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"The Interview" by the Gao Brothers, Saathci Gallery "Pangea II"

September 05, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

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Goa Zhen and Gao Qiang are avant-garde Chinese artists whose work often brings them into conflict with the authorities. Their exhibitions, which continually push at the boundaries of artistic expression, have been shut down and their studio raided in the past. Posters and catalogues have been banned. They hold secret parties at undisclosed locations to show new work and the entrance to their home/studio is continually guarded. Not surprising when you remember that one of their sculptures, “Execution of Christ”, shows Jesus facing a firing squad of Chairman Maos.

This photograph (The Interview, 2007) by the Gao Brothers, shown at the Saatchi Gallery’s recent “Pangea II” exhibition, attracted my attention. But how can we describe it?  It is obviously fake  - the interview shown could obviously never have happened. Yet it is at the same time entirely realistic, not just in the sense that the photograph is convincing but that we are somehow not at all surprised to see a collection of murderous dictators all of whom could never have met in a room at one time (although some did meet at other times). Somehow the photograph's technical and conceptual realism undermines the obvious trickery. We inevitably look for the message from the photograph which quickly emerges as that all dictators are the same, in cohoots regardless of their politics.

In one of her essays, Martha Rosler proposed a useful mapping system for photographic messages:

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“Formal” foregrounds the photograph as a work of art while “transparent” is information-carrying, denoting a scene; “Literal” conveys clearly-bounded information; “transcendent” looks to get across a ‘higher’ message.  She gives the example of a fiery helicopter crash in combat. This would be:

  • transparent and literal when it functions to document the particular crash
  • it is moved toward the formal if the style of the photograph or the oeuvre of the photographer becomes an issue, but it may still be a literal document
  • It is moved toward the transcendent range of meaning if it is taken as embodying a statement about, say, human inhumanity, heroism, or the tragedy of war
  • and into the formal-transcendent range if its efficacy as a bearer of this message is held to lie with its formal rather than strictly denotative features

Rosler says that even if an artist locates his work near the formal end of the one continuum, his messages, no matter how commonplace or “vernacular” are still free to wander anywhere along the other, from literalness to transcendence. On the other hand, transparent messages are more likely to be conveyed in a literal image.

The power of the Gao Brothers’ image seems to lie in the way it spans so many of these categories at the same time.

 

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The formal properties of the photo impress us – how did they do that? How did they make it so realistic? At the same time the image is information-rich, so transparent as well.  The message is not literal (the interview never happened) but clearly transcendent. It's not a literal image in any sense, yet the shading could be pulled down towards literal because of the way in which it makes us suspend disbelief and accept a transcendent message almost as literal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Martha Rosler, “Lee Friedlander: An Exemplary Modern Photographer” in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001

 


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