Monday, September 5, 2011

The Tallest Pregnant Woman in New Zealand

Cameras and Museums and You

Sculptor Ron Mueck should be sponsored by Apple. His hyper-real, larger-than-life (and yet sometimes smaller-than-life) statues of naked people make visitors reach compulsively for their iPhones. Nobody takes out a piece of scratch paper and begins sketching, nobody writes a sonnet about Ozymandias, but more people than not want to get pictures, and those pictures almost entirely are taken with cell phones. Is that a good thing? How should we feel about the recent compulsions to log our experiences with our phones? This week’s blog wants to look at art, vernacular photography, and our expectations of memory, using Mueck as a test case.

His work recently made an austral tour, and I found it on view in the pleasant little city-town of Christchurch, New Zealand (sort of a pre-boom version of Portland, Oregon). My hotel was nearby, and one of the back office gals heard me talking about the show with the owner, who herself had not yet been to see it. The second person had been to the show twice, but in coming out to join the conversation at the front desk, she didn’t want us to hear her talk about it, she wanted us to see her iPhone pictures. It was almost as if she felt her observations had no validity unless backed up with proof.

This makes sense. We privilege images over narrative, and even phones and entry-level digital SLRs are now so good in dim light, we can record almost everything, even in situations when flash is not allowed. Batteries charge easily and last all day (sometimes all month, depending on your model), and you can get good pictures with a magic box hardly bigger than a cigarette pack. It bears repeating: for the first time in history, we can record almost everything.

Mostly, though, we don’t. Most art in most museums goes unphotographed, even when the location freely permits noncommercial images. What is it about tall, naked people that makes the cameras come out, and, once out, is it true that those cameras help us see the art better? Is the camera a good tool for seeing? Or—as is the usual critique—do the cameras substitute for and/or get in the way of the experience itself?

As a simple experiment, I went to the show twice, once with a camera on day one, and once without, day two.

On the surface of it, his sculptures are as real as it gets: real hair inserted with a needle, one strand at a time. Brows seemingly have sweat on them, backs have pimples, the penis exists in boring and unperfected clinical realism. He models in clay, casts in various resins, and finishes with the dispassion of House, M.D. The spots are where they should be, the hair is where it should be, but somehow it’s a Lucian Freud body the size of a pillar, and we just are not used to seeing common people enlarged three times normal size.

It does make you stop, that much is certain. Richard Wolfe, writing for the Christchurch Museum Bulletin, says that when “it comes to creative encounters, there can be few that match the first sighting of a Ron Mueck sculpture. As with other landmark events, you are unlikely to forget exactly where you were when that formative experience took place.”

A newborn baby, minutes out of the womb, would make an interesting sculptural subject in itself, but his happens to be over eight feet long. We don’t know whether to be repulsed or in awe or a mix of both. We’re not used to real children in paintings. It’s easy to be critical of all those Renaissance altarpiece babies that look like miniaturized Sumo wrestlers, but compared to placental slime and an extruding umbilical cord, we might actually prefer the abstracted Italian versions.

Religion is present here, but democratized. As far as modern Christs go, there’s the bored man in a swimming pool, not reading, not talking on the phone, maybe trying to deal with an extra-long layover in Miami by killing time at the hotel, the man who also happens to be the Hunter S. Thompson version of JC Himself. Fun, provocative stuff, and well in tune with our current sense of blue-jeans theology.

Yet leaving aside the animal diorama realism of the art’s execution, and skipping for the moment the Jesus-as-a-guest-at-Super-8 theme, what is the relationship between art and cell phones? I think we all agree that if most museum goers had to draw the art in order to share it with others, they would not bother, and indeed, if they even had to lug around a pro camera rig, ditto. Phone-cameras these days are small, instant, effortless. Resolution is good and auto-focus and auto-exposure strip away any need to understand the mechanics of shutter speed and f/stop diameter. Everybody has a phone, and everybody’s phone takes pretty good pictures, especially if your end use is to send jpegs by email.

Does this ease of use and ubiquity of ownership enhance art appreciation, replace it with some lesser experience, or do a third (perhaps neutral) thing? Let’s play it all three ways.

Argument the First: cell phone photography inside a museum is a good thing. The ease of technology does not diminish the act of homage, and the very fact that people are taking pictures means that art is at least holding its own against Lindsay Lohan. In this view, the photo-takers have seen something valuable and want to record the experience, share it, blog about it, distribute it. Right on. A blog such as this one presumes evangelical zeal—ideas should be shared and spread: “Go forth and witness to the unconverted and share the joy of The Word.” In my case, one reason I photograph in museums is to have a piece to study later, when I may have more time or may be less overwhelmed, the way that a ground squirrel fills up cheek pouches with sunflower seeds at the picnic table, to have some food in the burrow later on. I can only take in x amount of beauty or horror per hour, so I stuff some of that beauty or horror in a doggie bag for later. Others may be doing the same. And certainly in my case I do make shots inside art museums (even inside those galleries which forbid it, at least until I am caught) with end-use sharing in mind, whether through a blog like this one or my classes or even just private journal pages that I hope will lead to other, different, public work later on. Snapshot away, o happy visitors: you are doing yourselves (and the world) a good service.

Counter argument. No, people don’t value art: if they did, they would bring better cameras with them, for one thing. The ease of procurement does lessen value. Just compare the act of eating a loaf of bread that you and your lover have baked from scratch—the attentiveness to texture, the satisfaction of the taste, the glowing warmth of just-from-the-oven-ness as the butter melts and the steam rises—to when you’re mindlessly noshing doughnut holes in the staff room while waiting for the Xerox machine to warm up. Similar foods, different experiences. Effort does influence experience, as does anticipation and interaction.

One reason nature photographers still use tripods even though digital cameras shoot at fast speeds in dim light is that the very act of looking becomes more careful and precise the more carefully and precisely you enact it. You “see” better by having to go slowly and frame the scene on a tripod, then move a bit forward, a bit back. You also get better pictures in a technical sense, just by stopping to think about lighting and depth of field. In contrast, grab-and-run phone photography treats every subject as a treat to be gobbled and forgotten. Nobody lingers with an iPhone, not even Chase Jarvis, whose iPhone photographs are among the best.

Third option. Most people in most museums are bored most of the time. Taking a quick snapshot here or there does little to counter-balance that. They maybe see a little bit better for a brief moment, as they hold up the camera or process images at home later, but then they may miss a few things too as they fish around in their pockets to find their phones or when they spend more time looking at the phone’s screen (to see if the shot came out) than they do looking at the piece itself. It is about an even wash.

There is of course the trophy aspect: photography as big game collecting. We have looked at this before, in other entries throughout this blog. It’s a way of saying I was here, I experienced this, I had the authentic moment. For some reason the poultry shot above seems to me to prove this rather vividly.

One problem is not the inane and constant snapshot-shooting inside a show like Mueck’s, but that 90+% of people don’t really do anything with their images, once they have them. They may not even remember to download them onto their computers. If all grocery stores were free and constantly restocked, people would exit pushing pyramids of exotic food in their carts out to the car and work in a relay for an hour to get it all in the house. Yet once home with all this stuff, now what? I bet that once there, most of the food would spoil or hide forgotten in the back of the pantry. Even if markets were free, most people would eat more or less the same things they do now, in more or less the same quantities. We may want to pretend to ourselves that tomorrow for a before-dinner snack we’ll make little coracles out of walnut shell and coriandered caviar, but in actuality, it ain’t ever going to happen.

Simple experiment proves this. How many readers of this blog have pictures still on a phone or camera you have yet to download onto a computer? And then on your computer, how many of you have pictures you have yet to sort and label, crop and delete? Oh yes, some day. You’re going to sort out all those Christmas pictures some day. “Some Day” is the one day of the week that never arrives. Maybe it’s like Leap Year’s February 29th, a day that exists in theory but most of us don’t remember having experienced.

Two problems come from our reliance on cameras, especially on cameras whose images we don’t get around to salvaging. The first is that I think we usually do let the camera do the remembering: in the art show discussed here, I went in as a moderately informed observer who can go to art museums three or four times a week if I am in a city like L.A. or London. Even so, rather than looking, part of me was just “there,” relying on my images to help me think about the art after the fact. If people had to select between views once they got home, deleting the duplicates and the duds, then at that point they could re-live the show’s content and theme, but since they usually do NOT do such a review and selection of images later, they do not “think” about the art later, either.

And second, because we do have such good and relatively inexpensive cameras, and because it is socially acceptable to use them almost everywhere, even during hanky panky, I am willing to suggest that most of us—myself included—no longer have the capacity for detailed, saturated looking that can create stable, indelible memories. Why remember things? We have the pictures, after all. Well, sure, any of us do, so long as we can remember which file we put them in, or so long as our computer doesn’t crash, or so long as jpg remains a commonly supported format that our display devices can recognize.

Elise Engler, an artist in the same Antarctic artists program I was associated with, once decided to draw every object she owned: it came out to be a series 13,127 drawings. It took a year and a half to finish. I am impressed that she even could find everything (I doubt I could), but more importantly, I deeply admire the devotion of such a Whitmanesque project. After such a journey, you would know one fork from another, be able to tell which sock was mismatched, treasure your light bulbs for the sculptural marvels that they are. The key thing here is that she drew each one: she had to attend to its material qualities, the heft and balance of the light, the way that object inhabited the space of the world. What a lovely record for future archaeologists. Certainly she has to know herself and her world better as a consequence of this project.

I had said I had gone twice to the Ron Mueck show. The second time, camera-less, was different if for no other reason that I happen to use an especially macho camera set-up, with prime glass lenses on a motordrive body. That sucker weighs almost five pounds. Leaving it behind is a pleasure. Whether it changed my experience or not I don’t want to say, since it gets into other issues too about being away from home and the better and worse ways one interacts with art when lonely. But I will just offer this as a challenge. The next time you do go to the Getty or some large, fun, object-filled space, do not bring a phone, do not bring a pocket point-and-shoot, but do bring a good quality pocket sketchbook or Moleskine journal, and set yourself the goal of drawing five objects from your day. It does not have to be a piece of art—even your Snapple bottle is a good place to start. It doesn’t have to be good or accurate, it just has to be an honest attempt to remember the world in a true and lasting way.

And at the end of the day, you’ll have five drawings. That’s not a bad thing. And when you get home, you can then look around and say, right on—just 13,122 left to go.