The Myth of Perfection is Perpetuated by Curators. For Photography the Attempt to Communicate is the Artistic Act – not the Work itself
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 216, June 2018
I tend to believe in myths – especially the ones told on the walls of galleries and museums. The most commonly enjoined myth is that the work you are seeing is the result of a complete concept immaculately realised and perfectly curated. The sinews of genius are threaded through the work on display and the artist (be it a photographer, painter or whatever) is held to be the perfect synthesis of the spirit and material worlds. I know so many photographers (as friends and clients – for whom I make their prints) and I can tell you that the glimmer of genius glowing from every image or work in an exhibition is, in truth, the obscuration of a messy amalgam of dread, pointlessness, self criticism, ennui and perhaps worst of all – outright theft of intellectual property
Recently the Photographers Gallery showed the polaroids made by the film director Wim Wenders in the 70’s and 80’s. The exhibition was titled Instant Stories and it featured the exquisitely framed polaroid prints that Wenders made mostly in the States as he scouted for locations and generally noodled with the form. Wandering around the exhibition the viewer was not given the impression that there was an overarching theme (because none existed), so these ageing instant photos were enough. And it was a good show because Wenders is a consummate artist. Whether you enjoy his films or not, or if you saw the show and thought it a load of piffle that anyone could have done, you cannot deny that Wenders is art. And this is what gave the work its validity.
Wenders is constantly in the process of trying to create. His life is art. Unless your life is art you will not make art. The difference between Wenders and someone else is the innate intent to make art. For him, and many others, it is an ongoing process that never stops. Whether he hits his marks with his films or his photography is not the point – the point is that he is not dallying with the form. If Wenders picks up a Polaroid camera even his play is serious because he is committed to visual realisation of an internal dialogue. This exhibition was laudably playful and eschewed the heavy hand of academic contextualisation. The prints were nostalgic and offered tiny glimpses that seemed to embody the inward and outward regard of the photographer, and that was enough.
We spend hours of our lives venerating the past because every work ever placed on the walls of a gallery or in the pages of a book has the past in common. The past can conceal the truth. The past allows us, or others we listen to, to paint our own version, our own myth on the work. This myth gives the power of urgency to anything it touches. And that myth is created in the air we breath or more particularly in the pages of the magazines and websites we read. Once someone of media stature has offered their seal of approval we join in with the myth and treat the work, regardless of our own predilections, as if it has concrete meaning. We consumers of art don’t follow the words of critics with sheeplike devotion, rather these views help to solidify and settle the work, positively or negatively, in the mind of the viewer. The danger is that we stop looking with our own eyes and turn artworks into facts.
I find most exhibitions boring. This not because the work is no good but because the act of looking is exhausting. I once read that the reason we become very quickly used to certain smells is because our olfactory sensors have finite receptors to individual scents which become quickly satiated thus nullifying the sense of a particular smell. This is what I find when sloping around some museum or other. The work on the wall has become calcified with ‘factness’. I can look at them, I may like them, hate them, love them but mostly I have no feelings at all for the work. It is a triumph If I come out of one exhibition with one fixed image in my mind that I engaged with positively or negatively but that touched me in some way and that I actually remember. Call me a Philistine but I’m often more fascinated by the framing and printing than I am in the prints themselves.
At the time of writing there is a retrospective of Andreas Gursky’s photography at the Hayward Gallery. It is a spectacular show of his pieces. The precision of the printing is awesome, the vision is immense and the exhibition renders a godlike stature on this popular fine art photographer. But there is only one image I remember and it is shown at the beginning of the exhibition. It is of a football pitch. The title is ‘Zurich 1’ and it was shot in 1985 early on in Gursky’s career. It is a captivating image because in it we can see the nascent artist. It is inquisitive with none of the inevitable knowingness of his later work. This image embodies a sense of the quest made by a young photographer and so it captivates and offers a fuller, more tender vision.
Elsewhere in the exhibition we are presented with the work of the great photographer as if they are ‘facts’. We are offered no hint of the energy that was required to make them. It is as if the curators are saying “Fall on your knees and prostrate ye a’fore Him for here is perfection and woe betide ye who shall look away in lassitude for he (or she) is a Sinner against all that the Lord Curator hath offered unto ye…”, or words to that effect.
The anguish, development of thought, triumph of mind over matter is often more easily visible in other plastic arts. The painter’s brushstrokes, the sculptor’s chisel marks and the engraver’s ‘bite’ all give an indication, a glimpse of the physical and mental effort to turn dumb material into eloquent work. Photography is a perfectionist’s medium for all the wrong reasons. The myth of perfection often occludes the best intentions of the work. Exhibitions, particularly retrospectives, owe the public and the work a more nuanced airing. The myth of the artist-god must be tempered with the human reality of creation.