[...] According to the Austrian art historian Alois Riegl, artistic form is historical form, which is conditioned by money, materials, technology and by content and function. Noble & Webster’s ball is an abstract form comprised of artefacts reflecting the interior of a society fascinated by technology and consumption. The ball shows mass-produced objects as the impetus that drives our society. Continuing this line of thought, it is interesting to note that many of the objects in Falling Apart also come from Noble & Webster’s private life: they are objects that they have thrown at each other during domestic rows. “Their presence (Tim Noble & Sue Webster’s) is indicated, their trace is manifest, but they are absent. What does this mean? It means that semiotically speaking, Tim & Sue are rubbish. Of course in the role they love to play, dirty white trash living it down.” By putting this personally loaded rubbish on public view, Noble & Webster render their private space wide open. By constructing the rubbish in such a way that, illuminated by a spotlight, it forms its own rugged profiles, full of holes, they indicate that the rubbish is them. Their identity is in the products they have consumed.
Falling Apart can be seen as a new version of Plato’s story about the shadows on the rear wall of the cave. It claims that humanity lives in a shadow world, a caricature of reality. To Plato reality is the realm of eternal ideas, which we can only reach by using our reason. In Noble & Webster’s work, however, we find an ironic reversal of Plato’s reality. In their case it is the rubbish, the material detritus, the real world, which casts its shadow on the rear wall, thus creating the background for man’s identity.
Our entire Christian tradition takes it for granted that man possesses a special inner core, a soul which is beautiful, original and God-given. In Noble & Webster´s sculpture this core is created by culture and is quite pitiful.
[...] Hatoum works with the everyday in a phenomenological sense, starting with familiar, concrete everyday objects and transforming them into things of terror or ambiguity. Her everyday objects rarely remain functional. On the contrary. What is the purpose of a child’s bed made of glass? (Silence, 1994). Or a wheelchair with knives for handles, tipped forward as if to pitch off potential users? (Untitled (wheelchair), 1999). But the works are not simply negations of the objects’ functionality, they also negate our notions of what is good, nice and homelike. In Hatoum, things suddenly become threatening and hostile. As Edward Said puts it: “Domesticity is thus transformed into a series of menacing and radically inhospitable objects whose new and presumably non-domestic use is waiting to be defined.” These are works that effect a disturbing negation of the objects they imitate.
[...] The experience of the work is designed to make the viewer conscious of his or her own active participation. It creates a division of attention, as attention is directed both at the work and at the viewer’s own sensory perception and reflection. The seeing subject thus becomes part of the work. Or, as Eliasson has put it: “My work is you––the spectator.”
Not merely by his perceptual-analytic approach, but also by his use of ‘mapping’ as artistic method, Eliasson continues issues raised by American art of the late 1960s and the early 1970s. In a crucial departure, however, Eliasson not solely explores subjective perception, but visuality as a cultural construct. Thus, it is appropriate to link him to the tendency within contemporary art that Hal Foster has defined as the ethnographic turn.
[...] We tend to think of our time as an age that ran out of “grand stories.” By this we mean a sequence with a beginning and an end, where cosmos and microcosm refer to a greater meaning, a common goal. A story wherein culture can imagine its own happy ending. That is lost to us.
And yet, there is one grand story left. Judging by what some of the great gurus of computer technology are publishing these days in the way of pent-up anxiety, ours may turn out be the century when technology decisively turns the tables, casting off the reins humans for centuries have strapped it in and crossing over into its own millennium.
Thus, the stage is set for a major reevaluation of global ends and means. The irony is that the grand tale of technology flows directly out of the great humanist story — the meta-story of the modern West that began in the Renaissance and kicked into high gear in the Enlightenment and the Romantic Age, as humans made themselves the end of all things and commenced their protracted emancipation from the constrictions of tradition (read: God)
[...] What is taking place in these new images of the body which, despite giving a surface impression of putting humans back into art, challenge, manipulate and transform them into grotesquery and irrecognition? Without in any way postulating a conclusive or complete framework of explanation, I choose to view such artworks and their countless predecessors in the 20th century avant-gardes as symptoms of a comprehensive cultural transformation, contesting humanity’s past isolation from a greater history, that of biological evolution. More specifically, I propose linking contemporary art’s striking challenge of the limits of the human body with the regained currency of the question: Is human anatomy raised above the normal biological drive toward evolutionary change of the species, or will the foreseeable future produce something to follow us? In other words, are we on the threshold of a no-longer-human era, in which the human body — like the simian body before us — becomes the working material for a new species or, perhaps, a plurality of species? However, as contemporary art’s many references to manipulation also herald, the emergence of such a post-human phase appears different from past evolutionary shifts by the mediation of the newly developed human specialties, culture and technology, making us now co-creators of our own anatomical future.
[...] Contemporary art's recourse to the photographic snapshot, then, is unprecedented. Its anti-aestheticism is based, not on a response to the institutional dominance of painting, but on the institutional dominance of photography, film and video. It is unable, therefore, to follow the usual strategy of negation of aesthetic ideology pursued by many of the avant-gardes last century: the appropriation of the non-art or anti-art character of documentary photography as a way of removing art from the institutional power of the “aesthetizing gaze”. For, in the light of the general incorporation of photography into the category of art, documentary practice itself has now become subject to the vast filmic transformation of the conditions of artistic production and reception. There has been a general convergence of interests between the ambitions of artists to transform the scale and mode of address of photography into that of the big-production modern technological image, and the systematization of the technological image on a vast, planetary scale. Thus, if the new filmic conditions of production have legitimatised a grand, staged or composite photographic History Painting, as in Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky, it has also produced an upscaling of the snapshot itself, as in the “transgressive” social realism of Nan Goldin, Richard Billingham and Jouko Lehtola. These latter visions of abjection, self-hate, sexual disclosure and sub-criminality have shattered the boundaries between the public, appelative conventions of an older documentary photography and the illicit realms of pornography, the police archive and mass cultural voyeurism generally. The result is that the negation of aesthetic ideology can no longer be performed so easily in the name of photography, as it was for almost fifty years through the years of the early Soviet and German avant-gardes up to Conceptual art.
[...] By focusing on photography's particularly close relationship to everyday life, I would here suggest regarding documentary and avant-garde practices as parts of the same cultural system and the same photographic body throughout the 20th century. As this is especially relevant when discussing the so-called neo-avant-garde, I will focus exclusively on the years just before and after 1970. At the time, the established modernist canon of photography and the genre conventions, which critics and historians had fought to set up around the medium from Pictorialism and on through most of the 20th century, were breaking down. The differences between documentary photography, avant-garde art photography and amateur photography became refreshingly invisible. This blurring of genres, beginning in the late ’60s, became the foundation for the photographic practice we see today, when it is almost impossible to clearly distinguish between art photography, documentary and commercial photography, etc., and when we have become accustomed to thinking of the discourses surrounding the medium as producing the distinctions rather than the qualities inherent in the photographs themselves.
[...] When undertaking a historical study of photography, there are three specificities of the medium that I think need to be taken into account. First, we must not forget that the photographic image is the result of a technique, and that this technique imposes certain things on the image. Correspondingly, the image’s characteristics depend on technical possibilities (such as cameras or other devices). This is why photography represents a revolution in the field of imagery.
The second specificity concerns how photographs are perceived. The ease with which we think they can be read is deceiving. They seem obvious because we recognize things (familiar shapes), but this obviousness hinders an understanding of the true, concrete conditions of photographic representation. For example, many have noticed how difficult it is for non-specialists to appreciate 19th-century photographs, […].
The third specificity […] stems from the fact that the historiography of photography centers on too recent an era and is founded on a modernist and artistic idea of photography, in the American tradition of Stieglitz and Steichen. This bias has hindered the understanding of 19th-century photography (and its cultural impact, in particular), and is inherently restrictive because it is based on an aesthetic, elite conception of photography. It minimizes entire aspects of the practice of the medium, such as amateur photography, studio portraits, industrial photography, scientific photography and magazine illustrations.
[...] Several theoreticians have argued that the wider knowledge of the photographic process has led to a better understanding of the constructed nature of photographs and resulted in a critical approach to photography. On that basis, it is sometimes argued that photography’s indexical qualities have been destroyed and genres such as paranormal photography have been rendered extinct. In Downcast Eyes, Martin Jay writes that the fakery of an 1861 spirit photograph by Mumler was decisively exposed when the growth of amateur photography in the 1880s increased insight into the photographic process. The psychologist Alfred Lehmann, raising a fierce domestic critique of paranormal photography in the 1920 edition of his works Overtro og Trolddom (Superstition and Magic), concluded likewise.
However, Türck’s photographs and the history of paranormal photography testify to the contrary. In cases such as his, the belief in paranormal images is not founded in technical naiveté. It is the result of a pseudoscientific interpretation of the photographic process formulated by photographers, scientists, psychic researchers, spiritualists, et al.
[...] But if the distinction I critically made in 1984 between something called ‘art photography’ and just about everything else currently produced with a camera (including most contemporary art using photographic media) retains some validity, it must be said that what I intended by this was more than a categorical distinction. What I argued then, and now see no reason to retract, was that the ethos of art photography, shaped as it was by the historical determinations of both modernism and formalism, no longer reflected contemporary actuality, and was thus incapable of producing an art adequate to or able to reflect upon the conditions, terms and subjectivities of our postmodern condition. What has since happened, however, is something of a double movement. On the one hand, many of the venues, journals, and discourses of art photography have opened up to receive contemporary art using photographic media. Simultaneously, and on the other hand, photographic work that might have been situated ten years ago within the confines of art photography has ascended (in the photographic equivalent of upward mobility) into the precincts of contemporary art proper. Thus, photographers such as William Eggleston are now exhibited in contemporary art venues, or included in exhibitions such as the current Documenta, while Aperture, the American journal founded by the echt art photographer Ansel Adams and Minor White, now routinely features contemporary art that is photographically based.
There is a paradox inherent in photographing “the vanishing race.” Industrialization brought railroads and guns to the American West. The camera followed and was used in the symbolic conquest of the land. Curtis makes the connection himself in a caption for one of his portraits: “Photographing a native of Santo Domingo is comparable to hunting big game with a camera.” The camera became an ideological tool, showing the landscape as an unpopulated Garden of Eden waiting to be laid with railroad tracks and populated by white settlers.
Curtis claiming that he does not see or think photographically is in denial of the industrial aspects of the camera. Photography and politics are linked, and Curtis is trying to stay clear of both. That is why we find a longing for a pre-industrial state in his pictures. That longing is particularly ironic, considering that the 20 volumes of The North American Indian were published with funds from Pierpont Morgan, one of the most powerful railroad magnates of his time.