Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Empty Bottles by WassinkLundgren (a re-evaluation)

A little over a year ago I wrote, or rather ranted about Thijs groot Wassink and Ruben Lundgren's Empty Bottles being touted as the "Best Contemporary Photobook of the Year" at Arles in 2007. After generating a record number of comments a few agreeing and many strongly disagreeing with my opinion, the conversation has continued many times since with various people in person and I have been pegged as everything from a humanist to an asshole. In my original posting I mentioned being compelled to pick up the book many times mostly due to the design which is by Kummer & Herrman and that compulsion continued until I finally broke and dropped my 15 euros for a copy while in Holland.

Now the problem, not to mention the ethical dilemma, of reviewing a book that I didn't own at the time is how time effects your opinions (I didn't really "review" the book so much as rail against it). How many books do I own that have grown on me more and more over time? Many. But in case you are thinking I am setting up for a 180 turn on Empty Bottles, I am not. I find it necessary to fully express my thoughts because I do feel I was unfair and very insulting to the artists. My rant was more to the "best contemporary photobook" citation at Arles. My thought was, had photography really turned down such an alley that this had been awarded the best book at Arles which was the same year as; Sophie Calle's Take care of Yourself, Stephen Gill's Hackney Flowers, John Gossage's Putting Back the Wall, Anthony Hernandez's LA: Waiting, Sitting, Taryn Simon's American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, Walid Raad's Atlas Group Volume 3, Boris Mikhailov's Suzi Etc. and Paul Graham's A Shimmer of Possibility? That citation really had nothing to do with the artists themselves. They were, from what I have heard, just as surprised. As exciting as it may be for young artists to be awarded such an honor, I just felt it was undue in regard to the larger field of work for possible nomination.

The time I spent with Empty Bottles before owning it I found the photographs themselves to be boring. To me it was expressing an idea that handcuffed the photographers to a formal strategy, and by most accounts I find such an approach uninteresting. When I see such strategies I naturally start asking why? For instance why make images that are so center weighted? Why not make each its own surprise with added formal complexity? Why not vary the distance or up the ante by making the viewer work a bit to understand what is going on? I sensed a kind of laziness at work - a dependence on an idea which never quite gets over itself to a more thoughtful execution.

The ethics of such a project have also been discussed and although I do not have the same intellectual melt-down that Simon Norfolk has been documented on Youtube, it does rest a bit uneasy. Wassinklundgren mentioned in their lecture at Kassel that as they were playing their cat and mouse game with the bottles, people would play with them too. Upon seeing what they were up to, one bottle scavenger would stand directly in the way of their lens while another would take the opportunity to snatch the bottle from the scene without a photo being made. In someways I agree with Gossage from one of his comments about the ethics in photography - it is too fluctuating and slippery a medium to determine where ethical boundaries lie with still images. Is setting a trap with a bottle anymore ethically questionable than say photographing a person from afar with a very long lens?

Looking through and sitting with this for a while now I do like about 8 of the 24 images. These are a few that transcend what I already expect before turning the page. In one it is how the blue cap of the bottle (photo on the second page) sits exactly between the person's feet but beyond that the image is less interesting. The cover image is finely balanced between the figure in question, the woman entering from the right, the manhole cover and the overhang of the tree with the obvious payoff is the twist of the man bending to get the bottle. Fourth image from the last in the book of a man stretching to pick up a bottle with the walkway overpasses in the background: the man balanced on one foot is beautifully described but for me additional small details like the rendering of the woman just over his shoulder in blue behind the fence and the drape of the red coat over the shoulder of the woman to the left are what would invite further investigation once we "get" the reason behind the photo.

Wassinklundgren are smart young artists who understand the desire of their audience for a good hook much like a seductive pop song. In art school when they were given a corner wallspace for their final thesis show, they integrated the photos into the space by making large prints that then had to have entire sections cut away to accommodate windows, moldings and doorways. One of their newer projects is videotaping dogs which have been tied up outside of stores waiting for their owners to finish shopping. The camera trains on the dog, handheld, from anywhere from a minute to twenty until the owner returns. The videos end with the moment of recognition of the owner and the leading away of the dog. Cute and funny, of course with a twinge of meaningful anxiety. The installation of this work is also smart and seductive - two video projectors projecting their images which meet in the corner of the exhibition space basically with the same downward vantage point as the videos were shot.

Thijs' Don't Smile Now... Save It For Later project employs a large hand mirror in a photobooth in order to describe the surrounding territory just outside the booth. These are areas where, we are also informed, no photography is allowed. As much as I like the thought, the final pictures don't fully satisfy. Again, I like the feel of the book (designed again by Kummer & Herrman) and the thought behind it but I experience little surprise in the final work.

So my final opinion has shifted a little in regard to Empty Bottles now that it sits here. I don't find it a completely "empty vessel" as I wrote originally. Since I like 8 of the 24 images I guess for me it is only 2/3rds empty. Or maybe, as my therapist suggests, I should regard it as 1/3rd full.


Don said...

I don't think there is any ethical ambiguity here. Manipulating someone into doing something and then recording that something and presenting it as a truthful description of the event is unethical.

It's smells like one of those student projects that wear the mantel of radical and avant-garde but just look sillier as time goes on; one of those ideas that in it's inability to distinguish between irony and cruelty implies that anyone who doesn't like the work, doesn't get the joke; it's the art school equivalent of "punking" someone.

rr said...

Jeff, I think your comment about this being the equivalent to a pop song is correct, although it depends on what were talking about. This ain't Television. Maybe a Strokes song.

jamesshashin said...

I with you all the way on this Jeff.

"But if it's everywhere and all the time, and so easy to make, then what’s of value? which pictures matter? Is it the hard won photograph, knowing, controlled, previsualised? Yes. Or are those contrived, dry and belabored? Sometimes. Is it the offhand snapshot made on a whim. For sure. Or is that just a lucky observation, some random moment caught by chance? Maybe. Is it an intuitive expression of liquid intelligence? Exactly. Or the distillation of years of looking seeing thinking photography. Definitely." Photography is Easy, Photography is Difficult by Paul Graham 2009

anatol weisz said...

you argue like a politician begging for votes. the unethical air of the 'photo-world' might make you a better more balanced person after all..

df323photo said...

I was a bit surprised that you revisited this title, but am glad that your conclusion about it remained (largely) unchanged. I totally agree that in 2007, there were lots of more-deserving titles for the Arles award. I bought a copy of Empty Bottles on the hype, but haven't picked it up since I bought it.

Anonymous said...

Your therapist's conceptions look suspicious.

Anonymous said...

Captain Contagion rides again. No crap is safe from redemption. Watch out folks.

Unknown said...

I don't think there is any ethical ambiguity here. Manipulating someone into doing something and then recording that something and presenting it as a truthful description of the event is unethical.

But did they really present as though it wasn't staged? And even if they did so what? The Blair Witch project would have been much more interesting if they didn't say that it was staged. Of course that's what you would assume but leaving a slight doubt would have been evocative.

I don't see it any more ethically challenging than taking pictures of unsuspecting people totally unaware. At least this way they get "paid" 5 cents for having their photo.

That said I bought but don't care for the book. Too many people are relying on concepts that are too thin. Just because it's a related series of photos doesn't mean it's art.