× Good Enough Sculptures:
What Happens When Sculptures are Made to be Filmed?
A Territory – Preface Introduction Three ‘Finished’ FilmsThe Research Practice Collaborative Films Improvisation Sequences and Split Screens The Camera, Film and by Extension Perception Aphorisms Filming ‘Real’ Sculpture Gifs The Sculptures and Objects More Generally Conversation with Franz West, April 2019 Table Tops – a Conclusion of Sorts. Nothing is Finished Download as PDF
The Camera, Film and by Extension Perception


Within this research, the camera enables a certain type of practice – that of creating images of sculpture – which itself comes with a weight of historical determination. Notably, this includes the practice of photographing/filming artworks for representation in catalogues and other publicity, art historical books and the like. Speaking of the photography of ancient statuary, but equally relevant to modern and contemporary art, Mary Bergstein writes, ‘photographs have formed some of our most fundamental and abiding perceptions of art, and of sculpture in particular.’(Bergstein 1992, p.10) Bergstein outlines a history of art, deeply inflected by the photographic image, and the fact that sculpture, ‘three-dimensional, static and inflected by light’ (ibid) lends itself to being photographed by a media that aspires to neutrality and transparency, albeit one which is influenced by subjective decision-making, art historical agendas, context and social convention. ...

Images are required daily for the task of representing works of art, and there are, therefore, certain requirements for these images to depict their subject realistically in scale and proportion, colour and texture. One can imagine that ‘photographing well’ must come into the considerations of gallerists and curators and that there is considerable pressure on art photographers to capture their subjects adequately, which may at times be hard to consolidate in a single image. Artists such as Benedict Drew (2014) use video, alongside still images, to document their installations, allowing for a better representation of moving image elements – videos of videos. What this all has in common – and in direct contradistinction to the artists cited earlier – is that the photographic and film image is utilised for its relative ability to faithfully reproduce its subject, within a culture that demands and desires images.

In another twist, images take on a significant financial dimension when works of art become so valuable that they remain permanently in archival storage. We might see this taken to its zenith in Gregor Quack’s discussion of the vast tax- free art storage facilities which have blossomed in recent years in free trade zones. Here the physical artefact recedes from human presence, inscribed into a system of capital, in which the image remains as the only touch point, ‘[...] such spaces are unlike museums [..]. Here, paintings and sculptures trucked in the night after Art Basel's preview day, do not expect visitors. While their jpeg representations are traded at often staggering profit margins, to remove the actual objects from their climate-controlled crates becomes little more than a conservation risk.’ (Apter etal. 2016, p. 81) Here the photographic image is a fundamental component in a system which has replaced the need for art to be encountered with that of its preservation, not for posterity, but for purely financial investment.

It is the value of art, linked with its conservation, that produces our standard experience of the gallery and the ubiquitous ‘Do Not Touch’ signs, ropes and floor markings, which structure the average visit to the museum. For a public institution this poses a paradox, one which became clear in my own work with the Tate London Schools and Teachers programme, where I have run many workshops over the past few years. Tate were keen to promote the use of the gallery, not simply as a space of quiet contemplation, but where visitors could feel empowered to move around, explore and make noise, providing they didn’t touch anything. The paradox for an institution like Tate is that they are at once charged with making their collection accessible to the widest possible public, but they are also custodians of extremely valuable art works (symbolically and financially), which have been financed by public funds.

In less strikingly economic terms, but nevertheless linked with the need for art to be seen and disseminated, there are any number of ephemeral or short-lived artworks – performances, earthworks, installations – which rely on their documentation in order to maintain some kind of material existence, beyond the moment of their physical happening. Whilst these practices have often been deployed over the last fifty years as non-economic or anti-market strategies, images of the most notorious works have themselves ended up at auction and inscribed into the economics of the art market. Photographic documentation of performances by artists such as Vito Acconci and Marina Abramovic (Sothebys 2018) selling for many tens of thousands of pounds.

More than ever before, artists are involved with the production of images. Internet and social media bring fresh demands for us to document and disseminate our practice far and wide. University art courses run Professional Practice modules (Kingston School of Art currently (2019) run a module of this type that requires students to produce initially artists’ statements and digital portfolios, moving on to the design of professional websites), expecting their students to produce online portfolios and websites and encouraging the use of social media. Whether this be used as a means of achieving prominence, (gallery) representation, or as a deliberate non-commercial means of sharing work, the production of images is a central concern for contemporary artistic practice.

Alongside this pragmatic day to day activity, there have always been artists and photographers who have used the camera, not for its dependable neutrality, but for its ability to offer alternative ways of seeing. As early as 1908 Edward Steichen used photography to bestow atmosphere and mood upon the statues of Rodin. In the 1930s, Brancusi used the camera to give to his studio, and the sculptures within it, a quiet yet imposing spirituality. Whilst Moholy-Nagy printed pictures of sculpture side by side with scientific imagery and X-ray photography, exploring the new types of imagery made possible by photographic technology. (See Marcoci, R. (2010) The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today, for these examples and more.) In the 1950s, artist David Smith photographed his sculptures in ways that confused perspective and brought him at odds with his gallery. Equally art historians such as Aby Warburg and André Malraux explored the ways in which images of art works from diverse cultural and historical periods could be placed side by side in order to foster new interpretations.

It is against this background and the camera’s amazing ability to reproduce the visual world, that this research proceeds. Whilst it is a commonplace to speak of the camera’s ability to deceive, the history of photography and film in the main has been one that considers photographic representation as unproblematic. Film theory has argued for the privileged position of the chemically produced image through its indexical link with the moment of capture: the light from its subject matter literally hitting the negative and imprinting its mark. A discourse of contact stemming from theories of the photographic image, outlined by Rosalind Krauss in her essay Notes from the Index (1977), and based on C.S. Peirce’s definition of iconic, symbolic and indexical signs. In this respect the photographic image is both icon and index, being both a visual representation of a signifier and one which is, like a footprint, a direct inscription. Whilst the supposed indexicality of chemical film has been challenged by the invention of digital cameras, the experience of pointing a camera at something, and that something being recorded, still holds sway. Cited by Krauss, Andre Basin writes, ‘only a photographic lens can give us the kind of image of the object that is capable of satisfying the deep need man has to substitute for it something more than a mere approximation’.(Krauss 1977, p75) ‘ Duchamp’s Large Glass, memorably recorded in an image by Man Ray (Man Ray, Elevage de Poussiere (Dust Breeding), 1920), becomes an illustration of the work of the photographic image as index – the falling of dust on its surface, fixed in place to form parts of the image, inscribing the passage of time.

As Laura Mulvey states, also referring to C.S. Peirce, ‘the cinema (like photography) has a privileged relation to time, preserving the moment at which the image is registered, inscribing an unprecedented reality into its representation of the past’. (Mulvey 2006, p. 9) This understanding becomes clearer as photography ages, particularly when looking at films and photographs depicting times, people and places now gone. Speaking of the early photography of statuary in the 1850s, Mary Bergstein, citing Susan Sontag’s description of photographs as getting better with age, describes the double lure of the aging image of ancient sculpture: as ‘form and content comingle’ (Bergstein 1992, p.10). The patina and staining of the glass slides, marked and sepia toned, mirror the ruined and degraded sculptures, intensifying the image’s relation to the passage of time. This might be seen to lead to a form of object fetishism in which the image reifies the depicted object, imbuing it with historical, sentimental even spiritual significance. We might find a similar practice in operation in the photographic work of Brancusi, where the camera is deployed to elevate the work pictured, imbuing it with significance. Here the power of the photographic image as index could be seen to legitimise the authenticity of what might otherwise be seen as a transformative deception.

Carlo Ginzburg outlines the complex ontological character of representation thus: ‘On the one hand the “representation” stands in for the reality that is represented, and so invokes absence; on the other hand, it makes that reality visible, and thus suggests presence.’(Ginzburg 2001, p. 63) The representation is then simultaneously present and absent, a vehicle for transmitting something from the invisible beyond into our perception, whilst always already caught in an inevitable failure to bring the reality of that beyond into full awareness. This critique of representation more generally maps onto that of the photographic image as a reproduction, a copy always at a remove from the original reality of its subject. It leads to a discourse of loss or lack, albeit one in which something is retained over time, that might otherwise have been lost, or in which the opportunities for dissemination may be vastly increased. This might be seen as especially strong in the context of sculpture and art works in general, where the originality and singularity of the work of art is integral to its market value. Benjamin, in his famous essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (2008), suggested that discourses of authenticity and originality which surrounded works of art in the early part of the twentieth century, might be displaced by the endless reproducibility of the image. In response to this we might see how the art market has found ways of countering the logic of the reproducible image and re-inscribing the aura of the artist: editioning prints, destroying negatives and restricting access to film and video, allowing it only to be shown in specific circumstances or in its original format. We can also see that, despite the radical increase in access to images of works of art through the internet and in print, the authenticity and uniqueness of the original works, perhaps by the very fact of their being reproduced, has only been bolstered. These images flowing around the world act as publicity, only increasing the aura and value of the original.

In his essay Meditations on a Hobby Horse, E. H. Gombrich (1985) uncovers another aspect of representation; that of a substitute. Gombrich critiques the understanding of representation as one in which the artist imitates or abstracts from nature, a discourse with a historical pedigree beginning in ancient Greece and from which we might see the commonplace understanding of the photographic image as a form of depiction to stem. Conversely, ‘if the child calls a stick a horse [...it] is neither a sign signifying the concept of horse nor is it a portrait of an individual horse. By its capacity to serve as a ‘substitute’, the stick becomes a horse in its own right.’ (Gombrich 1985, p. 2) This form of representation is then far removed from that of reproduction. The hobby horse has no original, it stems neither from nature nor from a template. A brush or stick will work as adequately as a shop-bought toy. This is a representation which is linked with the imagination, with use and physical interaction. ‘Surrounded as we are by posters and newspapers carrying illustrations of commodities or events, we find it difficult to rid ourselves of the prejudice that all images should be ‘read’ as referring to some imaginary or actual reality.’(ibid) Could it be possible for a film image to be read in this way, as constructive of a reality, rather than the depiction of something that happened elsewhere and at another time? Can the camera, artist and viewer enter into an imaginative and playful relationship in which the sculpture on film leaves behind what might be seen as its expected function and situation (those associated with galleries and first-hand encounters), and can be toyed with by the viewer, as a thing with its own possibilities right here on the screen? If we take Gombrich’s statement and replace horse with sculpture, then the sculpture on film is neither a sign signifying the concept of sculpture, nor is it a portrait of an individual sculpture. By its capacity to serve as a ‘substitute’ the object on film becomes a sculpture in its own right. In a similar way to the child who is able to use the hobby horse in order to ride, the viewer of the filmed sculpture (and the artist researcher) is able to use the pictured object in order to experience and think in new ways about the nature of sculpture and objects more generally. It will become clear in the section of this thesis which discusses the sculptures themselves, that it is they that most closely resemble the hobby horse: It is the sculptures made to be filmed which allow for a type of use in front of the camera which is forbidden of conventional gallery exhibits.

In her book The Address of the Eye (1992), Vivian Sobchack uses Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s formulation in which perception and expression are reversible and inseparable aspects of human experience, outlining a phenomenology of film experience in which she ascribes to film a primary ability to signify. She attributes this to film’s unique position as a situated and embodied form of visual, audio and proprioceptive perception and expression. For her, film has a pervasive ability to signify, based on a ‘wild meaning’ which prefigures any discrete communication and that we as humans are uniquely placed to perceive as analogous to that of our own embodied and enworlded experience. ‘The moving picture makes itself sensuously and sensibly manifest as the expression of experience by experience. A film is an act of seeing that makes itself seen, an act of hearing that makes itself heard, an act of physical and reflexive movement that makes itself reflexively felt and understood.’ (Sobchack 1992, p. 3)

Central to this is a notion of film’s body as a situated being, which constitutes a world through its ability to perceive and communicate experience, not as discrete operations which need to be synthesised, but as a single reflexive process. ‘A film is experienced and understood not as some objective mechanism like a water heater. It is also not experienced and understood as an enabling and extensional prosthetic device like a telephone or microscope. Rather, the film is experienced and understood for what it is: a visible and centred visual activity coming into being in significant relation to the objects, the world, and the others it intentionally takes up and expresses in embodied vision.’ (Sobchack 1992, p. 171)

We see something similar in Bazin’s description of the photographic image. ‘The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it. No matter how fuzzy, distorted, or discoloured, no matter how lacking in documentary value the image may be, it shares, by virtue of the very process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is the representation: it is the model.’ (cited in Krauss 1977, p75)

For Sobchack, film expresses itself to us in an embodied and direct language predicated upon our own bodily experience. Watching film is not a process of decoding abstract data – two-dimensional forms, colours, and patterns or pixels – in order to synthesise them into a picture, in the same way as our engagement with the world more generally is not one of assimilating abstract sense data into an internal picture. If we understand the film image as an expression of perception, and perception itself as being intimately entwined with the world and objects within it, as Merleau-Ponty did, then we might see objects themselves as caught in the reversible act of perception and expression. It is their expressibility through perception, which characterises their existence for us. When film (or photography) expresses objects, no matter how fuzzy or distorted, they appear to us as objects. There is no need for us to interpret, to synthesise abstract data into a perception. The objects on screen are there for us to grasp as direct apprehensions.

This runs counter to empiricist philosophies in which our understanding of objects is ‘built up’ by the rational accumulation of qualities – this thing is red and green and round and juicy, it must be an apple! A model in which the brain syntheses abstract sense data in order to build up an internal picture of the world. This ‘input-output’ model, in which sense data is taken in by the sense organs and processed by the brain before sending out instructions for action is critiqued by Alva Noë, again influenced by Merleau-Ponty, in his book Action in Perception. (2004) For him ‘vision’ is far more complex than something we do with our eyes alone. Instead the entire body participates in a dynamic enworlded perception in which our understanding is built from a multi-facetted agglomeration of bodily senses, all working together to make perception possible.

Similarly, philosopher Graham Harman suggests that we experience objects in the world immediately and as a whole, before we pick out individual qualities: what Merleau-Ponty refers to as a perfect fullness. ‘It is impossible completely to describe the colour of the carpet without saying that it is a carpet, made of wool, and without implying in this colour a certain tactile value. A certain weight and a certain resistance to sound. The thing is that manner of being for which the complete definition of one of its attributes demands that of the subject in its entirety; an entity, consequently, the significance of which is indistinguishable from its total appearance.’ (Merleau-Ponty 2002, p. 376) Every aspect of the object is always already inscribed into the whole. Oliver Sacks’ essay The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (2011) is informative here. As the man described in the essay becomes increasingly unable to recognise the faces of his students, Sacks realises, when asking him to name the people in a family photograph, that he is consciously processing abstract data – this person has blue eyes, blond hair, it must be my brother – contrary to what might be seen as typical perceptual functioning.

Sobchack writes that every film, no matter how abstract or Structural Materialist, referring to experimental films of the 1970s which foreground the material characteristics of analogue film, must necessarily be experienced first as representation before it can be secondarily coded as abstract. The experience of watching a film such as Room Film (1973) by Peter Gidal, a central figure in the UK’s Structural Materialist movement, is a case in point. The constant flurry of grain and the repetitive disorientating movement of the camera offer little for the viewer to anchor what they are seeing. Due to Gidal’s critical shifting between the materiality of the film and glimpses of depictional content, the viewer is left swimming within the film experience, constantly grappling for a visual hold on what is presented. Yet, in the moment where the outline of a bathroom tap momentarily looms into focus out of the mist, this object immediately coheres, before slipping back into the patina of the celluloid, and suddenly the meaning of the work’s title is grasped as the whole room is momentarily perceived. The idea that a visual fragment such as this could give on to a perception of the tap, or the bathroom as a whole might seem counter-intuitive, but consider Merleau-Ponty’s example of a house. For him the view from the front is already redolent of the other sides, we do not need to move around it to confirm its whole existence. This is not to say that the tap is perceived in its entirety from only a fragment. It is rather that the fragment is experienced as always already a part of a whole. It may transpire that this fragment is just that, a piece of a tap broken off from the rest, but this would be a secondary realisation and the fragment would nevertheless be perceived as a tap part. The whole tap must exist for us, as must the perceptual world, in order for those aspects of it that we encounter to be graspable as such.

If we return to Bazin’s description of the photographic image we see a similar conception. No matter how fuzzy or distorted the image may be the objects that it pictures appear to us as direct impressions, as the objects themselves. For us experientially competent adults, the things depicted by the film are there for us, we need not interpolate them.

When directed towards this research, in which the question of sculpture is posed through the medium of film, this has profound significance. It allows us to shift our understanding of the image of sculpture from that of flawed replica to one which offers direct access to an object, immediately grasped as a wholeness no matter how grainy, oblique or degraded the image. This is not to go along with the commonplace understanding of film as a transparent and unproblematic depiction, but to understand film’s power to thrust objects and situations into our perceptual understanding. Our experience of objects, people and places through film, may be materially different to that of encountering things in real life, but structurally, our perception of objects in film operates in a similar way to that of everyday perception.

Perhaps it is this that makes film and video so engaging, beyond the initial amazement prompted by it as a scientific marvel. The fact that film is structurally analogous to our perception, yet materially different to it, is what underpins its aesthetic, creative and imaginative possibilities.

Whilst Bazin effectively discounts the material particularities of the image, we may view them as fundamentally linked with our perception of film and the things it represents. This is clear in the case of Peter Gidal, whose films force the viewer to consider the material stuff of the celluloid at a time (the 1970s) in which the indexicality of the film image was a theoretical mainstay. As with many other structuralist or materially engaged filmmakers, he sought to present the film’s body as an active and fundamental part of the cinematic experience.

Whilst the research has certainly concerned itself with different types of camera and film/video formats, it has not done so in order to investigate or champion the ontological particularities of any one media. Instead it has used footage from different types of camera, transferred and edited digitally, indiscriminately, in order to explore the possibilities they open up, when brought together with objects in the studio. It could be asked (derisively perhaps) whether the use of these different media is simply one of visual effect, but this would be to misunderstand the intention. The materiality of film and video is not only about the physical substrate on which the image is encoded, but resides equally in the affective qualities – the look - of the image, the ways in which it can be used, manipulated and treated, and the types of looking that the particularities of the media and its equipment inspire.