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Photography that Refuses to Get the Picture

By Kristie T. La, Contributing Writer

The efficacy of particular artistic expressions has a lot to do with timing. From conception to production to reception, no part of the artistic process takes place in a temporal vacuum—and the effects of timing can be hard to predict. For instance, some art manages to seem so frustratingly irrelevant that it wiggles its way back into relevance.

In the age of the infinite scroll of Tumblr, Selichi Furuya installs a wheezing slide projector in a corner of Galerie Thomas Fischer in Berlin. The photographs in the exhibition entitled “Mémoires” are relics from 1978 to 1985 and the DDR (East Germany). They depict Furuya’s long-deceased wife, landscapes long altered, and events that took place under a government long dissolved. The works operate in their stagnant remoteness, revealing the inescapable gaps between what we expect pictures to say and what they actually say, the details we so regularly glaze over because of our relentless routinized encounter with the camera and photography.

Pictures of friends in parties, dorm rooms, and foreign lands circulate steadily. Iconic images of moments and people pop up in textbooks and lectures. PR-approved and news agency-snapped pictures appear alongside articles and on television. Each celebrity’s every outfit is charted on blogs and magazines. Photography has its own institutional position in art. For the most part, we view and understand photographs through these familiar, established contexts. Thus, we expect or look for little more. We don’t analyze the formal elements of a picture of posed friends, just as we don’t nitpick about what makes the outfits of political ambassadors (not) work.

Photography in art is hardly above such structured viewing. We expect certain models: Walker Evans’ aestheticism, Cindy Sherman’s wittiness, the Bechers’ documentation, for example. But the photograph as article and thing—as something with limitations—is lost. By relying on context to understand photographs, we project meanings upon them—meanings they do not necessarily convey on their own. But can we hope to separate the photographs themselves from the meanings we reflexively project onto them?

“Mémoires” has been shown since 1979, but it resonates especially well now. Furuya is caught in the futile plight of documenting, collecting, and archiving in order to preserve and remember. But the camera and the photograph are never enough, because while they fixate moments in their eerie exact stillness, they also lament them as passed away, leaving only a visual trace. We have the aids of remembrance in the photographs, but we were never present for the specific moments that they captured and therefore cannot remember. Estranged and incapable of understanding “Mémoires” under the context provided, we are finally unable to ascertain the purpose and function of the photographs within seconds, finally lost.

Furuya’s photographs are jagged fragments that do not come together to form some “whole picture” that can be easily understood or categorized. Most are unremarkable—a wife and child in a museum, an eggplant and radishes sitting next to the sink, a blurry shot from the rain streaked window, an apartment block. The slide projector switches out the images steadily—five seconds, the click of the plastic, and the blank wall before the appearance of the next image. Sitting in the lone stool in the already isolated space, you stare at the projected image, conscious that each image and your appreciation of it is set to a timer that you have no control over. We struggle to grasp the images as they appear one after the other, struggle to examine them on their own and situate them in relation to each other. We shuffle halfheartedly from the individual picture to the whole group of pictures, incapable of saying much about either.

The ordeal is disorienting and unsatisfying, as we can lay no claim either to what the photographs depict or to how we approach the photographs. We cannot stomach this experience. Unable to understand Furuya’s project in his terms of loss and remembrance, we are also unable to apply the conventions and structures in which we regularly grasp photographs. Not this category and not that context … The dated slide projector, photographs, and subject matter encourage us, finally, not to understand.

­—Columnist Kristie T. La can be reached at kla@college.harvard.edu.

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