The Determinate and Indeterminate Gaze in the Photographs of Panos Kokkinias.
in : Panos Kokkinias: Here We Are, powerHouse Books, New York, 2012
The photographs of Panos Kokkinias show scenes or situations that are generally impossible to define, and this indeterminacy extends even to the beholder’s response. Yes, we could attempt to find (or project) a narrative element, to pick out the traces of an “incident,” of something that might have happened or be about to happen, but the distance is so great, the human figure (if there is one) so tiny and lost in the immensity of its setting, that it is difficult to muster sufficient narrative energy to breathe life into a story or scene. Or, if we do try, the effort is detached, as if we were simply exercising our interpretative faculties. Whatever we do, in any case, the space that we enter is indecisive and hypothetical.
For one thing, everything in these photos has manifestly been calculated, right down to the smallest details, apparently leaving no room for what Lee Friedlander calls the “generosity” of photography – “the fact,” as Michael Fried writes, “that photographs typically depict a wealth of detail that the photographer taking the picture never quite perceived as such, much less intended to photograph.”(1) If there is a possibility of different interpretations, this is not because we have discovered something that the photographer did not notice, a kind of gift, but rather because of the strict framework he has put in place. In this sense, Kokkinias is an exponent of the “theatricality” described (and, since 1967, doggedly opposed) by Fried, a form of indeterminacy which postulates that the meaning of the work is the one given to it by each beholder.
But, on the other hand, as I have suggested, this possibility seems at the same time to be denied us, precisely because the composition is so precise and constrained. Everything points to the conclusion that we are bound to read these photographs as the artist who made them meant them to be read, yet we have no way of knowing what that is. This apparent contradiction is, I think, what gives Kokkinias’s photos their charm, and how he very consciously locates his work outside the perimeter of a number of major practitioners who might come to mind (but more on them later).
A first observation one can make is that time seems suspended here – and not only as it is, by definition, in any photograph. It is suspended in several ways: by the fact, for example, that nothing is really happening on the stage of the representation. Everything has already happened (which is classically photographic) or about to happen (which evokes other practices: narrative in general, and a certain kind of painting).
But this suspension of time also involves a particular visual treatment, the absorption of the small cell of the event or narrative into a vast “landscape,” as if it were frozen in the relative scale of vision. This frozen quality to some extent recalls the mood that permeates the paintings of Hopper, which are bathed in a distinctive light and immobility suggestive of what one might call an empty waiting: waiting without an object. This was already the case in Kokkinias’s first photographs, where the contrast of scale between the frame and the figure or “event” is not so marked. The effect in these pieces is due, rather, to the incongruous presence of objects such as the chicken in a freezer (Freezer, 1995), or the plate of spaghetti on a table (Spaghetti, 1995). But, in that second photo, as indeed in Meat (1995), there is already a hint of the implicit presence of a figure and an action. The position of the various elements in the scene, such as the knife, conveys the imminence of action, and implicitly suggests the presence, albeit enigmatic, of a human character in the sequence constituted by Peanuts, Cabinet and Laughter (all 1995).
With Interiors (1996–97) we again find the enigma of an empty space, with only clues to a hypothetical presence (a mattress, a lit chandelier, a door ajar), as opposed to the solitary figure dwarfed by its surroundings in works such as Swimming Pool and Crawling (both 1996).
Henceforth, the apparatus is in place for a meditation on a contemporary form of visuality, reactivating and revisiting a number of questions from the history of painting. First of all, naturally, there is the figure/ground relation, which is a major theme in recent series such as Here We Are (2001–7) and Landscapes (1998–2001).
The figure (or the trace of their presence) is barely discernible in the immensity of a landscape that is completely empty and more often than not desolate. The dominant impression here is one of finiteness, a crushing sensation, with echoes of Breughel’s Fall of Icarus and Piranesi’s Prisons (in Piraeus, 2003, for example). However, these photographic tableaux, too, are deceptive: where we might expect a tragic vision, as in the work of those two great painters, something occurs to avert it, something playful or absurd (in Kostas , Fanos , or again Kokinnovranos ), or the play of colour, literally drowning the figure or the “scenic object,” which I call the “potential narrative trigger.”
This use of colour is a constant in Kokkinias’s work. Right from the first pieces we can observe a taste for intense hues that saturate the image and its setting, and that in fact become the place and the image, as in Blue Room (1996) and Squash (1996). The artist has two other ways (at least) of making colour a major rhetorical operator. One involves the temptation to monochrome, insofar as this characterises a disquieting, almost carceral space. I am thinking here of Tom, Hans, Brian, Dog, of those long corridors and nondescript spaces, but also of Syrna (2001), of the water in Kostas (2003), and of Aghida (2000), of the rocky ground in Kokkinavrahos (2000), of the earth in Lambinou (1998), and even the pile of litter and earth in Vardia (2006).
The other is the way of using light like a painter or a lighting cameraman. Thus, Theoni (2006) recalls the lighting of certain Flemish paintings, while the name of Hopper comes spontaneously to mind when looking at Evening Sun (2004), Aliki (2007), F1 (2003) and of course the Gas Station (2003).
In Spata (2003) and Underpass (2003), all trace of “incidents” seems to have disappeared to the benefit of the pure power of place – the kind of place that we sometimes come across, closed in on the enigma of its heavily meaningful presence. Such spaces are, as Walter Benjamin noted, real “scenes of crimes.” What Benjamin wrote about Atget is strangely echoed, a century later, in Kokkinias’s work: “It has justly been said that he photographed them [Paris streets] likes scenes of crimes. A crime scene, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence. With Atget, photographic records begin to be evidence in the historical trial [Prozess]. This constitutes their hidden political significance. They demand a specific kind of reception. Free-floating contemplation is no longer appropriate to them. They unsettle the viewer: he feels challenged to find a particular way to approach them.”(2)
But what is this “specific kind of reception” today, and what might its “hidden political significance” be for today’s viewers? As we saw, Michael Fried took the question of theatricality (or anti-theatricality) as one such access path, a touchstone of contemporary photography, by making Jeff Wall central to his ideas. And indeed, some of Panos Kokkinias’s photographs are reminiscent of Wall’s, notably Cockroach (2003) and Urania (2007) (the former evokes Diagonal Composition, 1983, and Clipped Branches, East Cordova Street, Vancouver, 1999, the latter, Morning Cleaning, Mies van der Rohe Foundation, Barcelona, 1999). The idea here is obviously not to compare an artist to one of his famous predecessors, but to use what we may have understood about the latter to cast light on his work. If we stick to the central question, as tirelessly formulated by Fried, it seems that Kokkinias’s photographs are distinguished by a form of enigmatic exteriority and unreality which determines a form of anti-theatricality for the viewer. But even the works of his that seem closest to simple still lifes or innocuous everyday scenes still have what could be called an added brilliance. Over the apparent banality is superimposed an undefined intention, a way of heightening the image without affirming a meaning, which distances us from a representation of everyday life and takes us into the register of dream and fantasy.
This might seem to contradict the title of an ensemble such as Here We Are (2001–7), for example. But if we look more closely, we realise that this title can be understood not as a statement of the obvious, but us a way of locating us in a state of imminence, in the expectation of what is coming. It is not the thingness of the thing that is in play, nor its capacity to elicit projections on the part of the viewer, in the manner of a Minimalist “specific object.” The reaction provoked here seems to be more one of uncertainty, as if something was not reaching completion, but could not be absorbed into one single notion. Everything is suspended, plunged in the artificial light that creates the effect of brightness evoked above. In Leonidas (2007) the figure is literally enclosed in a double circle; in Dana (2004) the woman is caught between two zones of hazy colour, from which she is emerging in the transparency of a rectangle, etc. As Katerina Gregos has appositely observed, “All of these paradoxical circumstances result in an ambiguous narrative that takes place somewhere in the space between fantasy, reality, paradox, and a dream-like state, which draws the viewer into a reflexive space, a mental space of projection, but perpetually denies him or her the possibility of a conclusion.”(3) Personally, and although I find this suspension of meaning, this narrative deceptiveness of the greatest interest, I would be tempted to place the emphasis more on the sensations produced by these images, the ones that arise not so much from the strangeness of the situations as from the artist’s plastic choices. I spoke about colour, but I should also mention, in the book, the juxtaposition of details with the complete reproductions of images. The detail is of course used to offset the modest size of the page format compared to that of the image being reproduced, and the consequent risk that the detail would go unnoticed in reproduction. But this also tells us something about the tension that pervades these photographs, between the scene of representation and the scene of sensation. What the eye perceives in the photograph is a field of colours and forms that constitutes a very powerful scenic device in its own right. The kind of zoom effect created by the reproduction of the detail in the book is an equivalent of the invitation extended to the beholder of the picture to enter into the image and identify the point where the narrative is clinched, the scene within the scene where the threads of the narrative or drama are woven together or untied.
But it is not certain that this is what happens, in a simple logic of focusing the gaze on a key detail, as is sometimes the case in Old Master paintings. The focus of the viewer’s attention remains unpredictable, and it is on the basis of this relative indeterminacy that Kokkinias’s work proposes a new relation between figure and ground, ensemble and detail. Here, of course, we need to bear in mind Daniel Arasse’s remarkable study of the detail.(4) In the second half of his book especially, Arasse draws attention to the contradictions and oscillations induced by the effect of details: these make us oscillate between a distant and proximate view, undermining the “distance point” that is meant to fix the ideal position for the beholder, in order to “elaborate an appearance of three-dimensionality conceived in relation with a fictive beholder.”(5) The coming and going between distant and proximate vision that we perform in order to examine a detail destroys this fiction. The beholder becomes, as the art historian puts it, “dislocated,” and from this “dialectics of dislocation” there emerges a veritable “temporal scansion,” “an inscription of creative temporality within the painting, the inscription of an event of painting in the time of the gaze.”(6)
It is thus this specific temporality of the gaze that is brought into play by the reproduction of details in the printed version of the work. No doubt this should be seen as an invitation to transpose this “dislocated” vision to our reading of the work itself, and perhaps even to consider that the work exists in two different modes – photographic print and printed book – each of which fuels our desire and expectation of the other. By a further irony, this paradox of detail operates within a practice, photography, which was precisely the medium that facilitated the perception of details in paintings, and made it possible to constitute them as objects of study. It is thus legitimate that the question of the relations between painting and photography should be reactivated here, as it has been constantly for over 170 years, around the “narrative temporalisation” of two spaces of representation that sometimes coincide, and sometimes don’t.
1. Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, Yale University Press, 2008, p. 345.
2. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility” (last version, 1939), in Selected Writings III, p. 258
3. Katerina Gregos, “Unpredictable Incidents in Familiar Surroundings,” exh. cat. Panos Kokkinias, Galerie Xippas, 2004.
4. Daniel Arasse, Le Détail – Pour une histoire rapprochée de la peinture, Paris: Flammarion/Champs, 1996.
5. Daniel Arasse, op. cit., p. 238
6. Daniel Arasse, op. cit. p. 244)