Underneath

Daniel C. Blight

 

Propositions can be true or false only by being pictures of reality.1

It is, however, salutary to remember that representation operates in two distinct but interconnected ways: as a kind of epistemological code that organises information by creating order out of chaos, and as a political system that organises communities by instituting a shared ethical code.2

 

Underneath, but certainly not subordinate to, the usual power and social effect attributed to photographs in the documentary tradition, a certain quietude is also apparent in the photographic depiction of individuals, buildings or landscapes that represent problematic social and political histories. This stillness is the activation of two simple possibilities that photographs evoke: the showing of truth and the showing of fiction. From Plato to Kant, or Benjamin to Foucault, the question of what images represent – what they really show us and whether we can believe it – has been at the centre of the study of art and language.

Through Wittgenstein, and indeed Aristotle’s The Origins of Imitation before him, we understand that one way to determine the difference between truth and falsehood is to allow pictures to represent something meaningful to us. In the 1960s, through various theories in semiotics, it was proposed that a series of signs shows us the connection between one thing and another: to put it crudely, we signpost our way to meaning. These theoretical propositions contribute to a now-established body of ideas concerned with the interpretation of photographic images and their attachment to representation. 

It would seem that one part of the history of photography theory – from the 1960s onwards – is tied to this mode of description, one that compares images to the workings of spoken and written language: that photography itself is a language. Even today, the predominant way of teaching the idea of “thinking photography” (to paraphrase Victor Burgin) or the “language of photography” (to use the well-trodden description within academic circles) is to use semiotic theory to excise the meaning of an image. However, it may be that this focus on particular areas of the ideas of key thinkers adopted by the canon of photography theory, such as Roland Barthes or Victor Burgin as they are generally read, may now be outmoded. 

Returning to the work of these theorists, but perhaps asking different questions, emphasises that there are elements of their practice that appear under-acknowledged, and could be useful in considering the meaning of images with regard to non-representation and networked culture. In Roland Barthes, we find his theory of the “third meaning” to be an example of this; we could also look to Foucault’s notion of “tropological space” as another example. 

What this calls for is a consideration of abstraction or reflection in the reading of photographic images. To quote Sartre: “attention is turned away from the object and directed to the manner in which it is given.”3 This diverts attention from the surface of the photograph – it’s obsession with the antiquarian – and instead focuses on the manner in which images are presented and distributed. The two most relevant, although polar opposite, examples of these contexts are the museum and the Internet.

In Kuimet’s images of monumental paintings in Estonia, the primary act of representation is simply the fact that we can look at the pictures as well-composed documents that depict the various paintings on the walls of buildings. We can see them, imbued with history and nostalgia, but in doing so we choose not to see something else, perhaps because it sits outside of the language of representation with which we are familiar. 

On the one hand, there are the murals that the pictures show and their accompanying history and, on the other hand, there are the photographs themselves: they are their own images. The success of the work is the artist’s ability to focus on the minutiae of space: the small things that allude to the operation of the photographs as carriers of this hidden meaning. The work achieves a complicated mediation between aesthetic beauty and semiotic intelligence: we are attracted to the images and we are able to translate the language in which they speak. Attributing no fault to the photographer, should we not be asking for more from the meaning of photographs, as images?

If we recall Sartre on the subject of image and representation, we are left with a predicament. How are these images given to us? The answer might be: in a museum or on the Internet. This presents two different and contradictory manners of presentation and distribution. This is important but not precisely what I want to consider here: a little closer to the images – even within the images themselves – is a clear reference to non-representation. 

Through a series of compositional configurations, the line between realism and geometric abstraction disappears. Firstly, this is apparent because the images contain a certain abstraction that is alluded to by their compositions, which focus on the geometry of lines, perspective and space. Kuimet utilises a compositional method that pairs down the spatial characteristics of what is being photographed (rooms or buildings) into mere lines and forms that foreground the subject of the photographs (the murals). The contents of the photographs, therefore, butt up against the compositional manner in which the images are made. 

As a result, following this compositional abstraction, a second, ancillary meaning of the photographs appears. Through this contradiction, Kuimet’s images are an example of photography’s concomitant failure to represent, in this case, the grand murals of the Soviet state. We can concentrate on the subjects of the photographs, but that is missing the point – that would be attempting to make order out of chaos. Simply speaking, the photographs are doing two things simultaneously: showing us the murals and showing us the inadequacies in photographing anything literally.

 

 

1 Wittgenstein, L., Picture Theory of Language, from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922
2 Rubinstein, D., Photography between difference and representation, or the grin of Schrödinger’s cat, 2012
3 Sartre, J.P., The Psychology of the Imagination, 1948

Daniel C. Blight (b. 1983) is a writer, critic and curator based in London. He is co-editor of Loose Associations, a new quarterly publication from The Photographers’ Gallery and associate lecturer in the history and theory of photography at Camberwell College for the Arts, UAL; Coventry University; the University of Brighton and the University of Roehampton. His writing – which ranges from fiction and poetry to various forms of the essay – has been published by 1000 Words, Aperture, American Suburb X, frieze, The Guardian, Notes on Metamodernism, Philosophy of Photographyand Photoworks. He has also contributed writing to several artist’s books and gallery or museum publications in the UK, France, Estonia and Australia. From time to time he organises exhibitions under the moniker Chandelier, in collaboration with artists and other curators and writers. Details of these projects can be found here.

Paul Kuimet (b. 1984) is an artist based in Tallinn, Estonia. He works with photographs, space and moving images and his exhibitions often include photographs displayed as lightboxes in darkened rooms, which heightens the viewers’ relationships to both the physical and the pictorial space. Kuimet’s work focuses on depictions of urban environments with an interest in the dichotomies between the natural and the cultivated. Some of his recent works have dealt with the legacy of modernist art in Soviet Estonia and specific objects and structures from the Cold War period. 

Kuimet’s recent and upcoming exhibitions include solo presentations at Espace Photographique Contretype, Brussels (2016); Late Afternoon at Tallinn City Gallery (2016); Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia, Tallinn (2016) and Notes on Space. Photos by Paul Kuimet at Kumu Art Museum, Tallinn (2013) and group exhibitions The Baltic Pavilion. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia (2016); Kilometer of Sculpture, Rakvere (2016); From Explosion to Expanse. Estonian Contemporary Photography 1991–2015, Tartu Art Museum (2015); Black House. Notes on Architecture, Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia, Tallinn (2014); Archeological Festival – A 2nd hand history and improbable obsessions, Tartu Art Museum (2014); Shifting Identities, MACRO Testaccio, Rome (2014); Viewfinders. Contemporary Baltic and Nordic Photography, Riga Art Space (2014).Kuimet has graduated from the Estonian Academy of Arts (MA, 2014). In 2009–2010 he studied at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki. He is the recipient of Sadolin Art Award (2012) and Wiiralt scholarship (2011). 

Kuimet has graduated from the Estonian Academy of Arts (MA, 2014). In 2009–2010 he studied at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki. He is the recipient of Sadolin Art Award (2012) and Wiiralt scholarship (2011).

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