Exercise 4: Reflecting on the role of photography

Is photography simply providing an authentic record of the artwork – photography as evidence – or is it part of the artwork itself?

In the last section of Project 2 which is focused on photography in relation to land art, I have been considering artworks that are indeed very different, from the majestic scale of earthworks such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) to the intimate scale of an ephemeral conceptual piece like Self-Burial (1969) by Keith Arnatt, with both artists working in the very same years and both of them using photography in their practice.

As I have been seeing throughout this part of the course, photography as a medium is very flexible and can serve many purposes, artistic, documentary, scientific, and others  – this adaptability, this ‘transparency’, seems to be a feature intrinsic to photography – and so it finds its natural place also in land art and lends itself to be used by different artists in different ways and to different effects. It seems to me though that all these artists – Smithson, Fulton, Goldsworthy, Long, Mir and Arnatt, to name just those quoted by Creative Arts Today – as different as they may be, think of photography as part of their work, not only as a documentary evidence, even if in varying degrees.

I would thus say that photography represents one facet, one possible point of view on the artwork, or an integration of it, a different way of experimenting it, and so photography belongs to the artwork, without photography every artwork would be different, would be something else altogether.

In the case of fragile, site-specific, ephemeral sculpture works like those of Goldsworthy, the photographic record may of course be the only possibility for a viewer to experience them before they get lost or deteriorate, but photographs are also a way to look at these works from changing vantage points, or to discover in them details that the artist has intentionally captured, or still to perceive them in different light and weather conditions. So I think that in Goldsworthy’s case the act of photographing is instrumental in  documenting a piece and also in widening and deepening the experience for the viewer.

A piece like Self-Burial (1969) by Arnatt, made up of a sequence of still images taken at different times, started perhaps as more conceptual in nature, and in this case the photographic sequence represents the real piece of art, while the process of gradual self-burial in the ground was necessary to create it, more than the other way round. Possibly the artist was personally less involved in physically dealing with the earth and more idea-driven.

Considering now the walking artist Hamish Fulton or an image like A Line Made by Walking (1967) by Richard Long, there is a balance between the process of walking and the photographic evidence. Walking is experienced by the artists with their bodies, as a sort of performative and meditative act, and the traces left of this process as still or moving images offer the viewers an opportunity to meditate on this act and prolong it. Perhaps there is also something unsatisfactory in a photograph such A Line Made by Walking, in its being only a trace of a process that the viewer has not seen in its doing, but I think that this is intentionally so and that it underlines the ephemerality, the impermanence of the artist’s action on nature.

Also a project like First Woman on the Moon (1999) by Aleksandra Mir, though complex and grandiose in its scope and organization, was born as ironically ephemeral, but in her case I think that the video and the photographs that were taken put the accent on the community performance that was involved in the project and on the importance of sharing and helping to get results. In this regard, Mir’s work reminds me in several ways of the re-enactment of The Battle of Orgreave (2001) by Jeremy Deller.

A very large-scale earthworks sculpture such as Robert Smithson‘s Spiral Jetty (1970) can be experienced by many only through videos and photographs, not only because of its remoteness but also because to have a full view of it it is necessary to see it from the sky. In this sense aerial photography really offer a unique opportunity to consider it in its wholeness. But to walk along its physical extension, to perceive it personally piece by piece from the ground, certainly makes for a totally different way to experience it, in time and place. I am thinking here of some colossal archaeological works like the Nazca lines in Peru which can be perceived in their totality only from afar. So in my opinion also in this case the real piece and photography successfully complete and complement each other.

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