Objects Recognized in Flashes tries to make sense of photography and its relationship to capitalism and bodies in our »post-internet reality«. But the exhibition falls short in providing any original or critical insights, leaving audiences with a feeling of incompleteness.
Susan Sontag once wrote that photography catalogues »the thingness of human beings [and] the humanness of things.« It’s a neat distillation of what the photograph has become in our present technocracy: a thing that objectifies as much as it is an object itself. But in its ability to either endow or strip away life, photography has also come to symbolise a certain phenomenon in contemporary life. That is, the boundary which once separated an object’s »thingness« from its »humanness« is dissolving at an ever-increasing rate, with commodity aesthetics becoming commonplace in representations of bodies and personhood.
The collapse of this dichotomy seems to underpin the conceptual rationale of »Objects Recognized in Flashes«. Curated by Matthias Michalka at mumok and featuring the work of photographers Michele Abeles, Annette Kelm, Josephine Pryde and Eileen Quinlan, the exhibition is framed as an exploration of photography and its relationship to products and bodies in a »post-internet reality«. Specifically, the artists have been chosen for their works’ ability to be read as occupying a new space between product photography and fine art. Take Abeles’ »Red, Rock, Cigarettes, Newspaper, Body, Wood, Lycra, Bottle« (2011) for instance – composed of the elements in which its title suggests, it is as much a taxonomy of separate objects as it is an extension of art history’s reclining nude, a new-age odalisque surrounded by the detritus of modernity. Or Kelm’s »Ludwig Stiftung Aachen, Basement 2018« (2018), where a model of Christ’s crucifixion is adjacent to a kitschy, gnome-like sculpture amongst miscellaneous cardboard boxes and two truncated busts.
But despite what the randomness of these compositions might suggest, there is nothing particularly idiosyncratic about the exhibition’s hang. The works of all four artists are interspersed in a traditional museum format, an obvious attempt to create cohesion through allowing the photographs to bleed and blend together. Notably, the act of interweaving four photographic practices inadvertently reveals how the artists are anchored to a homogenous aesthetic: that is, cleanly shot, glossy and industrially finished pictures. Put simply, they look expensive. But while discerning the production cost of these photographs enables us to see them as valuable commodities, I can’t help but feel as though the homogeneity created by the museum hang negatives, in some way, their objective value. Because while the individual value of the works are obvious, when arranged with such uniformity, their uniqueness is blunted. Much like gazing over a fleet of luxury cars in a showroom where the objective value of each vehicle is obvious, by sheer force of quantity alone, the distinctiveness of each one is necessarily dulled. As I wander through the exhibition, my mind lingers within this imaginary of a luxury car showroom; and it is given good reason to stay there, given that the aluminium tubes protruding from Pryde’s diptych »This Time Last Year« (2012) appear referential to a car’s exhaust pipes. Between the work’s depiction of late-night shopping in London and the jarringness of these metallic protrusions, it can be read that Pryde is synonymising the act of consumption with the creation of toxic smog: capitalism, she seems to proclaim, is tired and wasteful. The metaphor extends with another diptych, Kelm’s »Art Car« (2007), which portrays a beaten down car in an empty gallery, its roof dismantled and jutting from the back seat: the dregs of capitalism, Kelm seems to retort, is still desirable.
»Objects Recognized in Flashes« is essentially a survey of how contemporary photography has a tendency to decontextualize its subject matter through the prism of commoditization. Indeed, the fact that four photographers are making the same kind of work indicates to us that photography has maybe lost its desire to demonstrate the »humanness« of its subjects – or rather, »thingness« is a more compelling site of inquiry for contemporary art. But beyond exposing the fact that photography has reached a point of aesthetic chrysalis whereby photographers are essentially making the same kind of work and drawing attention to capitalism’s commodity fetish which underpins this trend, it is difficult to extrapolate a more profound point to this exhibition. In less subtle terms, »Objects Recognized in Flashes« doesn’t extend beyond or critically engage with contemporary practice. Here, Michalka posits no space for critical inquiry, and I would go so far as to say that the show accepts the commodity aesthetic as our new photographic truth.
Though the more I sit with »Objects Recognized in Flashes«, arguments purporting any intellectual rigour in the curation of this show become quite tenuous. For in positioning these artists as being »post-internet«, the curatorial premise was perhaps flawed from the start. However well they represent the poetics of photography and its status as a commodified object, these four artists have by no means transgressed the internet for the simple reason that we have not yet entered a post-internet world. As artist Hito Steyerl writes, »the internet is probably not dead. It has rather gone all-out. Or more precisely: it is all over!« These artists construct realities which reflect the speed and thrust of the internet age which is »all over« and entrenched in our lives. It is a falsehood to assert that the pictures in this exhibition are in some way futuristic when they are in fact emblematic of our current ways of seeing photography. Indeed, it’s a shame that Michalka fails to grapple with this truth, though arguably it is more disappointing that he let slip a chance to place contemporary photography within a critical framework that would have undoubtedly made for a more intellectually stimulating and rewarding exhibition.
When Sontag writes that photography »cannot make a dent in public opinion unless there is an appropriate context of feeling and attitude«, perhaps the same can be said of an exhibition. »Objects Recognized in Flashes« is an inconsequential show by virtue of the fact that it lacks nuance and engagement with a field of critical inquiry. And while to some extent it succeeds as a cursory survey of contemporary photographic practice, it fails to query the commodity value photography has become so obsessed with. Moreover, the exhibition fails doubly in positioning its artists as being representative of a »post-internet reality« when such a space has not yet formed. The show, therefore, exists as a mere cataloguing of reality that we need not pay to see, because it appears the same experience can be restaged at home: all you need is apathy and a stable Internet connection.