Sheltering sculptures under a lens

In her essay Sculpture in the Expanded Field (1979), Rosalind Krauss is unequivocally right: over recent years, rather surprising things have come to be called sculpture, such as narrow corridors, big photographs, and temporary lines in the sand[1]. Questioning this phenomenon, she then solves the issue by stating that the logic of sculpture is tied to the logic of monument: it sits in a specific place and speaks in a symbolic tongue about the meaning or use of that site. In other words, Krauss states that the sculpture is something that inhabits a place and serves a symbolic function in that site.

Moving forward in time, Krauss notes how modernism and then minimalism have reconfigured the monument into abstraction, placeness and self-referentiality. A simple cube can be placed in any site, in a white gallery, an old museum or out in a park. Therefore, the sculpture becomes homeless, essentially nomadic.

Injecting Krauss’ conceptions into a lens-based media discourse, and by presenting the work of two artists, I want to explore what photography does to a sculpture when it is photographed.

To commence my investigation, I introduce the work Presidency (2008) by Thomas Demand, that looks like a photograph taken inside The White House, one of the most powerful and famous places in the world.

However, closer inspection reveals layers of construction: the image is not simply a document or snapshot. For instance, the armchairs seem placed casually in the space, as if someone just left without the urgency to tidy up the room. Also, there are some details that question the veracity of such a place, such as the small framed picture by the curtains. If in the first place it seems to depict a portrait, it is only by looking closer that one realizes it accommodates just a puzzle of geometric shapes put together to resemble two abstract faces. In China, this is a game called tangram.

Without knowing whether Demand enjoys playing this kind of game, it can definitely be stated that he loves to puzzle the viewer. In fact, this photograph is not the actual Oval Office but a mere reconstruction of it. Employing paper, cardboard and glue, Demand rebuilt the famous room to exact scale with the sole purpose of taking a photograph. Furthermore, to make it even more on the edge of something familiar but uncertain, he shaped a new unreal space, making a puzzle of the furniture that has belonged to many different presidents during the years.

Born in 1964 in Germany and without having been trained as a photographer, Demand’s pictures are often part of the public imagination or at least the public sphere: a highly publicized crime scene, a politically charged event, or a scene of some cultural significance. They are all very institutional pictures where nothing seems to happen, making them appear extremely real and artificial, simultaneously. Thanks to the large size of the prints (usually between 1 and 2 meters wide) the viewer can appreciate even small details, revealing the junctions of the paper employed to build the model, some glue in the corner, and other flaws belonging to the fragile material.

Reading this photographic reflection in conversation with a sculptural one, it is clear how the camera can become an efficient tool to convey an object not as an ontologically existing entity, but rather as exclusively dwelling in the beholders’ minds. The artist decided to use the medium of photography to present a sculpture, and therefore the print is the final outcome and sole witness of a long process of material construction.

In order to better clarify this concept and to explore what photography can add to the sculptural discourse, I want to introduce another artist called Lorenzo Vitturi (1980, Italy) whose beautiful artist book Dalston Anatomy (2013) deals with the representation of sculptures through the medium of photography. I came across this work for the first time on the bookshelf of a dear friend of mine, and I still remember the great tactile feeling of the cloth cover wrapped in an African pattern and the vast amount of colourful pictures weaving together objects, portraits and poems.

Green Stripes #1 from the Dalston Anatomy series, 2013

This is one of the most remarkable photographs in the book, Green Stripes #1. It presents a sculpture of fruit and vegetables standing on a cluttered table in front of a background made of rough materials. The banana has clearly been there for some days, some vegetables seem to melt with a synthetic light-blue powder, whereas some objects can’t even be defined.

While Demand draws from an architectural photographic approach, Vitturi borrows his visual language from the traditional still life paintings that started to appear in the 16th century in the Netherlands and then became popular all over Europe. In fact, considering the composition, lighting and subject, the photograph looks very pictorial.

The images collected in Dalston Anatomy by the Venetian artist tell the story of a market in East London, the city where he is based, transformed by a very strong process of gentrification.  In this sense, his photographs become a metaphor for the intersection of London he is living in, a hybrid and multi-ethnic society. The mediums of sculpture and photography are intertwined and hybridised in an explosion of life that is reminiscent of the artist’s birthplace, a vibrant European crossroads.

The will of the image does not seem to propose a fragmented, fragile society. Yet looking at it from another perspective, it subtly suggests it. In fact, considering the whole series, these images appear to be on a fragile limit: on one hand there is a positive and brilliant contrast made of bright and well-coordinated colours, while on the other there are ephemeral and precarious accrochage composed of organic materials, which stand in sharp opposition to the mood conveyed by the colour palette and the compositions.

The ambiguity of which the photographs become carriers reveals Vitturi’s ability to develop an open and widespread poetics, perfectly in line with the making of a society. It suggests a symptom of sensitivity towards a polyphony aimed at a personal narration, rather than looking for a logical, closed and universal ending.

Vitturi proceeds with the construction of his sculptures in extended but fragmentary timespans. Each sculpture requires several days to build, as Vitturi leaves it resting on the set, gradually adding materials as he goes along. Consequently, the different parts of the sculpture (the objects, foods, powders etc.) testify to the work of time. In this sense, the two-dimensional photographic limit allows the author to make a conceptual leap towards temporality, a principle already inherent in photography which results in being differently addressed through the direct presentation of the sculptural element.

As both Demand and Vitturi have shown, what photography does to a sculpture is embedded in the restrictions of the technique in itself. The flat photographic surface becomes a generative limitation that opens up new readings, meanings, and ways to get into the territory of sculpture. It widens the horizons and sparks the viewer’s imagination.

Coming back to the initial reflections offered by Rosalind Krauss, which considered that sculptures turn into monuments when established in a specific space, it is possible to integrate both the artists into her argument. Can Demand’s reconstructions of places and Vitturi’s arrangements of materials be considered monuments? Or are they nomadic sculptures?

Both artists employ the camera to document their constructions, as they build sculptures with the sole intention of creating a final visual record. In this way, the medium of photography allows them to transpose the sculptures into new sites. Consequently, these objects live in the very specificity of a photographic setting: they are placed and built for the sake of the camera lens. Shifting the focus from the photograph’s content to its ontological quality, meaning considering it as a physical print exhibited in a space (or shared online), it can be argued that it clearly sits in a specific place where a mutual language between the object and the environment is established. In fact, by being contextualized in an exhibition, the photograph, the room and the visitors are the actors of a common agreement, engaged in a conversation that is unique to that place and that time.

As a result, both the sculpture that has been built for the lens’ sake and the photograph in itself don’t have a disjointed relationship to the space they are in, they are rather integrated within an established context. They are monuments.

However, the intrinsic character of the printed or online matter is one of a nomad. It is willing to move from a space to another, from a private collection to a public show, to rest somewhere for a definite period in order to eventually come back. This movement in space and time is extremely distant from a monumental logic, where the stillness and gravity of the object are central. Certainly, circulating and entering in conversation with new places and actors can only be beneficial for the photograph, as it enriches its social history and value. Yet, it makes it more problematic to articulate a clear distinction between the two opposite qualities discussed so far.

To conclude, it can be argued that these photographs are both monuments and nomads at the same time. They are constantly moving along a flowing gradient that fluidly allows them to escape the Kraussian dichotomy.


[1] Krauss, R. (1979). Sculpture in the Expanded Field. October, 8, p.31. doi:10.2307/778224