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There is a great deal to admire in Walead Beshty’s work and writing, not least of which is his demonstration that the opposition of abstraction and representation is quickly revealed by photography’s native function to be a false dichotomy. More energizing still—and I am speaking now personally—is his conviction that post-structuralist criticism can be a generative force, despite its historical position to the contrary as inimical to the proposition that photography retains a potential to model individual experience within culture. This alone sets him apart from many of his contemporaries who exploit cameraless abstraction to nihilistic or cynical effect.

 

It certainly requires feats of remarkable dexterity to square those antagonistic poles, and to contemplate just how a photographic practice is ever to come to terms with a formulation that posits the a priori illegitimacy of representation in general. Notice then, in replay, how he pulls it off: after categorically dismissing all photographic pictures as equivalent abstractions (nevermind for the moment that this is a structuralist reading), he then qualifies his own practice as something else, as somehow beyond such abstractions, as “concrete”. Regrettably, this attempt at a day-is-night, up-is-down lexical inversion, whereby photographs are condemned en masse as irredeemably abstract, while his photograms and indexical sculptures achieve a kind  of super-representational exceptionalism, is cognitive dissonance at best and doublespeak at worst.

 

Beautiful as it first appears, logic tortured to such an extreme nullifies itself immediately. To wit: if all pictures are effectively abstract, then the distinction itself is meaningless, and it must further be allowed that all pictures are effectively representational (a point Walead himself is advocating as the argument behind his “concrete”/abstract photograms). Yet if all pictures are indeed effective representations—a proposition that runs afoul of both the last forty years of critical dialogue and the central axis of Walead’s program—then it follows that there can be no point to his own critique or his images in the first place.

 

More importantly, such blanket dismissals discount the capacity of photography’s viewership to understand these complications implicitly and benefit from them as a result, an underestimation that would seem to disavow the type of forum in which we’re engaged at the moment. Clearly no argument can be sustained that denies the event of its proposal, so I take Walead’s participation here to indicate that it is precisely those ambiguities intrinsic to the pictorial model—quite rightly including even those which historically have suggested its own abstraction—that are not the frustration, but indeed the source, of photography’s meaning.

 

The ablest of photography’s makers and analysts, regardless of historical period or agenda, have always had an instinctual understanding of this multivalence: namely, that the ambiguities inherent to so uncanny a representation are photography’s ongoing replenishment. Tensions such as those between abstraction and representation exist along a continually sliding scale, one that creates within each such image a hermetic admixture, the alien power of which is precisely its singular value. Again: the uniqueness of that conflicted representation is itself the photograph’s meaning, superlative even to the photograph’s content, by virtue of its ability to model (rather than merely document, or even index) the contradiction we know experience to be. So-called “concrete photography”, in its attempt to literalize content at the cost of ignoring the picture’s most basic capability for paradox, prioritizes metaphor over model, denying exactly the kind of potentiality that it proclaims in (but relegates to) theory.

 

It bears mentioning that the final eclipse of revolutionary abstraction was not accomplished by Stalin’s terror, but in the admission that its idealization regressed to an autonomous form that could never be justified—indeed, in Rodchenko’s own later words, must never be justified [1]. The crux of the argument at hand then is that when grafted onto the inherently representational character of photographic practice, the Passion of a consummated faktura comes to grief with the awareness that it can be manifest in only the most remotely metaphoric terms: photograms surrender the world in favor of the darkroom, just as the design and display of glass boxes intended to be shattered during shipment to their own museum exhibition, however conscientiously orchestrated as a reflexive system, is an enunciation of social conditions rendered symbolically at most.  The irony of that divorce—as Walead rightly cites Buchloh for first proposing—is to confirm precisely by the terms of its surrender the totality of the “dehumanizing spectacle” it purports to critique. Remember that Malevich’s summer landscapes and Rodchenko’s circus performers were only the last in a long series of retreats from that woe begotten Front [2], now long since deserted.

 

So let us be clear: the principle danger here remains the conservative attempt at a restoration, albeit one misleadingly dressed in the mythological doxa of an avant-garde long since foreclosed. Malevich, condemned like Rodchenko to a spiritual house arrest as much the making of his own suffocating logic as the rapidly declining conditions of a totalitarian dictatorship, is not an example to envy.

 

If ultimately there is anything to be learned from simulacra, it is that we can never in fact separate ourselves from the world or the real [3]. More to the point, I do not think there can be to any ethically conscious individual a genuine desire to do so. Abstraction, whether aesthetic, mnemonic, or epistemological,  is never so entire that it obviates even the least attempt at a transparent reckoning of history, nor so corrupt that its shortcoming does not in itself offer some model for understanding the human contingency of that same history. Cast perpetually adrift, we bear the responsibility of engaging the absurd aspect of our exile as such, lest the allure of rhetoric alone form the first walls of our confinement.



[1] “Art—is serving the people, but the people are being led goodness knows where. I want to lead the people to art, not use art to lead them somewhere else… Art must be separate from politics.” Alexander Rodchenko. Alexander Rodchenko: Revolution in Photography, Moscow House of Photography, 2008.

[2] The Left Front of the Arts (Levyi Front Iskusstv or LEF) was an early avant-garde group founded in 1923 by Rodchenko along with Vladimir Mayakovsky, one principle tenet of which was to define the revolutionary potential of so-called “Concretist” artistic practices as equivalent to concrete social actions. Despite its avowed mission to "re-examine the ideology and practices of so-called leftist art, and to abandon individualism to increase art's value for developing communism", LEF’s advocacy of Formalist abstraction was the exact cause of its condemnation by rival factions of the Soviet vanguard, principle among which, it can be noted not without some irony, was the original October group.

[3] “[T]here is still one link that binds an image to its referent within the apparently empty barrage of photographic imagery and the universal production of sign exchange value: the trauma from which the compulsion to repress originated”. It is precisely at that tipping point that the acculturated image as such paradoxically “yields its own secret”, as being “a perpetual pendulum between the death of reality in the photograph and the reality of death in the mnemonic image.” Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “Gerhard Richter’s Atlas: The Anomic Archive”, Photography and Painting in the Work of Gerhard Richter: Four Essays on Atlas, Llibres De Recerca, 1999.

 

© Copyright Gil Blank

At Home In Exile, In The World: Photography’s Native Ambiguity

A response to Against Abstraction, an essay by Walead Beshty
Both essays originally published in Words Without Pictures, October 2008
A project commissioned by The Los Angeles County Museum of Art