Saturday, December 02, 2006

Ghosts in the Machine

At the height of the dot-com boom, SF Camerawork was forced out of its Natoma St. space because its lease renewal would have cost more than six times the former rent. The organization kept going by sharing space with New Langton Arts. Now this venerable non-profit has been able to return downtown by leasing a second-floor space near SFMOMA. The inaugural show, which opened in October and ended last month, was “Ghosts in the Machine,” curated by David Spalding.

I imagine that Camerawork wanted to re-open with an important show, and the curator's theme was a good one: the past haunting the present. But the exhibit became a missed opportunity. Mostly it registered as an ineffective rehash of social and political outrages, a random selection from the 20th Century. And there was a noticeable inclination toward gimmicky work.

One of the sharpest works, at least formally, was an installation by Mildred Howard using a photo image of a World War I soldier (an ancestor of the artist). The image was printed life-size on a set of wooden panels that were cut to the outline of a human shape and installed as a field of vertical markers. A pile of white rocks lay amid the figures—a symbol of what, exactly? The African-American soldier is standing stiffly in his uniform and looks unhappy. (See image above.) Wall text noted that this man had been psychologically damaged by the war and never recovered. The back side of each panel was a target—white ovals on a black background (image below). The message was obvious, but inadequate. While the image of the man was affecting, no insight could arise from such a simplified response to such a complex event.

Another work of formal interest was Dinh Q. Lê’s cloth panel on which images of several victims of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge were embroidered, white on white (image below). The images were based on identity photos taken at Tuol Sleng, a school that was converted into a death house. There was a germ of a good idea here, but it would have been more affecting to see individual portraits done this way, side by side, many of them.

Lê’s other contribution was a photo-mural about the Vietnam War. Spread across a wall was a mix of famous photojournalist images, stills from Hollywood films about the war, and found photos (image below). Interspersed were a number of Lê’s characteristic photo weavings, based on mat weaving techniques he learned as a child. To me the weavings seem an aesthetic gaffe because the foregrounding of the technique distracts from the content. Overall, the display did not provoke any new insight on the war. Frankly, it looked clichéd.

There were two contributions by Walid Ra’ad. One was an abstracted video about the car bombings during the Lebanese Wars (1975-1990). It was so boring that none of the gallery visitors watched it for long (including myself). The other work was a group of prints showing enlarged notebook pages of a fictional historian. On these pages, color images of outdated automobiles were “pasted in” to represent the types of vehicles used in the Lebanese car bombings. The images looked playful, like a storybook. I found them stupefying, like party favors at a wake.

Photographer Tony Hooker’s subject matter was the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (1932-1972). This was a study sponsored by the U.S. Public Health Service in which several hundred impoverished black men with syphilis were deliberately given ineffective medical care so that the progress of the disease could be studied. The men were not informed of their diagnosis.

In Hooker’s photos, archival images of the experimental subjects are superimposed onto more recent shots of the hospital’s ruins (image at the top, from the Camerawork website). The works pull you in, but you can’t understand them unless you read some text. And once you do the reading, the photos seem inadequate to the subject. They are too aesthetic, and they don't tell enough. A documentary approach would have been more effective in evoking a complex reality in which both white and black medical personnel mistreated their patients for decades. Despite these criticisms, Hooker's body of work was the most satisfying in the exhibit.

At the entrance to the exhibit was a set of works by Claudia Kunin, which attempted to create a ghostly presence in 19th Century photo portraits by dangling one gauzy copy in front of another, both versions being printed on chiffon fabric. The result was pure Kitsch, and I thought for a moment I had walked into a gallery at Carmel.

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