The Disturbing, Rich Banality of Tourist Pictures
What to do now that tourism has become so embarrassing? Where to travel? Where to point the camera? "In a modern society, images made by cameras are the principal access to realities of which we have no direct experience," Susan Sontag wrote. "And we are expected to receive and to register an unlimited number of images of what we don't directly experience. The camera defines for us what we allow to be 'real'—and it continually pushes forward the boundary of the real. Photographers are particularly admired if they reveal hidden truths about themselves or less than fully reported social conflicts in societies both near and far from where the viewer lives."
Nicholas Nyland, Vesna Pavlovic, and Isabelle Pauwels will not become particularly admired—not in that way.
Nyland and Pavlovic are Seattle artists whose show at SOIL artist collective last month was based on a trove of travel slides that had been donated to the art department of Vanderbilt University in Nashville by a well-off, unnamed local woman. She traveled to every thinkable tourist destination, as evidenced in her 1970s-era slides, which Nyland and Pavlovic used in various ways: set out in grids on a light table and taped up to the gallery window, developed into 24-by-30-inch photographs on metallic paper (framed and hung), and translated, if you will, into a mural and two floor installations using clay, paint, papier-mâché, a slide projector, and a blank, glaring sheet of white Plexiglas propped upright. (In the slides themselves: Roman ruins, a lounging lion in Africa, the pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon, foresty Canada, a bullfight, turbaned men on camels, the desert of Arizona, a Caravaggio painting, Old Faithful... it goes on and on.) The woman had donated her slides thinking they'd make an art exhibition. They did, just not the kind she meant: Vanderbilt was in fact about to trash them when Pavlovic (who teaches at the university) recognized them as source material and rescued them. They're rich, but not with content. They're rich with banality. It's fascinating to think about how many people have just these same slides in their basements.
Across town at the Henry, Pauwels bases her work on two types of source footage. The first is grainy 8-mm films and photographs made by her Belgian maternal grandparents while her grandfather was an agronomist managing a coffee plantation in the last days of the Belgian colonial "adventure" in the Congo. The images are disturbing in their ambivalence: a white man being carried on a chair by black men, white children playing dress-up with black servants. All you see is pleasantness, which points to a big gap without filling it.
The other type of source material is footage that Pauwels, the first winner of the Henry's $12,500 Brink Award for promising young artists, shot for this project in her parents' home in Vancouver, BC. She's interviewing her mother about the objects in the house that her grandparents acquired in the Congo: a waxy, knotty coffee-tree root turned into a lamp stand; a crouching Sambo-ish figurine seen only in fragments as Pauwels's camera does a vertical roll, as if the figurine can't be looked at in any fixed or complete way. The 35-minute video, combining historical and recent footage with text, ends with the mother asking her daughter (the artist), "Do you want to see the two Negresses?" and the artist responding, "Uh..."
How the two shows are different might be described by what veteran Vancouver, BC, curator Scott Watson said during a recent discussion on geography and identity at the University of Puget Sound: "The rigor of Vancouver art kind of excludes eros, which can be tiring." There is, indeed, nothing of the erotic (much more of the neurotic) about Pauwels's more instructive show. By contrast, each slope of Nyland's miniature ceramic pyramids was painted a different glossy color, forming a sparkling field of monochromes, the spotlights of the gallery standing in for the glinty Egyptian sun. The gallery's walls were clad in style, wearing Nyland's streaky, all-black portrait of a fancy interior from one of the slides (a sitting room infused with light and decorated with plants and paintings of plants). The slide of the sitting room was lying on a light box with a disk of magnifying glass over it, so the image fattened up into the glass, becoming a convex, enchanted version of itself.
At the Henry, Pauwels's installation is not dry (it involves, after all, a large thatched hut), but my god is it restrained—like a leashed animal is restrained. In her choice of footage and her style of collage, Pauwels jumps between the obliquely sociopolitical and the imperiously theoretical, and in between the two arises a sort of strangled rage. Grainy footage from the bush of the Congo is projected onto the slick, white-brick walls of the 1970s Canadian suburban interior. In the present day, a pair of hands are seen transferring film from one roll to another, in an act drawing attention to presentation, representation, and film technology (there are several of these). At one point, a man we can assume is Pauwels's father starts up the stairs, sees the camera, turns, and leaves. Pauwels can be faintly heard cursing him. What is even more awkward than the Belgian family's awkward placement in the Congo is the artist's displacement in her own family. The installation takes effort on the part of the viewer (it is stubbornly uningratiating, which does not seem entirely necessary)—you could call it tiring—but perhaps commensurate with the effort it took on the part of the artist. However abstracted it can be, it is not an abstract exercise: Nyland and Pavlovic don't know their subject, but Pauwels is scrutinizing her own family.
Spend the 35 minutes necessary to watch Pauwels's entire central video, projected on a screen inside a thatched hut in the gallery. You have to stand at the windows and look in. But what else could you do?