Close-Up: Proximity and Defamiliarisation in Art, Film and Photography – Fruitmarket Gallery 24th October – 11th January 2008
Review by Jonathan Long
The key term of this exhibition is defamiliarisation, a notion that plays a major role in the aesthetic theory of the inter-war period. The term that owes its origins to the Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky, for whom ostranenie – estrangement or defamiliarisation – was the marker of literary discourse per se. For Shklovsky, defamiliarisation was not merely a matter of technique, but of the greatest ethical significance in that it allowed art and literature to rejuvenate and renew human experience, thereby counteracting the routine perception of an excessively familiar world that Shklovsky saw as an undesirable side-effect of everyday life.
Spread over two floors, the exhibition concentrates on two periods of artistic production: the late 1920s and early 1930s on the ground floor, and the late 1960s to the present on the first. Tracing the origins of close-up photography to the microphotography developed in the biological sciences towards the end of the nineteenth century, the first section of the exhibition shows how a variety of artists exploited photographic technology in order to reveal aspects of the object-world that were otherwise inaccessible to human vision.
Two of the artists represented here clearly announce their debt to nineteenth-century scientific photography. Laure Albin-Guillot’s images Seed and Barley Root (Section) of 1931 are heavily aestheticised transformations of biological microphotography, and were, furthermore, first published in an exquisite and luxurious album of photogravures, pages of which are displayed here. Karl Blossfeldt, a far better-know exponent of the defamiliarising photographic close-up, sought the origins of architectural and other cultural forms in the structures of plants, and a representative selection of his photographs is included.
Blossfeldt is often discussed in the same breath as Albert Renger-Patzsch, the central figure of New Objectivity photography. The single photograph by Renger-Patzsch included here probably has the least estranging effect of all the images on display, while the photogrammes of Man Ray occupy the pole of maximum defamiliarisation. His cameraless photographs are entirely abstract, for while something must have been placed on the photosensitive paper that now bears that object’s trace, the images themselves thwart any attempt to say what the objects depicted might be. The indexical quality of the photograph thus exists in a strange and unsettling tension with the impossibility of identifying the referent. Less unsettling but more interesting is a short film, La retour à la raison, in which animated sequences based on Rayographs of tacks and other small objects are followed by what appears to be available-light footage of a fairground at night, a neon sign, and a nude female torso.
The other notable works in the early part of the exhibition are those of Brassaï. In particular, hisThimble of 1930 emphasises the three-dimensional nature of this everyday object, whose every dimple possesses individual reflective properties. The image was published in the surrealist periodical Minotaure as part of a series entitled Involuntary Sculpture. A copy of the relevant edition of Minotaure is displayed, along with other books and journals of the period, drawing attention to the fact that developments in printing technology were instrumental in bringing avant-garde photography to a broader audience than ever before.
A profoundly fascinating footnote to this inter-war trend of defamiliarising close-ups is provided by Simon Starling’s amazing installation Inventar Nr. 8573 (Man Ray). Starting from an image of Man Ray’s Geological Fold (c. 1930) hanging on the rack of a museum, Starling takes a sequence of 80 slides presenting successive close-ups. The surface of Man Ray’s image becomes increasingly abstract, then turns blurred, until the camera penetrates the very surface of the emulsion to photograph the silver crystals embedded in the surface of the print, revealing strange, unique, and beautiful shapes. Using the most modern micro-photographic technology, Starling follows in the footsteps of the interwar artists represented here in order to produce a kind of ‘metareflection’ on the very nature of close-up photography.
While the notions of ‘proximity and defamiliarisation’ unify all the works on display, the exhibition also constructs a clear narrative in which the focus on the object-world of the inter-war period gives way to an intense concern with the human body from the late 1960s. Carole Schneemann’s Portrait Partials (1970) and Giuseppe Penone’s To Display One’s Own Skin (1971) are grid-like tableaux of isolated body parts. Schneemann concentrates on facial features and genitals, while Penone seeks a total mapping of the body and holds microscope slides against his skin in most of the images in order to suggest scientific protocols of viewing. Kate Craig’s film Delicate Issue raises, as the exhibition tells us, disturbing questions about intimacy and corporeal proximity as the camera roves over the naked body of the sleeping artist, showing everything – and I mean everything – in relentless close-up detail, accompanied by the sound of snores and heartbeats. In a film that is funny and repugnant in equal measure, Wim Delvoye’s Sybille II (1999) consists of an enormously magnified sequence of exploding blackheads and pustules, projected to a sound-track of angelic choral music.
It is the striking contrast between the two parts of this well-conceived and fascinating exhibition that constitutes perhaps its greatest contribution to our understanding of twentieth-century visual culture. It is not just that art has become increasingly concerned with questions of subjectivity and the body, but that close-up techniques necessarily fragment and atomise the body. If techniques of defamiliarisation served, in the inter-war period, to rejuvenate perception, they also shored up the subjectivity of the photographer who could penetrate, know, and master nature by using modern technology. In the post-war years, close-up technology has become a tool of the subject’s disintegration.