Last week, I went for a brief gallery tour in Chelsea, to see some shows I had been looking forward to a lot. Neo Rauch’s was brilliant. Andreas Gursky’s, at Gagosian, was a disaster (I have nothing to add to DLK’s review). And then there was Nan Goldin’s Scopophilia at Matthew Marks. Goldin is one of the 20th Century’s most important photographic practitioners. Her Ballad of Sexual Dependency will forever stand as one of the shining moments of American photography. Scopophilia “pairs her own autobiographical images with new photographs of paintings and sculpture from the Louvre’s collection” (to quote from the press release). (more)
I’ll admit I had a bit of a queasy feeling reading that. Finding the photographer’s following statement did not exactly help: “Desire awoken by images is the project’s true starting point.” So far, so good. But then there is “It is about the idea of taking a picture of a sculpture or a painting in an attempt to bring it to life.” You don’t have to be a painter or sculptor to be miffed (if not offended) by that statement. Since when does it take a photographer to bring a sculpture or painting to life?
So I went to look at those attempts. For the most part, Goldin had either paired her own photographs with photographs of paintings/sculptures in a one-on-one way, or she had combined sets of images just like in the case given at the top of this article (my photograph; the installation video will give you a better idea of what the show looked like). There is a lot to be said for this approach. After all, photography exists as part of a long history of art.
In a technical sense, photography did emerge out of nowhere. But in an artistic sense, photography has been influenced in all kinds of ways by other types of art. So pairing photographs with other pieces of art to distill something bigger out of both sounds like a tremendously interesting idea.
Needless to say, this only works if it’s done well. I’m afraid, Scopophilia provides a great example of how not to do it. I suppose there is nothing wrong with taking photographs that show, say, a bunch of nude people and to then show parts of paintings that look just like that. Or to pair a photographic portrait of a person with a painting of a person that looks very similar.
But that’s essentially artistic pattern recognition: Here’s a nude, there’s a nude, here’s someone’s hair down, there’s someone’s hair down, here’s someone’s stare, there’s someone else’s stare… You get the idea. What do you actually take away from such a show? That art has been dealing with the same human condition in pretty much the same way, regardless of whether it’s photography, painting or sculpture? I want to believe we could aim for a higher bar to cross.
Scopophilia offers no insights whatsoever that make the viewer see the photographs in a new light. There are no surprises in the pairings, no new ways to see the work. It’s an incredibly pedestrian exhibition: “this looks like that.” I can’t help but refer yet again to the Bill Hunt quote I posted yesterday: “The seeming representational nature of the medium is misleading because we will not find any real truth. As viewers, we should recognize how much subjectivity we bring to understanding images. We act like prisms.” Scopophilia works off that seeming representational nature, not realizing it’s really only seeming, and it then forces paintings and sculptures into that same flat plane.
Instead of “this looks like that” I would have loved to experience “This feels like that - even though it doesn’t look similar.” Now that would have probably blown my mind.