Dena Yago, HONK ONCE IF YOU LOVE LIVING, HONK TWICE IF YOU LIVE WITH THE DEAD, 2016, industrial rubber, dimensions variable.

Dena Yago, HONK ONCE IF YOU LOVE LIVING, HONK TWICE IF YOU LIVE WITH THE DEAD, 2016, industrial rubber, dimensions variable.

Dena Yago

Dena Yago, HONK ONCE IF YOU LOVE LIVING, HONK TWICE IF YOU LIVE WITH THE DEAD, 2016, industrial rubber, dimensions variable.

The four photographs displayed in Dena Yago’s recent show “Heck & The Divested Set” were shot by the artist in Pioneertown, a fake western frontier outpost conceived and built by Hollywood investors and production designers in the 1940s to serve as both a TV/film set and temporary housing for actors and crew members. A rusty town bell atop a wooden facade in Pioneertown, 2015 (Bell); a close-up of a brittle leather saddle in Pioneertown, 2015 (Saddle); a rickety wagon, long abandoned, in Pioneertown, 2015 (Wheel); and a slouching windmill with faded signage in Pioneertown, 2015 (Windmill) (all works 2016) were all unspectacularly rendered. But these props of the western genre also allude to another seminal chapter in American cultural history: the photographic documentation of westward expansion that helped survey and commodify vast swaths of uncharted territory while consolidating a uniquely American visual identity based, in part, on the suppression of existing Native American settlements.

Opposite the photographs, a sculpture made from industrial rubber depicted a sad, tired-looking horse encircled by fragments of text that could be put together to read the words of its title, Behold the Tears as Such that Were Oppressed They Had No Comforter (all works 2016). The horse is modeled on one from a 1930 Workmen’s Circle children’s book the artist inherited from her grandmother, who had been a member of the Warsaw Jewish Mutual Aid Society. The text, an oft-cited verse from Ecclesiastes, seems to resonate with the horse’s gloomy demeanor. It is also a reference to film history, as it is quoted by Franz Biberkopf, the antihero of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1980 film adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), as he contemplates the fate of those, like him, condemned to perform the latent violence of the Weimar Republic’s last days. A second text piece, HONK ONCE IF YOU LOVE LIVING, HONK TWICE IF YOU LIVE WITH THE DEAD—this one unillustrated, consisting only of words cut from rubber bending and folding over one another—continued the dual biblical/filmic reference but with a textual twist that returned the narrative to an American landscape filled with corny bumper stickers that vainly attempt to elicit a sense of social cohesion.

In the accompanying exhibition text, Yago, who is also a poet, compares her pictures to stock images—commercial photographs that are staged, bland, or interchangeable enough to fulfill an endless series of aesthetic or illustrative functions—that will soon be made redundant by the proliferation of user-generated content. According to one UGC site, it is precisely traditional stock photography’s “utter lack of authenticity” that will ultimately lead to the genre’s demise in the age of the so-called selfie revolution and the transition from text-based browser searches to image-based ones. And yet, as Susan Sontag wrote almost four decades ago, the very medium of photography has always been burdened by false claims of authenticity, and “despite the presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority, interest, seductiveness, the work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth.” Nowhere was this more evident, perhaps, than in the American West, where mechanical modes of visual representation imported from Europe coincided with the consolidation of a nationalist tradition of landscape painting also dependent on European models; both endeavored to faithfully depict preindustrial landscapes and their inhabitants as part of a larger project of scientific examination, acculturation, and exploitation.

Such photographs were reproduced in guidebooks that traveled back across the ocean to the medium’s place of origin where, along with other mass-cultural documents, such as maps, posters, and novels, they helped create a romanticized version of this last frontier against industrialization. In Germany, Wild West fervor was embodied by the best-selling author Karl May, whose tales of the fictional Apache chief Winnetou and his German sidekick Old Shatterhand fostered an identification not with the enterprising cowboy but with the good native, the Indianer, in a bizarre, unapologetic case of cultural appropriation that continues, almost unabated, up to the present day. Yago’s juxtaposition of seemingly empty pictures—she calls them “stand-ins, props”—and migrating poetic fragments exposed the strangeness of such historical fictions.

Michèle Faguet