Adam Ekberg

Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism by Janina Ciezadlo

Light Revisited
Elements of Photography at the MCA
Summer 2009

Somewhere in my garage is a catalogue entitled Light7 for an exhibition in the Hayden Gallery at MIT in 1968. It was from this catalogue that I gained the idea that the real subject of analog photography, as one might expect from the word itself, is how the world is revealed by light. Minor White’s 1968 exhibition was large, almost 70 photographs, and accompanied by a poetic manifesto exalting black and white photography to the level of a mystical gesture. Elements of Photography at the Museum of Contemporary Art this Summer is a very small exhibit, but it picks up and gives perspective to the important stream of self-reflexive ideas White explored in Light 7. The premise of the current exhibition is that water and light are the essential elements of photography; each of the photographs in the exhibit takes these physical properties and the process of their interaction with the camera as a subject. Elements of Photography was conceived to work in concert with the multi-room installation of Olafur Eliasson’s Take Your Time in which water, color, light and other essential natural elements are the axis of his immersive environments, and free standing sculptures.

Many of the works in Elements of Photography don’t have the Modernist high seriousness of the work in Light 7, in fact, Melanie Shiff’s Spit Rainbow (2005) is a large dead pan shot of a girl spitting out water to create a rainbow. Nathan Lerner’s abstract photogram from his Wolf River series Untitled Works of Light (1939) exemplifies the experimental period of the thirties and long with Joseph Jachna’s shutter speed experiment with water from the sixties recalls the fine-tuned formalist tension between classical balance and the destabilizing energy of analytical urgency. The conjunction of the photographs in this exhibit—all from the MCA’s permanent collection— marks out the cultural distance between the formalism (and seriousness) of modernism and the offhand but insightful inquiry into the elements of photography of contemporary images. Walead Beshty’s large color photogram (December 31 Valencia California 2007) is a case in point.

Beshty, who was the subject of a one-person exhibition in the Hirshhorn’s “Directions” series (Walead Beshty Legibility on Color Backgrounds April 30-September 13) this summer, continues, or perhaps more specifically enlarges on the dynamic light and color experiments of Moholy-Nagy, Nathan Lerner and Lotte Jacobi among others by folding and exposing large pieces of paper to light and photo sensitive solutions. The colors and the glossy surfaces of the work are compelling; it is the dynamism and purposeful fluidity of the high modernist compositions that are lost in Beshty’s enlargements.

Disco Ball in the Woods Chicago artist Adam Ekberg’s 2006 4 and1/2 minute video loop is, in keeping with the exhibit’s purview, a study in light and water. It could be, as one reviewer1 hinted a kind of gimicky and facile gesture, spawning a series of kitschy nostalgic and incongruous pairings. However, it held my attention. The disco ball more or less disappears in the falling snow, but sends off flashes of light which illuminate the snowflakes and enough of the empty lonely landscape to give the video an allusive and almost romantic quality in tension shreds of cultural irony automatically attached to disco balls. Disco balls exist for a reason, after all: their sparkling moving surfaces and patterns of light create excitement and giddiness. Snow too is mesmerizing, and these two moving elements, light and water (snow) converge in the lonely landscape. Instead of existing as an object in time, the video created a sense of the timeless. Its dislocations playing on the juxtaposition of the highly artificial mirrored ball and nature called up Micheal Snow, Smithson and Wallace Stevens, whose contemplations on time, repetition and juxtaposition turn on similar elements. Ekberg’s work was the most extended study of artificial light, and very much in keeping Olafur Eliasson’s erector set sensibility which uses modern technology to reframe encounters with nature. The entrance to Eliasson’s exhibition is a corridor of sodium vapor light which deadens color and creates a disorienting and hostile environment through which the viewer must pass. Ekberg’s Aberration #8 (2006 unique inkjet print) was a color photograph of what I used to call a lens mickey, or lens flare, concentric circles of light which appear when the camera lens is turned directly into the sun. Ekberg’s circle is colored like a spectrum and becomes the center of interest, foregrounding the camera lens’ interaction with light, and completely upstaging the landscape which might have been the photographer’s object.

Works by Luisa Lambi and Uta Barth explore interactions between light and architecture, solids rather than fluids. Lambi’s empty rooms and open windows mimic the interior of a camera suffused with unfocused light. (Untitled Barragan House #08 and 10 2005). Berlin born, LA-based Uta Barth subtle overexposed color work similarly dematerializes architectural solids. There is a kind of reticence and provisional sense to the work which hints at something beyond the frame (the photographs are like color field paintings in that there is no center of interest) of Barth’s work while Lambi’s work has more in common with Hiroshi Sugimoto’s well-known seascapes. Both evoke phenomenological questions about solids, liquids, light and perception.

On one level Sugimoto is simply taking contemplative almost documentary long exposure photographs of sea and sky. In Time Exposed, Black Sea, Ozuluce, (1991) ripples on water are moving out of a fog at an angel to the horizon. Philosophical questions arise because water can only be revealed by light, and the subject¬—water —will always be changed by the atmosphere, light and air, even though his overall compositions remain the same in this series. Sugimoto has said that he wanted to make images that were “devoid of cultural content.” Lambri’s photographs pose similar questions, although light flows over surfaces in the her photographs, while light illuminates the infinite play of the elements water and air in Sugimoto’s small scale, but meticulous work

Its just as hard to second guess curators as artists: the aim here might have been very simple— just display all the work form the collection in which light and water are subjects —or complex. The elemental is always ontological, that is, mingling scientific, analytical and speculative as well as the usual cultural lines of thought. But then again how important is it? Elements of Photography is a thought-provoking and not surprisingly lyrical exhibit. It is interesting in the context of Eliasson’s grand gestures which seek to create experiences, while for the most part the photographs in Elements of Photography offer representations of light and water along with questions about how these representations come into being. The topic merits more attention. I would like to see another larger exhibit, culled from several collections and one which goes farther into the current moment posing questions about the radical shift from analog to digital, and the transformation of imagery which arises from the shift from silver halite crystal to electronic impulse.

NOTES 1. “White, Minor Light 7: Photographs from an Exhibition on a Theme” Exhibition Catalogue. Minor White Ed. Haden Gallery, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Aperture Vol. 14, no. 1 (October 1968).
2. Ohmes, Jeremy. Review of Disco Ball in The Woods at Thomas Robertello Gallery Time Out Chicago Issue 131: August 30-Septemer 5, 2007.

Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts
and Cultural Criticism v.37, no.3 2009
Janina Ciezadlo

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