Unsettled: Photography and Politics in Contemporary Art, Notations/Everyday Disturbances

Library I

Philadelphia Museum of Art

by Avi Alpert

A crude art historical sketch of the past fifty years might go something like this: first there was a turn to abstraction, negation, and conceptual works. Then the worry arose that the body had been lost, and a series of performance and corporeal practices took over.  Finally, human subjectivity (whether conceptual or embodied) became passé, resulting in a decided turn toward objects and external processes.  Like all stories, this one has some truth to it, but a careful historical observer can point endlessly to the holes in its narrative arc.

Something of this conflicted historical account informs the curation of two shows currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Unsettled: Photography and Politics in Contemporary Art, is a response to the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in my Belly from a show at the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. in November last year.  The controversy was over a brief moment of ants crawling on a crucifix that was called “hate speech” by William Donohue, president of the Catholic League.  The museum describes Unsettled as presenting nine artists thinking about politics in photography because “of the medium’s direct connection to real-world things, bodies, and events.”  Medium specificity thus helps the show define itself against the focus on painting, words or sculpture in abstraction and conceptual art.  Photography (at least in these photographs, if not in general) brings out the real.

At the same time, the show resists such a simple narrative. Barbara Kruger’s mixed-media work Untitled (We are your circumstantial evidence) hugs a line with conceptualism, as does Lorna Simpson’sCounting.  In the latter, three images (the neck and upper torso of a black woman, a brick shed, and some rope) are framed by three sets of numbers (what appears to a work schedule, a tally of bricks used, and a description of the rope).  Simpson’s piece successfully integrates images, texts, bodies and histories to suggest a relationship between concept, embodiment and objectivity.  The curator, Peter Barberie, has similarly succeeded in framing the show with Kruger and Simpson on opposite walls – concretely showing a historical continuity between works, as well as commenting on how photography as an expanded field can enhance its own “direct connection” to reality through the incorporation of text and appropriated images.

The same art historical sketch recurs, and is similarly questioned, in Everyday Disturbances, one in a series of ongoing Notations exhibits which showcase thematic and interdisciplinary links between recent contemporary acquisitions at the museum.  The show’s explanatory text places itself squarely in this narrative: “Since the 1980s, contemporary art produced in the West has shifted away from the ethereal or abstract and toward representation and materiality, emphasizing the imagery and presence of an object.”  Indeed, with rooms dedicated to the abstract paintings of Ellsworth Kelly and Mark Rothko on either side of the show, Everyday Disturbances’ sculpted heads, saws, globes, belly buttons, and so on suggest a turn from subjective expression to objective disruption in contemporary art.

The situation, however, is more complicated.  Pieces in the show at first glance seem quite disparate.  It might seem out of place, for example, to have Wim Delvoye’s Library 1, a work consisting of a number of saws with hackneyed phrases in Gothic writing, in the same show as Thomas Hirschhorn’s Camo-outgrowth (Winter), a work made of stacked rows of globes that have cancerous “outgrowths” of camouflage tape (hanging from each row are pictures of war, sex and violence).  What unites such pieces is how each work situates itself between conceptual abstraction and the material object.  In this context, overlaps between the works appear: for example, between Delvoye’s Gothic script and Hirschorn’s Gothic horror, between the recurrence of banality in each, whether in language or suffering, and between the difficulty faced by both language and image to attest to the problems of life.

These overlaps show everyday objects being disturbed, but also how disturbing the everyday can be.  This double meaning comes through a relationship between objects, words, images, concepts, and bodies.  As with Unsettled, the most powerful connections in Everyday Disturbances are established not by smooth narratives of art historical change, but by the complicated interfaces between artistic movements.

In the end, the two shows help us see how interdisciplinary and inter-medium practices have long existed, and continue to exist in art.  They suggest various ways in which practices’ different aspects can be put to use in the spheres of art, politics and thought without having to choose sides: political art can be as conceptually invigorating as conceptual art can be political.  Finally, in a time when we are beginning to hear more and more about an “object turn” and a loss of subjectivity, these shows remind us of the longstanding intimate connections between individuals, their bodies, and the material worlds that surround them.

Unsettled: Photography and Politics in Contemporary Art (through August 21, 2011) and Notations/Everyday Disturbances (through September 2011) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Avi Alpert is a Ph.D. student in the Program in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a regular contributor to Machete.