Some Words and Visual Thoughts, Tracy Mackenna

Life, Death and Beauty: YOU MAKE ME, about what we were aiming to do and how we might understand it together and differently

Life, Death and Beauty: YOU MAKE ME, a series of 24 framed digital prints, was made in response to an invitation to make an exhibition for Sleeper, Reiach and Hall Architects, Edinburgh, in 2010. The space is small, windowless, underground and visited by a faithful audience.

These conditions required us to think carefully about how and why we might develop new work that favoured presentation above participation or engagement. We were keen to use the opportunity to reflect on what was happening in the works we have been making where a visual narrative starts from a single image containing subjects that we continue to investigate, and that reveal approaches central to museum practices or museum cultures – collecting, framing and curating, interrogated from our positions as artist-curators.

The central focus of Life, Death and Beauty: YOU MAKE ME, was placed upon the question of where ‘museum culture’ sits in relation to our practice, how attitudes to display are positioned alongside inquiry into gender, sexuality, issues around contemporary death, voyeurism, fragmentation, reproduction, curatorial practice and editing. The collecting, composing and framing in this work is an attempt to develop a series of dialogical moments, through visual language. It is at the same time a way of visually referencing not only a particular artwork, but ideologies: Nazi Germany, Hitler, war, death – material culture, economy of objects (nationalism, gender).

The visual essays we develop juxtapose visual material from different sources and cultural contexts, using the flat surface of a pinboard to make a series of arrangements. Life, Death and Beauty: YOU MAKE ME started by selecting a group of images from our image databank, the methodology used requiring us to choose those that related to the key image, Louise Lawler’s Big (2002-2003). Using a range of criteria and approaches to build up a visual narrative, we worked outwards across the board arranging and rearranging combinations of subject-related images; some obvious, some less so – building associative links. Connections began to form, triggering a visually associative process that developed spatially in different directions. The process of investigation allowed us to browse through cultural history in an a-historical way, questioning anew the activities of collecting, looking, juxtaposing, reproducing, manipulating, fragmenting, framing, referencing, recycling and subverting authorship. Very early on, a process of ordering was established, creating dialogues between the images to enable a flow that can be read in many directions, a slight tendency towards a circular movement in what was a growing collage of images. All the images are reproductions, representing or documenting or being merely printed images such as postcards.

In our roles as artist-curators we bring into question, through the photographic framing, the framing that takes place through museum culture; how the museum puts forward a particular perspective and therefore, understanding. By photographing details of the images in Life, Death and Beauty: YOU MAKE ME in relationship to each other on the board a process of scanning or tracking is activated in the viewer, introducing a new layer of meaning through the act of photographic framing. Looking at the 24 images viewing is an activity directed by the framing that encourages a range of readings and possible inter-relationships.

In most of the images there is an explicit reference to museum and art culture, accessible through the reproductions of artworks, some photographed in a museum context like Louise Lawler’s Adolf (Must be installed 8 inches from the floor), 2006 that shows Maurizio Cattalan’s sculpture of Adolf Hitler in a crate, Him, 2001 or Richard Artschwager’s work Crates [Archipelago], 1993. When bought as postcards in museums the art has been mediated for us, and through low cost print medium has become popular culture; a way of taking home our museum experience. Our interest in these cards also lies in how they combine and organise museum culture in particular ways – a form of curatorial practice?   

Collecting, arranging and displaying are at the heart of cultural behaviour and are inherent components of visual art practice. For Mieke Bal’s book Double Exposures: The Subject of Cultural Analysis (1996) Edwin created a series of photographs of pinboards, Das Gesicht and der Wand (1996), that juxtaposed the images Mieke referred to in her text with visual material from other sources gathered by Edwin. As she stated in Double Exposures, the resulting artworks showed an alternative reading of the material she analysed:

His work adds an invaluable new dimension to my arguments. It replaces the more conventional illustrations, undermining the illusion of veracity and emphasizing the notion that a scholarly work like this one is also based on a ‘private collection’ of images. In this study curatorial practice is considered as a way of collecting visual fragments that, combined, create a spatial visual essay: the exhibition.

Here the artist-curator merges the role of reader and (re-)narrator. He operates in the space between the maker and the viewer, between interpretation and (re-)presentation: by raising his voice he creates the conditions for the production of new meaning.

From conversation between Edwin and me, with quotes below compiled in advance of our public Artists’ Talk, Some Words and Visual Thoughts on Images: looking, collecting, stealing, curating, recycling and showing, Sleeper, Reiach and Hall, Edinburgh, 11 June 2010.

Dialogic expression refuses to accept the arrogant assumption that there is one language, one image, one isolated story through which the absolute can be articulated. It acknowledges the conditional nature of presentation – that the meaning of any utterance or object or image is ultimately dependent on the words and objects and images around it and the reader who interprets it.

Maurice Berger describing Mikhail Bahktin’s notion of ‘dialogic expression’ in Viewing the Invisible: Fred Wilson’s Allegories of Absence and Loss, Fred Wilson, Objects and Installations 1979-2000.

Adults and children sometimes have boards in their bedrooms or living-rooms on which they pin pieces of paper: letters, snapshots, reproductions of paintings, newspaper cuttings, original drawings, postcards. On each board all the images belong to the same language and all are more or less equivalent within it, because they have been chosen in a highly personal way to match and express the experience of the room’s inhabitant. Logically these boards should replace museums.

John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1972.

Life, Death and Beauty: YOU MAKE ME


Reiach and Hall