In his 1973 text,The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom cited a term called poetic misprision. What he was referring to was a process that artists, in his case literary authors, adopted in order to further themselves from their sources and avoid being derivative. As an artistic process, it’s a brilliant explanation of how to deal with appropriation and context in contemporary art – to consciously and deliberately misread your source in order to create new meaning. For The Character and Shape of Illuminated Things, the latest MCA Plaza Project by Amanda Ross-Ho, which was unveiled this past Tuesday, the source image was in fact the only thing many people knew of the large-scale sculpture piece in the months leading up to the public installation. And while the installation has a certain faithfulness to the image, it does so many things differently. Ross-Ho pulls off what many public art projects fail to do. I am sadly reminded of those awful chia head planters just down Michigan Ave., if only for the formal resemblance and proximity, Plant Green Ideas – clichés stay out please! The Plaza Project is finally an elegant answer to public sculpture and a stimulating challenge of how to deal with source material in an outdoor context, sharing many of the exhibition themes on view within the museum, all the while bringing a breath of fresh air to the face of the museum.
The image represents a type of ideal; a height of 1960s style in three standard parts. The photograph echoes with the residual nostalgia of a black and white half-toned Xerox, heightened by the hyper-mod design element in the mannequin’s features, and the two fundamental geometric elements poised on either side of the bust. In a word, the composition is iconic. In fact, the image is lifted from a 1980s manual, How to Control and Use Photographic Lighting, by David Brooks – though the photograph appears midcentury, and even humorously “classical”. With a source so good, why fuck with the original? The genius of Ross-Ho’s installation functions precisely because it transcends the memory of the original image, purposefully misunderstands its context, and transforms the photographic into the spatial – without losing the original effect.
For those who have seen it from afar, the installation is essentially a still life that has become part of the architecture. Fabricated out of the same three distinct elements in the photograph – the cube, the female bust, and the sphere, cast in tonal grey material at a monumental scale reaching twenty-five-feet high, the piece looks as though the museum itself is equivalent to the backdrop in the photograph.There is an additional element added to the front of the head, a color calibration card, and while it brings the idea of the piece closer to photography, it also tricks your eye from afar – a sudden reminder that you are not, after all, seeing in black and white.
Amanda Ross-Ho,MCA Plaza Project: The Character and Shape of Illuminated Things, July 23–October 2013.
However, where the two differ the most is that the photograph has an instant effect that the installation does not. Ross-Ho knowingly sets up the failure of immediacy. She does this through how she deals with space and light – an almost painterly preoccupation to her approach. What we get as viewers in the MCA Plaza is the ability to move through a photograph, experience its shadows, its interiors, the spaces that would be otherwise be relegated to pure flatness. While the effect that light has on these objects in the photographs registers in a snap, the piece itself is subject instead to a twenty-four-hour light test. The image may be visibly dated, but the installation belongs to time.
(Image on top: Amanda Ross-Ho, 2013 , Photographic lighting technique illustration, source material for Amanda Ross-Ho's Plaza Project at the MCA Chicago; Courtesy and copyright David Brooks.)