Some Background on Artifacts of a Plague Year, Page 2


In like manner, the masks and gloves might afford the possibility of working with a similar algorithmic methodology, this time addressing fields in the urban environment. Recognizing that environment’s lesser complexity as compared to the forest’s, here I relaxed the constraints: the object need not center the composition, it must simply appear in it. Thus, the work is intended to function on two apparently contradictory levels: 1) the concrete: that of the object itself and its “artifactual import,” and 2) the abstracted, where the object serves a compositional function for images whose aims lie outside the object itself; a methodology of photographing the world largely independent of the featured object. To the degree that this compositional strategy promotes an ambiguous relationship to content, it creates an interplay of the concrete and the incidental, a dynamic which is particularly attractive to me.

And there was another level underlying this project. Specifically, I have always been interested in the dynamics of the catalog as distinguished from those of the singular image. For this I am indebted to Sol Lewitt, whose catalog books have always fascinated me. How is the viewer’s response different in response to a catalog vs. images intended to stand alone? The former is a relatively rare form; the latter is precisely the dynamic of most one-person exhibitions and - in their sequential order - of all artists’ monographs. Just to be clear, as used here, a catalog is an organization of a selection from a collection containing all the entities under consideration.

But when I initially tried to use these single images in catalog form, the dynamics of the catalog took over, which was instructive to me. The images of the masks and gloves in their larger environments - the images I had initially shot - were inarticulate when treated as catalog entries precisely because of the divergence of contexts in those images. Those contexts became distracting to the perception of the catalog as a unit, rendering it just a collection of separate images lacking coherence. In essence, the catalog presented a demanding context, supplanting the real-world contexts which I had composed. I found that by working in the catalog format I was forced to normalize the shooting of the objects to introduce a thoroughgoing consistency in their treatment: mostly shot from above, closely cropped to reduce depth (i.e. extracted from their environments) and mostly standardized in their orientation: the so called “objective stance.” In effect, they were freed from cues to their physical and temporal situation. Whereas they became inarticulate as photographs - they were blocked from speaking on their own - they became articulate in the larger context of the catalogs which they constituted by virtue of their accumulation. The catalog-form simultaneously dictated the individual images’ formal qualities and substituted its own context for any external context borne by the individual images. In my view, it does this by operating in a basic perceptual mode which employs similarity and divergence of the individual entries as the hooks to coherence, so that it is largely these two structural elements which ultimately constitute the received message, largely transcending the objects themselves and partially supplanting other elements which might contribute to a “message.” On that level, the catalog-form operates only when the individual elements share significant qualities at the same time that their divergences validate the catalog itself, all the while presenting to viewers something potentially worthy of their contemplation. This interplay of similarity and difference is what justifies the catalog: The catalog medium becomes the message.

This is reinforced by the catalog-form’s thoroughgoing neutrality. First, the catalog format itself is inherently neutral: a pre-estabished structure into which anything at all might potentially fit. Beyond this, that neutrality is reinforced by the absence of hierarchy: all elements are equal in importance, consecrated by virtue of their inclusion. And, as observed above, the catalog-dynamic imposes a corresponding neutrality on the photographic treatment of the entries.

Once the catalog is established, there is yet another level: these artifacts, intensified by accumulation, are then rendered as facts in the sense of which Barthes speaks of them: pure expressions - discarded, soiled, deformed - of the global pandemic in all its extensions. On this level their operative mode lies not in their comparative morphologies but in their utilitarian aspect as protective equipment, worn for a while and then cast aside. A single example might constitute a symbol, concrete in its reference to a general condition. A thousand examples are evidence of the lived experience behind it.

So again this project is caught in yet another contradiction: between the neutrality of the catalog and the highly charged impact of the pandemic to which these artifacts testify. Here, the reductiveness of the artifacts’ treatment and the neutrality of their representations might be taken by some as insensitive to the pandemic’s human dimension, if only because the project is devoid of images of people and their lives. It is as if a testimony of Kirstallnacht was posited only in shards of glass. But for better or worse there is simply no place for the human form in this particular catalog. Nonetheless, human activity is at the heart of it: these objects were participants in the pandemic and testify to it by virtue of their left-behind traces.


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