Ben Smit (1984)

“Ben Smit,” Vanguard, 13:1 (February 1984), p. 46.

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Ben Smit
59 Cameron Street Toronto
November 1 to 26

Ben Smit’s photographic installation, entitled A Matter of Fact, was presented in a rented storefront in a depressed neighbourhood of downtown Toronto. It operated nearby, but outside the legitimation structures of commercial galleries or artist-run spaces of the Queen Street West area; yet it scrupulously duplicated a gallery. The stark white walls and grey enamel floor were reproduced; only the bands of fluorescent lights belied its situation and simulation, the facts of its presentation. There was an immediacy to these large-scale panels, open to the street on the sub-level of a recently-built, but failed, commercial complex opposite a housing project, and an unfamiliarity in the disproportion of the images to the space that could draw a passer-by to the window or inside. The interior was restructured not only to proportion the space to the work, but to reproduce, not a particular gallery, but the typical, “ideal” space—as if the gallery was a machine, a machine that could ideally reproduce itself as well as construct the meaning of a work and the subject of the viewer.

Three 8’x10’ photo-murals blown up from 35mm frames were hung in the shallow space of the store-front. Each panel is a photograph of the head of a man in turn taking a photograph with a 35mm camera. Each is shot from the front or side so that the left side of the photographer’s head is to the left of the gallery, the right to the right and the front facing the viewer at the back of the gallery. The effect is one instant photographed from three sides. Another effect is that the viewer is the subject of that depicted shot, captured in its insistent gaze, as we are physically contained in that tight space, a pressure exerted and exaggerated be-cause of the scale of the panels. But as our position is that of the absent photographer of these photographs as well, the two, spectator and image, seem to address themselves alternately from both sides of the camera: subject and viewer, mastering and mastered subject.

The enlargement of the photographs beyond the spectator’s scale and the containment of the body within the space of the three photographs makes the space itself equivalent to the optics of the camera: two machines align. Perspective extends into space along the lines of sight of the camera lens, positioning the viewer, rather than the viewer retaining mastery of the images through perspective construction: these images are “flat”, matters of fact that press into the space. Thus the artist sees the space as a “sculptural metaphor” for the camera apparatus and its “construction of meaning through the mechanics of sight.”

While space and sight align here in the superimposition of the camera’s optics to the space and movement of the spectator, the meaning of the two are not equivalent. This does not detract from the effects of the work; it merely displaces them. The conjunction remains a metaphor, not a matter of fact.

What aligns here is a projection from a knowledge of camera optics—an idea of sight, an ideal projection—and an actual movement in that space. The position that that optics allows, the positions for subject and viewer offered by the image here, are not in themselves meaning, merely constructions for meaning, not a construction of meaning. In order to maintain that it is a construction of meaning—i.e., that it is an apparatus that solely determines the meaning as well as the “place” of its “subjects”, in other words, an ideological apparatus an empty structure must be created. Thus a formal tautology is set up that proves this “hypothesis”, in the manner of Dan Graham’s mirror and glass video installations, for instance. The tautology here is presented by the absent photographer: a camera faces a camera; and the point of that meeting is the image presented to us, which has the potential to activate the space sculpturally.

Taking our double place in that installation gives way to activity as we move in that space. Towards these sculptural effects, the image of the camera becomes a device not a deter-mining subject. The construction of meaning here has less to do with Victor Burgin or Baudry, for example, than with the sight lines that direct bodily movement in Richard Serra’s sculpture.

The spectator becomes a participant moving in that space. Moving from front to back, the spectator passes from a position in view of the depicted photographer to his position as photographer—a movement of complicity from object to subject. (But one already occupied a photographer’s position—the absent photographer of these images.) It is in this movement from one position to the other that the sculptural dimension effects itself. But in the same movement, an accident of two-dimensional reproduction imposes itself and complicates that space and movement, as well as the concept behind the work. For in moving from the front to the back, or vice versa, the focal point of the three lenses changes. From the front of the space, the two side panels have the appearance of the camera pointing out, away from the viewer, splayed open. When the spectator assumes the photographer’s position at the rear, the cameras turn in: the three lenses define a focal point somewhere to the front of the space or just outside it. What does this accident say about photography, because it is no longer just the two sides of the lens, front and behind, subject and object, that are given equal weight? Entering that space, it is the position of the subject of view that seems open, not what one would expect. It is only in taking the position of the depicted photographer that the sight lines converge, in a position of absence, where one once was, which is also the position of the artist-photographer. Since the metaphor cannot be controlled, the “matter of fact” is neither these mundane prints nor a determining apparatus, but re-mains our situation moving in that space.