MoMA's "The Original Copy: Photography and Sculpture" in a way feels more like a free-for-all mash-up of associations and juxtapositions than a focused thesis, a stream of consciousness collection of various intersections of photography and sculpture. There is a remarkable absence of a prescribed formulation to follow, and the subject is explored rather through various themes and practices, stirring groupings and somewhat abrupt shifts of logic. This lack results not in a confused or incoherent exhibition, but instead promotes a series of inarticulated but compelling resonances between works of sculpture and photography, as well as performance art, photomontage, architecture and design.
An exhibition with such an overarching and broad theme naturally invites some exciting excavations from the archives, providing us with gems and pioneers of early photography. From Charles Nègre's photographs of the statues crowning the Nôtre Dame to Maxime du Camp's forays into exotic Egypt the photographic impulse to record, preserve, and disseminate historic monuments is represented in the first room of the exhibition, perhaps the most straightforward collaboration of photography and sculpture. Yet it is soon revealed that photography was employed very early on to not only document sculpture, but to document the experience of sculpture, the context, the shifts of light, the duality of the constancy of stone and the ephemerality of its surroundings. Eugène Atget and Edward Steichen both experimented with the camera's ability to show the passing of time by photographing the same subject in different seasons, times of night, or through various angles. Steichen's gum bi-chromate prints of Rodin's sculpture of Balzac, photographed at various times between 11pm and 4am, with their intensely sumptuous blacks, hints of color and painterly textures are truly exquisite to behold. Constantin Brancusi's photographs of his own sculptures, in which he exploited lighting and focus to create "radiant photos," captured not only the physical work, but the experience of regarding the work.
Many of the exhibition's photographers, however, have a much less reverent view toward sculpture, such as Lee Friedlander's take on local war memorials--by expanding the frame to reveal incongruous environmental elements, Friedlander exposes the absurdity of the monument. Dada-ist and Bauhaus photomontages interrupt classical sculpture with comical photographs of contemporaries, such as in Hans Finsler's substitution of Walter Gropius and Laszlo Mogoly-Nagy's heads for Goethe's and Schiller's.
One of the most enlightening contributions of the exhibition was in its exploration of the role photography played in the expansion of the limits of what constituted or what could be accepted as sculpture. With Brassaï's "involuntary sculptures," Erwin Wurm's "One Minute Sculptures," Fischli and Weiss' impossibly balanced arrangements of household items, and Gabriel Orozco's spontaneous sculptures in public space the camera acts as a co-conspirator in the execution of the work. The performing body, as Bruce Nauman famously "spouted" in Self Portrait as a Fountain, can be a sculpture, yet it is the camera that proves to be the crucial instrument.
But truly the most enjoyable aspect of The Original Copy were the moments where one stops thinking about sculpture, stops thinking about photography and gets lost in the works themselves. A work by Gunter Brus next to Hannah Wilke's SOS was a serendipitous pairing. Young artist Cyprien Gaillard's simple yet stunning Geographical Analogies, in itself a sculpture containing photographs, as an exercise in psychogeography is most definitely a highlight. Like many of the works in The Original Copy, Gaillard's piece invites further research, a more lengthy analysis and thoughtful reflection. Given the richness of interplay between the works, I'm willing to bet that the exhibition catalogue is worth picking up for further insights into this compellingly curated, inspiring theme show.
(*Images: Horst P. Horst (American, born Germany, 1906–1999). Costume for Salvador Dalí’s “Dream of Venus”. 1939. Gelatin silver print, 10 x 7 1/2" (25.4 x 19 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of James Thrall Soby. © 2010 Horst P. Horst/Art + Commerce.
Herbert Bayer (American, born Austria. 1900–1985). Humanly Impossible. 1932. Gelatin silver print, 15 3/8 x 11 9/16" (39 x 29.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Thomas Walther Collection. Purchase. © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
Edward Steichen (American, born Luxembourg, 1879–1973). Balzac, the Silhouette—4 A.M. 1908. Gum bichromate print, 14 15/16 x 18 1/8" (37.9 x 46 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1933. Permission of Joanna T. Steichen. Copy Photograph © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Cyprien Gaillard (French, born 1980). Geographical Analogies: Alton Estate, Roehampton, England; Château d'Oiron, Oiron, France; La Noé, Chanteloup–les–Vignes, France. 2006-09. Dye diffusion transfer prints (Polaroids), wood, glass, and cardboard, 25 9/16 x 18 7/8 x 3 15/16" (65 x 48 x 10 cm). Courtesy the artist and Laura Bartlett Gallery, London/Bugada & Cargnel, Paris. © 2010 Cyprien Gaillard.)