Body Double

This exhibition considers five photographic practices and recalls a text from "Our Eunuch Dreams" by Dylan Thomas:

The photograph is married to the eye, Grafts on its bride one-sided skins of truth; The dream has sucked the sleeper of his faith That shrouded men might marrow as they fly. This is the world: the lying likeness of Our strips of stuff that tatter as we move Loving and being loth; The dream that kicks the buried from their sack And lets their truth be honoured as the quick. This is the world. Have faith.

The story is told of French 19th century painter, Eugene Delacroix' wonder at the first photograph of a star: the light that completed its journey to his eye had begun long before the inventor of photography was born. We now know it may have in fact died long before man first appeared on earth. The fact that photography must refer to an actual presence challenged the idea of truth. The photograph, says "This was." It collapses three dimensions into two, freezing the fourth-time-while attesting to a visibility of which it is a double. Its new reality supplements the chaos of the world as seen through our constantly changing perceptions. Once we tied a string to our finger to remind us of something; now we consult a Polaroid. Memory has moved into the machine. Memory is relocated from the body into the darkened cube of the camera.

The largest and the smallest works in the current exhibition reconfigure the photograph's relation to its architectural space. On the one hand, "Bad" Brad Braverman's huge photolaminations become architectural in scale and mirror the changing space before them. At the other extreme, John O'Reilly's intimate collages derive from studio set-ups within a phantasmagoric theatrical space that itself is based on his memory of a childhood cardboard theatre.

In 1895, Wilhem Roentgen, the first Nobel Prize winner in physics, discovered radiation and invented a means of controlling it; this became the x-ray machine. Roentgen's initial publication of his images under the title A New Art from Rays, linked the mechanism of controlling radiation to Impressionist art which after all was a "new art" deriving its images from "rays."

What does this historical background have to do with our regard of these particular images? The artists in this exhibition are all involved with rethinking the technological implications of the past century and a half in ways that acknowledge the impact of these events, even as they seek to break out of the imperatives of history. Thus, an inevitable outcome of "objectivity" of modern medical knowledge has been a shift from a reliance on the diagnostic look in which the patient's appearance formed the basis of the doctor's reading to increasingly sophisticated invasive techniques of both diagnosis and treatment, that have little relation to their human subject. Today's doctor, for example, shares nothing with his anesthetized patient, nor does the radiologist or diagnostician receiving information miles or countries away via fax.

December 28, 1895, the Lumiere Brothers presented the first motion pictures projected to a general public. September 25 of that same year marked the first comic strip. Photography's "one-sidedness" is its skin. Brad Braverman makes this point quite literally in his works and in related pieces which show nude figures serving as a screen for slide projections. Homosexual desire, with its elaborate plays of doubling and desire, is the frame of all of Braverman's unearthly beauties. Rossana Jeran and Jim Pennington used a related concept of projection in her video, Wish and the prints derived from them, but her interest is in Jungian archetypes, meditating on Psyche as much as Eros. Their employment of polarizing images, water and fire-as thematic and generative forces suggests an alchemical fascination which is always present in photography's transformation of metal oxides into visual traces through light.

At first glance, Kimberly Austin's layerings reconfigure the penetrative mechanistic gaze of the x-ray, but they are in fact exterior views layered at the service of creating a mythological unity, a bringing together of the macro and microcosm in into an androgynous figure. In 1846, ether was first used as anesthesia in a demonstration by Dr. William T.G.Morton at Massachusetts General Hospital. Pioneer photographer, William Henry Fox Talbot's, "photogenic drawings" first submitted to the Royal Institution in 1839, embodied the negative-positive system, which allowed the multiple printing from one photographic exposure. Talbot's The Pencil of Natures first issue, in 1844, included this advise to the reader: "The plates in the present work have been drawn by the work of Light alone, without the aid of the artist's brush. They are in themselves sun-pictures and not, as some have supposed, imitative engravings."

Seth Rubin's series initially appears as the most scientific of the works in this exhibition. They appear to be relics from some Nineteenth century scientific museum an effect enhanced by their presentation within wood strip frames that recall American Arts and Craft designs. In fact, they are elaborate fictions, that attempt to catch the human spirit in a manner parallel to photography's mechanical ability to represent or capture the perceived the form. The idea of photography as a "spirit catcher" allowed much charlatanry in the medium's earliest days-spirit photography, melodramatic evidences of the other life. Nineteenth century photography mediated, at the basest and most dishonest level of retouching and photomontage offered a visual affirmation of the connection of this world and the afterlife even as it tried to tie the present to an equally undeniable past. By contrast, Rubin's lack of subtlety in setting up his shots heightens our awareness that we are viewing a semiological "trace" rather than a natural phenomenon.

Were Plumbe's daguerreotypes of the Titian Venus on display in Washington in 1846-47 the first widely disseminated photographic nudes in this country? Were they after a "real" Titian? James Peale after Benjamin West after a print after Titian: on such "doublings" was the medium of photography founded.

John O'Reilly's intimate assembling of self portraiture and admired or adored possessions or personalities, have placed his work at the front of identity issues within the constructions of sexuality, gender and the discourse of the aging body. Although educated in traditional art, O'Reilly is a self taught photographer. O'Reilly's work both builds on and denies the past European aesthetic bedrock. O'Reilly is a clear specimen of (visual) language acquisition. As a visual language, photography exists within the discourse of the sign. Language acquisition comes through immersion in the larger world and each word and image carries not only its culture in the form of etymology, but also a specific ontogenic record. By using collage, there is also an implication of mastery or domination in O'Reilly's work: the specifics of the studio application do not erase the reality of sexual play in many of these (historic) relationships. O'Reilly's work has famously invoked such questions of sexuality, as well as, non-eroticized desire.

The inherent narrowness of the photograph the sense that it is "taken" from the larger world, and thereby less than, reduced (literally in the scale and stature) is attacked by these photographers in differing ways. Austin, chafing at the established possibilities of her medium, creates hand made prints that are larger than their subjects. Her layering exemplifies as well the desire to construct pictures, in essence securing a further autonomy for the medium.

The photograph is uniquely capable of functioning as all three aspects of C.S. Peirce's sign-the index, the icon and the symbol-each of which may be a primary constituent in the formation of identity. In July 1871, people were sought and condemned to execution based on their identifiable appearances in photographs of the Paris Commune uprising. This millennial epoch is marked by the maneuvers to "recover" or "redeem" aspects of the past. Thus, these photographers are all consciously involved with history.

Austin's revival of outmoded or abandoned methods of printing and development is rooted in a nostalgic awareness that a certain type of image resembles those found in her late aunt Mary's abandoned possessions, but the processes are now central to the signifying and physical presence of her works.

In O'Reilly's works the primary signifier of "pastness" is the frame. The Polaroid process which unites the collaged materials of his imagery might be a little dated, but it does not yet qualify as "historic". Framing is essential to the artist's enterprise, which seeks to establish a presence within the historical continuum. Does it matter that the most present of the photographers in this exhibition, the one whose images most depend on the viewer's presence, is dead? Braverman's Strip depends on the observer as figure within its mirror. In viewing Braverman, the viewer operates in the same manner as 18th century French painter Watteau's painting of Gersaint's shop. In Watteau's painting, considered by many to have opened the modern era, workers place the image of the (dead) king, Louis XIV into a plain wooden crate. They will next place a mirror in the crate: a metaphor for representation. The mirror is like the one sided skin of the photograph, and also stands as proof in its unmarked surface that the body no longer breathes, but rots into its double, as carrion.

Photography's invention marked the triumph of factuality. This recommended the medium's emotional detachment in service of underlying "truth". Such objectivity has rebounded to place the medium at the nexus of this century's inquiry into identity, probing into questions of the body and ...the soul? history? society? its double.

Monroe Denton
New York, NY


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