Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Karen Knorr at the Centre Pompidou

Having spent two hours drinking coffee and yarning with friends, Geo and I made the mistake of taking our time to get to the Centre Pompidou on Friday afternoon. We spent two and a half hours at the Elles exhibition and didn't even get half way through. Even then, we didn't do justice to many of the works we saw. Elles is one of those rambling, overwhelming conglomerations of works that bear the slightest of connections under a loosely defined thematic umbrella - the sort that the Centre Pompidou does so often.

That said, we were both reacquainted with works we love and admire. Karen Knorr's photographs were among those that caught my attention. I had seen her series Fables, at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, in an exhibition where she introduced stuffed animals and naked ladies into her photographs taken in such a museum. I was impressed by them, but more overwhelmed by the stuffed animals, the classification of guns, and other hunting instruments in this bizarre museum. The two works included in Elles from Knorr’s Connoisseurs series, (1986-1988) however, are complicated and captivating, and stood out among those surrounding them.

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and The Analysis of Beauty — as they were exhibited among a lot of work that might bring representations of women to the foreground — were outstanding. Both photographs (and others in the series not exhibited at the CP) are to be celebrated for reasons in addition to the fact that they were done by a woman, and they critique the representation of women within mainstream culture. Both had, what I want to call “a radical feminist edge.” The two photographs are much more than upfront, in your face, diatribes on injustice towards women. The critique of the institution of the Museum in these photographs is subtle and conceptually layered. And, unlike many of the works in Elles, they dared to be aesthetically beautiful as well.

In The Analysis of Beauty an abundance of telescopes, other optical devices of magnification together with two men in tailored suits as the only observers, leave no doubt as to the omnipotence of the male view in the production of knowledge about art. Knowledge about aesthetics, is, according to Knorr, scientifically measured: the image, its value and its aesthetic are always in the eyes men, the object of their gaze. And it is not just men, it is bourgeois men of a certain social standing, of a certain social regard, who determine and own the measure of beauty. We also notice the recession of the arched doorways that frame the scientific instruments, the observers, and open out to embrace us. The axis along which our eye is directed by Knorr’s photograph is the most traditional of classical vanishing point perspectives. And in this we see a return to the surface of the photographic image: the power and dominance of the cultural construction of the museum building itself accords with the vision of privilege and the claim that painting – or in this case, photography – is indeed a true representation of reality. It is a complete and hermetically sealed world that we cannot penetrate, one that is safely policed by the men who designed it. And these men cling tightly to the Renaissance connaissance that shaped them.

I found The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction equally compelling for its conceptual depth and aesthetic appeal. The title is taken from Benjamin’s famous essay in which he discusses the loss of aura in the photographic reproduction. Knorr here appropriates Benjamin’s title, and by implication his argument, to discourse critically on the culture of the copy and proliferation of history as a series of fabricated replicas. In Knorr’s photograph, Michelangelo’s David, and Raphael’s School of Athens (1510-11), one of Michelangelo’s Slaves, and various other sculptures, are exhibited together, in one room, as if in storage. We know they must be copies as David does not leave the Galleria dell'Accademia, the slave is in fact much bigger in size than it is here, and Raphael’s painting is a fresco in the Vatican. But to the man in the smart suit and polished shoes, it doesn’t matter how far these works are from the originals. He is more interested in his book. All of the works have lost their value in their infinite reproduction, in this case, for museum display. Knorr cuttingly observes that today, it is not the photograph that removes the aura, it’s the museum that exhibits the sculptures that destroys their uniqueness. Nevertheless, men in smart clothes continue to espouse their knowledge and judgement of art, however irrespective of the object that knowledge might be.

And so, together, Knorr’s photographs claim that knowledge is always representing a point of view, and it is a point of view that belongs to men, men who want to get closer, to study in detail, to see better. Knorr’s photographs are ironic and humorous because the male desire to look at images of women, to objectify them under the auspices of knowledge, is not only literalized. But in their obsession to see, the men actually become blind to the image. Either, as in The Analysis of Beauty, men use instruments of navigation and colonization to analyze beauty, a phenomenon which cannot be analyzed or scientifically explained anyway. Or, as in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, men who claim hunger for knowledge about art, satiate that hunger through reading books, and not looking at the impoverished copies which they nevertheless triumph as the real thing. Men might insist on dominating the world, to have the last word on beauty and aesthetics, but they are, according to Knorr, unable or unwilling to see the objects of their supposed expertise.

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