Academic journal article Afterimage

True Crime: Forensic Aesthetics on Display

Academic journal article Afterimage

True Crime: Forensic Aesthetics on Display

Article excerpt

Two prominent Californian art institutions recently organized major exhibitions and catalogs devoted to the subject of crime and its history in representational media. In hosting projects of this nature, both art institutions have, inadvertently or not, become crime scenes. They have showcased a spectacle of transgression and capture, introducing material pertaining to crime produced by both artists and professional photographers into exhibition formats in which the unambiguous strictures of legal judgment are rounded off to a more democratic notion of "discourse," a space where innocence, guilt and the law can be subjects for discussion, not matters for prosecution. These exhibitions and catalogs, specializing in hardcore morbidity, offer excellent opportunities to bask in the suffering of others.

In some respects "Scene of the Crime" and "Police Pictures" were shows with complementary agendas. "Scene of the Crime" was commissioned by the Armand Hammer Museum from Ralph Rugoff, a freelance curator and writer, author of Circus Americanus (1995) and a frequently published critic on contemporary art.(1) In his exhibition, Rugoff aimed to magnify an interzone where contemporary art in the age of institutional critique - an art fixated with institutional spaces and their interstitial meanings - met the detective's special brand of scrutiny. What Rugoff names the "forensic aesthetic" is an art-historical sub-genre that was compiled from a mixture of phantasmic romance-world crimes, academic references and contemporary artworks.

The "forensic aesthetic" argues that crime itself as well as the methods of its analysis by law enforcement agencies has spread, both aesthetically and ideologically, through the discursive media of contemporary art of the past 20 years. The after-effects of a criminal second, one could summarize, may speed across a variety of hyper-acute situations, panicked discoveries, condensations and distortions of space and time and sciences of forensic procedure, to end up in the ambivalent receptacle of a broader imagination, what could grossly be termed popular culture. In short, criminals and their actions are quite fascinating. Watching them being caught is also entertaining. Advanced art, in the curator's opinion, cannot help but be transfixed by this extravagant compulsion.

Rugoff's thesis additionally suggests that the putative audience of contemporary art - one that the turnstile-conscious public museum is accountable to and is therefore obliged to monitor demographically - is, in a comparable way to the stunned discoverer of a dismembered corpse, bewildered and perhaps repulsed by what they see. Contemporary Art - there is something suspicious about it! In order to make sense of this art, the viewer might perhaps borrow the ultra-inquisitive gaze of the detective - a hungry, imperious and objective eye that can never be satisfied with the surface of things and will not sleep until the case is solved.

To make his case, Rugoff assembled a canon of 72 para-conceptual artworks - a collection that included many fine works - that were linked by virtue of their "scattered" compositions, devotions to a pop macabre, quasi- and genuinely psychotic mannerisms, not to mention any radical, political or iconographic goals that might be discerned from the above. The exhibition looked like a House of Horrors re-installed in an anthropology museum.

While Rugoff curated a distressed, even abject representational art produced in a fairly wide range of media, SFMOMA's "Police Pictures," by contrast, was an exhibition devoted to specific moments in the history of photography. (I should admit that I was unable to travel to San Francisco to see the actual installation of the exhibition, so I am basing my analysis exclusively on my viewing of the catalog, which reproduces all of the photographs in the show.) While "Scene of the Crime" was about the work of the individual artist, a production that may be located nominally, "Police Pictures" presents many unattributed, organization-manufactured images. …

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