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James J. Hodge essay on Akihiko Miyoshi

Exhibition essay

New Maps, New Poetics: New Works by Akihiko Miyoshi

by James J. Hodge

All images of the internet look the same! So runs the complaint voiced by media critic Alexander R. Galloway in his 2012 book The Interface Effect. In his artist statement Akihiko Miyoshi cites Galloway’s discussion of the ostensible “unrepresentability” of networks as seminal for his recent work. As Miyoshi notes, Galloway’s provocation has two parts: all images of the network look the same; and even at this late date in the twenty-first century we still lack a poetic or aesthetic vocabulary for imaging and imagining networks. Guided by a dual interest in both the material infrastructure of technology as well as the paradoxically sensual and intangible aesthetic experience of the internet, Miyoshi’s recent works in Through Lens and Screen, his latest exhibition at Circuit Gallery, provide a timely and sophisticated set of artistic responses to Galloway, and, by extension, to fundamental issues at the heart of contemporary visuality, technology, and experience.

Optically striking, playfully experiential, at once abstract and representational, Miyoshi’s new works gently recall the appearance of maps of the internet lamented by Galloway as all-too homogeneously visualizing the internet (for reference, just do a Google image search for the word “network” and you’ll sympathize with Galloway’s despair). Of course, Miyoshi does so with a profound difference. This difference can be felt in all of his sixteen new works on exhibit, and perhaps most profoundly in the series of three pieces called “Networks”: Protocol, Nodes and Edges, and Arpanet. Like generic network images, they evoke the internet as cosmic wheels of clustering galaxies of connection. But in Miyoshi, the network emerges as both an image and an experience: a space of abstraction simultaneously warmed and complicated by the presence of the hand of the artist as well as the works’ continual imperative to move around, to get closer, to see it from different angles, in effect to zoom in and to zoom out but also to move laterally along the surface of the painting in order to animate its character.

Each work in Miyoshi’s new collection features multiple layers of resin. Because each work contains images in distinctly laminated layers, the viewer’s perception of each image changes subtly as one moves around in studied proximity. Sometimes this means that a “red” element only exists through the combination of two layered colors, which have been selected to produce red when viewed head on. Sometimes this means that the images themselves seem to shimmer, blur, and re-articulate themselves when viewed from side to side, from the thickness of one edge around to another. Miyoshi’s uniquely sculptural approach gives his work a remarkable thickness and presence suggestive of a surface not merely to be looked at but also walked alongside and felt in different proximities so as to evoke a certain sensation of tactility. The resin layers contribute to an effect which simultaneously pulls the viewer in and around and pushes her away to get a bigger picture. There is no one perfect vantage from which to see these works. They must be seen in movement.

Layers constitute not only the decisive formal element of Miyoshi’s new work that unlocks their experiential dimensions. Layers also represent insight into Miyoshi’s broader engagement with digital aesthetics. As anyone, for example, who has ever worked with Adobe Photoshop knows, digital images can be constructed with unprecedented precision using different “layers,” or essentially elements such as found images as well as newly created images put “on top” of existing images. The application Snapchat’s famous “filters” represents another version of digital layering, often in the form of adding things like cartoon-like mustaches and glasses on top of the subject of a selfie. More generally, one finds layers everywhere in graphical user interfaces—since the 1980s the most popular way to interface with computers. The desktop metaphor of files, folders, and trashcans has normalized dragging and dropping pictures around on illuminated screens, actions, which, in turn, depend on the formalized layering of different images on top of others on the computer screen. In fact, layers are so commonplace in digital aesthetics as to seem perfectly ordinary and unremarkable. At this late date in the history of computing, layers often work so well as to be completely undetectable. Miyoshi’s work calls attention to this fundamental dimension of everyday seeing. There’s nothing natural about the way we use computers or perceive images on them. One of the great achievements of Miyoshi’s work is that he shows us how things might be otherwise.

One of Miyoshi’s key interventions is to re-articulate the relation of the digital and the analog. He does so not merely by addressing computers and networks through the traditionally analog medium of painting. His work also expresses the entanglement of human and machinic action through his layered approach to gesture. In general, the works on display have what might be called a “computational” character. They feature complex geometrical elements and patterns arranged with a sort of rigorous precision that only feels possible with the computer. In this regard, Miyoshi’s work recalls the abstract precision of early computer art such as the computer-generated prints of artists Frieder Nake and Manfred Mohr. As art historian Grant Taylor observes, the rigid precision of these early works from the 1960s led to the art world’s resounding rejection of the computer as a “soulless usurper.” This strident formulation derives in large part from fears that the computer would replace the “hand of the artist,” the unique character of artistic expression but also the perceived physical presence of the artist in the quality of brushstrokes and line. Well aware of the history of what used to be called “computer art” (and is now contestably referred to as digital art or new media art), Miyoshi engages and builds on the still-underrecognized achievements of these early artists. And, like the early artists, his work features a stark “computationalism” in its inclusion of grids, sharp lines, and network graphs. However, in a sharp departure from the tendencies of “cold” computationalism, Miyoshi’s work manifestly celebrates the hand of the artist through the use of gestural lines evoking a more “human” presence within and through the thickness of networked visuality.

Miyoshi’s use of gesture is evident in many of recent works, and perhaps most clearly in the 5-painting series entitled “Computer Drawings/Code Paintings.” Yet his use of gestural line differs greatly across these works. In For Loop the line appears mostly continuous. In Statement the line nearly disappears into a discontinuous sequence of pixels implying some phantom link between them. In a number of works, the line itself blurs slightly as it runs deeper into layers of resin and then back suddenly to the surface. In short, Miyoshi’s line represents no simple valorization of the humanity of the artist. If the lines feel a bit digital, there’s a good reason why! Miyoshi created the lines through a distinctly computational process. By capturing the movement of his movement of a mouse at a slow frame rate, Miyoshi was able to evoke the jagged, pixelated aesthetic of older computer paint programs and to express more conceptually the feeling of the hand of the artist at work at a tethered remove from conscious intention, the resulting image being part craft and part algorithmic program.

To conclude by returning to Galloway’s complaint as an inspiration for Miyoshi, let us revisit the beleaguered generic map of the network. The reason these images remain so ubiquitous is that they effectively present a comprehensible diagram-like picture of something very difficult to grasp: how the internet works. The internet functions at scales and speeds that often outstrip human cognition and perceptual ability. But it’s easy to imagine each point as a person (or at least as a laptop or phone) connected to other groups of persons and machines. Hence, the generic image of the network. This image of the network, however, communicates little if nothing about the material infrastructure of the internet as routers, cables, undersea networks, and more. By crafting—if not outright sculpting—his images in layers of resin, Miyoshi draws attention to the materiality of his subject while building on and advancing the generic genius of the network image.

Finally, for all the aspects of his work discussed above and more, Miyoshi answers the second part of Galloway’s complaint: that we still lack any poetics of the network. This last part of Galloway’s claim has been contested by various scholars, but it has never been refuted. Although he works offline in the analog and quite material world of “RL” or “real life,” Miyoshi’s new works provides a vibrant new way of beginning to see, feel, and think about the experience of networks in the twenty-first century.

James J. Hodge, September 2019
©James J. Hodge. All Rights Reserved.


James J. Hodge is Associate Professor in the Department of English and the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities at Northwestern University. His essays on digital aesthetics have appeared in Critical Inquiry, ASAP/Journal, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. His book Sensations of History: Animation and New Media Art will be published this October by the University of Minnesota Press.


Sara Matthews essay on Philip Cheung

Exhibition essay

Watching the Watchers

by Sara Matthews

Searching the Canadian Forces website, one learns that the motto of the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol group is Vigilans – meaning “The Watchers”1. The more direct translation from the original Latin is “watchful”. It may seem a small point, but this subtle shift from the noun to the adjectival form of the word captures something pivotal to Philip Cheung’s approach with Arctic Front—rather than represent a person, a place or thing, he instead labors with description, visually chronicling the attributes and subtle dimensions of thing-ness and place-ness, and so inviting the viewer to do the same.

Arctic Front, Cheung relates, is the first chapter in a long-form documentary project that seeks the frontlines of Canadian Forces operations. In military parlance, the front is the location of tactical contact or contestation between opposing forces. It is where the logistics of martial politics are engaged and encompasses everything from the personnel and specialized equipment to the unique operations and capital economies necessary to the sovereign project of nation-building. Most civilians are somewhat familiar with Canada’s frontline role in Afghanistan from 2002–2014, where Cheung, as an embedded photographer, made several bodies of work2. But where is the front after Afghanistan? For Cheung, this is a pressing question. The Canadian Forces currently contributes to military operations in the Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and the Caribbean, as well as the Arctic3. Starting with the latter came naturally to the artist since he trained there as a young soldier and because, he tells me, the Arctic tundra and the deserts of Afghanistan hold a similar visual quality. He’s also interested to map how these landscapes are altered by the spatial scale of labor—for instance, the ways in which economic and military logistics make an imprint on social and physical terrain.

In the Arctic territory matters and indeed is a question of the material. Sea ice is melting, there is speculation about the partial opening of the Northwest Passage4, and national disputes over fisheries and the delineation of the continental shelf (and access to fossil fuel reserves) are escalating. These worries are an extension of the sovereign colonial project in the country we now know as Canada, in which the Arctic has a complicated history made from the unsettled relations between newcomers and Indigenous peoples who live and work in relationship to the land. Even the juridical frameworks for determining territorial boundaries—does “land” include sea ice, for instance?—are changing as rapidly as the climate5. Resource extraction, claims for territory and rights of passage, environmental conservation, tourism, scientific exploration as well as the manufacture of the North as somehow essentially “Canadian”, make up these settler relations which litter the landscape with the physical ghosts of their infrastructures.

This is the context in which the Canadian Rangers do their work. Originally formed as Reserve corps in British Columbia during the latter part of the Second World War, their nation-wide expansion during the Cold War coincided with a broadened security strategy in the North6. A volunteer branch within the Canadian Forces, the Rangers role includes bolstering national security, stewarding sovereignty and nation-building in Arctic regions. Ranger patrols, which draw recruits from local Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities across the North and are distinguished by their regulation red sweatshirts and ballcaps, conduct surveillance exercises, act as local guides and first responders, as well as train southern military units in the arts of wilderness survival7. But what are the contemporary political conditions that require such an attitude of northern watchfulness?

The Canadian government’s understanding of sovereignty is drawn from the Westphalian tradition which ties national security to the maintenance of the territorial status of the nation-state8. But this Western model is not the only one. Mary Simon, past president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, suggests that “a twenty-first-century model for Arctic sovereignty must move beyond the outdated model of infrastructure and military bases by including Inuit as partners in defining new goals for sovereignty that include ensuring that new investments are linked to improving the well-being of Inuit”9.

This view of human and environmental security as opposed to national security is reflected in the Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic, which emphasizes sustainable development and the right to self-determination on matters related to health, food security, territories, languages and cultures10. As Simon insists, until “Inuit are treated as all other Canadians are… with the same standard of education, health care, and infrastructure that is the foundation of healthy communities across Canada”, then claims to sovereignty in the Arctic are moot.

With his visual project Arctic Front, Cheung does not shy away from these complicated conversations but neither does he attempt a simple answer. Utilizing a medium format digital camera and tripod, his photographic process is slowed-down and mirrors the attitude of watchfulness with which his subjects are tasked. Encouraging the viewer to likewise adopt this stance of vigilant interest, each photograph offers an enigma that hints towards a greater whole. For instance, Cheung’s study of the metal remainders of deactivated DEW line sites on King William Island (Deactivated DEW Line Site #1 and #2, King William Island; Ration Cans, Deactivated DEW Line Site), reveals the skeletal architecture of the infrastructures of sovereignty and their indelible haunting of the fragile Arctic landscape. This close attention to military logistics—as can be seen in Canadian Armed Forces C-17 Transport Aircraft, Rankin Inlet—divulges its textures but stops short of concluding the narrative. A counterpoint image (Taloyoak, Nunavut) installed at the opposite end of the gallery broadens the perspective to the communities in which the Rangers live and patrol, bridging the gap between southern military transports and their northern destinations. Other works continue this contrapuntal movement, splitting open the dualities between civilian and military spheres of life. Rae Strait, in which the distinction between sea and air is punctured by the recognizable red clothing worn by two Rangers piloting a watercraft, brings together the questions that Cheung’s project suggests: how does one learn to be watchful of the relationships that contribute to one’s sense of security and place?

In her account of learning to see images of suffering, visual theorist Ariella Azoulay articulates the difference between looking and watching11:

Photography is more than what is printed on photographic paper. The photograph bears the seal of the photographic event, and reconstructing this event requires more than just identifying what is shown in the photograph. One needs to stop looking at the photograph and instead start watching it.

Watching, a verb typically used to describe time-based rather than still phenomena, suggests an unstable movement at play in which the subject of the gaze destabilizes any singular instance of what can be known. Given that photographic technologies are so heavily embedded in histories of militarization and surveillance, this attitude of watching moves against the camera’s desire to fix. The type of watching that the Rangers engage is tied to nation-building, but it is also about learning to see relationships that a fixed glance cannot grasp—between water and air and land and place. Cheung’s orientation to this provocation is to take the slow road, to let the story emerge, and to assert the difference between watching as a practice of sovereign power and that of ethical witnessing.

5. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
6. For more information on the history of the Rangers see P. Whitney Lackenbauer (2013). “If it Ain’t Broke Don’t Break It: Expanding and Enhancing the Canadian Rangers”, Working Papers on Arctic Security No. 6, Munk School of Global Affairs, P. Whitney Lackenbauer (2013), The Canadian Rangers: A Living History. Vancouver: UBC Press.
7. For more on the Canadian Rangers see Watchers of the North. CBC/APTN.
8. Canada’s Northern Strategy: Our North, Our Heritage, Our Future. Published under the authority of the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians, Ottawa, 2009.
9. Mary Simon (2009). Inuit and the Canadian Arctic: Sovereignty Begins at Home. Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études canadiennes, 43(2):250-260.
11, Ariella Azoulay (2008). The Civil Contract of Photography. Brooklyn: Zone Books.

Sara Matthews, December 2018
©Sara Matthews. All Rights Reserved.


Sara Matthews is Associate Professor in the Department of Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her research and teaching are interdisciplinary and consider the dynamics of war, violence and social change. Working primarily in the field of research-creation, her projects explore the relations between visual culture, nation building, colonialism and martial politics. In addition to her academic-based work, Sara curates aesthetic projects that archive visual encounters with legacies of war and social trauma. Her critical art writing has appeared in PUBLIC, FUSE Magazine and in exhibition essays for the Robert Langen Gallery, Circuit Gallery, the Ottawa Art Gallery, the Doris McCarthy Gallery and as a blog for Gallery TPW.

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Leo Hsu essay on Philip Cheung

Exhibition essay

The Coast

by Leo Hsu

In The Edge, Philip Cheung visualizes the rapid growth of the United Arab Emirates in quiet, still tableaux. By taking a step back from the glamour that so frequently defines the UAE’s visual narratives, Cheung’s photographs describe the current moment as a balance of tensions. The Edge makes visible a complex dynamic between nature and human ambition, describing the scale at which people live in relation to the scale of the environments that we create, and simultaneously recognizing the coast’s permanence and the human desire to transform it.

In the ten photographs on display at Circuit Gallery, Cheung takes us to privileged and public spaces, and shows us spectacles of urban design and uncompleted construction projects. He does so with a poetic reserve; Cheung lived and worked in the United Arab Emirates for a large part of the last decade, and The Edge, his study of the coastal nation, is absorbing in part because of the way that he deploys his position as an outsider with extensive local knowledge. Cheung is neither distracted by scale nor dazzled by the splendor that he depicts. He recognizes that cities like Dubai are built to be seen in certain ways, and asks us to consider the intense activity and rapid development of the UAE at a remove. There is a beauty here, Cheung suggests, that encompasses both what is built and the coast that it’s built upon.

Cheung’s photographs draw attention to ordinary moments, elevating them. A group of men squat in a tight circle on a beach for a meal, surrounded by an expanse of sand. On another beach men on horseback converse with other men sitting atop a Jeep; both horses and automobile are immaculate and still. Tour boats in the Dubai Marina approach a city that appears to be the entirety of the world. Human figures, small in scale, are dwarfed by their proxies: the roads, machines, and structures that they have produced to create the world that they desire.

Some of the photographs are completely absent of people, with inanimate subjects nonetheless indicating aspirations, vanities, and vulnerabilities: a pair of lifeboats on the beach; the banquet hall in Khor al Maqta, its chairs dwarfed by opulent chandeliers and fixtures; the uncompleted Palm Jebel Ali bridge built on reclaimed land along the coast. The banquet hall is the only interior in this group, and the sky’s absence makes it feel almost claustrophobic, despite the height of the room’s ceilings. Apartment building rooftops, with plastic furniture and washing hung from lines, appear as though someone just moved in. Unburdened by the contours of existing infrastructure, cities and roads appear to emerge whole from the desert. Where does the city end? Such is the splendor and scale that one cannot help but ask how this room, this city, this road, came to be.

Cheung intends for his images, which capture extraordinary detail, to be viewed as large prints. The photographs recall European landscape painting of the early 18th century, when the landscape ceased being the background and became, in its own right, the subject of the painting. Those paintings often asked what the appropriate relationship between civilization and nature in a rapidly changing world might be, and Cheung’s views of the UAE pose similar questions at the beginning of the 21st century.

Nearly every one of the photographs in The Edge has three characteristic features, which, notably, are neither the sea nor the people who live by it, but are sky, earth, and elements of the built environment. The sky, almost always present, appears not as negative space, but as a rich, subtly textured presence in the frame. Clouds catch or pass the light as watercolour washes. Like the sky, the ground—whether earth, rubble, or sand—is thick with detail. The lines are complex and irregular: tire tracks, displaced dust, wind-formed contours—there are always markings. And, Cheung seems equally drawn to the design and geometries of the things we make and use: the oval lifeboats, the angular military aircraft at a defence exhibition, the neat circle of the Khor Fakkan roundabout, a quarry backhoe. Function and appearance dovetail, producing figures that seem essentially unitary. The bold lines and sharp colors of the built environment and the objects that populate it contrast with the messy logics of the patterns we see in the sky and the ground. In these patterns, the result of both natural and human circumstance, we see complexity; in the skyline we see a clean presentation of form. The texture of the earth contrasts with the smooth glass buildings and the endless patterning of the sky contrasts with the unitary totality of machines. An almost complete absence of visible text in the images helps us to focus our attention on shapes.

Cheung’s photographs are powerful because, beyond surveying, or describing, they suggest the seeming necessity of the present moment, which in his graceful compositions feels both inevitable and eternal. At the same time, they underscore the moment’s contingency—the feeling that the cultural features on display, functions of power, economics and globalization, look so specific, when seen in the context of the landscape that has made this wealth and power possible. Where nature cannot but look as it does, the built environment betrays human ambition in the way that it assumes its specific forms. The success of Cheung’s photographs is its evocation of the tension between these two imperatives.

Cheung describes a future UAE rolling out before us, shiny and seemingly perpetually new, or yet to be built. Each day the world changes a little bit, incrementally, and one day everything looks as though it’s always meant to look that way. This world is defined by its cultural material and physical infrastructure, the buildings and roads more long-lasting than the people who use and build them. The impossible-to-preserve newness of the construction contrasts with the geologic persistence of the landscape in which building takes place. The Edge suggests a dream that these cities might look like this forever, a world that has always only just realized itself, an eternal state of becoming, a destiny as undeniable as the presence of the coast from which these cities emerge.

Leo Hsu, December 2016
©Leo Hsu. All Rights Reserved.


Leo Hsu is a writer, researcher and photographer based in Toronto. He is a regular contributor to Fraction Magazine and holds a PhD in Anthropology and Certificate in Culture and Media from New York University..


Jayne Wilkinson essay on Robert Bean

Catalogue essay

Rendering Things, Gathering Sites

by Jayne Wilkinson

One frequently begins to think about art through the specificities of language. Definitions from philosophy, critical theory, a standard dictionary, common parlance or colloquial use offer methods for analyzing the visual worlds constructed by artists. Yet such a linguistic route into the work of Robert Bean is circuitous, even labyrinthine. An artist whose projects are deeply engaged with etymology, Bean’s work shifts and morphs with its own conceptual language, ultimately evading prescription. His work takes influence from the history of science, media theory, communications technology and politics. Long fascinated by the kinds of entanglements that words and ideas produce, he is an artist who thinks as a historian or philosopher, as much as a producer of visual culture.

Bean’s most recent body of work begins with the remote “thing sites” of the Thingstätte in Heidelberg, Germany and the Althing in Iceland. In ancient Nordic culture, the Thing was a public gathering of people for the purposes of governance and dispute resolution; the assembly site in Iceland is one of the oldest, situated in a rift valley between the North American and European continental plates. Referencing these ancient sites, the “Thing” movement was taken up as a propaganda strategy in Nazi Germany and thingstättes were inaugurated for the performance of nationalistic and quasi-religious theatrical productions. Intended to evoke a public nostalgia for communal gatherings, such sites were planned throughout the country but eventually abandoned as the Nazis deployed mass gatherings and spectacle through other means.

By combining traditional photography with computer-generated imagery, an architectural model, and a short video, Bean’s project questions how we might render difficult histories visible in the present. Across these diverse works, shifts in language, form and perception offer new ways to read things, and thing sites, as objects entangled within the history of politics and the politics of history.

The common use of the word “thing” often seems careless or imprecise; for example, when we speak of “something”, “anything”, or “nothing” the subject of such a phrase is evacuated of meaning. Yet its historical connotations are rich, since the thing as an assembly is a reference to the physical sites designated for the division and debate of political ideas and beliefs systems. As a precursor to the parliament of the United Kingdom, the thing site is an operative precedent for a politics of governmentality.

The Thing has a storied usage in philosophy too, notably through German philosopher Martin Heidegger whose text, Das Ding, is a reference point for much of the object-oriented philosophy and thing theory at the forefront of recent thinking. As theorist and sociologist Bruno Latour has argued, things are not a matter of objects but a matter of politics. “Long before designating an object thrown out of the political sphere and standing there objectively and independently, the Ding or Thing has for many centuries meant the issue that brings people together precisely because it divides them.”1

In Bean’s exhibition this perhaps altruistic reading of the thing site is overshadowed by its usurpation by the Nazis in their pursuit of a celebratory program of German heritage, one that aimed to increase national patriotism through recourse to ancient Germanic Things. In the video, Thingstätte 5, we see a remarkable confluence of two generations inhabiting this relic of propaganda in radically different ways: an older generation, possibly tourists, slowly descend into the amphitheatre while several young athletes sprint to the top, perhaps oblivious to the loaded history of the site. Adjacent to the illustrious University of Heidelberg, this is a landscape deeply marked by the contestation of ideas and philosophies, ones embedded within an atmosphere that is both academically fertile and politically fraught. One can’t help but think of the Nazi cult of the body, and its obsession with strength and perfection, when witnessing the sprinting athletes moving vertically through the amphitheatre.

Bean’s engagement with things is not exclusively about sites or objects per se but equally about things as processes of rendering as much as sites of assembly. Like the “thing,” the verb “to render” has multiple meanings and fragmented uses. To render is often to precede something, to act upon it, to cause a state to exist or cause it to change. To render is also to provide, assist or give up as much as it is to cover, hide, burn, or destroy. Its most frequent contemporary use refers to computer imaging, where rendering means to produce a visual image out of nothing, or more precisely, out of data.

In a fascinating mix of forms, Bean’s series of photographs, Remote Sensing (2015), uses Google Earth to re-vision the Heidelberg site through the algorithmic failure of unmapped territory. The fragmented and abstracted screenshots suggest a new type of thing site, one hidden in the plain sight of technological ubiquity: the Internet. As a collection of geographically dispersed sites located in servers, offices and infrastructure across the globe, the Internet as a thing site is an unusual proposition. Certainly the speech knots produced in the digitally generated series Visible Speech (Hannah Arendt) and the CNC machined architectural model (Artifact 2) remind us that the visual culture of machinic imaging produces things that are not understood as objects at all, and which perhaps have more in common with photographic theories of representation and originality than with object-oriented philosophy. The etymological fluidity of such things–the mix of usages between things as objects and things as spaces or sites of politics–seems equally applicable to the communication networks that today support contemporary life. The ability to read and transcribe meaning from coded script to screen is what enables communication across digital platforms, and likewise what enables contemporary politics to become widely visible.

What we now commonly call the “Internet of things” refers to WiFi-enabled objects—a world of digital devices that encompasses computers and phones, cars, fridges, thermostats and so many other planned automatons. Architect and urban theorist Keller Easterling points out that the more we become accustomed to using digital devices in all aspects of our lives, the harder it is to perceive the spatial technologies and networks that link such objects. Like the thing sites of the ancient world, the network is the über-thing that offers political agency to contemporary citizens. Easterling elaborates: “Spaces and urban arrangements are usually treated as collections of objects or volumes, not as actors. Yet the organization itself is active. It is doing something, and changes in the organization constitute information.”2 The thing site here is the organization of networked spaces on a global scale, an active assembly of information that far exceeds the connectivity of mere objects through advanced technological capacities.

In the work of Robert Bean, we find a powerful visual argument for the activation of networks and the rendering visible of the spaces of politics in our digitally enabled world. In time scales that bridge ancient public gatherings with contemporary networks, and the problematic politics inherent within, Bean’s world is one vibrating with rendered things and constructed sites.

1. Bruno Latour “From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik, or How to Make Things Public,” in Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, eds. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, (Karlsruhe, Germany: ZKM Center for Art and Media, 2005): 24.
2. Keller Easterling, “An Internet of Things,” e-flux #31, January 2012.

Jayne Wilkinson, April 2016
©Jayne Wilkinson /Circuit Gallery. All Rights Reserved.


Jayne Wilkinson is a Toronto-based writer, editor and curator. She holds an M.A. in Art History and Critical Theory from the University of British Columbia (Vancouver) and her research interests focus on the intersection of aesthetics and politics in contemporary photographic practices, with specific attention to the interaction of visibility and obscurity in the surveillance state. She is currently director/curator of Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art and editor/publisher of Prefix Photo magazine.

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Leo Hsu essay

Exhibition essay

In the Air, in the Forest, at the Bottom of the Ocean

by Leo Hsu

The Pacific forests that Chris Bennett visits are not places of comfort. Among the mossy trunks and stumps, alongside crumbling shale and racing waters, surrounded by an impenetrable haze where the end of the day stolidly advances, time and light recede from Bennett’s intrusion. In one image, Untitled 19, a figure in the distance appears; as Bennett describes it, this figure represents a threat, blocking his path, forcing him to retreat further back into the dark woods, alone.

Bennett’s Darkwood photographs appear alongside work by Jon Wyatt and Eamon Mac Mahon in Apprehensions, at Circuit Gallery. The exhibition, curated by Claire Sykes, speaks to a long western historical engagement with, and anxiety about humanity’s tentative relationship to nature. Apprehensions proposes that our grasp of nature is limited: each of the three bodies of work on display is driven by the artist’s desire to visualize nature’s order and mystery, at the same time a reminder that we cannot know nature’s own logics.

The works of the three photographers in Apprehensions vary in their formal strategies and in the worlds that they invoke. Bennett’s Darkwood, first luminous, then obscured, feels like a first person narrative. Through his visual telling, we smell the cool loamy forest floor, and feel the chill and moisture of the air. The restlessness provoked by the dark forest conjures the horror we associate with the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales, or with H.P. Lovecraft’s stories of the supernatural. It’s the feeling that, at night in the woods, the reassurances that our fabricated world provide—our regulated time and mapped out space and our provisions for safety—all fall away. What remains is something much, older, more profound, and more powerful than us.

If Darkwood conveys a subjective experience of dread, Jon Wyatt’s Fault Line presents a metaphor, describing the overwhelming power of a tsunami through his depictions of an implacably-growing, all-consuming invasive vine. Of the work on display, the vegetation in Wyatt’s series feels the most conspicuously alien. Wyatt’s images reveal an act of violence taking place on the timetable of plant growth: on Samoa, as on many Pacific islands, Merremia Peltata smothers everything in its path under a heavy blanket of leaves, a slow-moving but inescapable wave of strangulation. In Fault Line XIII two palms are surrounded by the vine, its imminent victims. The leaves are countless and repetitious, and Wyatt draws attention to the way that they reflect the sunlight, forming a shield between the sky and everything over which they have grown. With the vines Wyatt references the 2009 tsunami that washed over Samoa, caused by a tectonic fault eleven miles below the surface of the ocean. “The vines surge over the landscape in the shape of a vast breaking wave,” writes Wyatt, “an inundation of vegetation and a striking echo of the tsunami.” A digital effect visually links the geologic features represented on a bathymetric map with the detail in the images of the vine. The clouds appear almost to be embossed; such is the strange energy with which Wyatt’s prints are imbued that they look as though they might break apart, like the ocean floor.

Eamon Mac Mahon’s aerial photographs offer a god’s-eye view of terrain that appears untouched by people. Such a high-level view should, one imagines, offer some degree of ownership over the land below. But unlike the traditional landscape vista, these landscapes have no edges and no centers; there is no hierarchy of space, and no privileging of position. This is not to say that these landscapes are not articulated, but that their contours do not lead to resolutions. These are not views that we know and they confirm nothing. Unlike Timothy O’Sullivan or Carleton Watkins’ survey photographs of the American west, where a terrain was transformed into a view and where features became landmarks, the ground that Mac Mahon’s camera shows us is only part of an enormous terrestrial corpus over which his small plane skims. In Barren Ground Caribou three caribou make their way across an endless snowfield, tiny figures on an expanse. They know where to go, but to our eyes all space is equal; the land just goes on and on. We look over Mac Mahon’s shoulder in Wildfire, Northwest Territories, the air smudged with smoke. Natural processes take place in a land that seems remote from human influence, except that it is not; his ability—and by extension, ours—to look on this territory suggests that it might be transformed by our extended regard.

The disquiet that Apprehensions elicits is continuous with the aesthetic of the sublime evoked in 19th century landscape painting, where artists grappled with the relationship between modern ideas of civilization, progress, and nature. In the emerging context of modernity and industrialization, nature was set in opposition to civilization even as modern science fed technological innovation. These tensions were expressed in art and literature that recognized both nature’s otherness and our own claim to it. Painting that directly confronted this relationship between progress and nature was energized by the sublime.

Thomas Cole’s series The Course of Empire (1833-1836) describes the permanence of a landscape that would outlast human society. The sequence of five paintings corresponds with the early modern model of unilineal social evolution that justified empire and the domination of peoples: it moves from the so-called primitive, where “savages” live in harmony with nature; to the pastoral, agrarian, local; to the consummation of the state, a golden age of a thriving society; to that state’s collapse in war and destruction; and ending in desolation, the crumbled city reclaimed by ivy, a folly on a grand scale, ruined by pride. The work served as a memento mori, a reminder both that nature will outlast and reclaim the greatest civilizations, and that a civilization is defined by its progress.

The power of nature as sublime—terrifying, unforgiving, spectacular—is probably most closely associated today with the paintings of J.M.W. Turner. By the mid 19th century Turner’s paintings, such as Snow Storm – Steam Boat off of Harbor’s Mouth (1842) and Rain, Steam and Speed, the Great Western Railway (1848), had achieved an almost abstract expressivity that would form an enormous influence on art movements to follow. In Turner’s paintings, trains and ships provide scale for the strength of storms. Where The Course of Empire measures the relative brevity and smallness of human endeavor against geologic patience and endurance, Turner’s paintings describe nature as elemental, violent, uncontrollable, undeniable. But in Turner’s work we also see technology, having harnessed nature’s force, surviving its fury.

Where Cole and Turner offered their cautions to societies that were rapaciously enlarging their appetites, Bennett, Wyatt, and Mac Mahon’s works are made at a moment when we question our ability to expand indefinitely, transforming the world as we consume it. While these three contemporary artists may not have sought to engage with these circumstances explicitly, their works nonetheless address it, and with less surety of the outcome than their 19th century antecedents. While artists of both moments seek to instill a sense of humility in their audiences, the work of the 21st century is less about edification, and more apprehensive.

Our current anxieties about nature turn around the possibility that we have broken our planet beyond repair. With climate change and previously unknown scales of pollution, not only are we driving ourselves to an early extinction, we are taking the world, as we know it, with us. 19th century critiques of industrialization raised concerns for our moral obligations to one another as human beings; the 21st century ecological threat deals with our moral obligations to future generations, yes, but also to other living beings and to the planet that will outlast us.

What, then, do our apprehensions achieve? Do they allow us to comfort ourselves by naming our fears? Do they instill a necessary sense of humility? The strength of the combination of works in Apprehensions is that they might do both. These projects, and this exhibition, create an opportunity to reflect on our relationship with the natural world, recognizing how we are part of it and how we are not. If humans were to disappear from the earth tomorrow, nature would continue on its own course. But the marks that we leave would shape that course even as they would eventually cease to be discernible. Wyatt’s vine is not only nature reclaiming civilization, it is also nature consuming nature, this is what nature is, and does. The fear evoked by Darkwood is not only a fear of destruction under nature’s power, but also a fear brought on by a feeling of helplessness. A similar effect may be elicited by Mac Mahon’s photographs, a recognition of our own insignificance.

Collectively, Apprehensions presents a critique that evokes broader questions about what we, as humans, owe the world, and what the world might extract from us without regard for our own accounting. Apprehensions shows us nature as pitiless and inexorable, so far from human experience that we cannot really call it cruel, even as its foreign-ness cannot but cause unease. We may be enthralled by nature’s patterns and persistence, but while the works shown here are perfectly legible, what the images describe resists easy comprehension. We must recognize how alien nature’s logic is in order to give it its due. There are landscapes that we love because they confirm our place in relation to them. And then there is the world—the land and its life—that doesn’t care about us.

Leo Hsu, November 2015
©Leo Hsu. All Rights Reserved.


Leo Hsu is a writer, researcher and photographer based in Toronto. He is a regular contributor to Fraction Magazine and holds a PhD in Anthropology and Certificate in Culture and Media from New York University. He has taught on the history of photography and documentary photography at Carnegie Mellon University and collaborated with the Silver Eye Center for Photography on several exhibitions, most recently A World Imagined: Kelli Connell and Sara Macel.


Emily Doucet essay

Catalogue essay

Photography and the ‘Artifacts of Software’:
Akihiko Miyoshi’s CMYKRGB

by Emily Doucet

As the American poet Eileen Myles confessed in an essay: “the rupture with reality one feels when writing about art is that there is a tendency to make manifestos out of someone else’s play.”1 In an attempt to place words in lines to describe the images in Akihiko Miyoshi’s exhibition CMYKRGB, I was presented with a diversity of digital and immaterial formats of work: .jpeg, .gif, URL, and even a 3-D model of the exhibition space to be. While the implication that the digital is in fact immaterial represents a common disavowal of the material, ecological, and human consequences of information technology and digital production, my first encounters with Miyoshi’s work were appropriately situated somewhere between my computer and the gallery space.

In an artist statement accompanying the exhibition, Miyoshi charts and maps the point of tension sketched out in the processes of his image-making: “we live in a moment where the torrent of the digital and the inertia of the analog collide with each other creating an aesthetic and lived experience unique to our time.” In a similar spirit, the artist and philosopher Hito Steyerl has stated that she sees “images as modes of energy and matter which shape and effect people and monuments.”2 Steyerl argues that we live amongst – and even as – images, and that images have begun to invade reality. Fundamentally, she suggests that “affect is rendered as an after-effect, reality is post-produced, and we can change it by post-production, we can intervene by means of imaging techniques.”3 In a world where both everyday reality and human consciousness are produced by and function in tandem with images and screens, object-subject distinctions become increasingly complex. I mean this not only in the sense of the body’s relation to the technological (as in cyborg theory for example) but also the relation of mind and cognition to the proliferation of images in accelerated capitalism. Human interaction with technology hovers between the figures of the cyborg and that of the avatar and Miyoshi’s images map this journey of representation. However, digital labour (here, photographic manipulation) is emphatically still labour and the question remains of how and where the body is to be seen or felt. Current emphasis on materiality and production is therefore bound up in our political moment and the role of images in the definition of possible pasts and futures.

Miyoshi has described several of the works in his exhibition as a “collaboration with the digital algorithms which [are] no longer a mere simple tool but one that has its own ideas about object ontology.”4 He points to the “content-aware” tool in Adobe® Photoshop™ software which, when applied, selects, outlines and removes what it determines to be objects and/or subjects in the background or foreground of the image. Imagining photography as the transmission of information (pixels) as opposed to the interaction of light and chemicals on the material surface of the photographic print, Miyoshi highlights the evident tensions between these various embodiments of the medium. Playing with the prescribed and static algorithms of standard photo-editing programs, Miyoshi explores the established and pixel-oriented definition of subjects and objects within digital image worlds. Treading a well-worn path of investigation into the relationship between subjectivity and automation, Miyoshi’s images are situated almost between mediums, borrowing from the visual languages of photography, painting, collage, and sculpture.

Miyoshi differentiates between his earlier “abstract” photographs and his later “process,” images; the former highlights the framing apparatus of the camera’s lens, while the latter explores the creative potential of the prescribed algorithms of photo-editing software. The content aware algorithm excavates objects, based on significant differentiation between hex number (colour) of pixels. Thus form is defined by colour, establishing a surprisingly formal, and even modernist basis for what at first glance appears to be digitally informed.

In e-mail correspondence, Miyoshi refers to the content-aware function in Photoshop as an “artifact of software,” singling out the complex conception of materiality at play in this series of images. An artifact signals something of human creation, usually of historical or cultural interest. Uncertain objects emerge within the frame of Miyoshi’s images. Painterly and even sculptural in form, the Process Structure series appears to be furthering of many of the concerns of the Abstract Photographs series. What was made explicit through imaging the body in dialogue with the camera has now left both body and apparatus outside the frame, imaging instead the abstractions of colour and code, mirror and paper.

Through Miyoshi’s manipulation of the photographic, colour is understood as an object, or at least as something with its own temporal form. As objects and subjects are determined by differences in pixel colour, Miyoshi’s use of coloured paper in Process Structure #6 and Process Structure #7, contrasts the very real material qualities of paper against the immaterial, or at the very least uncertain materiality of the shapes determined by the pixel analysis performed by the software. Uncertain object-ness thus floats to the top of Miyoshi’s words and images. Somewhere between the body of the artist, the physical weight of the camera and the embodiment of colour transposed into form, the images remain transient.

The projection piece, The Distance Between included in the exhibition, speaks to just this tension between body, apparatus and image; the viewer creates the image only through the physical act of looking in concert with the lens of the camera. Moving past the overt relationship between the body and the apparatus, which is defined in the Abstract Photographs series, Miyoshi’s later work, shown here together, celebrates rather than questions the occultism and esotericism of computer programming. Invoking the mysticism ingrained in the audience’s understanding of the processes at play behind his images, one is left considering where this thinking could lead Miyoshi next, ensuring artistic production does not water-down the artist’s knowledge of computer science, through the translation of the exploration of these themes in the language of visual art. How does one generate substantial and epistemological claims through the language of photography?

Miyoshi’s own disciplinary redefinition, leaving a PhD program in Electrical and Computer Engineering to pursue an MFA in photography, seems key here, outlining a search for and exploration of a variety of languages with which to define… something. A diagram acts as an artist statement, outlining the visual complexity and multi-directionality of terms and reference points Miyoshi oscillates between and amongst. How – can – I – make – myself – write – a – functional – program – without – myself? We can read multiple sentences or narratives across Miyoshi’s diagram, a network that obscures as much as it communicates.

At the bottom of the diagram, the words “digital image” and “imagination” sit across from each other, connected only through the central question mark, an apt mapping of the tension embodied in Miyoshi’s line of questioning. Most intriguing of these allusions perhaps is the animation of the supposed indexicality of the medium of photography in concert with the language of computer programming and algorithms, which define our interactions with digital images. As Miyoshi himself has suggested: how can we use these languages as allegorical devices with which to define the complexity of our present state?

1. Eileen Myles, The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009), 111.
2. “The Photographic Universe: Photography and Political Agency?”, online lecture recorded at the New School, New York on April 24, 2013. Accessed: November 30, 2014.
3. Ibid.
4. Miyoshi, “Artist Statement.”

Emily Doucet, March 2015
©Emily Doucet. All Rights Reserved.


Emily Doucet is a writer and researcher based in Toronto, Canada. Currently working on her PhD in the History of Art at University of Toronto, she holds an MA in the History of Art from University College London. Her current research explores the boundaries between artistic practice and scientific research, with a focus on speculative fictions and photography in nineteenth century France.


Randy Innes essay

Catalogue essay

Beating the Bounds: Donald Weber’s Interrogations

by Randy Innes

I. The Latin term rogare means to ask for something. It is associated with ritual acts of supplication and prayer, and in the Catholic tradition Rogation Days replaced an earlier Roman ritual that included the sacrifice of a goat as a plea for healthy crops. Rogation Days themselves are days of abstinence and fasting that occur immediately before the Ascension. They remain associated with a prayer to God for a bountiful harvest.

In the Protestant tradition Rogation Days are associated with the social ritual of surveying and re-affirming the boundaries of one’s fields. Processions would walk around the boundaries of farms and parishes and leave fresh evidence of passage by hitting trees, rocks, stakes and other boundary markers with willow sticks. These processions were known as the Beating of the Bounds. They were ritual negotiations of limits: they re-established ownership of and demonstrated authority over a given territory. Mapmaking, surveying, and effective documentation and record keeping techniques all but eliminated the need for the Beating of the Bounds.

II. Donald Weber’s Interrogations is a set of photographs that are concerned with the act of surveying boundaries, with soliciting and gathering information, and with the exercise of authority. In this way this project carries the vestiges of its sacred-symbolic root rogare, and of its more secular, social ritual meanings. Weber’s Interrogations unfolds in two movements. The first is a Prologue that, in about two dozen photographs, surveys a cultural landscape that stretches from the Ukraine to Siberia. Photographs of run-down apartment blocks, of the regional landscape, and of impoverished urban settings combine with snapshots of unnamed people to present a portrait of a terrain that is often associated with post-Soviet states. The Prologue pictures the landscape in which the second movement will take place.

The photographs in the Prologue trace the boundaries of a bolshaya zona. Weber became familiar with this Russian slang expression during the time he spent in Ukraine and Russia, during and after the 2004 Orange Revolution. The expression conjures a place that remains just out of reach, an ideal or promised land.1 These photographs
create an impression and give us a sense of the character of this place, but they offer little in the way of documentary information. The Prologue is a study or survey – the studium, to recall Roland Barthes – but not yet the primary concern of the series.

The selection of pictures in the prologue negotiate the tension between photography’s function as a document or as evidence, and photography’s affective, compelling force.

III. The second movement in this project is called Interrogations. This related set of photographs shifts from survey or study, to a singular, repetitive examination. In more than three dozen photographs Weber pictures men and women seated alone in bare, wallpapered rooms in this same anonymous, eastern Ukrainian town. The photographs are visually uniform. They present a dull, faded colour palette and a run-down domestic feeling one might associate with small or medium sized, blue-collar towns. Here the slang term malinkaya zona dashes the desires that accompany the bolshaya zona, conjuring enforced boundaries, a sense of hopelessness, and, much more literally, to imprisonment and the loss of freedom within a broader system of power and authority.2

These men and women are detainees of a local police force and are for the most part ragged looking. None are named. In one image an arm enters from the side of the frame, holding a gun to a detainee’s head; in another a woman holds her hands to her head and seems to be braced for a blow from beyond the frame; in another a man cries; and in yet another, a man gesticulates in a way that suggests a feigning of innocence or ignorance. Who, me?

While the ritual that takes place in the interrogation room is grounded in real social and political conditions, it carries with it a sense of group performance and theatricality. The police interrogator solicits information from detainees, individuals who are, in this setting, drawn from the shady sub-cultures that form the local underworld. In turn the detainees perform their role—the role made visible here in exaggerated gestures and fearful dispositions. Although some form of economy and exchange may be at work, this is conditioned by an exercise of power that becomes visible in Weber’s photographs only in its effects. The invisibility of the power source has a symbolic correlate: Weber views this project in part as “a way to see the modern State as a primitive and sacrificial rite of unnamed Power.”3

The interrogation is a reminder of boundaries and of authority, a reminder that, under these conditions, has to be repeated at intervals, isolated from the bureaucracy of paperwork and procedure, in order to maintain its effectiveness within the dynamics and rituals of the streets and the underworld. However the interrogator is just as concerned with reaping information and with the fruits of his harvest as he is with leaving reminders of the power and authority he has over his domain – of beating the bounds.

An interrogation is a formal practice, a performance that is a reminder and affirmation, each time, of the balance and nature of power. Interrogation preserves the importance and richness of the present of the interrogation itself, while ensuring a role and a need for future interrogations.

IV. Weber and his camera collaborate in this performance, along with interrogator and detainee. The photographer gained the trust of several key people over a number of years, including the police investigator, who came to trust Weber enough to allow him to attend the interrogations. A next step involved soliciting permission from detainees. Not all were interested in having their interrogation photographed.

Weber sat in a chair in the interrogation room and set up his camera with a view of the detainee. Like the interrogation itself, the camera preserves a particular link to the present of the event. The authority of interrogation derives in part from a repeated and repeatable present. In this way interrogation intersects with the practice of photography, which is also a repeatable practice bound to a given moment in time that circumscribes and organizes this moment into a visual field.

Photography solicits and organizes its harvest according to its own means. These means are never neutral or invisible: the repeated, simple structure of this series concentrates attention on the event of interrogation and on the structure of photographic capture, concentrating attention and reducing distraction. Photography becomes an integral part of the production of meaning (not only its reproduction) and here the processes of soliciting and surveying take precedence over information related to the detainee. “No matter how much we bear witness”, Weber says, “I am always an ingredient.”4

Each of the participants plays a role in this performance. The detainees perform for both the interrogator, and the photographer and his camera. In turn, the actions of the interrogator and of the photographer unfold in response to those of the detainees.

Interrogations offers a glimpse of a landscape whose disposition is determined by secularized rituals and a concentration of power and authority. As we are conditioned by what we see, so too are we conditioned by how we are seen.

1. Weber in conversation with the author, September 12 2014.
2. Weber in conversation with the author, September 12 2014.
4. Weber in conversation with the author, September 12 2014.

Randy Innes, November 2014
©Randy Innes. All Rights Reserved.


Randy Innes holds a PhD in Visual & Cultural Studies from the University of Rochester. He has taught at several universities and he contributed to significant developments at the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa.

His research interests include the history and theory of photography, museum theory and exhibition practice, and aesthetic theory. Randy held the History of Photography research fellowship at the National Gallery of Canada, and he has published research and exhibition essays on historical and contemporary photography, along with other topics. An article on Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin appears in the special issue of the Canadian Art Review (RACAR) dedicated to War and Photography (Fall 2014).


Mark Kingwell essay

Catalogue essay

Drawing Mies in Barcelona: Shelagh Keeley’s Photographs

by Mark Kingwell

In the fall of 2014, the Guardian‘s self-appointed ‘contrarian’ art critic Jonathan Jones delivered a broadside that achieved its intended effect, at least partly: it got people talking about Jonathan Jones. (I, for one, had never before heard his name, but I suppose that’s my fault for not following daily arts criticism from England.) Jones’s argument was bold. Art photography, he said, “does not sing on a gallery wall.” Proliferating electronic images are wonderful, luminous and often moving. But, in his view, “it just looks stupid when a photograph is framed or backlit and displayed vertically in an exhibition. … A Photograph is a flat, soulless, superficial substitute for painting.”1

You might call this the art critic’s version of the advice delivered by Dean Wormer to the Delta frat boy Flounder in Animal House (1978): “Flat, soulless and stupid is no way to go through life, son.” Jones concluded: “Today’s glib culture endlessly flatters photography’s arty pretensions.”

Predictably, and necessarily, the article spawned a barrage of counter-opinion, and even some counter-argument. Among the best of these was from another Guardian writer, Sean O’Hagan. After noting that the photography exhibitions Jones chose to mention were “eccentric,” and making the obvious objection that a show of paintings—or any other medium—can be just as uninspired as any show of photographs, O’Hagan set down the main point: “Several things are wrong about Jonathan’s reasoning, not least that he still thinks painting is in some sort of competition with photography. How quaint. He also seems to think that all photography is derivative of painting. This is plainly not so.”2

Further, and finally, Jones suggested that all photographs look better on backlit screens than on paper, when this is clearly false, and made no distinction between types of photography. And it’s not a matter of technology: great artists can make great art using anything from Polaroids (Evans, Warhol) to digital phone-based cameras. “It’s about a way of seeing, not technology.” He finished with a plea for Jones to join him at a truly good photography show, with works by Awoiska van der Molen, where he might appreciate the “stillness and mystery” of the works, “so strong that everything on the walls around them seemed muted.”

O’Hagan is on the side of the art angels. of course, not to mention of merely sane people everywhere; but the sad thing about the riposte was that it felt goaded, as if it had fallen into the original critic’s poised trap. “If anything is anachronistic, it’s the ‘photography is not art’ debate.” he wrote at one point, and that really is the only rational response to an ‘argument’ like Jones’s. Getting drawn into the very assumptions that one should be rejecting outright—why are we comparing two mediums in the first place?—is the risk anyone takes when they respond to such things. I like to think myself among the sane and rational, and so maybe I should have ignored this little tussle myself, but it happened that I read the exchange while thinking about these superlative photographic works by Shelagh Keeley.

It is a valid commonplace of art that there is no subject unworthy of the artist’s attention. Sometimes, as when the content is disturbing or violent, we may have to reiterate the argument before proceeding to appreciate the work. Less common but just as troubling in its own way is the inverse case, where the subject matter is already a supreme work of art itself. Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, built as the German contribution to the 1929 International Exposition in Spain, is a modernist masterpiece, one of the finest single buildings on the planet. Mies responded to commissioner Georg von Schnitzler’s call for the building to give “voice to the spirit of a new era” in post-Great War Weimar Germany by designing a building that is angular but flowing. Its open-plan concept, relative interior bareness—just the purpose-built furniture known as the “Barcelona chair” and the Georg Kolbe sculpture Alba (“Dawn”)—was intended by Mies to provide “an ideal zone of tranquillity” for visitors.

The water features, open miniature vistas, and floating roof create a series of elegantly massed elements, such that the Pavilion feels at once solid and about to levitate from the earth. Mies was extravagant with materials, using pure antique marble, travertine, golden onyx, and tinted as well as translucent glass to divide and order the building’s spaces. Because the Pavilion itself was the entirety of the German presence at the Exposition, and served in part as a transition to other parts of the grounds, the Pavilion is in effect a large-scale Modernist sculpture, executed in architectural forms. Designed by Mies in less than a year, it was always intended to be temporary: in 1930 it was demolished as planned.

Happily, in 1983 a group of Spanish architects, using archival photographs, plans, and contemporary accounts, reconstructed the building. The reconstruction was completed in 1986, and the Pavilion has since served as the site for art installations and interventions by, among others, architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, who added interior walls made of spiral acrylic, photographer Jordi Bernadó, who altered the various glass doors, effectively re-sculpting the interior space. Perhaps the most notable intervention was by Ai Weiwei, who refilled the building’s two water pools with coffee and milk.

Shelagh Keeley visited the Pavilion in August of 1986, while living in Barcelona. The newly reconstructed building had not yet been opened to the public, and Keeley was able, with the help of fellow artist Antoni Muntadas, to view it “empty and austere,” as she has put it. The plastic bag visible floating in one of the water features is the sole foreign object, a poignant little grace note. She has said that her inspiration was “the genius of Mies and the notion of the pavilion.” The immediate connotation of pavilion is of a tent, or temporary structure, but its deeper etymology stretches back through Middle English and Old French (pavillon) to the Latin word for butterfly (papilio)—a metaphorical joining suitable to tents, but also to Mies’s floating forms. Keeley’s interest in architecture was already obvious. In 1985 she spent two months in Kyoto, Japan, studying the Zen gardens and temples, and making a two-hour Super 8 “essay film.” In 1986 she did the same in Las Vegas, observing the decadence and decay of the American Dream’s edgy playground. The engagement with the Barcelona Pavilion, a reconstruction of an architectural monument that was intentionally temporary, makes a sort of middle term in this exploration of the different kind of temples humans use to worship their deities.

The resulting work, like the more obvious artistic interventions, is a kind of collaboration—but without adding anything to the physical space. The images show the building as it would have appeared in 1929. The challenge here is to reveal, in the subtle textures of slides produced with an ordinary Olympus camera, something about what makes the building so spare and moving, so toughly perfect. And to do this she had to use, contra the Jonathan Joneses of the world, the now-ubiquitous medium of photography. But there is, as always, the matter of who is wielding the camera. The works we see in this series are the result of scanning the original slides, which were developed in 1986 but never before shown, and then blowing them up to scale. “I love the grainy quality of slide film,” Keeley told me. “No digital re-touching was done, or altering of the images with Photoshop. They are what they were.”

Keeley has said that she views photography as really a kind of drawing: not the imitation of painting that so irks Jones, but rather a recognition that the medium of photography is just as much a matter of texture as it is of composition. This feature of her work can only be appreciated in the gallery-hung versions of these images, something that offers further evidence of the nullity of the anti-photography position. I can attest to this directly, since I first saw Keeley’s Barcelona Pavilion images as backlit jpeg files which she had sent me, of course, via email. They were stunning, to be sure, revealing already to my eye the masterly sense of immediate familiarity in her relationship to the building. Their composition, capturing shadows and light at the same time as stone and water, was assured and revelatory. One immediately sensed, here, a version of Heidegger’s notion of truth as disclosure, a combined revealing and concealing, the “clearing” of an open space that he calls, after the Greeks, aletheia.

This was just the beginning of the manifold gifts of Keeley’s work, however. When one views them at the full intended scale, rendered on high-quality rag paper whose toothy surface is saturated with deeply injected pigment, the photographs take on a larger, more profound life. Another Heidegger resonance then, at least for me: his enthralled discussion of Van Gogh’s celebrated 1885 oil painting, A Pair of Shoes. Here, Heidegger notes, in the heavily used and mud-caked work shoes of a peasant woman, we see revealed a world of her concern. She herself is absent—but fully, even painfully, present in her absence. The shoes are sweat-soaked, the leather gnarled like (we must imagine) the feet that struggle into their hardened shape each morning. They are also well-kept, however, because they must last. Heidegger saw the painting in Amsterdam in 1930, and this is part of his famous description, from his essay The Origin of the Work of Art (1935): “From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field.”3

Later scholars, especially art historian Meyer Schapiro in The Still Life as a Personal Object (1968), demonstrated that the shoes had actually been purchased by Van Gogh himself at a Paris flea market, ostensibly for his own use, only to find that they did not fit. Facing the viewer as they do, Schapiro suggests, the shoes in fact execute yet another Van Gogh self-portrait.4 But whatever their exact provenance, the shoes embody the materiality of Van Gogh’s oils, themselves drawn from earthly materials, and make the essential connection between earth and the world of meaning that gives them place and identity. This is, we might say, the inversion of the glossy oils of official portraiture and still life which, as John Berger provocatively remarked once upon a time, exactly matches the glittering money of the haute-bourgeois and landed-gentry classes who were able to purchase them.

The same connection, maybe unexpectedly, is achieved via Keeley’s use of everyday technical materials—high-quality rag paper, yes, but paper all the same; fine art inkjet printing, yes, but a process not all that different, technically, from the one available in most home offices. And yet, this can only be appreciated by standing in front of the printed works themselves. In their almost abstract arrangements of colour, light, and form we feel, as well as see, the sense of place that is so important to her work generally. The graininess of enlarged film is executed just as the rough surface of a drawing would be, with carbon or pastel on toothy paper. The images capture the fleeting moments of liminal relations with space and place: the sense, achieved by a particular architectural ‘container’ that one is somewhere in particular, grounded in one’s physical embodiment and aware of being so. The images are phenomenological bracket-devices, isolating and concentrating our sense of the burden and blessing of consciousness.

This almost overwhelming sense of place—the properly scaled images are eye-filling, making the viewer feel a vertiginous inner squeak that she might tip into the framed scene—is one of the aesthetic connections drawing her to this subject in the first place. Mies, justly renowned for the monumental skyscraper design evident in the Seagram Building in Manhattan and TD Centre in Toronto, is actually an architect of the intimate. (Hence his interest in furniture, one he shares with other masters of the interior detail such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Le Corbusier, the Eameses, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Khan, Ron Thom, and Frank Gehry.) But there is another essential affinity here, between Keeley’s larger aesthetic practice and the Mies masterwork. I mean the very idea of a wall.

Walls are thresholds. They divide and join at once, creating insides and outsides, simultaneously part of both and neither. They create spaces and volumes that mark off the sites of life. Sometimes they bear loads, but they need not, and though the structural difference is all too real, the perceptual one is not. Above all, at least in domestic settings or other places where we spend a lot of our time, they are blank canvases asking to be decorated, covered, or papered. Mies lets his rich palette of veneers and glasses do the decorating in the Pavilion: the soothing minimalist aesthetic he favoured. Keeley cares about and draws on walls in another way altogether: she is a collage artist of playfully maximalist persuasion.

Since 1979 she has been making site-specific wall installations, executed in galleries in many parts of the world, that combine drawings and photography with a strong but elusive sense of interconnection. The viewer moves in and through the space created by the wall within the gallery, encountering the individual parts of the work, then stepping back and being struck by the whole. The works are also, of course, engaged in an aesthetic and physical exchange—not always comfortable—with the particular gallery spaces in which they are created. “You can’t fight with architecture,” she said of this process in a recent interview. “It’s a dialogue with the space of the walls — the architecture of the space that I work in — and I respond to that. … It’s not a framed drawing hanging on a wall. It’s not a painting. It’s directly on a wall, so it’s a whole different discourse and a relationship for the viewer with their body in relation to the architecture.”5

One thinks again, and not fondly, of Jonathan Jones and his aversion to the framed and flat image. His target was not drawing but photography; nevertheless, here the whole wall, the gallery itself plus the drawings and images affixed thereon, is the work. Keeley sees the installation itself as an extension of working with pigment and paper. “Drawing is a very physical act,” she said in the same interview. “It’s not just your hand and your wrist. It’s your whole body—particularly with this method of working. It’s the body, the head; your body is physically making the drawing. You can’t do a huge wall drawing without involving the arc of your whole body. … I reclaim space through the gesture of drawing.”

The Barcelona Pavilion images might seem to lie some distance from the physicality of the drawing gesture but we can still feel the hand of the artist here, the sense of their composition. There is also, in the two bodies of work, a linked reflection on the environmental psychologist James Gibson’s idea of affordances: those elements of a physical space that answer to our embodiment and its many projects, large and small. A plane surface elevated above the floor is an affordance—a table. It allows us to place objects close to hand while we are upright, to sit and eat, to sit and write, and so on. The floor itself is an affordance, a most basic one, answering the needs of the organism, in this case a human one, to stand upon a surface that is (to use Gibson’s language) nearly horizontal, nearly flat, sufficiently extended relative to human size, and of rigid surface. This floor affords support. “It is stand-on-able, permitting an upright posture for quadrupeds and bipeds,” Gibson writes. “It is therefore walk-on-able and run-over-able. It is not sink-into-able like a surface of water or a swamp.”6 Walls afford division and conjunction, entertainment to the eye, and the deployment of equipment at rest, hung or shelved upon their vertical surfaces.

If the Barcelona Pavilion is a kind of essay in the negative capability of affordances, offering a sort of phenomenological bracketing of everyday spaces, the gallery-wall drawings are its necessary inverse, the wall itself brought into sharp focus. And though the Barcelona images are more conventionally hung upon the gallery wall, they are no less powerful for being framed. On the contrary, and maybe paradoxically, they are set free to work their haptic magic upon the viewer. They take back space on the wall by glowing with an undiluted luminosity, the “stillness and mystery” that Sean O’Hagan found in Awoiska van der Molen’s work, making the world around them seem mute. “I think that’s what art does, right?” O’Hagan asked rhetorically in the final line of his article.

Rhetorical questions require no answer but let us offer one anyway, just for emphasis: Yes, that is right. And Keeley’s Barcelona Pavilion photographs offer more beautiful proof.

1. Jonathan Jones, “Flat, soulless and stupid: why photographs don’t work in art galleries,” The Guardian (13 November);

2. Sean O’Hagan, “Photography is art and always will be,” The Guardian (11 December 2014);

3. Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” [Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes, 1935-7; 1950; 1960], in Albert Hofstadter, ed. and trans., Poetry, Language, Thought (NY: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 15-86.

4. For a discussion of this difference between Heidegger and Schapiro, plus a related intervention by Jacques Derrida, see Scott Horton, “Philosophers Rumble Over Van Gogh’s Shoes,” Harper‘s Blog (5 October 2009);

5. Becky Rynor, “An Interview with Shelagh Keeley,” National Gallery of Canada Magazine (5 September 2014);

6. James J. Gibson, “The Theory of Affordances,” The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (orig. 1979; rev. Lawrence Erlbaum & Assoc., 1986), ch. 8.

Mark Kingwell, December 2014
©Mark Kingwell. All Rights Reserved.

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Mark Kingwell is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and the author of many books and articles on culture, politics, architecture, and art. His most recent publication is the essay collection Unruly Voices (2012); a new collection of his essays will appear in the fall of 2015.


Joel Robinson essay

Catalogue essay

Shelagh Keeley, the Barcelona Pavilion and the Flesh of Photography

by Joel Robinson

Photography has always been a part of Shelagh Keeley’s work, though it may not be the medium for which she is best known. On hearing her name, large drawings on walls (like temporary installations that are destroyed after being seen) will more readily come to mind. These may occasionally incorporate collaged photographic material, but the drawing generally remains paramount. Her larger wall-drawings often have some resonance with the place where they were made, and are reminders of our fundamentally embodied relationship with space. Here, drawing on walls is also about drawing out the realities of emplacement and embodiment. It acknowledges something primordial (and perhaps ephemeral) about the act of mark-making. Drawing in the “expanded field” is obviously about much more than mere draughtsmanship, not least because it foregrounds the support and locational apparatus, which could be a wall in a gallery, a school, or some other institutional environment. Keeley’s works are often foils for the cold walls of those institutions, almost like assaults on their supposed neutrality and indifference where beings and imagination are concerned.

There are some walls, however, which already have such a presence or energy that Keeley would appear to stay her hand, and would rather watch and observe. It is here that photography comes into play, and that she resorts to the camera over the media she is more closely associated with. This is what she seems to be doing, in part at least, in the project called Workers’ Pavilion (2009), where her intervention is much more minimal than anything previous. The first stage of this involved working with the local community around Cao Yang Park in Shanghai, and applying gold paint to the crumbling areas and cracks in the “body” of a decaying concrete tea pavilion dating from the Maoist period. As opposed to whitewashing the building, in order to cover up its flaws and signs of neglect, this work had the effect of ornamenting its “scars”, amplifying its emotional and historical qualities, as in the Japanese ceramic tradition of Kintsukuroi (repairing with gold). The second phase of Keeley’s project in Shanghai, which resulted in China Series, saw her taking photographs of the pavilion and the locals who use it. This underscored the importance of photography and architecture in her thinking about art, and may have since served as the impetus for going back over her photographic archive.

What Keeley found in her archive was a series of colour photographs, which she had made as long ago as 1986, at the site of another pavilion that had similarly registered hope for a greater egalitarianism. In contrast to the vernacular Worker’s Pavilion in Cao Yang Park, though, this was a “masterpiece” of architectural modernism. The German Pavilion had been built for the Exposició Internacional de Barcelona in 1929, by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, together with Lilly Reich. They designed it as a lightweight, low-lying one-storey structure raised on a podium, with a cantilevered roof hovering over an asymmetric open plan of planar walls allowing interior and exterior courts and pools to interpenetrate. Only the best materials were used, including reflective grey and green glazing, green marble and yellow onyx in the walls and partitions, travertine in the paving, and chrome-plated steel in the columns. A single sculptural addition, Georg Kolbe’s allegorical female called Dawn, rested on a plinth inside the smaller water basin. Its figure complemented and contrasted with the avant-garde exercise in geometry and bold reduction of form, even while it pointed to the classical foundations of a practice that was otherwise revolutionary.

Despite being one of the most incongruous structures in the grounds of Montjuïc, the German Pavilion’s location could not have been more central. It was sited between the spectacular Font Màgica and the Palau Victòria Eugènia, at the base of the grand esplanade of the Neo-Baroque Palau Nacional (all of which were newly built for the exposition). Commissioned by the Weimar Republic, a decade after world leaders decided that they had caused enough carnage for the time being, the German Pavilion was intended to mark a commitment to modern industry in the service of housing, democracy and peace. (Mies van der Rohe had only two years earlier overseen the building of the twentieth century’s most progressive model housing settlement in Stuttgart.) The German Pavilion shared nothing of the flag-waving bombast so characteristic of national pavilions at the world’s fairs, and had little if anything to do yet with the cultural imperialist rhetoric of the ‘international style’. What is more, the German Pavilion exhibited only itself, being empty of the wares and propaganda typically displayed in such pavilions. Here stood an argument for aesthetic autonomy, something approaching a “pure” architecture.

This autonomy was certainly reinforced in the famous set of photographs taken of the German Pavilion, the so-called Berliner Bild-Bericht series. (Keeley and other artists who have subsequently photographed the reconstructed version of this pavilion are very likely to have known about this series, and been guided by it, albeit in different ways). These sixteen black-and-white silver-gelatin prints were not just any architectural photographs. Produced by Wilhelm Niemann and Sasha Stone for the Berliner Bild-Bericht agency, they had been choreographed by Mies van der Rohe himself, so as to direct vision in very specific ways, show the building as he wanted it to be seen, and crop or airbrush out any signs of its mundane temporal context. Equally important, these images were published and disseminated extensively in architectural journals, books and advertisements. Thus, when the original Pavilion was dismantled in January 1930, as is the fate of most world’s-fair architecture, it hardly mattered that the building no longer had a physical presence. The reality of such architecture (not to mention its ability to sell itself) now positively consisted more in the photographic negative.1

Keeley’s series of colour photographs was made just prior to the opening of the new Pavilion, now commonly referred to as the Barcelona Pavilion. What was it that caught her attention, and led her to opt for photography over any other form of engagement here? For half a century, the Barcelona pavilion had only been known through the Berliner Bild-Bericht images. The pavilion (papilionem, or butterfly, as the Latin root reveals) is by nature an ephemeral structure, a kind of “machine” that serves a function and is then obsolete, and all the more so when it is part of the fleeting spectacle of a universal exposition.2 Yet this one had achieved a kind of permanence through the work of mechanical reproduction. It had obtained its “aura” and legendary status precisely through the photographic image. Even so, over time these images ironically came to point to an absence. Decades later it was increasingly deemed unacceptable that such a pivotal and iconic building – and one whose global reach had done so much to shape modern architecture around the world – did not actually exist. Hence, using those images and other documentation, the City of Barcelona took its opportunity, and commissioned its reconstruction on the very spot it had once occupied.3

To be sure, it would not have been the first time that architectural photography served as a catalyst in the reconstruction of a building. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in the heritage industry. What is remarkable here is that, at a certain point in time, a series of photographs so well known for helping to legitimize the modern movement were now deemed insufficient, and required that a simulacrum be built to make them real. It is as if, in a curious reversal, the building’s reconstruction was now “documenting” those photographs. The new structure now existed to take up a pose for the camera once again, in a kind of repetition that makes the replica more real. Doing an Internet “search” for the Barcelona Pavilion, for instance, will generate innumerable colour photographs of the replica, and several black-and-white ones aiming for the more “authentic” look. What is so fascinating here is that such images parallel the lack of authenticity or substance in the reconstructed Pavilion itself. They are testimony instead to its quality as an empty shell, or what the critic Sylvia Lavin calls a “vestigial adaptation” of the original, “no longer proleptic, having lost any connection to an advanced cultural or historical project”.4

All that has been said above helps to explain, if only in a very general way, why so many artists working in photography (including Keeley) have been so taken by the reconstruction of the Barcelona Pavilion.5 Of course, each will have their own motivations, and achieve different ends with the camera. Hiroshi Sugimoto (German Pavilion, 1998) and Thomas Ruff (Barcelona Pavilion d.b.p 02, 2004) produced signature blurred photographs, which say more about their own proclivities. Gunther Förg (Barcelona Pavilion, 1988) and Kay Fingerle (German Pavilion, 2000) upset expectations with their use of the portrait format, and homed in on incidentals, corners or transitions; but whereas Förg blew up his images to achieve distortion, Fingerle worked on a smaller scale, using unfamiliar viewpoints, and putting colours into high contrast. Luisa Lambri’s smallish prints, such as Untitled (Barcelona Pavilion #04) (2000-01) looked more like straightforward high-art photography, while others have been more playful: Jeff Wall staged a scenario on the interior of the Pavilion in Morning Cleaning of 1999, while Luís Santiago Baptista (Modern Masterpieces #4) and Hannah Collins (Mies Barcelona V, 2002-03) introduced collage. 6

What then of Keeley’s series of eight photographs of the Barcelona Pavilion? It has already been observed that she produced these in August of 1986, before the reconstruction opened to the public and before any of the above-mentioned artists found inspiration there.7 It has also been noted that her work approaches photography (and film) differently, not at all with a view to producing fine art, but as a consequence of coming up against walls, surfaces and environments that are already very suggestive. In regard to the photographs of the Pavilion, as well as film-essays like Japan Notebook (1985) and Las Vegas Notebook (1986) produced around the same time, Keeley has written: “I draw with the camera / an extension of the body”.8 For a structure so mediated as the Barcelona Pavilion, the mediation of a prosthetic device like the camera seems fitting. Her photographs were taken with a hand-held Olympus camera, and are free of any professional accoutrements or post-production. Instead, she welcomes spontaneity and accident, including the “grain of the film”, which for her brings to mind the “grain of drawing”. Blown up for the purposes of this exhibition (their first public exhibition ever), each photograph measures 131 x 102 centimetres. Crucially, though, these are not offering spectacle, and are not idealized in any way.

While it may not have been intentional, Keeley’s eight colour photographs offer something of a riposte to the slick fastidiousness of the sixteen black-and-white Berliner Bild-Bericht images, not least because they are personal, intuitive, diaristic, everyday, haptic and sketchy.7 In her first image, we see the belvedere of the baroque Palau Victòria Eugènia rising up above the flat roof and podium staircase of the Pavilion, revealing just how disjunctive each must have looked in 1929, at a time much less familiar with stylistic pluralism. The second image of an interior corner is more schematic or abstract, as if guided by the counter-compositional diagonals of Theo van Doesburg’s Neo-Plasticism. The fifth and seventh images are shot in the same area, but up close to the glazed partitioning and travertine flooring; they look accidental, snubbing decorum and drawing attention to photography’s inherent imperfection and distortion. The third and fourth show the travertine court with the large pool from different angles, while the sixth and eighth images take us to the basin at the other end, where the masterly handling of expensive materials is revealed, and we can really begin to see how inside and outside areas become coextensive by virtue of the architects’ use of the “glass curtain”. In these, she has purposefully directed the camera away from the furnishings and Kolbe’s Dawn, as if she finds these to be distractions.

Architectural photography is never just a document, of course, but is full of distortions and always dictated by pictorial conventions that have been handed down over time, mostly through the genre of architectural drawing.10 Such drawing conventions are surely visible in the Berliner Bild-Bericht images. But whereas these images reveal the camera to be unequivocally impersonal, disembodied and machine-like, Keeley’s photographic “drawings” bring us up against our biology, and the porous relationship between space and the body. Having the character of snapshots, as admittedly they are, many of them foreground that imperfection and graininess that the artist is after, but also allow us to see the shaky perspectives taken up by the body as it equilibrates in relation to space. This might not sound all that exceptional; yet, this is not just any space, but a built “manifesto” for the reformulation of our idea of space in the age of relativity. If modern architecture from Eugène Viollet-le-Duc through Le Corbusier revived the age-old idea of the building as a kind of “body”, it still sometimes neglected the bodies that actually use and inhabit that architectural body. What Keeley does, in seeking to incorporate the body into architectural space and time, is to recover the “flesh” of photography.11

1. As architectural historian Beatriz Colomina put it: “The image is the project”. See Colomina, “The Smell of Mies”, in Muntadas – On Translation: PAPER / BP MVDR, Barcelona: Fundacio Mies van der Rohe, 2009, p. 27. Colomina has argued elsewhere for the centrality of the photograph in promoting architectural modernism, and that architecture of the modern period was produced as media as much as architecture with a specific function. See Colomina, “Collaborations: The Private Lives of Modern Architecture”, in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 58.3 (September 1999), pp. 462-71.

2. For Colomina, in “Beyond Pavilions: Architecture as a Machine to See”, in The Pavilion: Pleasure and Polemics in Architecture, Frankfurt: Deutsches Architekturmuseum, 2010, pp. 64-78, the pavilion is a very particular kind of machine. She explains that, with the hindsight provided by Dan Graham’s reflective glass pavilions, we can now see that Mies van der Rohe’s largely glass pavilion was effectively a “vision machine” (p. 69). It was “an exhibit about exhibition. All it exhibited was a new way of looking” (p. 69).

3. The architects commissioned to rebuild the Barcelona Pavilion were Ignasi de Solà-Morales, Cristian Cirici and Fernando Ramos. What opened in 1986 was not a strict replica, as several modifications needed to be made to allow this structure to be installed on a more permanent basis.

4. Sylvia Lavin, “Vanishing Point: The Contemporary Pavilion”, in Artforum International 51.2 (October 2012), p. 213. Lavin is comparing the serious experimentation and teleological direction of the original Barcelona Pavilion to today’s pavilions, which she sees as an “enfeebled” architecture and “party decor”. One wonders though if her critique ought not to be extended to the reconstructed Barcelona Pavilion itself. Architect Rem Koolhaas was probably not the only one who suspected that the reconstruction had killed the “aura” of the original as remembered in the Berliner Bild-Bericht photographs. Curator Andrea Phillips, in “Pavilion Politics”, in the journal Log (Curating Architecture) 20 (Fall 2010), pp. 104-115, has also outspokenly condemned the contemporary fashion for pavilions, arguing that they mostly present the illusion of public space and a “scenography of democratic participation enabled through cultural institutionalization” (p. 114). She concludes her essay: “It is clear with these pavilions that the viewer remains the viewer and the author remains the author, and the curator arranges the architecture as a microcosmic example of business as usual” (p. 115).

5. Artists are not the only ones to have been excited by this reconstruction. Although there was ample literature on the Barcelona Pavilion prior to 1986, a case in point being Juan Pablo Bonta’s An Anatomy of Architectural Interpretation: A Semiotic Review of the Criticism of Mies Van Der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion (Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, 1975), scholarship on this building burgeoned thereafter, two notable books being Josep Quetglas’ Fear of Glass: Mies Van Der Rohe’s Pavilion in Barcelona (Basel: Birkhäuser-Publishers for Architecture, 2001) and George Dodds’ Building Desire: On the Barcelona Pavilion (London: Routledge, 2005).

6. Although not exclusively focused on the Barcelona Pavilion, the exhibition Mies in Berlin at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (June – September 2001) went some way to demonstrating the extent to which this architect was conscious of the camera and used his buildings as media. On the work of Ruff and Fingerle in this exhibition, see Claire Zimmerman, “Mies in Photos”, in MoMA 4.5 June (2001), pp. 2-5.

7. A question that arises here is why Keeley has only decided to exhibit her photographs of the Barcelona Pavilion now, after twenty-eight years. What has changed in those years, or what has changed for her? There is an interesting correspondence here. Whereas the German Pavilion (as it was formerly known) was “lost” for half a century only to be recovered with the assistance of photography, Keeley’s photographs of this building seem to have laid dormant in her archive for a quarter of a century, only to be printed and exhibited at a time when critical debates about the relationship between architecture and photography have come to a head. Witness, for instance, the exhibition that is currently taking place at London’s Barbican Art Gallery, Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age (September 2014 – January 2015), the first ever exhibition of its kind to take a more global approach to the subject, and critically question the boundary between architectural photography as a form of art and as a form of documentary.

8. Shelagh Keeley, “Notes on the Barcelona Photographs” (unpublished, 2014). All quotations are from this text unless otherwise specified.

9.One adjective that is perhaps left out here is “documentary” – documentary in the sense of documenting Keeley’s own practice, which emerged out of (but also against) the Conceptualism of the early 1970s. Obviously, one way we can approach her photographs is as documents, as images that raise the question of whether we are to see them as the end result or as intended works of art, or more as residues of a process or thinking that would lay greater claim to being called the work.

10. James S. Ackerman, “On the Origins of Architectural Photography”, in Origins, Imitation, Conventions: Representation in the Visual Arts, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002, pp. 95-124.

11. The reference here is to the monumental investigation of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Joel Robinson, December 2014
©Joel Robinson. All Rights Reserved.


Joel Robinson is a lecturer for the New College of Humanities and The Open University in the East of England, and a Research Affiliate in the Department of Art History at The Open University. He has an interest in architectural culture of the modern and contemporary periods, and has just completed editing an issue of The Open Arts Journal called Pavilions.


Sara Matthews essay

Catalogue essay

You Can’t Talk about the War without Talking about the Weather

by Sara Matthews

…the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried 1

Until I read Tim O’Brien’s fictional account of the violences, reveries, regrets and memories of a company of American soldiers in Vietnam, I did not understand what it meant to tell a story about war. And yet what I read and re-read between those pages was not, in fact, a story about war but about the impossibility of telling a story about war even as the story presses up to be told. Stories, he suggests, console us from the fractures of memory. Against the fallibilities of being human, stories somehow persist. It might seem a strange departure to begin an essay about visual imagery with ruminations on imaginative literature, but the narrative force of the photographic work that we encounter in Embedded makes this an easy parallel.

With their respective projects, War Sand and Inshallah, Donald Weber and Dima Gavrysh carried with them their cameras and their visions and their lingering childhood insistences to two very different geographic locations – the beaches of Normandy and the plateaus of south western Afghanistan – both places deeply embedded in stories of war. While there can never be one true story of their experiences there, Weber and Gavrysh weave the sensory together with the mythic to provide a series of visual narratives that narrow the distance between the space of the gallery and the geography of war. Their photographs do not document but instead reflect on the imaginative possibilities of knowing by offering a series of visual hints: the way that light throws itself against the clouds along a rainy shore (Omaha Beach, Sector Charlie. October 4, 2013, 6:38pm. 17°C, 88% RELH, Wind, WSW, 8 Knots, VIS: poor, Thunderstorm) or the abstract contours of glass spidered by impact (Clark). Within each quiet visual moment lies a memory or perhaps a prediction about the ferocity of life and death in war that is gestured to again in the careful titling of the work. The strong aesthetic urge of the images along with the narrative suggestion of the text takes the viewer from emotion to thought and back again. “What stories can do”, writes O’Brien, “is make things present” (172). They do this by rendering the feeling of an imaginative scene. What the photographs in Embedded do is to bring this dreaming to life, not as a literal representation, but rather as a way to make present one’s own story of what war is, or might be, or might never have been.

Curator Claire Sykes selection of the title Embedded as an elemental aspect of each artist’s work is an apt point of departure for exploring this narrative impulse. A common association with the term might be the practice of matching journalists to military units for the purposes of armed conflict reporting. It was under these kinds of conditions that Dima Gavrysh was able to capture his striking images in Afghanistan. But there are other interpretations of the word that bring us to a closer understanding of what is at stake in crafting a visual relation to war. How does one come to notice, for instance, one’s deeply embedded ways of thinking about or seeing war? Can the activity of public looking help exceed these habitual frames? Furthermore, what gets left out of or lingers just beyond the frame, not only in terms of the photographic frame but also the frames of memory, experience and power within which it becomes possible to see or to not see? Weber and Gavrysh come at these questions from different vantage points with regard to their images as well as the methods they chose to produce them. Indeed, the practice of what is broadly labeled “documentary photography” is itself embedded within particular art historical and media discourses that encompass everything from the photographer’s aesthetic training to the ways in which images are taken up, circulated and discussed.

As a move against these pressures, or perhaps to find movement within them, Weber and Gavrysh adapted imaging technologies – Gavrysh’s use of a cell phone camera and Weber’s turn to microscopic photography – that stirred new connections within their imaginative worlds. In my conversations with the artists I was interested to learn how these process-based explorations lent an intuitive turn to their work, which then brought about new insights and modes of narrative encounter. The ensuing images eavesdrop on those interior conversations, inviting the viewer to think and to see alongside them. With War Sand and Inshallah, we encounter elements that, on the surface of things, we might not have seen before. In Weber’s Juno Beach, Sample #073 (Shrapnel Fragment), Sector Nan Green, for instance, we see the fantastical contours and vibrant hues of shrapnel transformed by the tumble of silica and seawater, embedded on a sandy shore. In Gavrysh’s David, the prone posture of a sleeping soldier discloses a dream-world vulnerability, a suggestive counterpoint to the mythic narrative of the soldier’s impenetrability.

Another of Gavrysh’s images, Concussion Dust, embeds the viewer in the action of a scene that would be ordinary only to those on the hot edge of combat: one can almost feel and taste the dirt and grit in one’s eyes and mouth, a palpable sensation that brings embodiment and emotion to the piece. And yet the grainy, black and white, square-trimmed photograph is the opposite of journalistic realism. Along these same lines, one of the companion pieces to Inshallah, entitled Salerno (not mounted in this show), exemplifies the artist’s use of metaphor to express the elemental, methodical and unrelenting aspects of conflict. Taken while Gavrysh was stationed at Forward Operating Base Salerno in Afghanistan, the five-minute video captures the steady splatter of rain against a concrete blast wall built to protect soldiers from enemy fire. In contrast to the permanent scars left by shrapnel, water droplets glance against the porous cement surface only to vaporize. When installed in a darkened gallery setting, the projection collapses the viewer’s perception of time and space, a fitting trope to describe the dynamics of trauma that characterize the many decades of conflict in this region.

By posing questions about how war and conflict can be visually represented, the artworks in War Sand and in Inshallah turn the viewer back upon their own archive of deeply embedded experience to inquire how one’s internal conflicts shape what becomes possible to see. Just as memories are an aspect of unconscious life, so too are one’s ways of knowing oneself in relation to one’s social and political worlds. The stories that we craft in order to apprehend such worlds carry the traces of childhood imprints, fantasies and wishes. “Stories”, writes O’Brien, “are for joining the past to the future” (172). As such, stories must reach towards a future that is impossibly unknown even as their telling may be all we have to go on, especially in the face of social devastation, loss and suffering. The urge to narrate a present that connects to the past, then, is part of a strategy of how we come to understand ourselves as fully human, even as war threatens that sense of humanity.

In the course of our conversations regarding their respective work, Weber and Gavrysh each shared accounts in which they called upon childhood motifs to make sense of their current projects. Speaking with Gavrysh via Skype to Kiev, the city in which he grew up, Gavrysh talks about his childhood fascination with the military, shaped in part by stories he had heard from family friends who, in the context of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, had been drafted for combat. Gavrysh describes the impulse behind Inshallah, a project that explores his intimate connection to both the Soviet and the American wars in Afghanistan, as drawing “on my childhood fantasies that romanticize the military and intertwine with my past and present personal conflicts”. Similarly, in my exchange with Weber, I discover that one of the inspirations for War Sand was a recollection of a story he had encountered twenty or thirty years earlier. The story involves British commandos – frogmen – in the Second World War whose task was to swim out the beaches of Normandy and retrieve soil samples for testing in support of the Allied invasion (see historical image). Fast forward to the present where Weber does his own sampling of the sand, returning the products of his photographic explorations to the viewer who then adds another layer to the narrative. “This”, he tells me, “is what happens with history. Things build upon it and our perspective changes”.

One last story: this one is called, “You Can’t Talk About the War Without Talking about the Weather”. It’s not my story but rather one that I heard from Weber, who recounts to me this amazing connection between the weather and the D-Day landing. It almost didn’t happen, he relates, as it was all very dependent on tides and weather. If the tides or weather weren’t right they would not be able to go, as was the case for the originally planned date of the invasion, which then of course had to be changed in favour of the date we all know about – June 6, 1944. And that is history. But still the perspective changes, as he shows us with Sword Beach, Sector Queen. May 17, 2013, 6:16pm. 10°C, 87% RELH, Wind, NE, 8 Knots. VIS: Fair, Overcast Clouds, Rain. These beaches, once the sites of death and mayhem but also the promise of hope from peril, are now the sites of summer homes and windsurfing, as well as our efforts to remember. “A true war story”, writes O’Brien,

…is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude, whatsoever. There is no virtue … and in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow.1

1. Tim O’Brien. 1990. The Things They Carried. Boston, New York: Mariner Books.

Sara Matthews, April 2014
©Sara Matthews. All Rights Reserved.


Sara Matthews is Assistant Professor of Culture and Conflict in the Department of Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her interdisciplinary work brings aesthetic and cultural theory to the study of violence and the dynamics of social conflict. Her current research considers how contemporary Canadian War Artists are responding to Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. In addition to her academic work, Sara curates aesthetic projects that archive visual encounters with legacies of war and social trauma. Her critical writing has appeared in articles for PUBLIC, FUSE Magazine, as a blog for Gallery TPW R&D, and in exhibition essays for the Art Gallery of Bishops University and YYZ.