ARTS, Books, Visual Arts

Globally the art world changed in the last half of the 20th century. Art practice shifted from the practical towards the theoretical and academic, and with it came a shift whereby the concept became at least as important, if not more so, than the actual artwork. This is the essence of contemporary art, and while there have been some fantastic works made under this model, unfortunately it has also seen the development of many strong ideas overdressed in art pretence, as well as an awful lot of ill-conceived ideas and poorly constructed artworks.

While many of us are hoping for a paradigm shift, or at least a return to a greater emphasis being placed on the actual practical production, we are left wanting. More recently this model has moved from the artist’s studio to the curator’s desk. The Sightseeing project has been the cause for some consternation for me. On the one hand, the concept is worth exploring and much of the work is interesting. On the other, the central conceit and selection of works are at odds.

Sightseeing (Edited by Ann Shelton and Hanna Scott; Rim Books, NZ$60) is both a publication and a touring exhibition (at the NewDowse in Lower Hutt until January 23, 2011). The publication consists of a box set of one booklet containing a couple of essays and 15 concertina booklets each containing six images/postcards. These concertina postcards also constitute the works in the exhibition.

In his book The Nature of Photographs, Stephen Shore states that “the context in which a photograph is seen effects the meanings a viewer draws from it.” This simple idea is essentially the basis for the Sightseeing project. According to project curator Hanna Scott, “Sightseeing uses postcards as an artefact to invert pictorial postcards’ traditional roles as a device to venerate the landscape” by presenting works that “disrupt ideas of beauty, pictorialism and nationalism.”

Yet it seems to me that people lump all photography together, ignoring the context of creation and/or presentation, in a way they don’t for other art forms such as writing, painting, even filmmaking—a photo is a photo is a photo.

The two main concerns of Sightseeing are the representation of landscape and the nature of the postcard. It is reasonable to suggest that artists make photographs that have a different purpose than that of the postcard. Yet by trying to draw connections between art, photography, postcards, and landscape with these particular images just seems to add a layer of confusion to all the issues being covered by these works.

To my mind the postcard is a very specific object/device. They are not just a small piece of card with image on one side and space for text on the other. They are mass-produced advertisements of the exotic and/or foreign, picturesquely conservative depictions of stereotypes primarily marketed to the tourist trade. With the majority of the works in Sightseeing, there is no suggestion that the artists were commenting on, or even thinking about, touristic representation when initially making the works, yet presenting them in this fashion forces a reading of the images which they themselves don’t want, ask, or need.

And it is with this recontextualisation of these photos that the project comes apart for me. If we assume that the basic idea of contemporary art photographers representing the landscape from a different perspective than commercial landscape photographers, we have an idea which is largely self-evident, but which has potential for exploration in an art context.

The photographers involved in Sightseeing come primarily from New Zealand and Germany, and were quite clearly chosen because they are working in photographic genre which backs up the argument presented. Admittedly it is a very contemporary style of art photography, and I’m struggling to think of any local landscape-focused art photographer who isn’t working in a similar style—Patrick Reynolds maybe—who would cause a change in the argument.

However, the fact that most of these works were not created with the postcard in mind and are of ‘anti-tourist’ sites makes the arguments they claim to be presenting rather redundant. Where is the commentary on the “veneration of the landscape”? What would have been more pertinent, I feel, is exploring how art photographers respond to sites of the cliché. How, for example, would they photograph Wellington Harbour from the top of the Cable Car, or Milford Sound?

Anne Noble’s photos of “simulated experiences of Antarctica” tackle this idea of confronting the cliché and attempting to treat it originally, but at the same time there is little pretence that these are ‘natural’ environments with elements of their “knowingly fake experience” all too obvious. Sarah Schönfeld and Shmuel Hoffman cover similar territory in their series ‘Send me a postcard’ which looks at the industry of ‘tragic tourism’ that has developed at Auschwitz. Their photos couldn’t really be described as touristic but do “encapsulate the way in which sacred sites have become a venue for consumption.”

Eva Leitolf’s work from the series ‘Postcards from Europe’ are clearly attempting an engagement with the idea of the postcard, but her images which “depict sites connected with undocumented immigration” don’t really play on the postcard concept and instead riff more on her political concerns. Elger Esser appropriates old postcards but, to my mind, fails to make any particular statement about anything much. Of the other artists included in this set, both Wayne Barrar and Haruhiko Sameshima have dealt with the representation of the cliché in some of their works, either as the focus or as an aside, but none of those works are presented here.

In her essay ‘A Rough Guide to a Lonely Planet’, Scott states that, “the gesture of exhibiting postcards is central to re-positioning the tradition of landscape photography … [and] provides a context in which the assumptions and implicit values of the postcards can be examined.” I’m not convinced that these postcards re-position the tradition of landscape photography in a way that the original works didn’t. Merely reproducing images as postcards doesn’t necessarily scrutinize the postcard.

But here’s the rub: if I ignore the central and frustrating idea of the postcard and look at each work or series on their own terms, this is a great snapshot of contemporary landscape photography, demonstrating a diverse (and possibly contentious) range of approaches and concerns. The works of Jeremy Diggle and John Di Stefano both play with the notion of (landscape) photography, memory, and documentation. It is hard to disagree with Scott’s assertion that, “each of the artists in Sightseeing provides insight into our meditated relationship with particular places … that landscape is an inherently cultural experience, not just a physical one.” But connecting all of these works to the postcard idea is an unnecessary conceit that merely confuses and obscures the quality of the ideas and works here.

Presented in exhibition, each artist gets his or her own 4×6 grid. Even though they are just the ‘postcards’, not photographic prints, they have an impact that works on the wall, with graphically strong and good use of repetition. In some ways the consistency of presentation makes sense of the postcard idea—in some ways. In the exhibition text Scott states that, “the works function as postcards ….” But that’s the problem: they have been made to resemble postcards but they don’t function as postcards at all. These ‘postcards’ have been produced for the gallery wall, which adds further remove from the basic idea of the postcard. These are artworks; they are not fading on a rack in a service station.

Maybe my initial description of it as a simple idea was apt, or I have been trying to read too much into it, or at least considered that there may be more to it than there actually is. Maybe I’m looking too specifically, or not looking deep enough, but it is interesting to compare this collection to the 1963 Brian Brake book, Gift Of The Sea, discussed at length in the recent book A Lens On The World. With Gift Of The Sea, Brake was reacting to the status quo and looking to knock it down, to re-examine the stereotypical representation of the land in books and create something new. The artists in Sightseeing are using landscape photography to examine many worthy and worthwhile issues but there is little specific and deliberate re-examination of stereotypical representation or the veneration of the landscape locations typical of postcards.

And so, once again, I’m left with questioning why the postcard? Was that intervention necessary to bring some cohesion to this collection of works? Postcards have a very specific purpose. They are not merely a particular size or style of reproduction. And these are pretend postcards. While they have been printed to allow for use a ‘real’ postcard, the presentation doesn’t really suggest postcard as much as booklet or catalogue. These works may not be traditional postcard images but equally they are not “anti-postcard images”. By making them into postcards doesn’t make that any more (or less) the case as they are not opposed to the postcard as much as operating outside of the postcard realm.

And this brings us back nicely to Stephen Shore, photographer, writer, and teacher. In the early 1970s he travelled around the USA producing works for what became the exhibition and book American Surfaces. While on these road trips he visited drug stores and other retail outlets and discretely deposited his own sets of postcards of American sites—postcards which verged on the anti-tourist, photographed in the new and (then) controversial ‘objective’ style that was labelled ‘New Topographics’ (which is also the favoured approach of these artists). I believe this is the subversion of the postcard that Sightseeing was hoping for but, removed from that unambiguous commercial context, fails to attain.