Baltimore

Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Projection 4 (P), 1997, 1 of 162 projected slides.

Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Projection 4 (P), 1997, 1 of 162 projected slides.

“SlideShow”

Baltimore Museum of Art

With a nod to Kodak’s recent decision to discontinue production of the slide projector, “SlideShow” marks a transition in visual culture—from analog to digital media—and looks back at forty years of slide-projection art. But the remarkable quality of work presented here, including compelling contemporary selections and rarely seen pieces by such artists as Dan Graham, Robert Smithson, Jan Dibbets, and James Coleman makes it less a commemoration than a provocative curatorial achievement—though warranting one caveat. Organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Darsie Alexander, the show may still raise eyebrows for its unapologetic positing of slide projection as a medium with its own historical set of technological supports (arising from modes of projection beginning with magic lanterns in the seventeenth century) and procedural conventions (the techniques of successive display emerging from both nineteenth-century chronophotography and modern film).

The problem is that many artists during the ’60s first turned to slide projection precisely to escape medium specificity: It offered a way to deskill and homogenize production (through the embrace of the cheap slide format) and to incorporate forms of distribution within the artistic structure. This antimodernist tendency is clearest here in conceptual work like Graham’s Homes for America, 1966–67, which, appearing just before his related magazine project of the same name, presents washed-out, discolored images of New Jersey housing developments taken with an amateur point-and-shoot Instamatic camera. His focus on the repetition of mass-produced architecture, emphasized through his images’ compositional chasms of flat surfaces placed en abîme, is matched by the serialization of slides in a continuous, circular carousel, shown one after the next. Significantly, Graham’s piece was presented in the downtown loft of Smithson, who soon employed slides in the brilliant Hotel Palenque, 1969–72, which mimics both art-historical pedagogy and amateur travelogue. A recorded voice-over, tongue-in-cheek and hilarious, describes a series of projected images of a half-broken-down/ half-unfinished Mexican hotel, as Smithson represented an entropic process (he termed it “de-architecturization”) in no way consistent with medium specificity. As aspects of the site are linked alternately to pre-Columbian style and post-Minimalist sculpture, Hotel Palenque exacerbates the deterioration by undoing the building through discursive force, loosening its temporal location and interpreting functional components with imaginative abandon.

Further weakening any curatorial argument for the coherence of medium specificity is the show’s arrangement in overlapping categories of contemporary, narrative, performance, and conceptual art. Such indistinctness, in turn, gives a sense of happenstance to the installation. One could walk directly from Ana Mendieta’s feminist-inspired Untitled (Body Tracks), 1974, featuring images of the artist as she drags her blood-soaked hands down a white wall, to the analytic rigor of Coleman’s Slide Piece, 1972, whose narration obsesses over repeated projections of a single photograph of a seemingly banal gas station in Milan. Between the two projects, one moves disjunctively from ritualistic body art to the conceptual critique of representation.

Still, if there is a case to be made for slide projection as a medium, it is with pieces such as Coleman’s, which defines itself not as unified structure but as heterogeneous assemblage—invoking photography, film, and sculpture but irreducible to any one. To Alexander’s credit, she reads slide projection as a category that by necessity is internally divided, indeed postmodern, following from Coleman’s example. In Slide Piece, an authoritative male voice describes select passages of the image in exactingly formal terms but frequently draws metaphoric associations—a shadow resting behind a car is likened to a flower pot, a knot of tree branches is seen as a jellyfish. This provokes a break between the accidental traces of photographic record and the imaginative course of human perception—two radically distinct forms of projection. By presenting the piece in an almost entirely white room with a clear Plexiglas projector stand, Coleman stages the apparatus of projection, preventing our complete surrender to the image and generating a breach further pronounced by short, dark intervals between slides and corresponding sections of commentary. This and certain other pieces in the show do emphasize an experiential condition particular to the projection of still images, which, in locating the viewer between memory and anticipation, opens an indeterminate zone between the autonomy of the single-frame photograph and the uninterrupted continuity of filmic illusion.

With more recent work, such as Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s Projection 4 (P), 1997, that fissure is eliminated. Instead, we encounter a luminous blur of colorful, double-exposed images of botanical matter that slowly dissolve into one another, toadstools metamorphosing into shimmering petals of exotic flowers. This hallucinogenic flux of genetically modified nature is absorbed by the viewer in total darkness—the loss of the real paralleled by a downgraded reflexivity regarding the means of projection. Here, the supposed historical rupture occasioned by the obsolescence of slide projection appears misdiagnosed. Not only has its style already anticipated the smoothness of the digitization into which it has transformed, but the very hybridity of the medium invites new technological reconfigurations. “SlideShow” reveals less the conclusion of a medium, one that has been problematized from the very beginning, and more an ongoing shift in techniques of the projected image, with one offshoot moving toward an immersive virtuality. In this light, conceptualist antiaesthetic gestures acquire an unanticipated critical relevance today, even as contemporary work creates new forms of engagement within and beyond the appearance of commercial spectacle.

T. J. Demos teaches art history and criticism at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.