Strangers: The First ICP Triennial of Photography and Video
As his contribution to Strangers: The First ICP Triennial of Photography and Video, Beat Streuli filled the street-level, story-high glass windows enclosing the International Center for Photography’s bland architectural box in Midtown with larger-than-life-sized color photographs of people walking the streets of New York. Like a Gap ad by Philip-Lorca diCorcia printed by Andreas Gursky, the images are seductive, otherworldly, and appealing. They are a good advertisement for ICP and its mission to increase its visibility in the art world, exemplified by the creation of its very own regular group survey of contemporary artists working with photographic media. Unfortunately, they also typify the most glaring failure of the work on view in this first iteration of photography-goes-global-art-world exhibition: it is derivative. Only in rare moments do the images included transcend the impressive ancestry that serves as reference. While providing "a survey of contemporary photographic practice," the first ICP Triennial shows little interest in pushing the unstable boundaries around photography as an artistic medium. Instead, there is an easy acceptance, and not enough compelling art.
The question of medium specificity does appear in the presentation of two different works by the same artist, an unusual and welcome turn in the survey format. Krzysztof Wodiczko’s "Dis-Armor 2" (2001) is an odd opening to a photography exhibition because it is most blatantly not photographic: it is a silver metal backpack with two screens that project images of the wearer’s eyes from a camera installed in the attached helmet. Its design as a "device to overcome extreme shyness, speechlessness, and lack of facial expression" completely fails in the accompanying video of a Japanese teenager wearing the armor: she is the center of attention in every situation, and while the novelty of the device makes socializing in school easy, it also creates painful situations. Wodiczko’s video "The Hiroshima Projection" (1999), made at one of his signature public "interventions" is a powerful antidote to the clunky conceptualism of "Dis-Armor 2." On the 54th anniversary of the atomic bomb, Wodiczko projected images of survivors’ hands "talking" and the sound of their voices on the base of the Atomic Bomb Dome on the banks of the city’s river. The video is an eerie portrait of a place scarred by history, a meditation on horror and memory. The impossibility of history is underscored and soothed by the sound of water pouring into the river by the surreal collage of architecture and image, transformed by the video record from a public performance into a narrative portrait.
Known for her out-sized color portraits, from gawky, Picasso-inspired bathers on the Baltic Sea to the grim faces of army initiates, Rineke Dijkstra also translates portraiture into video with "Annameik" (1997), a moving and humorous depiction of pre-adolescent awkwardness, rendered poignantly through the duration of a pop song. Twelve-year-old Annameik’s shy, yet perfectly timed lip-syncing of a Backstreet Boys’s ditty of desire, is mirrored by the viewer’s own self-consciousness within the space and time of the work. The body is put into play by the disjunction of the video image on the wall and the sound projected from overhead speakers set back from the screen and only audible at a distance. About two feet from the screen and directly at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the street-level galleries, the viewer’s body is in the way of the exhibition, much as Annameik’s body (braces, chapped lips, childlike figure covered up by a lot of modest clothing) seems to be in the way of her performance. Related to Diane Arbus’s ambivalent psychological studies as much as to Thomas Struth’s monumental video portraits, Dijkstra mixes the physical lessons of minimalism with the concept of portraiture.
The ICP Triennial is, unfortunately, otherwise full of "black box" kinds of spaces, easily wandered into and out of as though any portion of the piece glimpsed would be equal to any other. Sitting through the duration of Matthias Müller’s "Phantom" (2001), a stylishly doctored montage of 1950s black-and-white film fragments, I began to wonder if that was in fact the artistic strategy, a regrettable oversight of the specific power of film and video in the gallery. With four videos to a "theater," artists become easily interchangeable to the overwhelmed viewer. Julie Henry overcomes this problem on one level in "Going Down" (1999) which projects two videos of soccer fans on either side of the field watching the same game directly on the wall at a 90-degree angle. Working at the corner, not the usual site of display, the strategy succeeds as a sort of updated Bill Viola video-painting. Looping images on a television-sized monitor is another cliché that goes without remark, all too often with footage related to the omnipresent issue of surveillance, but without an original statement. Part of the power of photographic reproduction is that for more than a century it has reminded us of the infinite number of images in the world. Is it unreasonable to think that artists using photography might start to consider the originality of their ideas and images together, rather than just reminding us of the endless flow of pixels?
Despite the numbing effect of so many uninspiring and uninspired images, the power of "straight" photography—artist, subject, camera, light—is ultimately confirmed by some gorgeous prints that evince the physicality of photography. Bill Henson’s large, grainy color diptych "Untitled" (2001) captures a delicate and dirty naked boy kneeling on the hood of a car while a couple fucks in the front seat, and a latter-day ecstasy of St. Theresa in a grimy t-shirt. Henson’s images display a gritty sexual aesthetic reminiscent of Nan Goldin, but enveloped in bohemian blackness and formal piety, both Romantic and post-apocalyptic. In "Steffen Caught (Multiplied)" (2001-2003), Collier Schorr examines desire through the camera’s description of the gorgeous curves of her subject’s back in a contact sheet that functions like her sketch book for a large, formal black-and-white portrait of Steffen in uniform. Scale and repetition are used simply but effectively in Chien-Chi Chang’s "The Chain," (1998), a giant wall mosaic of allusive black-and-white portraits of pairs of mental patients chained together as part of their therapy that is physically as well as psychologically overwhelming.
As the subject-oriented theme suggests, the work in Strangers is about the subjects, people, places, events, and images that the artists saw in front of them. While formally adept, most of the work on view subordinates form to subject matter, to the representation of a reality, individual or collective. Too few of the artists actively explore the material properties of their medium, be it photography, video, digital image manipulation, found film footage, appropriated advertisements, etc. The artists who do pursue formal investigations alongside their subjects stand out, and those who succeed provide a selection of works that question not only their subjects’ relationships, and their own identification, but also the strangeness, the unknown or emerging subjectivity of photography itself. Susan Sontag’s ethical question about the humanity of photographing strangers has perhaps vanished, but photography should not be at a loss for moral issues. "Why is this a photograph?" seems to me to be a relevant and critical question for artists working with cameras, who are all too often content to make pictures that could just as easily be paintings or drawings, printed in newspapers or hung in the gallery, part of our image-saturated world or left unrecorded.
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