In a somewhat questionable marketing endeavour, the Eastern Cape Region has been sign posted, ‘Frontier Country’ and indeed this is what it is. Historically it is the site of the 9 Frontier Wars and much brutal conflict and living here presently can still seem the edge of nowhere by comparison to many major South African metropols. With Grahamstown at the heart of it, it is also a cosmopolitan space not without vestiges of past pain but - like many colonial outposts in a post-colonial time - it is no longer a satellite to an absent motherland, a mere microcosm of elsewhere, but also a world unto itself.

A potential space of intellectual, debate rather than military conflict – geographically isolated from metropolitan trends – a melting pot of many places, a crucible. In more recent history, this frontier space has been a site of culture, of experiment. Home to an annual arts festival, how is it that Grahamstown with a population of just under 140 000 can command so much creative imagination in novels, plays, poetry and art? Frontier, Border, at the end of the world but not about to fall off – merely at a vantage point to observe a view to come.
- Rat Western

DISCHARGE 2012             COLOUR COLLOQUIUM 2010             SYNTHETIC DIRT 2011

Friday, July 8, 2011

Photography’s Disaster: Reproducibility and Ruined Origin(al)s in Andy Warhol, Guy Tillim, Richard Misrach, and Christo Doherty

by Gerhard Schoeman
Let me begin with a story about fame. An Andy Warhol screen-print of Mao Zedong, which the late actor Dennis Hopper shot up during a wild night in the 1970s, sold for R2.137 million at Christies in January of 2011. According to Christies, Hopper, who directed the cult film Easy Rider (1969), shot the print twice when he mistook it for the actual Chinese leader. Once ruined by the infamous film star, the print increased dramatically in value. Hopper’s aura augmented Chairman Mao’s as well as Warhol’s aura. In contemporary vernacular this is called remixing.

Hopper’s intoxicated shooting of Warhol’s print uncannily brings to mind Valerie Solanas who shot Warhol himself on June 3, 1968, gaining instant fame. 1968 was a famously tumultuous year of revolutionary intoxication and mass protest in Paris, Mexico, Prague and across America; in Indonesia, China and Pakistan. It was the same year Richard Nixon won the Republican New Hampshire primary and Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. The impact of 1968 reverberated throughout the 70s and on; traces can still be detected in the current mass protests sweeping though Egypt, Libya, and Syria. Perhaps both Hopper and Solanas, carried away by the countercultural fever of the 60s and 70s, confused synthetic for human, copy for original, the dream of revolution for the real thing.
Retroactively duplicating image and body, Warhol later circled and labelled the bullet holes in his print of Mao, which is also a remixed copy of another copy. Mao was a copy of a copy, even before Warhol appropriated him as art. He projected himself as a copy to increase his aura of power and presence while reproduction ironically served as a guarantor of originality. Aura is in this sense synonymous with myth, which also prevents and provokes what Winnfried Menninghaus calls a ‘threshold operation’ in which a representational medium is broken apart and reconnected, in order to hone ‘critical consciousness’. 

Hopper, Mao and Warhol understood the mythic power of reproducibility; the reductive allure of the simplified and repeatable image. Hollywood, socialism and capitalism have iconic production, reproduction, and branding of presence and aura in common: the more of one thing the bigger the myth. The myth of the terroristic other, too, is entirely media-orientated. Whether orchestrated by the Red Brigades, the Baader-Meinhof group, Bin Laden, West or East: the power of the terroristic image is its repeatability. Both news reporters and terrorists know: ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ and if it leads, it must bleed. The terroristic disaster is utterly real and now if it loops in the news. It shares this with natural disaster, the aura of which reaches global proportions once it is broadcast on TV or YouTube. 

The infinitely repeatable copy of the disaster, as a trace of a trace, static of static, increases its scale and actuality, the way a virus multiplies and spreads, taking over the system. The cloudy, flickering images of 911, the JFK assassination, or the recent earthquake in Japan televised in real time, all of which are as infinitely fascinating, all-consuming and pervasive as the recorded dreams in Wim Wenders’s 1991 film Until the End of the World, are viral traces of viral presences. These viral, iconic images of images, breeding in and with the media, transform their very reproducibility into aura: ‘A strange web of time and space: the unique appearance of a distance, however close at hand’ as Benjamin calls it.

Every copy is a trace that increases/layers the aura of the original icon. But in the age of biocybernetic reproducibility,  the original icon is a simulacrum, clone, mash-up or virus, which duplicates and increases the uncanny presence of absence and the void ad infinitum. In other words, the trace is not of a thing but of another trace, which replicates it. This is the point of the viral videotape in Koji Suzuki’s iconic book Ring (1991), which creates its own continuity through being copied. The process of replication uncannily exceeds the story in the book, in that the book has sold over 2.8 million copies and spawned a cult Japanese film (1998’s Ring), as well as two remakes: a Korean version (The Ring Virus, 1999) and a successful Hollywood version (The Ring, 2002). Spiral (published in English in 2004; originally published as Rasen in 1995), the sequel to Ring, continues the “DNA” of the story at yet another level.

While increasing its “presence” and its aura of distance, the copy as trace disperses, replaces and ruins the icon, which is inseparable from its origin(al) in the real world. But the copy as trace transforms the origin(al) into a trace of a trace; even as it brings the origin(al) closer, it distances and ruins it. Consequently the bigger the void between the image and the origin(al), trace and icon, the bigger the aura gets. If a gene is not a thing but ‘a cluster of information-carrying material’;  the origin(al) is a cluster of traces. It has ‘nothing to do with genesis’, but rather describes ‘that which emerges from the process of becoming and disappearance’ to quote Walter Benjamin.  What emerges is ruin.  

Charles Sanders Peirce’s well-known distinction between icon, index and symbol is useful in this regard.  According to Peirce, an icon must have an object in the real world (hence Warhol’s portrait of Mao must resemble the historical person); an index must be caused by something in the real world (like the two bullets that pierced Warhol’s portrait of Mao); a symbol relies entirely on convention and the act of interpretation that brings it to life (say the historical Mao as a symbol of liberation).

According to Peirce, every sign includes elements of the familiar triad.  In my reading the copy of an icon is a trace, which incorporates other traces (for e.g., Warhol’s circling of the bullet holes in his portrait of Mao, more specifically, the digital reproduction or mash-up of the photograph of the image that my discussion is based on) and which increases the “presence” of the icon through technological reproducibility. I write presence in quotation marks because every trace is also a mark of absence. Hence the aura of presence is a myth of presence; it is a construction or fabrication around an absent origin(al) or ruin, like Warhol himself.

By emphasising the traces of Hopper’s shooting of his print, Warhol paradoxically adds to the aura of the work as well as the artist, even while both concepts are in ruins.  In The Arcades Project Walter Benjamin tells us that, ‘the trace is the appearance of proximity, however distant what it left behind may be. Aura is the appearance of a distance, however close what it conjures up may be. In the trace, we gain possession of the thing; in the aura, it takes possession of us’.  In Warhol’s “dirty”, bullet-riddled print, trace ironically magnifies distance. In its infinite reproducibility it produces the afterlife of an historical person or event as distant and proximate, mythic ruin; desert.

Similarly, Avenue Patrice Lumumba (2009), Tillim’s large format photographs of dilapidated modernist buildings in various African countries, ambiguously reflects on the spectacle and afterlife of original ruined ideals. The photographs bear witness to the loss of Patrice Lumumba, one of the first elected African leaders of modern times and an icon of freedom from overt and indirect colonial rule. He won the Congo election after independence from Belgium in 1960 but he was assassinated in 1961 by Belgian agents. In many African cities today, there are streets, avenues and squares named after Lumumba who, while shot down in his prime, remains untainted by the abuse of power that has become synonymous with African heads of state.

But the name is a ruin; a faint trace of an icon whose aura has increased with the growing distance from the original. The name haunts other scenes of a crime; other ruins. In Statues of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana (2008) and in Colonial-era governor of Queslimane, Mozambique (2008), monuments to a deposed leader bear silent witness to fleeting, absurd and empty ideals and the pervasiveness of violence and force. In the latter the tire acts as a substitute head of a person and a country: voided and surreal. In the diptych Grande Hotel, Beira, Mozambique (2008) the great rundown hotel looms like some futuristic apocalyptic ruin; ‘monument to doomed expectations’;  mythic and distant. Haphazard traces of people are barely visible in the grey. As in Gerhard Richter’s and Anselm Kiefer’s grainy images, the disaster remains precisely because of reproducibility.  

Misrach’s Violent Legacies: Three Cantos (1986-91) entangle desert and disaster, beautiful semblance, militarism, violence, environmental destruction and desolation; copy, readymade, and myth. The pool in Tillim’s Grande Hotel evokes Atomic Bomb Loading Pit #2; both call to mind Misrach’s JG Ballardian Diving Board, Salton Sea (1983). The fact that one atomic landscape of disaster and desert ruin conjures another is a further instance of the dialectic of reproducibility and ruined/scarred/remixed origin(al)s. Reproducibility and similitude transforms beautiful semblance into empty ruin, voided nostalgia, allegory (in which one thing points to another), trace of a trace, myth. At a subtle level nuclear poisoning is intertwined with photographic irradiation — as if the photograph constructs and ruins its own as well as nature’s mythic beautiful semblance.

Duplication, mortification, and mythologizing are also at play in Misrach’s photograph of an iconic image from Playboy magazine featuring Warhol selling Vidal Sassoon hairspray. The original picture, which was already a copy of a copy of a blank simulacrum also shot by Valerie Solanas, was unintentionally shot up by bored soldiers at a nuclear testing site in the Nevada desert, who used the magazine for target practice. In Misrach’s photographic reproduction Warhol is ruined many times over. Ironically this increases the myth of death and capital embodied by Warhol, which frustratingly prompts and prevents critical engagement.

Doherty’s exhibition Bos (2011) comprises digitally constructed images that evoke David Levinthal’s photographs of toys revisiting the Holocaust as well as the Chapman brothers’ synthetic appropriations of Goya’s Disasters of War. The ambiguous images illuminate, refract, reproduce, blur, and deconstruct contested memories of the South African “Bush War” or “Border War”.  Scenes of a crime are recreated as aesthetic “worlds”,  which encourage absorption and circumspection.  Doherty, who was a conscript on the front line during the war, constructed scale models based on photographic material which he sampled from various newspaper and SADF archives. He then photographed the models using different camera angles, which allowed the original images, already traces of traces, to be analysed and deconstructed. 

Different levels of cinematographic reproducibility and mash-up illuminate the intertwinement of original and copy, beautiful semblance and ruin, the aura of history and myth. The blunt facticity of the black body roped to the iconic mine-protected Casspir in Koevoet Trophy (2011) testifies to the brutality of the police counter insurgency unit in South-West Africa known as Koevoet (Afrikaans for crowbar); yet it is unclear who did what to whom.

The crystal clarity of Mass Grave 1 (2011) (the title is also suggestive of mass reproduction and dissemination) is blinding. It’s like drawing the curtains first thing in the morning. In Cassinga-Kassinga 1 & 2 (2011), reproducibility entails shooting and reshooting; burning/purifying/transmutation. The remixed image thematises the blurring of facts, fiction, memory, history, and myth created by images disseminated and remixed in the media. Repeating an historical event in art and play transforms it but also ruins it. The deceptively beautiful and lucid images, traces of traces, ruin the origin(al) almost invisibly.

Like Warhol’s, Tillim’s, and Misrach’s iconic images and afterimages, Doherty’s reconstructions ruin ‘the origin by returning it to the errant immensity of an eternity gone astray...’, as Maurice Blanchot writes. ‘There before any beginning, the somber ebb and flow of dissimulation [of aura, myth and distance] murmurs’.  

Gerhard Schoeman is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of History of Art and Visual Culture Studies at the University of the Free State

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