I notice that the Tate Modern has an exhibition entitled Shape of Light: 100 years of Photography and Abstract Art, one whose art historical approach refers back to the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark photography exhibition, The Sense of Abstraction in 1960. The Tate blurb states that this is the first major exhibition to explore the relationship between the photography and abstract art, spanning the century from the 1910s to the present day, and it includes some of the contemporary work by Antony Cairns, Maya Rochat and Daisuke Yokota.
The Tate exhibition basically re-inserts the history of photography into the well-writ narrative of art history to make a necessary point: – that photography merits serious consideration within the category of abstract art, and that the camera’s attraction to the shape of light rather than the shape of solid form as we perceive it, changed the way images of all kinds were composed. It also suggests that there has been a fruitful dialogue between abstract painting (Miro, Riley, Braque, Mondrian, Pollock, Kandinsky) and photography over the last hundred years.
This raises a question: has this kind of dialogue around abstraction come to an end in the 21st century rather than being continued?
The curators place the 20th century’s avant-garde’s photographic experimentations (ie., abstraction) in the context of wider developments in art, with examples of cubism, abstract expressionism, Bauhaus and op art providing benchmarks. The curatorial argument is that abstract photography has evolved in step with painting and that there is a shared history. The relationship between painting and photography has been a symbiotic one, a close mutualist relationship that has benefited both art forms.
An alternative interpretation is that abstract photography followed behind abstract painting, in that abstract painters influenced the way photographic artists understood image and that the photos are the monochrome equivalents of paintings. This interpretation reinforces the culturally conservative position of the supremacy of painting. This conservative interpretation overlooks the way that both Rodchenko and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy challenged the supremacy of painting by refusing to see any medium as more important than another, and by working in fields as diverse as film, graphic and theatre design, sculpture, painting and light shows. The common tendency in the Australian art institution is to adopt the conservative interpretation.
What the Tate exhibition highlights is a history of abstraction in which photographers have pushed the exploration of this genre of abstraction as an art form in the 20th century, and in doing so opened up the language of photography to being more than that of social documentary or photojournalism. It reinforces the view that central role of the art gallery (as a museum) is to transport us to different periods and cultures – diverse ways of perceiving, thinking, depicting and being – so that we might test them in relation to our own and vice versa, and perhaps be transformed a little in the process. The art gallery can be seen as a place where different constellations of past and present are crystallised.
I think that things have changed in the 21st century — photographers go their own way these days without that much reference to contemporary abstract painters. My own abstract photography, for instance, emerges from the what I see whilst I am on the poodlewalks, and not from looking at what contemporary abstract painters are doing. I don’t really know any of this kind of work in Australia apart from contemporary aboriginal paintings, such as those by Emily Kame Kngwarreye and John Mawurndjul.
The abstractions in this post, for instance, are based on, and centred around walking along the southern coast of the Fleurieu Peninsula from Petrel Cove to Kings Head. They are a part of an artist sketchbook and an assemblage of images from these daily walks whose tradition reaches back to the nineteenth-century flâneurs in Paris. Walking is usually associated with bush walking – eg., the walks organised by the Friends of the Heysen Trail –a nd not with walking as part of making images or art works, as exemplified in the analogue work of Zoe Leonard or that of Richard Long. The art work of artists expresses the journey and the event of walking.
The abstractions are only a part of my site specific photography, which often using outmoded analogue technology. Like Richard Long some of the non-abstractions are constructed with natural materials to create still life images with a minimalist rearrangements of natural materials — such as seaweed, sticks and feathers —that I find within the littoral zone. Circles are frequent in these temporary interventions in the landscape. The still life works are temporary because they are quickly erased by the natural processes along the littoral zone — washed away by the waves, or blown apart by the wind. This de-emphasizes the art object in favor of a performance or an idea – a conceptual exploration of the transience of time, transience and place.
The site specific photography in often often using outmoded technology refers to the use of analogue photography and out-of-fashion aesthetics and anachronistic forms aesthetics by Zoe Leonard or Tacita Dean or Rodney Graham to approach contemporary culture. The contemporary moment finds its expression through older retro forms. The above abstractions appear as if they stuck in the outmoded modernist forms of the pre-digital past, whilst using digital technology as a tool rather than a theme. The outmoded aesthetics of abstraction are aligned with, or invoke, an art history which quickly relegates the work to history. It is being out of fashion.