My Fayum…

Sandra Kontos moved to Athens in 1993 to pursue her studies in archaeology and photography. Photography and archaeology share many qualities, namely they both record or archive the past. It was during this time she discovered the Fayum portraits (first and second centuries A.D.) They fascinated her, “Here I found myself gazing directly into the eyes of people from the ancient world.” Captivated by their melancholic beauty and the mystery surrounding their ancient faces, dress and jewellery, Kontos intensely studied these exquisite portraits. The portraits accompany mummified bodies and were painted on wooden panels by anonymous artists. Euphrosyne C. Doxiadis writes, “Of these two strands [the Greek painting tradition and Egyptian funerary beliefs], the sophistication of the first and the intensity of the second combined to produce moments of breathtaking beauty and unsettling presence.” [1]

Almost a decade later, whilst studying at UNSW COFA, Sandra Kontos experimented with Polaroid transfers. This photographic image transfer process was time consuming and produced fragile unpredictable images. The materiality of the results was a stark reminder of the textured surfaces of the Fayum portraits. Kontos paired the portraits with tea stained replicated maps of the Fayum region. The Fayum “… as it appeared c.1800, when it was surveyed by Napoleon’s Commission. This map, from the Descriptionde l’Egypte, vividly suggests the lush cultivated land, with its small fields, surrounded by rocky escarpments.” [2] This was a definite nod to her Athens days and the magnificent lessons of her archaeological teacher Aggeliki Papadopoulou. Pairing the portraits with the map was also a way of memorializing the dead; of establishing a sense of place for those depicted. An act of making the absent present.

With the discontinuation of Polaroid, this series of portraits now sit precariously in the digital age. The colours of Polaroid 669 film and the tea stained paper stock are unreproducible. These portraits are what Kontos loves about analogue photography. “The process is slow and vivid, random elements are revealed and they are unique objects imbued with the hand of the artist.” Geoffrey Batchen talks about rediscovering photography in the digital age. Sandra Kontos’ photographs are chemical events, actions that occur directly onto the paper stock. [3] The images are made not taken.

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Sandra Kontos, Fayum Portrait, 2004

References

[1] The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000, Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits From Roman Egypt, accessed 22 December 2015, http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/press-room/exhibitions/2000/ancient-faces-mummy-portraits-from-roman-egypt

[2] Doxiadis, Euphrosyne, The Mysterious Fayum Portraits Faces from Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson, 1995, p. 228.

[3] Batchen, Geoffrey. Blindness and Insight: Photography and/as Ruin, Symposium – The Alchemists: Rediscovering Photography in the Age of the Jpeg, SCA Auditorium, Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney, 5 December 2015, Keynote Address.

 

Pop Art – Perhaps Not So Bright…

After World War II, a sense of optimism prevailed as the United States and Britain enjoyed a remarkable period of economic and political growth. (1) Middle class Americans moved into affordable, mass-produced homes in the suburbs and television became more popular than radio. Mass communication began to saturate homes in the industrialized world. (2)

In Britain, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, artists and thinkers began to rebel against a dull and stifling world bound by social conformity. Looking to the United States, these artists saw “a more inclusive youth culture that embraced the social influence of mass media and mass production.” (3)

Inevitably, a cultural revolution gained momentum, as mass media streamed major events into living rooms around the world. Pop art emerged during the turbulent times of the Vietnam War and the protests it incited, the Civil Rights Movement and its call for equality of African Americans and the women’s liberation movement. (4)

Pop artist’s based “their techniques, style, and imagery on certain aspects of mass reproduction, the media, and consumer society, these artists took inspiration from advertising, pulp magazines, billboards, movies, television, comic strips, and shop windows. These images, presented with (and sometimes transformed by) humor, wit, and irony, can be seen as both a celebration and a critique of popular culture.” (5)

Richard Hamilton’s compelling collage of 1956, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, is crammed with all the new consumer products from the United States. On the surface it is a playful and naïve work, however, as Fiona MacCarthy writes, “at a more profound level it is horribly disquieting. No other work of art of its period expresses so precisely the jarringly ambivalent spirit.” (6) Hamilton’s disdain towards the dominance of America’s consumer culture is abundantly clear in his work.

Richard-Hamilton-Just-Wha-001

Richard Hamilton, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? 1956.

Andy Warhol saw American society as a world of ready-mades. He once famously wrote, “All cokes are the same, and all cokes are good.” (7)

Greencocacola

Andy Warhol, Green Coca-Cola Bottles, 1962.

Warhol liberated the art world and attitudes towards art radically shifted. It was the ideas behind Warhol’s art that makes him significant. Warhol was saying that Twentieth century America is about this, it is about movie stars, Brillo boxes, Coca-Cola and Campbell’s soup. His art dealer Ivar Karp said, “In this thing orientated world, Andy was a kind of God. America is a thing orientated culture, it’s a culture of objects and we bow down to that God everyday. Andy produced the artifacts. Andy gave us what we bow down to, things, movie stars, boxes, the American dream and life and finally death.” (8)

MarilyndiptychAndy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962.

andy-warhol-1971

Andy Warhol poses with his series of prints titled The Brillo Boxes at the Tate Gallery in London on February 15, 1971.

Warhol’s images are contrary to the heroic images of the Abstract Expressionists. On the surface there is a sense of buoyancy and optimism in Warhol’s work. It is glossy and bright, like the products that line supermarket shelves. However, there is also an unsettling quality. For instance, Warhol used a newspaper image of an empty electric chair in 1963 and returned to the subject of the death penalty for the next decade. A disturbing metaphor for death, “the chair, and its brutal reduction of life to nothingness, is given a typically deadpan presentation by Warhol.” (9)

Electric Chair 1964 by Andy Warhol 1928-1987

Andy Warhol, Electric Chair, 1964.

In the aftermath of John F Kennedy’s assassination, Warhol scoured newspapers and magazines for images of his wife, Jackie Kennedy. Warhol used eight photographs in his series ranging from Jackie arriving in Dallas to attending her husband’s funeral three days later. Warhol said that what bothered him the most was the way the media was “programming everybody to feel so sad.” (10) Echoing his sentiments, Alastair Sooke writes,The serial nature of the Jackie portraits – the way the images are repeated over and over again – is a metaphor for how the news media can work: bludgeoning its audience with a finite set of pictures and words, until we are “programmed” to think and feel a certain way.” (11)

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Andy Warhol, Jackie Kennedy, 1963.

References

1. https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/pop-art

2.  https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/pop-art

3. http://www.slideshare.net/jackjsargent/pop-art-photographers

4. https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/pop-art

5. http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/collections/collection-online/movements/195228

6. https://www.dlsweb.rmit.edu.au/bus/public/referencing/newspapers/dir_quotes/intext_newspapers_no_author.html

7. http://en.m.wikiquote.org/wiki/Andy_Warhol

8. Andy Warhol A Documentary http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0862644/

9. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/warhol-electric-chair-t07145

10. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140418-jackie-warhols-pop-saint

11. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140418-jackie-warhols-pop-saint

Images

Richard Hamilton, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? 1956. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/feb/07/richard-hamilton-called-him-daddy-pop

Andy Warhol, Green Coca-Cola Bottles, 1962. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Coca-Cola_Bottles

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilyn_Diptych

Andy Warhol poses with his series of prints titled The Brillo Boxes at the Tate Gallery in London on February 15, 1971. http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/remembering-life-legacy-andy-warhol-gallery-1.1893857?pmSlide=1.1893846

Andy Warhol, Electric Chair, 1964. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/warhol-electric-chair-t07145

Andy Warhol, Jackie Kennedy, 1963. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140418-jackie-warhols-pop-saint

“My work is all my personal history… I can’t separate my art from my life.” Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work deals with issues relating to life, gender, sexuality and death. All these things happen to the body but no bodies as such appear in his work. In Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) 1990, the artist uses the body of his lover Ross as a metaphor, which is signified in the “ideal” weight of candy used for the work. Untitled (Bed) 1991-92, appeared in several locations on billboards in the New York area. The body is absent yet alluded to in the unmade bed. Audience participation is an integral element to Gonzalez-Torres’ work. The artist’s choice of displaying such intimate imagery in a public form relates to his resistance of separating private and public domains. The Word Portraits further establish Gonzalez-Torres’ ability to create the historical meaning of an individual beyond representation of the body.

161459_2809251Felix Gonzales-Torres, Untitled (Ross in L.A.) 1990

Felix Gonzalez-Torres avoids representation. Candy in this case becomes “saturated with personal association, memories and emotions.” (1) The body of Ross, his lover, is the subject of the work. Ross’s body is represented in the “ideal” weight of the candy, this is 175 pounds, which is stipulated in the certificate of authenticity. The candy is either piled in a corner or spread out in “carpet like landscapes.” (2) “The spills appear as parodies of abstract, geometric sculpture.” Gonzalez-Torres described them as subverting the neutrality of minimal sculpture by annexing issues that derive from his biography.” (3)

As a metaphor the candy is consumed, the viewer sucks on someone else’s body. Felix Gonzalez-Torres said, “my work becomes part of so many other people’s bodies…” (4) It is at this point, when the candy is consumed, that the work is complete. Charles Merewether writes that the candy represents, “not only an eating away of the body, but a sign of regeneration, as in the symbolic eating of Christ’s body and the miraculous giving of life.” (5)

Apart from addressing consumption and challenging galleries, the political ramifications of this work are more pertinent because Ross was a homosexual man dying of AIDS. Thus the work, “… confronts visitors with the issue of homophobia and their fear of contact with HIV carriers.” (6)

Felix Gonzalez-Torres said, “in a way, this letting go of the work, this refusal to make a static form, a monolithic sculpture, in favour of a disappearing, changing, unstable, and fragile form was an attempt on my part to rehearse my fears of having Ross disappear day by day right in front of my eyes…” (7) Freud wrote that we rehearse our fears in order to lessen them. By relinquishing his control over the work and allowing audiences to touch, eat and possess his work, Gonzalez-Torres rehearsed the imminent loss of Ross. “Memory offers a path back to the other side of the line between life and death: it is all that remains after the disappearance of the body.” (8) The replenishment of the candy memorializes the subject.

FGT_Manhattan_sized-643x428Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Bed) 1991-92

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ billboard, Untitled (Bed) 1991, is a black and white image in soft focus of the artist’s unmade bed. The impressions of bodies are left behind in the indented pillows and rumpled sheets. The absence of any accompanying text offers no explanation for the image by the artist. Yet, this vacant space openly invites the viewer to enter the work based on their own memories of loss, absence, leaving and grief. (9)

For Gonzalez-Torres, “it is a wrenching, intimate depiction of his loss.” (10) The unmade bed becomes a metaphor for the love and loss of his lover Ross to AIDS. Most viewers were unaware of the artist’s biographical information and would therefore construct meaning based on what was personally relevant to them. The unmade bed a place of pleasure and intimacy, or of absence and loss. “Inviting audiences to remember moments of closeness and separation, this image is a passage linking the particular losses we experience with a culture of collective grief… Although the bodies are gone, memories sustain the experience, allow the feelings these bodies generated- the warmth and passion- to be revealed, recalled, recorded.” (11)

The audience participates to in the meaning of the work. (12) Gonzalez-Torres measured his work against the same questions, “I need the viewer, I need the public interaction. Without a public these works are nothing, nothing… I need the public to complete the work…” (13) Gonzalez-Torres felt that collaboration with the viewer was the force behind the work giving it meaning and emotion. Hence, Duchamp’s 1957 speech on the creative act is fully embraced by Gonzalez-Torres. Duchamp claimed that there were two poles in the creation of a work of art: the artist and the spectator. (14) Another repercussion to the artist’s method is Roland Barthes’ notion of the death of the author “… and [the] fundamentally emancipatory idea of the birth of the reader into the structure.” (15) Although Gonzalez-Torres adapts devices from the Minimalist vocabulary, his work is distinguished from it because his personal experience is transcended to become universally valid. (16)

Gonzalez-Torres said, “my work is all my personal history… I can’t separate my art from my life.” (17) The work was first displayed simultaneously at the Museum of Modern Art and twenty-four billboards around New York. By displaying such intimate and private experiences in a public form that typically promotes consumer products, Gonzalez-Torres dissolved the boundaries between public and private space.

George Chauncey states that, “there’s no queer space; there are only spaces used by queers or put to queer use. Space has no natural character… no intrinsic status as public or private.” (18) For a homosexual man, the ramifications of whether there can be a separation between private and public space are enormous in light of restrictive and repressive legislation ruled by the U.S Supreme Court in 1986, “which denies same-sex couples rights to a private sphere.” (19) By displaying such a deeply personal and emotional image on billboards around New York, Gonzales-Torres perpetuated what George Chauncey argues is a tactic used by gay men, “… to claim space for themselves in the face of a battery of laws… designed to exclude them from urban space altogether.” (20) This reciprocal relationship quantifies Gonzalez-Torres choices. The artist said his choice for the billboard was an easy one. He wanted to distance himself from his bed. With Ross’s death, his bed has become a source of pain and grief, especially at night.

Ann Goldstein clearly states:
(…) the nature of his work in general (…) subtly yet emphatically intensifies one’s own self awareness, subjectivity, and sense of personal history. In effect, his work insists upon the inclusion of the complexities of those areas most preciously protected or deeply repressed – it sets up a conflation of public and private, and the personal with the professional. (21)

The artist insisted that an individual could not be isolated from the socio-political structure that governs our world. Conversely, politics has always had ramification upon every individual. As a homosexual man, Gonzalez-Torres was directly effected by public policy as it impacted on his private life. His choice to present his unmade bed in public domains affirms his works ability to provocatively comment on socio-political issues.

Gonzalez-T_portrait_2011-repl_colorFelix Gonzalez-Torres, Word Portrait.

Gonzales-Torres’ amalgamation of public and private life is evident in his Word Portraits. They are also examples of the use of text as a metaphor for more than just the body, but for a life lived. Gonzalez-Torres would collaborate on commissions with the prospective owner asking them for their formative experiences and the concurrent dates. (22) Gonzalez-Torres intercepted this information with important public events that he believed undoubtedly contributed to their personal history. Thus, the portraits positioned the owner within a personal and a collective history. Gonzalez-Torres changed the order of the events, which coincides with the nature of memory as fragmented. He also included events before birth and places never visited by the owner. He felt that the portraits were more than a life, they were a history, “to sense our connectedness with the rest of the world.” (23)

The following Word Portrait is Gonzalez-Torres’ from the Brooklyn Museum commission of 1989. The intention of the museum’s curator was to blur the line between public and exhibition space. This Word (Self) Portrait was installed in a small annex near the elevators. It was painted in light blue and ran along the top of the wall in a single line. (24)

Red Canoe 1987 Paris 1985 Blue Flowers 1984 Harry the Dog 1983 Blue Lake 1986 Interferon 1989 Ross 1983

In Untitled (Ross in L.A) 1990, Gonzales-Torres uses candy to signify the loss of his lover Ross to AIDS. By avoiding representation in Untitled (Bed) 1991-92, the artist adopts devices from Minimalism. Yet, he subverts them and imbues them with personal significance. The universality of the signs invites the viewer to participate, to complete the work of art. Gonzales-Torres transfers the private into the public domain in a calculated response to the restrictive legislation imposed upon the homosexual body. In his Word Portraits, Gonzalez-Torres’ combines the personal and collective history of an individual based not on physical characteristics but on lived experiences.

References

1. D. Elger, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Cantz Verlag, 1997, p. 107.

2. ibid., p. 44.

3. L. Weintraub, Art on the Edge and Over, Art Insights, In., 1996, p. 115.

4. Elger, op. cit., p. 92.

5. C. Merewether, ‘The Spirit of the Gift’ in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Russell Ferguson ed., 1994, p. 70.

6. Weintraub, op. cit., p. 115.

7. ibid.

8. R. Ferguson, ‘The Past Recaptured’ in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Russell Ferguson ed., 1994, p. 32.

9. B. Hooks, ‘Subversive Beauty: New Modes of Contestation’ in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Russell Ferguson ed., 1994, p. 47.

10. Weintraub, op. cit., p. 116.

11. Hooks, op. cit., p. 47-48.

12. Merewether, op. cit., p. 61.

13. Elger, op. cit., p. 44.

14. ibid., p. 106.

15. ibid.

16. ibid., p. 81.

17. Weintraub, op. cit., p. 110.

18. G. Chauncey, ‘Privacy Could Only Be Had in Public: Gay Uses of the Streets,’ in Stud; Architecture of Masculinity, Joel Sanders ed., Princeton Architectural Press, 1996, p. 224.

19. Elger, op. cit., p. 18.

21. Chauncey, op. cit., p. 224.

21. Elger, op. cit., p. 18.

22. Elger, op. cit., p. 51.

23. ibid.

24. ibid., p. 50.

Images

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Ross in L.A.) 1990 http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/152961

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Bed) 1991-92 http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2012/04/04/printout-felix-gonzalez-torres

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Word Portrait http://edu.moca.org/education/teachers/curric/themes/artandtext/looking/discussion-7

C19th Mortuary Photography – The Illusion of Sleep.

Postmortem Photograph of a Child

Postmortem photograph of unidentified child. Harrison, Lock Heaven, Pa., ca. 1890-1910. Tinted gelatin silver print on cardboard mount, carte de visite. Courtesy, Center for Visual Communication, Mifflintown, Pa.

The enduring tradition of painted mortuary portraits precedes Nineteenth century mortuary photography. Jay Ruby writes, “The association of death and sleep is as old as Western culture itself. In classical Greece, the sons of the night were Hypnos, god of sleep, and his twin, Thanatos, god of death.” (1)

The denial of death was a pictorial convention that prevailed during the Nineteenth century. “People did not die. They went to sleep.” (2) The “last sleep” was a popular theme in mortuary photography because it beautified death by creating the illusion of sleep. With the high infant mortality rates during this time, mourning was a normal part of life. Memorialising the deceased was common and mortuary photographs were often displayed in the home.

A photograph retained the memory of the deceased and was also a lasting reminder that we have no power over death, a memento mori. The young boy (pictured above) is dressed in his Sunday best and it was probably the first and last time he was photographed. The photographer has adhered to the prevailing ideology of the day, and the boy appears to be sleeping. The photograph is a carte de visite, a small photograph that was relatively inexpensive to produce. The carte de visite was hugely popular and people would collect, trade or send them to loved ones. I cannot help asking whether his mother still carried him, even after his death, in her pocket.

References

1. J Ruby, Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America, Twelvetrees Press, 1990, p. 63.

2. ibid.

Image

J Ruby, Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America, Twelvetrees Press, 1990, p. 66.