Wash Park Art Gallery has mounted 2 exhibits for the 2022 FotoFocus Biennial: Guennadi Maslov’s Ukraina Resurgent, with Sasha Maslov’s “cameos” streamed from Kharkiv, and Tina Gutierrez and Larry Brown’s Phantasmagoria–The Fictitious Truth of 1666 Bruce Street.
Guennadi and Sasha Maslov’s work puts forth the current meaning of Ukraine, as a concept, a country, and above all, as people dealing with their reality. That reality is both the threat of and its actual destruction. (Photos: left top and bottom, Sasha Maslov; right top and bottom, Guennadi Maslov)
Tina Gutierrez and Larry Brown’s videography and companion poetry invent the lost reality and meaning of abandoned late 19th/early 20th century photos through their controlled destruction of the images.
These seemingly disparate exhibits are united in their common use of destruction as a means not to refer to or preserve a past time, but to bring past times into an intense immediacy.
Photography, like any form of artistic expression, is a means to capture an ephemeral moment in a tangible form, whether that moment is signifying emotion, abstraction, or documentation. It is an adventure in preservation, holding on, wallowing in and wringing out analyses of a split-second. Our need to make tangible expression arguably is a reiteration of the creation story or manifestation of our own godliness. As ancient texts tell us we were made in a creator’s image, we recreate past time as art per our own understanding. Are we gods or revisionist historians? Or, both?
A simple internet search asking what is the point of photography yields results that generally agree with the preservation purpose. My favorite result said, “1. PHOTOGRAPHY AFFORDS IMMORTALITY.” (Segers, Mary. 9 Amazing Benefits of Photography, http://www.picturecorrect.com/9-amazing-benefits-of-photography, accessed 10/27/2022).
Whether you accept this hypothesis of the purpose of photography (art) or not, it nonetheless is fundamental to the Gallery’s intrigue with these exhibits and their simultaneous showing. Curatorially, I am always looking for juxtaposition and irony, or more simply said, the unexpected, either in the art itself or in its presentation. Therefore, given the premise that photography is motivated by preservation, my curatorial interest was heightened by the ironic effect of destruction in rendering the exhibited photos meaningful. By “meaningful,” I mean not only what makes viewers look and think, but what makes them want to save the photo, what makes them despair to lose the photo or its content—what makes them care.
There’s a dichotomous time-continuum-feel to preservation and destruction. A preservation-motivated photo feels like we are traveling back in time, the artist is putting us into another time and place; whereas a destruction-based photo feels immediate, like we are right there watching something happen, the artist is pulling the content into our present. Destruction of course is more aligned with the present than the past or future. After all, being in the present moment is just realizing that we are in the process of losing what won’t come again.
Applying these observations to our current exhibits: Guennadi and Sasha Maslov use implicit and actual destruction in their content, and Tina Gutierrez and Larry Brown use it in their process to the same end: the images feel oddly immediate and relevant to the viewer, and there is a strange caring about the images. Viewers wonder where Guennadi’s subjects are now, dead? Sasha’s shelled interiors and once grand buildings beg thoughts of who lived there, who died there, and what can be done to stop the shelling, clear the damage and rebuild. Viewers of Tina and Larry’s videos have the same concern about the subjects, but the concern extends to the physical photos even more; were they ruined in the process, why did family members abandon them? In fact, the conversation at the artist talk turned personal, discussing what boxes of family photos attendees have, and what they have done/will do with them. Tina and Larry’s videos of old photos literally dissolving made them immediate, and the vivid depiction of the fragility of paper photographs ironically made the images of unknown people relevant to viewer’s own photos and family history, and their preciousness.
Destruction’s immediacy/relevance hook is not lost on the British environmental activist group, “Just Stop Oil,” who have been trying to make immediate the slow-paced destruction of climate change by throwing food and glue on masterpieces by van Gogh, and Monet, (the group has not acknowledged a role in the Vermeer incident). Among the shouted slogans during the assaults, the protesters pointed out that viewers are more disturbed by the destruction of painted sunflowers than they are by the destruction of real sunflowers. However, I think the overwhelming impact of destruction obscures their intended message. The observer’s orientation becomes the preciousness of the assaulted paintings; arguably it is the old paintings themselves that the attacks brought into present relevance, not the hoped for metaphorical impact. Metaphor is a bridge from past to future, applying a thought from a past scenario to a potential future—a device sometimes used allegorically to avoid a negative future, or aspirationally to inspire positive action. Perhaps destruction is so in the moment that it burns the bridge between past and future and voids the metaphor.
Usually, the Gallery attempts to decipher metaphorical intentions in art, and start the conversation of “what does it mean.” Given destruction as the pole tethering the current exhibits, we make no such attempt. The exhibits are best explained simply as “this is what’s happening,” and the viewer can ask themselves the whys, hows, and concern themselves with imagined outcomes. Literature however has observed that destruction may eclipse such processing as it eclipses the continuum of time. Shakespeare’s MacBeth clearly articulates destruction’s disruption of time and meaning in the following soliloquy (Act V, scene 5):
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
MacBeth’s nihilistic reaction to destruction (or death) is so immediate and impactful that it renders what went before and what comes after meaningless. This acute grief seems to be the ironic culmination of the character’s desperate all-consuming battle for significance. And this soliloquy (ironically one of Shakespeare’s most significant) speaks to the juxtaposition captured in the exhibits that was so appealing to the Gallery: while artistic expression is indeed a battle to find significance, Maslov/Maslov’s themes and content and Gutierrez/Brown’s process of destruction transcend that kind of reckoning with the past, and bid us to meditate on the present. Rather than trying to wring significance out of the continuum, the images dwell in the helpless present moment and find significance in insignificance through the antihero, destruction. And then there’s the appealing irony that destruction reveals our best impulses, provoking our need to rail against the realized insignificance at least by feeling loss, and caring.
The gallery is pleased to present these exhibits through November 12th. (Regular business hours: Thu-Sat, 4-7p, Closing Reception, November 12th, 5-8p)