Found in Translation
“It would seem that photography has recorded everything. Space, however, has avoided its cyclopean evil eye.” —Robert Morris, “The Present Tense of Space,” 1978
As Robert Morris, a sculptor, observed, something is inevitably lost when a three-dimensional sculpture is translated into a two-dimensional photograph. The experience of sharing a space with an object (and being able to move around it), and the experience of seeing that object represented and embedded in another object—a flat photographic print—are very different. But do we always experience the photographic image as absolutely flat? Isn’t it the tension between the flatness and the illusion of space in photography—its fidelity to the real—the very thing that makes it compelling, possibly troubling? Photography clearly allows us to imagine space. So is there a strict distinction between phenomenological space and imagined space, and how unambiguous, or understandable for that matter, is the difference between the two experiences?
The relationship between photography and sculpture, and the effects that are found in translation between the two mediums, have been of interest to artists since photography was invented. Some of the first photographs featured sculptural objects: both Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot recorded marble statues and plaster casts in the late 1830s and early 40s. (1) An early attempt to overcome the limitations of photography, specifically its inability to translate three dimensions, was the invention of the stereoscope in 1849. Using a special viewing device that rendered two photographs taken of the same subject from slightly different angles, the viewer experienced one image as having lifelike depth and volume.
In the early twentieth century sculptural forms fascinated photographers such as Edward Weston, who took pictures of vegetables and shells, Edward Steichen who photographed Auguste Rodin and his sculptures, and Man Ray, who studied the female form. One recent example of artists documenting what they considered to be “found” sculptures is Bernd and Hilla Becher’s first book, Anonymous Sculptures: A Typology of Technical Buildings, published in 1970, which presents multiple pictures of lime kilns, cooling towers, and silos as elegant structures without any overt pictorial embellishment or romanticism. In the 1980s Robert Mapplethorpe used dramatic lighting and cropping to make nude photographic studies that refer to photographs of sculptures from art history. (2) His two-dimensional translations of his models arguably increase the feeling of the body’s weight, mass, and permanence beyond what would be experienced by seeing it in the flesh. And of course there are artists who use photography to more practical ends to document their sculptures, especially if their creations are ephemeral or remote, such as Andy Goldsworthy’s interventions in nature and Robert Smithson’s land art. Similar to performance art, photographs allow this type of work to be documented and disseminated. These documents raise the question of the privileging of experience, and circle back to Morris’s concerns about documents always lacking some aspect of the firsthand experience.
Their works resist the notion that the world simply gets folded into the two-dimensional surface of the photograph.
PhotoDimensional is an exhibition of works by contemporary artists who investigate the relationship between sculpture and photography, between two and three dimensions, and explore perceptual issues intrinsic to those relationships. Their works resist the notion that the world simply gets folded into the two-dimensional surface of the photograph. As a result, their works are almost always layered, with subjects translated in ways that invite us to imagine passing from the experience of one dimension to another, and sometimes back again. Thus, perceiving their works provokes feelings of unsettledness, a wavering between seeing and knowing in our minds, a tension that becomes an engaging condition of their artwork.
Originally trained as a sculptor, Vik Muniz (Brazilian, b. 1961, lives in the United States) took the dust collected over several months by the maintenance staff at the Whitney Museum of American Art and used it to create drawings based on installation photographs of the museum’s collection of minimal and post-minimal sculpture. In Muniz’s photograph of his dust drawing of Tony Smith’s minimalist cube, the dust is easily discernible and its constituent hair, pebbles, and small scraps of paper appear larger than life. Ironically, dust is usually the nemesis of the pristine photographic print and polished sculptural surface. Also starting with historical photographs of sculptural forms, Lorna Simpson (American, b. 1960) used James Van Der Zee’s photographs as her inspiration for 9 Props (1995). Made while she was an artist-in-residence at Pilchuck, a glassblowing school in Seattle, Simpson had the artisans re-create the elegant vases that appear in Van Der Zee’s pictures. She then photographed the glass objects and printed the photographs onto felt accompanied by simple texts. By endowing the pictures with tactility and three-dimensionality, Simpson aligns her work with the modernist concerns of surface and form.
Like Weston, Steichen, Man Ray, and Mapplethorpe, some of the artists in the exhibition photograph existing forms to enhance their appearance and identity as sculptural objects. When John Coplans (American, 1920-2003) began photographing his aging body after he turned sixty, he created a set of images that evoke classical marble sculpture. His documentation of advanced age is alternately humorous and disquieting in the closeness of its observation. Seeing himself as an actor, Coplans examined various body parts closely, often quoting art-historical postures with his sagging figure against a neutral background in the style of many photographers of found sculpture before him. Florian Slotawa (German, b. 1972) creates makeshift sculptures with furniture in hotel rooms across Europe, documenting his architectural interventions in black and white before he checks out of the room. Leslie Hewitt’s (American, b. 1977) (Untitled) Replica (2006-08) is a triptych of a domestic scene including plants, books, and photographs in which she turns the orientation of the images upside down to call attention to the formal qualities of the still life. In her photo-sculptural works simple events between the images such as shifts in the lighting register the passage of time and human intervention, and found family photographs and books on African-American history communicate a sense of cultural significance and histories both personal and communal.
Other artists make works that confuse two and three dimensions.
Other artists make works that confuse two and three dimensions. Sculptor, architect, designer, and photographer David Ireland’s (American, b. 1930) images of the island of Skellig Michael off the coast of Ireland are mixed-media works in which the artist deliberately creates a distance between the viewer and the subject by painting directly on the photographic print. In one, an expanse of water acts as a barrier to the island, while a painted green rectangle in the center of the photograph expands the viewer’s visual experience in a less representational sense. Pello Irazu (Spanish, b. 1963) and Laurent Millet (French, b. 1968) also compellingly combine drawing, painting, sculpture, and photography to create the illusion of three-dimensions in two-dimensional images that are difficult to reconcile in the mind’s eye.
In her video work La Ronde (2004), Bettina Hoffmann (German, b. 1964, lives in Canada) uses a slowly panning video camera to give us multiple points of view on human subjects who are absolutely still. As the camera circles around the periphery of the people, the effect is one of traveling through the space of a two-dimensional photograph. It is as if the space surrounding the subjects of a still photograph has opened up for the viewer to navigate from multiple points of view, while the subjects themselves remain frozen in time.
Chicago artist Heather Mekkelson (American, b. 1975) makes three-dimensional sculptural objects inspired by disaster photographs she finds on the Internet and in newspapers. Keeping an archive of images from floods and hurricanes, Mekkelson isolates interesting details and translates them into sculptural forms that she distresses to recall the original disaster. These objects are then placed around the gallery in non-literal translations of the photographs, ghostly details from disasters usually communicated to us through photographs. Similarly, Katalin Deér (American/Hungarian, b. 1965, lives in Switzerland) translates photographs into sculptures and back into photographs, making multilayered renditions of simple, modern architecture and commonplace furniture that are meant to create, in her words, “a new, entirely unforeseeable and strange space that fluctuates between dimensions and perspectives.”(3)
Interested in emphasizing the object status of the photograph, Deér casts pictures into concrete, turning them into architectural objects. She further underscores the physicality of photographs by pinning unframed prints directly to the wall—but only at their top corners, so they can curve in the humidity.
Finally, both Melinda McDaniel (American, b. 1978) and Susana Reisman (Venezuelan/Italian, b. 1977) make sculptures out of photographic materials. Reisman prints photographs onto long strips of canvas and molds the strips into forms that allude to the photograph’s original subject matter. McDaniel places strips of photographic paper outside for days at a time to achieve varying degrees of exposure and imprints of weather, revealing the subtle color gradations inherent in the paper’s chemistry. She then exhibits the uniformly shaped strips in the gallery in a deliberate, regimented manner that recalls minimalist sculpture and creates a tension with the random, abstract patterns of the weather marks on the paper.
Photography may not be able to record space, just as it cannot record many other things like fragrance or sound. But it can convey space.
Katalin Deér has remarked, “Photography mirrors a peculiarity of vision. It folds the visible world into the surface.”(4)
All of the artists featured in this exhibition recognize that the surface is rarely experienced as static. Photography may not be able to record space, just as it cannot record many other things like fragrance or sound. But it can convey space. And the particular way that it communicates space and translates reality into two dimensions can be used in intriguing ways by artists to translate subjects from two dimensions to three, and back again. These investigations allow us to experience their works as the active, exciting experiences they are intended to be—experiences that are found in translation.
—Karen Irvine, Curator