The Cloud of Unknowing – The Momentum Series of Alejandro Guijarro

Stanford II , 2012 Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

Stanford II , 2012
Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

The Cloud of Unknowing is a well-known fourteenth century anonymous mystical text in Middle English.   (As pretentious first sentences go, in a blog on photography, that’s not at all bad, but let it pass). I read it years ago (in a Penguin edition) and not much of it stuck — I hadn’t spared it a moment’s thought since, and would struggle to tell you much about it beyond the title. But it’s such a great title that I’ve carried that around with me. Now I feel I have a use for it.

I have kept a few of these pictures by Alejandro Guijarro on a bad slide-show on my computer for some weeks and they stick most wonderfully in my head. They’re from a series called Momentum, and they’re simply pictures of blackboards. When he exhibits them, the photographer carefully reproduces them precisely to scale: he shows them at the size of the original boards.

Cambridge I, 2011 Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

Cambridge I, 2011
Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

Cambridge II , 2011 Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

Cambridge II , 2011
Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

MIT III 2013, Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

MIT III 2013,
Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

Some of the originals are in lecture theatres, others in the studies of researchers.

But they’re not just any blackboards: they are in some of the most famous physics and maths teaching institutions in the world. They are blackboards used either to help explain quantum mechanics or to resolve quantum problems. That is relevant.

Quantum physics represents a black hole of mystery to most of us. If we know a rudimentary minimum — say that adding energy to certain systems can cause them to jump from one state to another rather than progressing smoothly in proportion to the increased energy; or that certain phenomena take the form of both waves and particles at the same time — we are likely to be well satisfied with that. Richard Feynman was a great populariser of physics and believed in being comprehensible whenever possible, and he wasn’t only joking when he said “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Since he had a Nobel prize (1965) for his contribution to the advance of quantum electrodynamics, he knew what he was talking about.

Even rudimentary awareness of quantum thinking is terrifying simply by the nature of the people who do it. Max Planck. Erwin Schrödinger. Feynman himself. Louis de Broglie. Einstein, of course. Nils Bohr laid the foundations for some of it. These are not brains to trifle with. Remember the story of Schrödinger’s (famous) cat, which is itself utterly incomprehensible to ordinary non-physicists, since it asks for a cat to be alive and dead at the same time, was a simplifying parable dreamed up as an explanation of something even more dreadfully obscure.

Yet quantum thinking is no longer in question. We’re assured that quantum reasoning is central to the modern world, to progress, and to prosperity. The areas where quantum theories are applied are perfectly non-terrifying. Light-emitting diodes. Lasers … These might once have been the stuff of Flash Gordon but they’re hardly unfamiliar now.

The erasures mark the transfer from one state to another.   Each one, in fact, since it’s actually quite difficult to wipe a blackboard completely clean, represents a number of previous states piled on top of each other, the shadows of each both informing the next and obscuring them. These palimpsests are of course completely appropriate to the subject matter. Quantum is lots of things, but some notion of the palimpsest is certainly part of it. (Palimpsest is the term for writing that is barely discernible on manuscript that was erased and re-used: the all-but vanished layer being sometimes historically more interesting or more important than the legible one on top).

Separately, these are also pictures of the functioning of a priesthood. The strange incantatory marks are in a language known only to the inducted. If you were an English graduate or a musician (or a writer on photography) you could stare at these with as much patience and as a good a lens as you liked and still not have any chance of understanding what the marks actually say or said. It is important that they meant something: these are not abstract marks, at all. Yet the pictures tend towards abstraction. Or if not towards abstraction itself, then towards a kind of metaphor so oblique as to be all-but abstract. They are certainly not only pictures about blackboards. They hover exquisitely between direct reference and allusion.

Wang Qingsong Follow Me , 2003 (part)

Wang Qingsong
Follow Me , 2003 (part)

Wang Qingsong’s Follow Me (2003) is itself a subtle picture, being at least as much about the business of not learning and difficulty communicating as their opposites.  But Follow Me is like a commercial poster compared to the Momentum series: effective enough, but bluntly so.

As well as being neat reflections on quantum, the blackboards also represent something else about the way science itself works. It was Newton who described his own contribution to progress by saying that he was merely a pygmy standing on the shoulders of giants. You advance a theory, check it, it maybe computes perfectly with data known at that time, but then other facts come to light, and someone has to revise your theory. Rubbing out the parts which don’t work any more is exactly how science advances.

These blackboards are beginning to show themselves capable of carrying quite a metaphorical load.

There’s more: in the history of modern art, few notions are more loaded than the blank. John Cage’s famous 4:33 was far more than the pretentious absurdity it’s sometimes caricatured as. By inviting a player to sit at the piano but hold back from playing any notes, Cage filled the silence with the ambient noise, and with all sorts of echoes, too. It’s impossible to hear (is that the right word?) 4:33, still now, without one’s head reverberating with music and thoughts about music. You can trace this idea quite a long way back: Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings are the source that Cage himself acknowledged, but Rauschenberg himself was taught by Josef Albers, and so on. There’s a strong link here through the Black Mountain College, but I don’t think this notion of the pregnant blank is unique to any group or place. Malevich had painted White on White in 1918.

Kazimir Malevich Suprematist Composition - White on White, 1918

Kazimir Malevich
Suprematist Composition – White on White, 1918

Erased de Kooning by Robert Rauschenberg 1953

Erased de Kooning by Robert Rauschenberg 1953

It was Rauschenberg who made a famous work called Erased de Kooning (it dates from 1953). That wasn’t just vandalism or iconoclasm, either. It was made with de Kooning’s permission and help, for a start, and it was a complicated and subtle reflection on the act of painting itself, on reaching grand status as a painter, and on the process of questioning artworks.

Guijarro’s blackboards are not blanks. Neither 4:33 nor the Erased de Kooning were really blanks. They were simply blank enough to invite us to populate them ourselves.   We’re not far from Mark Rothko’s soulful invitations to meditation, but nor — a bit more fancifully — are we far from the late Turner’s swirling contemplation of light itself. Light, by the way, is best described in quantum terms. It still helps to think of it in terms of waves; but it can also be seen to act in terms of packets of tiny subatomic particles called photons. That’s part of Guijarro’s thought, too.

Alejandro Guijarro described somewhere how one of the more patterned blackboards was actually created by a caretaker or janitor, rubbing the board after the lecturer and audience had gone. I like the unconscious creation of that (or why not imagine the caretaker deliberately took pleasure in the measured coverage of the eraser?).  I like even more that the photographer has to be credited entirely. These are not just records of something noteworthy or important that the photographer loyally transcribed from the real world to the two-dimensional one. These are pictures full of weight and meaning, but there was neither weight nor meaning until the photographer put them there. In other words, photography here is not a dependent business, but a fully generative one. There were only marked blackboards until they became photographs. The labour of criss-crossing the world to these august institutions, seeking permissions (and, I guess, seeking blackboards themselves, for they can’t be all that common any more), shooting pictures at odd moments when the lecture theatres were not in use – all of that is the common currency of successful photographic formulae. It’s logistically demanding, and needs to be got right. But the results that you see here are far beyond simply resolving problems of access and display.

I’m fascinated that this simple gesture of rubbing out a blackboard can come to stand so well for so much. I also want to use about them a word that has almost wholly disappeared from contemporary photographic criticism: they are extraordinarily beautiful things. Photography rewrote the rule book about beauty long ago, and continues to do so. But the word still stands. How else can we describe pictures which are so attractive in their airy clouds of chalk dust, and which at the same time so perfectly marry what they’re of to what they’re about?

I regard these seemingly simple photographs as rich invitations to think. As a profoundly ignorant non-scientist, I regard them as pictures of my own cloud of unknowing.

Oxford I, 2011, Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

Oxford I, 2011,
Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

Making It Up Is So Very Hard To Do

 All people know the same truth. Our lives consist of how we choose to distort it.

Woody Allen, Deconstructing Harry

It may be eccentric to draw attention to a show that has been open some time; all I can say is that the show Making It Up: Photographic Fictions has got remarkably little coverage and deserves plenty.

Making It Up is apparently no more than a pleasant little show in the old photography display space at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It brings together images from the museum’s own holdings of every period of photography which – as its title indicates – either aim at something other than the ‘truth’ or use non-‘true’ methods to make their points.  So we have a number of beautiful mainstream pictures:  a classic Gregory Crewdson, for example, called Temple Street (2006) in which a woman pauses chopping wood in the snowy dusk of a suburban clapboard community.  The lighting (electric light just beginning to hold its own against the darkening night), the snow, the slightly menacing stare of the woman who looks at the camera as at an intruder; all these add up to a suggestion of a story.  More than that: the very fact of the photograph suggests there was a story worth telling.  Crewdson’s trick is to invite us to dive headlong into a picture on the assumption that there must be a story where there may be no more than our own desire to see one.

Gregory Crewdson, (Temple Street); Beneath the Roses, 2006.

Gregory Crewdson, (Temple Street); Beneath the Roses, 2006.

In Victorian times, both the methods and the purposes could be very different.  Artful posing, liberal use of the dressing-up box, and leadingly significant captions were the standard tools of such ‘allegorical’ photographers as Clementina Hawarden or Julia Margaret Cameron.  Collage in its various forms is largely present in this exhibition, as one might expect.  Beyond the simple fiction of an untrue caption, it makes the plainest kind of non-true photograph. The sumptuous moralizing multiple-negative confection of Oscar Rejlander’s Two Ways of Life is here, in a later (1876) copy by Robert Crawshay, complete with its ponderously virtuous caption.  When (in 1986) Andy Weiner collaged his own face onto a number of mildly comedic scenes, he made his own Rake’s Progress from pub to bed.  Weiner made no pretence at seamlessness:  we are asked to share the joke, not to be taken in by it.  To that extent, Weiner had then much in common with such non-photographic artists as Graham Rawle or Glen Baxter.  They, too, put themselves alongside their viewers, to laugh at the absurdity of the world together.  In photography, it is the very habit of realism which makes anything unrealistic so seductive.

Graham Rawle, Lost Consonants #876, 2004

Graham Rawle, Lost Consonants #876, 2004

So the great photographic storyteller Duane Michals is represented here by a little 1972 narrative in six parts.  Two men cross in an alley.  Each looks back at the other as they pass, but they do so at different times and no meeting takes place.  We think we are seeing a report; it even looks (in modern terms) as though it could have been made by the regular rhythmic discharge of a security camera.  But it’s a fiction, as neatly made as a Borges short story, and just as tantalizing at the end.

Duane Michals, Chance Meeting 1972

Duane Michals, Chance Meeting 1972

So the exhibition goes on, piling non-truth upon untruth in profusion.  There is a moderate suburban corner which looks just not quite right.  It’s a (2000) paper model by Oliver Boberg of a very non-space kind of space, Notown, Nowhere, photographed to look like a real place.  The connections with that other great model-maker, Thomas Demand, are obvious; but the connections with a whole register of pop music or film may be more important.    Contrast it to a photograph of a developer’s model of some new flats by Xing Danwen (2005).

Xing Danwen, Urban Fiction #23, 2005

Xing Danwen, Urban Fiction #23, 2005

The artist has digitally inserted herself on the balcony nearest us, hurrying her nude male visitor away over a wall as a gentleman who might be the husband appears in the dark street below.  Here’s a changing room by Bridget Smith (1999) with a couple of squash rackets on the wall, a different kind of neutral space.  You have to read the museum caption to discover that it is in fact a set from a pornographic film.

Bridget Smith, Glamour Studio (Locker Room), 1999

Bridget Smith, Glamour Studio (Locker Room), 1999

False readings, false suppositions, false extrapolations; sometimes people simply make false photographs, too. A few of those are here, including a famous set of salt prints made by advertising photographer Howard Grey in response to a commission from The Connoisseur magazine in 1981, purportedly to ‘test’ the connoisseurship in early photography.  The V&A’s own Mark Haworth-Booth was taken in by those, at least at first.  Howard Grey worked closely with the painter Graham Ovenden, and the Hetling fakes which they concocted together are closely allied to the group of Howard Grey images here.   Roger Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death certainly wasn’t a fake; a famous picture from the Crimean war (1854-5) showing just how absurd it would have been to try to ride horses through a rain of cannonballs; but like the American Civil War photographers of the same period, Fenton was not above moving the elements of the picture to make his point the stronger.  In this case, there are known variants of the picture with the cannonballs and without.

There is wonderful variety in this exhibition, of intention as well as of technique.  There’s a photographic Chinese scroll by Wang Qingsong, complete with red signature-stamp in the corner.  Jan Wenzel makes lightning rearrangements in a photo-booth and then builds the strips up to a coherent whole.

Vik Muniz, Action Photo I (After Hans Namuth) - Pictures of Chocolate, 1997

Vik Muniz, Action Photo I (After Hans Namuth) – Pictures of Chocolate, 1997

Vik Muniz’ 1997 action shot of Jackson Pollock (after Hans Namuth) is made in chocolate sauce, and his sheer virtuoso confidence in that most unusual of media is itself staggering.  Tom Hunter’s use of heavily romantic imagery taken from art history to portray a marginalized group of Londoners is a complex play of allusion and reference far, far from simple reportorial fact.

Tom Hunter, The Vale of Rest (2000), from Life and  Death in Hackney.

Tom Hunter, The Vale of Rest (2000), from Life and Death in Hackney.

Jeff Wall is more like a theatre director, Hannah Starkey perhaps closer to a balladeer.  Cindy Sherman’s strange mixture of self-portraiture, social anthropology and sheer good humour is as compelling as ever.

H Starkey, Untitled, May 1997

H Starkey, Untitled, May 1997

These artists and photographers don’t necessarily have all that much in common. And that’s the point.  There has for nearly a hundred years been an insistence that a certain kind of objectivity is the proper stance for the camera.  A modernistic look, stripped back, emphasizing by isolation and by composition, and adhering purportedly to a version of the truth.  It was a political stance at first, a reaction against the failed mannerisms and mawkish sentimentalism of Pictorialism, and it was intimately tied to a view of the world in which the documentary was properly a tool of the Left.  But here’s a splendidly vigorous exhibition which reminds us that it was never the whole picture.

Photography can be and has often been as mannered and as Rococo as any other art form, and that on its own is no reason to reject it.  I saw in a recent paper that the great and sometimes austerely modernist composer George Benjamin had just got another rave review for his opera Written on Skin; nothing inherently modernist about opera, you would have thought.   There are good, even great Rococo photographs just as there are wholly meretricious modernist ones.  Photography certainly can deal in fact and science and truth.  But it can also deal admirably in opinion and allegory and metaphor.  It’s that side of photography that we saw so much of at the latest edition of Frieze, for it’s back in the ascendant again.  Was it this year or last year that I became so enthused by Marcus Coates’ wonderful British Moths?  They’re factual, sure enough.  But also so much more than that. Come to think of it, there seems to be something in the wind. Just now, we have Hannah Höch showing at the Whitechapel, Mari Mahr and William Burroughs at the Photographers’ Gallery.  Bits of their pictures come from bits of the real, no doubt.  But not one of them would deign to limit themselves to that.  Great photographers don’t, and why should they?

Mari Mahr, From Presents for Susana, 1985

Mari Mahr, From Presents for Susana, 1985

We’ve had the rise and rise of John Stezaker, Maurizio Anzeri, Julie Cockburn… Capital fiddlers, all of them. The most successful photographers in Britain at the moment are probably Gilbert and George, for whom the plain photographic fact has never been more than a jumping off point for the stories they want to tell.

It has always been possible to fiddle about with photographs; more than that, NOT fiddling about has in the past always been a self-conscious and political gesture.  Hence the (often spurious) claims to objectivity of such as the f64 tendency.  But something has changed.  Because millions or billions of unvarnished pictures are made and uploaded every day, their selective and expressive content very much limited to when to fire the camera and in what basic direction, it has become imperative for photographers to reclaim the act of photographing.  It comes down again to a distinction I have mentioned here before.  Simply to go to a party with an iPhone and take pictures and post them on the internet does not make you a photographer.  Nor does using a camera every day to record people parked on yellow lines. We need another word for that, and I’ve been using the expression ‘camera operator’.  Photographers are different.  They want to use photography to say whatever it is they have to say. It’s not always the truth that photographers tell; it’s their truth.  Increasingly, the camera operators are the ones who are content for the picture to say “it was so”.

The photographers have reclaimed the territory that was always more fertile, of reference and argument and persuasion and imagination and narrative, not to mention poetry and allusion.  “Maybe it wasn’t so, but this is what I want to say about it.”  That’s a wholly proper photographic sentiment, just as it has always been perfectly proper in every other medium. It is because it tracks that sentiment so well and so far back that this unassuming little show in a back gallery at the V&A is so important.  Marta Weiss, the curator, may just have pointed out that a tide has changed without our noticing.  It may just be that merely to tell the truth in a photograph has finally become as worthy and as ultimately dull as merely to tell it in any other way.  Every truth has been told.  The truth is no longer enough.

A lot of art students over the years have unearthed Diderot’s message to the artist (not least because it was quoted to telling effect by Walter Friedlander, in a book so famous that even some art students still read it, David to Delacroix): “First move me, astonish me, break my heart, let me tremble, weep stare, be enraged – only then regale my eyes”.  You could reshape it now for the generation who want to be photographers beyond merely posting stuff online as it comes out of some image capturing system: “First move me, astonish me, break my heart, let me tremble, weep, stare, be enraged – only then tell me the truth”.