Light to See the Beginning
Museum of Contemporary Photography
July 29–October 16, 2011
Humanity’s attempts to understand our origins are inextricably linked with light. Certain faiths hold that God proclaimed “let there be light”; scientist Edwin Hubble estimated the universe’s age by observing the light wavelengths of distant galaxies. Photography’s fascination with light is total, making it an ideal medium through which to explore the questions of our beginnings. The recent exhibition “Our Origins,” at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, brought together sixteen artists who take various approaches to exploring questions of our inception.
Images of cosmic light and energy appear in several of the works in “Our Origins.” For his video projection, The Most Important Picture Ever (2008), Ken Fandell performed a Google search for the phrase “the most important picture ever”; the result was the Hubble Space Telescope’s ten-day exposure of deep space and distant galaxies. Fandell then animated the image to reveal galaxies expanding and meshing, appearing like floating paint dribbles and drabs, set to a chilled-out instrumental soundtrack (actually a slowed-down, computer-manipulated version of The Who’s stadium anthem “Won’t Get Fooled Again”). The drifting images are soothing, inspiring more relaxation than awe.
Artist team Semiconductor took a different approach to images of outer space with their video piece Black Rain (2009). Black-and-white footage from NASA cameras currently circling the sun is shown raw and unprocessed; visual distortions, caused by violent solar flares, abound. The projection is rotated and shown vertically, thus the typical left-to-right scrolling of the camera instead becomes an unsettling rise toward the blinding light of the sun. Solar wind provides a patchy, hissy soundtrack to complete the sensory experience. If Fandell’s piece invited one to relax and enjoy the trippy visuals, Semiconductor emphasizes the harsh and unrelenting energy that shapes and defines our universe.
Aspen Mays offers selections from her “Punched Out Stars” series: photos of outer space with the stars removed by a hole puncher. However it’s her piece 1% of this is from The Big Bang (2008) that most boggles the mind. The artist created a chromogenic paper negative (and its positive) from the light emitted by television static. But this is no ordinary light. NASA claims that one percent of television static is the result of radiation left over from the Big Bang. The prints invite a meditative gaze while the mind reels: this may be as close as we can get to having a camera present thirteen billion years ago at the beginning of the universe.
Compared to the multi-billion year age of the universe, the Earth and all its contents are cosmic newborns. However, in human terms, the ages of the objects depicted in Rachel Sussman’s The Oldest Living Things in the World (in progress) are astonishing. Her images of individual plants, trees, and other organisms that have lived longer than two thousand years are elegant yet matter-of-fact; Sussman acts as a visually astute documentarian, letting these ancient objects speak louder than the artist.
Mark Ruwedel’s well-crafted silver gelatin prints of fossilized dinosaur tracks in the American West convey a feeling of awe similar to Sussman’s work. The power of Ruwedel’s series is presence: both the photograph and the footprint are impressions of something having “been there.” His visual records invite reflection on these creatures’ existence as well as the relative brevity of human history.
Alison Carey also looks to the past, but her eye does not seek extant remnants of the distant past. Instead, in “Organic Remains of a Former World” (2005), Carey uses clay to sculpt models of the visual environment of the Paleozoic Era, which she then submerges in an aquarium and photographs. Cary finishes the images as ambrotypes on black glass, a fitting medium considering the surface’s watery sheen. The result is a highly convoluted feeling of time: a world that existed far before our origins, seen through a technology that is old to us, yet came long after the era depicted.
Although taking place on a scale slightly more comprehensible than that of the universe, the origins of humans are every bit as mysterious. In her series “Go Deep Into the Woods” (2007–10) Jennifer Ray locates public parks where men meet for anonymous sex; she then photographs the sites of these encounters. Implied and explicit evidence remains: matted grass, a condom wrapper, an empty packet of Viagra. Ray’s work sees the tenderness in the tawdry, best captured in her photo Entwine (2008). Tree limbs wrap together, carved with names and other expressions of human presence. These are more than records of furtive sex. They show the yearning for human togetherness that drives our species forward.
Alison Ruttan contributes works from two separate series: “Individuation in Bonobo Grooming Habits” (2006) and “The Four Year War at Gombe” (2009). The former offers cheeky portraits of bonobo chimps and their personally styled hairdos, but the latter is a darker portrayal of our ape brethren. Based on Jane Goodall’s extensively detailed notes, the photos feature humans taking the place of the animals. In Murder Sequence—Willy-Wally (2009), four men hunt and kill another man while a young girl watches from a tree above. Ruttan’s images are blunt and obvious, but effective reminders of humanity’s predilection for violence and our proximity to creatures we’d like to distance as “animals.”
Ethical issues surround humanity’s efforts to create laboratory-grown life. Patricia Piccinini considers a different, less-examined angle in her series “Science Story” (2002). Two scientists—one male, one female—create and care for a lumpy, mole-like creature in their lab. The scientists work, but with heavy emotion: the man holds the creature while the woman looks on worriedly, and the couple’s eyes lock as they both grab for the creature in a tense moment. Piccinini could have inspired a similar reaction had she used a human baby in place of the “mole,” but the appearance of such an ugly, vulnerable form adds a layer of anxiety about the biological future to a story about parental love, loyalty, and conflict.
Like fellow exhibitor Fandell, Michelle Ceja was inspired by a Google search. She searched for the phrase, “What will the end of the world look like,” and altered the resulting images in her triptych “Apocalypse” (2010). Narrow strips of the cosmos flank a center image of a large pink dot in a celestial field. Compression, expansion, and folding of the galaxy are inferred. Penelope Umbrico also mines the internet for source images: a large piece of her 7,626,056 Suns from Flickr (Partial) 9/10/10 (2010), a massive grid comprised of 4×6 sunset snapshots found on the photo-sharing website Flickr, marvels at our visual love affair with the nearest star.
Jason Lazarus’s portrait Eric Becklin, first human to see the center of our Galaxy (2010) depicts the pale-skinned, white-haired astrophysicist—known for his study of light at the center of our galaxy—in a white shirt against a white background. There’s an almost spiritual purity to this image of Becklin; here is a man who has seen further than many and has been irrevocably changed by that vision.
The tools of vision and their role in illuminating our origins are addressed in a few works. Scott McFarland’s photograph of the 112-year-old Hampstead Reservoir Observatory in London reminds us how far our technology for observing space has evolved in the twentieth century. Julia Büttlemann’s cardboard microscope turns that notion back on itself, reminding us to question our reliance on the accuracy and worth of observational tools. Jenny Åkerlund’s pencil sketches look exactly like photocopies of pages from old astronomy textbooks. Once again, the tools of observation, mediation, and reproduction are questioned.
If a single piece encapsulated the tone of “Our Origins,” it was an assemblage of images—some found, some created, by artist Eric William Carroll. On display was a selection from Carroll’s project G.U.T Feeling (in progress) whose title plays on the Grand Unification Theory currently sought by science to explain all occurrences within the universe. Carroll offers ambiguity in place of answers: is that an image of a planet’s rings, or the grooves on a vinyl LP? A man’s sneeze creates a mist that looks uncannily like a field of stars. A book titled The Milky Way sits open, but its pages face the wall so we cannot read them. The logical, practical part of us wants to believe the questions of our origins can be answered if we just look long and hard enough. But can they?
This review originally appeared in Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism,) Issue 39.3 (November / December 2011)