HATS OFF: SALLY EGAN AND AMY BYSTEDT SHOOT THE WORKS
By Peter Frank
To coin a paraphrase, imitation is the sincerest form of parody. Or, as Karl Marx put it, “History repeats itself, the second time as farce.” (That’s actually a paraphrase, too. Can you imagine Marx being so succinct?) The impulse to appropriate, which came to a conceptual head in the 1980s, has since devolved into a far more refracted pursuit. The artwork has already been presented – re-displayed, re-claimed, re-shot – as a Readymade. Now artists must do something else with it.
Re-staging artworks is an even older pursuit; Elaine Sturtevant was “forging” her peers’ artworks back in the ‘60s, for instance. (Yes, she was showing readymades as Readymades.) Nowadays, performance artists such as Marina Abramovic are re-doing “classic” performances, their own and others’. So it’s high time a duo of young women working out here in the intellectually charged boonies re-examined some of the canonical imagery of recent photography by re-enacting them.
What Sally Egan and Amy Bystedt reveal is that photography is, invariably, a performative undertaking. Someone or something has to do or be something or somewhere, and someone else has to point a camera at it. If you’re aiming a camera at something, you’re working in and with time. Doesn’t matter if it’s your cell phone, doesn’t matter if you mess with it later in Photoshop, you’re shooting into time, not just space.
What the “Hats Off” series also reveals is that something weird and wonderful happens when disparate photographers’ signal images are re-done by the same re-doers. Playing dress-up, Egan and Bystedt have placed themselves before their own (okay, each other’s) cameras, and have “faked” images we didn’t think could be faked – even when the images themselves were faked much the same way (e.g. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills), posed self-consciously (e.g. Richard Avedon or Annie Lebowitz), or at least staged in the, er, time-honored manner of fashion photography (e.g. Helmut Newton or Guy Bourdin). Egan and Bystedt are especially deft at re-staging stagings, from John Baldessari’s to Diane Arbus’s (yes, Arbus’s in this instance was itself a staging), but when they can stage an originally accidental moment like Lee Friedlander’s or Mary Ellen Mark’s, they do so – re-focusing our attention on the staginess of the original moment as eternally re-played in the photograph.
What frames Egan and Bystedt’s particular investigation(s) is their exploitation of what they have, or what they limit themselves to: themselves and props. They ask only each other, not anyone else, to pose for each other’s cameras, or the two of them assemble before a single lens. It’s an adventure in travesty, and could have a life in real space. (While everyone else dressed up as Sarah Palin this Hallowe’en, Egan and Bystedt doubtless went out as something out of August Sander. Or Nan Goldin. Or Andres Serrano.) It’s about them – not who they are, but who they can be, and what, as photographers, they know about being. Like the rest of us, Egan and Bystedt have grown up in a mediated visual universe, unable to escape it except through the internal exile of critical deconstruction – which, God bless ‘em, they manifest not as cold, ironic distance or hot political fulmination, but as warm, humorous emulation.
Los Angeles October 2010