Categorized | Photography, Reviews

Secondhand @ Pier 24 Photography

Erik Kessels, Installation view featuring in almost every picture, 2002-10, and Photo Cubes, 2007
 
In its exhibition guide for Secondhand, a sprawling, head-spinning exhibition organized around the myriad uses of appropriated photos, Pier 24 states: “the distinction between curator and creator has become less defined.”  Indeed, curator-artists abound in the contemporary art world; so much so, that “the definition of the term curator has expanded…to include anyone engaged with organizing content.”  That’s pretty much all of us. How did we all become curators?
 
The Latin root of the word curator means overseer, and its Middle English equivalent denoted a legal guardian. Traditionally, people who oversaw or guarded information were in positions of special authority; they shaped the narratives that informed our identity, history and culture. But as information became more widely disseminated, at first gradually and then convulsively, the overseers lost control.  Historically, this has been a positive development, but today it presents us with a challenge. Each of us must act as our own editor and gatekeeper, parsing the flood of information.
 
Eric Kessels, In Almost Every Picture #7, 2008

The philosopher Seneca emphasized the difficulty of such a task when he critiqued the impressive private libraries of imperial Rome’s wealthier citizens, asking, "What is the use of having countless books and libraries whose titles their owners can scarcely read through in a whole lifetime? The learner is not instructed but burdened by the mass of them.”  If so, then how much more burdened are we today by that mass?  In 2010, Google calculated that every two days we create as much information as humanity did from the dawn of civilization through 2003. Every two days.  Email, books, around-the-clock television news cycles, journals and magazines, social media, documentaries, and countless websites (not to mention the reams of data generated by the computational sciences) — our access to ideas, images and facts is unprecedented.

It is against this backdrop that the organizers of Secondhand, led by Pier 24’s director, Christopher McCall, assembled a group of artists who analyze, organize and display select pieces of that onslaught.  The team’s goal was to convey “an articulate message from the overabundance of visual material that surrounds us.”  Given the enormity of the task, it’s no surprise that the show fails to achieve that goal.  What it does deliver, via what are essentially eight solo shows, is an aggregation of picture collections whose value rests less on the sensibilities of the individual artists than on how their work represents the history of photography and the uses to which it’s been put. The biggest portion of Secondhand is given over to vernacular photos. They’re harvested from flea markets, garage sales and thrift stores and put on display by Erik Kessels, an Amsterdam-based artist, photo collector and adman. Some of these anonymous family photographs and albums appear under glass in a vitrine, but most of his installation eschews traditional presentation.  Closed photo albums of various size and dimension are piled on the floor; some are tied together like hoarded newspapers.  The gallery walls he fills with supersized prints of photo album spreads, the individual images blown up, mounted on board, and leaned against the wall, as if awaiting placement in a giant scrapbook.  Some are even printed large and enclosed in waist-high photo cubes.  Collectively, they form a kind of typological library, detailing the myriad ways people compose, pose for and preserve pictures. 
 
Erik Kessels, In almost every picture #11, 2012

Weirder and more fascinating, are the photos Kessel found of people who engage in repetitive practices over long periods.  One series of 61 photos covering an entire wall is of a woman firing a rifle in a Dutch shooting gallery; the pictures were generated by a mechanism that triggers a shutter when the target is hit.  The series began in 1936 when the woman was 16 and is ongoing; the only chronological gap occurs during the war years, 1939 to 1945.  Equally fascinating is a slide show featuring a woman dressed up and drenched, a fetish played out between husband and wife across multiple locations and a seemingly endless array of outfits and immersion modes. Wacky and fun.  Then comes Oolong, a rabbit photographed with objects balanced on its head, images of which its Japanese owner uploaded to the Internet.  Initially, you can’t help but chuckle at the fey ridiculousness of the project, but if you linger, you might find yourself stirred by its playfulness and oddball sentimentality, key aspects of so much of what appears online and in social media.  The point, of course, is to demonstrate, by way of sampling, the volume and the diversity of things people record with cameras. For the macro view of this phenomenon, Kessels fills an entire room with one day’s worth of images uploaded to Flickr.  The mass of prints forms a floor-to-ceiling swell of whites, blacks, and blues with occasional bursts of warm color. By including only images from one 24-hour period, Kessels has technically “curated” the installation; yet even taking into account that parameter, the wave of images is startling and incomprehensible, a dramatic manifestation of our contemporary predicament.

Selections from Evidence, Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, 1977
 
From this point forward, the exhibition branches into more specialized pursuits. Evidence, an acclaimed project by Larry Sultan (1946-2009) and Mike Mandel, shows a selection of images the artists collected during a three-year search of government and corporate archives, including NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratories, the Bechtel Corporation, the United States Department of the Interior and the San Jose Police Department.  Unlabeled, they stretch in a horizontal line around four walls of a single gallery, inviting all manner of speculation as to what they might actually represent.  In point of fact, they are records of industrial research; experiments conducted by the firms whose archives Sultan and Mandel drew from. The collection, which was published in book form in 1977 and put on view as a touring show by SFMOMA, is both a wry tribute to the often quixotic products of American post-war optimism and a sidelong glance at the dark absurdity of the booming military-industrial complex. Without captions or explanatory texts, many of the pictures appear to document arcane rituals. Some are funny or bizarre. Others are formally beautiful or alarming.  In one of the best-known photographs from the project, nine bureaucrats stand on the crest of a hill,
Archive of Modern Conflict, from the series Collected Shadows, 2012, Dimitri Ivanovich Ermakov, Georgian costumes, 1880s
gesturing or gazing in different directions. The group is too cartoonish to take seriously, but neither can we dismiss them; they are, we realize, making potentially consequential decisions about matters of national security. In another photograph, a series of explosions moves vertically up the center of the picture, tearing apart a desert landscape already etched with paths and roadways.  Taken as a group, these photos stand as a watershed moment in conceptual art, deliberately obfuscating in order to mirror the warped logic of corporations and states. 
 
The Archive of Modern Conflict, a London-based collection founded 20 years ago, undertakes a similar mission — but on a global scale. Portions of its eclectic holdings, said to number four million images, touch on all aspects of human activity, not just war (although that was the collection’s first subject).  Two hundred- thirty-seven of AMC’s prints occupy three galleries, and together they form one of the greatest photo exhibits you’re likely to see anywhere.  Individually and in powerful thematic groupings (fires, bombs, plane crashes), they incite us to gaze, voyeuristically, at people and places, many untouched by modernity.  Sharp-eyed viewers will recognize works by well-known photographers (Robert Frank, Josef Sudek, Edward Curtis, Clarence White, Eugene Atget); but the vast majority are today known only to historians.  They include Willi Ruge (1882-1961), a German who photographed himself jumping from airplanes; Paul-Émile Miot (1827-1900), a naval commander who journeyed to Polynesia in 1869; Jacques-Philippe Potteau (1807–1876), photographer of samurai businessmen in Europe; Jules Janssen (1824-1907), inventor of the revolving daguerreotype disc, used to record the planetary transits; and Dimitri Ivanovich Ermakov (1846-1916), docu-mentarian of Caucasian tribes.  Authorship of about a third of the works on view is unknown; however, judging from the quality of the images, it’s safe to say that professionals, working for corporations, governments or news organizations, took them. They cluster most compellingly around tribal peoples, astronomy and feats of derring-do. 
 
Daniel Gordon, Ratatouille and Smoke Bush, 2014

Working in a related mode, the Pittsburgh, Pa.-based curator and bookseller Melissa Catanese selected 58 pictures from the photo archive of Peter J. Cohen.  She presents them as a visual poem she calls Dive Dark Dream Slow.  Resisting easy typologies, Cantanese achieves “something more personal, intuitive and openly poetic” in her juxtapositions of images of people and seascapes.  They demonstrate the richness of the associations that can be wrung from ordering found photos.  In thinking about this now-widespread practice, the Dadaist Tristan Tzara comes to mind.  He instructed would-be poets to cut up newspaper articles, put them in a bag and shake it, and then extract the scraps one at a time, writing down each word in the order they are withdrawn. 

Daniel Gordon’s work exemplifies that modus operandi.  His curatorial impulse is akin to that of an electronic musician; he uses both digital and analog techniques to create remixes. He begins with Google searches for still lifes (flowers, fruits and vases), which he prints, rips apart and then glues together to form wildly colorful, painterly sculptures. These he photographs with a large-format camera, yielding eye-grabbing riffs on the 19th and 20th century canon; his bold palette and use of pattern call to mind Matisse, while his collaged blocks
Maurizio Anzeri, Lucia, 2010, embroidered photo
remind us of Cezanne. The resulting crazy quilts, composed of dots, dabs, cut-outs and squiggles, feel fresh and exuberant, alternately hyperreal and surreal.  The same descriptors can also be applied to the embroidered black-and-white portraits of Maurizio Anzeri.  His threading of faces and bodies with intersecting geometric lines pretty much obliterates the identity of the sitters, transforming them into otherworldly, visionary characters with futuristic and sometimes ominous overtones, reminiscent of those created by Weimer-era Dadists Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann. 
 
Identity is the subject of Joachim Schmid.  Each of the works in his Photogenetic Drafts installation consists of two distinct portrait slices, discards from a commercial photography studio.  Each half aligns to create a human hybrid.  In one, part of a mustached man’s head abuts that of a longhaired woman. In another, a young, blonde girl is paired with a middle-aged woman with similar features.  Seen as a group, Schmid’s chimeric experiments show
 
 
how utterly pliable constructions of identity can be. Not every such conjunction succeeds.  Rashid Rana, a jpeg collector, sources protest photographs online and tiles the crowds into wall-size composites that read as vast, pixelated mobs. In aggregate, the individual protests are stripped of any particularity, and the sum is less than its constituent parts.  Rana’s collages show how today’s image superabundance can drown meaning.
 
Secondhand also includes photos by Hank Willis Thomas, Richard Prince, John Baldessari, Viktoria Binschtok and Matt Lipps, along with two micro exhibits of historical curios: a collection of old press photos (of baseball players) from the 1920s and employee badges from America’s industrial past.  In the end, it’s far too much to take in in the two hours allotted to visitors — even those among us who overload on visual information for a living. 
 
Upon leaving one wonders: should the articulation of meaning be the goal of an undertaking this vast?  Can we not cultivate (or at least contemplate) incoherence and be OK with that?  Secondhand seems to argue it both ways, shifting attention between vernacular photography, fine art, scientific inquiry and reportage.  One group of artists incorporates traditional curatorial practices into conceptual projects, leaving meaning wide-open, while another fashions new pictures or art objects from existing imagery that effectively narrows the search and personalizes it.  Wresting coherence from the image flood doesn’t appear to be anyone’s intent, really.  Instead, the artists (and the curatorial team) leave it to us – each of us — to connect the dots however we choose, because, like it or not, we all are curators.  
 
The risk, of course, is dissonant meaninglessness, a prospect Secondhand seems comfortable entertaining.  In so doing, it points to the ways photography has shaped history, culture, memory and consciousness.  That the inquiry is exhausting and disorientating is no surprise.  Given the ways photography has been used since its inception more than 150 years ago, that seems about right. 
–CHRISTOPHER REIGER and DAVID M. ROTH
 
"Secondhand" @ Pier 24 Photography through May 31, 2015. 
 
About the authors:
Christopher Reiger is a writer, photographer, and painter living and working in San Francisco. He is also the co-founder of BAASICS, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization dedicated to exploring contemporary topics through the juxtaposition of art and science.  David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder. 
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  1. […] grew and morphed into a true collaboration between SC‘s editor David Roth and myself. Reading the final article, which went live on the SC website yesterday evening (read it here), it’s clear that the piece is […]


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