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Re: Rodchenko at the Hayward

From:     blp
Category: Art
Date:     25 March 2008
Time:     08:58 AM


I can't guarantee I'm going to make myself any clearer, but everything I talked about seems to me to
be part of the same discussion, about aesthetics and freedom, from my unhappiness and my designer
friend's unhappiness about working in the domain of mass media aesthetics to Jake Chapman's, I
think, failed strategy of transgression, to the standard story of Rodchenko the constructivist
trying to build a better society with his art until he was aesthetically oppressed under Stalinism. 

What I was trying to say at the end is, I was struck by just how unique Rodchenko's photography
looks in the whole history of the medium. The old 'is it art or isn't it?' debate doesn't seem
likely to come up because they're just so artful, such art objects, so composed and designed.
Godard, who I mentioned at the beginning, is relevant because, like Rodchenko, he's always showing
you the constructedness of his films. A little earlier, you have Greenbergian formalism too and the
logical outcome has always seemed to me to be Robert Ryman, where the supports, the fixings to the
wall and, notably, the signature, all become part of the work. But after Rodchenko, you don't seem
to get a resurgence of this tendency, that I know of, in photography. What you lose, thereby, is the
acknowledgement of a lie or, at any rate, of an absence of truth and, in that, ideology has greater
power to function (as insidious propaganda). The photograph becomes, hey, just a way of recording
information, honest. 

This idea about it is actually where it gets into fine art, through conceptualism, this moment where
we're not supposed to care about formalism or aesthetics anymore and where, as a result, painting is
allegedly dying. Confusingly, it's also allegedly dying because photography had made its mimetic
function redundant. Well, anyway, all this stuff, figuration, aesthetic beauty, sneaks back into
cool contemporary fine art through the back door of conceptual photography, which was always
supposed to just represent the idea, like some undesirable political tendency that, oops, before you
know it, totally dominates. And finally, with Tillmans, we reach the apogee of this tendency with
photography that could not exist or have acceptance in its context without the history of
conceptualism, yet has nothing deliberately conceptual about it and which, like a lot of the
advertising that is contemporaneous with it, sentimentalises the 'little moments' and funny
juxtapositions of a privileged lifestyle as if to tell us this is the only pleasure life has to
offer, to whit. the only hope we have of meaning, even though most of us can't expect it anyway or,
in fact, none of us can because the conversion of these things into photographs changes them into
(empty) objects of desire that would always melt in your hand if you ever got a hold of them. 

I might almost be tempted to say, if I was on a surer footing, that the whole trajectory of this
photographic history is like some echo of the transition from Leninism/Trotskyism to Stalinism, but
that argument may have to wait until I'm better self-educated. What I think I can say, and was
trying to say, was that the loss of the acknowledged absence of truth that occurs when Rodchenko is
unable to continue his formalist tendencies under Stalinism is largely maintained throughout the
rest of photographic history - in this idea of the photographic object not mattering, only what it
records. Which might be too much of a generalisation (Jeff Wall and Gilbert and George spring to
mind as possible exceptions), but with Tillmans, because he fits the bill so precisely, I suddenly
felt I understood much more precisely why I can't stand his work. 

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