Unknown Elements is this strange passage of time. Walking into the quaint exhibition space is as if walking into a long lost living room. Images of family members grace the walls, ranging from a war-time portrait of your heroic uncle to your mother’s failed attempt at documenting your annual vacation out West; from monochromatic flash photography, to dismal tintypes of your ancestors from across-the-sea. Unique to this family anthology is the mystery behind each image, the story behind the photograph, the place it was taken, or even the name of the person in the photo, lost or forgotten (or maybe was never even known). The premise of the show depends on this sort of historical hole, one that viewers are prompted to fill with their own imaginations. A simple concept, nonetheless, this exhibition entertains age-old queries about artist/audience relationship, photography as means of recording and archiving, and self as it pertains to life and legacy.
On: Knowledge and Aesthetics
While I could provide a fairly robust synopsis about this photograph (what I researched through Google and other online databases afterward) there is something remarkably indescribable about this image. While the identity of the subject or the particular context in which the photo was taken may be initially unknown, James Karales’ photo carries with it a profound sense of time and place and meaning. It possesses a palpable familiarity that makes us believe we know this photo, we know the man, we know the story. Our sense of knowing comes from our exposure to other historical imagery, ones we have seen reiterated throughout our time, in newspapers, television, books, and the like. These very icons have created this sort of visual American tapestry through which we know history, and, are what we draw upon to make a connection between the unknown and the known. Our sense of understanding comes from what is achieved through the aesthetic qualities of the image. So while I am no art historian, I can understand the photograph through my innate sense of human connectivity. It is amazing, really, how we are both confined to the pictorial framework established for us, while at the same time, empowered to devise our own.
On: Outer Space and Measurable Failure
Integral to the concept of the show is the involvement of local creatives beckoned to lend their inventiveness to the meaning of the exhibition. Writers from academic, artistic, and formal backgrounds are asked to explain a chosen photograph through narrative, poem, or any writing of the like. These pairings serve as the conduit for understanding the photograph, giving names to faces and location to places. Sarah Rose Nordgen illustrates it best in Simulation, her written accompaniment to Simulated Moon Landing Seen on Box Television Set (and from which the following quotes have been cited).
“Admit it: Your whole life there’s been a remove between you and greatness, between you and disaster.” A stark and condemning clause, Nordgen’s one-line introduction could be the very title of the exhibition. Relegating could-have-beens and if-onlys, her second person point of view reads more like the sad sub-conscious of the subject matter (or even more, the viewer) gazing into the abyss of televised space. “Time shifts in flickers while the world keeps happening inside a box you can only look into.” Ripe with self-depreciation, her introspective text digs deep into the American-psyche, one that lives vicariously through the collective success of others while sitting in the sad melancholy of their own reality. “It’s all there behind the screen: earth receding into blackness, and, as a man makes tiny bootprints in dust the color of gunpowder, a collective breath of relief from mission control.”
Most notable of Nordgen’s writing is its perfect resemblance to the very concept of the exhibition. As viewers are encouraged to “unleash their imagination” (from CAM press release) the result elicits this strange relationship between the images and our very selves. We see in these photographs moments of greatness that we never achieved, and people of grandeur that we could never be. We project our own worn fantasies onto what are probably ordinary people just like ourselves. “Reassuring and paternal at his desk, Cronkite pulls you in, ‘Because if we are not able to land’ – he must be addressing you now – ‘at least we are able to follow.’”
On: Marriage and Immortality
There was something altogether lovely and sad about the show but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I reached this photograph by Walker Evans.
Intrigued by beauty, but sobered by fate, the viewer is faced with an elegant convergence of past and present. Positioned as an on-looker or even participant of the day, we get a glimpse of a ravishing bride and a dapper groom, on what could presumably be the happiest day of their lives. We see the joy in her eyes and then notice the sadness in ours as we read the label: [Unidentified Wedding Party]. Such a significant moment of bliss juxtaposed with complete anonymity, the true state and impending fate of our very own lives. Photography’s promise to preserve and our hope that it will do so will only be met with time, futility, and misinformation, as seen in this exhibition.
What leaks through history is our very reality. Our stories of ambiguity, of love, of struggle are no less true than if anyone knew them to be. Nor can we make our lives anymore lasting through keeping, through recording, through preserving, through prayer. Saint Augustine of Hippo notes in Confessions, an eloquent compilation of reflection and redemption:
“I was sad, but sad is every soul overcome by love for what must pass.”
Find your place in history at the Cincinnati Art Museum through November 8, 2015.