Their subjects may be separated by a half a world and more than 100 years, but two new exhibits at the St. Louis Art Museum, Currents 77: Diana Thater and Revealing the Holy Land: The Photographic Exploration of Palestine, together invite a reconsideration of the media of photography and video, their omnipresence in Western culture and their tendency to shape our understanding of the world even as they pretend to merely record it.
Currents 77: Diana Thater ("The best outside is the inside") reaches St. Louis after a long road trip. The video exhibition, in a variety of arrangements and re-shufflings (or "unique versions") has had gigs everywhere from Los Angeles to Oberlin College in Ohio to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It appears in St. Louis in a road-weary, more modest version, but it's still a good indication of what Thater, a young and very successful LA-based artist, is up to.
"The best outside is the inside" consists of two parts. "The best animals are the flat animals," an arrangement of five video monitors on the floor of the Sculpture Hall, is the best part of this exhibition. On one video screen, a portly, white-haired trainer leads a zebra through a battery of tricks against the cartoonish blue-sky-green-grass backdrop of the Hedrick Exotic Animal Farm in (of all places) Nickerson, Kan. Visually, it's mesmerizing. The filming and editing have all the expression of a convenience-store surveillance camera, which makes the zebra's tricks (rocking on a see-saw, curtsying, walking backward, prancing forward) seem oddly illicit.
It's the image of forced enculturation, and the unmoving eye of the video camera absorbs it all, becoming complicit in the process. The tension is only relieved when, in a humorous final scene, the zebra completely breaks rank, darting awkwardly out of the picture frame and dragging the unwitting trainer behind him. (You'll find yourself cheering for the zebra.)
Thater's strength is her ability to use the video camera to reveal some of the more insidious things that video cameras can do. "The best animals are the flat animals" also includes a four-square arrangement of monitors, each featuring a tight close-up of a herd of zebras -- or, rather, zebra stripes. The camera reduces the zebras from wild, willful animals down to two-dimensional optical phenomena, with all the depth of an op-art painting. The video makes them easier to manage; maybe that's the point behind the mock-serious title of the work.
In the upstairs gallery, Thater's show continues with "The best outside is the inside," a video projection/installation that, unfortunately, doesn't come off as well as it should. Projected onto two walls is a large-scale image of a grove of trees (in the Los Angeles County Arboretum), meant to make visitors feel like they've just stepped into a forest (see the title -- the outside is brought inside). The problem is that the projection is too diffuse and oddly angled, and instead of feeling like you're in the forest, you feel like you're in the way of the projection.But back to the point of this work: On a freestanding wall in the center of the gallery, another projection depicts the actual filming -- the lights, camera, action, etc.--of the forest projection that you're standing in (the way of). So the work as a whole is supposed to make the point that video is capable of producing an environment that looks natural (the forest) but isn't; in reality, it's just a highly orchestrated construction.
This observation isn't exactly original. It's been a stock theme in video art since the birth of the medium, since Nam June Paik started making Zen installations with his Sony Portapak and Bruce Nauman played with tape delays in the 1960s. Thater is fully aware of all of this, which makes me believe "The best outside" might be a purposeful return and homage to that low-tech, pioneering work.
Revealing the Holy Land: The Photographic Exploration of Palestine, featured in the museum's Cohen Gallery, looks like an unassuming little exhibition, but it actually packs quite a punch. The exhibition, organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, consists of approximately 80 vintage photographic prints, most from the stunning collection of Michael and Jane Wilson.
These prints are records of the 19th-century exploration of Palestine by a variety of Europeans, who set about documenting the Holy Land in the service of archeological, religious, economical or imperial interests. It comes as no surprise that these explorers would want to unleash the power of photography to settle questions about one of the most unsettled, and unsettling, sites of human history. The photographs in this exhibition all look similar at first glance -- small in scale, sepia-toned and fragile. Technically they are similar, because of the limitations of the medium at the time. But look closely at the compositions, and the very different motivations of the photographers become clearer.
Auguste Salzmann's photographs, for example, were a response to the debate over the dating of archeological remains in Jerusalem. His tight closeups of architectural details like the columns and zigzag arch moldings of the Church of St. Sepulchre are archeological evidence as well as beautiful formal studies. On the other hand, the photographs of Maxime Du Camp and Ernest Benecke capture Jerusalem from a distant viewpoint, so that the city appears like a dense fabric of bricks, towers and domes.
Jerusalem in the 19th century was a terrifically contested space, an uneasy home to people of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. It was also a ruined city, with open sewers and dirty water, teeming with people living on the barest essentials. But these living conditions don't come through in the photographs. Again, because of the medium's limitations, stationary objects photographed better than moving ones, so these shots show mainly empty streets and ruined buildings. They present Jerusalem as the site of past history rather than as a living city.
And many explorers, armed with cameras, set themselves the task of documenting the legendary history of the Holy Land. Louis De Clerq used photography, the tool of scientific inquiry, to "document" the path Christ took toward the crucifixion. Working with no hard archeological evidence whatsoever, De Clerq "found" and photographed the 14 Stations of the Cross, each one an alleyway or deserted corner of Jerusalem. The photos must have seemed like incontrovertible proof to the viewer who wanted to believe.
Sgt. James McDonald's photographs were more secular and scientific in nature. McDonald produced photographs in the service of the British Empire, on a number of different surveys conducted in Palestine to assess the viability of imperial expansion into the territory. McDonald learned to photograph on these surveys, becoming stylistically adept and incredibly resourceful, producing three-part panoramic scenes and wonderfully composed picturesque views of the Sinai Peninsula.
More romantic in nature are the works of Felix Bonfils, who made a living selling photos of the Holy Land to eager collectors and armchair tourists in Europe; and Frank Mason Good, who photographed people in "biblical costume" in settings suggested by Scripture. That there was a huge market for these photos is itself profoundly revealing about popular European notions of Palestine, its history and its people.
Ultimately, all of these photographs reveal less about Palestine itself than they do about the 19th-century European ideological interests and perceptions of it. And though Revealing the Holy Land contains some fascinating individual images, taken as a whole it also serves as a primer in photographic theory, a demonstration of the lesson that photographs (and photographers) impose an order onto a scene rather than merely reporting what is to be seen.
Currents 77: Diana Thater continues through April 18 and Revealing the Holy Land: The Photographic Exploration of Palestine through May 23.
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