The Maximillian Issue II

The Phenomenology of Memory in Contemporary Photography
George Philip LeBourdais, Amanda Roscoe Mayo & Adam Katseff

We Have Lost Sight of The Body

The blackness he woke to on those nights was sightless and impenetrable. A blackness to hurt your ears with listening. Often he had to get up. No sound but the wind in the bare and blackened trees. He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings.

– Cormac McCarthy, The Road1

The contemporary is he who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light, but rather its darkness.

– Giorgio Agamben, What is the Contemporary?2

We have lost sight of the body, Edmund Husserl lamented on the threshold of a new century. Although he had earned a PhD in mathematics, philosophical preoccupations about the nature of knowledge had by 1900 outgrown Husserl’s positivist training from the great universities of Europe. Could scientific inquiry fully comprehend the things of the world?3 Does measuring, ordering and explaining things, he wondered, amount to apperceiving them?4 The splits between the self and the world – the essential subject/object division that describes Western metaphysical philosophy – and between the mind and the body had numbed perception, leading Husserl to advocate polemically for a new approach to philosophy that insisted upon the human body as a sensuous being. His concept of phenomenology – our experience of phenomena, the things of the world as we encounter them – posited a new conduit between lived experience and perception, which other strains of philosophy that sought the pure nature of things (ontology) or knowledge (epistemology) had not been able to reconcile. We have lost sight of the body, and phenomenology contains a code for getting back in touch.

That the most important philosophical movement of the 1900s ran into an efflorescence of art called ‘conceptual’ in the latter half of the century thus seems surprising in many ways. Though forged in a tumult of political rebellions and recalibrations of language in the 1960s,5 conceptual art often internalised the divisions of metaphysics into its standard operating procedures.6 And while, since the millennium, some heralded the diminishing returns of conceptual art practices à la lettre,7 three basic separations on the ground testify to its ongoing significance: an uneasy truce, enacted largely through the theory of critics and the practices of the artists themselves between the idea and the finished art object; the insistence on autographic or authorial possession of these ideas (another Western doctrine itself brutally perpetuated by the competition endemic to commercial and academic art worlds); and the familiar reticence of a general public to accept an idea as sufficient substrate to qualify as ‘art’ to begin with.

Such are the straw men that stalk my relationship with this world of contemporary art. It’s not because my studies move primarily within the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; if anything, this focus has roused me to comment on emergent art practices and media in ways that relate them to the past, tracing the lineaments of their origins, inspirations and divagations. Rather, the ravenous appetite for novelty, the maligned but attention-grabbing one-liners, the posturing of rough-hewn objects as aspiring talismans for theory that they are ill-equipped to comprise – these are some of the haunting forces that operate on our minds as our slack bodies shuffle through sleek, anodyne, cubic galleries. The straw man stalks and asks: “What does the work of art mean?”Even if he asks the more provocative and vexing question “What is art?,” we are prone to miss what I hold as the most powerful potential of an artwork today: the sensations of bodily presence that it can generate for those who experience it.8 Or maybe better: the experience of phenomena generated when flesh and world are allowed to connect.

To be clear, phenomenology is not a pure ‘get-out-of-your-head’ theory; it’s more of an ‘abolish-the-idea-that-thoughts-are-only-in-your-head-to-begin-with’ injunction. “Visible and mobile,” wrote the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty – the doyen of developed phenomenology in the twentieth century – “my body is a thing among things; it is one of them…Things are an annex or prolongation of itself; they are incrusted in its flesh, they are part of its full definition; the world is made of the very stuff of the body.”9 When you look at a mirror in a Cartesian world, you see the reflection of an outer shell, an illusion of yourself. But for Merleau-Ponty, the mirror reflection ignites a spark in the world with the body, making the contact of the self with self part of a broader ecology of phenomena, shattering the boundaries that we seem always to see before us.10 When she shared the idea of this written piece with me, Ms. Mayo astutely tagged Robert Irwin (and we could expand this notion to other California minimalists working in the 60s and 70s) as exemplary of this pursuit of the phenomenal importance of a work of art. His sculptures strive towards dissolving visual boundaries between objects and air, imploring viewers to allow themselves to do the same. And if Mr. Katseff, like me, is a New Englander at heart, he has wrapped himself in the mantle of minimalist art making and the capacious, invigorating phenomena that process can ignite.

To bring things to an end, let me pose phenomenology not as a rhetorical, intellectualised pursuit of knowledge, but as an embodied thinking, one that expands as it interfaces with the things of the world: the papery crunch of leaves underfoot in low light; the yawning presence of a big, black rectangle in front of you; the tight whir in your head on a bright day with a heavy pack at altitude; the pressure of your head in your hand as you grapple with a challenging text. Phenomenology, teasing you with its twisting syllables, registers here not as mere academic choreography, but as a philosophy – and this is my last point – grounded in ethical implications. It adjures you to conceive yourself [sic] as part of a world in flux, instead of acting independently in your own self-interest.11 “In dark times,” exhaled the inimitable David Foster Wallace when pressed in an interview, “the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the time’s darkness.”12 We have lost sight of the body, and the uncommon works of art that breathe life back into the connection between it and the mind, between the self and world, should be celebrated when they emerge from the dark.

George Philip LeBourdais, July 2012 Santa Cruz, California

In Conversation

Amanda Roscoe Mayo: I first came into contact with the philosophy of phenomenology from an art perspective, and specifically that of Robert Irwin. Through Forgetting is the Name of the Thing One Sees (first edition) it registered with me that the way I experience the world was in fact an established pattern of thought. I never intended to find the true experience of phenomenology in photography. And then you, Adam, made these dark prints.

Adam Katseff: About a year ago I began thinking about the difference between experiencing a place directly versus summoning it in one’s memory.  I found that the pictures of a place often had little relation to my memory of that place. With this knowledge, I began to shape my images to be more about the experience and the memory, leaving room for the viewers and myself to ‘see’ the images in the mind before actually realising what was happening in the pictures. In this way the dark landscape photographs are a physical experience for the people viewing them, and I would observe people jolting when they realised they were looking at far more than a black rectangle. The dance between viewing them from a distance as opposed to nose length has been a crucial aspect of the work.
That was my way back into the landscape, and into an unfamiliar landscape at that. I was able to experience the places for myself and bring something back that hopefully resembled the discovery and physical experience of being there.

ARM: The experience of memory is precisely that. It is an undeniable experience that affects both the mind and the body in a physical way. A smell, an image, a sound can all trigger the reclamation of a past moment. Contemporary art, from the 1960s to the early 1980s dealt a generous amount in the emotive experience, and memory as it relates to the artist’s and the viewer’s experience alike. Photography, whether it likes it or not, has a built-in emotive experience through nostalgia. If a photographer chooses to use that to his advantage or not is up for discussion, but for our purposes here, the argument holds. For so many memories can be recalled through this medium in the 20th and 21st centuries. I personally am interested then in how a photograph becomes an experience in its entirety. How Katseff’s dark prints recall memories in us we didn’t even know we had.  This to me is important because it speaks to the true phenomenology of memory by convincing us that if we look hard enough and fall forward enough into the work, we are in fact in this space; in the recesses of our own memories.

George Philip LeBourdais: Asked to define a “phenomenology of memory,” I have to remind myself to begin twice. Once to describe ‘phenomenology’ as that concept of philosophy, emergent around the turn of the 20th century, that defines consciousness to be formed by sensuous experience, the way our body dovetails with the world. And twice to say that we record experiences when we mentally organise them within the flow of time (a concept elaborated by Sigmund Freud in his texts Project for a Scientific Psychology of 1895 and more completely in A Note upon the Mystic Writing-Pad from 1925). A phenomenology of memory, therefore, means at least two moments: the original experience of something, and then the experience of remembering or recalling that experience, a creative process savaged by exaggerating, reducing and forgetting.

ARM: George Philip, I am intrigued by this idea of “our body dovetailing with the world.” I wonder if here, in that joint, is where art might reside?

GPL: I’d like to think so, Amanda. I might rephrase that joint you point to – following the ethics described by philosophers of phenomenology – as the aesthetic experience through which a body and a work of art bring one another into being. And your word “reside” is a powerful way, like Martin Heidegger’s idea of “dwelling” (Wohnen), to describe that interaction.

I need to ask both Amanda and Adam why this kind of art – stuff like Robert Irwin’s or Adam’s photos – emerge in the 1960s and today? What inspires it and why is it important?

ARM: George Philip, these are excellent (complex) questions that I hope are touched on throughout this text. I think there are a couple of significant things that happen in this moment. The first is the re-emergence of Kant’s essay The Critique of Judgment, which as we know redefines beauty and ushers in a whole new perspective on aesthetics. The other is an interest in consciousness, which is something heavily explored by Robert Irwin. I would argue that Irwin really brings phenomenology13 and its dealings with perception and consciousness to the forefront of the art world at this time. The interesting thing about this thread is that is hasn’t been vetted as an art theory, but is widely talked about in regards to a large amount of contemporary art. Where it is often not spoken about, however, is in reference to photography: perhaps because it is a much harder task to appeal to this kind of consciousness through the medium. It is important because we now recognise that there is more to seeing than seeing. A favorite quote from Irwin: “You can talk yourself blue in the face about phenomenology and experience, but if they don’t see it, they don’t see it. You can’t make someone see it.”

AK: I can vividly recall an experience that I had a couple of years ago that seems relevant here. Walking through a group painting show I spotted a piece by Ad Reinhardt. At first I remember thinking that I just didn’t get it, I didn’t respond to the work at all and it seemed to be so much about the artist as this grand gesture to ‘end’ painting and having very little interaction with the viewers of the work. I stood there for a good minute or so, staring into the black canvas trying to ‘get it’. All of a sudden a jolt went through my body and I began to question what I was seeing. Was it really black? Was I seeing some sort of difference in tone? I shifted my perspective to try to compensate for anything my eyes could be seeing wrong, and in the shift I had noticed changes as well. I had this feeling of discovery of experience and seeing, wondering if it was my mind or my eyes. The piece completely transformed for me that day, as did much related work. What I had felt was so much about the artist and so little about the viewer became just the opposite – the artist gave to the viewer a challenge to their own internal perception about the piece, and perhaps the world for that matter.

ARM: This recognition is really important Adam, because it is completely about the viewer. Like the ‘if a tree falls in a forest’ phenomena. If the viewer doesn’t have an experience that alters them when they view the work, is the work complete? Your photography is really about time and memory. When you described the dark prints to me for the first time I became extremely excited because of the intrinsic link to phenomenology and the experience of memory. Could you reiterate here the impetus for this body of work?

AK: I remember that conversation well, sitting outside in San Francisco as we shared a pot of tea. I had just returned from a trip to Maui, which was my first time visiting Hawaii. I of course brought my camera, and lugged its 30-plus pounds many miles, only to leave with three pictures. After being fixated for hours, gazing out the airplane window at the Pacific Ocean, I turned away for what only felt like a few moments to look back out at a nearly pitch black scene. Blocking the plane’s interior light with my cupped hands, I allowed my eyes to adjust to the black view and began to see clouds and gradually the surface of the water and the edge of the horizon. After a few minutes, the view became quite clear, and I could see almost everything that I had seen before the sun fully set. After shifting my position slightly, I realised that what I had ‘seen’ were scuffs on the glass, fragments of my reflection and the latent image left in my mind from the view of only a few minutes before. I remember feeling a very strange physical sensation when I realised what had happened because as far as I could tell, I ‘saw’ the view from the plane.

Somehow the jump from this experience and the work I would make seemed to be a small one. I knew it was my solution to making work about a place, and what I was after was the physical experience and the ability of the mind and memory to relate to space.

ARM: George Philip, this is something you are interested in in your research and writing. I’m wondering if you could speak to this relation of space in terms of the technology of photography and the setting of the landscape?

GPL: With pleasure. The blackness that lies in the landscape is something that has captivated me for some years now. I’ve always been interested in the challenges art poses to its viewers, especially when that art is itself forged through a challenge. One of my enduring investigations has been into a quintessential challenge for humanity: climbing mountains. The people who made the first photographs of the Alps in France and Switzerland in the mid-nineteenth century were using the grandparents of Adam’s camera: mammoth (16 x 20 inch) glass plate negatives; huge, wooden camera bodies; flammable chemicals prepared in darkened tents with glacial winds and blinding sun assailing them from the outside. Their experience of physical strain is printed into these images, like the ubiquitous jet-black silhouettes of the climbers who were trudging through those frozen heights.

My research tramping up snowy mountains myself, dizzy with altitude, gasping for oxygen, has been about understanding the bodily experience that created images like these. And I think when I saw Adam’s dark photographs for the first time, I saw an important intervention, as if the hermetic darkness of the human form that sets it apart from the world had been broken open, allowing the landscape to be bathed in the full richness of thoughts and feelings. When Mr. Katseff said during the development of the series that many people thought the images were just a bit too dark – that he needed to give them something, anything really, to see – I told him he was onto something. “Make ‘em even darker,” I said. Denying the power of our vision, forcing us to dwell in thought – as Heidegger would say, is the gift of these dark photographs, one that reaches towards what the philosopher identified as the fundamental nature of the work of art: “the truth of being setting itself to work.”

The Perception is Personal

The white cube,15 in its familiarity to the exhibition space, is not unfamiliar with black works. The starkness of the value change between the wall and the work creates a change in the viewer while simultaneously referencing specific moments of change in art history. Throughout contemporary art history, dark works often occurred as shift in practice or as specific responses to queries.

In terms of display, photography was not always part of the modern art conversation. Exhibitions like the Family of Man, Harlem on My Mind, and Stieglitz’s Gallery 291 challenged modes of display for photography, which in turn helped elevate the medium as an accepted form of contemporary practice in fine art. Now photography is almost exclusively displayed in the ‘white cube’, which has significant affect on the viewer. When one is approaching a white-walled space occupied by black rectangles, the eye needs some time to physically adjust. If an Ad Reinhardt black painting confronts the viewer, planes of deep blue will begin to surface, delineating various large squares inside the picture plane; the ultimate form of abstraction is that which abstracts the sense of self, according to Reinhardt. Imagine an exhibition of Adam Katseff’s dark prints: black voids floating on the wall. The glass sheens like oil on asphalt, shifting colours as one moves throughout the space

The phenomenological experience that is tied to works by Adam Katseff, Vija Celmin, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Ad Reinhardt resides in the notion of pure consciousness. The white cube, while charged with modernity, eliminates anything that might impede the viewer in viewing the work, including historical references and emotional triggers, among others. In experiencing Katseff’s dark prints, one’s entire presence is requested and given up with little fight. As a result, the world outside shifts ever so noticeably.

For the viewer, cautious approach is necessary with these works for it is unclear what they are. Peering into a dark forest, no flashlight beam to guide, one begins to make out the details of the leaves, where the shadowy mass of the forest tops meets the lighter darkness of the sky. Squinting is no longer necessary as the pupils have dilated and adjusted to the deep black of night. Is it night? The landscape is clear now, cabins beyond the tree line, snow in the mountains, ripples on the lake as a gust of wind swiftly rustles the surrounding leaves. Who’s there? Startled by movement, a silhouette comes into view; you know the face and the scene, for they are your own.

Katseff’s prints have no interest in being photographs, despite being perfectly executed using a large format camera and advanced printing techniques. These works are about time and recognition from an experience that can only be recalled as memory. The intricate detail present in the image paired with the absence of light is what causes the change in perception and consciousness; it is what makes viewing these works a phenomenological experience tied to place.

In Vija Celmin’s work, the phenomenological experience is also tied to place. Like Katseff’s dark photographs, Celmin’s night skies are incredibly flat works of art that come to life through the execution of the
medium and by providing a platform for transportation of conscious memory. “The recognisable image is just one element to consider. The paintings seem more a record of [her] grappling with how to transform that image into a painting and make it alive. You turn away and it disappears immediately.”16 It couldn’t possibly disappear immediately, however, for its latent image can always be recalled. It has now been lived in both memory and reality.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s seascapes, on the other hand, provide a horizon that is not natural to the human body’s experience in life, but one that the mind believes as truth. These images are an exercise in observation. The beauty of the waves and the momentous weight of each ocean scene enter the mind as the body enters the image. The details in the photograph validate this space as real; as “in the world” as Katseff’s Unnamed Mountain, 2012. The darkness allows the image to come into focus specific to the individual, as a personal confrontation. The needles on the pine trees, the rocks peering out from beneath snowcapped peaks and the dark sky cause the mind to believe that this space is in fact real. Sugimoto and Katseff’s images don’t impart their gravity without question: “The question was not one of self-reflexivity, of referring to himself, but of reconsidering photography’s relationship to our perception of the world.”17

Despite the history of dark works of art and experiential viewing that would include him, Katseff’s prints seem to defy the linear terms of art history, as exemplified by Ad Reinhardt. Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting(s) challenged what the artist called a “preoccupied art,” noting that “the one object of fifty years of abstract art is to present art-as-art and as nothing else, to make it into the one thing it is only.”18 The photographs are so crisp, beautiful and clean that it is difficult to place them in nature, unlike an Ansel Adams or Timothy O’Sullivan image. The deep veil of darkness that envelops these images, however, causes the mind to abstract the image and search for the familiarities it knows are there.

As George Philip mentions earlier in his opening quote from Cormac McCarthy, there is something to calling on a phenomenological experience using darkness. Our bodies and minds spend so much time in the light that we associate darkness with desolation. There is little opportunity to confront the world in the dark while conscious; these works and these moments call on our perception and challenge us to see the world. The void becomes the spotlight into our own memory.

Amanda ‘Roscoe’ Mayo, July 2012 San Francisco, California.