Pēteris Bankovskis: What Are You Investigating, Investigator?
Pēteris Bankovskis 20/05/2014
I once noticed in Foto Kvartāls/(Photography Quarterly), the on-line Latvian photography magazine, a series of photos by Sabine Mirlesse; borrowing from a Robert Frost poem, she had titled her work “As if it should have been a quarry”. Mirlesse had been to Iceland, and had taken photos of people and the landscape in an area that had recently experienced a volcanic eruption. According to Mirlesse (and there is no reason not to believe her), the people in the photographs come from a village that was destroyed by the eruption. For some unknown reason, Mirlesse smeared the faces of some of the people with clay; others she instructed to disrobe and stand by the edge of the crater; still others she directed to jump in the water and swim, or to just simply pose with their clothes on.
The whole thing looks childish, fake and pretentious. Eduardo Kadava, a “theoretician” at Princeton University who wrote the introduction to the photo book (Damiani publishers, 64 p., limited run of 800 copies), has most likely explained everything warranted (including the deep meaning of the Frost quote) to the best of his abilities or inclinations. Of course he has – they always do. Although, I can't be absolutely certain of this, since I've never lifted a page of the book itself.
You're never going to get to look at all of the photo books anyway, nor will you read all of the introductions, nor see all of the exhibitions. Now, in looking at Sabine Mirlesse's website (of course she has a website), we learn that she lives “between Paris and New York”. We are to understand that she does not actually live in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, but rather, that she is an inhabitant of the global village, and that this village has thousands upon thousands of “Sabines” of all genders, trekking around the world either with or without a camera, and they all are aspiring. The question is, to what are they aspiring? To fame, money, recognition, “creative” expression, or maybe – to the happiness that new-era societal psychologists and other egg-heads like to trivialize, serialize and muse upon? It's not easy to find a meaningful occupation in our roiling mass of seven billion plus humans.
Whatever the case may be, in the Foto Kvartāls article on the photographs of Sabine Mirlesse there is the following phrase (and that she may have even come up with herself): “This body of work seeks to investigate the way in which one reconciles one’s own impermanence through living with a continuity that suggests the infinite...” Let's not guess at or discuss what is being “reconciled” or “suggested” here. This time I was more intrigued by the statement that this “work seeks to investigate”. Clearly, no work can seek or investigate anything by itself, so it is obviously meant that Sabine Mirlesse is doing the investigating. Now, if an alien from outer space had learned about the traditions and history of human geographical investigation, and then observed a human being – armed with a camera – arrive at some set location and execute some sort of procedures, it could very well appear to the alien that an investigation is taking place. However, upon seeing the results, our alien would be disappointed at realizing that nothing has been studied, nor investigated. The alien would learn nothing about the origins of the landscape in the pictures, nor of its geology or other parameters; it would learn nothing about the life stories or personalities of the people in the pictures, nor of their relationships with one another or their environment. The alien would also learn nothing about the “investigator” herself – for instance, who or what made her smear the faces of her subjects with clay. If it turned out that our galactic visitor had the ability to look deep inside the hearts of us humans, then he would understand that this imitation “investigation” is just a desperate technique that some people use to self-legitimize – as dictated by social- and cultural conventions and trends.
I apologize to Sabine Mirlesse, who is unknown to me, for using her Icelandic escapade as an unwitting illustration. The illustration of, in my opinion, the completely absurd belief that people in contemporary art (and other such fields) have in thinking that one can put an equal sign between “creativity” and “investigation”. I'm not saying that an artist, or anyone else for that matter, cannot investigate. Amateur ornithologists and astronomers also investigate, often times coming up with serious and useful discoveries. In the same way, an artist can investigate and discover, for example, linear perspective, techniques of mixing and using oil paints, or the best way to cast bronze; the field of possible investigative study is vast. But don't even try getting me to believe that a person who, for instance, places a length of railway track in an exhibition hall, is investigating something by doing this. Except, of course, if he's counting how many visitors trip on the piece of track, and of these, how many swear under their breath. And anyway, the real place for this sort of “investigative study” on stimuli and reactions is in a laboratory. In addition, when an artist transforms into a “crazy professor” or dilettantish “proto-philosopher”, the role of the “consumer” of the art becomes unclear. Is an audience even necessary? It's obvious enough that in this age of information overload, anyone who wants to can quickly and qualitatively access data and published works on even the most obscure of investigative subjects; you'll be hard-pressed to find someone who goes to see an artist or a gallery show with the sole purpose of coming into contact with “investigative studies” on a level with those found in newspaper headlines.
But that's the way it is; the world is full of absurdities, and has been in all eras. One doesn't even have to look for these “investigators” somewhere in the area between Paris and New York – we have no lack of them right here. I present a few examples that I found after a couple of minutes of doing a Latvian internet search:
“...the artist investigates symbolic signs in the landscape, of the kind that require the viewer to have an adequate knowledge of the relevant cultural and social context in order to unravel and comprehend them.”
“In his work, the artist investigates the perception and experience of sound in various audiovisual forms.”
“The exhibition's […] curators […] investigate the motives of renewal and change in art and society.”
“The artist investigates how popular music and visual culture use language in commenting and creating new contexts.”
“... the artist […] investigates […] public experience and collective situations, as well as state aesthetics, political theater, and the beauty of conflict.”
“... the artist investigates the poetic boundary between the visible and invisible worlds, the optical illusions that we are able to perceive only because of our unique senses.”
“The artist observes and investigates how the synthesis of the real and the seemingly real is formed in virtual conditions, thereby creating environmental specifics.”
There's actually nothing wrong with the second-from-last example: really, when we go out to see some art – any kind of art – most of us want, for at least a little while, to play a game with ourselves on the border between the visible and invisible worlds; we want to experience these optical illusions that we can physically perceive only because of the unique senses that we humans posess. And sometimes, quite rarely, this really does happen. But it only happens if the artist himself experiences and survives this border, this illusion (or perhaps even, revelation) – and not because he has “investigated” it.
Post Scriptum. One doesn't get grants and stipends, or get into residency programs, for having experienced and survived. In this context, perhaps we should look for the answer to the following question: How can it be that people who haven't the slightest knowledge or skills concerning investigation, keep on investigating? And why don't they ever come up with any answers?