One off: Jeff Wall.

Jeff WallWar Game,” 2007 © Jeff Wall, c/o Marian Goodman Gallery

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One off: Alec Soth.

Alec Soth, “Michelle and James” 2004, from NIAGARA (2008)

NIAGARA is more a circular journey than a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. Its voice is first person, present. Its story is told in the words of the photographer’s subjects. Its conclusion is like its start: a closed motel room door, an unanswered question, and still water falling in eternal silence. There is no clear arc to the story that launches Soth’s characters into the river of plot or action. They seem to accept their feelings, expressed through the taciturn language of their bodies, stripped of all emotional armor. Engendered by a potent landscape and real time shared behind those closed doors, their venerability is rendered in the stillness of posed images. Their manner is pensive and tentative; connections are expressed more by touch than sight.”

— Philip Brookman “Over the Rainbow: Alec Soth’s NIAGARA,” in NIAGARA (2008)

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Stallabrass on Dijkstra

“This constitutes the terrible plausibility of these images, and part of the basis for their success: they do describe and also enact a world in which people are socially atomized, politically weak, and are governed by their place in the image world. In demanding that the maximum visual detail be wrung from their subjects, they silence and still them. In their seamless, high-resolution depictions, they present the victory of the image world over its human subjects as total and eternal.

While the results may hold apparently radical elements – that the passivity and image victimhood of the subjects may rebound on their viewers – the ambiguity of such images finally salvages artist and viewer. Such images oscillate between identification and distancing, honoring and belittling, critical recognition and the enjoyment of spectacle, and access to the real and the critique of realist representation. (…)

Why are subjects of contemporary art so often taken as mere spectacular fragments rather than as active persons, while the opposite is assumed of its makers and viewers? Even in the apparently opposing participant-observer mode, there is little stress on agency (other than entertaining misbehavior) bur rather on passive conditions that are meant to constitute assured identities. In both, the excluded middle is agency and its depiction in documentary, along with the construction of a realist structure through the combination of differentiated images, and particularly the idea that identity might be transformed through agency.”

—  Julian Stallabrass, “What’s In A Face? Blankness and Significance in Contemporary Art Photography,” October Journal, Fall 2007

Rineke DijkstraKolobrzeg, Poland, July 26th, 1992,” in Portraits © Rineke Dijkstra c/o Marian Goodman Gallery

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Žižek on Multiculturalism

“In the election campaigns of Jesse Helms, the racist and sexist message is not publicly acknowledged—at the public level, it is sometimes even violently disavowed—but is instead articulated in a series of double-entendres and coded allusions. This kind of self-censorship is necessary if, in the present ideological conditions, Helms’s discourse is to remain effective. If it were to articulate directly, in a public way, its racist bias, this would render it unacceptable in the hegemonic political discourse; if it were effectively to abandon the self-censored coded racist message, it would endanger the support of its targeted electoral body. Conservative populist political discourse thus offers an exemplary case of a power discourse whose efficiency depends on the mechanism of self- censorship: it relies on a mechanism which is effective only insofar as it remains censored. Against the image, all-present in cultural criticism, of a radical subversive discourse or practice ‘censored’ by the Power, one is even tempted to claim that today, more than ever, the mechanism of censorship intervenes predominantly to enhance the efficiency of the power discourse itself.

The temptation to be avoided here is the old leftist notion of ‘better for us to deal with the enemy who openly admits his (racist, homophobic . . . ) bias, than with the hypocritical attitude of publicly denouncing what one secretly and effectively endorses’. This notion fatefully underestimates the ideological and political significance of maintaining appearances: appearance is never ‘merely an appearance’, it profoundly affects the actual socio-symbolic position of those concerned.”

Slavoj Žižek “Multiculturalism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism,” in New Left Review, September-October 1997

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Wallis on Race and Typological Photography

“By supplying an overabundance of information, photography confuses and problematizes its message; it creates what author Roland Barthes calls a “reality effect,” a semblance of realism bound to detail. In nineteenth-century parlance, two technical words gained a certain currency to describe how “reality”was construed: the word daguerreotype was distinguished from the word stereotype. Stereotypes were originally molds for creating multiple copies of printing type; the word, therefore, came to connote generalized replication. The daguerreotype, on the other hand, was characterized by miniaturization, infinitesimal precision, and detail. These contrasting characteristics — the general category and the specific case — are precisely those poles that govern the logic of the archive.

JT Zealy & Louis Agassiz “Renty, Congo” – Plantation of B.F. Taylor Esq., 1850

The early ethnographic research conducted by Morton, Agassiz, and other members of the American School of Ethnology depended on the collapse of the specific and the generic into “type.” The type represented an average example of a racial an abstraction, group, though not necessarily the ideal, that defined the general form or character of individuals within the group; it subsumed individuality. As Herbert H. Odom explains, “The term type roughly implies that the observed, apparently disordered phenomena are best as deviations from explained certain determinate norms…. The function of classification is then to decide which observed creature may be considered as deviations from each set norm and, of course, how many norms exist.”” Photography strengthened the seeming of the the reality type by objectifying individual and by using props and other details to accentuate the “truth” of the depiction. Typological photographs — particularly those that became popular in the1860s and 1870s — were assumed to be self-evident, to speak for themselves, and, at the same time, to be generic.

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Foster on the Primitive

“Historically, the primitive is articulated by the west in deprivative or supplemental terms: as a spectacle of savagery or as a state of grace, as a socius without writing or the Word, history or cultural complexity or as a site of originally unity, symbolic plenitude, natural vitality. There is nothing odd about this Eurocentric construction: the primitive has served as a coded other at least since the Enlightenment, usually as a subordinate term in its imaginary set of oppositions (light/dark, rational/irrational, civilized/savage). This domesticated primitive is thus constructive, not disruptive, of the binary ratio of the west; fixed as a structural opposite or a dialectical other to be incorporated, it assists in the establishment of a western identity, center, norm and name. In its modernist version the primitive may appear transgressive, it is true, but it still serves as a limit: projected within and without, the primitive becomes a figure of our unconscious and outside (a figure constructed in modern art as well as in psychoanalysis and anthropology in the privileged triad of the primitive, the child and the insane).

Courtesy Stevenson Gallery, © Viviane Sassen, Series: Flamboya, 2009, Sister

(…) Western man and his primitive other are no more equal partners in the March of Reason than they were in the Spread of the Word, than they are in the Marketing of Capitalism. The Enlightenment cannot be protected from its other legacy, the “bad-irrational” primitivism (Varndoe’s dramatic example is Nazi Blood and Soil, the swastika ur-sign), any more than the “good-rational” primitivism (e.g. the ideographic explorations of Picasso) can be redeemed from colonial exploration. Dialectically, the progressivity of the one is the regression of the other.

Courtesy Stevenson Gallery, © Viviane Sassen, Series: Ultra Violet: Sketchbook, 2007, Trickster – 2007

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Enwezor on Africanism

“My curiosity about the origins and literary uses of this carefully observed, and carefully invented, Africanist presence has become an informal study of what I call American Africanism. It is an investigation into the ways in which non-white, African-like (or Africanist) presence or persona was constructed in the United States, and the imaginative uses this fabricated presence served. I am using the term ‘Africanism’ not to suggest the larger body of knowledge on Africa that the philosopher Valentin Mudimbe means by the term ‘Africanism,’ nor to suggest the varieties and complexities of African people and their descendants who have inhabited this country. Rather I use it as a term for the denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify, as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, readings and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people. As a trope, little restraint has been attached to its uses. As a disabling virus within literary discourse, Africanism has become, in the Eurocentric tradition that American education favours, both a way of talking about and a way of policing matters of class, sexual licence, and repression, formations and exercises of power, and meditations on ethics and accountability. Through the simple expedient of demonising and reifying the range of colour on a palette, American Africanism makes it possible to say and not say, to inscribe and erase, to escape and engage, to act out and act on, to historicise and render timeless. It provides a way of contemplating chaos and civilisation, desire and fear, and a mechanism for testing the problems and blessings of freedom.”

— Okwui Enwezor “The American Sublime and the Racial Self,” in The Sublime (2010), extracted from “Representation and Differentiation: Lorna Simpson’s Iconography of the Racial Sublime,” in Lorna Simpson (2006)

Walker EvansMinstrel Show Billboard (1936)

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Gilroy on Race, Nationalism and Globalisaiton

“The fact that racism and nationalism are ubiquitous and violent doesn’t mean that race thinking is historically resurgent. They could be happening because the historic codes of race thinking are breaking down. We could read these events as symptoms of the breakdown, the decay of race thinking prompted by the fact that absolute identity cannot bear the weight that political interests are placing upon it. Globalization makes people anxious. They resolve their ontological and ethnic anxieties into a politics of identity and their anxieties over identity into a politics of ethnicity and nationality. We need to know whey those are the attractive and habitable options. We need to be able to show them that nationalisms are not the answer to their anxieties. We need to re-narrate national identities on different scales and address the integrity of the idea of Europe so that its colonial patterns become visible again.”

— Paul Gilroy in “Europe Doesn’t Know Its History: Conversation with Stuart Hall,” in Time Action Vision by Christian Höller (2010).

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Enwezor on Simpson, the American Sublime and the Racial Self

“There is in ‘the mythology of madness’ the oft repeated story of radical therapy effect by Phillipe Pinel when he released the madmen and madwomen from their chains in Bicêtre and Salpêtrière hospitals in Paris in 1794. Pinel’s freeing of the madmen and madwomen was said to have ushered in a revolution in the treatment of madness. Not only did he free these men and women from their literal chains, he simultaneously, through their de-incarceration, also freed them from the stigma to which the chain had interminably condemned them beyond repair.

Lorna SimpsonCompleting the Analogy (1987) c/o Salon 94 New York

By the same token, Pinel did not so much free the insane from their hellish confinement as much as he released their madness from total censure. In this way he returned them back into the world, or rather, into the social government of the asylum from which the insane had been banished. And in which for centuries scores languished, under lock and key, behind high walls, where no ‘serene’ gaze of rationality and respectability would ever fall on that insolence that represents the ruined human character.

In America race constitutes its own form of madness, along with its own asylums and governmentalities. From the earliest moment that European colonists arrived on the American shores, race has been the great alloy of a potent social experiment, one that produced slavery and the plantation economy. If the Bicêtre and Salpêtrière hospitals were more than therapeutic zones – being as they were places of seizure – the confinement on the plantation under slavery mobilizes similar senses of capture and stigma. Race in America simultaneously represents the unspeakable and the irrepressible, as well as an epistemological model of biological differentiation that produces a prodigious body of discourse and representation. And like madness in the asylum, it enjoys a particular kind of censure behind the high walls of its own asylum. Except, unlike the asylum, which is ringed by thick, mortared walls and protected by a forbidding gate, the madness of race exists nakedly visible in the tumescent flesh of the American social ideal and is practiced in the open terrain of the cultural landscape.”

— Okwui Enwezor “The American Sublime and the Racial Self,” in The Sublime (2010)

Lorna SimpsonThe Waterbearer (1986) c/o Salon 94 New York



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Hall on Culture, Technology and History

“Even if in the past there was a kind of sentiment that culture was a more settled formation, it certainly isn’t any longer. The culture we inhabit, partly technologically, because of satellites and modern communication systems, is breaking the link between identity and space, which is a very ancient one. The nation-state is the last moment when identity and place could be harnessed together. After that comes the satellite revolution and suddenly, people’s identities are in the airwaves. They are not located by space anymore. (…)

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