“For the world itself has taken on a ‘photographic face;’ it can be photographed because it strives to be absorbed into the spatial continuum which yields to snapshots.… That the world devours them is a sign of the fear of death. What the photographs by their sheer accumulation attempt to banish is the recollection of death, which is part and parcel of every memory image. In the illustrated magazines, the world has become a photographable present, and the photographed present has been entirely eternalized. Seemingly ripped from the clutch of death, in reality it has succumbed to it.” 1
There is no groundbreaking evidence laid bare in Jeremy Todd’s series of photographs Missing Links: An Archive After History . Rather, by the very fragmentary and lacunary nature of the imagery and factual detail, the work points more to the impossibility of ever being able to fit the pieces together, and even of the impossibility of any originary, primordial event. Or perhaps time has eradicated crucial evidence. Fossils of bones, tools, wood, and stones lay scattered about, ready to be classified and examined for links, for signs of evolution and progress. What seems to matter here is to grasp how ideas around likeness and difference have been constructed and how they have propelled human civilization along the particular track it happens to find itself on now.
Each portrait image represents an anonymous or, more rarely, a recognizable face, eyes cast downward, the head at three-quarter position, slightly tilted down. Each occupies the centre of a larger document that serves as a ground or frame for the portrait–a supplementary meaning. The edges of the headshots are torn. Why have these images been ripped out so crudely? They recall a keepsake. Their “ruined” aspect speaks of a “low” provenance and signals an idiosyncratic archive, collected piecemeal, distractedly. Why were these particular images saved/collected? What binds them in spite of their distance from one another in time and space? And from which sources were they torn?
In many respects recalling the tactics and historicity of Aby Warburg’s Atlas , of early-20 th century collage, and of postwar popular culture and fine art, Todd’s images juxtapose “constructed meanings” within a serial formal construction. 2Like Warburg he juxtaposes one image against another, without contextual grounding, and in the process produces a secret correspondence. Todd’s archive links different time periods (thus having the appearance of an allegorical archive, one where meaning and classification are rendered ambiguous) and attempts to construct meaning through the leap of interpretation made possible by the meeting of two unrelated images on the same picture plane. While Todd’s aesthetic might seem “anti-subjective” in terms of its use of quotation or the readymade image, the series of works reveal an unmistakable melancholy that seems to point to a deliberate projection of pathos on the part of the artist.
A critical attitude toward the uses of science and the photographic medium in fashioning how we represent and conceptualize our existence is, at bottom, central to Todd’s collection. The installation and display or the images also reflect a profound understanding of the very nature of photography: the reproduction of an unlimited number of images; its importance in the dissemination of information, documentation, and imagery; its portability and mass distribution. His archive foregrounds an obsession with a certain topology, a compulsive return to a specific, almost emblematic pose, and a certain anachronistic aesthetic speaks of appropriations of the recent past. A series of repeated facial “emblems” function as a pictorial language based on the overlooked, excluded, neglected, and/or discarded image. Juxtaposing a recurring behavioural fascination with human contemplation, grief, melancholy, and oppression, to references of conservative, scientific models of knowledge that have come to mould our existence (the predominance of linear branches and trees of scientific documents), Todd has devised a material and formal discontinuity and fragmentation that provokes a sense estrangement or melancholy in the viewer.
But what are these people looking at? They appear to have discovered something. And, in passing, so have we. What are we looking at? What is it about this experience of looking at someone looking? In many respects it places us in the position of the voyeur, invading the intimate experience of an “other”. And if we consider it a given that these portraits of people display “symptoms” that can be interpreted, what could these symptoms be pointing to? Perhaps the images act as a kind of collective/historical screen memory.
In the mid- 18 th century Johann Caspar Lavater wrote Pysiognomische Fragmente , a text claiming, “the body, and especially the face and head, bore the outward signs of inner character. Lavater … suggested that this ‘original language of Nature, written on the face of Man’ could be deciphered by a rigorous physiognomic science”. 3In the late 19 th century, the hysteric was said to display many phases of hysterical behaviour, marked by distinct facial expressions and fits of passion, anger, etc. Using illustrations and photographs taken of the patients at La Salpetriere, Charcot analyzed, catalogued, and interpreted the emotional symptoms displayed by hysterics . Charcot asserted that the resulting archive of symptoms reflected the illness’s universality, regardless of nationality, race, historical moment.
Allan Sekula, in “The Traffic In Photographs” and “The Body and the Archive”, outlines the use of photo-documentation for the archiving, interpretation, and future regulation and of the human body, seen as an assemblage of fragmented organic symptoms (of criminality, etc.). The “sociologistic” photographer of the German people, August Sander, advanced physiognomic theories, and believed that “a liberal, enlightened, and even socially-critical pedagogy might be achieved by the proper use of photographic means.” 4Within Sander’s practice, representations of class were tainted by physiognomic theories that rationalized ideological prejudices.
We create elaborate systems for storing, distributing, and selling information, experiences, and emotions. But what possessed us to conquer space, to organize knowledge through memory traces (e.g. writing, photography)? And for that matter, what was the deciding factor that propelled us from the horizontal, all-fours, position, to that of homo erectus, in turn leading to the dominance of the visual field within our psychic imaginary? Was it the evolution guided by the brain, the hand, or the pelvis?
Humans have acquired the capacity to interpret and reinterpret themselves beyond belief. But in conquering belief (in God), we were forced to confront our earthbound, mundane, corporeal existence. This newfound sense of purposelessness within the world, this profound absence that then lay at the centre of humanity, perhaps stands as the founding moment of the allegorical gaze. In turn this has motivated our perceptual preoccupation with dead things. Under the gaze of melancholy life flows out of the object and remains behind, a dead object, a disembodied shell. 5As a fixed, static image or sign, the allegorical emblem acts as a storage site for memory. This shares the same status of the commodity, which, when emptied of its referent, or rather, when the link between signifier and signified is forever severed, resembles the empty vessel onto which a multitude of desires, and traumas, are projected.
“The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation–and which manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality that I shall call orthopaedic–and , lastly, to the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject’s entire mental development. Thus, to break out of the circle of the Innenwelt into the Umwelt generates the inexhaustible quadrature of the ego’s verification.” 6
The process of unifying identity within the body is solidified at the mirror stage of infancy through its externalization in space. Attachment to the self occurs though mirror reflection. In the realm of culture, photographs have also acted as a surface for self-recognition through the release of phantasmic projections triggered by the images themselves. Identification with the “other” or with representations of an “other” occurs as if one were before a mirror. Attachment to the photographic/digital reproduction or to televisual/cinematic spectacle, is intensified through the voyeuristic pleasure provided by the uninterrupted gaze. Thanks to the increase in influence of the culture industry, we internalize a multiplicity of behavioural traits every day. Unbeknownst to us, a complicated, and ideological, system of signs are involved in the construction of the ego, too often resulting in an unending quest for fulfillment and satisfaction. One symptom has been the obsessive consumption of images in order to maintain one’s sense of self-worth and belonging to the human species, in large part aggravated by the culture industry. Todd’s archive works in opposition to these tendencies, in that the fragmentary nature of the work serves to disrupt any identification with or clear interpretation of the image. Furthermore, traces of the handmade or constructed give a more subjective grounding to the archive, countering the spectacular effects of the market forces.
“Emancipated humanity is not an adult humanity; it is a humanity that is allowed to anticipate its adulthood, in spite of the fact that it has not reached it, but as if it has reached it. Today, we know that humanity will never reach adulthood–understood as the entirely rational and autonomous state of the enlightened subject. This we know not as a consequence of our historical disillusionment but as a consequence of the biological fact distinguishing humans from other animals: humans are born prematurely.… Neoteny, the fact–long recognized by embryologists–that the human brain is not completed, and not completely “wired,” at the time of birth is what has given the cortex and the neocortex their phylogenetic prevalence over older (both in embryological and evolutionary terms) cerebral structures and has allowed the formidable development of the human intellectual capacities. It is this fact that makes the growth of young humans vulnerable and dependent on stimuli from the outer world, on the presence of language in their environment, on parental care and affection, on social relation in general, and thus on culture, in a way that is not true for any other species, not even the primates. It is also this fact that accounts for the human species having developed this intricate set of mechanisms–repression, censorship, resistance, denial, disavowal, sublimation, but also the return of the repressed, symptoms, dreams, slips of the tongue, compromise-formations, in one word, the whole neurotic (sometimes psychotic) machinery regulating the “psychopathology of everyday life”–with which humans negotiate the discrepancies between the rational capacities of their brain and the instinctual remnants of earlier stages of natural evolution which their physiology also contains… . It is the handicap of being born prematurely that forces us humans to an ethical behavior instead of an instinctual one, and that should drive them toward progress in civilization, democratic freedom, a legal state and an international political order; and that thereby they would accomplish their “nature”…it will always be too soon to grant autonomy to human beings, and this is why humanity cannot be freed but only emancipated. It is bound to anticipate and adult stage that its very nature precludes–“bound”, in both the sense of a natural determination and of a moral obligation.” 7
The link between ethics and aesthetics is of central importance to Todd’s work. Having gone beyond the cult value and the autonomy of the art object, and then having passed through a number of attempts at a critical function of art (which assumes an emancipatory project 8), is there a future for an ethical praxis of art in terms of long-lasting “results” or even a sustained practice (not one that endlessly has to reinvent itself)? Why do these attempts at constructing a just society and meaningful existence always fall short of the mark? Does the answer lie in the realms of the inaccessible, ontological Real, or is it more a matter of biology? Is it the prematurity of our birth as a species as noted by de Duve, that keeps us obsessively motivated to repeat the same endeavours and demonstrate the same behaviours time and again? Is there hope beyond the prevailing defeatist attitude of our present moment? In presenting this archive, Jeremy Todd seems to be offering up a series of ambiguous interpretations concerning the history of human civilization, our compulsion to make art, and what satisfies our needs through looking at art. There is no solution in interpretation, but there a few clues may materialize.
1 Siegried Kracauer, “Photography” in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays , Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995, p. 59.
2 Benjamin Buchloh, “Warburg’s Paragon? The End of Collage and Photomontage in Postwar Europe” in Deep Storage: Collecting, Storing, and Archiving in Art , ed. By Ingrid Schaffner & Matthias Winzen, Munich/NY: Prestel, pp. 50–60.
3 Allan Sekula, Photography against the grain: essays and photo-works 1973–1983, Halifax: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1984, p. 85.
4 Sekula, p. 83.
5 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations.
6 Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection , NY/London: W.W. Norton & Co, 1977 quoted in Thierry de Duve, Kant after Duchamp , Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996, p. 439.
7 Thierry de Duve, Kant after Duchamp , p. 438 & 441.
8 Ibid., pp. 427–462.