The current MAMVP exhibition, curated by Jan Dibbets, is based on the artist’s idiosyncratic conception of photography; alternatively, “The Memory of the Future”, presented at the Musée de l’Élysée in Lausanne (May 25 – August 28, 2016) and curated by its new director, Tatyana Franck, grew out of a meticulous study of the museum’s artistic and technical collections. This difference in perspective can be read in the exhibitions’ titles: Dibbets’ “Pandora’s Box” is poetic and allusive, Franck’s “Memory of the Future” is more formal and, at the same time, paradoxical.
The latter is situated in the Musée de l’Élysée’s beautiful villa, which the institution will leave in a few years for a new and bold building designed by an extraordinary Portuguese agency, near Lausanne’s train station (cue the inveterate Parisian reactionary lamenters spewing their usual venom on the shores of Lake Geneva). With this move, the institution will be joining a new cultural platform (named only days before its inauguration).
“The Memory of the Future” starts off by revisiting ancient image-making techniques, creating a dialogue between vintage photographs unearthed from the reserves and artworks by contemporary artists exploring these techniques today. Contrary to Dibbets’ exhibition in Paris, the emphasis here is on the materiality of the image, its texture, its condition, its physicality… there is even a device created by a research lab enabling 3D renditions of photographs —an invention you would expect to see in relation to sculpture rather than photography.
Techniques like daguerreotypes, wet collodion, prints on wax paper, ambrotypes and tintypes, cyanotypes, camera obscura, and holograms are featured and thoroughly explained throughout the exhibition —the catalogue also includes an interview with Anne Cartier-Bresson, an expert on these early techniques. All of this allows for the discovery of the museum’s hidden gems.
In the first set of rooms, contemporary artists reuse some of these obsolete processes, but most of them are settling for a sort of exercise in technique-oriented nostalgia, falling short of true reinvention. Some offer humorous takes –like Christian Marclay and his VHS–, others try to reconnect with an older mystique —like Israel Arino and his “sprites” (pictured above)—, but these efforts, as a whole, remain more respectful than provocative. Among the few noteworthy artworks: cyanotypes by John Dugdale, a nearly blind US photographer; a hologram by James Turrell; and experiments by Loris Gréaud, the only true innovator of this contemporary ensemble.
Loris Gréaud has turned the museum’s rooms into actual camera obscura, by shutting off the lights and capturing on photosensitive sheets the faint light rays passing through the interstices. No representation, no lens, no aiming: just the imprint of some genus loci, a capturing of the surrounding ghosts, a series of mysterious and undefined photographs in a narrow corridor.
The upper level of “The Memory of the Future” much more interesting, as it features contemporary artists who actually question the rules, upend the norms and “respect” nothing. You think that photography is about perennial, eternal images? Well, Oscar Muñoz reproduces on mirrors the first self-portrait ever —Robert Cornelius’—, but forgoes its fixation: the portrait deteriorates over time and its surface oxidizes, affected by air and light. And so, memory —an archetype of photography—, fades away; the photograph —a precious collectible to preserve with care— disappears and loses all value. In the same vein, Mark & France Scully Osterman (pictured below) do not fix their photograph of William Henry Fox Talbot’s grave. Instead, they document its deterioration through a series of biweekly Polaroids —a chronicle of photographic death.
Other traditional premises are challenged —like that photography allowed artists to decompose movement (Muybridge), create series (the Bechers), or promote oneness. For instance, Idris Khan seems to revel in going against the grain as he superposes tens of gasometers shot by the Bechers or tens of studies in locomotion by Muybridge. In doing so, Khan creates only one generic image: his recreation puts together what was pulled apart, reassembles what was singled out, in a blurred but global set that brings forth commonness at the expense of uniqueness.
Today, photography is digital, ubiquitous, ordinary. The work of rebels Joan Fontcuberta and Andreas Müller-Pohle comes from a simple idea: “Let’s ‘digitalize’ the most iconic photograph of them all, the mother of all photos, Niépce’s Point de Vue du Gras!” Fontcuberta recreates the famous photograph through assemblage, collating all the images Google puts forward when the query is “photo”; Müller-Pohle elaborates using digital deconstruction and computational saturation. Still others play with postulates of representation: Vik Muniz employs chocolate, Pierre Cordier his chemigrams, Patrick Bailly-Maître-Grand tackles transparence (in such good company, JR emulating Man Ray is the only one who seems out of place).
As analog photography is slowly dying, some indulge complacently in nostalgia and in the anachronistic celebration of ancient techniques. Others —who I prefer— are holding their ground like dandies at play, marginally but elegantly disrupting the system, dismissing the rules, photographing outside the frame(work). Maybe they are inventing new forms of resistance to the leading order. In any case, these challenges and interrogations are very pleasant to see, and the value of this exhibition might simply lie in the discovery that such an attitude is possible.
Photos 3, 4 and 7 by Lunettes Rouges
Original publication date by Lunettes Rouges: June 4, 2016.
Translation by Lucas Faugère