Our History in the Present Tense

There are two shows in Minneapolis that share a familiar photographic theme. From W.P.A. era photographers roaming the country to Nan Goldin‘s efforts to record her friends and loved ones, these photographs hope to mirror what and who we are and to write our history in the present tense.

The Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Embarrassment of Riches and The Walker Art Center‘s From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America both provide photographic documents about our current social condition. Riches is a series of photographs exploring what luxury means in the global age and how the localized financial expansions and contractions of the last decade are reflected in photography. Alec Soth’s America is a survey of his images found while traveling the open road, gathered here under the mystery of what it is to be American.

Mother and Daughter, Davenport, Iowa Courtesy Alec Soth

At MIA, curator David E. Little pulled images that reflect his themes of place, currencies, creation of power, luxury, and ritual/fashion while at the Walker, Siri Engberg has selected from Soth’s themed portfolios, Sleeping by the Mississippi, Niagara, and Broken Manual as well as a selection of his videos. At the MIA, the curator holds the center and pulls work together to fit a theme he sees as already existing in contemporary art, whereas at the Walker the artist explores his own self-approved theme and the curators have extracted what they feel are ideal examples. The difference of curator or artist as center forms a long standing argument in curatorial studies, and these shows provide great examples for both sides of the discussion.

Soth’s videos are all-encompassing (most were commissioned by the New York Times). Having more than one frame to explore, the videos allow him to extend his inquiry further into the places and people he meets. Images like Mother and Daughter, Davenport, Iowa rich in innuendo, make the viewer question if Soth is laughing at, documenting, or just enjoying the lush and unusual people he finds while traveling. The video Ash Wednesday, New Orleans gives us some insight into his relationships with his subjects. In the videos, first we witness his nausea when faced with Mardi Gras. Second, his long term commitment is obvious from revisiting Adelyn. And third, we see his dispassionate realization that R. is a man. Soth’s videos provide more insight into him and his process than in any of his still frames.

Hassink's Ford Girl, Shanghai and Lexus Girl, Shanghai-- Courtesy John Pyper

The one video included in Embarrassment of Riches, Jankowski’s Strip the Auctioneer, diverges from work in both exhibitions. Christie’s auctioneer Amo Verkade sells his entire wardrobe at auction. It states where value is created a little too literally when compared to the other works in the show. Jacqueline Hassink’s photos of women standing next to cars at international auto shows are more subtle and raises the theatrical moment in marketing through architecture and gender. She further explores these themes in her series Haute Couture Fitting Rooms.

The most compelling works in Riches depict global power centers. Along with Paris, views of Dubai, Frankfurt, and Canada show some of the locations where expansions and contractions have happened in the last decade. The excitement of murmuring white robed sheiks on hiatus from the heat in the Kuwait Exchange is juxtaposed by the silence of an oil line sending resources south through Canada. It is unsurprising that Soth’s work is included in this show too, a photo of Yves Saint Laurent’s dog Moujik sitting quietly on a chair hidden away behind wood panels in the civilized private luxury of Paris’s close-knit streets.

Soth's Fondation Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent, Moujik courtesy MIA

One of the tasks of contemporary photography is to frame our memory. These two shows create a para-dichotomy pointing at the same question: how did we get to our current position? It would be easy to see an echo from MSNBC and Fox News in this pair, easy to read “the rich get richer” into both shows. But, a political reading– speaking for those with no voices or questioning those with unlimited capabilities– is too simple, isn’t very engaging, and seems rote at this point. Instead of rehearsing these same lines again, we should return to the works and consider how they are actively writing our history.

These works are as compelling for what they say about art as for what they say about us. Art can have its greasy little fingers in every part of our lives. From Yoshitomo Nara’s sketches on hotel stationary and his personal mail to Frances Stark’s fluent translations of the terrified moment of creation, contemporary art is incapable of escaping the moment in which it was created even though it paradoxically freezes time and forces us to live with that moment forever. These moments will seem different to us in the coming years, but today we see things like the financial gulf between rich and poor, the widening and shrinking of the globe, and an unstable political climate. These frozen moments may turn into nostalgia or even seem funny in a few years, but the contact we have with them will allow reflections that their makers could not predict.