GOD AND THE IMAGE: VERA LUTTER AT GAGOSIAN GALLERY
By Hans Michaud
(c)Vera Lutter. Images Courtesy Gagosian Gallery, New York
The point, I’m afraid, has been lost on most of us. I’m speaking of photography.
In our world, the capturing of images via extraordinarily complex devices that turn bands of light into numerical digits has become so commonplace that, for all intents and purposes, it is an entirely commodified, joyless and numbing experience. We have come so far from the frustration and amazement of taking a picture that we have, in fact, forgotten why we do it in the first place. It is no longer an avenue of exploration and wonder, it is obligatory, much like popular music had become by the mid-70s (and has become once again). It no longer takes risk to make/capture photographic images. This is what has turned photography into a compulsatory act, bereft of any tangible chance and unpredictability; therefore empty of real meaning and value, the perfect vehicle for consumerism (read: addiction).
There is an old adage about photography stealing one’s soul. Most of us are aware of this and some of us have possibly even considered it past the perfunctory nod or grin. But what of the fact that in Lutter’s works people never show up? Her exposure times are several days long, and any object moving faster than a napping slug won’t end up on the photographic paper. In this light we might argue that since only stationary objects show up in Lutter’s photographs, no one concerned about losing their soul need fret about the issue, since their image will not show up. Or are they objecting to the photographic process and not the result?
If Vera Lutter’s photo process does not steal one’s soul, it is because her photography has paid its price already in the process itself…it is far from easy, that is to say, far from being an enslavement…it takes effort to document what’s going on in the storage container itself, how it sees the world, its location within the world, and how that image shows up on the opposite wall.
The acts and rituals that demand the most effort are the ones that give the most in return. The fear of one’s soul being stolen is, in effect, a lucid and considered response to an ongoing history of greater and greater theft: in this case, the crime is of experience itself being robbed, the extraordinarily valuable experience of not knowing; in this case, not knowing exactly what your picture (on film) is going to look like. In other cases, experiences being lost (stolen) are directly proportional to the difficulty and length of the task, replaced by something cost-effective and efficient and marketable.
With the advent of digital photography (along with its moving-image sibling, digital video), the guesswork was thrown into the great dustbin of history. Shame, really. In fact, the guesswork itself, the not knowing, was precisely what made capturing images valuable, what imbued the process with weight and meaning. It was an uncertainty factor. As this quality vanished, photography became something else within our perceptual collective. It was no longer about creative risk-and-reward, it was now an obligatory attaché to a certain lifestyle and consumption level. It was the promise towards the dual carrots-on-strings of creativity and professionalism. Everyone, due to the wonders of corporate technology, got to be a professional photographer and artist, at least in their own eyes.
Vera Lutter brings photography back to its origins—literally. The actual pieces are not so much records of the objects of her camera, they’re records of the camera itself: the camera obscura-as-camera and not only what it sees but how it sees.
Lutter uses shipping containers as her camera obscura-turned cameras. On one side of the container, the largest sheets of photographic paper manufactured, affixed to the wall. On the other side, a pinhole. Leave it to the artists to bring the practice back to its origins, the ritual back to its more unpredictable, undomesticated and unruly ancestry with the amazement factor cranked through the roof.
“…The first time I created a camera obscura, after I had realized how long I had to sit in there to adjust my eyes to the darkness, to see the projection, which is about 20 or 30 minutes — I thought I'd seen God. When I saw the first projection, it was an epiphany. It was probably one of the most overwhelming moments of my life…”
–Vera Lutter in conversation with Peter Wollen, BOMB Magazine (http://www.bombsite.com/lutter/lutter.html)
When looking at Vera Lutter’s images of and in Gagosian Gallery, I was initially struck by how out-of-place they felt. They are enormous; however, they are not so big in the space, but not for the reason I initially believed.
When I first walked into Gagosian, I almost felt let down. There I was, expecting to apprehend work that would possess immediate visceral impact, work that would take my legs out from underneath me, images that would crackle and spring above the environment that couched and supported them. I expected Lutter’s negative images, imposing chunks of black, would render the gallery itself invisible.
None of these things happened.
Instead, I walked straight in and found, on the first image directly in front of me, the reflection of daylight glowing through the translucent doors of Gagosian. I moved back and forth, to and fro and found I could not shake the unsettling feeling that it wasn’t, in fact, the irritating reflection that was distracting me from the images themselves, it was the gallery, the space.
This is what I’d initially figured, at any rate. I expected the images, as gargantuan as they are, to bellow. They didn’t bellow, they whispered.
Coming back a few more times over the next two weeks, I began to notice things that escaped & confounded me. Each time I came back and placed myself among the pieces and let myself wander, I realized that the images are knock-down powerful only in the same way that the actual images inside the camera obscura are powerful: they’re extremely faint, obscure…one needs to take the time to consider and accept the deafening visual silence. If one does this one will, in fact, be able to see the record of god, to put it in Ms. Lutter’s terms. The formation of the image inside the camera obscura rewards patience with a glimpse of god. This is how she put it. It’s also where she puts it, and I’ll put it this way: one of the projects of art is to locate god. This is not exactly the same as the project of atheism: to locate god in its absence (such as one would identify a quart of milk from an empty refrigerator. One would know the existence of a quart of milk simply because one would apprehend the lack of it). But it is much closer to the project of art than it is to the project of religion, which is: to locate the absence of god (not god via its absence). What I realized is that for me, in the spectator’s position, having not been witness to the actual process, I was forced to assign the identity of god to the images themselves hanging on the walls. And that experience of god is literally speechless. For me it is an image.
Hans Michaud is a freelance journalist in New York.
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