The Discreetly Subversive Language of Flowers
Photobooths have a fascination all their own. It seems as though they should have all disappeared long ago, that they belong to an antiquated pre-digital era. Certain clues point to a lost paradigm involving quirky intersections between automation, mass society, and the individual both conforming to the pressures of mass society and resisting them.
The photobooth portrait is a likeness snatched from the effacement of individuality that occurs when that individual merges with and disappears into the urban throng. The format is totally automated: there is no altering the set lighting levels in the booth, the focus, the exposure time, or the interval between the four flashes. When the tiny images emerge at the other end, they are accompanied by none of the niceties that are observed when you collect photographs from the developer, no folder or envelope or seductive enwrapment.
The accent is on industrial repetition: a single image would belong to a world presided over by the individual, but here the face is dis-individuated, subjected to an order of four exact repetitions, reduced to a cipher. What the photobooth represents to its user is the fate of normalization, standardization, massification. Hence its’ economic alliance with passport offices: what each of the four frames signals is the subject’s successful absorption by the forces of law and order.
Yet that is, of course, only half the story: for each user hurrying to get to the passport counter there is another in a state of mild mutiny against disciplinary regimes. If the photo-machine seems to anticipate the facial expression of a docile civil subject, that is precisely the expression to be avoided. The booth becomes the scene of a Lark. That discreet pull-back curtain allows the user just enough privacy to go into closet carnival mode. Though still in public space, there may be room for just a little anarchy. Normalised, disciplined? Not me! Now the photobooth is about vitality, singularity, dissidence. How about a compromise? Two for the passport office, and two for your friends? Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but that done, have a bit of fun as well.
The photobooth is the site, then, of two very contradictory impulses and sets of behaviour: public and official order, tending toward anonymity and blankness; and secret rebellion . The booth becomes part of everyday tactics for defeating your own internalized conformity. The beauty lies in the social invisiblity of the whole process: the perfectly hypocritical machine.
What happens, then, when the products of the photobooth are transposed to the domain of art? For that is Liz Rideal’s opening move, one whose extraordinary consequences her work continues to trace. It is as though the split between official propriety and secret dissidence were now elaborated and amplified, made deeper and more complex, on the gallery walls.
What enables the transposition into art is the discourse of the Grid, one of the most venerable and formidable among the tropes of modernism. In the words of Rosalind Krauss: “in so far as its order is that of pure relationship, the grid is a way of abrogating the claims of natural objects to have an order particular to themselves. When placed within a grid, no matter how specific the represented object may be, a higher order moves in and substitutes for singularity and uniqueness a logic of standardization and taxonomy”. Think of Muybridge: though each frame captures a specific pose of the figure, perception of the individual frame is now routed through the adjacent members of the photographic series. Or think of the Bechers: however distinctive the depicted object may be in itself – coal bunker, water tower, silo, when rendered as a part of a taxonomy, its definition no longer comes from itself, but from its differences from the rest of its class. In other words, the external or referential relation (between the photographic image and the original object in the world) gives way to the internal and abstracted order of seriality: the grid assaults mimesis, it breaks the bond the image has to the world, it transposes the object into the autonomous realm of art.
The autonomy-effect can be pushed still further if it is accompanied by strategies designed to evacuate the referent, whether by tautology (reprinting the same image again and again), or banality (choosing objects with little or zero degree of value as spectacle), or enigma (why that referent, of all things? why gas stations? why the waves of all the world’s seas? Why wallpapered interiors?
Taken one way, Liz Rideal’s images subscribe to the protocols of autonomous art to the letter. Resolutely deductive, the total image is an exact multiple of its individual elements. Individual units vanish into the all-over surface. It becomes difficult to isolate or focus on any one tessera: the eye loses its grip on the tiny photobooth image, lets go, and attends instead to pools of unfocussed, peripheral vision. New kinds of rhythm and pattern emerge that have nothing to do with the order of the single image – pulsations, flickerings, op effects occurring at the macro‚ but not at the micro‚ level. It seems as though the whole image is built on tautology: surely this is the same image of a root, repeated an endless number of times? Rideal’s work from 1998 shows endlessly repeated sections of fabric, as though the overlooked element of the classical vocabulary of art, drapery, had moved centre-stage: the force of enigma is never far away.
Rideal’s photo-collages follow a sufficient number of the tropes of modernist abstraction – the grid, tautology, enigma – for us to know that this is the language that is being evoked. The goal seems clear enough: to create abstraction via a radical break between the image and the real world; to produce a culture of high art able to break away from mere imitation and from the debased social conditions of mass-cultural modernity.
But the photobooth is a profoundly duplicitious image-machine. In what ways does Liz Rideal unravel the noble, modernist grid? First of all, it is not a grid at all, not in the sense intended by Krauss. It is true that the whole surface is traversed by lines, and that may be enough to suggest an even, all-over surface in which all areas are equivalent and interchangeable, and ultimately derived or deduced from the frame. Yet the peculiarity of the photobooth is that it employs a process of image-production that omits the stage of the photographic negative. Negatives always harbor the idea of replication: from a single negative there can be generated an infinite number of prints. But each image from the photobooth is unique. Strangely enough, every frame is as singular as a hand-painted miniature. Though at first sight it may seem as though Rideal’s surface repeats the same image hundreds of times, in fact each unit is a one-off. There is neither repetition nor repeatability.
This radically revises the all-over surface that seems to govern her imagery. The grid is isotropic: each area possesses the same, identical properties. By the same token the grid is a simultaneous structure, with all its parts co-existing in the same non-durational temporality of the all-at-once. But Rideal’s grids belong to a real-time process. The interval between the four flashes inside the photobooth cannot be changed. An image made from, for example, 406 strips of four (making a total of 1,624 individual pictures) would have taken around 34 hours to produce. The temporal order here is resolutely that of succession, not simultaneity. And spatially, since no repetition is actually involved (there being no negative stage), the individual photogaph is never truly subsumed into a higher totality. The moment of absolute singularity is never surpassed. To that extent, there may be no abstraction‚ at all.
In the classical formulation of the genres of painting in Reynolds Discourses of the 1770’s and 1780’s, he consigned still life to the lowest position in the hierarchy of genres on the grounds that it interfered with the painter’s access to central forms, those products of the mind’s generalising powers. At the summit reigned history painting, centred on the human body: familiarity with the forms of the body permitted the mind of the painter, by comparing innumerable instances of the human form, to abstract from it those typical or central features that represented the body’s essence or ideal.
Liz Rideal’s grids of flowers enact this Reynoldsian drama in highly duplicitious fashion. In a sense they take the very emblem of overwhelming detail, the representation of nature, and sublimate it into grid-like abstraction. The points of detail that existed at the level of the individual image are subsumed into a much higher order: now the mind, Reynolds would have been pleased with this, takes in hundreds of instances, transcending the detailed unit and moving to the conceptually superior space of Becher-like or Muybridge-like comparisons. Transposing singularity and specificity into the macro order of the all-over composition, Rideal’s works are raised to the level of history painting, the highest and most abstract of the genres in Reynolds’ day, as the grid has perhaps been in our own time.
Taken yet another way, this elevated and ennobling enterprise is altogether subverted. The moment one realises that each image belongs to a strip of four, the all-over surface breaks up into blocks, collaged together with patience and dexterity, not unified by an act of transcendental intelligence (in the mind of the eighteenth century Reynolds, a specifically masculine intelligence. Flower painting he conferred on his two Royal Academician colleagues, Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffman). The moment we recollect how these images are produced, the simultaneity of the grid gives way to duration, succession, and real-time process (including the many hours spent constructing the work). We then recall that these cameras bypass the negative and the all-over morcelizes into hundreds of tiny independent units that resist unification.
Counter-grids, therefore: going with the flow of the civic, high modernist claims for art, but secretly resisting and subverting that whole project, moving into an anti-official, carnival universe of singularities. Rideal’s photobooth can be a great place to use the means of modernity against its own ends.
Norman Bryson, 2001