Once a year for the past 30 years, the photography department at MoMA has put together a survey of the newest new trends. This year’s highlights a medium that has never been more sharply affected by evolution, both from within and without.
The methods of picture taking have expanded. The number of people wielding cameras, thanks to their phones, has mushroomed. And the ways of seeing and sharing images has been entirely transformed. It’s been estimated that 300 million photographs are uploaded to Facebook each day. Curators Quentin Bajac, Roxana Marcoci and Lucy Gallun must have found themselves wading through an Ocean of Images—which happens to be the title of the show—to select the 19 international photographers included.
They specifically sought artists from what they’ve dubbed the generation of post-Internet photography which Marcoci defined as “any image of cultural production…that is produced with the consciousness of the system within which the picture exists.” Indeed, some of these works find completion only through their travels across the worldwide web.
These artists have found inspiration in materials as humble as bubble wrap and as lofty as the solar system. Through their work, they’re addressing ideas of authorship, ownership, social change, the making of art, the sharing of art, and the hijacking of art, to name a few. One of the first works presented is an unnerving portrait of a non-person. DIS, a collective of four artists, created “Bina48” a video one of today’s most advanced robots, meant to be a personal assistant or a person-replacement. If you had any expectations of majestic Ansel Adams landscapes, this should be enough to steer you into a different mindset.
Lucas Blalock’s “Picture for Mark II” is a reconstructed landscape-like image made of patches of color that have been tiled together in a rough simulation of hills, trees and clouds. While they’re visually soothing, there’s also a tension, since the viewer is aware that things are not what they seem. Throughout the show one feels a deliberate and delicate balancing act between things that are new and jarring and things that are new but reminiscent.
John Houck’s crisp abstractions constructed from colored paper or rulers and pencils are arranged in ways that recall geometric abstract works by Russian Constructivists in the early 20th century. The backstory is that Houck went through psychoanalysis simultaneous to making the images, the curators state, “analogizing the human psyche to a photographic plate.” None of that can be seen by looking at the photographs. Often in contemporary art, the point to be communicated can only be accessed by the artists, the curators with whom they discuss their work, and viewers who spend more time reading labels than looking at art. When did the visual component of visual art become superfluous and obsolete? If the imagery is not the means of communication, what is? There are works in the exhibition that address this in surprising ways.
David Horvitz in “Mood Disorder” photographed himself with his head in his hands, in a gesture of emotional angst. He then uploaded it to a Wikipedia page on mood disorder, and with no further input from him, found his image featured in news articles and blogs all over the web, showing the countless ways that information is now shared and spread. In his case, it’s the process, not the image, that’s the work of art.
Until they run out there’s a chance to bring a work of art home with you. Pallets placed on the floor held towering piles of Edson Chagas’ “Found Not Taken” prints. As visitors lifted them to take one home, the piles shrunk, till only the last one, glued to the pallet remained. Some of them even had corners pulled off, an effort at grabbing the last one documented by its partial destruction. The process of placing and removing challenged the preciousness of art in museums, addressed the idea of free dissemination of imagery, and became a kind of performance.
Lele Saveri’s “The Newsstand,” an actual newsstand previously installed in a Brooklyn subway station, conjures a familiar way of encountering images, and at the same time, speaks to the many new ways words, pictures and ideas are circulated today. Photo sharing, independent zines, and self-publishing all find a home here.
One of the quietest moments in the show is Yuki Kimura’s “Katsura” a group of nostalgic, elegant black and white images of the Katsura Imperial Villa and gardens outside Kyoto. They’ve been placed on metal armatures, and to see them, one travels through the grouping much as would be the case on the meditation paths in the gardens. Tall plants are placed nearby, to recreate the sense of the natural world they mimic. They are reprinted from photographs taken by the artist’s grandfather in the 1960s. Majestic black and white images—perhaps a nod to the fathers of photography, after all.
As the museum announced the exhibition, it also announced it will now be switching to a biennial format. From a series of tight, smaller exhibitions, they’ve morphed it into a sprawling international one, offering a global vision of photography. Artists put themselves in the position of seeing things. It’s their job. Some off the things that seem way out there – like talking robots – by the next appearance of MoMA’s “Photography Now” in two years may seem ordinary, or may have been completely replaced by the newest new thing. It’ll be interesting to watch.