Pluralism and contemporary photographic art


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Pluralism and contemporary photographic art

  1. 1. 135 JVAP 12 (2) pp. 135–147 Intellect Limited 2013 Journal of Visual Art Practice Volume 12 Number 2 © 2013 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/jvap.12.2.135_1 Mary Modeen University of Dundee In praise of multiplicity: Pluralism and contemporary photographic art practices Abstract This article examines the practice and theory of complex, multi-layered photo- graphic images in contemporary art. Methods of working in which photographers use the medium to explore variously memory, identity and time in images are exam- ined, and a philosophical case is made for the mandate of plurality as a starting point for art practice, as well as the teaching of art and design. Images that beckon with implicit references are examined and compared, with implications for ‘reading’ multi-layered images. Given the attention to the Other in contemporary thought and culture, the multifaceted adoption of difference and attunement to multicultural- ism suggests that perhaps multiplicity as an imaging technique – rather than single perspectives – is appropriate as an artistic device for our times. Aspects of multiplicity in photographic art abound. What I would like to discuss in this short article is a very specific question: is it possible to look at certain types of contemporary photographic practice, or visual practice that builds on photo processes, which may be informed by the contributions of recent European philosophy and cultural theory, specifically in a manner in which plurality and multiple points of view are incorporated? Furthermore, a phenomenological and post-structuralist foundation of difference provides Keywords multiplicity plurality perception layered photography alterity polyvalent art practice theory
  2. 2. Mary Modeen 136 cogent reasons for looking at multiplicity within these photographic artworks. And thereby, these theoretical foundations provide not only a context, but a mandate, for an art of plurality; equally, these visual works explore plurality in praxis in ways that embody and extend available theoretical frames. Given the parameters of this discussion, I will exclude from this consid- eration multiple images that were the predecessors of cinema, like those of Muybridge, for example, as well as zoetropes and other mechanisms whose processes build in multiplicity. I wish to focus on photographic images that one would expect ordinarily to be singular, as in the ubiquitous references to still images as if of frozen moments in time. For the sake of discussion, I must also limit the range of cultural critics, philosophers and theorists whose work I address. While the majority referred to here are European based, indige- nous cultures have a great deal to offer and I have included several references here that are of equal importance to their western counterparts. Additionally, I have used abbreviated references to particular philosophers in many places, understanding that lengthy explanations and interpretations of these major works are beyond the scope of this article. What I will argue is that post-war phenomenology, in combination with the works of cultural critics such as Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, followed by the works of French post-structuralists, change the notion of the seeing-eye by differencing the self and laying down a moral and politi- cal agenda for plurality in addition to the aesthetic and cognitive differencing of the phenomenologists. Reinforcing this idea of differencing, the practices of indigenous Maori and Ojibwe cultures, as two examples of many across the world, begin with blessings from the ordinal points in every gathering, understanding the implicit positioning in standing at different orientations. In covering this ground as both spatial and conceptual points of view, I argue that artistic perceptions must, of necessity, be multiple rather than singular, if they adhere to these tenets. Perspective that functions as a perceptual ‘gath- ering’ rather than an insistence on representation seems more appropriate to this type of world-view. This is, in effect, a translation of theoretical thought into creative practice, and vice versa; the insights from a creative practice of plurality may inform theory. This has profound implications for the way that the visual arts are taught, and suggests at the very least resistance to entirely single points of perspective. Without wishing to try the reader’s patience, one more distinction needs clarification here: I wish to distinguish between the terms multiplicity and plurality. Since I am applying this argument to visual practice, I will use the term ‘multiple’ to refer to the application or use of more than one point of view in the technical process of creating an image. Multiplicity will therefore incorporate more than one image, moment, viewpoint or physical location in a single piece of work. Plurality, by contrast, is a term I use to discuss this in a more abstract and less physical sense; plurality imparts a conno- tation of the metaphysical aspects of differencing, and may be inspired by elements such as an appeal to memory, gendering, cultural or psychological differences. Benjamin and Barthes have a lot to say on the subject of how photographs affect the viewer. To summarize Benjamin’s take on the camera as a mecha- nism, as he outlined in 1936, he argues that the original and non-reproduced work of art has an aura that does not exist in artwork that is reproduced (i.e. for our purposes, photography). He considers a photograph to be ‘an image of an image’, aura-less so to speak. He considers the loss of the aura as the loss of
  3. 3. In praise of multiplicity 137 single authorship – a machine has intervened between the artist and viewer. He becomes keenly aware of a new aesthetic at work when he writes: … the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and lift- ings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses. (Benjamin [1936] 1968: 237) The camera-machine as intermediary does not remove the human element; it mediates the process and couches thinking in different form. If we race ahead 75 years to our own time, we move this thought forward to the tech- nology available now. The digital camera and digital image manipulation of photographic images means that in addition to all of Benjamin’s technologi- cal ‘lowerings and liftings’, we also have the benefit of stepping outside of fixed time and place, of multiple exposures, of multiple lightings, of myriad perspectives combined in various ways to form one photographic artwork. His prescient words linking ‘unconscious optics’ and ‘unconscious impulses’ rings in our ears as we consider how these multiple perspectives echo contempo- rary leanings towards the multiple over the singular. But first, before continu- ing this line of thought, let us take a moment to consider Barthes’ thoughts on the mechanical intervention in photography before returning to Benjamin. In Camera Lucida (1981), Barthes takes us on a sentimental journey by means of photographs, in search of his lost mother. The photo stands in contrast to the past, which he implicitly mourns as a distant land. He seeks photographic representation of his mother as she truly was – and for him, he finds this ‘truthful’ representation in a childhood photo of her, long before he was born. The fact that he remembered her as his version of her troubled him; the difference between internalized memory and so-called documentary photographs left him bereft. The contrast between what the camera produces as a conventionally understood image and, by contrast, the photograph as a piercing image also troubled him (Barthes 1981). This piercing moment was a punctum, as he called it, but may be for our purposes one element of the humanly internalized aspect of seeing. This is significant for our purposes because Barthes separates the ordinary from extraordinary, the mechanically produced image from the humanly internalized and felt image. Felländer’s work (Figure 1) moves the notion of punctum to another register by trans- versing space and time. In his practice, the photograph captures more than the piercing moment; he may be said to aspire towards the piercing journey in his images. Francesa Woodman’s photographs, by comparison, capture the paradoxi- cal contrast of the punctum by timing the ‘untimely’ in space and time, evok- ing the quality of the multiple but often ethereal ‘presences’, spectral in their evocation of half present and half absent figures. Now, returning momentarily to Benjamin, this contrast is also echoed in the assertion that a photographer produces an essentially political work of art (by virtue of its mechanical intervention) in a process of composing ‘multi- ple fragments’. This leads to a ‘… thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment’. The key contrast here is that Barthes is concerned with what is mechanically produced vs what is humanly internalized; in Benjamin’s writing we find him aligning mechanical production with the political, thereby expressing human values through the mechanical methods
  4. 4. Mary Modeen 138 of which Barthes was so wary. Barthes’ widest point of concession concerning that which a camera may offer can be heard in this quote: By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring common place milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our compre- hension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. (Benjamin [1930] 1997: 568) From this perceptive and unwittingly prophetic stance of Benjamin, the possibilities in contemporary photographic art beckon. The still and singular moment, for example, need not necessarily be the sole visual outcome of this process. But it is the reason for an artistic choice to employ multiplicity on which I wish to concentrate most, as well as perhaps the effect of such choices. Multiplicity is the outcome of many intentions for plurality: one of these is the intention to move from a singular to a multi-fold set of perspectives or points of view, as I suggested at the start. The viewer’s viewpoint may ‘move’ in apparently simulated movement from high to low, from left to right or in a continuous fashion as if walking or travelling through combinations of various fragments of imagery. The combinant image implies the passage of time – the time it takes to move bodily from one position to another. Framing this equivalent to a series of glances is the current work of Gina Wall, a Scottish photographer and academic. In her works, she stops each glance in a multiple sequence: edges are randomly repeated as if in a visual overlap with the frame to the left or right, and angles are mismatched or jar with difference (Figure 2). It is in this telling difference, however slight, between frame to frame in the overall composition that one’s distinctive point of view is emphasized. And in fact, this in itself becomes the focus of her work – not in the ‘capture’ of the landscape, as such, as the viewing proc- ess itself: we the viewers view the viewing of the land. It is the gap between each frame that recalls the space inserted in the individual acts of perception. In fact, it is her contention that she is ‘writing’ the landscape, opening out a photographic land-text of imagery for interpretation. Figure 1: Jacob Felländer, I Want to Live Close to You (New York 52), digital inkjet photograph. © Jacob Felländer.
  5. 5. In praise of multiplicity 139 Multiple views in one image also suggest the combination of several points of view or viewers, several different vantage points, each physically differ- ent – in Wall’s case slightly higher and lower for example. In another of her works it might extend culturally or politically to differences between ‘high’ art and ‘low’, signifying populist intentions, or privileged and under-privileged, conformist and iconoclastic and so on. (Echoing in our ears is Benjamin’s assertion that mechanically reproduced art is quintessentially political art.) At times, the insistence on multiplicity is the point of making the repetition accentuate differences within the phenomena, variations being more clear by close comparison to similar versions. Take, for example, the phenomena recorded photographically by Bernd and Hilla Becher. While the grid presentation separates (a format they used almost exclusively before 1990), the multiple format has the distinct effect of accentuating difference rather than similarities. The ‘typologies’, as the Bechers them- selves describe this focus, begins with visual forms that are repeated in industrial structures; their juxtaposition here confirms by visual comparison how they vary, example to example. Another accentuation of dissimilarities occurs in multiple images. This is the différance, the unfinished and always opening set of differences that corre- spond with our own unique perceptions as well as our culturally differenti- ated ways of seeing in a collective sense. As one example of this, the colonial and postcolonial eyes see with alterity, different from one another as much by moral values as by physical sensation. Multiplicity may be viewed in another frame of interpretation as well: it may be interpreted as the repeated return to viewing, a revisitation. Looking again and again, as if in the blink of the eye, seeing again is seeing differently, seeing something else that was missed or overlooked before. The reprise is the retaking, literally taking something, deriving something, from the external Figure 2: Gina Wall, Caledonian Macbrayne, Hebrides: Uig to Lochmaddy (Starboard), (2011), photograph. © Gina Wall.
  6. 6. Mary Modeen 140 world again and again. We take from the world before our eyes, deriving from it on each occasion. In the works of Idris Kahn, as shown here, the multiplicity occurs in over- lays; specifically the Becher ‘types’ are overlaid directly one on top of the other. The effect is that of shapes that shimmer in place. The differences in them create the spectral effect of forms that are simultaneously present and not present, hovering in space, defined by collective presence but denied actual (singular) contour definitions. The photographer Atta Kim took this same idea many steps further in his photograph ON-AIR project, NewYork-10,000 (2008), in which he super- imposed 10,000 photographs of images from New York one on top of the other. The result is a blurred grey rectangle, completely devoid of any hint of the streets, buildings or people who actually comprise the image. In his work, Figure 3: Bernd and Hilla Becher, Winding Towers, 1966–1969, photograph. © Bernd and Hilla Becher, courtesy of Sonnabend Galleries.
  7. 7. In praise of multiplicity 141 the multiplicity has formed a kind of absorption of all things in one combined ‘cloud’ of form without image. The intentions of an artist exploring plurality may easily move beyond issues of representation as such, as with the work of Kim. It is the process, the cumulative effect of the artwork as action, in which the multiplicity defines the final piece. Staying with this notion of one viewer looking many times is the emphasis on memory, particularly for images that are haunting with the evocation of the past. These collective memories are then laden with all of the attendant emotions and sensations of the combined senses: a visual experience that is recalled comes overwhelmingly tied to smell, to touch, to a memory embedded in a holistic bodily sensation. Sense and sensibility are inextricably and modally linked. Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of perception concurs with this emphasis on the embodied role in perception: in his work the overlay of irre- ducible bodily sensation, psychology and the phenomenology of how the world is perceived leads him to state that: … if many painters since Cézanne have refused to follow the law of geometrical perspective, this is because they have sought to recapture and reproduce before our very eyes the birth of the landscape. They have been reluctant to settle for an analytical overview and have striven to recapture the feel of the perceptual experience itself. ([1948] 2004: 41, Causeries, Lecture 2). It is precisely this embodied aspect of perception in painting, and I would add photography, apart from what Merleau-Ponty calls ‘geometrical perspective’, Figure 4: Idris Kahn, left: Every ... Bernd and Hilla Becher Gable Sided Houses, 2004. Right: Every … Bernd and Hilla Becher Spherical Type Gasholder, 2004, superimposed images using Becher photographs. © Idris Kahn.
  8. 8. Mary Modeen 142 that makes the case for the inherent multiplicity of perceptual experience. In these six lectures broadcast as radio programmes from 1948, he (Merleau- Ponty) goes so far as to say that art ‘thrusts us once again into the presence of the lived experience’. Art helps us to rediscover the creation of the perceived world that we may all too easily pass over as our attention is drawn to the things that appear to us. Writing as an artist, one of the most compelling aspects of multiplicity is the attention to plurality, informed by the philosophy of Otherness. Through a process of attending to the Other in continental philosophy, through a pathway of thoughts that must include Husserl, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Lévinas and Derrida, the differencing and acknowledgement of the Other became increasingly important. Fragmentation of single statements became nuanced and different in language and content. Deconstruction as an attendant tech- nique aided this process of taking apart monolithic statements, offering distinctive readings, separate points of view and an opening out of meaning. The whole movement towards differencing must include not only attention to the otherness of other people, but equally to the other within one’s self, the perceiver that stands apart. The turn towards alterity must also be noted in the more recent works of feminist philosophers and in the philosophy of cogni- tive perception: I wish to speak to these last examples, briefly and specifically, about the post-structuralist philosophies of Luce Irigaray and Gilles Deleuze, in relation to their ideas as a foundation for multiplicity. Through her oeuvre, Irigaray identifies a history and tradition of individ- ual, usually masculine, subjects constructing a world-image from a solitary perspective. She proceeds through subsequent critique, to consider the crea- tion of a feminine subject, and particularly focuses on the child’s connection with the mother. This is part of the source of her contention that the subject is Figure 5: Mary Modeen, Dawning, digital inkjet print, 2009, , produced with multiple photographs and autographic layers. © Mary Modeen.
  9. 9. In praise of multiplicity 143 two, not one, and that individuality is a limiting concept that was embedded in a patriarchal society. If, as she contends, the nature of self is twofold, then the shift of Othering is again the movement away from one fixed and soli- tary point of view: in artistic application, this would make a sole perspective unviable and, by extension, require at the least a dualistic and gendered combination of perspectives from both female and male artists. Furthermore, she moves away from oppositional terms, and embraces a more fluid and nuanced set of perspectives that endorses plurality. Wendy McMurdo’s photographs of children (Figure 6) or rather, photo- graphs with multiple variations of one child, all examining each other, visually work in the same way as this alterity of self. The self watches itself, conscious of being the examiner and the subject, and we, the viewers, gaze at the drama of the psychological confrontation of the divided self. If we also consider a legacy from Deleuze, we recall his model of a fold, in which the experiential nature of perception is folded inward, and the perceiver as the externalized viewer is folded outward. In these folds, différance opens outwards, always unfinished. Multiple strata of experience, the outside world folded in, and an almost geologic image of multiple perspectives – and multiple layers of cognition – suggest shifting ground. This, too, then suits our purposes here of plurality as a basic mode of perception. It incorporates the internalized external and the externalized internal. Photographs by the Starn twins evoke a similar quality of ‘folded’ percep- tion; the material consciousness, pieced, layered repeated, echoed and ill-fitting at the edges suggest comparable qualities of the externalized internal. There is yet one more subject that must be considered in this considera- tion of multiplicity, and that is the question of authorship. In all of the works Figure 6: Wendy McMurdo, Helen, Backstage, 1995, photograph. © Wendy McMurdo. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2013.
  10. 10. Mary Modeen 144 I have shown so far, there is a single artist-photographer whose works convey aspects of plurality. But the question of how far an artist may see (in both the physical and philosophical senses of the word) persists. If one is limited by blind spots of experience, education or narrow thinking, how may a wider perspective, or even pluralistic perspective, be maintained? Moreover, if we shift from one to several authors of a work, is there a kind of built-in multiplicity at work through the effects of the collaborative process itself? In addressing these questions, it may be helpful to look at the works of current projects on the Internet that call for contributions from the public. These are often temporally defined (4 a.m. Sunday morning), or topical (why do you do what you do? Photograph yourself with an answer written on card, á la Gillian Wearing), or quasi-documentary (photograph what you had for break- fast), and then often displayed as web-based online galleries, pictorial blogs Figure 7: Mike and Doug Starn, Rose, toned silver gelatin prints, scotch tape, push pins, wood, 1982–1991. © Mike and Doug Starn.
  11. 11. In praise of multiplicity 145 or city block-long exhibitions on portable stands. I would argue that although these are inclusive with the intention of producing work from a variety of perspectives, that the results are in effect more indicative of the singular author whose work fits into the modular format. True collaborations that attempt to address plurality are rare, but one such example may be found in the work of Yves Marchand and Roman Meffre, as documented in their book The Ruins of Detroit (2011) (Figure 8). Their photographs are multi-layered, multi-textual and deftly combine layers of several scales, from peeling paint to graffiti walls, to aerial views. As such, they are both representations of, and visual codes for, the ruins they explore. In these theoretical foundations – from phenomenology, through cultural critique to post-structuralist philosophy – many reasons have been suggested for the promotion of multiple points of view. The mandate for plurality is not only timely in a cultural sense, but also informs works that aim to incorporate multiple aspects of perception more truly than individuality or singular perspectives allow. In the images shown, I have suggested several kinds of photographic practices whose intention begins with a commitment to plural- ity. At its most basic, we have arrived at a twenty-first-century moment of convergence of philosophic persuasion, artistic vision, and technological capa- bility, which allows the artist/philosopher to produce works whose ‘look’ may be profoundly different even if not the intention to ‘recapture the feel of the experience itself’ as Merleau-Ponty puts it. And it is inherent to this artistic recapturing that it recollects the intrinsic plurality of experience. This, as both Henri Bergson and Benjamin understood, is an inherently political as well as aesthetic act, necessarily inclusive of the affective state of perception as well as the strictly categorical, and is one in which aspects of plurality are not erased, covered over or homogenized. The ways in which this inflects the pedagogy of art and design, or in an art appreciation course that opens out discussions Figure 8: Yves Marchand and Roman Meffre, from The Ruins of Detroit (2011), digital print, produced with multiple photographs. © Yves Marchand and Roman Meffre.
  12. 12. Mary Modeen 146 for an ‘ecology of images’, demands a layered, polyvalent approach to points of view. This is nothing new: artists since the advent of humankind have made visible the mystery of what is unseen in the seen, and valued the differences in these perceptions. References Baer, Ulrich (2002), Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Barthes, Roland (1981), Camera Lucida, New York: Hill and Wang. Bell, Jeffrey A. (2009), Deleuze’s Hume: Philosophy, Culture and Scottish Enlightenment, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Walter Benjamin. ([1936] 1968), ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’. In: Hannah Arendt (ed). 1968. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, (trans. Harry Zohn), New York: Schocken Books, pp. 217–252. Bergson, Henri ([1896] 1912), Matière et Mémoire/Matter and Memory, first English edition, London: G. Allen and & Co. Cotton, Charlotte (2009), The Photograph as Contemporary Art, 2nd ed., London: Thames and Hudson. Deleuze, Gilles ([1966] 1991), Bergsonism (trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam), New York: Zone. Drucker, Johanna (2005), Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. Elkins, James (ed.) (2007), Photography Theory, London: Routledge. Flusser, Vilém ([1983] 2000), Towards a Philosophy of Photography (trans. Mark Chalmers), London: Reaktion Books. Hansen, Mark (2006), New Philosophy for New Media, Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press. Irigaray, Luce ([1974] 1985), Speculum de l’autre femme/Speculum of the Other Woman (trans. Gillian C. Gill), Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, first published by Les Editions de Minuit. Jones, Rachel (2011), Irigaray: Towards a Sexuate Philosophy, Cambridge: Polity. Manghani, Sunil (2008), Image Critique and the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Bristol, UK: Intellect Books. Marchand, Yves and Meffre, Roman (2011), The Ruins of Detroit, London, Steidl. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice ([1948] 2004), The World of Perception (trans. Oliver Davis), London: Routledge. O’Sullivan, Simon (2006), Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari: Thought Beyond Representation, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Pallasmaa, Juhani (2009), The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodies Wisdom in Architecture, Chichester, UK: Wiley. Saltzman, Lisa (2005), Making Memory Matter: Strategies of Remembrance in Contemporary Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Schwartz, Joan and Ryan, James R. (eds) (2003), Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination, London: I. B. Tauris. Sim, Stuart (1992), Beyond Aesthetics: Confrontations with Poststructuralism and Postmodernism, Hemel Hempstead, UK: Harvester Wheatsheaf. Treanor, Brian (2006), Aspects of Alterity, New York: Fordham University Press. Walden, Scott (2005), ‘Objectivity in photography’, British Journal of Aesthetics, 45: 3, pp. 258–72.
  13. 13. In praise of multiplicity 147 Wells, Liz (ed.) (2004), Photography: A Critical Introduction, 3rd ed., London: Routledge. Suggested citation Modeen, M. (2013), ‘In praise of multiplicity: Pluralism and contemporary photographic art practices’, Journal of Visual Art Practice 12: 2, pp. 135–147, doi: 10.1386/jvap.12.2.135_1 Contributor details Mary Modeen is a senior artist/academic at DJCAD, University of Dundee. She teaches undergraduates and postgraduates both fine art and interdiscipli- nary studies, and supervises Ph.D. candidates in interdisciplinary practice-led studies. Her own research combines perception and place-based research, connecting cultural values, history and embodied experience through creative art and writing. E-mail:, Mary Modeen has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work in the format that was submitted to Intellect Ltd.
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