at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW
(Metro: L'Enfant Plaza)
Through August 12
Open daily 10 to 5:30.
Wolfgang Tillmans achieves two things with this exhibition. He subverts the hierarchical value system of (fine art) photography; and he subverts the standard functions of museum exhibition and museum exhibition viewing. On July 6, Smithsonian curator Merry Foresta gave a precise, informative and provocative talk about this show, the fulcrum of which was an argument about the concept of the archive, and how this was relevant to the exhibition. My simplification of this would be that the contents of a photography archive depend on the input of a viewer for meaning and for cultural significance to be established. This is somewhat like the idea of negotiation in literary reception theory, formulated by Hans-Robert Jauss, in which the meaning of a text is determined according to the individual’s set of life experiences and cultural background. This theory was to some degree an amplification of Hans-Georg Gadamer idea of a “fusion of horizons” in which the reader takes measure of the text’s history by reconciling it with their own history. What reception theory achieved was the displacement of a concern with the author’s intention by a concern with the activity between reader and text as a way of establishing meaning. What Merry Foresta achieved in her talk was recognition of the photographer’s intention being based on these ideas, directly or not. The archive, i.e., the entire exhibition, or, archives (each of the ten separate galleries housing the exhibition on the second floor of the Hirshhorn), form a kind of neutralization of both standard museum function (instruction, authentication), and the viewer’s practice (relatively passive reception). Thus, the fusion of horizons is activated. The beauty of Foresta’s talk was that it jump-started the processes of appreciation in a very particular manner.
My immediate responses to the show, before hearing Foresta’s talk, were all about how anti-museum the show was, and, in some ways, anti-photography. The latter, insofar as it clearly challenged the hegemony of aesthetic purity in photography; the former, insofar as it ignored the standards of exhibition. It was a thrilling thing to see. Most of the photographs were unframed and taped to the wall. Many of them were snapshots (size and style). Many of them were the size of postcards. Some were massive blowups. Placement was erratic, and some were too high on the wall to be seen clearly. One room was full of tables with photographs and texts concerning war, poverty, AIDS, homophobia and other social issues. This room was called the “Truth Study Center” – and its impact managed to be both ironic and passionate at the same time. Another room was full of blank photographic paper (or, photographs of blank photographic paper), including a huge grid of dark blue and black vertical rectangles, called “Memorial for the Victims of Organized Religions".
After hearing Merry Foresta’s talk, it was much easier to appreciate what kind of “fusion of horizons” was possible in viewing the Tillmans exhibition. Most especially, it was feasible to consider the limits of one’s own cultural background as they were being challenged by Tillmans. Also, it was possible in my case to see how some of my own biases were being validated. It seemed to me that the Tillmans show was the first I’d seen that clearly belonged to the age of the Internet, an age in which all information was made equal, in some respects, almost in the manner described by a famous American motto, “God made men and women, Samuel Colt made them equal.” In terms of photography, this made me think about John Berger distinction regarding the uses of photography
(in About Looking), “…photographs which belong to private experience and those which are used publicly." I wonder what Berger thinks about Flickr and other online photo sharing. Anyhow, issues concerning public and private, high art and mass art and not-art all came to mind. The dominance of a high art mentality in fine art photography came to mind. But, yo, we were in the archive now. No high art, no mass art, no not-art. Not yet. My own bias was not anti-high art, but anti-high art exclusivity, anti-high art contempt for mass art. This has been complicated in recent times by one’s having been beaten over the head by POPULAR CULTURE, with the fetishization of everything from film noir to Britney’s knickers. Which brings us to Kant.
In a comment on a recent post at Mark Wallace’s Thinking Again, David Michael Wolach said, ”There is a Kantian argument here, that is: poems needn’t justify being—they are ends not means.” The question arising in the archive is, if the photographs are the ends, how is that end arrived at? And, how many ends does it consist of? I am a populist by nature and inclination, and the bias that was validated in the archive for me was one that was against the prescribed limitations to what might be experienced looking at photographs. In a subtle way, Merry Foresta’s real impact was to give us viewers permission to think, to really think for ourselves. Not a popular activity, like driving, or eating. No, an unpopular activity, like listening.
OK, much of this is not really that new, maybe. I’m no expert on photography, by any means. I’ve looked a lot and I’ve read some. And I am intensely attached to the work of some photographers, such as Andre Kertesz, Sylvia Plachy, Steve Szabo, Francesca Woodman, Sandra Rottmann and Marcus Haydock. But I am vastly ignorant concerning the critical history of photography and the contemporary issues involved. And I don’t know that much about Gadamer and Jauss, either. I’ve owned books by both of them, but I’ve never read them, at least not thoroughly – just enough to get some ideas, which I may well have misunderstood. As a matter of fact, I don’t want to be an expert on anything. I’ve worked in academia for almost four decades, in Wales, in Greece, and here, and I have no interest in becoming an academic. Academia is about territory, and that’s just not my bag, man, you dig? It’s not that I don’t love academia, I do, truly. All those scholars, sussing stuff out and all. Que wow. Their work is an endless source of pleasure and enlightenment. And I don’t mean to apologize for my dumb ass, either, you dig.