New Photography 2013 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York – Melissa Rose

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Installation view, New Photography 2013, MoMA, NY

The New Photography exhibition opened on 14 September 2013 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The exhibition was organised by Roxana Marcoci, Curator and Katerina Stathopoulou, Curatorial Assistant, and included a selection of sixty-two recent works by eight artists: Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin; Brendan Fowler; Annette Kelm; Lisa Oppenheim; Anna Ostoya; Josephine Pryde and Eileen Quinlan.

Since its inception in 1985, the MoMA New Photography exhibition series has been a high profile gauge of the medium. This year’s artists present a range of approaches to the overarching question of what an image is, and what it can be. According to the press release the artists are ‘redefining photography as a medium of experimentation and intellectual inquiry’ within the realm of contemporary photographic practice, and the broader context of today’s image-saturated world.

My encounter with the show began with Brendan Fowler’s performance, And Martin, which took place in MoMA’s atrium on the afternoon of Monday, 16 September.  Uncomfortable, spontaneous and awkward, it was hard to distinguish who was more confused by what was going on – the audience or Brendan himself. Though programmed as a ‘radical update of BARR, the performance/band for which the artist first became known’, the most radical aspect of the event was the careful retreat of numerous audience members while the otherwise disenchanted merely sat down and gave up.

“a painstakingly reconstructed collision of multiple frames piercing through each other to create four, neatly wall-mounted mash-ups”

The stilted instability of Brendan Fowler as a performer is also manifest in Brendan Fowler as an artist. His ‘crash’ pictures obliterate the singularity of the totemic image/object, with a painstakingly reconstructed collision of multiple frames piercing through each other to create four, neatly wall-mounted mash-ups.  The crash-effect spoof is executed well enough to be satisfying in a cartoonish kind of way.  However, the role of the images seems arbitrary and the concept is ultimately more child-friendly than interesting.  The large-scale work specifically conceived for the show looks like leftover installation trash and is certainly less substantial in premise, execution and form than the word count remanded to its title: Winter 2012–Fall 2012 (Joel and Sean and Carol and Chadwick installing at Untitled 3, “Miles'” Security Jacket, Andrea told the people at Cafe Gratitude that it was Maxwell’s birthday when it wasn’t, Andrea’s Cousin’s Cousin’s House on Easter, Ry showing new UNTITLED logo, Photographic Arts Center, Coronado Ter. Screen Door, Proofing ANPQ 16 with Casey, What Wendy Saw) (2013). Luckily, Brendan’s background is in free-jazz percussion so he should be used to people not digging his stuff.

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Installation view, New Photography 2013, MoMA, NY

There is an interesting link in Fowler’s work to what curator Roxana Marcoci refers to as the ‘multiple screen culture of today’ and the visual impact of images virtually crashing through each other online. There is also something systemically neurotic in Fowler’s ineffectual attempt to cope with the daily bombardment of information.  Without any filtering or censorship he becomes a hapless conduit for the torrential flood and subsequent wreckage, adrift in the wake of perpetual catastrophe. 

What happens when you open too many windows at once?  

You end up with Lisa Oppenheim and her series, Smoke (2012). Her collection of processes from the ‘atavistic to the technologically advanced’ may approach making as a kind of collage, or more likely as a paranoid process of overcompensation with consistently banal results.  Read this:

‘[Lisa] searches Flickr for images by using generic keywords or phrases, such as “volcano,” “industrial pollution,” or “bombing attacks,” in order to find and download images of fire in natural or industrial disasters. She then outputs these images onto digital negatives, focusing on selected segments from the original pictures. Instead of using the light of an enlarger to expose the negatives, she uses firelight, and then develops the exposed paper (or film) in solarol to create a solarised effect, reversing lights and darks. The schism between the optical expressiveness of pictures and the scientism of captions (which are long, descriptive, and include the date and location of the event) suggests that one’s understanding of the world is partial, that photography can only re-present the world, and that the documentary genre itself is ultimately fraught with uncertainty.’

That’s a lot of anxiety to go through for a cloud collage. 

In fact, all the artists in the show utilise montage in one form or another, which may suggest that Brendan Fowler’s trash crash is trending; or maybe the way we are interacting with images and information is altering the way we conceive of the world around us.  Perhaps our brains are becoming more like Google search engines, just as Google is altering the way we discover, make, disseminate and archive information.

The production, distribution and circulation of images increased exponentially over the last century and now, thanks to the Internet and social media networks our image archive is virtually infinite. The Internet is a dynamic platform for making and manipulating our sense of the world, or lack thereof.  It is also a complex space of fluctuating walls of control and streams of capital, shifting power structures and unstable openings for creative possibility.  Several artists in the exhibition approach the photographic subject in an attempt to question, undermine and/or transform the relationship between the image and the ‘information machines we attach ourselves to daily.’ (MoMA Forum of Contemporary Photography, 18 September 2013)

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Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. Plate 23 from War Primer 2, 2011. Artist’s book, 11 13/16 x 9 13/16 x 3/4″ (30 x 25 x 1.9 cm). Collection Tom Price, London. © 2013 Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

Artist duo Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin confront the alignment of the history of photography with the history of power and the role of the contemporary image of conflict in their artists’ book, War Primer 2.   Both an ‘homage and hijacking’ of Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer (originally published in Germany in 1955) the project which won them The Photographers’ Gallery Deutsche Börse Prize 2013 is more clearly articulated than many of the other works in the show, with its succinct encapsulation of a particular interpretation of the contemporary image crisis.

In his War Primer, Brecht paired WWII newspaper clippings with poems to create what he called ‘photo-epigrams’, in order to bring the complexity and agency of mass media images in to question.  Brecht and his collaborator, Ruth Berlau, compared press pictures to hieroglyphs in need of deciphering in a time when the limited resource of war images were controlled by media interests and made predominantly by professional photojournalists.

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Installation view, New Photography 2013, MoMA, NY

In today’s digital age, iconic images of war can be taken by anyone and shared globally in real-time.  They have been exploited and policed, commodified and weaponised as propaganda in numerous conflicts by all sides.  Technological advancements have also led to the pervasive use of CCTV and the rise of unmanned drones for intelligence gathering and warfare.  Though government control and media censorship is self-evident, in many instances images of conflict go viral before their syndicated release, while others exist as virtual ghosts in documentation without ever surfacing visually in the public realm.  

Broomberg and Chanarin are interested in the political agency of these images and sourced the selection of 85 pictures for War Primer 2 via low res Internet screen-grabs of the ‘War on Terror’, culled from Google image search results using Brecht’s original poems as key search phrases.  The images were paired with Brecht’s ‘photo-epigrams’ and pasted into 100 (1st ed. English translation) copies of Brecht’s War Primer.   Broomberg and Chanarin also produced a free, downloadable version of the edition available to all online.

“a witty enough constellation of phallic symbols with bow ties”

While Brecht used the quatrain as a device to expand the reading of the images in War Primer, Broomberg and Chanarin physically embedded their images on top of Brecht’s to create new montages that transformed the original political context of the first edition into it’s critical sequel, War Primer 2.  Photomontage makes the viewer aware through disruption that the ‘image is an image.’ (MoMA Forum of Contemporary Photography, 18 September 2013)  Combining two or more images from different times and contexts allows the artists to destabilise the original meanings of the photographs and manipulate them through their new amalgamations in order to question what really constitutes political space. For further reading see Occupying Brecht: Broomberg and Chanarin’s War Primer 2 by David Evans.

Anna Ostoya attempts a very different and difficult feat in her meshing of feminist and personal narrative with cross-historical perspectives and the collage of contemporary culture. Her arresting series of photomontages revisit Eastern-Central European avant-garde movements by juxtaposing them with their Western counterparts.  To paraphrase Ostoya: ‘We think we live in a global culture but when you are a foreigner you have to deconstruct and reconstruct your world view constantly in order to understand and to be understood.

Despite her conservative aesthetic and (at times overwrought) conceptualism, with its potential for devolving into cliché, Ostoya’s work resonates with an authenticity that the rest of the exhibition seems to lack.  Perhaps this has something to do with her respect for the image and the ‘metapicture’, or maybe the sincerity with which she speaks of her work also enters into the actual process of making it. It may even be as simple an influence as the way she carried herself during the artist led tour, as if she held some mystical, nostalgic and vested belief in the transformative possibilities of photomontage and art making today. Not so with the remaining artists in the show. 

4_pryde

Josephine Pryde. It’s Not My Body VI. 2011. Pigmented inkjet print, 31 1/2 x 19 1/2″ (80 x 49.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Anne Ehrenkranz in honor of Gayle Greenhill. © Josephine Pryde

Josephine Pryde’s series, It’s Not My Body (2011) hurts me in my woman place. Why any person would think that superimposing MRI scans of embryos onto colourful desert landscapes might be taken seriously is beyond comprehension. How could these works be read as anything other than a bad, sci-fi parody of the feminist perspective? A woman’s right to choose is damaged by any woman who chooses to make crappy art about the subject.  In addition to Pryde’s attempt to touch on ‘debates surrounding notions of personhood’ she is also ‘exploring questions regarding the reproduction of images’. Perhaps that topic would have been better allocated to her guinea pig series.

With her ‘forays’ into abstraction ‘grounded in feminist history and material culture’, the mythologising of meaning in Eileen Quinlan’s work is nearly as cringe-worthy as that of Josephine Pryde’s. Moving swiftly past the personal womb references in her Great Basin (2012) series, Cock Rock (2011) is a witty enough constellation of phallic prisms with bow ties.  As part of her yoga mat series Quinlan’s work, Laura (2012) is an eponym of David Lynch’s fictional character Laura Palmer from the 1990s television series Twin Peaks, named after the 5×4 Polaroid film Quinlan was using only partially developed, leaving a formation of ‘twin peaks’ behind. Unfortunately, it’s not only the film that has failed to fully develop here. Pryde may be good at puns – both verbal and visual – but evidently this is not a skill enough to produce a meaningful body of work.

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Annette Kelm. Untitled (Cardboard, Paisley, Ladder, Hands). 2013. Chromogenic color print, 35 1/16 x 28 3/8″ (89 x 72 cm). Courtesy the Hadley Martin Fisher Collection. © Annette Kelm

Lastly, Annette Kelm’s portraits and still life studies combine historical, artistic and cross-cultural references.  In so doing they conflate her research into autonomous pieces or series that parody advertisements and raise questions relating to the function of objects and their representation.  They are analogue, hand-printed, proficient and derivative of much better photographers who have shown in the recent history of MoMA’s New Photography series.

Like its predecessors, MoMA’s New Photography 2013 exhibition continues to accurately reflect the state of play in Contemporary Photography and as the artists, curators, academics, critics/other periphery and their working strategies demonstrate, it couldn’t be any more clear or convoluted.

– 

Melissa Rose worked as Executive Assistant/Project Manager at The Photographers’ Gallery until September 2013 when she resigned her role to move to the Catskills, New York.

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