Monday, April 12, 2010


Haru Sameshima's Bold Centuries: a photographic history album
Rim Books, Auckland, 2009, in association with PhotoForum Inc.

Self-published books pose an immediate question for a critical reviewer. Are they vanity publications? Or is their appearance a sign of a reluctance by publishers to take a punt on books expensive to produce (with photography publications all those goddam pictures and extra design requirements), or perceived to have too specialised an audience? In a small culture such as New Zealand's this latter reason is just as like to be the case. The vanity product has its own fascinations anyway, its potency deriving from an obsession and self-promotion that, as phenomena, are often more interesting than the actual content. As Mallarme said The world is rich, not clear.

Rich, not clear is a pretty neat description of Sameshima's Bold Centuries. And the final word of the subtitle, Album, pretty much describes its structure, shape and use. Use? That's an odd word to describe a photography book. But then, this is an odd publication in the genre. An oddness meaning "unusual", not "peculiar".

Most books of serious photography illustrate the work of a single artist, the images supported by relatively minimal texts. It's clear who the photographer is and clear what the overall project is. Bold Centuries is a bit of a tease in that you're never quite sure who the photographer is - even when it's Sameshima! (Does he know?) - even though, the more you look into it, it's clear that the "Sameshima" on the cover is ringmaster of the whole performance and principal magician of the entire act. This isn't so much a book as a time capsule, not just for what it squirrels away but for the demands it makes on us as readers/viewers. It isn't a one-scan-and-it's-done experience. It's a true album in that its web of stories becomes evident only through repeated disclosure. To the point, perhaps, that it can't ever be fully fathomed.

One of the book's singular achievements is its seamless re-contextualisation of images mostly thought of as "historic" - dating from the 1850s to about 1920 - or as merely "old" - dating from around 1920 til about 1960. An under-appreciated aspect of the medium is the way it collapses the then of conventional history into a vivid present, and Sameshima's book illustrates this more successfully than any other photography book yet published here. Whanganui's McNamara Gallery did it with its 2009/2010 summer show A Serious Kind of Beauty: the heroic landscape, but there was no publication this time to support it. These are not isolated or unconnected incidents. They're evidence of photography's finding a place for itself in the sun, away from painting's shadow where it's crouched since the 1830s. Less a renaissance than a sunbathe, this development seems internally driven by an energy within the medium itself. (An abundance of some kind of vitamin D perhaps?) At any rate, it would seem that museum professionals will be the last group on whom this development registers. There's no doubt that institutions these days are exhibiting more photography, but their shows tend to privilege the photographer as artist rather than examine what makes the medium tick. Right now it's ticking very loudly.

Not surprisingly, this book is haunted by the ghost of Walter Benjamin, who stalks its 195 pages and 446 images as if co-author. In his unusually informative Preface Melancholy of time travel Sameshima acknowledges this connection, saying that his way of assembling the material was in some way inspired by the Arcades Project, the unfinished opus by Walter Benjamin, where he collected the detrius from contemporary mass culture in an archive - no conclusion, but existing only in the form of source material - to be accessed with the benefit of hindsight.

Hindsight, as they say, is a very fine thing, but the clarity of perspective this belief implies doesn't always apply to photographs. Very often it's the reverse, with the images getting more mysterious as time passes. Sameshima's shrewd eye settles on subjects most people would pass by without a second thought or second glance. He frames them as skillfully as any adept late Modern photographer then transplants them with surgical precision from their native context to the allusive sequential content of his book.

Take pages 106 and 107. OK, two pages of a book but only one page of a reading. On the left is a large colour image of a version of a reproduction of an Easter Island statue, rendered smaller in Oamaru stone, strongly lit, peering out over a dark grey concrete-block wall in - of course - Oamaru. Facing it (in more senses than one) to the right of the opposite page is a small black and white image of a bust of the Duke of Wellington, enshrined in a niche in a shelter at the summit of Wellington's Mt Victoria. Between them is a medium-sized colour photograph of a playground castle at - where else? - Auckland Zoo. One of those crappy, budget constructions that in terms of castleness is just one step away from a painted backdrop. The garden wall in Oamaru would repel more invaders. While the Iron Duke looks on.... Anyway, Sameshima's serving is a rich dish of memory, displacement and cultural crud. With him there's no sense of us being lectured at, just teased, sometimes mercilessly. Although the book's suffusing melancholy avoids its being a laugh a minute, it's chock-full of comic moments. Only because the alternative to laughing is shedding tears.

Bold Centuries is, at first excavation, a compendium of humankind's hopeless aspirations and often loony addiction to material "progress" at what would seem at any cost to the place we inhabit. The book's a kind of meditative retreat from the hurly-burly of daily life, allowing a few steps back from the flood of sensory data to consider the consequences of matters we tend to take for granted as being "just the way things are". Only at such times does the enormity of their impact truly dawn, and in this respect Bold Centuries ain't pretty. Its stance is a reminder of the famous early 1970s Michael Leunig cartoon in Australia's pioneering Nation Review newspaper: it shows a solitary figure staring down from the upper window of a building marked "Lunatic Asylum" at the madness of the chaotic street and of the general urban environment below.

Sameshima's net isn't just visual. He's cast it amongst writers too. Spread throughout the book are eight essays by a range of writers, all in some way usefully backgrounding the book's visual component. Two of them have found earlier form elsewhere: Damian Skinner's Mudpool Modernity accompanied a show he curated at Rotorua's Bathhouse several years ago and Aaron Lister's Picturesque Manapouri accompanied a show he did for the National Library Gallery in Wellington two or three years back. The three pieces that seem to fit best with Sameshima's project are Kyla McFarlane's Lost and Found, John Wilson's Invigorated History, and Claudia Bell's Heaven Can Wait: we're shopping. All extend the scope of the book while able to stand alone as more general essays on the intersections of photography and memory, and in Bell's case as an entertaining and sharply-observed romp through the consuming mores of the shopping mall.

But why does so much contemporary art writing feel like homework? In a field without any form of proof perhaps earnestness is considered a buttress of credibility? Anyone committed to keeping up with contemporary art is pretty much guaranteed a rather grim time in the reading department. As Claudia Bell says of malls, any chance of spontaneity or serendipity has been scoured away.

Whatever happened to simple engagement? Impulses to write are many and varied, but the intention to communicate probably remains at the top of the list, with the hope that something resembling a charge of electricity might pass between writer and reader. It is possible, as proved by the work of engaging art writers such as Dave Hickey, Simon Schama, Adam Gopnik and Peter Schjeldahl.

Over the past two decades or so what could be described as a greater professionalisation of the broader arts sector has had both improving and less satisfactory effects. Older generations of artists can tell you of a time at art schools when studying art history was more or less discouraged as being irrelevant and time-wasting. (Given the state of the discipline then, it possibly was.) Now, in the "more professional" curriculum era art students study not only art history but aspects of practice formerly the preserve of business and marketing departments. Once, a Diploma of Fine Arts was deemed sufficient, now it's at least an MA if not a PhD. How much this is due to education having been turned into a business can't concern us here, but reaching these new heights has involved a lot of writing of the academic kind, and it is a kind of writing. What's not often realised, though, is it's a kind of writing best confined to academia.

But it spills out daily and seemingly unstoppably into the wider world, its hapless readers left wondering if the work of reading is worth it, if "good ol" communication has fallen somewhere low on the agenda, if the writer is narcissistically exercising his stylistic muscles with the dumbells of current jargon, or if they, the gentle reader, is witnessing a category of performance art. There is no way the oxygen of engagement can exist in this atmosphere.

One of the essays in Bold Centuries contains this paragraph:
It is here that we find ourselves at a point of collision between the perceptual and the cultural. Other representational forms are mediated by their author. Yet the mechanical attributes of photography suggest the possibility of losing such subjectivity. And we know that photography's perceived mimetic bond to reality has given the medium a reputation as a veracious duplicator of the world. But what is deemed by the socio-cultural understanding of photography as real in all this is nonetheless shrouded in the cultural discourse which must, sooner or later, rise up and muffle that 'reality'. Subsequently, what photographs can actually communicate is limited. Although they depict reality in stunning detail they only ever offer a piecemeal version. They are trapped within the ongoing sequences of signification.

Quite so. But what might gain you an MA is not going to gain you an audience. When this paragraph is examined what it's saying is relatively simple, far from being a complex matter, and not even a particularly fresh insight. So your Wellingtons weren't necessary after all. It's not easy to respect writers, no matter how intelligent, who apparently have little concern for their readers, and whose style returns you to the horror of adolescent cramming for those all-too imminent exams. Bold Centuries deserves a great deal of examination, but not of that kind.

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