Simon Harvey is a visual cultures theorist and writer. His research interests include: smuggling and visual culture; new geographies of art practice; counter cartographies; concepts and practices of rhythm; and art and public space. He is the author of Smuggling: Seven Centuries of Contraband (Reaktion Books, 2016).
In the photographic process it’s not a question of considering the world as an object, of acting as if it were already there as an object, but of making it become an object, in other words, of making it become other, of exhuming the alterity buried beneath its alleged reality, of making it appear as a kind of basic, disintegrative strange attractor … (Jean Baudrillard)
Art exhibitions are strange phenomena; it often seems that their central task is to make the world appear unfamiliar, perhaps unreal, maybe just a little bit different or sometimes downright strange. Telling a story straight has not always been high on the list of priorities of contemporary artists.
Artists have always played fast and loose with the truth and this is accepted as part of the illusion, a means towards a more illuminating truthfulness. Those taking up lens-based technology in their work have an added responsibility, it seems: the lens, instrumental in exposure, both in the sense of capturing the object and conveying directly its reality, is linked strongly with evidence, what is apparent, there-to-be-seen, the real thing - truth. The `honest` truth, though, can be something of a burden when it gets in the way of artistic expression. Whilst having enormous admiration for the artists and their works exhibited in this year’s Spring Exhibition, I want to focus here, with greatest respect and appreciation, on evidence of their cunning and, dare one say it (in the nicest possible way), `dishonesty`, or, should one say it otherwise, artistry, which enables them, obliquely, to get at truthfulness.
Some of the subject matter scrutinized in the artworks on display here should quite rightly be exposed as either criminal or having questionable ethics: ecocide, environmental emergency, cultural vandalism, consumer manipulation, food tampering and exploitation by intrusive and overly-smart technologies. In this new age of anxiety that echoes the real or imagined threats of the Cold War era, it is surely of utmost importance that we get, directly, at the truth. But is this at all possible in a time of competing narratives?
None of the artists here have aimed their work at documentary-style revelation of an accepted truth, instead adopting a more layered and nuanced approach, even if it has meant activating their own subtly violent and creatively destructive (and then reconstructive) tactics to this end.
Io Sivertsen seeks her own voice, her own truth, in her film Growing pains, thoughts on climate change. She engages with the existential threat of environmental pollution on a personal, emotional level but also taps into a collective consciousness of the threat. Albeit the polluting mining project that she intersects with is eventually abandoned, the sense of dread and doubt in the outcome of the activist actions that she involves herself with is to some extent what this work is about. There is a very real fear that we cannot get at `the truth`.
In response to this problem, and turning it on its head, each of the artists has added their own evasions: they have both broken down and added layers to the core of their work and this has made it, deliberately, difficult to read. There is abstraction, fragmentation and a more general `making strange` with the apparent reality of the work.
Of all the works here, Janne Kruse’s Epoch (A Reversed Signal Behind Today) is the most directly made strange – a response to the shaken sense of reality in perceiving and transcribing spatial experience when, for instance, one is suffering from seasickness, or else a kind of psychic perturbation when overwhelmed with tangled nature.
Other works in the exhibition are strange as a result of a process of fragmentation and destruction of the image. Marianne Bjørnmyr’s Epitaph series and Sarah Vajira Lindström’s Lose not an Atom/Dissecting my Food work, respectively, with destroyed artefacts and broken-down food, reconstituted, but only partially, into new photographic objects. Bjørnmyr’s two images are of a recast head and a foot that had been lost in the iconoclasm of war and unrest but reconstructed from archival description and fragmental remains. Unlike most classical museum-exhibited sculpture, they are mounted not on a pedestal but instead on a rough porter’s wheel-mounted platform designed for removal and transporting heavy objects around and in and out of the institution. It conveys not only fragmentation but also impermanence. Lindström’s black and white images of food samples are artfully arranged and mounted between microscope slides before being photographed in a code-like montage, framed, and then presented horizontally, a little like medical evidence (drawing on, and also commenting upon, the assumed authority of scientific presentation). They become, in the process, both rhythmic and vibrant, resembling the abstraction of a Mondrian painting, with the connotation now being not jazz rhythms but rather digestive ones.
Jon Gorospe’s installation, The Spot, disrupts the slick and seductive imagery of electronic advertising panels, substituting them with new forms derived from its language, but which have a glitch-like unreadability. They play with our optical perception, a little like op-art does, and defy categorisation, wavering between sculptural, photographic and other graphic abstract representation. We are unable to reconstruct the ideological consumerist message out of this. Similarly, Dev Dhunsi’s installation Ankhon dekhi – Moving image demonstrates the partial destruction, and incomplete reconstruction, of an image imprinted on a textile floating in a tank of water, agitated and distorted in a turbulent current. It opens up questions about the agency of the artist and the elusiveness of the photographic object.
The frustrations of directly representing reality in photography, even when it is the artform that holds out the best hope of pure `denotation` of the object, was the theme of sociologist Roland Barthes’s essay `The Photographic Message` from his book Image Music Text. He holds out the ideal of pure representation that need not be layered, encoded, or otherwise resignified: it can be a `message without a code`, an `analogon`. And nor need it be broken-down, divided into its parts:-
In order to move from the reality to its photograph it is in no way necessary to divide up this reality into units and to constitute these units as signs, substantially different from the object they communicate; there is no necessity to set up a relay, that is to say a code, between the object and the image.
Why then, in light of Barthes’s ideal for representing some kind of reality or truth, are the artworks here so layered, so fragmented, often quite violently so, in their attempts at reconstituting truthfulness? Well, Barthes goes on to resign himself to the impossibility of simple denotation, conceding that, like drawing, painting, cinema and theatre, there will always be layers of `connotation`, even to the photograph, that place the work within a style or an historical and societal context.
The layering in much of the artworks here is related, but runs counter, to Barthes’s connotative additions to a work (that situate it and tell us how society should be reading it). This is the case with Åse Løvgren & Stine Gonsholt’s film The Universal Machine, which, among other things, breaks down a moving, talking image of Klára von Neumann (a key figure in the story of computer programming and coding) into an animated facial recognition diagram constituted simply out of numbered points. The decipherment in this work operates on several levels, for instance questioning the claimed effectiveness of computers in predicting and bestowing some order or readability upon chaotic systems like weather patterns. The peeling-off of layers of computer code here, undoing the ideological connotation, if you like, in both scientific and technological registers, reveals the encoding and mythification that not only makes us read things in a particular way, but consume them without question.
Towards the end of Barthes’s essay, he suggests that deconstructing the code in reading photographic imagery is perhaps more important and more revealing than an approach that simply works with signifieds (with a type of evidence that is extant and fully available to us, not at all slippery). But most of the artworks in this exhibition are more than decodings: they are strange, and their strangeness allows them to elude certain dangers that Barthes refers to when he talks about `cognitive connotation`. One pitfall is that if we are able to recognize and identify too closely with the evidence in an image – objects that confirm what we already know – we are prone to insularity. Connotation through the photographic image can reassure and integrate, certainly, as Barthes says, but if we place it in the context of social media today, this over-familiarity will keep us resounding around our own little echo chambers.
Much work in art practice today is to do with community, and one might think of a jury-chosen exhibition like this one in these terms (even when we come together at an exhibition opening, we resemble a bit of an art tribe), but one would hope that the artwork on display will not simply reflect proof of our identity back at us. We deserve complex evidence, in our cultural productions, of our otherness, strangeness and diversity.
The sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard came up with an interesting, counter-intuitive take on evidence when he suggested that, in stark contrast to the `realist text` quality of other media, in photographic media what is important is what is `evident`, which translates as the `unintelligible, dazzling, manifestation of the other`. I rather like Baudrillard’s definition because it has the unreadability of tampered-with evidence, of a creative crime committed. He even puts it in these terms:
Every photographed object is simply the trace left behind by the disappearance of everything else. It’s almost a perfect crime, an almost total final solution, as it were, for a world which projects only the illusion of this or that object, which the photograph then transforms – absent from the rest of the world – into an unseizable enigma.
An `unseizable enigma` - Baudrillard’s characterization of the photographic image might leave it rarefied and decontextualized (unconnoted?) – a `disappearance of everything else` – but then not all artwork should be integrated.
The Spring Exhibition this year is fascinating for its selection of artworks that dissimulate and reimagine how we can engage with some very serious issues, cracking their codes, fragmenting their rhetoric. It draws us in, another sort of coming together, with this diverse array of `disintegrative strange attractors`.
Simon Harvey © 2023
 Jean Baudrillard, `The Art of Disappearance`, in Transit Lounge, eds., Ashley Crawford and Ray Edgar (North Ryde, Australia, 1997) p.76.
 Simon Watney `Making Strange: The Shattered Mirror`, in Thinking Photography, ed. Victor Burgin (London, 1982. `Making strange` was a strategy adopted by Russian Futurist photographers, and others during the 1920s and 1930s, that defamiliarized everyday objects and scenes, producing quite beautiful and strange effects out of the banal.
 Roland Barthes, `The Photographic Message`, Image Music Text (London, 1977) p.17.
 As philosopher Althusser put it, we are `interpellated` or `hailed` and constituted as subjects through a `mirror structure`; overly-familiar objects represented to us through lens-based media can serve simply to hail us towards homogenous groupings and blinkered viewpoints.
 Baudrillard, p.75. If you look up virtually any definition of `evidence` or `evident` you will come up with something very different to this, along the lines of `plainly seen`, `manifest` or `obvious`.
 Ibid., p.75.