Sean Snyder, Index
Institute of Contemporary Arts
12 Feb - 19 April 09
MO Berger, The Sawdust Review
There is nothing too exciting here, but that does not mean it is not worth checking out. The way the ICA gallery spaces are set up - cinema, café, and bookshop interspersed - they are on two different levels, which maybe makes it difficult to maintain that exclusive focus on the art while walking from the downstairs gallery to the next but which, it turns out, echoes the different aspects of art Snyder seems to be discussing.
There are two videos that seem especially incongruent but interesting. Downstairs, behind a partial wall, "Exhibition", 2008, plays. It re-edits a Soviet propaganda film showing an art exhibition at a provincial museum and then another outside, against the wall of a farm building. In still-chilly London, it is amazing to watch an open-air exhibition and dream about how the landscape and paintings must play off each other, but, of course, it is a propaganda film and this admiration must be tempered with some amount of suspicion. But after Snyder's editing to make the film about art and not art in service of revolution, this piece seems to mostly speak about the tiny role art plays in a community like the villages in the film. The paintings - copies of Raphael's Sistine Madonna and others - look so tiny and insignificant in front of the sturdy walls, the sky, the fields, the peasant-farmers. So that's one layer - art somewhat out of place against a certain socioeconomic background.
The other is art as an observer of that socioeconomic background. Through the cafe and up the stairs, "Casio, Seiko, Sheraton, Toyota, Mars", 2004-5, plays. Most reviewers seem to have focused on its examination of brands, of wars as marketing expansions for brand names. But it also spends a lot of time discussing photojournalism - its techniques, its conventions, and, at least implicitly, its ethics. Still photos are shown with a voice-over quoting textbook advice on how to approach the recording of an event. Children and their grandparents are seen unloading food from a train. These people have far less time for art as such than the Ukrainian villagers downstairs, but the difference is they are art. The photojournalist is not just recording an event or a place but is aesthecizing it through finding the right subject - a young boy walking away and looking down, distracted, a couple bananas dangling from his fingers - or the right composition - a close-up of that boy or with the action of unloading still going on raucously behind him - or the right combination of shots - a landscape, a close-up, a group - to tell a quick but powerful narrative.
Art as diversion and art as a constant, watching presence are the two aspects Snyder seems to be discussing, then, but these are just inferences; it is not at all clear what exactly Snyder means to convey with these videos. The other video, "Afghanistan, circa 1985″ seems at first more obvious, but is actually less so. It depicts Soviet and Afghan troops dancing together, loops with sound and then without, and is the kind of vague, seemingly pointless video that makes me feel films in dark rooms with benches really have no place in a gallery setting. But the first two mentioned are actually both excellent in their separate, though related, ways, and really more gallery films should be like them.
The other aspect of Index, the main aspect, is, in fact, "Index", a collection of photographs of the media hardware on which Snyder's work has been stored. Which work is not clear, and the gallery notes and other reviews seem to be especially unsure about how these photos relate to his other work here and elsewhere. There is a website that is supposed to be somehow related (see below), but, no, it really does not clear anything up. These photos are nonetheless interesting in their own right. Put simply, Snyder reifies information. He presents a memory stick or a cassette in a photograph and though we know the objects hold much more interesting information, we are forced to be interested in that object as it is, as a piece of art in itself. He takes this a step further in the extra-close-up photos on the concourse level (leading to the cafe) where pieces of the technology of modern communications technology are focused on so completely as to make them into something undeniably artistic, and nothing but artistic, recorded by some other technological device. The recorder becomes the recorded. It is not new, but it is done with new, different, digital objects, and though there is not much to it - just a few photos - it works.
In these and in his re-presentations of propaganda films, Snyder is focused on the materiality of information - both how it can be molded to fit one's ends and how it exists not just as ideas and images, but bits of celluloid and silicon. This interrelation of the diverse pieces of the exhibition is what ultimately saves it from being a little too varied and sparse, and eventually allows it to live up to the photojournalism guidelines quoted in "Casio, Seiko, Sheraton, Toyota, Mars": "You should have a clear idea of why you're taking the photo, what it's meant to convey."