II. documenta, 1959, installation view with works by Julio González. Bequest of Arnold Bode. Courtesy: documenta Archiv, Kassel
An Image / Un'immagine: Notes Towards dOCUMENTA (13)
by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev
This is an image that I found while hunting through the documenta archives. We see a woman on the left looking at a piece of sculpture, another sculpture on the same metal shelf, and a man on the right who may or may not be looking at the sculpture. The woman is barefoot. We do not know who she is, we do not know who he is. The scene reminds me of the film Far from Heaven, made in 2002. The photo was taken in 1959 by an unknown photographer.
Many events occurred in 1959. World events and the space race intertwined in the media. On January 1, Fulgencio Batista fled Havana, Cuba, when the forces of Fidel Castro advanced. On January 3, Alaska was admitted as the 49th state of America. On January 4, rebel troops led by Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos entered the city of Havana. On the same day, in Léopoldville, 42 people were killed during food fights between police and participants in a meeting of the Abako party.
On January 8, Charles de Gaulle was inaugurated as the first president of the French Fifth Republic. On January 29, Walt Disney released his 16th animated film, Sleeping Beauty. On February 1, a referendum in Switzerland denied women the vote. February 6 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, was the first successful test firing of the Titan intercontinental ballistic missile. On March 9, the Barbie doll debuted. On March 18, American President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill allowing for Hawaiian statehood. On April 9, NASA announced its selection of seven military pilots to become the first U.S. astronauts. On June 3, Singapore became a self-governing crown colony of Britain with Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister.
On June 9, a few days before this photograph was taken, the USS George Washington was launched as the first submarine to carry ballistic missiles. On July 28, Alfred Hitchcock’s film North by Northwest was released. [source: Wikipedia.org, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1959, October 2, 2009]
On July 11, 1959, the exhibition pictured in this photograph opened. It was the second documenta exhibition. Also on July 11, Pan Am pilots sighted UFOs above the Pacific Ocean.
The sculptures in this picture are by Julio González. Documenta II was focused on Art After 1945, and it is interesting to note that González had died in 1942. Therefore, these works by him were historical at the time. Indeed, the exhibition Art After 1945 included works by several artists of the earlier part of the 20th century. It is central to understand Art After 1945 as including art then, that was from the past.
González is an extremely interesting sculptor. He was from Barcelona, in Catalonia. Around 1900 he went to Paris the first time and met Pablo Picasso. For some mysterious reason, they later lost track of one another and were no longer friends for many years, until 1928. González was among the first artists to use the technique of welding, and he actually taught Picasso how to weld. People speak about his work as “drawing in space.” When his brother died in 1908, he fell into a deep emotional crisis and lived mostly in seclusion during the following years, spending time with Picasso and also with Constantin Brancusi, for whom he worked as an assistant. In those years he met Gertrude Stein and other people who were in the circuit of her salon. He had begun painting but gradually abandoned it and focused on using his blacksmithing skills; he came from a family of goldsmiths. He moved from bronze to welding iron. When oxy-acetylene became scarce during the war, he was unable to continue his sculptural work and was left with drawing and modeling, using Plasticine and gypsum.
In this photo the floor looks dirty, rough. The woman’s movements are odd. She seems as though she’s moving sideways, to the left, like she is about to stop and turn in front of the sculpture. Her weight has shifted to her left foot, creating a different form of linearity. Is this change of heart because the man has stopped looking at her and she has shifted her attention to the work, almost as if the work represents a magnetic force that could distance her from the man, breaking eye contact with him? The hand in front of her mouth is indicative of focused attention, but also perplexity, or perhaps surprise. What might have surprised her?
This picture is interesting in that there is a triangulation that leads to the next scene, in which the two people talk about the artwork. González’s work is a device that makes this meeting, this conversation, happen. The other sculpture looks like a face, a countenance, and it is almost in the center of the photo, but slightly off to the right. It seems mute, as if the use of figuration was pointless, ineffective. No one looks at this second sculpture, and therefore it is almost indifferent, passive. A third piece of sculpture is hidden behind the man. Only part of it can be seen, like a tail or a hidden organic element. With his hands behind his back, the man strolls like a flâneur rather than standing in front of the work. He is in transit, the woman stationary.
The photo is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s film La jetée (1962), in which the protagonist only manages to focus his attention inside the museum and uses an image to travel back in time. According to the story, there has been a Third World War. The few that have survived the catastrophe live in subterranean passages and cellars below the city. A few scientists decide to carry out experiments to send some people back in time, perhaps in the hope of finding a way to save the survivors. After several attempts, they send back a man who has a very strong childhood memory of seeing a man assassinated at Orly airport. It was himself travelling back in time from the future. On one of these trips he meets a woman, probably the child’s mother, his mother, who seems to guide him on his journey. The meeting takes place in the museum.
The long table, the plinth, provides a system for display. It is probably made of metal using a concept by Arnold Bode. At this stage the objects appear to refer to the “transitional object” or perhaps they act as “transitional objects.” As those objects to which a child attributes psychological content, that defend him or her from the anxiety of absence by marking the transition between a symbiotic identity with the mother and an autonomous identity without her. It is a special object that the child will not easily relinquish. Sometimes an event occurs when the object is thrown away or forgotten, and this loss can be traumatic.
Donald Winnicott, in his work with psychologically disturbed children and their mothers in the 1970s, developed many influential theoretical concepts. Central to understanding his view of object relations and the ideal psychotherapeutic holding environment are the notions of subjective omnipotence, objective reality, the transitional object, and the transitional experience. According to Winnicott, these stages of a person’s development span vastly beyond infancy and explain adult dysfunction. An autistic or self-absorbed individual remains in the subjective omnipotence phase, while a person superficially adjusted but not unique or passionate has not progressed past objective reality. The transitional experience allows a person to connect their self-expression with the subjectivity of others. It is at this point that a child progresses from the symbiotic relationship to individualization and departs from both purely subjective and purely objective points of view. [source: Wikipedia.org, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Winnicott, October 2, 2009]
Here is an image of a drawing from 1936 by González. Again a man and a woman, again the positive and negative of a photographic gaze. 1936 was the year of the bombing of the town of Guernica and the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.
This is another drawing by González from the same time. Again the Spanish Civil War in the background.
This is a picture of González’s works in the middle of the sculpture hall in 1955. We may at this point notice that González’s participation in documenta II is a return of his participation in documenta’s first edition. And that in 1959, González, is again on the same plinth. I think this is a strange and interesting repetition, that Bode made the plinths in 1955 and they were reused in 1959. This photograph shows the same space we saw before, with the man and the woman looking at—or perhaps not looking at—González’s works.
We now see another picture of the space. Suddenly, fuoricampo, what was outside of the frame of the first photograph, is revealed. We now see a sculpture by Henri Laurens from 1900 called The Serf, and various other elements. In the middle of the room is the space that we saw a moment ago. Perhaps this space—and time—that elapses between the first glance given at the exhibition space in the image, and the moment we realize that these plinths, these sculptures in the photograph inhabit the same space as the man and the woman, is the space in which the wonderful revelation of what is beyond the frame, of what is outside of the frame, can occur. Perhaps it is the space between these two moments that I would like to spend most of my thoughts over the next three years.
There is another classic text from which I want to read to you. Many of you know it very well. It is Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida:
“What the photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once. The photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially. For the moment refers only to the tireless repetition of contingency. Many photographs are, alas, inert under my gaze, but even among those which have some existence in my eyes, most provoke only a general and, so to speak, polite interest. They have no punctum in them. They please or displease me, without picking me. They are invested with no more than studium. The studium is that very wide field of unconcerned desire of various interests of inconsequential taste. I like, I don’t like. The studium is at the order of liking, not of loving. It immobilizes a half-desire, demi-volition. It is the same sort of vague slippery irresponsible interest one takes in the people, the entertainments, the books, the clothes one finds all right. Ultimately, photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks. The photographer’s second sight does not consist in seeing, but in being there and having been there. Absolute subjectivity is achieved only in a state and effort of silence. Shouting your eyes to make the image speak in silence. The photograph touches me if I withdraw it from its usual blah-blah: technique, reality, reportage, art, et cetera: to say nothing to shut my eyes, to allow the detail to rise of its own accord into affective consciousness. History is hysterical. Photography’s inimitable feature, its noema, is that someone has seen the referent, even if it is a matter of objects, in flesh and blood or again in person. Photography, moreover, began historically, as an art of the Person: of identity, of civil status, of what we might call, in all senses of the term, the body’s formality. In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die. I shudder, like Winnicott’s psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.”