New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

Between Here and There: Dislocation and Displacement in Contemporary Photography
 by On Kawara.
On Kawara

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been boldly treading in the realm of contemporary photography in recent years. From Reality Check: Truth and Illusion in Contemporary Photography in 2009 which explored the practices of staged photography and other techniques of questioning the veracity of the photograph, to the major retrospective of The Pictures Generation 1974 – 1984 and to Surface Tension: Contemporary Photographs from the Collection, a survey of contemporary artist who exploit the seeming contradiction between the photograph as object and the photograph as a “window”, the Met Museum has been exploring current issues in the medium in a smart and engaging fashion. In it’s most recent installation at the Joyce and Robert Menschel Hall for Modern Photography, The Met has come up with another intriguing path to explore through this history; the idea of displacement and dislocation.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s America and the world were in the midst of great social and political upheaval. Artist began to think that they must break free from the traditional practices. Painting and sculpture were no longer the proper idiom and the Museum wall no longer the proper place to express the idea of contingency and the complexities of the modern world. Artist On Kawara in, I Got Up (1970), used the medium of the postcard to explore this idea of contingency by sending them to friends stamped with the exact time he got out of bed each morning as he traveled. It is interesting to note that he used the time he physically got out of bed and not the time he woke up which brings in elements of existentialism, carnality and performance. Valerie Export, an Austrian artist had herself photographed on the street as she contorted her body to mimic the brutal geometries of the urban environment.

 by Valie Export.
Valie Export

For all of these artists, the idea and performance was paramount, photography and video was just a handy and cheap way to document the act. Artists such as Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci used video to document ephemeral performances that focused on the movements of their bodies in space. Richard Long used photography to document elemental forms that he would create by walking over the ground to leave a temporary imprint.

Starting in the 1980’s and 1990’s this idea of displacement and dislocation becomes literal. It is no longer a structural trope used by earlier artist to hang their varied ephemera. It now takes on a geopolitical reality. Artists return to the “photograph as document” model as evidenced in the work of Rineke Dijkstra whose series of portraits, Almerisa, documents a Bosnian refugee from her initial processing as an asylum seeker through her process of westernization and up to motherhood.

At this time there was also a return to the highly produced photograph as the medium of expression to reflect upon a post national global existence as can be seen in the work of Thomas Struth. This conception is also used by Weng Fen of China whose gorgeous color photographs comment on China in the throes of physical, social and political change. In Bird’s Eye View: Haikou V (2002) an adolescent girl on the verge of personal and physical transition sits upon an old wall, her back to the camera, facing a new China undergoing a similar change.

This idea of displacement is brought down to a personal level at the end of the gallery by the work of Erin Shirreff. Her video Roden Crater (2009) consists of a single landscape as it undergoes some intriguing and at times impossible lighting changes until at one point you realize you are looking at a photograph. The piece asks us to meditate on the question – How do we know the world at a time when our experience of it seems to be slipping from the tactile and material to the virtual and highly mediated? It is a call for a return to the direct experience of the world for today’s mislocated cyber refugees.

Between Here and There: Dislocation and Displacement in Contemporary Photography

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