October 6th, 2007 13:10 EST
If No One Were Listening, Would Reality Make a Sound?
I lead a walking around life, one reason I don`t need to travel much. Hudson, New York, my county`s seat, is one of those towns fraught with chance encounter. It could be with someone, something, or an idea. One day recently, when our Canadian friends had whooshed a cool breeze our way, I was walking along Warren Street, Hudson`s main thoroughfare, the usual notebook stuffed in my pocket and a poem`s unborn heart pulsing in my head. It was one of those poems where you have a vision, but that`s all. Not a line, not a bon mot, not even a meter, but a vision. Do you have to explain it or just paint it?
I happened by the gallery Nicole Fiacco. I hadn`t noticed it before. I liked what I saw on the walls. It wasn`t the usual Hudsoniana people seem to think their country homes demand. I struck up a conversation with Ms. Fiacco and she turned her computer so that I could see work from a show she is about to launch.
The first image that caught my eye was a white house on a black hill. The luminous house had no detail, just this ghostly architectural shape on a hill. I was about to ask her about it when I saw a galleon that had clearly lost her helm and was about to fall over an apocalyptic waterfall, just as medieval mariners always feared would happen in accordance with their flat earth ideas.
Ms. Fiacco could see I was entranced. This is staged photography, she explained. The photographer uses stagecraft to create what he wants to picture. Scale and dimensions elide. Time, physics and ideation are liberated from their customary constraints. Just as I wanted to do with the poem in my head.
I could see that as an elderly poet I was stuck just where I had been stuck as a younger poet despairing of his work. When I was young I was trying to reconcile structuralism with my passionate love of such French poets as Nerval, Baudelaire and Rimbaud. I wasn`t up to the task. And here I was once again declining to take the liberties natural to this photographer. It turns out he is Lothar Osterburg (Flat Earth, inset) and teaches at Bard College and Cooper Union in Manhattan.
He is one of five photographers whose work will be shown September 15-October 20 at Nicole Fiacco in a show called The Set Up.
Laura Gail Tyler is the photographer whose luminous house in the gloaming struck me as the look of a poem when it first seeds in the poet`s mind. She will have a solo exhibition at the gallery in November.
I grew up in the New York art world. My mother, Juanita Guccione, was close to the Surrealists who sought refuge here from the Nazi occupation of Europe. So the confluence of painting, photography and writing, particularly poetry, was familiar to me. One could hardly consider the work of Magritte or Breton without considering confluences, shape-changing and the whimsical and sometimes frightening juxtaposition of space, history and ideas. Where, for example, does a de Chirico painting take place? The Renaissance? Its ruins? The Neo-Classical period? The question is mute because the artist does as he pleases with what Flaubert called our received ideas, many of which eventually prove to be absurd but are fiercely held in their time. Like de Chirico, whom she admired, my mother created a world of improbabilities, suggesting, as Osterburg and his colleagues do, that we don`t know as much as we think we do, and everything is subject to challenge. Indeed it`s the artist`s duty to challenge us. It`s merely the weight of opinion that makes something improbable.
I think Osterburg`s two galleons appealed to me so strongly because I know something about medieval ship design and navigation. The galleon, especially the caravel, was the space shuttle of the 15th Century. So here you have the space shuttle of its time about to fall off the edge of the earth simply because the mind of man conceived the earth as a table. When you consider the certitude with which our government leaders characteristically speak about everything under the sun you can imagine how authoritative that now laughable flat earth theory must have sounded to citizens of the time. Nor are we free today of the inadequate ideas of the 15th Century. For example, the caravel is still credited to the Portuguese, but in fact it was a knock-off from Arab ships the Portuguese had been studying for decades.
I had been walking along Warren Street challenging various conventions in order to write a poem that I hoped would put a few ideas in a different perspective, and here I saw that Lothar Osterburg was doing the same thing. He was creating a what-if world and then photographing it, giving it a surreal authority which a painter couldn`t quite achieve with his media, nor could a poet with words. And that is of course what distinguishes artistic disciplines. Osterburg was saying our ideas can very well pinwheel off the table because they are nowhere near as substantive as we would like to think. Photographing such an idea gives it an unparalleled reality.
I`ve been a news photographer, shooting fast-moving events through the wire frame of a big Speed Graphic. It`s catch-as-catch-can photography, more skill than art. But as I considered staged photography I thought of a remark by the Russian tennis player, Svetlana Kuznetsova. She was talking about her love of New York and the Yankees baseball team, and she was asked what she knew about baseball. If you hit it far, you`ve got to go run, " she said, but then another one catches. "
Perfect. The staged photographer sets up to hit it very far, but, unlike baseball, it`s his good fortune if someone catches. "
The more I thought about the glimpses of The Set Up I saw in Ms. Fiacco`s computer the more I recognized that everything and everyone vibrates with alternate realities. We walk around a kind of consensual world, a world that loosely we agree on, with many other worlds in our heads, and these worlds elide, back and forth in time, up and down, and yet we pretend for convenience`s sake that there is only one world and one possible conception of it. This is surely a dangerous conceit, subjecting us as it does to official spin.
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