An Autobiography of Objects in the work of Mark Ruwedel

The calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion — formulas which were designed to solve problems within given communities — but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever” — Hannah Arendt

Mark Ruwedel Crossing #18, 2005 Inkjet Print © Mark Ruwedel, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

The photographer Mark Ruwedel is often, and not inaccurately, described as a forensic topographer – a term that fuses together the studious neutrality of the landscape work exhibited in The New Topographics (1975), with the scientific and analytical distance of an anthropological survey. Ruwedel’s emergence into photography, informed as it was by his interest in landforms and the work of Robert Smithson, has certainly lent to his photographs a rigorous and expansive point of view. However, the layered complexities of Westward the Course of Empire (2008) developed out of the inexplicable disjuncture that exists between differing periods of history, and differing conceptions of time. In this the work pointed up the limits of measurement, and of documentary records, when confronted by the task of bringing to life a way of thinking about a future that has long since become a part of the past. In Westward Ruwedel took up the position and perspective of a late 19th or early 20th century prospector or surveyor, but in regions of North America where the passage of time has unpicked the stability of their own expansive projections. Ruwedel’s photographs in that work demonstrated the ephemerality of ambition, the invisibility of imperial vision, and the indifference of ecological processes to the logic of the American frontier. All this is to say that at the root of Ruwedel’s systematic approach, there are fundamentally human questions about the scope and sustainability of individual and collective aspirations for stability, for a beneficent future, or for a clearer sense of our place in the world.

Mark Ruwedel Westward the Course of Empire Kettle Valley #83, 2004 Silver Gelatin print © Mark Ruwedel, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

In the ongoing series Crossing, Ruwedel’s photographs continue his decades-long survey of a western landscape full of relics, fossils, and the degraded skeletal remains of industrial and individual ambition. However these photographs deliver a simultaneously harsh and tender measure of irony, in that they are comprised of the relics of migrants who have sought passage north across the United States’ southern border — a flight from harm, or a pilgrimage toward opportunity no different in its essence from the westward journey across the American frontier. These new colour landscapes in a sense give us an image of the ancestral siblings of early nineteenth century settlers, bonded in a common search for new freedoms and opportunities, but segregated by the strictures of identity politics and the closure of a once open space.

Mark Ruwedel Crossing #7, 2005 Inkjet Print © Mark Ruwedel, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

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James on Utopia and the Future

“Yet it is not only the invincible universality of capitalism which is at issue: tirelessly undoing all the social gains made since the inception of the socialist and communist movements, repealing all the welfare measures, the safety net, the right to unionization, industrial and ecological regulatory laws, offering to privatize pensions and indeed to dismantle whatever stands in the way of the free market all over the world. What is crippling is not the presence of an enemy but rather the universal belief, not only that this tendency is irreversible, but that the historical alternatives to capitalism have been proven unviable and impossible, and that no other socio-economic system is conceivable, let alone practically available.”

— Fredric Jameson “Introduction: Utopia Now,” in Archaelogies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (2007)

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Hambourg on Photographic modes of Visibility

The process of becoming is so rarely evident in photography that it strikes us as exceptional. Cameras slice material out of the world with extraordinary precision, and the neat chemical steps that make their images visible are by and large undetectable in the end. While some viewers may recognize that Ansel Adams used filters to deepen the tones of his skies, or that the granular texture of Robert Frank’s photographs resulted from “pushing” the film, such choices do not amaze because they alter our expectation relatively slightly and because that divergence is folded into a seamless reading of reality. On the other hand, when the emergence of the picture is a drama in its own right, as in Talbot’s Lacock Abbey (1840) or Man Ray’s Rayographs (1923-28), we cannot take its materialization for granted.

— Maria Morris Hambourg “Polke’s Recipes for Arousing the Soul” in Sigmar Polke - When Pictures Vanish (1995)

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James on the typological work of the Bechers

“The Bechers’ rejection of the ideological and their refusal to depict the subject can be understood as a strategic refusal to participate in the photographic reification and ruin of subjectivity. Their reluctance to exert their artistic subjectivity, or to portray human subjects, can be understood as a reluctance to support the arrogance of individual vision or to make the individual human subject into a representative of either a collective type or a specific identity. The Bechers’ oeuvre originates in the acknowledgement that the experience of the subject – and its experience of nature – is historically deformed. As if following Michel Foucault’s warning that making historical analysis the discourse of the continuous, and making human consciousness the original subject of all historical development, are two sides of the same system of thought, the Bechers’ refusal of the centred subject’s authorial voice goes hand-in-hand with their rejection of a documentary photography that might reconstruct history or attempt to construct history itself.”

Sarah E. James “Subject, Object, Mimesis: The Aesthetic World of The Bechers’ Photography” in Photography After Conceptual Art.

Bernd and Hilla Becher – “Grube San Fernando, Herdorf,” 1961


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On Photography & Conceptual Art.

Conceptual art and its theoretical framing would at one time have been construed as announcing the demise of the privilege, if not the bare sensory necessity, of the aesthetic reception of works of art, in so far as the locus of the work was deemed to be the idea or statement. As a consequence, the photographs and texts associated with conceptual art have not always been looked at as carefully as they might.”

Margaret Iversen & Diarmuid Costello, Introduction to Photography After Conceptual Art

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Wall on the Readymade, Azoulay on the Museum.

“The Readymade did not and was not able to address itself to depiction; its concern is with the object, and so if we were to classify it within the canonical forms it would be sculpture. But no-one who has thought about it accepts that a Readymade is sculpture. Rather it is an object that transcends the traditional classifications and stands as a model for art as a whole, art as a historical phenomenon, a logic, and an institution. As Thierry de Duve has so well demonstrated, this object designates itself as the abstraction ‘art as such’, the thing that can bear the weight of the name ‘art as such’. Under what de Duve calls the conditions of nominalism, the name ‘art’ must be applied to any object that can be legitimately nominated as such by an artist. Or, to be more circumspect, it is the object from which the name art cannot logically be withheld. The Readymade therefore proved that an arbitrary object can be designated as art and that there is no argument available to refute that designation.”

— from Depiction-Object-Event, Jeff Wall’s Hermes Lezing lecture, 2006.

It’s useful to consider Wall’s argument here in the light of an essay entitled “[Art] Museum” published by Ariella Azoulay in her book Death’s Showcase: The Power of Image in Contemporary Democracy:

“The prevalent assumption is that the value of exhibits is determined by other cultural agents, with the museum at most complementing or validating the process of consecration. In other words, there is a structural division of labor between the museum and other agents. (…) The museum itself conducts three institutionalized practices of representation that are the condition of existence of this division of labor: reproductioncatalogue, and artistic discourse. These practices of representation take an active part in confirming the exhibit’s standing as a closed unit of meaning and in reproducing the relation between themselves and the exhibit. They endow the exhibit with an additional dimension, as precise and faithful as possible, but this dimension always stands in relation to the original unit and must therefore remain eternally damaged, lacking, and thwarted. The museum space, reproduction, catalogue, and artistic discourse are institutions that by their very nature engender the exhibit’s standing as the original. But these practices and the museum space also function, as I’ve already noted, as a dwelling or instrument in the hands of the exhibit, and they present themselves as if they are subject to its mastery. According to need, walls shall be demolished or new ones built (to reorganize the museum space), photographic techniques will be improved or lighting systems installed (to preserve the faithfulness of the reproduction), enormous budgets will be raised (to produce a catalogue), or ancient writings and esoteric theories ransacked (the artistic discourse) — all to provide the exhibit with the appropriate conditions of visibility, display, and expression. The exhibit commands.”

Azoulay stresses here the discursive and customary nature of art – its fundamental relation to traditions of display and signification, which together help to produce the subject ‘Art’ as a discrete object of study. This object of study then engenders a stream of examples or ‘exhibits’ according to the conventions she outlines, so that reflexively anything can become ‘Art’ which follows the rubric of reproductioncatalogue and artistic discourse within the institutional framework of the museum. This last part is plainly pivotal: within the institutional framework of the museum, which establishes itself as the arbiter of the category it simultaneously creates and explores. The act of creating something as art is foreclosed by the techniques of its display, so that the art becomes a self-evident autonomous category and the essential determination of the museum appears to be in service to the object ‘which commands’. Azoulay continues:  Continue reading

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Steinberg against Formalism

“Given the complexity and infinite resonance of works of art, the stripping down of artistic value to the single determinant of formal organization was once—in the nineteenth century—a remarkable cultural achievement. The attempt was to discipline art criticism in the manner of scientific experiment, through the isolation of a single variable. Art’s “essential purpose”—call it abstract unity of design or whatever prevents buckling and wobbling—was presumed to be abstractable from all works of art. And the whole range of meaning was ruled to be disposable “subject matter,” which at best did no harm but which more commonly burdened the form. In the formalist ethic, the ideal critic remains unmoved by the artist’s expressive intention, uninfluenced by his culture, deaf to his irony or iconography, and so proceeds undistracted, programmed like an Orpheus making his way out of Hell.”

— Leo Steinberg “Other Criteria” in Other Criteria [1972]

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Crow on Modernism & Mass Culture

“The sign of manufactured culture is empty diversity, an eclecticism resulting from market expediency, targeting consumers, and hedging bets. Modernist practice sustains its claim to autonomy by standing in implicit opposition to the diversity of material glut, the evident shape of the work standing in critical contrast to the shapelessness of human life subject to production-rationality. My argument has been that modernism has done this successfully when it has figured in detail the manufactured culture it opposes, put it on display by shifting boundaries and altering received meanings. (…) Continue reading

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On Jeff Wall.

An excerpt from the series Contacts 2: The Renewal of Contemporary Photography, dedicated to the work of Jeff Wall.

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Galison on Modes of Scientific Seeing.

“In the eighteenth century, the most appropriate scientist to draw or depict the world was a kind of sage, or a genius, who could part the curtains of experience and draw the basic form of objects as they should be — to see the platonic forms, if you will, that lay behind any particular oak or clover or cloud. In the nineteenth century, there was a different ideal of what the scientist should be. Not a genius or sage, but rather a kind of trained, self-restrained worker. The workers of the era were supposed to know enough to help keep the machines running, but weren’t going to interfere and, say, customize a bullet or a fork that was coming off of the metal presses of the time. You didn’t want somebody making by hand his or her particular idea of what an ideal item should be. In fact, there emerged in the machine age an aesthetic fascination with the identical quality of machine-produced objects.

And so it was for scientists, too. Mid-to-late-nineteenth-century scientists didn’t want to know what you or I or somebody else thought a clover should look like. They wanted to see an image of a specific clover with as much fidelity as possible to the actual object. They wanted by any means possible to transfer a particular entity — a skull or a skeleton, whatever it was — to the page. You say: “Well, does that have to be chemical-based photography?” No. It could be tracing. It could be inking a leaf and then pressing it onto a piece of paper. There were many other mechanical modes of transfer. “Mechanical” back then meant any process that did not involve personal intervention. Continue reading

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