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ROSEMARY LAING’S LEAK Rosemary Laing, Aristide (2010) In his 2008 book Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, art historian Michael Fried seeks to identify a new tendency in contemporary art photography. It is what he calls, after French critic Jean-François Chevrier, the “tableau” photograph: large-scale, frontally composed, meant to be hung on the wall and decidedly post-digital. This new kind of photograph , he goes on to note, emerged around the world at approximately the same moment, some time between 1978 and 1981, although in no sense does it form a coherent or consistent movement. The exemplary photographers Fried treats in his book are the Canadian Jeff Wall, the German Thomas Struth and the Spaniard Jean-Marc Bustamente. And it is this phenomenon that allows Fried to see in contemporary photography a continuation of his earlier thematic of absorption and theatricality, which he traces back to Caravaggio and the origins of “modernism” in Western painting. What we have in the photographic tableaux of Wall, Struth and Bustamente is an overcoming of the regime of theatricality that has dominated advanced art since Minimalism, by which Fried means the work’s awareness of its spectator, its understanding of itself as just another object in the world and perhaps an undue emphasis on the work’s specific social and political relevance. It is certainly open to us – even according to Fried’s own definition – to find further examples of this tableau-style photography. Fried in no sense suggests that his list is definitive, and the artists engaged with it have come across the form independently, without knowing of others or being known of by others. And thus it is that we are able to claim that Rosemary Laing started working in tableau format some time around the mid-1990s. Just to name some of the early series that are appear to be in this format: greenwork (1995), brownwork (1997) and flight research (1998-2000). But to say this of Laing’s work is also to say that it is placeless, for one of the crucial aspects of the new tableau photography, Fried emphasises, is not only that it can arise anywhere (in this sense, although he does not emphasise this, it is evidence of a certain globalisation in contemporary art), but also that the photographs themselves are placeless (this can undoubtedly be understood as an effect of the digital severing of any connection of the photograph to a particular location). And yet it is also true to say that Laing’s photographs are identifiably Australian: from her very first series, Natural Disasters (1988), whose works are named after paintings from the Heidelberg School, through her one dozen unnatural disasters (2003), which are emphatically set in the Australian outback and feature titles like burning Ayer, and up to the unmistakeable gumtrees and rolling hills of the present series, Laing has worked in the long-running and well-recognised Australian landscape tradition. How else to resolve this than to say that the Australian landscape tradition from the time of the Second World War on is already hinting at Fried’s tableau photograph? In Nolan’s paintings of Wimmera wheatfields and Williams’ of outback deserts, there is an absolute frontality or to-be-seenness: there is nothing that is hidden or invisible. But there is also no way into the landscapes they depict. There is nothing more we might see by coming closer. Instead of a movement either towards or away from the landscape, there is a movement across (or up and down). Nolan’s images with their raised horizons and Williams’ where the horizon has risen entirely to the top of the canvas suggest an infinite movement, as though what we are looking at were a fragment of a much larger space that goes on forever. What both artists try to image in their work is a certain kind of movement, but it is no longer a movement between places. On the contrary, what is implied is that what is outside of the image is an extension of what is inside. And is this not an equivalent of the contemporary globalist image of someone like Andreas Gursky and his depiction of a shipping port at Salerno? There is an absolute mystery to his work that is akin to a kind of void or emptiness, not because there is nothing there or because there is any kind of blurring, but because what is inside the picture is the exact equivalent to what is outside. What is caught in its absolute stillness (the parked cars awaiting delivery) is the very infinite circulation of goods and images that defines our contemporary world. In fact, Gursky – and before him Nolan and Williams – is suggesting that it is only through movement that we might grasp anything today. That – in a profound inversion of the economy of the old pre-digital image – what is clearest in the image is what is in movement, that which remains forever distant from us. Laing is certainly one of the great inheritors of this landscape tradition, which she at once transforms into photographic form and reveals as being photographic from the beginning. We might think, for example, of her recent series leak (2010). In leak, there is a series of what seems to be half-built houses inserted into the sides of classic Australian hill country, with gum trees and occasionally even stockmen and sheep. Sometimes the hill is level, forming a kind of horizon, while the house is on a slope (Aristide). On other occasions, the house is on the level, while the hill leans out of the image (Eudoxia). Sometimes, indeed, the entire photo is flipped upside down, so that both the hill and the building inserted into it appear to hang precariously in mid-air without support (Jim). What is going on here? Obviously, in one sense, the series of images strikes us as the various attempts to strike a balance. In each of the photographs, there is a sense of the world swaying, in movement, swinging from side to side. It is almost as though the world we see is a ship in a storm, rising up and falling down steep waves, and even once or twice being tipped upside down. But two things strike us about these images. The first is that, no matter how unbalanced any landscape is, giving us the feeling that it has somehow been stopped in motion, it is uncannily still. There is no blurring or nothing that cannot be seen. Everything is rendered in crystal clear, digitised detail. The second thing goes against this, and that is that, even though each individual image might be seen to be a solution to the problem of striking a balance, finding an equilibrium, it is nevertheless unsettled by those around it. Our eye cannot remain on any one image without immediately being drawn by those on either side of it, which reveal it to be only a momentary or provisional stabilising of its subject matter. How might we summarise the effect of this? The paradox Laing grapples with throughout her work is the reverse of the usual relation between the blur and the still found in classical photography. What we instead have in her work is that what should be still is blurred and what should be blurred is still. Or to push this a little further, we might say that it is only through the blur that we can have the still; it is only what is in motion that can be seen. And the task of the digital photographer – a difficult task, or a task at least that cannot be pursued directly – is to find this “still point”, that moment when in the midst of motion a certain stillness arises. Again, take most famously Laing’s series of brides poised in mid-air. We can see them – impossibly, for how to explain how we too are floating in the sky? – but always just at that moment when at the top of their arc they are beginning to turn over: a moment of grace and beauty, literally of the formation of the figure, that is only to be achieved through motion. And the whole image closes over, forms a point of symmetry or reflection across this still point (for one of the striking things about Laing’s bride images is that the clouds behind the bride were sometimes composed upside down, so that they seem to echo or mirror the ground below them). There is therefore no outside to the image. It folds upon itself, and yet contains a world within it. It is an image of Australia, a non-place, as the world. We see the same thing in leak. The undoubted effect of the half-built houses driven into the earth is of two “halves” of the image somehow reflecting each other as presence and absence, without being able to say which comes first or which is which. And what Laing seeks to image across this series of photographs is a kind of still point, that moment when this world first came about or is first seen. But it is not exactly a still point, in the sense of a point that is definitively able to be located or that exists once and for all. It comes about only in motion, in the very passage – or leak – from one image to another. In fact, we would suggest that it is not such a jump from these images of Laing to Williams’ desert landscapes, with their own unlocatable still points, their own folding in on themselves across their vertically arranged roads… Keith Broadfoot and Rex Butler Keith Broadfoot and Rex Butler are writing for the forthcoming book on Rosemary Laing to be published later this year.
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