The object of seeing- X90 Project

"…whatever the origin and the destination of the message, the photograph is not simply a product or a channel but also an object endowed with a structural autonomy." 

-The Photographic Message, Roland Barthes, translated by Stephen Heath

The extracted text above describes photography as an object of which in and of itself embodies a unique structural autonomy, in other words the other aspects such as the materiality of the photograph, the photographer's initial intention, the angle of the shot, the quality of the lens, etc. could be considered as autonomous, i.e. separate entities apart from that is immediate apparent to the viewers.  But of course, in this essay Barthes is mostly describing figurative photograph, in the sense that the people, places and interactions of the photographic image perhaps convey a narrative that almost seem to deny the photograph of its structural autonomy.  However, when speaking of abstract photography while the subject is not so literal, then the structural autonomy of photograph becomes more evident visually. 

Mono Schwarz-Kogelnik, who is currently an artist-in-residence at the International Studio & Curatorial Program showed me his most recent project- X90 Project of which inspired me to revisit this essay because I saw parallel ideas in his way of working and thinking as an artist with what the essay described.  However, my personal extraction of just a very small part of the essay on the subject of photography was only a departure point for what I was about to discover in his work. 

X90 Project
Image courtesy the artist
X90 Project consists of 450 works on paper that are approximately 22 x 33 inches (55.9 x 75.2 cm) each.  Each drawings is composed with using various drawing medium such as watercolor, acrylic, gouache, india ink and color pencil.  To explain the exact number of 450 drawings, they are in fact 5 sets of 90 works.  Each of 90 being a variation in manner and rendering of the same image.  The source image is an enlargement of a microscopic photographic image of paper fiber.  Mono visually conveys the apparently invisible nature of a microscopic view to the human eye as a allusion to a kind of extreme focus on the material that is un-perceptual and therefore exceeds the limits of human visual apparatus. 

What is interesting here is not just the focus on our limitations of seeing but the emphasis on the materiality of the object.  The object being the paper and its fiber that is most essential yet invisible and not always apparent.  Similar to the idea the above text I mentioned at the beginning, the structural autonomy of the paper is more than a product or a channel or a vehicle for communication.  For Mono, the material is the message in other words what is needed to be revealed has been ready for revelation all along.  By rendering the microscopic view of the paper fiber repeatedly with only very small and slight variations brings affront the question of objective representation of imagery.  In other words, while Mono is manually reproducing "copies" of the microscopic view of the paper fiber, he is not producing exactly what he sees but also to put in subtle changes in the tints of colors of the paper or of the subject.  Nonetheless, his process is highly mechanical and almost mimics that of a machine as you can see from the above image presenting a set from the X90 Project. Depending on the order of presentation, some drawings bear very subtle variation from the others.   

X90 Project
Image courtesy the artist
While visiting him in his studio at iscp, Mono and I talked of one of Walter Benjamin's essays that every art student is all but too familiar- The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.  In the essay, Benjamin describes the mechanical reproduction as the beginning of the decay of "aura"- the aura being the foremost translation of an imagery; for example, when you are seeing a mountain and a beautiful little tree, when the sun moves and projects the shadow of the tree, with that shadow of the beautiful tree and the view of the mountain from where you are standing transmits the aura (this is a similar example of which is provided in the essay).  Then the essay goes on to talk about authenticity of which I quote:

"The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced."

-The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin

In these reproductions, the aura of Mono's subject is firstly magnified by his action of taking a microscopic view of the paper fiber of which over emphasized its materiality that would have been otherwise invisible to the human eye.  Secondly, when rendering each reproduction by hand, Mono extended the substantive duration from its beginning of being under the microscopic photographic machine to the minute when he carefully rendered each line of the paper fiber.  Then the consequent drawings containing the essence of all that is transmissible continue to exist and the papers continue to age as with passage of time.

Of this, it brings me back to explain how there are exactly 450 works on paper, as with the 90 works that have already been explained earlier; then there are 5 "copies" of the 90 works each bearing manual variations and also of the 5 include 3 editions with an h'ors de commerce and artist's proof, referencing multiples of the photographic and printmaking traditions.

X90 Project
Image courtesy CH reviews and the artist
Now what is actually too difficult to describe with words is the visual experience of X90 Project.  As with the limitation of seeing everything with our human eyes, writing using words cannot give all readers his or her the visual sense of what the drawings are actually like.  Nonetheless, I will attempt to sum up the experience by describing that each of the drawings play different tricks on the eye, in the sense that some make you feel like you are seeing an after-image while the after-image is actually part of the drawing.  And in other instances, the lines, dots and connections of the elements give you the sense that they are vibrating and coming off of the papers of which serve as the support.



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