PRINT February 2005


STEPPING OVER CARL ANDRE’S work, visitors to last year’s Minimalism survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, soon came across three helpings of art porn. First was a projection of slides taken in 1966 by Dan Graham for his seminal Homes for America; then there was Mel Bochner’s 36 Photographs and 12 Diagrams of the same year; and, finally, there were installation shots of Robert Grosvenor’s 1968 Haags Gemeentemuseum show. Graham used photography to document minimal forms and serial arrangements in suburbia, and Bochner employed the camera to fix any one arrangement of a constantly changing sequence of wooden blocks. Grosvenor, by contrast, used the camera simply to document his work. He was an old-school sculptor, building large structures that intruded on the viewer’s space. The Dutch installation shots were not really his in the way that Graham’s and Bochner’s contributions were theirs. Presumably included in the LA show because the sculptures themselves were too big or too difficult to refabricate, the shots not surprisingly led us to wish we could see the real thing. But if Graham’s and Bochner’s photographs have suggested new directions for sculpture and photography alike, it is Grosvenor’s modest installation shots that somewhat unexpectedly strike a chord with one strain of artistic practice today.

Consider, for example, Italian artist Giuseppe Gabellone’s Untitled, 1999, a photograph of a rough interior fitted with a grid of fluorescent lights. The space is probably an unconverted warehouse, but we don’t really examine the architecture so much as the rollicking roller coaster of a sculpture that fills it. A plywood ramp bends toward us and away, lurching up and tumbling down, parallel to the floor at times, then tilting at precarious angles. Where the wood catches the light from above full-on it is bleached to near white, while its underside darkens at times to gray. The loops seem to defy gravity, despite the fact that we can see the planks holding them up. And though the material seems untreated and no effort was made to conceal the armatures, the construction still looks as though it must have taken ages to finish. But once it was complete, Gabellone set up his tripod, snapped the photograph, and proceeded to take the plywood pieces apart.

For anyone who derives pleasure from viewing sculpture this is art porn indeed—but not a perversion so much as a tease. The sculptural imagination speeds along the track. What would it have been like to walk around the construction? The wood stretches to the walls so you would have had to crawl to get under the side bends. What would you have seen from the other side of the space? Would it have been possible to follow the loop without getting confused? The tantalizing photograph raises these questions but keeps the answers to itself. Staring at its dumb, flat plane, we can’t even work out if the track was continuous. Try. Pretty soon you’ll get lost in the tangle.

Gabellone is one of a handful of artists today working out of the predicament suggested by Grosvenor’s 1968 photographs. If you can’t ultimately have the sculpture, could you not have just the photograph? Untitled answers this question in the affirmative, but before thinking through its implications, we should pause to recall earlier episodes in the ongoing relationship of sculpture and photography. For instance, in the same year as Grosvenor’s Dutch show, Douglas Huebler moved away from his wood-and-Formica constructions, instead using ballpoint-pen marks and fabric stickers to indicate the apexes and edges of absent “sculptures” that he documented photographically. Huebler’s work was initially discussed in terms of dematerialization—the image replacing the object—but it would be more compelling to understand it in terms of a shift from conceiving space as physical bulk to thinking about social space: Less than three years after he stopped building objects, he embarked on a project to photograph everyone alive. In that intervening time, meanwhile, Robert Smithson had made an insistently material sculpture, but one most people would know only through images. His Spiral Jetty, 1970, would lead the critic Craig Owens to draw important new conclusions about the clash between sculpture and photography in his 1979 essay “Earthwords.” For Owens, Spiral Jetty confounded the primacy of direct experience that Carl Andre, as quoted above, had valued above all else. The point, after all, was not that we would actually get ourselves to Utah. Rather, it was that we wouldn’t. Photography necessarily intrudes in our encounter with sculpture but so, too, in our encounter with everything else. As Owens concluded: “Smithson . . . accomplishes a radical dislocation of the notion of point-of-view, which is no longer a function of physical position, but of the mode (photographic, cinematic, textual) of confrontation with the work of art.”

Whatever one thinks of the different interpretations of the relationship of sculpture and photography in the late 1960s, current practices demand new readings. Alongside Gabellone we find artists as diverse as Simon Starling, Shirley Tse, Armando Andrade Tudela, Damián Ortega, and the team of Adam Dade and Sonya Hanney all using sculpture and photography together. Unlike Huebler, these artists are not replacing the laborious activity of fabrication with a hastier form of marking and documenting, or moving from objects and matter to social space. Nor should a consideration of their practices imply a progressive development from sculpture to photography: They all continue to make and show actual objects. And unlike Owens’s Smithson, they aren’t exactly interested in the way experience is mediated by photography and text per se—a condition that is now taken for granted from the start. Instead, photography and sculpture have entered a more complex phase of their relationship, folding over each other, reversing positions, flipping back and forth, the one becoming the other.

One of the ways to explore the differences between these artists’ works might be to think about the way photography’s inherent characteristics open up onto various photosculptural practices. The indexical nature of analog photography has long been understood as crucial to its difference from other media, and this property clearly inflects the work of James Casebere and Thomas Demand. Their photographs present meticulously constructed replicas of spaces or objects, and it is precisely the medium’s indexicality that momentarily convinces us we are looking at real things, not replicas. For the critic George Baker, this is a “truly minor perversion,” and I am certainly more interested in those artists who are thinking less about photography in terms of its properties as a medium and more in terms of its facilities as a tool or device: Photography is utterly mobile, remarkably fast, and can document things that were once present but are no longer there. All of these characteristics seem obvious, but to varying degrees they have helped to inspire and facilitate unexpected new tendencies in sculpture.

Returning to Gabellone’s Untitled, we can see how it exploits photography’s documentary power. The surprise of the work is that it witnesses a real sculpture that was once present but no longer is. Simon Starling uses photography in a related manner, but for him the object remains alongside photographs that sometimes show the previous locations it occupied. To take one example, for Burn Time, 2001, Starling constructed a small wooden model of a building in Bremen, Germany, that had been converted from a prison into a museum dedicated to the Bauhaus designer Wilhelm Wagenfeld. Starling’s model museum was exhibited at Camden Arts Centre in London next to a stove fashioned of bricks from the front steps of the institution. At the opening, eggs were cooked on the stove in Wagenfeld egg coddlers, fueled by wood hacked off the model building. These eggs had been laid inside the model museum when it had been situated on a chicken farm in Scotland. Photographs in the Camden catalogue showed the object during its former life as a henhouse. While these images in some ways undercut the primacy of the gallery experience by implicating the model in a more expansive narrative than was readily appreciable in the exhibition, they also open the work up to our imagination. Some were taken with a wide-angle lens, and in them the model looks like a life-size building, if somewhat out of place in the Scottish landscape, with hens looming like monstrous giants beside it.

At other times, Starling has used photography to inscribe his sculptural projects within a circuit of personal and global economies and ecologies. One of the most reflexive examples of this process took place at FRAC Languedoc-Roussillon in Montpellier. Starling learned that the institution’s catalogues were printed in Romania, where paper, ink, and other production costs were lower than in France. He discovered, in other words, that in their very materiality the photographs that would record his sculptural project would bear witness to the uneven economies of Europe. So as not to silence the witness, the production process of the catalogue became the subject of the project. Starling traveled to Romania and took photographs that would appear in the catalogue. Once printed, they were presented back in Montpellier in uncollated stacks. The stacks of photographs thus constituted his finished sculpture; but since he had also refashioned the gallery space to resemble the Romanian printing works, they simultaneously had the character of unprocessed materials on a factory floor.

Starling not only makes use of photography’s documentary capabilities but also exploits its mobility. In Work Made-Ready, Les Baux de Provence (Mountain Bike), 2000, he rode his bike from Britain to a mine in France where he collected bauxite later used to fabricate a replica of the bike. He took along his camera on the journey and later published his photographs of the mine. The idea here is that photographs show the source of the natural matter used to make the sculpture. Flip this idea around and we’re back to Gabellone, who in the series of works made after Untitled, 1999, took sculptures fabricated from inorganic materials outdoors and used photography to record their temporary locales. Made indoors, the Styrofoam blue flowers of Untitled, 2002, were photographed on roadsides in southwest Italy. At first, the locations seem utterly at odds with the objects. They are scrubby settings, where instead of flowers there’s evidence of construction work, half-finished buildings, and makeshift, rusted iron fencing. Gabellone’s flowers dominate the images, preposterously. But look at them more, and they seem subtly in tune with their surroundings. Though they roughly resemble lilies, no pains were taken to make them look like real flowers, let alone fake ones, since different floral blossoms protrude from each crude stick-stem; in one photograph they even rest on platforms. However well carved, the Styrofoam is as insistently industrial as the setting.

Like Gabellone, Shirley Tse has periodically taken her sculptures for a walk. After a show in Los Angeles, she deinstalled her large, hanging work She’s Got That Air, 1997, and cut up its soft plastic cubes. She then took these pieces to the sand dunes in Death Valley, where she let them fall like tumbleweeds and photographed them crumpled against the soft ripples of sand. Her next series of photographs, “Not Exactly A . . . ,” was also made in 1998 in another inhospitable setting, this time an icy Canadian landscape. Here the sculpture was a pink plastic biomorphic form, its fuchsia brightness shattering the pale, frozen ground. A year later, Tse moved from LA to Chicago and along the way took various photographs of a set of electric-blue sculptures made of Bubble Wrap. Some were shot up close in dramatic national parks so they seem massive, forming terrains that rhyme with the jagged mountains behind. In another photograph, the objects were set along a drab highway like abandoned hitchhikers.

If Gabellone’s work might ridicule artificial attempts to prettify industrial and urban spaces with weakly decorative flower beds, it is hard not to surmise that Tse’s images are playing with the legacy of Earthworks. Perhaps Tse’s photographs and the smallish sculptures they picture deflate the gigantism of Michael Heizer’s work, while the intrusion of industrial materials into the “natural” environment pokes fun at James Turrell’s craters-and-stars transcendentalism. But something about the spirit of these photographs makes me think that such a critical position is not entirely the point. I’d like to imagine instead that Tse is on a strange quest to find out where these pink and blue bodies can be at home, and, ironically, that may be where they would seem most out of place. If in cities plastic is so ubiquitous as to be invisible, when caught by the camera in the great outdoors it can appear surprising once again; it can breathe.

Like Starling, Tse and Gabellone rely on the idea of photographic mobility, and in suggesting different formulations of the relationship between sculpture and photography, they invoke art-historical precedents somewhat less canonical than the work of Graham, Bochner, Huebler, and Smithson mentioned above. While the industrial materiality and floral iconography in Gabellone’s photographs recall Michelangelo Pistoletto’s 1965 cardboard Rosa bruciata (Burnt Rose), the variable locations of the photographs suggest the trip taken by Palla di giornali (Ball of Newspapers), 1966, the huge ball of compressed newspaper that Pistoletto rolled through the streets of Turin, a journey captured in Ugo Nespolo’s film. And in connection with Tse’s work, consider Eleanor Antin’s “100 BOOTS,” 1971–73, and think of it now not as a series of postcards but as a roving sculpture that could be repositioned in different locations. After all, the first photograph, 100 BOOTS Facing the Sea, 1971, shows an arrangement of identical units in a line, reworking one of the most famous (anti)compositional modes of 1960s sculpture (Andre’s Lever, 1966). Antin’s sculpture, rearranged and resituated for each new photograph, could occupy the deserted outdoor spaces of Earthworks and the vernacular urban space of the supermarket, the amusement park and the museum.

The generative strategy behind Gabellone’s and Tse’s projects (transport the object outside, position it, and take its photo) can be twisted to bring us to yet another section of the roller coaster linking sculpture and photography: Take the camera out, find an object, and declare it sculpture through the process of photography. This idea immediately calls to mind some of Gabriel Orozco’s photographs, not those for which he sets up an arrangement of objects but those where he chances on them. The headless huddle of goats pictured in Common Dream, 1996, must have seemed amazing as Orozco passed, a kind of found Louise Bourgeois or Dorothea Tanning. An earlier point of origin for this activity would be Brassaï’s “Sculptures Involontaires” of 1933. Brassaï found rolled ticket stubs, hand-worn slips of soap, and squeezed-out blobs of toothpaste, placed each object on glass, and photographed them extremely close-up with dramatic, oblique lighting. The camera obliterated the memory of the objects’ tiny size, making everyday throwaway bits and pieces loom like strange forms from outer space.

If Brassaï’s photographs fashioned futuristic sculpture from the wasted objects of the present, the opposite is now often the case: Sculptors seem to be fascinated with photographing obsolete objects in situations recalling old-fashioned sculptural modes far removed from their own object-making practice. In some of the most interesting photographs in Richard Wentworth’s ongoing series “Making Do and Getting By,” cast-off planks and bricks serve new functions as makeshift steps or parking-space savers. While it’s true that all the photographs in this series, begun in 1987, show obsolete objects put to good use, in these particular examples the arrangements oddly resemble the modernist sculpture of Anthony Caro. In a similar vein, the young Peruvian artist Armando Andrade Tudela has taken a series of photographs on roadsides in his country showing the giant steel structures once used to display massive advertisements. The structures now seem lonely on the highway, like flesh-picked skeletons but also like the Constructivist sculpture of long ago. The operative idea here is that a past form of sculpture—be it Surrealist, Constructivist, or modernist—is found or “re-created” through the practice of photography alone.

A different understanding of photography’s temporal gymnastics informs another twist in recent photo-sculptural work, one that capitalizes on the camera’s ability to evoke not an era but an instant. Peter Fischli and David Weiss set the bar in this regard with their series of photographs, “Stiller Nachmittag, Equilibres” (Quiet Afternoon, Equilibrium), 1984–85, which starred carefully balanced arrangements of cutlery and produce. Half the humor of these photographs derives from their familiarity: Who doesn’t play with their food and balance spoons on their forks? But the other half owes to our sheer amazement that the artists managed to get their hands out of the photo before the construction collapsed. Fischli and Weiss’s photographs find a kind of progeny in the temporary furniture constructions of Mexican Damián Ortega and the British duo Adam Dade and Sonya Hanney. Their arrangements are never as precarious as their predecessors’, but their photographs nonetheless emphasize the temporary, and, in the latter case, furtive character of the sculptures. In his “Puentes y Presas (Autoconstrucción)” (Bridges and Dams [Self-Construction]) series of 1997, Ortega reassembled all of the chairs and cupboards in his apartment into structures based on architectural forms such as the arch. The images recall ’50s sculptural assemblages made using discarded industrial objects, but where the earlier artists permanently recuperated detritus into artworks, here the chairs resumed their everyday functions after Ortega’s photographs.

For the first work in Dade and Hanney’s “Stacked Hotel Room” series of 1998–2002, the pair checked into a hotel in Rhodes and rearranged the entire contents of their room (beds, fans, sheets, toilet-paper rolls) into a compact, rectangular block. They have built nine similar constructions since. On each occasion, they pretend to be “normal” hotel guests, and before leaving they return their room to the state in which they found it. No one but them knows how the rooms were used. The initial guilty pleasure of these works derives from the secrecy and audacity of the action to which the photographs bear witness. Looking at them, we feel a bit complicit. But the real power of the series comes from the comparisons we make between these images and other kinds of rearrangements, whether by a coke-crazed rock band or a lusty couple on a dirty weekend. If these mental images resemble a kind of scatter art, Dade and Hanney’s constructions recall Minimalism. Their temporary rearrangements are ultimately less brazen than utterly and compulsively polite. So, too, are Ortega’s constructions, which are clearly and carefully planned and as neat as the rest of the untouched furniture behind them.

Judging from the works I have discussed, we can infer that the artists in question share some skepticism toward the trend of gigantic sculpture by the likes of Olafur Eliasson, Anish Kapoor, and Richard Serra, which James Meyer recently lamented has replaced the issue of scale with sheer size. Some of the artists under consideration here retrieve scale through photography—Tse’s photographs, for instance, endow small sculptural objects with great scale through cropping and framing. Some deflate size—in Tudela’s photos, massive steel structures appear smallish. By exchanging or accompanying real sculpture with an image, all of these artists to some extent question the very validity of the physical encounter, raising the question as to why it should still be critical. But they do not refuse the physical encounter tout court, as other sculptors working more directly with social and institutional space have done. Rather, in their photographs, the traditional kinaesthetic experience of sculptural viewing is simultaneously celebrated and withheld.

That said, it is also fascinating to consider how these artists’ encounters with photography inform the continued production of their objects. Gabellone, for instance, has gone from making images of objects to objects of images: In the 2003 Venice Biennale, he exhibited low reliefs made of polyurethane foam. These were three-dimensional renditions of Japanese prints, famously important in the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art for their flatness. Since making photographs of temporary constructions, Ortega has used photography as a kind of sketchbook. In the future, he plans to ship a Beetle from his home in Mexico back to Germany and bury it upside down outside Volkswagen headquarters in Wolfsburg. To see what this might look like he has already produced a photographic mock-up in which wheels protrude from the ground. Tse continues to show groupings of plastic sculptural works, but when installed, many seem to offer photographic viewpoints. Polymathicstyrene, 1999–2000, for instance, is a wall-mounted, hip-high shelf sculpture with various diagonal extrusions routed into its horizontal top plane; when one looks down at this surface from a standing position, these patterns recall aerial photography (and, it could even be said, bring to mind another early rendezvous between sculpture and photography, Man Ray’s image of Duchamp’s Large Glass, titled Dust Breeding, 1920, but sometimes referred to as view from an aeroplane).

Tse meanwhile has questioned the very basis of the distinction between images and objects, noting that her Ilfochromes are printed on polyester backing and are polymer coated. This allows her to stress that since her medium is consistently plastic, her work transcends more traditional categories like photography and sculpture altogether. And so we get to the last twist—or rather flip—in the tale, whereby the artist conceives of the photograph not as an image of sculpture but as sculpture itself. Though not exactly new (think of Bochner’s Surface Dis/Tension, 1968, or Gordon Matta-Clark’s Photo-Fry of the following year), this idea is particularly compelling now, when digitalization has changed the way we think about photographic materiality—having wrested the image from its basis in matter. Those artists who have most famously exploited digital procedures have produced images as inflated as the large-scale installations that frustrate Meyer. For many other critics, the “Struffsky” phenomenon is part and parcel of the spectacular drift of recent art (see, for instance, Alexander Alberro’s account of Gursky in these pages). By contrast, the photographs by the artists discussed here, though by no means snapshots, certainly do not approach the grand scale of nineteenth-century history paintings. But the point, in fact, is not so much their actual size as their materiality, and for these artists, the engagement with sculpture has fostered a keen sensitivity to the material character of their photographs. Starling’s work once again is exemplary here. For a recent show in Barcelona, he produced photographs with an outmoded platinum-based process used mainly from its invention in 1873 until 1920. Yet this was no romantic return to an obsolete technology, pace Chuck Close’s daguerreotypes. Pursuing a rigorous conceptual “circuit,” Starling lit his photographs with bulbs (themselves the “sculptures” in the show) that were powered by a generator also using platinum. So the photographs were connected to the sculptures through an emphasis on a constant and shared materiality. In his next show, held in Basel, he rephotographed a 1910 image of a lead mine in Scotland and printed it, again using the platinum procedure. The platinum he used this time was mined in South Africa, and the other objects in the show were reflections on the fact that it took one ton of ore and huge amounts of labor to produce enough platinum for the prints. Sculpture and photography emerge now not as foes—the one criticizing and supplanting the other—but as partners, both refusing transcendence, both rooted in matter, which is to say, rooted in the economic and geographic reality of our world.

Mark Godfrey teaches at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London.