Toronto-based artist Annie MacDonell, in an exhibition currently on display at Mercer Union entitled Originality and the Avant Garde (On Art and Repetition), enacts a number of appropriative and repetitive gestures that probe the nature of photography, moving images and mirrors. Photography, as a machine that generates reality’s double, may be understood to be at the root of contemporary art production. In a general sense, MacDonell’s practice seems to posit a question about what it might mean if all the useful forms of artistic production are already in circulation, photography marking this moment when form exhausted itself. What then? Considering the possibility, is it an end or a beginning?
In an artists’ talk to complement this exhibition (and Pierre Leguillon’s Diane Arbus: a printed retrospective, 1960-1971, which is also on view at Mercer Union), an audience member offered the provocative suggestion that appropriation in all its modern guises, from quotation to sampling, might best describe the contemporary condition of art making. Certainly, in MacDonell’s practice, there is an optimism regarding the potential of repetition to generate meaning, and for the act of doubling to create an interstitial space for difference to emerge.
Considering a single image, a doubling or an appropriation or a reflection of it offers the opportunity to go deep into the image, to explore its core (if, that is, we are willing to entertain the idea that images carry some sort of inherent truth at all). I can see this in practice, I can recognize this act of making difference as revelation, but I’m not sure what it amounts to. For instance, in MacDonell’s exhibition, she employs the old trick of a camera obscura, but in doing so she imbues the projected images with simple magic. I feel awe despite the knowledge of the mechanics of the illusion. But I’m not sure what to do with this. Maybe there is a different fitting response for each instance out there of an image appropriated, quoted, captioned, Photoshopped, removed from its context and reframed otherwise. And here I think of Richard Prince and a recent lawsuit brought against him, charging Prince with the unlawful use of the images of French photographer Patrick Cariou. Does Prince’s use of another artist’s work reveal anything in the nature of the photograph itself that would have otherwise remained hidden? Is there something about the nature of the photograph itself that is revealed through Prince’s appropriative gesture? What might that revelation be worth (to either of the artists, or to us, the viewers of them)?