The Covid-19 exhibition

The nation-wide lockdown was a public health response to the Covid-19 pandemic that started on 21st March, 2020 in Australia. This meant that we had to stay at home (self-isolation) apart from necessary visits to the supermarket, a medical centre or pharmacy, exercising within our own postcode, and practicing social distancing when in public.

The first step in easing the lockdown restrictions started on the 12th of May. In South Australia that meant we could travel within the state’s borders, which have continued to remain closed. We could go to cafes and restaurants within the limits of a maximum of 10 people eating outside and social distancing; then on the 22nd of May 10 people were allowed inside. National parks were opened. As were caravan parks. Tourist travel within South Australia’s state borders has been encouraged.

The step by step easing of restrictions still means that we will be living with the Covid-19 virus for a year or so, minimally. There will be no economic “snapback” to life before the pandemic or a quick end to big government. Covid-19 has  caused deep structural damage to the supply side of the economy, destroyed an unknown number of businesses, devastated the labour force, caused long-term damage to the balance sheets of households, banks and companies, and triggered cascading financial crises across the world. It will be a slow recovery into a world that is different to the one we knew.

The photos below were made during the lockdown.

Artist
Artist’s Statement
Exhibition Statement
Background Reading

Gary Sauer-Thompson is a photographer and blogger based in Encounter Bay on the southern Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia. Gary  has an M.Com in economics (Canterbury University, New Zealand), studied photography at the Photography Images College in South Melbourne and has a PhD in Philosophy from Flinders University of South Australia). He has published a number of books and he exhibits regularly. He has worked as an economist, a tramways conductor, an academic, and a political and policy advisor.

Wellington, New Zealand, 2020 photo by Sally Jackman

Gary left full-time paid work in Canberra in 2011 to become a independent photographer. He runs the poodlewalks and Mallee Routes websites, which explore different approaches to contemporary photography.

The photos in The Covid-19 exhibition were made by Gary Sauer-Thompson within his local postcode of Encounter Bay and Waitpinga on the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia during the Covid-19 lockdown. The photos were made with medium format film cameras (a Rolleiflex SL66 and a Rolleiflx TLR) whilst he was on the morning and evening poodle walks. They were made prior to the first step in the easing of the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.

The photos are part of the Fleurieuscapes project, and they represent the continuation of the analogue in digital terms. These pictures supplement, and are a background to, Gary’s contribution to the Friends of Photography Group (FOPG) online exhibition of film photography which were also made during the Covid-19 lockdown.

In modernity nature and history have been treated as two separate spheres, and the natural sciences and the humanities as the forms of knowledge corresponding to them. In the Dialectic of Enlightenment Adorno and Horkheimer argue that if the Enlightenment’s mastery over nature meant the liberation human beings from nature, then  the history of modernity is a history of the destruction of nature. The picture could not be clearer: nature is on the verge of extinction due to our consumption, flying, mining and burning of oil.  

In Aesthetic Theory Adorno’s account of of art history, natural beauty was replaced by art beauty a long time ago. He argues that the point with natural beauty is that it contains amemory of this loss. This means that natural beauty is a memory of “a condition free from domination”. Something is still there deep down, beneath all progress; something that could be sensed only in the aesthetic experience. A classic example is Australian wilderness photography orientated to preserving what remains of wild nature.

At the same time, natural beauty contains a promise of freedom, that is, a possibility yet to come. Natural beauty contains an opening towards something that we still do not recognize, something constantly waiting to spring forth. Adorno argues that art harbors a possibility to connect to this nature-to-come. Art does contain exclusive traces of what is lost and art is our best option to get out of the anthropocentrism which prevents us from even understanding the current situation. 

The memory/promise that nature contained is now preserved in the artwork.This does not mean to portray nature—rather art stands in for nature in the sense of referring to a meaning that exceeds what is there. The experience of natural beauty suggests that for a moment everything could be different. History is suspended. There is a promise of something else.

Covid-19

Some indiction of what work and transport within our cities could look like in a post-isolation society. Here is some reading on plagues and pandemics from the archives of the New York Review of Books.

Notes on photography as art works. 

Art photography is deemed to be autonomous in modernity in that it has historically been liberated from its social function origins in its mythical and religious past.  Modern art was not to be bounded by the limits of the past. Art shakes off the past by freeing itself from the past. The history of art is always the yet to come. The feature of autonomous art is the creation of something without direct purpose or function, albeit an art with a cultural role to make available those experiential and imaginative dimensions of our lives that lie outside the boundaries of scientific and conceptual discourses.

The crisis of modernity is the gulf or the ever widening rift between the growing dominance of the instrumental rationality of the empirical sciences and the first person experiences and values deprived of religious sanction. From Kant onwards aesthetic experience was tasked with negotiating this gulf/rift, or the diremptions of modernity. Hegel introduces art’s dialectical capacity to reflect on its own powers and limits and to point beyond itself. Twentieth century modernism is art reflecting on its disenchanted awareness of its own limitations and its celebration of art’s capacity to dwell in aporia and contradictions.

This conception of autonomy is linked by Adorno to the concept of consistency, by which is meant the idea of a work being identical to its structure —the artwork is an integrated totality.  The coherence  of the work —its truth— is consistent within itself, but it is also open to that which lies beyond its autonomous sphere. The material and structure of the autonomous art work unconsciously contains the social relations of modern capitalism.  

However,  this being -in-itself conception of the autonomous art work is illusory on two accounts. Its autonomy is an illusion given the commodity character of all art in a capitalist society where commodification is the dominant mode of social relations. Secondly,  art’s presentation of itself as being-in-itself is negated by the means of  this presentation being constructs. 

Illusion is a defining characteristic of art works in that an art work is an art work insofar as it pretends to be something that it is not.  Art works pretend to be coherent meaningful, unified wholes. They pretend to being-in-itself. The illusory quality of art conceals the artwork’s material  historical production. The art work’s manner of coming to be negates the very claim to existence that they propagate. 

The illusionary aspect of an art work is that it seeks to conceal its materiality (history ) and its  true meaning, Yet on the other hand is the unmistakable objective character of art works—art works are objects in the world. Art’s illusion presentation of itself as immediacy or being-inn-itself is how art appears. This is illusion as semblance (Schein)—phenomenality or  appearance as a shining forth  of essence. Appearance or semblance (Schein) is the domain of images

Art establishes its autonomy against commodification, despite being constituted by it.The commodity is defined by the independence of its exchange-value from its use value. In so far as autonomous art achieves a claim to what is not exchangeable, it becomes the ironic form in which uses can be recovered from their exchangeable form. The autonomous artwork is akin to the magical fetish in revealing what the autonomy of capital represses: that everything cannot be reduced to exchange-value. 

This is Adorno’s account of the modern artwork in the 20th century: — an account structured on the dialectic of enigmatic art based on the opposition between appearance/phenomenality and objectification/reification. There is an interplay of the artwork’s surface level phenomenally as a sensuous object and the artworks underlying force as a formal construct. However, since the artworks’s underlying objective structuration is actualised only in the realm of phenomenally, the phenomenal dimension of the art work participates equally in the workings of force.

The spirit (forms of experience or value) of the artwork emerges from the agon between force and Schein, each resisting the pull of the other, yet in that resistance, reversing into its own opposite. The art work becomes a force field of antagonisms–a field of forces-and so the locus of agency is the artwork, not the aesthetic subject as it was for the Jena Romantics (e.g., Friedrich Schlegel) and the American photographic modernists. For the latter (and the postmodernists) agency lies squarely with the aesthetic ironist, who shuttles blithely between various attitudinal stances and embraces the inherently unsettled tensions of forms of thought in relation to the world.

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