Photographic Inscription: Kunst aus Toronto (1990)

Photographic Inscription: Kunst aus Toronto, Stuttgart: Forum fur Kulturaustausch, 1990.

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Reception, Inscription, Projection

Can we define the art of a nation, state or city by economic, historical or ideological factors to the exclusion of characteristics that it shares with different language communities? If so, the predilection of recent French art for the repetition of a ready-made object under a copyrightable image or author(ity) would make this art into an emblem of French consumer culture, rather than a particular inflection of a commonly posed strategy. Similarly, German art would be condemned to a compulsive repetition of its return to an expressive mode in painting, indicative of a repressive authoritarianism. Analysis, thus, would ignore the precise features contemporary German art inherits from its economic and technical milieu, recognition of which would shift attention to the materials and forms that German art shares with other contemporary art.

In such a context, Canadian art, or art from Toronto, would suffer from a lack of definition from the outside or from the description it gives itself as specifically different in response to that lack of attention. (Vancouver art, or at least that portion that is photographic, has accomplished a self-definition that has become accepted elsewhere: witness the Stuttgart Staatsgalerie Photo-Kunst exhibition, 1989-90.) And yet, the factors that seem to set Canadian art apart by its history are exactly those that prefigure or bring it into relation to certain conditions of European art.  

The work in this exhibition is evidence of that association.

This exhibition explores the role of photographic inscription in contemporary art as practised in a particular locale, Toronto, Ontario. The work is not necessarily representative of Toronto, nor are other works in Canada—or elsewhere—excluded from this specific practice. In fact, these artists work in diverse modes—sculpture, mixed media, installation—with only one artist working solely in photography per se. Whether working outside photography or not, all have employed some inscriptive mode or have recorded indices of one sort or another in different materials.  Photography has not been adopted here for some ad hoc or arbitrary purpose. It has lent itself, for these artists, through its capacities as a tool and a record, to a continuity of concerns; but, photography also situates itself very specifically and dominantly in our current cultural milieu.  The inscriptive mode of working not only represents the present conditions of our (post-modernist) culture (semiotic and social inscription meet in and function through the image), it has been a condition of formation of Canadian culture as well. Communications, for instance, has played an essential role in the economic and cultural formation of Canada; more recently, the image has been the means of reception of cultural influences and art movements.

The subjects and structure of the works in this exhibition display the diversity of interest that the particular background of each of the artists prepares. All selections, however, are directed to a photographic practice or effect, with the stipulation that a photographic print may not be the outcome of the piece. The artists have been chosen to reflect the diversity of the theme of photographic inscription but they also have been chosen to function in tandem and opposition.  Robert Fones and Robin Collyer form one pole of the exhibition and Shelagh Alexander and John Massey the other with Colette Whiten being the mediating link. Yet within each of the poles an opposition can be figured as well.

Inscription, of course, is located in the process of photographic recording itself, to which we more properly give the name the index (as well as, sometimes, in the manufacture of the art object, as in Robert Fones’ Erratic I).  If I have chosen the term inscription over index it is to emphasize the active rather than passive nature of this construction and its social function.   Its cultural imprint thus appears as a social rather than physical evidence.  

In its social or political function, inscription is addressed as the subjective conditions of reception by Shelagh Alexander and John Massey or in its objective conditions of dissemination by Colette Whiten. Its generalized effects in our industrial-economic milieu are reflected in the manner by which it shapes the landscape whether the emphasis is on geological or cultural formation, as in Robert Fones, or the general dispersion of the urban landscape into a sign function, as in Robin Collyer.

These works place themselves as records and critical symptoms of their common milieu: the system of the capitalist West; but whatever the type, degree and direction of their register—culture on nature or society on subjectivity—they recognize a strong unconscious element (both destructive and utopian) pervading this milieu that is reflected, in turn, in the subject or structure of their images. Whether it is the unseen” geological formations allied to an all-encompassing graphic formalism that together shape our lives (Fones), the mediating technologies of the everyday (Whiten), or the psychic projections of an embodied vision (Massey), a certain unconscious moves through these works. At the same time, this unconscious is a conscious motive in the works in that a desire is manifested, as well, to build another resource from the fragments and within the effects of a dominant language. This desire may be expressed in the subject coming to speech through the reconstituted images torn from film (Alexander) or the vernacular structures reflective of an altogether other order (Collyer).[1]

Robert Fones

Two forms of inscription register themselves in Robert Fones work. We find as subject matter, on the one hand, record of geological formation and, on the other, typographic imprint. These may appear together as in Erratic I, 1987, in which a Roman typeface “M” is incised into a photographic surface that depict a displaced boulder in a grassy plain—the geological erratic of the title, the refuse carried by a glacier and deposited far from its point of origin. The rock is a silent record of this past history, mute witness of an event that can be read in this remain but in most cases is overlooked as a mere trace of its present milieu.  Similarly, the letter “M”, deposed from a Roman inscription, serves as a tag to this particular stone, its arbitrary classification. At the same time, the letter is empty, a mere possibility for communication. Together, the two inscriptions, one geological, the other typographic, could be taken as two limits of our being: nature/culture. Both mark something pre-existent but each do not necessarily establish themselves as recognizable differences even though they are the landscape and signage that surround us. They are the cultural inscriptions that bind us almost as something unconscious, what pervades but is unseen. Likewise, the cultural forms we inherit from those whose land we uncomfortably inhabit (indigenous North American culture for, until recently, predominately European immigrants) are so many obscure signs, remnants in which culture returns to nature. We find this in the scored stones of Three G’s, 1989, three sacred Indian effigies overlaid by another systems of signs, cut out and effaced by three modern typefaces. Is what is effaced merely fallow, resting with its power of signification intact? Or has it become, like the signs of Erratic I, the unconscious milieu of our predation?

Robin Collyer

Robin Collyer is a sculptor, but he is a sculptor who has pursued photographic work independently and whose sculpture frequently, of late, incorporates photographic elements. Inf act, his recent sculpture and photographic work share common sources. For instance, some of the sculpture has a put-together quality that bears resemblance in its configuration of unaltered industrial materials to those structures, strangely fitted sheds and buildings also found in his photographs, that we could only label as built by bricoleurs. These photographs, like those in the exhibition, are at a remove from the more familiar Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographic registry of the “ruins” of industrial production. That record of ruin, brought about by changes in the commodity process, has been displaced by the construction of elements of a new fragmented reality: the vernacular adaptation of industrial products for personal use.  

None of these images are to be seen as part of a mere inventory of a particular subject, evidence of the oddity and individuality of human endeavor; rather they are to be taken as tokens of the transposition of the landscape into a sign system. To make of objects a signifying function is to recognize a system of differences by which something stands out, that is, as a meaning or value.  The two complimentary series of photographs by Robin Collyer in this exhibition document things that fit and don’t fit into their milieu. As such they function as two different types of signs: those that simulate something else and those that excessively display themselves as signs of some other value. The former, called “Bungalow-Style Substations,” are sham residences; they are local electric transformer stations housed in buildings consonant with their suburban environment. The latter, commonly known pejoratively as “Monster Homes,” are out of character with their milieu as new homes built in old neighbourhoods. Much too large and ostentatious for their surroundings, their inflated sign value refers to something else:  a conspicuous consumption to which their often false styles appeal.

Colette Whiten

Colette Whiten’s project of the past few years belies her origin and career as a sculptor. In that work the traces of association between artist and participant were recorded in the process of plaster casting, the sculpture being the intertwined casts or the casting apparatus alone. What was left was evidence of both the working process and of a human relationship.

In works from 1986 on, these processes have been abandoned in favour of a presentation of what imposes itself from afar as a mediated relationship: the image in the power relationships of politics. The sources of the images are wire-service photographs published in newspapers in which pictures of leaders or incidents of violence predominate, that is, those images that reinforce the social fabric or that seem to rend it. (Only those with more “universal” recognition have been chosen for this exhibition over those which deal specifically with Canadian political figures.) The images have been rendered in petit-point, the stitch and weave of the thread simulating the half-tone of the printing process so that the image now appears to have been digitalized, like television. The original image is a communication that fuses transmission and technique and it is this operation as much as the image that forces itself upon us or, at least, provides a backdrop to our daily activity. But if technique and transmission are the grounds that sustain relationships, they also have been incorporated back into the working means of the artist so that a continuity of sorts is maintained with the earlier sculptural work. That is, the technical realm encompasses both politics and practice. If it suffuses the everyday, it is also necessarily part of the making of the work. For the very ground of the image here is an age-old practice:  studio practice emulates that of women’s work, but puts it in direct connection to the political.

Shelagh Alexander

As the sole photographer, or rather as one who solely manipulates a photographic process, we expect and find, in Shelagh Alexander, work that takes photography itself as, or reads into it, a powerful and empowering medium of inscription. Neither formalizing the photographic apparatus nor turning the camera outwards to capture her own images, Alexander takes from an existent stock of photographic images, and in particular the film still, the means of her own constructions. The resultant images are not arbitrary assemblages; she transcribes the multiple and repetitive effects of film into the format of a single, albeit condensed, image that plays itself out in a narrative series. (The technique of photomontage used here accomplishes its look entirely through darkroom printing processes; there is no cut and paste of collage.)

The repetition marks the recurrent images of women in film as social constructions. By accumulating images and gestures, by doubling, splitting and inverting the image, by re-creating the ground and context of the image, another inscription—a rewriting, in fact—imposes itself.  Choosing those images that occupy mere moments between scenes and, so, do not serve to further the narrative in fetishizing figures (in other words, images that are on the edge of our consciousness and that stage the unconscious of the image), the process of construction mirrors the narrative enacted in these newly scripted works.  This narrative in five parts, three of which are represented here, is a tale of self-birth in a coming to speech of the female subject: a self initially in flux or unformed, a self that is a mask or screen for projection, but a self that is also full of holes for this self-birth. By means of what is unconscious or uncontrollable in the image and through the staging of a re-projection, the artist works within the terms of a dominant language to inscribe a different desire and give voice to another expression.  

John Massey

In John Massey we have another sculptor who has looked to photographic means as a way of embodying the destiny of a particular vision. Earlier work comprised models of spaces (forinstance, the artist’s studio) that “somehow embodied, or transcribed, or represented the theatre of the inside, analogous to the interior of one’s being. I saw that I could create the theatre of perception, the theatre of reception, the theatre of projections.”[2] Photography inverted that look into an empty interior materializing a body in the process. Through photography, an exteriorization or seeming objectification took place by which the body surfaced as a site of an ambiguous identification. Photography offered an analogy to the body which in turn could be imprinted with an image. The body—always theartist’s stigmatized body—became the ground of a relationship to an exterior image: as if what the eye saw was manifested physically, and primitively, on the body for our viewing. (In the earlier of the photographic works involving the body, the process operated physically; for instance, the viewer folded one half of a screened diptych over a photographic image of the artist’s body.)

The works in the exhibition are not photographs; they are prints which enable the artist to obsessively assemble images within images, laboured fragments within bodily parts. In one case, Versailles 1985, 1985, the body is a repository or rather a surface for a surfeit of images: a golden collage of cuttings from picture books of the interiors of the Versailles palace supported pathetically by the original arm in black and white. In another, Compound Eye, 1988-89, a conclave of monstrous heads are entombed in the globe of an eye. As a compound eye, made of many eyes, this eye perhaps registers the fright of all thosel ooks. What is of the eye, however, partakes of a violence of perception which is also projective. Whereas Bridge at Remagen, 1985, prepares perception for the reception of an image, Black Eye, 1988-89, protects a voyeuristic eye behind a cyclonic panoply of fists.


1. Different series than the earlier work by Collyer referred to here have been chosen for the exhibition and are reflective of other desires.
2. John Massey, interviewed by Peggy Gale, “Art as Embodied Conditions,” Parachute, 56 (1989), p. 35.