After Photoshop, at least in the sense that Nares manipulates his video in ways that are as contemporary as the ones employed for the artists in the collective show. Both curatorial projects, in their conjunctions, gave me the impression of being at a museum of contemporary art. This rarely happens to me at the Met, although the museum regularly exhibits contemporary artists. There is, for instance, an entire hall devoted to the art of the seventies and eighties, in which you can find works by artists like Anselm Kiefer, Susan Rothenberg, and Martin Puryear. The controversial Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), by Damien Hirst, was on view from 2007-2010, along with a sculpture by Anish Kapoor, and the sculptures on the roof are contemporary. But instead of giving me an impression of being in touch with the present, these pieces at the Met aim to isolate the selected contemporary artists, and connecting them with the historical past, as if they were highly consecrated figures that already deserve a place among Pollock, Picasso or Matisse.
Nares does the opposite. In two collateral halls, he includes a seemly chaotic set of artworks from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. The pieces belong to different historical moments. Thus, an Egyptian relief from over 3500 years ago, coexist with a drawing of a pedestrian by Edgar Degas, a big painting by Philip Guston, Roman sculptures and short films from the early 20 Century.
The artist decontextualizes the past, and presents these pieces as antecedents of his own work. This jumble helps viewers to enjoy Nares’ Street. The artist creates analogies between a Roman sculpture of a hand holding a small box, and contemporary passersby holding cellular phones, or between someone signaling in A Group of Men by the so-called Master of the Large Brush Drawing and people indicating in Nares’ video. Birds in Street are comparable to Harold Edgerton’s experimental shots of a hummingbird taken with a high speed camera (1947), whereas a window shops in his video evokes to the one in an early 20 Century movie.
But these collateral shows not only help to pay attention to certain leitmotifs in Street, but also allow us to see the new, by contrast with artistic productions from the past. In The Museum in the Age of Mass Media, German art critic Boris Groys argues that contemporary museums are institutions in which art has opportunities to make visible the values of the new, not by comparisons with mass-media productions, but through a dialogue with the cultural heritage from the past.1 Nares takes advantage of this feature, which is inherent to contemporary museums.
There is a small sign on the wall informing visitors about the show next door, At War With the Obvious, by American photographer William Eggleston. These are pictures in which the artist renders unconventional views of everyday life. This sign also helps curators to propose continuity between Nares’ show –which is also at war with the obvious- and Eggleston’s work. By associating Street with its collateral shows, there is a spatial continuity, which seems to connect the museum with our present in ways that are rather uncommon at the Met.
1Groys, Boris. The Museum in the Age of Mass Media, 2004. In http://www.ranadasgupta.com/notes.asp?note_id=25