Presentation at NYU

For Delia Gonzalez's course Projects in Photography on May 8, 2013

By Daniel Kingery

My background is in painting, but in recent years I’ve come to at times deal with images more directly, either in film or collage. It’s also become increasingly interesting to me to ask the question: can contemporary art have an emotional impact on the viewer, or is this task now relegated to other realms of culture?

I want to start out with the question: what is art? What is an image? What makes an image powerful? What does it mean to call forth an emotional response in the viewer?

We are surrounded by images all the time, many of which evoke an emotional response in us. Images in advertising are created specifically to evoke an often sexual response that creates an emotional bond to a product, so that our deepest questions, fears and anxieties seem to be addressed by an image, solved by a product. This is the condition of melancholy in contemporary society: the illusion that we can address our spiritual needs by material means.

In social media, everyone is a “content creator,” selling their innermost feelings and desires or rather, giving them away for free and thus aiding the economic machinery behind the scenes.

Hollywood films are also designed to draw us into their world so that we project our issues onto the screen and in return it evokes an emotional response in us. Even the least artistic Hollywood movie does this.

So, is this art?

In some sense it is. These cultural modes are also doing many of the things that are also the task of art: creating a mirror, a projection surface upon which we reflect ourselves.  But the goal is slightly different: it is a craft, which manipulates the viewer’s experience toward an end that is ultimately economic and pragmatic. We can learn from this.

For me there have been five artists who have helped me to gain a clearer understanding of these questions.

(01) Robert Smithson, Seventh Yucatan Mirror Discplacement,1969

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In the 60s and 70s as a reaction to emotive, expressionistic painting, artists moved toward a drier, minimal and conceptual approach, often using the photographic image as a kind of “neutral” carrier of meaning.

The best artists, though, in my opinion, realized that nothing is “neutral.” Robert Smithson saw the photograph as a complex carrier of meaning and was one of the first to realize that the documentation, in some cases, is the work. For him the photograph is a finite, bounded image that points to the infinite, a contradiction, a paradox. In this work, one of the Yucatan Mirror Displacements, I think of our attempts to understand the world and reflect it in art and of a bold adventurer journeying into the unknown, placing his mirrors along the way to exist that way for the moment and no longer.

(02) John Stezaker, Pair IV, 2007

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John Stezaker also deals with contradictions and paradoxes. His gestures are so simple, but call forth so much to the surface. They allow us to enter an interior world, which is also our own interior world. We are caught in a paradox, empathizing emotionally with the figures, yet deflected, entering a strange realm of the mind, which seems loaded with meaning and implications. The cool, indifferent waters of the river flow between the faces, which have been turned to stone, their gazes erased, their longing ossified. I think of love, loss, and the impossibility of ever truly knowing another human being, even someone you love.

(03) Andrej Tarkovsky, Still from Stalker, 1979

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One of the greatest movies ever made, in my opinion, is Tarkovsky’s Stalker, for me an almost perfect symbiosis of form and content. It’s the story a wretched man who leads two modern men through a world of irrational and unseen dangers. The goal is a room, in the center of the Zone, where they will be granted their innermost wish, one which may be unconscious to them and will reveal their true innermost self. This is a parable for art in general, and sets the standards for what we as artists must set out to do. Each image in the film carries a strange and unreal beauty. Shifting light and colors imbue every scene with atmosphere and mystery.  Here, in the desert room, the protagonists navigate an architecture of the mind, a place we may recognize from our dreams. This inner, spiritual journey is what concerns art. If we gain self-recognition, then the job of art has been accomplished. In this image, I feel the power and the necessity of this inner journey.

(04) Jack Goldstein, Still from The Knife, 1975

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Jack Goldstein’s work, especially his films and performances from the 70s, have had tremendous impact on me and my work. His exploration of our relationship to images and objects was groundbreaking. Goldstein masterfully sets and alters the mood, using often familiar visual cues. In The Knife, the color changes between red and blue then to yellow/gold, creeping slowly up the handle to the tip of the blade, only to then quickly disappear and make way for the next color. This simple act feels loaded with meaning. The subtle shifts of color, just as in Stalker, change our relationship to the object we’re seeing, from a menacing blood-stained knife to the blue of depression to the gold of hope, mirroring perhaps the artists own tumultuous inner life, yet pushing it from him to a great distance.

(05) Barbara Kruger, Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face, 1981

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Like Goldstein, Kruger deals with surfaces and the way we see things. I read that this work is about the male gaze silencing the female subject. While that may be part of the work, I think that it is a bit more complex. For me, the figure is actively and knowingly deflecting the gaze of the viewer. She seems to smirk slightly as we, the viewers, look at her. But what we are looking at is not a person at all, but an image of a sculpture, cold stone that is utterly indifferent to our gaze then transformed into a photographic artwork that is reflecting this back at us, pointing out our voyeuristic pleasure in looking at art. The sculpture in the photograph could also possibly be a piece of fascist or communist sculpture, both of which, in their separate ways, celebrated the strong woman as a pillar of society. This makes this image even more problematic: what exactly are we looking at and how does that affect how we feel about it? I also imagine Kruger, in the beginning of the 80s, sitting on the New York subway, her own face deflecting the gazes of the passengers around her.

(06) Daniel Kingery, Still from Flash, Flash, 2010-2011

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In my own work I’ve become interested in images of desire and the relationship between seeing and not seeing, to getting what we desire and to being frustrated. In Flash, Flash, 2010-2011 I asked the model and artist Britta Thie to lie in a psychedelic red dress on a white backdrop. The idea was to shoot her in continually closer shots using flash bulbs, so that she would only appear for 1/24th of a second at any given time. Just as you see her, she’s gone. She recalls the language of advertising, which awakens desire, a desire that is then usually satiated by a product. Here the desire that is barely awakened is channeled not into a product but into darkness, nothingness. It is all frustration and no release. There is also, through the movement of the camera, a sense of foreboding violence.

When we see images like this, images of celebrities or models, we think we have some kind of privileged access to them, some kind of knowledge about their world, but in the end we are closed from their life and have no access to their true thoughts or feelings, their true self. All belief to the contrary is a projection of our own hopes, dreams and desires and fears onto the screen of the celebrity or the model. They may awaken an emotional world, but it is a world that is entirely our own.

This is also what art does, awaken a world through a surface, but using these means gives us access to the many layers of reality that lie beyond, that go deeper. The message I hoped to convey with this film was: you think she’s there, but she’s not. To possess what we desire is impossible. The only things we can truly possess are ourselves and our attitude towards the world.

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