Thursday, October 20, 2011

Continuing Adventures in Reading Images

My column, "Message Pictures: Adventures in Reading Images," continues in the Fall 2011 issue of BlackFlash.  The content is not on-line, so here is the unedited text below:

Message Pictures
Adventures in Reading Images, Part Two
By Michael Davidge
The following is the second in a series of three texts that focus on the pleasures and frustrations, the rewards and dangers, of reading images and imagining readings.

As the last issue of Blackflash proved, there is plenty to be read in an image by Rodney Graham, and the triptych The Gifted Amateur, Nov. 10th, 1962 (2007) is no exception.  When I encountered it at the National Gallery, the giant backlit tableau of the staged photograph was a feast for the eyes on a cinematic scale.  In the picture, Graham’s persona, dressed in pajamas, is engaged in the creation of a painting in the middle of his living room, leading me to wonder if there is an “allover” composition at work.  I sensed that the scene depicted had been art-directed to its very last centimetre so that everything my eyes might discover had been deliberately placed there, in advance, by the artist.  All of the easily legible titles on the spines of the books scattered about the autodidact amateur’s makeshift studio will certainly be significant.  If Tintin is the hero of the comics’ mysteries because he is the best reader of the clues, then Graham’s work as an attempt to “faire Tintin” is masterful, placing his person at the centre of its composition and its interpretation. Can such a literate image be dialogical like a novel, as in the literary theories of Mikhail Bahktin[i], wherein marginal voices can be read against the grain of the master narrative? Captured by this image, one might do best by remaining silent.

Playing the investigative journalist, I was inspired to do a little of my own sleuthing and look for a fissure in the verisimilitude of Graham’s impressive façade in order to unravel a bit of its mystery or its mastery. The detail I was most interested in was the date on the newspapers splayed on the gifted amateur’s floor, placed there in order to catch any drips of paint that might stray from the Morris Louis-type painting in process.  Sure enough, the date is contemporaneous with the title of the photograph, making an airtight case. The confirmation of this detail felt a bit like the denouement of a film I recently watched, Call Northside 777 (1948), where [Spoiler alert.] a wrongly-accused man is exonerated by a detail in a blown-up photograph: the date on a newspaper.  Both scenarios rely on the credibility of photography as an historical document.  Of course, the Rodney Graham photo is a put-on that calls into question the veracity of an image that has a top of the line degree of high fidelity to its time period.  Continuity is broken when we recognize the artist in the photograph.  In this regard, Graham’s picture hews most closely to a line that measures photography as art rather than machinic process, and might be best filed under the category of history painting. Such a categorization suggests that its narrative is probably more epic than novelistic, thereby diminishing its heteroglossia (cf. Bakhtin). I’m tempted to read the image symbolically, though, and make the newspapers underfoot a kind of base to the superstructure of the artist’s activity. On the front-lines of the avant-garde after photography shouldered the burden of representation and mass reportage, abstraction in painting doggedly pursued its own self-determination. If, as I established in my previous column, we can compare Rodney Graham to Tintin, who sent photographs of his adventures back to the home office, then we have another vantage point for viewing the embedded journalist. The impression given is that Graham’s barefoot amateur is thoroughly embedded in this scene of combat.

The typical view of the embedded journalist is that he or she is attached to a military unit in order to get access to areas of armed conflict. Embedded journalists are often viewed as being completely dictated to and controlled by the military, the results seen as little more than propaganda.  If information is another front of warfare, then military forces are becoming as sophisticated in their public relations as in the technology of their weapons, and very often artists are enlisted to engage in the battle for hearts and minds. In such a situation, can someone voice concerns from the margins? Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin are London-based artists who were embedded with the British Army in Afghanistan in June 2008. Their practice often plays on the tension between “embedded” artists and their hosts, as they actively present themselves as photographers in order to gain access to institutions that might not otherwise be open to the kind of critique the artists have in mind.  Their project with the British Army presented them with many of the challenges posed to the embedded.  In an interview, Chanarin stated, “In Afghanistan it felt like the army was lifting our camera, composing our pictures, and clicking the shutter.”[ii] The only way they felt they could be subversive in this scenario was by engaging with it not at the level of the image but at the level of the apparatus, engaging rather with the very structure of embedding and refusing to produce an image that would clearly reiterate a narrative the Army controlled. The outcome, in an exhibition of works entitled The Day Nobody Died (2008), resembles an absurdist theatre of war, wherein Broomberg and Chanarin even refused to handle their own materials and had soldiers troop a 50 metre roll of photographic paper out to the front-line, where seven metre sections of it were unrolled and exposed to sunlight for 20 seconds.  The results can be seen in their photograph entitled The Press Conference, June 9, 2008: an abstract colour field that challenges conventional representations of conflict.

The photographs under examination are both carefully dated by their titles, but beyond that they diverge in their strategies of address: Graham appears to be in complete control of his transparency, exposing every surface to be read; Broomberg and Chanarin take a different tack and pursue a strategy of illegibility in order to retain control of their image.  By placing himself front and centre in his composition, Graham implicates himself in the scene of the crime, if it is one.  I do not want to suggest, however, that Broomberg and Chanarin are innocent by contrast: as Chanarin admits, an important touchstone in the artists’ work is Janet Malcolm’s book The Journalist and the Murderer (1990) which paints the titular relationship in shades of grey.[iii] Tom McCarthy links Tintin to Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950), through the coded radio messages of the French Resistance that echo in the works and through the two respective characters’ ability to write without writing, and I suppose that means writing without giving anything away.[iv] Broomberg and Chanarin are resistance figures too, but I’d link them with an even darker film, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows (1969).  Melville’s film about the French Resistance, which features an extraordinary sequence where the ruthless hero does nothing but sit and read through a stack of books on the philosophy of mathematics, offers one cold observation: Even those who peddle abstraction cannot avoid getting their hands dirty.

[i] Bakhtin, Mikhail.  The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays.  Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1981.
[ii] Oddy, Jason.  “An Outsider’s Guide to Getting Inside Places Only Insiders Normally Get to Go.” Art on Paper 15.5 (2009):  66.
[iii] Ibid. Pg. 61.
[iv] McCarthy, Tom. Tintin and the Secret of Literature.  Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2008. Pp. 33, 45.

(If you were looking for part one, it can be found here, and part three is here.)

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