Art and aura

Print edition : March 08, 2013

A rare Alphonse Giroux Daguerreotype camera from 1839. Photo: DIETER NAGL/AFP

The artist Vivan Sundaram at the Kochi Biennale with his unfinished artistic reconstruction of the lost city of Muziris using discarded terracota pieces from the Pattanam excavation site. Photo: K.K. Mustafah

Walter Benjamin. Photo: afdasa

The work of art in the age of digital representation (with apologies to Walter Benjamin).

IN the strict technical sense, Walter Benjamin was, no doubt, right. Photography and film dissipated the aura around an original work of art. The burden of his seminal essay “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” was that the technology of replication in photography, which produced copies indistinguishable from the original, and the added facet of movement in film removed the pristine mystique and inaccessibility associated with a painting or a sculpture in situ in a cloistered gallery or studio. Benjamin saw this “emancipation of object from aura” as progressing to a new and modern phase of artistic expression and experience. But aura, it appears, has defied Benjaminian determinism and stuck around well into the digital age. It has demonstrated tenacious “stickiness” (to use the advertising lingo). The art market valorises it as no other factor in a work of art—so that the greater its aura, the costlier the art. A painting or sculpture which is immutable and seen as having its aura intact fetches a price far above mutable and replicable, even if artistic, photography or film.

Thus, when the National Gallery in London, hitherto a preserve of auratic art like painting, opened its doors to photography and had an exhibition dedicated to the camera image titled “Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present”, it was flagged by critics as something of a revolution—except that it was, for the most part, photography approximating to the imagery and idiom of painting.

Reviews suggest that some of the work comprised time-consuming singular registrations using the good old camera obscura, apparently in defiance of modern digital photography’s click-a-dozen technology. It is a throwback to the daguerreotype photographs of the 19th century, which, as Benjamin described in his A Small History of Photography, “were iodised silver plates exposed in the camera obscura, which had to be turned this way and that until, in the proper light, a pale grey image could be discerned. They were one of a kind; in 1839 a plate cost an average of 25 gold francs. They were not infrequently kept in a case, like jewellery.

In the hands of many a painter, though, they became a technical adjunct.” The process of this photography was akin to that of painting in that the subject had to spend hours posing in front of the camera obscura because the low light sensitivity of the plate necessitated long exposure. A balustrade, a pedestal, or an oval table was a recurring prop in a photographed portrait because it helped the person being captured stay still. As Benjamin points out, by 1840, portraiture, which until then was the provenance of painters, had become that of photography, and the painters specialising in this area were becoming photographers.

In the mid-19th century, photography as a more faithful medium of mimesis than painting was a cause for both celebration and despair. If the Belgian artist Antoine Wiertz was waxing eloquent in 1855 about the daguerreotype as the machine which “daily amazes the mind and startles the eye” and was destined to become “the brush, the palette, the colours, the craft, the experience, the patience, the dexterity, the sureness of touch, the atmosphere, the lustre, the exemplar, the perfection, the very essence of painting…”, Charles Baudelaire was, by 1857, lamenting that “in these sorry days a new industry has risen that has done not a little to strengthen the asinine belief… that art is and can be nothing other than the accurate reflection of nature”.

This cusp of painting and photography was for Benjamin a retrospective vantage point to predict the emerging superiority and excitement of the medium and technique of the photograph over those of paint and brush on canvas. There is almost a post-art aesthetic in his enthusiasm for photography, which he sees as “something new and strange” that “goes beyond testimony to the photographer’s art, something that cannot be silenced, that fills you with an unruly desire to know… is still real and will never consent to be wholly absorbed in art”. Benjamin was already anticipating one of the two key intrinsic elements of a photograph later described by Roland Barthes in his Camera Lucida (published in 1980, the year he died), namely, the punctum, which Barthes characterises as that which “rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow and pierces me”. (The other element, studium, has to do with the denotative and deductive aspects of the work.)

Compare how succinctly, and futuristically, Benjamin, even in 1931, captures this sense of the punctum: “No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the Here and Now, with which reality has so to speak seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long forgotten moment the future subsists so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it.

For it is another nature that speaks to the camera than to the eye: other in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious.” We know, says Benjamin, what a person walking is. But what happens when a person steps out? “It is through photography,” concludes Benjamin, “with its devices of slow motion and enlargement… that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis.”

With all that build-up of the promise of the materiality and intuitive energy of photography, coupled with its replicability, crushing the aura of art underfoot, the fact that it has not really happened, that it is still the aura that really goes under the hammer when a painting or sculpture is auctioned by Christie’s or Sotheby’s at mind-boggling prices, points to the supervening role of the dictates of the market, where exchange value is tied to scarcity and the unique aura of the artist, as much as of the art, is brand leveraged.

Even as auratic art traverses a range of formal styles, including impressionism, pointillism, fauvism, expressionism, symbolism, cubism, and abstraction, it occasionally comes in touch with, and leaves its mark on, the practice of photography, film and video and even, as Todd Gitlin points out, on the art of typography.

What Gitlin calls the “aesthetics of blur”, for instance, is inspired by impressionism and expressed in terms of stop-framing, shutter motion and out-of-focus shots in photography and videography, as a “visual style… to convey the instant of motion, the instant in motion, recorded as if the artist’s hand were in motion”.

The sense of the instantaneous and the simultaneous is accentuated into a new consciousness with digital technology and digitised art. Any vestigial attachment of art to aura is rendered void in the discrete, decentred, digital phrasings that are creatively scattered expressions of impermanence. Such a sensibility of the outré is now being celebrated with abandon in the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala, housed in Dutch period structures—shells of former warehouses, godowns and bungalows—that provide a stark, hoary, context of contrast to the electronic pixels that configure and reconfigure our idea of art.

There is a memory of a hot, shadeless, saturating summer afternoon in a surreal landscape replete with shards of burnt and deceptively unfaded pottery. That is from a visit, many years back, to the remains of the Indus Valley civilisation in Harappa, a few hours’ drive south of Lahore in Pakistan. Vivan Sundaram’s installation, “Black Gold”, at the Kochi Biennale is in two sections. The pottery and terracotta fragments from the Pattanam excavation site near Kodungalloor (about an hour’s drive from Kochi and a part of the swathe of land comprising the historic Muziris port) disarranged across a floor space evoke with mute eloquence a civilisation that flourished on these shores over a vast span from 1000 B.C. to the 10th century A.D. and that interacted and traded with West Asia, southern Africa, Mesopotamia, Greece and the Roman empire. It ignited a flashback to the Harappan site in the manner of a profound recall that A.K. Ramanujan (in his anthology Uncollected Poems and Prose) describes in terms of the connection between memory and cognition in the Indian philosophical system: “… to recognise anything, one must remember having seen the object before, and remember a few features of it—these features trigger the memory of the whole object, or with the direct perception help us reconstitute it—literally re-member it”.

To re-member the broken pieces of pottery is to reconstitute, in the mind, the ancient civilisations to which they belonged. History resides in, and has to be salvaged, shard by shard, from such monochromatic tedium of brown and grey. As a counter to that proposition, an abstraction of that materiality, the other part of Vivan’s installation is rendered as a mutating digital video floor which fragments and layers and washes over a plethora of forms and colours —rocks, bricks, fossils and other excavational evocations—becoming a metaphor for transience and constant replacement.

Displacement by water, the theme of Ranbir Kaleka’s multi-screen video wall titled “House of Opaque Water”, is narrativised as displaced and segregated visual anecdotes that come together in the mind as a powerful indictment of a development paradigm. Nalini Malani’s “In Search of Vanished Blood” about the hounding and dismemberment of the female persona is, again, a fragmented, stoic video-telling that is left to coalesce in the mind of the viewer and stays there long afterwards. There are many more such digital offerings at the biennale that suggest the tentativeness of experimentation, but each, in its own scatter-and-gather manner, works. They are not only video productions but bricolage sculptures, pointillist graphics and atomised forms and configurations in painting and photography.

Digital dispersion marks much of the work at the show. Whether this was a conscious element of the “cosmopolitan spirit” its intrepid curators, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, brought to their selection is not clear. But the dominant and recurring experience of the moment of exposure—visual, aural and, in one instance, tactile—to the work on display is one of disjuncture and multiplicity. There is not a fighting chance for any “aura” to form, let alone hover, over any of this creation. The work of art does not as much draw you, centripetally, into it as function like a centrifuge to scatter your attention in different directions or to its various components. The discrete elements assemble and cohere not in the body of the work itself but in the process of their assimilation by the beholder. It is in the same process that one becomes alive to the difference between the “visual” and the “image”: a series of visuals and sounds crystallise in the mind of the one contemplating them to constitute the image or, more comprehensively, what Jacques Ranciere in The Future of the Image calls the “sentence-image”.

The tenor of the works on show at the biennale points to beginnings and strivings, to struggles and uncertainties in a new digital articulation. In them there is an artistic sensibility at work in which it would seem that, to invoke Ranciere again, “… all the common terms of measurement that opinions and histories lived on have been abolished in favour of a great chaotic juxtaposition, a great indifferent mélange of significations and materialities”.

In a situation where auratic art commands the attention of the market and art galleries, they must have been created, assembled and installed against tremendous odds. Odds as tremendous as those faced by the biennale team led by Bose and Riyas as despite being starved of promised funding by the State government and let down by established peer and senior artists it put up this mammoth trailblazing show.

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