Some Background on Artifacts of a Plague Year

Paradoxe : le fait, dans sa pureté, se définit mieux de n’être pas propre. Prenez un objet usuel : ce n’est pas son état neuf, vierge, qui rend le mieux compte de son essence; c’est plutôt son état déjeté, un peu usé, un peu sali, un peu abandonné : le déchet, voilà où se lit la vérité des choses. - Roland Barthes, “Sagesse de l’art” in Cy Twombly, Editions du Seuil, 2016, p 13.

(A paradox: the fact, in its purity, is better defined by not being clean. Take a common object: it is not its virgin state that best conveys its essence. Rather, that is found in its state of deformity: a bit worn, a bit soiled, a bit abandoned. In debris, that is where one reads the truth of things.)

As I write in Summer 2021, it’s been a long year dominated by two earthshaking events: the appearance of Covid-19 and the aftermath of the US presidential election. Both unprecedented in our experience, inextricably linked and neither at finality. While Covid-19 appears to be in retreat in the rich nations, it is unlikely to disappear soon. The election controversy, another malevolent viral propagation, continues to divide the country, and the absurdity of imposing politics on a virus whose only imperative, once ensconced in a congenial nasal passage, is to reproduce itself. Less the disease itself, these socio-political factors have rendered the pandemic a perfect radiograph of our fractured culture. In those parts of the world with abundant vaccine supplies, political opportunists and the alienation of whole swathes of the population have abetted the creation of human petrie dishes optimized for the generation of new mutations. What could have been a two-year tribulation now risks perennialization. Both constitute a long Covid, the lingering side effects of these linked contagions.

While it is too soon to say for sure how this will play out, there’s at least one thing one can say with confidence: Covid-19 has produced a heap of physical artifacts, particularly the masks and gloves discarded on urban streets from March 2020 on. They’re everywhere: in rich neighborhoods and poor; in clean streets and neglected ones; on sidewalks, pavement and curbs; hanging from bushes; wrapped around sewer grates and lying in those miniscule patches of earth, leaves and soil that surround New York trees. Reflecting harsh urban conditions, they are blown about, flattened by traffic, crumpled, distorted, weathered, torn, folded, half-buried, inundated, snagged on fences, covered in trash, etc., etc., etc.

Like all artifacts, these masks and gloves are inherently ambiguous and multilayered, evidence and symbol in equal measure. They are the material issue of events and the representation of those same events. When attributed the status of artifact, objects aid us in analyzing a complex past, in distilling it, encapsulating it, historicizing it. In this way artifacts come to stand for events, and are thus suffused with significance well beyond their base materiality. In their ambiguity they become vessels for the projection of our preconceptions and the creation of multiple histories of the events from which they originated. For direct participants familiar artifacts may progressively supplant memory, distilling it to essentials, shaping and reshaping those moments’ recollection. They function in the manner of the snapshot album in the life of a family. That album is, after all, a collection of momentary artifacts.

Haphazardly encountering these particular artifacts, I began to photograph them. While individually each mask or glove was of little significance, their force lies in their omnipresent accumulation, and whatever impact they might have emerges only in quantity; they become articulate through repetition and the constant juxtaposition of similarity and difference in their forms and in the situations in which they are found. Each is, in a way, an echo of all the others. A set of variations with an implied theme.

I ultimately photographed nearly fourteen hundred. In examining them en masse, I found that each image was simultaneously singular, banal, symbolic and, as it became clear as I started working with them, demanding of classification.

Singular on two levels. However they might have come off the manufacturers’ assembly lines, no two masks/gloves are exactly the same as registered in situ. They are distinguished by their form and deformation, color, situation, ambient lighting, etc. and in the manner in which they were photographed. In effect, they present multiple variations of themselves. In the human context, they are singular in the recognition that behind each of these barriers to infection lay a mini-history, however untraceable it might be. Which were from caregivers leaving their shifts? Which were from workers fed up with the discomfort? Which were from kids who dropped them to the dismay or their parents? Which were from those with impairments that made them difficult to wear? We can only imagine.

Banal: because they were omnipresent and, once discarded, of no intrinsic worth. They became invisible in the same way that we take no notice of chewing gum spots on the sidewalk (Look down. They’re everywhere.). This banality was to me a positive virtue, a validation of the exercise in the belief that the best way to document an extraordinary time was in its most commonplace manifestations.

Symbolic: because they came to stand for the pandemic and its effects: a microcosmic distillation of a much larger phenomenon. This was intensified when they emerged as symbol and substance of divisive political issues.

Classifiable: In toto they form a collection, and a collection inherently poses the problem of classification. In working through the material I found that a simple amassing of undifferentiated images provided little means of entry for the viewer (see this book’s final pages). The collections became more engaging - more legible - when they were grouped by color, type, morphology, situation, etc. The discovery: a collection without classification is opaque, as complex and indeterminate as our direct experience of the world. But a collection is not the world, it is a selection from same, and it demands a means of entrance into it.

And there were motivations of a more narrowly esthetic sort.

This project began not as a collection per se but as a series of individual photos of masks and gloves. My motivation combined an interest in them as I describe above with an esthetic methodology of using the cast-off objects as a compositional device. This methodology was an extension of an earlier, continuing project in which mushrooms in natural settings - as close to an apparently random distribution as one can easily locate in the macro world - are employed to explore complex visual fields through the constrained compositional practice of centering the frame on the mushroom (examples from that series are  below).


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