Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Notes on a Photograph: Untitled by Andrew Bush

bushenvelope Andrew Bush, Untitled, 1993, Chromogenic Print, Varying dimensions, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In Untitled Andrew Bush has photographed the backs of various types, sizes and colors of envelopes true to size creating a trompe l’oeil effect in the tradition of William Harnett and John F. PetoWilliam_Michael_Harnett_After_the_Hunt_1885 Each individual photograph/envelope is then placed in a different kind of frame such as a second-hand photographic printing frame, a negative holder, or a X-ray film holder.  This framing serves to further differentiate each envelope and make it  more distinct as if to convey the personality of its potential user or perhaps recipient.  (All of the envelopes are unsealed.)  Thus, the  envelopes framed and stacked together like  a collection of actual envelopes become like readymades à la Marcel Duchamp.

The work expresses a nostalgia and poignancy about the fading of traditional mail, the use of envelopes to send information, in favor of emails, text messages and social networking sites.  There is a sadness inscribed in this group of photographs about the end of a form of communication that has been used by people for hundreds of years.  And indeed, a handwritten note or letter has a warmth and generosity to it that an email or text does not.  The written message bears the traces of the person who has composed it.  In the strokes of ink lie secrets of their personality and intent, something which is not present in an email with a standardized font and format.

Also, a handwritten note or letter can be saved and cherished as a keepsake in a box or book.  A printed email is not the same.  It is cold, mechanical and disposable.  On the screen it will look the same now and in a 100 years.  It will not develop the patina of time, the fading of ink, the yellowing of paper, the odd tear or crease, the fingerprints and skin oils of the reader.  In this way, Untitled can be understood as a collection of vintage or antique envelopes that give witness and testimony to the past and its forms of archaic communication.  They become rarified objects appreciated for their color, style, form rather than their function.  They are relegated to the museum rather than everyday use.

When I recently went to England, I sent  numerous postcards to friends and family.  The postcard is a more recent mail invention dating to the middle of the 19th century.  Yet, are they also becoming obsolete like letters?  Why not take a photo of yourself with a cell phone in front of Big Ben accompanied by a text message:  “Having fun, wish you were here!”  In contrast, the actual postcard allows the receiver to participate in the fantasy of travel.  It opens the door to the imagination of going somewhere beyond one’s daily existence and becoming someone else, somewhere else.  I am not sure an electronic photo/text quite achieves the same thing.  Nor can it be saved as a memento of a friend or loved one’s journey.

But what of the form of Untitled?  The piece is comprised of photographic envelopes not actual ones.  In this regard, there is an oscillation in this work between denotation and connotation, between the “real” and the “represented” and between the sign and its referent.  This oscillation is mediated by the mythical nature of photography as being transparent, as being one with its referent, as being an expression of truth.  In a sense, as we look at this work there is a phasing in and out between actual envelope and depicted envelope.  This dynamic underlies the content of the piece- its nostalgia, its sadness, its expression of an ending.  Envelopes and their contents are phasing out, disappearing, vanishing, entering the realm of the collectable rather than a functioning implement of communication.  It is a state of affairs that saddens me.  In response, I will continue to write notes and resist the rising tide of technology as long as there are still stamps, envelopes and dear recipients to receive them.


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