New York

Barbara Steinman

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

Montreal-based artist Barbara Steinman employs photography and video in installations that address the epistemological concerns around iconographic representation. A specially constructed room on the third floor of the museum provided the site for her recent installation. Upon entering, one was immediately confronted with a life-sized photograph of a Renaissance Madonna and child. An abrupt 90-degree turn led into a small antechamber on the far wall of which hung an identical image, somewhat obscured by its variegated Plexiglas surface. Diffused light and subdued sound emanated from behind a wall on the left side of the main room draped with a gauze curtain. To the right two video monitors were positioned on high stands.

The sound track featured a woman’s injunction to take a deep breath, which corresponded to an image of the slow pouring out of a laboratory vial of what appeared to be blood, screened on the right video monitor. The left monitor presented a static image of the same vial. The subtle shifts between the images and sounds that are directly seen or heard, and those that perform a magical legerdemain on the viewer and become invisible, static, or remote, provides a kind of diagram of the subtle changes in meaning that have affected the status of the icon in contemporary society. Of recent concern to younger artists, the icon is a powerful yet ephemeral nugget of information. Traditionally embedded deep within the substructure of the culture, the icon is synonymous with invulnerable belief. The Madonna and child icon had, from the early medieval period to the beginning of Modernism, a public opinion rating that remains the envy of every 20th-century artist. Venerated by the majority of society, it was unassailable in its perfection, and unparalleled in its succinctness. It stood for the widely held belief in Christianity, symbolizing and abbreviating a complex set of beliefs and accompanying behaviors.

Today the image most likely to take on such an overarching task of codification is the corporate logo. Little else in our culture is assigned the task of visually embodying the symbolic essence of an institution. In an international society composed of competing cultural mores and forced by technological advances into a whirlwind of imploding changes, there is little iconographic information that does more than nostalgically hark back to earlier times Few values are universally agreed upon, and a proliferation of competing points of view and inimical visions serves to prevent any image from functioning as an invulnerable icon.

What Steinman has expressed in her piece is the yearning for an iconographic understanding of the world, while simultaneously pointing to the image’s limited adequacy with respect to our contemporary condition. What is physically seen or heard in the installation is subject to change, alteration, and editing. What we recognize on one wall or on one monitor is then transmuted into something entirely different. As Paul Virilio stated a few years ago: “We have gone from the esthetics of appearance, stable forms, to the esthetics of disappearance, unstable forms.” Steinman seems to agree.

Dena Shottenkirk