Being: New Photographyby Graham W. Bell
MOMA | March 18 - August 19, 2018
As part of the Museum of Modern Art’s recurring program of new photography, Being makes good on the museum’s pledge to showcase new pieces by artists working in photography and various photo-based practices. Although a little broad in thematic scope, the exhibition highlights some of the salient issues facing imagemakers today, including issues of identity in social representation, and working beyond the image’s physical support. There is, however, a noticeable lack of new technologies, and little emphasis on arguably the most pervasive subject facing today’s photographers and viewers alike: how to deal with the inundation of social media imagery and the exponential increase of photographic images. This absence seems particularly odd given the premise of showcasing the most cutting edge works in photography today. Comprised of work by seventeen international artists, Being suffers from a decidedly vague thesis, but is bolstered by some strong offerings from a cadre of forward-thinking artists.
By positioning itself as an exploration of humanity through photography, Being takes on one of the medium’s oldest modes (which seems counterproductive for an exhibition interested in newness). Portraiture and the representation of the individual has long been the purview of the photographer, and the ubiquity of human imagery has increased dramatically with each new development in imaging technology. Capturing the human likeness expanded outward from the realm of portrait painting, the earliest photographic images took the tropes of their painted predecessors to instill subtexts beyond mere representation that contributed to a deeper understanding of the subject. Staging, costuming, poses, and added text all informed early portraits, which ranged from royal to regional, colonial to anthropological. Being seeks to highlight the new ways in which the included artists mine the history of the medium, whether that may be the geopolitical subtext of Matthew Connors’s North Korean subjects in “Unanimous Desire,” or a nod to the physicality of historical photographs in the constructed degradation of Harold Mendez’s massive black-and-white Sin nombre (2017–18). Though there are some works, like Andrzej Steinbach’s multi-panel Gesellschaft beginnt mit drei (2017), that read as an investigation into the nuances and behind-the-scenes setups of studio portraiture (and that inherent fiction), the majority of the exhibition foregrounds aspects of support, nostalgia, and social issues over the immediately recognizable subject. By focusing on how photographs fit into a larger conversation rather than more traditionally formal aspects of the medium, Being tries to push a lot of ideas into the museum’s third-floor gallery. It’s a bit to take in all at once (not for lack of trying), and some of the more subtly moving works, like Hương Ngô and Hồng-Ân Trương’s The opposite of looking is not invisibility. The opposite of yellow is not gold (2016) requires a concerted focus to truly appreciate. Ngô and Trương’s use of faded family photos against monochromatic fields speak to the innate urge to remember through images, but also the way photographs can freeze happy moments in the midst of upheaval. The artists’ use of albums compiled after their parents’ exodus from Vietnam (and paired with 1970s congressional texts naming these refugees as “aliens” and “illegals”) strikes a particularly timely chord in the current political clime. However, this deeply personal and exquisitely nostalgic work can get overwhelmed by the sheer variety of points captured by the exhibition’s wide curatorial net.
This cacophony of voices is fitting for an exhibition centering upon the most democratic visual art being practiced in our lifetime, but Being does little to highlight this aspect. After all, daily life is overrun by the inward-focused photographer who thrives on Instagram selfies and experiences curated for cookie-cutter snapshots (how many Yayoi Kusama backdrops can you count on your feed?). This zest for self-documentation has become so commonplace that it serves as an example of how much social media and online personas have shaped and controlled our physical world in the last few decades. Given this obvious connection between visual technology and our constructed selves, it is puzzling that only one work in Being directly addresses the ubiquitous camera phone and foregrounds the device that acts as our daily portal between the real and the virtual. Yazan Khalili’s Hiding Our Faces Like a Dancing Wind (2016) is a seven-and-a-half minute silent video that shows a computer desktop with several windows open. One displays a woman holding an iPhone with its camera app opened. Recording herself with both the phone’s camera and the computer’s, the author and the subject become one as the yellow square that represents the iOS facial-recognition software blips intermittently, searching for a human face. At the same time, another window shows a video of the software acting on images of masks, providing a telling corollary between photographic and sculptural representation. To this effect, Khalili notes about the piece, “I began looking at the historical and political relationship between facial recognition technologies and the colonial and anthropological projects that were conducted on human bodies. Asking, what does it mean to be recognized? What is political recognition? This research is about the techno-ideological gaze, the gaze that constructs the way we understand the world around us.”1 By focusing on the ways in which we recognize others and are recognized ourselves—and how representations command political power—Khalili is able to tease out reasons for representation and the history of identity-based inquiries.
Using Khalili’s work as a catalyst for a conversation about portraying others and the many pitfalls and problems inherent in that pursuit (i.e. cultural appropriation, casting historically underrepresented groups in a negative light from a position of power, and overall generalization), one can forge connections to a number of the other included works. The vivid colors of Aïda Muluneh’s portraits both draw on and distance themselves from the artist’s native Ethiopia. Inspired by body art from across the African continent, her addition of extra limbs, doubled subjects, and a very sci-fi use of color speaks to the artist’s dissociative experience as an outsider in her homeland after returning from living and traveling the world over. Stephanie Syjuco’s excellent Cargo Cults series (2013–16) recreates the ethnographic studio portraiture of the nineteenth century using mass-produced items in jarring black and white. By playing on the tropes of images produced as factual documentation of an entire society (something only dreamt possible through a fit of 1800s colonial swagger), Syjuco updates the conversation and shows us that this deeply embedded Western idea is still present. Using fabrics and materials that are touted as “ethnic” (but of which ethnicity no one is quite sure) and made for the mass market, she places new emphasis on cultural appropriation and exploitation that so often goes under the radar.
Shilpa Gupta’s conceptual conversation about the power of the surname continues the discussion and acts as a fitting segue between the more societal aspects and issues of the photographic support highlighted in Being. Gupta’s bisected frames physically separate two halves of an image, mixing them with other, similar pairs. The act of literally breaking the works apart functions as a potent indicator of personal identity and its connection to historical names and their originating cultures, while also forcing the viewer to consider the formal frame as an integral part of the work. B. Ingrid Olson furthers this cause by constructing sculptural housings for disjointed images that coyly confuse the area between photography and sculpture. The simple act of printing a contrasting image on the photo’s mat board in Firing Distance, Surrounding Bone (2016) serves as a rallying cry for photographers to push beyond the frame.
Although the theme is nothing groundbreaking (admittedly difficult with a recurring group show), the artists chosen for Being: New Photography 2018 ask the right sorts of questions about an increasingly universal medium. Many of the works require some careful, slow looking accompanied by a quick dip into the wall text. Resist the urge to pull out your phone.
- Yazan Khalili, “Artists’ Reflections on Selected Works from the Exhibition,” (MoMA.org, https://www.moma.org/slideshows/331/11 [accessed June 6, 2018]).
ContributorGraham W. Bell
GRAHAM W. BELL is an arts writer based in Brooklyn, NY by way of Portland, OR. He is a professor of art history and contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.