Friday, February 6, 2009

Blow up

Reality Check: Truth and Illusion in Contemporary Photography
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Through March 22, 2009

Reviewed by Julie Ashcraft

Stumbling upon this exhibit after wandering through galleries of crusty mummies is a bit of a shock. The extremely glossy surface the chromogenic print by Thomas Demand is comparable to the coated surface of high grade European fetish porn. Overcoming the initial desire provoked by this form allows the aftershock of the content to settle in. Attempt, 2005 depicts stacks of explosives with long fuses on the desk of an artist’s studio targeted in the 1970’s by the German terrorist Baader-Meinhof Gang. They placed the explosives there in an effort to blow up the state prosecutor next door.

The gallery card reveals that the artist who created Attempt, 2005, Thomas Demand, makes life-size 3-D models from colored paper and cardboard based upon existing images. After photographing his models, he destroys them. There is no information given as to how he destroys them, and whether anyone gets hurt.

Lower on the Richter Scale, but higher on the Humanist, empathetic emotional scale, is a photograph by another model-builder, James Casebere. His plaintive B/W Silver Dye bleach print, Hospital, 1997, gently draws the viewer into a darkened roomful of empty hospital beds. Where did everybody go? Are they all healthy, or did they all die? Is the light dappling into the room from above moonlight or searchlights? The aura of charm and mystery is enhanced by the cleanliness of the snow-white beds--and the fact that if you look close enough you know they aren’t real. Casebere makes the models he photographs from plaster, styrofoam and cardboard. There is no mention on the gallery card of him destroying the models. If anything, one gets the feeling he might cherish and preserve them.

Exceptionally well conserved and well guarded ’models’ are captured in Polar Bear, 1976, a Gelatin Silver print by Hiroshi Sugimato. Arriving in New York City in 1974, he frequented the American Museum of Natural History animal dioramas. The gallery card quotes him as saying, “I made a curious discovery. The stuffed animals positioned before painted backdrops looked utterly fake, yet by taking a quick peek with one eye closed, all perspective vanished, and suddenly they looked very real. I’d found a way to see the world as a camera does. However fake the subject, once it’s photographed, it’s as good as real.”

These, and other challenges to the common perception that photographs document reality, await you in the Contemporary Photography gallery, on the second floor of the Met, through
March 22, 2009.

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