|Catalog Essay by Jan Tumlir
From "Imago" Salamanca Museum of Art, Salamanca, Spain 2002
Exhibition include three set still installations, "Artificial Nature,"
"Chairs,' & "Mirrors"
JOHN DIVOLA: "APART FROM THE WHOLE"
A painting is generally filled-up with substance; whether this is derived
from the world outside or from the interior of the artist's imagination,
it ultimately takes shape on the picture plane. In the case of photography,
however, this substance is always partly given, and thereby also only
partly variable. It preexists the imaging process as a worldly fact, a
subject matter still indistinct, still integrated and continuous with
the vast totality of all that is given to vision. Accordingly, the photographic
process is largely subtractive. Whereas the painter works in an additive
manner, filling-in and building-up a space that is initially empty, the
photographer cuts away at a space that is initially full. A photograph
is literally a cut into the space-time continuum. It is a minute, fragmentary
part of an infinitely greater whole - the world that is shaved off at
Both the painting and the photograph present an essentially flat pictorial
surface. In effect, these may be almost identical in proportion and scale;
they may even share the same subject matter, and still be experienced
as fundamentally distinct. Either medium can mimic the other; both can
"fool the eyes" in this way, but only for a moment. Soon enough,
they will again begin to assert their intrinsic difference: the specific
character of their respective frames. The painterly frame circumscribes
the space of an unmitigated intentionality. Everything that is there is
there because the painter intended it. Whether this substance is defined
as representational or abstract, imagistic or literal, it will always
be this and only this. The painter does not choose between this or that;
there can be no question of inclusion and exclusion because there is nothing
outside the frame of painting. However, the opposite is true for photographer
who confronts a space outside the frame that is infinitely greater than
the one inside. Within the photographic frame, it is thereby always a
question of inclusion and exclusion, of this or that. No matter how "resolved,"
"balanced" or "right" its composition, no matter how
"seamless" its cropping, there will always remain some trace
of the that which is not there.
A looming absence invades the core of each photograph to haunt its intentional
substance throughout with the threat of an essential arbitrariness. This
is all the more evident in the photographs that John Divola is working
with here. These are a particularly non-autonomous and fragmentary sort
of image, their aesthetic value subordinated from the outset to an extraneous
purpose. They have a job to do, that is, and it is neither expressly aesthetic
nor even necessarily germane to their photographic ontology - at least,
not until now. In fact, it is from the neighboring category of cinema
that Divola has culled them. Or more specifically, it is from the outskirts
of the film industry, from those time-warped stores that line the lower-rent
sections of Hollywood Blvd. and specialize in "Silver Screen"
memorabilia: posters, postcard reproductions and, as here, the photographic
byproducts of film production.
Divola's images fall under this general heading, but even as such they
propose an especially inauspicious and lacking example. For the most part
unrecognizable, devoid of the famous persons, places and things that might
bolster their value among collectors, these are not the sort of stills
that once adorned the walls of the theater lobby, but rather "continuity"
shots. They are taken during breaks in production to provide a record
of the set and its various furnishings so that, when shooting resumes,
everything can be reconfigured just as it was.
If I began by discussing the arbitrariness of the photograph, it is because
it reaches a kind of crescendo here in the absolute, irreconcilable difference
that Exist between what these pictures are, ontologically speaking, and
what they are "of." And yet it is worth recalling that when
Roland Barthes conducted his seminal analysis of filmic fascination in
"The Third Meaning," it was precisely by way of the still image
- a series of photographic excisions. Indeed, it could be just as easily
argued that film is in fact comprised of still photographs, that these
constitute its fundamental building blocks, as it were. In one sense,
then, Barthes is simply breaking down or "deconstructing" the
cinematic work, as a kind of mechanism, into its component parts. In this
way he is seeking to gain an understanding of "how it works,"
but this is not exactly what happens. Instead, it is entirely a consequence
of the critic's chosen methodology that he ends up looking past the film
as such; the still points him "elsewhere."
What Barthes finds within the photograph is effectively the film's hidden
content, one that generally lies submerged - I want to say, "repressed"
- beneath its declared surface. As in the Freudian "tectonic"
model of consciousness, this hidden content takes shape as "the real"
against a screen of artifice. It is precisely an unintended, uncontrolled
eruption, and it is glimpsed, paradoxically, in a moment of perfect stasis.
The photograph in this way functions to corroborate Barthes' own Brechtian,
anti-naturalist biases, and it makes perfect sense, therefore, that "success"
- that which fascinates and captivates us in film - should here again
be measured through an ostensible "failure" - the breakdown
of its illusionistic scaffolding which at last allows some sort of authenticity
to show through.
It almost goes without saying that the critic's stake or investment in
this subject will diverge sharply from that of a photographer like John
Divola. To begin with, Barthes must translate the image into words in
order to bring it into his domain, whereas the photographer meets it "on
its own terms," so to speak. But this is not to suggest that the
photographer remains oblivious to the image's conventional and linguistic
character - all the more pronounced in these particular images which are
so much like words in their relation to the "signifying chain"
of cinema. Moreover, it would seem that for Divola as well it is the image's
(again, linguistic) two-sidedness, its tendency to point in two almost
opposite directions - both toward the constructed, make-believe world
of the film and away from it - that is its most salient quality. In this,
it provides a condensed model of his own practice which has likewise tended
to alternate between the poles of an overt artifice and a near-documentary
"realism." From the very outset, with the career-making "Zuma"
series that showed us a beach-front property undergoing a highly aestheticized
process of destruction (Divola effectively orchestrating the onslaught
of anonymous vandals and inserting his own marks among theirs), this alternation
would constitute the work's central determining dialectic.
Indeed, subsequent works can be divided more or less evenly between the
real and the fake, the found and the fabricated, the given and the variable.
As much time has been spent inside the studio as out - by the beach (Zuma),
in the desert (Isolated Houses) or on the streets of Los Angeles (LA Panoramas)
- right up until the so-called "digital turn" within Divola's
practice specifically, and the culture more generally, would cast a pall
of redundancy over all such distinctions. If they are here being resumed,
then it is within an already historical context. As mentioned, these images
are found already-made and then simply (re)presented pretty much "as
is." The addition of standard fine-art framing is all it takes to
compel their conversion from the currency of popular culture to this one,
but even so, the outcome is only partly art; the other, perhaps greater,
part retains the status of an artifact. That is, as much as these images
are able to transport us to another place - to the actual space of the
set or its virtual cinematic equivalent - they also transport us to another
time. Already distant from our own time, it appears nevertheless to draw
close, and not only because the time of film, whatever its period, is
always somehow "now," but because this is effectively where
the trouble begins, where the registers of the actual and virtual begin
to overlap and merge in some ultimately irreversible manner.
When Divola separates out his "interior" and "exterior"
shots into two discrete groupings and two individual works it would thereby
seem only to confuse the issue, since all such distinctions are from the
outset moot within this particular context. Selected from the archives
of the Warner Brothers studios ("Chairs") and the MGM studios
("Artificial Nature"), the photographs (re-)presented here all
point to an early-thirties era of film-making when, as Divola has written,
"film stock was relatively insensitive to light (and) the movie sets
needed to be very brightly lit. Sets were almost exclusively constructed
on soundstages where the lighting could be controlled. Even the most mundane
and generic rooms were previsualized, constructed, and completely artificial."
As with painting, then, the space of these films is wholly contained within
its frame, and every single thing that appears there is likewise touched
by an absolute intentionality. Both of these spaces are essentially "make-believe,"
the products of the imagination, and even though the filmic one may share
with the photograph an indexical reliance upon an arbitrary worldly substance,
this is fundamentally transformed by way of its diegetic inscription.
Annexed to the filmic narrative, every last vestigial remnant of an external
reality is systematically converted to the cause of the interior. Filmic
space, like painterly space, denies the existence of anything outside
its bounds. Or, in the words of Michel Chion: "In film the frame
is important, since it is nothing less than that beyond which there is
Consider the example of the thrown chair that appears, in a number of
these images, to land willy nilly, here or there. Whatever chance element
is involved in this act or event, however close it comes to articulating
the border and space beyond, it will be quickly reintegrated to the film's
diegetic scheme. To make this happen is in fact the continuity shot's
whole raison d'etre. It provides a record of such actions, or of their
effects, so that, just like the gestural splash and swipe of a brush across
a length of canvas, they may become "purposive," as Kant would
say, and in this way yield further actions and effects. The continuity
shot guides the transition from one filmic moment to the next - this is
what it does, but what exactly is it? And, more importantly, what is it
Radically decontextualized and recontextualized as art, continuity is
no longer the most pressing concern, of course. If these photographs recall
their filmic sources at all at this point, it is only as a distant echo.
Instead, it would seem once more to be the image's capacity to join two
seemingly opposite conditions that matters most to Divola, for even as
they operate in the interest of connection, they remain, in "themselves,"
the records of a break. Over and above the subject of any particular film,
that is, Divola wants us to consider the subject of cinema as a whole;
he wants us to consider this whole as such, and as it has been variously
subdivided by philosophy.
From Barthes' still-image to Deleuze's movement-image, from the structuralist
reduction of the whole to the generic part to the profusion of specific
instances under post-structuralism (via Bergson's assertion that duration,
as such, cannot be cut), we are here again facing the filmic, in the most
general sense, as a model of human sense-perception and consciousness.
Divola's photographs participate in this ongoing dialogue although, as
art, they do not necessarily share its aims. Inasmuch as the language
of philosophy can be said to locate an object outside its particular compass,
the more concretely descriptive workings of the photo-mechanical realm
have, on occasion, provided it with an indispensable figurative armature.
Philosophy has a very particular use for the image, both moving and still,
partial and whole; indeed, it is to a great extent invested in the accurate
registration and overlay of the one and the other. Here it is rather their
potential for slippage that is being exercised, if only because, as art,
these images needn't answer to the world - but neither do they need to
recreate it from scratch. Neither strictly documentary nor, conversely,
painterly or pictorialist, the space that Divola opens up in these works
comprises a drawn-out hesitation between these two options. Between the
"interior" of "Chairs" and the "exterior"
of "Artificial Nature" there lies the convulsive borderline
of the "Mirrors," a collection of images that could stand for
the rest in their auspicious conflation of immersion and self-reflexivity,
inviting us in with the promise of our absence.