Alec Soth's Archived Blog

September 15, 2007

Documenta, children, sexuality, Barnes & Noble

Filed under: aesthetics,artists,exhibitions (not mine) — alecsothblog @ 12:40 am

Yesterday I went to Documenta. Along with feeling under the weather, I am getting to be too much of a curmudgeon to walk though a half dozen museums of Scotch tape, toothpicks and wall text. But there was the occasional gem. I’m always a fan of Kerry James Marshall. He took the prize for best painter:

In the sculpture catagory, I liked Lukas Duwenhögger’s ‘Celestial Teapot:’

And in photography I was happy to discover the vintage photograms of Bela Kolárová:

more by Kolárová here and here

But the most thrilling experience was watching ‘Who is Listening 1,’ a video by the Taiwanese artist Tseng Yu-Chin.

This video powerfully addressed an issue that has been on my mind. As mentioned yesterday, I recently spent time with the photographer Jock Sturges. Jock is famous for photographing naked children. In 1990, the FBI raided Jock’s studio. After a year, Sturges successfully defended himself on child pornography charges.

Jock and I had a long talk about his work and the way it is received. He convinced me of his good intentions. But I still struggle with how his work functions in the world. For years it seemed like the only photo books the local bookstores carried were crisp new books by Anne Geddes and pawed-over books by Jock Sturges. Why are these books so popular and who is the intended audience?

Sturges agrees that it is problematic. “That dichotomy between the public consumption of the work and my intent and practice in making it is an uneasy one for me, on occasion,” Sturges said in an interview.

The thing that is so fantastic about Tseng Yu-Chin’s video is that it powerfully challenges our ideas of age and sexuality. In the video, the camera is focused on the sweet face of a young boy or girl. Music is playing and a gentle wind blows the child’s hair. All of the sudden, a stream of yogurt is shot on the child’s face and he/she reacts with surprise and pleasure. The same act is then repeated with numerous children.

When I first started watching the video, I was totally entertained (a real relief from Documenta). The children are cute and their reaction is hysterical. In the audience I saw young children barely containing themselves as they waited for the next yogurt blast. I also saw an elderly woman in a wheelchair with an ear to ear grin. But the more I watched, the more I became uncomfortable. “Does this suggest what I think it suggests?” I looked around at the audience. Others looked uncomfortable too.

Along with being a stunning piece of work, the video functions as a kind of Rorschach test. Will you view this like an innocent child or like a suspicious adult?

Poking around online for more information, I came across a text by Yu-Chin that he uses as a statement for the work:

I liked walking in large strides when I was young, freely moving my hands, feeling the air piercing through the gaps between my fingers. It’s comfortable.

But it was ruined by a woman. A stranger. A nameless woman. That one afternoon, when I still walked with my hands moving freely, I cheerfully crossed the street with my mother I lifted my head, without realizing that a woman was coming towards us from the other side. My hand coincidentally collided with her private part. Of course, it was through the cover of fabrics. Honestly, I had yet to realize the significance of sex. I was going to simply apologize. However, I was treated as someone blinded by sexual desire. The woman stared at me with resentment. Full of moral judgment and anger, her lips were pressed so tightly as if she is grinding her teeth behind them. As if I had been slapped mercilessly, my ears rung with endless chatter, and my head filled with cold murmurs, as if the world had frozen over to look at me and my embarrassment, pointing at me with accusation, buzzing over my behavior. And my mother’s figure trembled far ahead. I ran over to hold her hand. Her hand was warm, yet cold at the same time. I didn’t know what to feel. My mother was a woman, too.

I did not know what the stranger was thinking, nor did I know what burden she had placed upon me. At that moment, I felt only the gliding air between my fingers, and not the part of her body that she was taught to believe to be a controversy. I remembered the air becoming suffocating, and those eyes that pierced the stifling space. The zipper on those jeans feels cold, and warm, at the same time. It takes a variety of manners to remind you, that your body had once remained in the naiveté.

It might be that Yu-Chin and Jock Sturges have very similar motives. But context matters. Documenta isn’t the same as Barnes and Noble. Or is it?

    • Watch a clip of Who is Listening 1 here
    • Watch other clips by Yu-Chin here and here
    • Read articles on Tseng Yu-Chin here and here

September 11, 2007

Richard Barnes

Filed under: artists,exhibitions (not mine),the sentence — alecsothblog @ 7:54 am

One of the best parts of my teaching gig at SFAI was bringing in visiting artists. Along with valuing what they could add to the class, this provided me with an excuse to hang out with some cool Bay Area artists.

The first person I invited, Richard Barnes, recently left San Francisco for the East Coast but was in town for a group exhibition at the Yurba Buena Center for the Arts. The show, Dark Matters, has a lot of fantastic work. But for me the highlight was seeing Barnes’ pictures in person. These sumptuous images of starling migrations in Rome made a deep impression when I first saw them in the New York Times Magazine (pdf).

Mumur 1, Nov. 15, 2005 by Richard Barnes

The Times has a nice interactive presentation of these pictures here.

Not long ago Richard Barnes also did a series on bird nests:

from Grid of Nests, 2000, by Richard Barnes

But these bird photos are just the tip of Barnes’ rich and eclectic career. One of the reasons I invited Richard to the class was because of his untraditional career path. After receiving a B.A from Berkeley, he has supported himself as a working photographer. This has principally been in the field of architectural photography, but along the way he has received numerous commissions. Much of this commissioned work deals with the architecture of preservation:

from Animal Logic by Richard Barnes

from Animal Logic by Richard Barnes

For all his great work with birds and museums, Barnes is best known for his pictures of a small house. Nearly ten years ago, the New York Times commissioned Barnes to photograph the cabin of Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber. By mixing clinical minimalism with such loaded subject matter, Barnes created a frightening and iconic image that only gets more meaningful with time:

Unabomber Cabin (Sacramento), 1998, by Richard Barnes

As regular readers know, I have a fascination with ‘the sentence’ – the shorthand summation everyone uses to describe a particular person. Some are easy (“He’s the guy that photographs Weimaraners). But Barnes is a tricky case. I doubt people would remember ‘He’s an architectural photographer who’s done fine art projects on birds, museums and the Unabomber.’ Whatever the phrase is, Barnes was able to sum up his achievements with a remarkably elegant sentence: “My work is all about containment.” He went on to say that he’d only made this connection in the last few years.

For me this was the ultimate lesson that Barnes brought to the class. While it may not always be great marketing, artists should be free to explore whatever quickens their pulse. Over the long haul they will inevitable find a thread that unifies their vision. Finding this revelatory thread (and not the stupid ‘sentence’) seems to be one of the most meaningful experiences to come from a life making art.

  • An exhibition of Richard Barnes’ work will open on this Saturday, September 15th, at the Hosfelt Gallery in New York.

June 4, 2007

Tactile photography

Filed under: aesthetics,exhibitions (not mine),photo tech,sculpture — alecsothblog @ 11:42 pm

One of my frustrations with contemporary photographic technique, mine included, is the feeling of sterility. Digital processes have become so sophisticated that nearly every picture you see is dusted and anti-scratched to a state of frozen perfection. After awhile it all feels so airless.

So it was with pleasure that I observed evidence of a return to tactile photography at the recent Photo London exhibition. One of the best examples of this was the work of Stephen Gill. In his recent project, Buried, Gill took pictures in Hackney Wick and buried them in the same area. Gill writes about the process:

When burying my first batch of photographs, a passing man spotted me and asked what I was doing. Not only did I not want to give the location away of some of my buried pictures, but It just sounded a bit weird to say that I was burying photographs so replied that I was looking for newts. As soon as I’d said that I looked down and saw a newt at my feet.

Not knowing what an image would look like once it was dug up introduced an element of chance and surprise which I found appealing. This feeling of letting go and in a way collaborating with place – allowing it also to work on putting the finishing touches to a picture – felt fair. Maybe the spirit of the place can also make its mark.

While I’m not sure I even noticed Gill’s imagery, it felt good to experience a contemporary photograph that was overwhelmingly tactile:


I’m not sure how to deal with this hunger for photography that is physical and imperfect. Certainly only one photographer is allowed to bury his photographs. Is the problem photography itself? Maybe I just envy painting and sculpture.

On my recent trip to Tennessee I encountered two other artists who might share my envy. At the Knoxville Museum of Art, I saw Tim Davis’s flawless color photographs of the flaws and textures of painting:

A Passing Shower in the Tropics, by Tim Davis

And at the Powerhouse in Memphis I saw Matt Ducklo’s large C-Prints showing blind people touching sculpture. For me, these pictures were about photographic frustration:

Seated statue of Hatshepsut, 2005 by Matt Ducklo

Yesterday I visited Musee Rodin in Paris. On view was a fantastic exhibition, The Japanese Dream. Nearly half of the show was devoted to the Japanese dancer Hanako. Rodin made more sculptures of Hanako than of any other sitter. But these sculptures weren’t exactly portraits. Hanako was best known for expressionistic plays ending with her performing hara-kiri. With his sculptures, Rodin tried to recreate her expressions of sorrow and horror.

These works left me speechless. They were everything I’d been craving. I went to the museum bookstore to buy a catalogue. But flipping through the book, I was disappointed. While technically refined, the clinical reproductions failed to communicate the spirit of the work:


The most worthwhile images in the book were those by Edward Steichen:


Steichen’s photographs were able to get at the pain and sensuality of the original sculptures. Again I’m left with the question: Can contemporary photography find its way back to something physical?

April 8, 2007


Filed under: exhibitions (not mine) — alecsothblog @ 12:45 pm

Mick Jagger and Brian Jones going home satisfied after composing ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’) from Suddenly this Overview 1981-2006 by Fischli & Weiss

Today I saw the great Fischli & Weiss retrospective at Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris. Mixing casualness with genuine surprise, each of the thirteen rooms managed to evoke a feeling of childlike wonder. It was one of those rare exhibitions where you leave the museum feeling changed (not a bad experience to have on Easter). For a brief moment everything felt balanced – almost perfect. The street rubbish looked like flowers – and the blossoming flowers were awfully pretty too.

The show pulled together a number of things that have been on my mind lately. Recently writing about the eclectic photographs of Judy Linn, I asked how she managed to make such unrelated and unclassifiable images cohere. In response to this post, Tim Conner wrote something very interesting:

I’ve noticed that the only shows that don’t fit into a catchy concept (the faces of Iraq war veterans, hypnotized subjects, naked mothers & children in the wild, etc.) are by photographers who are at the end of their careers or dead, with names that are already an established brand. Only then, it seems, can imagery be allowed to stray off message or venture into more than one style.

This also related to something Christian Patterson wrote on his blog:

I admire photographers who incorporate a variety of subject matter and approach in their work, and I admire the projects, books and exhibitions that showcase this variety while somehow conveying a consistent, cohesive overall style and feeling.

I am most often disappointed and disinterested when I see a project, open a book, or visit an exhibition that features a group of photographs of the same subject matter, shot from the same vantage point, and lit in the same way. It is essentially the same idea and the same shot executed over and over.

The pleasure I took from the Fischli & Weiss retrospective confirmed my agreement with Christian. And I suspect that Tim’s argument is accurate too. If Fischli & Weiss were working in a strictly photographic context (rather than as interdisciplinary artists), I doubt they would get very far with their scattershot approach.

Surprise is so good. So pleasurable. In the current issue of Modern Painters, the poet Quinn Latimer wrote something fantastic about this pleasure. While introducing the work of Martin Soto Climent (who makes work reminiscent of Fischli & Weiss), Latimer wrote:

In a 1984 essay called “Images,” the Poet Robert Hass recalls a line from Checkov’s notebooks as he contemplates the discreet power and intense pleasure of an image that arises sans explanation or narrative explication. In one of a series of isolated entries, the doctor wrote, “They are mineral bottles with preserved cherries in them.” Hass notes how the lack of context intensifies the sentence. At the same time, and paradoxically, the exactness of Chekhov’s description, the concreteness of the objects and the relationship that he describes, seems to summon abstract, nearly philosophical concerns. Hass writes, “What we see clearly is not perhaps the heart of the reality toward which the image leaps, but the quiet attention that is the form of the impulse to leap.” The meaning of the image per se is less thee point than the focusing power of an image so well honed.

  • Fischli & Weiss previously discussed on this blog here
  • Info on Robert Hass here
  • A poem by Quinn Latimer here

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