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May 25, 2008

The Frame’s The Thing

The woman in the photograph above is looking at an art installation called “Magic Ink” on display as part of an exhibit at London’s Hayward Gallery titled “Invisible Art—Art About the Unseen, 1957-2012.”  Interesting in its own right as perhaps a comment on the in/visibility of symmetry, what drew my attention to it is rather something of a personal conceit as it reminded me of my first visit to the Tate Gallery in 1986.

The Tate is one of the most popular modern art museums in the world (measured by annual attendance figures) and when I was there it was featuring a series of exhibits on various forms of neo-minimalist, pop art.  Everywhere one looked, the canvases, sculptures, and installations drew upon the ordinary objects of everyday life to pose radical challenges to our ways of seeing.  Leaving one exhibit hall and making my way to another I came across an empty hallway that had an empty, 4 X 6 foot gold embroidered frame hanging on a plain white  wall.

I was entranced and intrigued.  After looking at paintings of soup cans, and sculptures made from everyday trash, I was delighted by the museum’s playfulness as it sought to remind us of the conceptual importance of the frame for defining the artistic event.  For here we had an institutionally plain white wall  that otherwise would have been totally invisible made profoundly significant by the simple convention of locating it within and around a frame.  Indeed, I began to wonder if the frame framed the wall or if the wall framed the frame.   And more, I began to think about how the museum itself became something of a frame for all that was within its walls, lending artistic credibility to things that otherwise might not be seen as art at all, but rather as the simple, quotidian objects or random junk that it was.

There was a bench nearby and I sat on it for 10-15 minutes pondering the artistic genius of the “empty” frame and how it signified.  Just as I was about to get up to leave two custodians came along and unceremoniously removed the 4 X 6 foot frame from the wall, dumped it on a dirty and rusting dolly, and hauled it away. I was crushed, my ego altogether deflated as i recalled the words  often attributed to Freud, that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”  But the more I thought about it, that wasn’t quite right either, for here what had duped me into seeing the frame as a marker of invisibility was not just my own intellectual arrogance (though we should not discount that altogether) but the very fact that I was in a modern art museum featuring precisely the kind of art I thought I was seeing. Had I encountered this empty frame in a shopping mall or in a friend’s house I would in all likelihood have seen it for nothing more than an empty frame—if I had registered seen it at all. And so, in its own way, the lesson of the moment was all the more significant, for it helped me to recognize the complexity of framing: both how we bring our own frames to the world all of the time, and more, that where we see something is every bit as important as what we are actually looking at; indeed, it may well be that the where is even more important than the what in terms of “framing” meaning.

The point is perhaps not all that profound for those of us who live in a world that relies upon an advanced visual literacy, but even then it is no less significant for that fact, and certainly it is something we need to be reminded of from time to time.  For me, at any rate, the photograph above recalled the importance of the frame and the complexities of the ways in which it manages the tensions between the visible and the invisible, both what we see and what we choose not to see.

Photo Credit: Bethany Clarke/Getty Images


The “Advance of Civilization”

I had the opportunity this past week to visit the Museum of Westward Expansion which is part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and is housed underground beneath the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.  According to the museum’s website it  “preserves some of the rarest artifacts from the days of Lewis and Clark” and allows visitors to “explore the world of American Indians and the 19th-century pioneers who helped shape the history of the American West.”  Imagine my surprise then when I came across the floor to ceiling photograph shown below in the middle of the first exhibit room dedicated to a timeline of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

You will of course recognize it as the iconic image of the “mushroom cloud” explosion over Nagasaki, the second of two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in August, 1945.  Since this event has no obvious connection to the Louis and Clark Expedition, I expressed my surprise to one of the museum’s docents who responded by noting, “… the museum is [also] about the advance of civilization as part of the nation’s movement westward and we want to show some of the key moments from the twentieth century.”  And indeed, not far from this display one finds a comparable floor to ceiling photograph of Neil Armstrong saluting the U.S. flag on the moon.

In as much as the space program was originally framed as an extension of the American frontier—marked here by the stage coach—the photograph of the moon landing makes a modicum of sense, but the explosion of a bomb that obliterated a city killing nearly forty thousand people and set off what became known as the Cold War’s “arms race” does not sit easily with the theme of the “advance of civilization,” and its connection to the notion of “westward expansion” is even more difficult to fathom.

Upon more careful inspection, however, I noticed that the photograph of the mushroom cloud, which otherwise lacked any caption or explanation, is inscribed with a quotation from Alfred Einstein in 1939 that reads: “… in the course of the last four months it has been made probable … that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium elements would be generated … This new phenomenon … would lead to the production of bombs and it is conceivable, though much less certain, that extremely powerful bombs of a new type constructed.”  The quotation stands in odd opposition to the photograph itself inasmuch as it frames the bomb as a less than certain outcome of a scientific advance in nuclear technology.  The bomb may have been “much less certain,” but sure enough here it is as a documented, photographic reality.

One might want to read this as a ham handed expression of  America’s “manifest destiny,” and I don’t want to ignore the implications of that possibility.  But I think there is another and more subtle point to be made.  Einstein’s words precede the explosion by six years.  And as such they caption the image in terms of what Hariman and I have described elsewhere as “modernity’s gamble,” the wager that the long-term dangers (and anxieties) of a technology-intensive society will be avoided (or managed) by continued progress.  Yes, the ability to “set up a nuclear chain reaction” is a mark of scientific and technological progress, but of course it comes with a risk—the possibility of the production of “extremely powerful bombs of a new type.” That in this case the possibility became a catastrophic reality is mitigated by the necessities of the gamble itself, i.e.,  such risk is the cost of progress in an advanced technological society.  And as the second photograph purports to show, sometimes the gamble pays off.  The problem, of course, is that those who paid the costs of such gambles with their lives are nowhere to be seen in either photograph.

In short, the exhibit articulates our history of westward expansion with our cultural vow to technological progress, and as such it reinforces our commitment to the rationale of modernity’s gamble.  More specifically, it contributes to the domestication of our memory and understanding of the explosion of the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki by casting them as simple “advances in civilization.”  And that should give us pause.

Photo Credit: John Louis Lucaites