San Francisco

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel

University Art Museum, Berkeley

The focus of Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s exhibition here was the installation of electronic news and Wire-photo machines from Associated Press and United Press International, which spewed out approximately two hundred photographs and a thousand news stories a day during the month of the show. Functioning as editors, Sultan and Mandel planned to use these photographs and news-story galleys to create a series of wall installations, changing semiweekly, to “uncover hidden biases in the media.”

Descending into the concrete, bunker-styled gallery, viewers encountered a facsimile newsroom replete with clock, desks, and wire machines. On the walls were a selection of front pages, a montage of one day’s 8-by-10-inch photographs from the wire, a series of blown-up portraits of world leaders, a mural-size picture of Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose, and a graph of the subject matter of the wire services’ stories, demonstrating that sport was categorically the most common topic.

The most curious and perhaps significant components of the installation, however, were the photographs that had accumulated in piles on the desk tops, and as surplus in a large mass in the center of the gallery floor. It was through this residue that viewers could truly comprehend the vast quantity of photographic imagery that is produced on a daily basis; and though the pile was not part of the original intent, situationally it offered viewers an opportunity to participate in the discovery and selection process.

Like Evidence, Sultan and Mandel’s 1977 selection of 85 photographs from corporate and government files, this installation was largely an exercise in context and ordering. But unlike Evidence, which brilliantly argued that the distinction between art and utilitarian photography is more a matter of intent than of skill or imagination, this installation never established a cogent sense of context or purpose. This is not to suggest that Sultan and Mandel’s work here was totally without merit or interest; the electronic news and Wirephoto machines proved fascinating, and the photographs and printed galleys manifested their own particular seductions.

But lacking from the installation was any kind of ordering or analysis of the data emitted by the machines. The wall exhibits were of the most primary sort, merely establishing some basic subject associations and exaggerating (through enlargement) the surrealistic qualities inherent in decontextualized photographs. Though Sultan and Mandel were not successful in validating their conceptual premise, or in uncovering anything but the most obvious media biases, however, the plethora of photographs and printed data which gradually came to dominate the gallery did form a clear and somewhat disconcerting statement on the impact and prevalence of the electronically reproduced image in the age of post-Modern art.

Hal Fischer