Alfredo Jaar recently produced a text work titled ‘You do not take a photograph. You make it.’ Available as a freebie as part of his Kiasma survey, this poster operates as a reminder that picture making is buttressed by all kinds of concepts (or should we think of them as half truths?). The distinction between ‘take’ and ‘make’ is a notable one, because we tend to believe that photography is an objective process documenting the world as it was at the moment the photograph was taken.
In reality a great deal of the photographs we see don’t do this at all. They are often packed with specific content that strives to manipulate our thoughts or our feelings. Jaar makes this point in relation to news and advertising images. Whether we like it or not, specific ideas also worm their way into the work of artists and our personal snapshots. The images frequently end up saying more about us than what has been recorded.
This notion of reflectance was recently brought home by Josh Thorpe‘s review of Maura Doyle‘s ‘Who the Pot’ exhibition shown at YYZ Artists’ Outlet in Toronto. Thorpe says “They have skin and guts, bellies, ripples, lips, and hips… They have posture; they swoon and slip. And some of these pots even have a gait, a way of moving, just as any creature does.” There’s nothing kitschy about Doyle’s ceramics. Pinched and coiled, and fired in an open flame, her clay vessels possess a rugged beauty. We not only see them as pots, but they also, like Jaar’s work, serve as signals amending how we see.
And that vision accommodates the human body. The evidence resides in the shape, scale and symmetry of objects, in their intellectual content, the ways we arrange things and the manner in which they might move or are used. Our surroundings echo our thoughts, forms and gestures. We are so accustomed to this, recognition evades us – unless, of course, some strange occurrence removes the pall.
Imagine, for example, trying to use door knobs that have been installed at such a low height that they cannot be comfortably reached. That’s exactly what Corban Walker‘s contributed to Dublin Contemporary 2011. In this departure from his more typical geometrically oriented sculpture and installations, the artist makes a poignant social comment. While the placement of the door knobs initially seems to be scaled to the size of a young child, there is nothing child-like about them. Rather, the installation makes reference to his own exceedingly short stature. It draws attention to the presumptions held by many averaged sized individuals and the fact that one’s height restricts access to large parts of the world.
Considerations of size also come into play regarding ideas proposed by children. Their unfettered eyes and minds pick up on things largely undetectable to grown-ups. And listening to their suggestions not only induces moments of hilarity, it can also expand one’s perspective. Just take some 4 year olds to an aquarium with a collection of stingrays and comments about the animals’ friendly smiles will likely punctuate the air. For me, the experience rekindled memories of old TV programs and commercials centred on the anthropomorphising of animals, cars and fruit.
The propensity for humans to identify their species’ features begins in infancy. It is a quality that has been explored by numerous artists. Examples range from paintings of Arcimboldo, produced during the Renaissance, to the sculptures of contemporary artists such as Erwin Wurm. Moreover, an awareness of this propensity leads to the recognition of faces all around us. They are proposed by the shape and arrangements of dials, openings, and assorted fixtures. We see them peering at us from the surfaces of various household appliances, the grinning grille of a car or a ghostly array of buckles and straps of a bag plonked in an unlit hallway.
This spotting of faces can also get out of hand. Kate Fane, in her ArtSync review, begins by noting how the phenomenon can manifest itself as pareidolia, a branch of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The sufferers of this condition see faces in almost any material or surface, a condition that can turn the world into a pretty creepy place. This leads her into a discussion of the work of sculptor Alexander Irving and painter Anders Oinonen, artists who explore facets of that basic idea in very different ways.
‘Pondered >> Alexander Irving & Anders Oinonen: The Inverted Portrait’ does a great job of discussing the tensions that exist between the material reality of these artists’ work and the images the work contains. They speak of our inherent desire to find things we recognise and the complexity of looking. The work, like some of the other examples mentioned, is humorous, but it also raises the question of whether it is possible for us to get beyond ourselves. Can we be more open to seeing the ambiguities, the manner in which things have been constructed, and the way in which our assumptions restrict what we can know?