Life in Space represents the second iteration of the Dallas Museum of Art’s intern exhibition program. As I had a hand in organizing the project, what follows is not a review as much as an explication of one conceptual thread that underlies this particular group of works. Though one commonality between the works on display prompts the exhibition’s title—namely, the sense of a relationship between cultural space and identity construction in the instance of each—another compelling point rests in speaking of the show in terms of the medium of photography. Photography is everywhere here, not only literally as a medium (a majority of the exhibited work is photographic), but figuratively as an idea that motivates so much about the way we think critically of art today.
It is important to note now that most of the work on display in Life in Space is from the 20th century, perhaps because this idea of taking the very conditions of social space as a subject reflects a recent kind of artistic self-consciousness. But looking at two striking bodies of work from the exhibition that predate the 20th century’s dawn—namely, Ando Hiroshige’s Tokaido series of 1833-1834 and Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Grand Tour-inspired prints of the mid 18th century—we come to see that a kind of photographic impulse exists far before the technological enablement of the photograph. What is striking about those Grand Tour prints from Piranesi, he of the impossibly fantastical prison drawings, is their meticulousness and their documentary stolidity; what is striking about the world Hiroshige depicts is its modernity, its premise in the spectacle and consumption-driven momentum of an urban reality on the move.
One cannot help but look at the Tokaido series and think of Baudelaire’s writing on Paris, and its prompting of so many theoretical chain-links on modernity and the city, as well as on the photograph as the ideal medium for conveying this dialectic. Both “pre-modern” bodies of work in the exhibition pine to document in full an expanding, increasingly abstract world—they want to record a stimulus before it swiftly, inevitably obsolesces. This is the basic desire that photography eventually cures. And finally I cannot help but think of both Hiroshige and Piranesi in terms of the Bill Owens’ photographs of American suburbia also in this show, photographs in which the medium of photography is totally forsaken and the most ostensibly unremarkable moments are turned, with full self-consciousness, into art.
(*Images, from top to bottom: Sunday afternoon we get it together. I cook the steaks and my wife makes the salad, Bill Owens, American, born 1938, 1971 Gelatin silver print , Overall: 11 x 14 in. (27.94 x 35.56 cm), Dallas Museum of Art, Lay Family Acquisition Fund.
View of the rear entrance of the Basilica of S. Maria Maggiore (Veduta della Facciata di dietro della Basilica di S. Maria Maggiore) , Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Italian, 1720 - 1778, c. 1760-1778 Etching, Overall (including paper backing): 20 1/4 x 29 in. (51.435 x 73.66 cm.), Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts, The Alfred and Juanita Bromberg Collection, bequest of Juanita K. Bromberg.
Departure of a Daimyo , Ando Hiroshige, Japanese, 1797 - 1858, 1834
Woodblock print, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Marcus.)