History of Photography Seminar: Image and the Abyss

Toronto-based visual artist Annie MacDonell gave a compelling lecture-meets-artist’s talk, discussing her work in an open-forum manner at the Research Forum on 1 May.

She began by reading her interpretation of two pivotal postmodernist texts, Craig Owen’s ‘Photography en abyme’ and Rosalind Krauss’s ‘The Originality of the Avant-Garde,’ both of which have largely informed MacDonell’s practice recently, as she has begun to question notions of authenticity and originality in her own art making and in contemporary artistic practice in general. When these texts were written, photography became an important allegorical device for theorists to employ when trying to unravel some of the impenetrable issues of postmodern discourse in its early days. To some extent, MacDonell has translated this methodology into an artistic practice that incorporates photography, film, sculpture, and installation.

MacDonell’s exhibition ‘Originality and the Avant Garde (on art and repetition)’ at Mercer Union in Toronto includes all of these elements of her practice, with a selection of five photographs as well as a mirrored structure the size of her studio. The space within the structure functions as a screening room for a short film, which also reveals itself as a camera obscura: as the film comes to an end, the images from the gallery space appear as projections on the wall.

The mirror is crucial in relation to the texts by Owens and Krauss, as it is the surface that causes an abyss in its endless repetition. This can be understood quite literally, as light reflects on the mirror in a camera, which MacDonell physically translates into the gallery space with the mirrored structure and the camera obscura. Then, there is another layer of mirrored space, as the photographs themselves include mirrors or other reflective surfaces, creating a chain of projections that have no beginning or end. It is this aspect of the mirror that informs MacDonell’s understanding of appropriation. All of the images pictured in MacDonell’s photographs were found in an image archive in Toronto, where, over the years, various archivists have determined categories and sourced images from an indiscriminate array of periodicals, organizing a vast amount of visual information in an almost entirely arbitrary way. The idea of an original source becomes obfuscated in this mass of imagery, and even further removed through its appropriation by MacDonell.

MacDonell confessed that her work is ‘self-explanatory to a fault,’ but actually, it is not as obvious as it may seem. In the short film included in the exhibition, a young man implicates the viewer, engaging in a theoretical diatribe about the very ideas that are explored in the exhibition: originality and authenticity. His confidence in these ideas will resonate with viewers of MacDonell’s work, as its presentation is so in line with its conceptual underpinnings that it verges on becoming too obvious, too self-referential. But his confidence also reveals his naïveté, reminding the viewer that what appears most obvious may be more complex than it initially appears.

Utopia III: Contemporary Russian Art and the Ruins of Utopia

Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew Into Space from his Apartment, 1968-88

In February, I attended the Utopia III conference held through the Cambridge Courtauld Russian Art Centre. The conference was the third in a series addressing the theme of ‘utopia’ within Russian art, with each focusing on a different time period; Utopia III focused on contemporary art. This was the first of the conference series I was able to attend, and it left me regretting that I had missed the previous two.

Days later, I still found myself thinking about the idea of utopia, both as it concerned Soviet art and as it connected to other realms of my academic and non-academic interests— particularly, my penchant for reading dystopian novels, which normally constitutes a wholly non-academic escape. I found the keynote speaker, Mikhail Epstein, particularly intriguing in this respect. His topic, ‘The Philosophical Underpinnings of Russian Conceptualism’, drew parallels for me between the concept of the utopian he described, which he argued was grounded in philosophical ideas predating Soviet ideology, and the philosophical exercise that seems to be at the heart of many dystopian novels. Central to the genre, of course, is the desire to posit the ramifications of Soviet-era politics and totalitarian moments of 20th century history, but also often motifs drawn from classical-era philosophies of government.

Though by a strict definition, ‘utopian’ and ‘dystopian’ are opposing ideas, they exist in tension, with the second reliant upon the first to exist. Both are united in a joint exercise in constructing an alternate version of reality: one optimistically plausible, the other existing in order to identify the fundamental flaws in the former. Though the term ‘dystopia’ was not investigated at this conference, I often detected the blurry line between the two. One example, used by multiple speakers, was Ilya Kabakov’s “The Man Who Flew Into Space from his Apartment.” This installation artwork depicts the aftermath of the apartment belonging to the eponymous man in space. His cramped living quarters, wallpapered with Soviet propaganda, are now furnished by the aftermath of his successful space mission. Through the work’s highly narrative composition, the viewer is able to infer the action that preceded the current tableau, while simultaneously detecting the cracks in a supposedly utopian Soviet society: the propaganda feels suffocating, and must be escaped.

Epstein proposed that conceptual art is the visual counterpart to philosophy, and has been understood this way by some of the artists themselves. This proved somewhat controversial in the Q&A portion following his talk, although I found his argument fairly convincing. In my understanding of dystopian literature the connection seems apt: conceptual art, like literature, becomes a method of exploring abstract ideas in a concrete sense, as if running a simulation to prove exactly where grand theories, in our imperfect reality, will fall short.



From the very beginning of his lecture, Gáspár Miklos Tamás established that what was to follow would be a stream of consciousness of his thoughts surrounding the abstract question: Can Capitalism Be Pictured? As a key player in the East European dissident movements and currently a professor of philosophy in Budapest, Tamás came across with great humility in his approach.

Having myself attended a discussion dedicated to the memory of a prominent figure in Hungarian politics Václav Havel earlier that same day, one of the key issues that emerged from Havel’s involvement in politics was the issue of time. As a liberal member of the Hungarian parliament during the early 90s, Tamás stepped down from his position in politics in 1994. The time constraints that come with politics were blamed for removing the free time for reading and research, and thus the progression of critical and philosophical thinking. Through quitting politics, does Tamás perhaps feel that he has more time for this mode of thought? It seems clear to me, through his carefully crafted and thoughtful lecture, that Tamás is someone who presents himself and us with a philosophical challenge. A challenge that won’t, or in some circumstances can’t, be answered but instead interrogated with question upon question from all angles.

Tamás attempts to bring to light a crucial problem in art: its attempt to represent capitalism. He argues that ‘bearing witness’ to capitalism has replaced its concept and thus that which operates as abstraction in the real world enters the conceptual. Capitalism becomes a philosophical problem: a concept. Here come the inevitable (and unanswerable?) questions that I promised: ‘Can conceptual entities be reached? ‘and ‘what does picturing them do to them?’ So, can the concept of Capitalism ever be made visible? Tamás uses the (art historically familiar) example of the icon and its issues within transubstantiation: in Christianity, for example, the sign of the cross as replacing the divine and thus its movement toward abstraction.

Tamás says that abstract capitalism is a process, one which operates at the centre of all societies, in that all regimes have elements of capitalism at their core. The difficulty, he argues, is finding its centre and anything structurally that could be used as a tool of repression. This makes it harder to analyse than other regimes such as communism, creating a tension and conflict at its heart.

This lecture is not at all what I expected. I was ready to take clear and concise notes about the relation between art and capitalism. What I got instead was a true insight into the working process of a project from one of the best and most qualified professors in the field and with it an incisive challenge to my own way of thinking. So the question is can capitalism be pictured? Ideally yes, in parallel to itself and to other methods of the conceptual. A difficult and abstract discussion in itself, I can only conclude with the question: can an entire mind-set, a significant element of life, can capitalism be pictured as a piece of conceptual art?


A response by Jane Scarth


“This is something essential to art: reception is never its goal. What counts for me is that my work provides material to reflect upon. Reflection is an activity.” – Thomas Hirschhorn

Having reflected on my notes from this lecture repeatedly, I am still not quite sure how to make sense of it all. This seems bizarre, because Thomas Hirschhorn’s purpose seemed to be to rationalise his art practise, and specifically his huge, immersive installation for the 2011 Venice Biennale, CRYSTAL OF RESISTANCE, (Fig. 1) which I had seen this summer.

What I understood was that in using a belief system to justify what art is and should be (“because in art it’s a matter of believing”), and so Hirschhorn presented us with the three questions he needed to answer to reach the conclusion of the work. These were set in a framework of ‘The Four Parts of the Form and Force Field: LOVE, PHILOSOPHY, POLITICS, AESTHETICS’, at least two of which, he tells us, must always be present in his work, and all four are found here. Within and from these constant elements, Hirschhorn finds an appropriate motif, which is then integrated to create the whole. Each element leading to more inherent questions and each has an answer specific to the artist (taking the form of motifs, materials, themes, etc.).

To over-simplify the logic, in CRYSTAL OF RESISTANCE they take these forms:


LOVE = the motif of crystal.

PHILOSOPHY = a desire for universality.

POLITICS = urgency and panic.

AESTHETIC = the crystal meth lab/B-movie set.


The result is an artwork that is explosive, an onslaught of ideas and references, fluctuating between being at times enlighteningly coherent and at others impenetrable. But such is the creative mind. It was explained that to enter the installation you go inside the head of the artist, and on leaving you will be taking home ‘a bit of my head in your head’.

The thing I found most inspirational about hearing Hirschhorn was his unrelenting questioning of himself and his position as an artist. He creates intricate mind-maps, which are works of art in themselves, (Fig. 2) to place himself in relation to his work and so he can always refer back and reassess where he is coming from. I think that this is similar to the experience of the visitor to the show in the sense of getting lost in an extreme train of thought and having to hold onto certain reference points to relocate yourself.

Therefore to my understanding, it is entirely appropriate that one of the four banners spray painted with Edouard Glissant quotes was “You have the right not to be understood”. At times in the installation I think I understood, and at times in the talk I certainly did. However now, with the two collected experiences, and retrospect, I am not really sure that I do. Yet I don’t think that it’s a bad or even an ignorant thing, but part of the nature of the work in its process of finding logical, universal conclusions to questions that are at times without answers.