2012 Half of the darkness, Prefix, Toronto
HALF OF THE DARKNESS
Prefix Photo, Toronto
PASCAL GRANDMAISON: HALF OF THE DARKNESS By Anja Bock
HALF OF THE DARKNESS
Nowhere are the biases, limits and strangeness of photography – “the ultimate art form of modernity”10 – better exposed than in Pascal Grandmaison’s monumental Half of the Darkness (2010). Over 250 photographs, printed in negative, are laid out across four large plinths: craters and canyons, technological breakthroughs and arctic expeditions, fungal spores, prisms and dinosaurs, enormous robotic hands, rockets and chimpanzees, to name just a few, are featured in this sampling of imagery. The photographs are either candid or posed, aerial or macro, but in every case “man” is depicted at his best, conquering the world with his footprints, flags and various optic instruments. Astronauts and spaceships, as well as an old steam engine, rest alongside a bearded woman and a man covered in butterflies. And a defunct Ferris wheel speaks of an age passed by. Taken in sum, this display of disparate photographs functions like an ashen memorial for the discredited dream of modernity.
In an essay titled “Photography Is Over, If You Want It,” Eric Rosenberg states, “Our mistake, as well as our necessity, has been to account for photography as part of modernism’s taxonomy, its evidence.”11 It was put to two impossible tasks, which continue through to today: on the one hand, photography is the “primary instrument of self-knowledge and representation.”12 Take for example the photograph of the fisherman in Half of the Darkness, who is proudly holding his catch of the day, or the young family looking at a giant waterfall, or the photographs of various
10 Eric Rosenberg, “Photography is Over, If You Want It.” In Kelsey, Robin, and Stimson, Blake, eds. The Meaning of Photography. Clark Studies in the Visual Arts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. 191.
11 Rosenberg, 190.
12 Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997. 6.
athletes at the height of their jump or the summit of a mountain. In each case what is depicted is a wished-for identification. On the other hand, photography also promises a “mechanical form of objectivity”13 and advances a positivist approach to the world.14 The numerous close-up photographs of various scientific specimens illustrate this well – their mysteries are exposed, turned into objects of knowledge.
Due to this “double indexicality,”15 photography was heralded as a means of knowing the world and as a means of understanding the “self.” But more than drawing a parallel between them, the modernist investment in photography renewed the eighteenth-century promise to unite inner and outer realities in a process of self-realization.16 This alleged congruence is connoted by many of the images in Half of the Darkness. Consider for example the photographs of men (and they are men) wielding various optical devices to extend the parameters of their vision. In one image we see a man in the lab coat peering through a microscope: he is positioned as a unitary “I,” the sovereign subject of sight (as opposed to an object of the “gaze”), and under his lens he discovers a reflection of his powers of cognition. This congruence is thoroughly Kantian and the cornerstone of Western thought.
Julia Kristeva argued that “the rationalist attempt to transform the world into its own image is only one more interpretation which cannot see that it embraces a void.”17 As Grandmaison exposed in Void View, photography, as well, embraces a void – it assumes that the presence of the world is transparent to its aperture when in fact its perception is partial and finite. Photography materializes a painful disjunction with the world which Rosenberg calls “violent.” He writes, “By violence, I mean that photography itself ... is a phenomenon always at a disjunctive, perpendicular counterpoint to our actual experience, to our being.”18 Precisely because it can only record half of the darkness, photography cannot go to the heart of darkness. As Rosenberg states, “Photography allows us to enter a realm of pure fantasy based solely on connection with utter reality and yet a reality of ease, of dormancy, of sleep”19 – a reality that to Barthes (and Joseph Conrad) is a “kind of education” in “civility.”20
13 Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson, “Photography’s Double Index.” In Kelsey, Robin, and Stimson, Blake, eds. The Meaning of Photography. Clark Studies in the Visual Arts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. xii.
14 Urs Stahel, Well, What is Photography? Zurich: Scalo, 2003. 8.
15 Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson, xi.
16 Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson, xvi.
17 Julia Kristeva as cited in Appignanesi, Richard, and Garrett, Chris. Introducing Postmodernism. Thriplow, UK: Icon Books, 2004. 104.
18 Rosenberg, 191.
19 Rosenberg, 192.
20 Barthes, 28.
In Half of the Darkness, photography’s promises and corollaries are depicted as absences rather than presences. What takes on a presence instead are the non-illuminated parts of the image that the camera could not capture. By exposing the “negatives” Grandmaison interrupts habitual ways of viewing images and slows down their consumption. Snow turns black and pupils turn white and the whole world looks inside out. In a conversation about this work, Grandmaison states,
I like your idea that truth can reveal itself more fully in darkness. The title Half of the Darkness seems to direct us to only half of the truth. But, in revealing that which is hidden, dark, real, aren’t we bringing a certain subjectivity, or classification, to bear after all? Doesn’t claiming to reveal the truth in fact upend it, subjecting it to opinion? One half of the truth – the other half lost in illustrating it – a little like infinity.21
Half of the Darkness puts into question the authority of visual information by calling attention to the “visualization ‘error’”22 of the photographic (and modernist) viewpoint.
Through Grandmaison’s selection of images, which parade human achievements, the dream of human liberty through technological progress takes on the nostalgic tone of the “it-has-been.” These spectres of ideology find an appropriate burial ground in the modern institution of the museum. The staging that Grandmaison designed for Half of the Darkness is oddly reminiscent of Edward Steichen’s infamous Family of Man exhibition in 1955, which followed a universal humanist agenda. In a scathing review, Barthes described The Family of Man as follows:
Everything here, the content and appeal of the pictures, the discourse which justifies them, aims to suppress the determining weight of History: we are held back at the surface of an identity, prevented precisely by sentimentality from penetrating into this ulterior zone of human behavior where historical alienation introduces some ‘differences’ which we shall here quite simply call ‘injustices.’23
The exclusion of differences, of the other, is taken to its “logical conclusion” in the practice of genocide, a link which Grandmaison makes blatant: the museological stagecraft of Half of the Darkness is similar to what one finds in Holocaust museums – row after row of black and white photographs, documents of the lives destroyed by the Nazi regime.
Barthes described his experience of photography as “a fascinating and funereal enigma.”24 Through its uncanny white shadows and prone display, Half of the Darkness reveals the inverse of the studium, the other side of the civilization’s “polite interest.”25 What are “enlightened”
21 Grandmaison, 295.
22 Grandmaison, 295.
23 Roland Barthes as cited in Geoffrey Batchen, “Palinode: An Introduction.” In Geoffrey Batchen, ed. Photography Degree Zero. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. 5.
24 Barthes as cited in Batchen, 9.
25 Barthes, 27.
are the camera’s blind-spots: blacks too deep to penetrate by the mind and eye alike. Visual constructions of historical “truth” come to look like so many fluctuating memories. “Memory is photography’s ultimate archive,” writes Rosenberg, “[b]ut it is a chimerical one, for memory in the end will always go its own way, refusing to contain an object outside of itself, a technology other to its own formation.”26 Rather than being lined-up in a transmittable historical narrative, Half of the Darkness is an abundant archive, a non-hierarchical database of ghostly impressions, non-linear and nearly nonsensical. It is as if Grandmaison opened the shadows to allow the viewers’ subjectivity to flow in, thereby reclaiming what was lost in the process of objectification and supplementing the photographs’ partiality – its mask of meaning – with the spectre of otherness.
Let us return to the Ouverture series with which this essay opened. Pascal Grandmaison’s practice is accumulative, and so now, after considering many subsequent works as well as the stunning Half of the Darkness, its impact is easier to articulate: in the contours of these portrait heads, we fail to recognize their “identity.” Grandmaison points to our inability to know ourselves in the face of the photograph. These “portraits” are like facing the obstinacy of a mute, enigmatic child or the impossible question “what are you thinking?”27 The studium cannot encode the “other” at the heart of the “self” – the half that is lost in illustrating it.
The more we look at Grandmaison’s work, the more it becomes clear that the challenge he poses is deeply philosophical: reclaiming what is lost, what falls by the wayside of signification, and uncovering the positive values of all sorts of “voids.” His photographs and videos are not elaborate conceptual puzzles or demonstrations of discursive virtuosity. They are not made to be decoded, leaving the satisfaction of a completed cross-word puzzle that one soon forgets. Rather, Grandmaison counters hyper-rationalism and positivism with a certain romanticism that searches for pre-binary plenitude. We could call this an updated realism. That is, the reality which Grandmaison faces has nothing to do with empiricism: it has to do with the Lacanian real without which we would be perpetually limited to the “civilized code of perfect illusions.”28
26 Rosenberg, 191. 27 See Stahel, 7.
28 Barthes, 119.