Magazine article Art Monthly

The Photographic Object

Magazine article Art Monthly

The Photographic Object

Article excerpt

The Photographic Object

The Photographers' Gallery London 24 April to 14 June

Photography has, traditionally, been utilised and received almost as a transparent medium; bordering on the invisible, it apparently allows the perceiver to go straight to the heart of the represented image, in what Roland Barthes called its 'analogical perfection'. This is, of course, an illusion, in that photography is partly defined by its own mechanical and technical quirks: blurrings, fades, lighting, focal points, type of print, paper etc. But when not out-and-out repressed within the process of 'reading' a photograph, these material signifiers of the medium have often simply been seen as a form of embellishing, or enabling, the particularity of a given framing of representation.

This apparent transparency is partly why photography has had such a prominent place in the history of certain critical practices, as well as being an important tool in the development of what we now refer to as 'theory': whether it was positioned within sociology, semiology or even psychology, it was the 'reality principle' of the photograph that confirmed its usefulness. At least, that is one story; it is yet another distinct project that the exhibition 'The Photographic Object' at The Photographers' Gallery explores. Rather than the materiality of the represented object/image being probed for its signification or even the free play of 'signifiance' (to quote Barthes again), it is the resistant material constraints of surface, interference and procedure that dominate here, and which bring attention to the photograph as material object. Photographic surfaces are stitched, crumpled, folded or distressed, and images are found or realised through unorthodox procedures in an exhibition that brings together an interesting selection of international artists.

In a curatorial twist, the exhibition's ground floor is given over to an installation by the young Swiss sculptor Vanessa Billy. Surfaces for the mind to rest or sink into, 2009, explores a wide variety of materials ranging from marble, metals, fibreboard and glass vessels to paper and plastic; enough to raise the eyebrows of any diehard photography connoisseur. However, it sets the tone rather brilliantly--it is the most 'expanded' of the works in the exhibition, and creates a complex and extremely competent interplay between image, object and surface. If it departs radically from a received notion of what photography is conventionally thought to be, it also simultaneously encapsulates, albeit obliquely, what it is and what it does. The key is in the title itself, referring as it does to photography's light-sensitive, bounded and framed surface. Billy's installation dissembles this--with various images of containment, transparency, and opaque and absorbent surfaces articulated within and across the space. Technically, it is a collection of semi-autonomous pieces: Thin Air consists of a plastic sheet attached to the wall and coated with a retro quasi-improvised printed pattern whose cast shadow projects a subtle automatic writing; Torso is a breeze block in a plastic carrier bag; Contour is a draped elastic loop upon a leaning marble block; while Seeing or thinking in the first place consists of a vertical plane of Perspex set in a concrete base smeared with petroleum jelly in such a way as to disrupt the smooth flow of light by subtly accentuating the surface. Within the installation there are also found images, including two posters of identical images of a figure viewed from the back (appropriated from advertising) with their surfaces marked in different ways. …

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