The Spatial Possibility of Photography

Aslı Narin
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Laszlo Moholy Nagy said: "The enemy of photography is convention, the fixed rules of ‘how to do'. The salvation of photography comes from experiment."

As someone who consistently think and experience on what photography is and how it can be pushed to its limits, in this essay I would like to analyze the relationship between photography and space, and the possibilities rendered by spatial expansion which was the subject of my Proficiency in Art thesis.

I would like to talk about a work I saw in the 2013 Venice Biennial. Actually, it was this work through which I became obsessed with the possibility of a photography expanding the frame. Eva Kotatkova's installation "Asylum" consists of a large table with photographs, drawings and objects. The work which was a result of Kotatkova's visits to Bohnice Psychiatric Hospital in Prague, we see pieces from interviews done with patients and the diaries they kept. The prominent impression the work intends to give is the effectiveness of patients' imaginations, but at the same time the fact that they are categorized as "patients". And we can comprehend this through collages and texts we see come up inbetween the metal barriers. It is really exciting to see that this strong but delicate balance creates a new world, and that this world becomes a stage in which people can enter physically, rather than consisting of a 2-dimensional frame. The fact that the work emerged out of a special kind of research and it enables us to step inside a world that we never know – say, the minds of the people in mental hospitals – has rendered the artwork unforgettable.

I later learned that the first important exhibition in which photography acquired dimension/arose/changed form was opened in MoMa in 1970. In the press bulletin of the exhibition titled "Photography into Sculpture", the curator of the exhibition and photography department of the museum Peter Burnell writes:

"  … embraces concerns beyond those of the traditional print, or what may be termed ‘flat' work, and in so doing seeks to engender a heightened realization that art in photography has to do with interpretation and craftsmanship rather than mere record making.  Along with artists of every persuasion, these photographer/sculptors are seeking a new intricacy of meaning analogous to the complexity of our senses."

The part which I sympathize the most with is the seeking of a "meaning analogous to the complexity of our senses". Surely, a photograph inside a frame bear thousands of meanings, but introducing someone into a new world via photographs, and the fact that photography has a stronger sense of representing – or reflecting – reality, makes me feel closer to the works that expands in the space.

Roger Thompson in his essay "Installation Photography and the Transformation of the Viewer", argues that photography (just like I have mentioned above) demands from the viewer a different form of relationship compared to other visual arts. The popularity of photography which is ubiquitous is established upon capturing reality. However, photography as a form of art has the power to question the line between representation and expression. It holds this power because the insight and the expectation the viewer as to what constitutes a photograph is deeply embedded in society through the pervasiveness of the camera. Photography, through its rich and broad historical use, provides a way to connect to personal histories, and the world in general. And installations promise a greater capacity for that kind of connection.

This connection is the state called "immersion" which doesn't have an equivalent in Turkish. Although immersion is a concept that is mostly used in new media works, it is a characteristic which can be found in installations as well. In the words of Harriet Hawkin, "installations create a space to which you take your whole body". In this respect, the audience establishes a sincere contact with the artwork. This sincerity renders another aspect of installation possible which is dialogue. And through this dialogue the audience becomes part of the art experience. In Hawkins' words, art audience transforms from someone who is looking into a frame to someone who is within the frame.

When we consider Boltanski's "Chance", the audience becomes imbedded to the frame, and the notion of audience being inside the frame with their body and soul which I mentioned above becomes possible. On the one hand, photographs expand across the space, and on the other, they are in motion inside that space enveloping you. Again a work I came up with in the Venice Biennial which was exhibited in the French Pavillion in 2011, "Chance" is an installation that consists of metal pipes, and pulverizing the audience in terms of dimension and motion as well as sound. The images rotating inside the room are photographs of newborns from birth news published routinely in Polish newspapers. Approximately at a 10-minute interval one hears a bell and the video footage inside the backroom freezes and focuses on a single photograph. This noisy, claustrophobic, humane but thrilling installation is built on the notions of pure chance and identity. Questioning the thin line between life and death, and doing this through photographs of babies gives one a chilling feel.

Recently, there is an increasing tendency to expand the photographs inside the space. I think the reason for that is the easiness of producing photography, and the ability to produce a large number of photographs rapidly. Furthermore, in our contemporary world of visuality, people spend very little time before the frame and with this impatience their tendencies change. The full title of New Photography exhibition organized in MoMa in 2015 was "Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015". One should acknowledge that the title is a good one when one considers the fact that the world we live in harbors an ocean full of streaming images any time as we wake up.  

In fact, MoMa has been occupied with the question of "What is new photography?" and organizing exhibitions on the subject. The first of the exhibition series "New Photography" took place in 1985. One of the artists who drew my interest and who used the exhibition space in his work also participated in the 2015 version of the series. In Anouk Kruithuf's works, we see that photographs transform into independent sculptures, compared to the installations I have mentioned before. Her piece "Neutrals" exhibited in her solo exhibition is my favourite. In this series composed of 7 sculptures, the photographs are printed on unusual materials such as vinyl, latex and PVC. These photographs installed on metal pipes take on a more indifferent and mechanical tone with the coolness of the metal and the sense the materials give. In this work, Kruithuf uses various Instagram photographs of the agency that is in charge with Transportation Security Administration. In the Instagram account, we see the photographs of confiscated objects – usually guns – for security reasons. One can also see the IDs of those who are carrying the objects, but these images are shared so blurred that it is almost impossible to distinguish the sex or racial characteristics of the people. The artist prints out these ID images and displayed them on metal constructions. The images of blurred or almost non-identifiable IDs in the digital world transform into something completely different with these sculptures.  

It is obvious that internet provides us with incredible archival opportunities. Another artist who makes use of this opportunity is Erik Kessels. Kessels in his work "24 Hours" builds an installation with nearly 1 million photographs. By printing and installing all the photographs that are uploaded in 24-hour intervals on Flickr, the artist creates a physical representation of the world in which we are exposed to the stream of visuals.

Lastly, I would like to tell about Douglas Gordon's recent work "Reflux" which was exhibited in Paris Photo 2016. I wanted to include this work on which I found not much information, since I don't recall much work that expands in the space and captures the audience inside the space. If we consider the fact that Douglas Douglas is not a traditional artist and he works with different media, the style of the installation is not surprising.

A lot of questions come up to my mind when I consider these works. Can we call these installations utopia or even heterotopia? My reference assisting me to ask these questions is the exhibition book "Utopia/Dystopia: Construction and Destruction in Photography and Collage". The other is Ebru Ceren's Proficiency in Art thesis "Narrative Formation in the Context of the Relation between Space and Photography" which I encountered when I was writing this essay. In her thesis, Uysal refers to the importance of the notion of "heterotopia" in installation art. This concept studied by Foucault and used mostly in architectural studies, is the simultaneous representation of real spaces in another place. It indicates an existent place, but it is actually not, it is not even what one can call a place. As Uysal writes, heterotopia "was suggested by Foucault with the argument that there is a more violent kind of disorder in comparison with establishing connections between irrelevant things."

Uysal goes on to explain the relation between this concept and installation art:

"The contribution of the concept of heterotopia to installation art, as mentioned before, is ingrained in the fundamental structure of the form itself. In other words, objects that are included in the "anti-space" are used in conjunction with each other ‘both in juxtaposition and in contrast". Heterotopias do not admit single absolute and affirmative outcomes, they contain in themselves multiple alternative ways and conceptions. This consequently, enables them to accommodate different elements within their context, as well as allowing its participants to interpret it in different manners. And this is in line with the peculiarity of installation art that ‘requires a subject to be looked at." Installation art by rendering possible different conceptions and interpretations (by the subject who sees it), by being an anti-space (a new space which is not a place, a spatial imagination), and by re-organizing its components together or independent from each other to create a meaningful whole, has succeeded in utilizing photography as well as other artistic disciplines in the wake of being the plastic equivalent of the concept of heterotopia."

Furthermore, in these artworks we see that archival photographs are used frequently. Although it is very easy to take and print photographs today, I am impressed by the use of archives and presentation of the past and memory in an architectural order by re-assembling. I wonder why? What can be the reason behind the artist focusing on some specific archive and transforming it through the use of space, and especially doing it via photography which is considered to be the closest medium of representing reality? I don't know yet, but I would like to conclude with a nice quote from John Dewey's "Art as Experience":

"Every art communicates because it expresses. It enables us to share vividly and deeply in meanings…For communication is not announcing things…Communication is the process of creating participation, of making common what had been isolated and singular…"



- Photography Into Sculpture Press Release

- Thompson, Roger.  Installation Photography and Transformation of The Viewer

- Kurcfeld, Michael . "CHANCE" Encounter: Christian Boltanski Weighs Birth and Death at the 2011 Venice Biennale

- 24 Hours by Erik Kessels, 14 November

- Uysa, Ebru Ceren. Fotoğraf Mekan İlişkisi Bağlamında Nesne Üzerinden Dil Oluşturma, Page 102-103

Dewey, John. Art as Experience