What if an artist was your history teacher? A New Photography Exhibition at the Guggenheim Challenges the Way We Describe the Past
“Fake news” will be a tempting opening through which to approach “Off the Recorda new group exhibition at the Guggenheim that examines how artists view, critique, or otherwise manipulate “official” documents of state history and power.
It wouldn’t necessarily be Wrong to take this tactic. But that’s not what curator Ashley James thought when she curated the exhibit – her first since becoming the museum’s first full-time black curator in 2019.
“I’m less interested in talking about the specifics of our contemporary historical moment than in thinking about a certain position in relation to history as such,” she told Artnet News over the phone. She stops as construction noises from the show’s facility echo behind her.
“It’s a point of view,” she continues as the din dies down. “It’s a sort of posturing to history and documentation that applies to the past, present and future. It’s more a question of methodology.
Heavy on photoconceptualism, “Off the Record” includes some 25 works – all but one of which were taken from the museum’s own collection – by artists including Sadie Barnette, Sarah Charlesworth, Hank Willis Thomas and Adrian Piper. It is a group that represents a wide range of generations, interests and artistic practices. What unites them here, James explains, is a “shared skepticism of received history.”
But how this sense of skepticism manifests itself in the work varies with each artist. For Sara Cwynar, represented in the exhibition by three pieces from her 2014 encyclopedia grid series, it’s an intellectual exercise. Take inspiration from John Berger’s classic Ways to seethe artist has drawn various images of the same subject (bananas, Brigitte Bardot, the Acropolis) from multiple encyclopedias and rephotographed them – a process that shows us, without judgment, the quirks and representational biases of supposed resources objectives.
Lisa Oppenheim, meanwhile, sees creative potential in the document’s deficiency. For a series of photos from 2007, the artist reimagined redacted details from a group of Walker Evans’ Great Depression-era negatives, which were perforated to prevent publication. Oppenheim’s small circular photographs, combined with Evans’ originals, read like a sort of revisionist history, though it is every bit as flawed as its source.
Other examples are busier, such as the prints from Carrie Mae Weems’ iconic 1995-96 series”From here I saw what happened and I criedin which the artist appropriates ethnographic photos of slaves to show how photography was used to reinforce racial inequalities. Each is associated with a pointed phrase: “DESCENDING THE TRONE YOU BECAME FOOT SOLDIER & COOK”, it reads.
Like these examples, almost all of the artists in the exhibition draw on material from past generations. But that’s not to say the show has nothing to say about the contemporary moment, James points out, even if its message has little to do with the Trump era specifically.
The best example of this is the only work in the exhibit that is not in the museum’s collection: a 2020 wall assemblage by Tomashi Jackson, in which an archival copy of President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Act of the voting rights is covered with paint. and campaign materials for a 2018 gubernatorial race.
It is a piece that literally merges the past with the present, the “official” with the unofficial. And he alludes to another theme that connects the different pieces of the exhibition: “power”, says the curator, “whether that power is due to the institution itself or to power in a narrative that has been received in a certain way over time.
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