Thursday, July 22, 2010

Response, Shukin & The Era of Pandemic Speculation

I find myself haunted by the images from Ashes and Snow, and dazzled the fact (according to wikipedia) "critical reception of the exhibition has been largely positive."

The New York Times review noted "The earth-tone photographs are ... windows to a world in which silence and patience govern time." Just where this world exists is unclear. But the deep sepia tone connotes the idea that space and time are traversed in a single step, as we once discussed in relation to Fabian.

Colbert is overt in this conceptualization, suggesting his photos are "'a direct connection to ancient man and his Paleolithic cave paintings,' to a period of prehistory in which 'humans coexisted with their fellow beasts'" (Shukin, 19.) The term "ancient man," here and elsewhere, seems to rest on a generalized notion of all people who came before 1900. But the only thing authentically situated in the past are Colbert's colonial instincts.

These humans are said to coexist with their "fellow beasts." It is coincidental the "beasts" are all foreign to Colbert's native Canada, and none of what we can perhaps coin their "fellow humans" are white? As Shukin sharply observes, in "reiterating well-worn orientalist tropes, the East is both feminized and infantilized, semiographed as a terrain awaiting sexual discovery by the white male explorer. In virtually every photo, the eyes of the languid other are closed, enabling viewers of Colbert's exhibit to reproject imperialism's primal scene of intercourse with a passive virgin territory" (195).

Perhaps it this passivity that keeps me on edge in each frame. My first thought is that the animals have been visually caged, stripped of any natural prowess. But so have the women and children--held captive in a sort of mystical trance, frozen in postures that make me want to shout: "run! run!"

For in all its meditative babble, Ashes and Snow seems to interiorize a rather anesthetized form of violence. This is a perfect example:

Does this kiss truly represent peace or the fact child and animal have been rendered aesthetic props, a sort of human and animal interaction reminiscent of a circus spectacle?

Nowhere do woman, child, or (sometimes swaddled) animal appear to make noise--nor do any of them hold the gaze of the camera, which would implicate the viewer in the act of gazing.

They remain speechless, nameless fodder of the artist's fantasy. Perhaps it is safe to say they are mere signifiers in a larger cultural script. The rather frightening question is: What do they signify? What did audiences identify with in their raptured viewings?  

If I were feeling brilliant, I might even tie this in to the idea of the aura.

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