A CONVERSATION BETWEEN EVAN LEE
AND ADAM HARRISON
AH: Your scanner pictures continue a program in your work which has for several years dealt with the negation or usurping of traditional ways of photographic seeing. By removing the camera in the making of these pictures, the work deals simultaneously and disparately with two things: the new possibilities of picture making in the light of digital technologies, and a moment from the very beginning of photography; the photogram. This conflation is interesting, because it represents two hugely important moments in the life of photography, both of them profoundly intertwined with the desire to see the world in a new way.
Whereas the Stellar Curves series employed drafting tools in abstract compositions for their link to both representational drawing, and, by way of Frank Stella, pictorial abstraction, the Ginseng Rootseries seeks to do something else. In the new Ginseng pictures especially, the simultaneous seriality and idiosyncrasy of the forms recall the most utilitarian uses of photography, images from catalogues, but also other important works of art; Walker Evans’ tool pictures, for example, or Sigmar Polke’s microscopic photos of gold nuggets. What initially interested you about the ginseng forms, leading to the second set of scanner works?
EL: I should respond to your comments by first talking about my process, and how it has led me to working in a unique way, simultaneously inside and outside of photography. This is a place where I feel very comfortable, allowing me to produce some of my most developed works to date. The type of device I have been using is a common office/desktop scanner. I discovered the process by accident, and am using the scanner in a way that was never intended. It is a relatively low-resolution device, like the camera on a phone, or a photocopier. However, because of the one-to-one relationship between the object and the large but optically impure lens (the scanner glass), a tremendous amount of microscopic detail is recorded, though it is done not quite faithfully and without the high quality and fidelity that we are accustomed to with professional photography. Instead, a certain translation that I like occurs, resulting in a depiction that is very different and unusual. It is mediated, muddled. Moreover, sometimes the scanner gets confused and produces glitches or random patterns of colour. There isn’t really any grain or pixelation, but there is some digital noise that effectually complements the work. I have chosen to print them in a particular way that allows these quirks and qualities to come through. As a result, I’ve been able to find some success in working against the grain of the technology. I think that being able to exploit this through art has the potential to put a human face onto the increasing and unprecedented ways and things that technology has enabled us to express.
Ultimately, I knew the Ginseng roots would photograph, or more correctly, scan, quite provocatively, in the same way Blossfleldt’s specimens, collected originally for drawing, did. It’s interesting that you see my photography “utilitarian” and you relate it to “catalogue” photography. Yes, it has a graphic arts quality to it and it does remind me of how objects from museums are photographed and presented in older-type books: isolated, floating in a shadowless black background. I think this is frowned upon in critical museological circles, but I actually delight in the feeling that depicted in this way, they are endowed with something like a mystery.
I like to think these shriveled, decaying specimens of Ginseng root, some of which look to me like mummies or effigies, are somehow coming to life through their depiction. The very basic idea that they suggest figures certainly intrigued me. Some people don’t see it because they either can’t, or won’t. It also may be, that the anthropomorphism is simply be a cliché, particularly to people from its native culture where the idea may be a given. However, accepting the figurative aspect is only one level of appreciation, albeit an important one. Whenever I make anything that even approaches a cliché, I try to provide an alternate path to, and through the work that leads to the same higher place of appreciation because many ideas and subjects can be met with a fair amount of resistance, especially to harder minds who may be looking for something they deem either more profound, real or specific. That path can be made possible through good choices in depiction.
I got the idea of using the French curves from Stella, and Polke’s work has an interesting and ambivalent relation to mysticism that I think I have always been interested in. In the same sense that the gold nugget images may suggest a relation to alchemy and rarity (Ginseng, at least the good stuff, can sell for much more than gold, ounce for ounce), my choice to use Ginseng relates to its place in the apothecarial traditions in China. It’s widely available from the herbal shops in Chinatown or the Asian malls, but is also found in cough drops and energy drinks. For me, it was something I would have in soup, or tea, every now and again growing up (in Canada) because I was told it was good for me. I would guess that in China, its presence must be as common as multi-vitamins are here. Yet, since finishing completing the works, I’ve been surprised to learn how exotic Ginseng is still perceived to be. Numerous times, they have been mistaken for ginger root. This also made me interested in the subject’s ability to be translated.
AH: The relationship to Blossfeldt I see, but I might suggest a more constructive reference to Talbot. His early pictures of botanical specimens recall the very advent of the photographic medium, representing an altogether new way of seeing. Being the earliest examples of the negative-positive process – a process whose previously near-exclusive use has only recently began to wane – one can imagine an utterly awestruck spectator looking at such photographs and photograms at the time that they were made. The scientific phenomenon of chemical photography, and its profound effect on countless aspects of modern society, can now only be equaled by that of digital imaging, and digital technology in general. Your scanner pictures, which I consider the contemporary analogue of the photogram, recall to me the awe and excitement that the public is recorded to have had when seeing photographs for the first time; when I first saw them, I felt affected by them in a way that I rarely have been. They felt to me to be an entirely new way of seeing.
Whereas your Stains met photography’s relationship to chemistry head on, the Ginseng pictures, as you said, eschew this scientific/alchemist link for one rooted is mysticism and symbolism. The natural forms, faced off with the mechanical/digital objects representing them, stand up as counterpoints. As you have suggested, the ginseng act as highly suggestive and loaded objects. On the one hand, their use in Chinese medicine, their perceived powers, elevate their otherwise botanical status to that of the spiritual or metaphysical. On the other, their forms suggest human and animal forms. One can recognize fish, monkeys, insects, dragons, sea urchins, and so on. They are simultaneously humorous and sober. This becomes infinitely clearer in the light of other prominent examples of serial photography. While you repeat these forms, utilizing the same form and technique, the idiosyncrasies within the objects – by this I mean the different things that the anthropomorphisms suggest – separate them entirely from the tactics of counterpresence found in the Bechers work, and even, to a large extent from the archival projects of artists from Atger and Sander, and their contemporary followers; Ruff’s portraits, for example. There is never the feeling of a formula; they cannot be seen as being made programmatically, or within tactics of conceptualism, although that link exists. Rather, each picture seems to come out of your own pure desire to see these things, to see what they might suggest, how they might look.
EL: I used to ask my grandmother who was born in 1908 what she thought about today’s computers, but she was pretty unimpressed, much to my disappointment. Kids are unfazed by technology in the same way. My niece, 2, will connect a mobile phone to photography faster than she would a painted wooden toy with a clicking button that looks like a 70’s era SLR. I think my generation is preoccupied with this idea of progress, because of the way we grew up with the birth of personal computers. I do find myself remembering ‘Asteroids’ or thinking ‘Google Earth will change the world’. So, I would like to agree with you, that it must have been wondrous to witness key developments and their effects during the birth of photography, but at the same time I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of imagining or fantasizing about that past moment, much less attempting to recreate it. However, I think I’m doing something different from recapitulating that feeling – not “new”, but in the spirit of newness, or maybe renewal. I do enjoy a good fantasy and believe it has an important place in art. I do think that I am pursuing a type of experimental, introspective-based depiction that requires the viewer to approach it in a particular way, where the answers aren’t all there, and they must either decide, or desire, to believe in what they are seeing. I want to believe; that the way I am working makes it possible to create something, even if it is only a symbolic creation, even as an expression of the desire to create. I had intended for the French curves in my first scanner pictures to be imagined as flora and fauna staged in a primordial setting, such as in the ocean or in outer space; this space is suggested and alluded to in my Stain series. I also intend for my pictures suggest life, or at least activity when there is none. It has been in much of photography’s nature to document, explain, or structure the world – it does this so well even when it depicts the most human of subjects. But I enjoy the challenge presented by the medium of depicting something outside of that paradigm. Furthermore, to finally address the second part of your response, the art that you attributed as being conceptual or programmatic seems to require a sense of intentionality, pre-meditation or resolution even when it is at it’s most experimental. Each one of my projects is begins as an experiment and remains so all the way through. And when it works, it works. Something emerges, and I am happy. I guess this approaches the awe or exuberance you mention. I know what you mean – everyone who’s ever been in a darkroom knows it, but I think more and more, photographers are spending less time in the darkroom, and so they have to find new places to rediscover that feeling.
AH: And indeed it seems obvious that the current possibilities for this feeling in photography lies in new imaging technologies. However, what I think has become evident since the advent of electronic imaging is that in order to sidestep garishness and kitsch in digital picture making, there must always remain a strong relationship to depiction. While these possibilities seem to be analogous to those suggested to painting by Manet and Cezanne, pictorial abstraction doesn’t seem to have any true possibilities within photography. Photographers have long tried to deal with abstraction in their work – focusing their compositions on de-contextualized details, making formalist photograms, etc. – but it seems to me that this plays out invariably in one of two ways. On the one hand, there are countless works that try to emulate the look or forms of abstract painting, but the fault of most of these is that they do not deal in any substantial way with the underlying ideas of abstraction. This leads to the second possibility, where the work contributes to the discourse of painting from its own specific standpoint, that is, the representational nature of photography. This is what I think that you have achieved. There is no emulation; rather, your works approach abstraction, yes through the depiction of elusive or irrational forms, but more importantly through the creation of a space that is altogether separate from painting and photography as they have traditionally been approached.
The Curves are the most rigorous example of this. The forms, as you suggested, seem to float in a liminal space, their shapes conjuring amoebic or otherworldly creatures. On this level, the drama, if you will, lies purely in suggestion. On the other hand, though, this layer of interpretation can be easily eschewed, and in doing so, the true photographic nature of the pictures are laid bare. They are, in the end, straight depictions of drafting tools, each scratch is made painfully visible, their idiosyncrasies are brought to the fore. But you can never look at them long without thinking about how they were made. Their creation – I stop just short of saying materiality – is indelibly intertwined with their existence. In ‘Working Space’, Frank Stella talks about his initial impulses to make abstract paintings, “paintings with just paint”. He spends most of his book tracing the roots of abstraction to Renaissance painting. Towards the end, he espouses his conviction that “abstraction became superior to representationalism as a mode of painting after 1945.” He says, however that “the future of abstraction depends on its ability to
wrest nourishment from the reluctant, unwilling sources of twentieth century abstraction: Cezanne, Monet, and Picasso, who insist that if abstraction is to drive the endeavor of painting, it must make painting real – real like the painting that flourished in sixtieth-century
Photography, of course, can never escape representation, but it can, especially now, search for new ways to experiment with the possibilities of the picture, and Stella’s claims remain relevant. Such experimentation must be done in the spirit of the great art of the past, while, like all of those artists, be constantly looking towards the future, not quoting so much as building onto an existing, and ever growing foundation.
EL: True, but I find that today’s artists will often strategically quote the past or try to predict the future, forsaking the importance and difficulty involved in dealing directly with the present. That which is not yet validated involves a level of genuine risk, which I think helps to make for a good work of art. Unfortunately, when these noble efforts fail, it can sometimes result in what you are calling kitsch or garishness. This kind of work has value; it is at the very least always sincere because its present-mindedness. I think that occupying this category couldn’t be worse than those who merely ‘strategize’, ‘quote’ or ‘predict’. Kitsch or garishness could never result from this kind of work as the same self-consciousness I mentioned earlier would never allow it to surface. As such, it is insincere.
The privileging of depiction vis-à-vis non-pictorial forms is just a kind of vain, reverse iconoclasm. It’s not good enough to simply fall back on the historical value of masterworks by merely nodding towards them in recognition. Depiction didn’t just start and end in the 16th Italy or 19th century France; those are certainly bright spots, but seeking out the possibilities of picture-making it is an ongoing and evolving struggle.
So then I agree, that with all these scanner works, it is certainly something in the spirit of abstraction, (or the spirit of the new, if I may tie this back to our earlier comments) which I am after, rather than the quotation or emulation of it. Photography’s obligation to depict shouldn’t be seen as a constraint, nor should it ever rest comfortably in that role. There is a lot of room to maneuver about, so long the willingness to experiment remains. The technological advances make the challenges and rewards all the more exciting. Since coming to terms with this, I’ve become much less dependent on an interest in the relationship between painting and photography. I was very caught up in it because I used to paint. I focused on the comparative deficiencies of one or the other. But the way I am working and seeing now allows for the best of both worlds to coexist; perhaps because each medium’s individual presences have been reduced to mere traces, or else it is at some kind of equilibrium.
Evan Lee is a visual artist who lives and works in Vancouver. Evan has had solo and group exhibitions in Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Charlottetown, Shanghai and Seattle, and is represented by Monte Clark Gallery. A major survey exhibition of the artist’s photographic works, accompanied by a catalogue, will be presented at the Presentation House Gallery in January 2006.