Sunday, February 12, 2012

Jeff Wall and Absorption: Heidegger on worldhood and technology

Chapter two concerns Jeff Wall, philosopher Martin Heidegger, worldhood, and technology.  Fried bases many of his arguments around Heidegger's "Being and Time," in which he explores "the question of the sense of being," specifically as it relates to humans within the world.

From wikipedia:

Thus the question Heidegger asks in the introduction to Being and Time is: what is the being that will give access to the question of the meaning of Being? Heidegger's answer is that it can only be that being for whom the question of Being is important, the being for whom Being matters.[10] As this answer already indicates, the being for whom Being is a question is not a what, but a who. Heidegger calls this being Dasein (an ordinary German word literally meaning "being-there"), and the method pursued in Being and Time consists in the attempt to delimit the characteristics of Dasein, in order thereby to approach the meaning of Being itself through an interpretation of the temporality of Dasein. Dasein is not "man," but is nothing other than "man"—it is this distinction that enables Heidegger to claim that Being and Time is something other than philosophical anthropology.

Fried relates Heidegger's theories on being into his analysis of paintings and photography, specifically through the method of absorption.

I will begin with a diagram.

By citing several examples of Jeff Wall's work, Fried illustrates his many thoughts on absorption and being.  I will look at all of the examples he cites below.

Fried starts with Jeff Wall's Adrian Walker, Artist, Drawing from a Specimen in a Laboratory in the Dept. of Anatomy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1992.

After carefully listing every single detail in the frame (no wonder Fried likes Wall so much), Fried writes about the absorption of the young man in the photograph.  In an interview with Martin Schwander in 1994, Schwander said to Wall, "you made a portrait of a young man who is concentrating so intensely on his work that he seems to be removed to another sphere of life." implying complete absorption.  Wall replied that this image was in fact not a portrait of Adrian Walker at all, saying that the photograph was made in the "absorptive mode"and depicting someone "being in" as opposed to "acting out" their world, the latter of which would imply a more theatrical mode.  He goes on to explain how the photograph is a re-creation of a moment that did, in fact, take place in the life of Adrian Walker.  The difference between the actual moment itself and the re-creation of the moment is visually indistinguishable (as was the case in the story of Adelaide last week), but Fried and Wall claim an important difference.  The photograph was made by the artist with the intention of the final product being beheld, and the viewer is very aware of the artist's hand in its making, despite the apparent absorption of the artist depicted.

Wall states about this photograph, "there was such a moment in the creation of his drawing, but the moment depicted in the picture is in fact not that moment, but a re-enactment of it.  Yet it is probably indistinguishable from the actual moment.)  (Fried, 41).

Wall refers to this method of working as "near documentary," meaning that the basic implication of the picture is factual, but that the making of the picture itself was a complete re-creation of something real. 

Fried claims two things that allude to the "stagedness" of a photograph:  size/type of camera and proximity to the subject.  He argues many times that part of what leads to the viewer's awareness of the stagedness of a particular photograph is the knowledge that even if a moment appears candid, it could not possibly be candid due to human interaction (someone so close to the subject would most definitely be noticed making a picture) and technological requirements (the viewer knows such a photograph could not have been made quickly with a small camera).

Fried also references three paintings by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin that depict subjects absorbed in their activity.  He argues that while they were painted in an absorptive mode, there are clues within the paintings that refer to the presence of a beholder.  

Fried draws many parallels between the above photograph and Wall's Adrian Walker, but points out that the subject is facing further away from the camera and as such we do not get to see his face, but the hole in the back of his coat references an entry point into another world, or another plane of being.

In the above photograph, Fried points out that while the subject is absorbed in their activity, the painter has clearly left two playing cards facing out along the plane of the picture, ackowledging the eventual beholder.  He proposes that "the face card, apparently a Jack of Hearts, emblematizes the fact that the picture surface itself faces the beholder (that is, entirely open to our gaze) whereas the dazzlingly blank back of the second card evokes the sealed off consciousness of the young man absorbed in his apparently trivial pastime."  (Fried, 39)
He compares this absorption to Edouard Manet's paintings, which he claims have "radical facingness."

Old Musician
Dejeuner sur l'herbe

Manet's Olympia is perhaps the most radical in its facingness. 

In contrast, Fried mentions Caravaggio, whose subjects are portrayed in a completely absorptive mode.

The Incredulity of St. Thomas

David with the Head of Goliath

St. Francis in ecstasy

The Cardsharps

Judith Beheading Holofernes

It is interesting to contrast Caravaggio's treatment of the players in "The Cardsharps" to Chardin's depiction of similar subject matter.

Fried also compares Gerhard Richter's painting Reading to Wall's photographs, stating that similar to Wall's constructions, a "moment's reflection suffices to reveal that this picture too cannot be a candid representation of an actual situation." (Fried, 42)  He lists the proximity to the subject as too intimate for a candid encounter, as well as the painting's photo-realistic nature and technical perfection.


Fried summarizes the works of Chardin, Wall, and Richter in this way:

"The operative fiction in Chardin's canvases is that their protagonists are oblivious not only to the features in question but also, crucially, to the presence before the painting in the first place of the painting's maker and, subsequently, of the entranced viewer; indeed the purpose of all those features is to reinforce that fiction to the extent of making it appear simply true.  Wall's photograph and Richter's painting stop far short of such assertiveness, which is why neither one nor the other deploys anything remotely like the tokens of self-forgetting that Chardin uses so brilliantly."  (Fried, 43)

Fries focuses extensively on Jeff Wall's photographs After "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue and Untangling, relating them to concepts of Heidegger (which I outlined briefly in my diagram).

After "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue

Fried writes about Heidegger's ideas that man experiences "being" and the world through the "unthematic, practical engagement," including work, care-taking tasks, assignments, etc.

In Invisible Man, Fried points out that while we as viewers are keenly aware of the subject's surroundings, and the assumption that his surroundings were built, gathered, and constructed by him, we are also aware while looking at the photograph that the set or scene was also constructed by the photographer, adding to the photograph's "stagedness" and its own self-referentiality.

Fried writes:

"It is a picture of a shared world, inflected individually.  But it took all the photographer's artistry to make such a reading available to the viewer.  And a crucial aspect of that artistry involved an acknowledgment of to-be-seenness, which emerges in this context as a necessary condition for the successful depiction of world-meaningfulness in contemporary photography."  (Fried, 50)

This photograph also has a strong reference to technology and artificial light.  Fried claims that Wall references technology and artificial light over and over, both in his use of lightboxes as his primary display method as well as in photographs like Invisible Man or in "A View from an Apartment."


In regard to Untangling, Fried writes: "the viewer instinctively senses that the task itself hovers on the brink of impossibility, in which case the workmen will soon be encountering the tangled ropes 'purely in the way they look'."  (Fried, 52)  In this way he references Heidegger's idea that man experiences the world by the act of engagement, and it is only when the engagement or equipment breaks down that he experiences the world purely visually.

He then writes about Wall's Diagonal Compositions and "the adoption of a point of view that calls attention to the photographer's activity, thereby confirming a certain phenomenological (and ontological?) distance from the ordinary use of the objects depicted."  (Fried, 54)

The photographs call attention to the photographer's making of them as well as the idea of work.

Fried makes a similar point in regard to Wall's photographs A Young Sapling Held by a Post and Clipped Branches, though honestly it seems that Fried is giving these works far too much credit for functioning as metaphors.  The clipped branches do refer to the equipment used to cut them, and therefore a human's hand in such an activity, which relates again to Heidegger.
A Young Sapling Held by a Post

Clipped Branches
Fried also writes about Wall's photograph Staining Bench, Furniture Manufacturer's, Vancouver, in that it not only references work, but the neat and tidy nature of the workbench suggests both recent and future activity. 

Staining bench, furniture manufacturer's, Vancouver

Lastly, Fried ties many of the overarching ideas in Chapter 2 together when discussing Wall's photograph A View from an Apartment.

A View from an Apartment

Wall decided he wanted to make a photograph with a specific view of Vancouver, so he rented an empty apartment that had the view he desired and found a model (the woman on the left) through a casting call.  He then gave her money to furnish the apartment and encouraged her to spend as much time there as possible in order to feel comfortable in the space.  Eventually he also enlisted her friend (the woman on the right) who he also encouraged to spend time at the apartment.

He shows the woman on the left in the middle of something, presumably ironing, though it is ambiguous where she is going and why.  Fried claims it is critical that the woman is absorbed in her activity but that it is not clear what exactly she is doing in the moment of exposure.  Fried writes, "it is as if Wall welcomed a moment in the action that on the one hand was perspicuous as regards to its overall significance but on the other refused total comprehensibility, as moments in reality often do." (Fried, 57)

Fried claims that Wall refers to technology in many ways: by the TV set present in the apartment, by the globalized nature of the scene outside of the window, and by the impossibility of actually making such a photograph in one exposure (therefore referring to the artificial lights used to illuminate the subjects as well as the artificial light used to illuminate the world at dusk outside the window).  He also writes about the dependence of Wall's lightboxes on the globalization of technology.

Fried writes, "in Heidegger's words, technology is a challenge 'which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy that can be extracted and stored as such.'  Whatever else Wall's picture is 'about,' it surely depicts the everyday use of stored energy, as well as, through the window, something of the operations that make that possible."  (Fried, 61)

Fried closes by suggesting "what Wall's picture may be taken to reveal is precisely the at-homeness of the two young women in the present technological world, or say the way in which technology in its current globalized incarnation provides the framing structure for a mode of being-in-the-world, of everydayness, toward which, at least seen from the 'outside,' the artist feels positively drawn."  (Fried, 62)

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