Friday, November 28, 2014

Views from the Internet

Last week I went to a discussion on landscape and photography at Tate Modern.  This wasn't linked to their new exhibition Conflict, Time, Photography but to one at Somerset House I referred to here last year, 'Landmark: the Fields of Photography'.  The event was to promote a book of the show, edited by William Ewing, who chaired the panel of five artists: Thomas Struth, Massimo Vitali, Lauren Marsolier, Penelope Umbrico and Mishka Henner.  This represented a kind of spectrum, from Struth and Vitali who still compose and takes photographs to Umbrico and Henner who construct images from sources found on the internet.  Marsolier might be seen as somewhere in the middle, using her camera to capture fragments of landscape which she then digitally montages into scenes that convey a sense of feeling "disorientated and disconnected".  These oneiric visions with their blank windows and pale skies, "absolutely still with no breath of air" as Ewing observed, seem to fuse the reality of California with the abstract spaces of the internet.

Penelope Umbrico said she sees the Web itself as her landscape.  In Views from the Internet she collected landscapes glimpsed through windows found on home decor sites. 'Used as peripheral devices to elicit desire for the objects (and lifestyles) sold on these websites, the views are an invitation: they invite retreat and escape - into utterly flat space that is nowhere.' She has also made a series called Honeymoon Suites by scanning the candy coloured horizons and skies in holiday brochures to create distilled digital abstractions of happiness. 'While the horizon is intended to signify perfect love and escape, it equally points to the unattainability of both.'  The vast archive of holiday photographs on Flickr is the source for her installation Suns (from Sunsets), which I saw at the Landmark exhibition.  A a sense of the digital sublime is conveyed by retitling the work each time she exhibits it according to the number of sunsets available on Flickr at that date: in 2006 this was 541,795, on the day of the talk last week it stood at 22,177,914.  Apparently people have taken to photographing themselves in front of her wall of sunsets as if they were posing in front of a real sun.   

The two quotes in the paragraph above are from this book

I found Mishka Henner particularly interesting, although his dry humour seemed to bypass some in the audience (he sounded like Simon Armitage would if he read BLDGBLOG).  He argued that the problem with digital culture is not that there are too many images, but that we have not yet found ways to navigate through them.  He talked about the world of GoogleEarth and online photography as a kind of landscape of infinite detail.  He has been able to construct striking aerial views of oil fields that would have been impossible to photograph directly, exposing the way pipelines have grown like root systems through river valleys, farmland and urban centres.  Thomas Struth took issue with this kind of work, suggesting that it has immediate political impact but no aesthetic value.  Henner didn't argue the point, although it seemed pretty obvious that his images of US feedlots, for example, composed from satellite imagery, have a horrible beauty. Struth has himself chosen political subjects - Ramala, Chinese industrialisation - and his early work in Germany documenting urban architecture always seems to ask the basic question of why we have designed our living environment to look like this.

Although Struth is a major figure I find it quite hard to think of anything particularly interesting to say about him (I went to his retrospective at the Whitechapel in 2011 but didn't write about it on this blog).  His large-scale photographs of people in museums are similar to the beach scenes that  Massimo Vitali has been photographing for the last twenty years.  At first sight such photographs have more in common with the panoramic crowd scenes painted by artists like William Powell Frith than the panoramic unpeopled views we associate with 'landscape photography'.  However, in Vitali's case, what is beyond the foreground seems important: the people sporting around in the water in his 1995 photographs at Viareggio are overlooked by watch towers and cranes, whilst in another image of Rosignano from the same year, the sunbathers are oblivious to the cooling towers of a power station behind them.  There is pathos in the way these apparently unprepossessing strips of coast attract so many people, despite the proximity of factories, viaducts and graffiti.  "Being a tourist," Vitali told the Tate audience, "is one of the worst experiences you can have."

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