A couple of years ago, my son, then six, lectured a male friend of a friend about Hero Factory, a Lego spin-off consisting of bristly, endlessly modifiable heroes. In great detail, my son described the special powers and outlandish weapons (plasma sabre, death-ray, catapult, crossbow) kitting out his character. At the end of this story, my friend termed the toys of my son’s imagination as “heartbreakingly beautiful,” a particularly apt phrase for the work recently on view at the Center for Ongoing Research and Projects (COR&P) as part of Emperors of Eternal Evil, From the Crypts of Black Dust, an exhibition exploring the construction of the world surrounding the game Cave Evil. Programmed by artist and curator Ryland Wharton, and Kris Paulsen, faculty in the Film Studies program at The Ohio State University, COR&P’s main exhibition space consists of a small, standalone building in the middle of a parking lot that plays host to summertime openings.
Simply put, Cave Evil is a cult board game. A miracle of mental engineering, its architecture is impossibly intricate and dense. While certain rules of the game are fixed (the game revolves around the principle of the transfer of power from vanquished to victor), Cave Evil hovers between virtual and actual reality, not through its use of technology––it is decidedly low-tech—but because of how it generates a world unto itself, with its own set of rules, norms and mores. At COR&P, the game Cave Evil is presented in the wider context of the parallel universe created by the game’s designers, Mat Brinkman, Jochen Hartmann, and Nate Hayden.
Inside the office space of the gallery, which also functions as a library and studio, an in-process game sprawls across a table. An accompanying video on a small television nearby clues the viewer in to the game’s role as just one element in an endlessly mutating world. In it, the creators perform and extend the game, becoming actors in an abstracted extension of Cave Evil universe role-play. We see how this game functions within the larger production of alternative, endless and labyrinthine spaces, where taboos are tested and foes vanquished. The action on the monitor opens things up, moves the game beyond the insular, coded world of its audience, translating some of that interiority while offering a visual interpretation of what this world might look like. It’s dark, though the mock-horror tone of the action is decidedly tongue in cheek. The playing cards, with their lovingly hand drawn elements, depict neo-medieval tools. A bone shield crafted from a shoulder blade, for example, allows the players to get down to the coarse elements of which we are made—blood, bone and meat, mediated.
Also approaching death from a distance The Morgue of Memories, curated by Mike Olenick at Room, a temporary project space housed inside the Columbus College of Art and Design’s on-campus gallery, the Canzani Center Gallery, questioned the spectatorship of universal death as seen on-screen. Olenick has developed an archive of incidental photographs—those captured in the background of various film scenes that are inconsequential to the storyline. Olenick explores the cinematic tropes of death and mourning by isolating single shots from movies in which a photograph of a character who died can be seen again; like real life pictures, these filmic photo portraits represent someone both there and not there, present and absent, all at once. Dividing the gallery’s rectangular space is a runway of sorts; slide projectors stretch towards a vanishing point, cycling on and off in sequence. Beckoning, each throws a film still onto a wall, reminiscent of emergency lighting along the floor of an aircraft. This sculptural arrangement offers a satisfyingly physical presence, counterbalancing the ephemerality inherent in looking at still photographs captured inside a moving image.
Along with images of funeral scenes, introspective over the shoulder shots place the viewer in the shoes of the mourner. Small lockets, bedside portraits, or heart shaped frames propped on flower laden coffins or held in the palm of the hand reveal all the different but static ways we “see” or view someone after they die, a reminder of how each photograph fastens down its subject like a specimen, whether alive or dead. By now, we understand these photographs as moments in time, wrenched from their original context. Olenick inserts these flashes into a new narrative, as the viewer is guided gently through the space by the insistent, whirring hum of the slide projectors. Each image lights up in turn, suggesting a syncopated interval of decency or reflection before it clicks off and the next death pops up. This structuring could also be read as a comment on our ghoulish fascination with death on screen; quite often only the most spectacular or tragic––the innocent killed too soon, death by ghost––are immortalized on film. The interesting overlap here with contemporary TV and cable culture points to how grisly murders become entertainment via shows like “The First 24” or “Nancy Grace.” In comparison, Olenick’s filmic treatment (which flows in the opposite direction) of death feels restrained, considered.
The Morgue of Memories dialogues with a comprehensive exploration of contemporary portrait photography in the main space of Canzani Center Gallery, Sitter, organized by artist and CCAD photography professor Shannon Benine and gallery director Michael Goodson. Featuring work by 27 artists, there is an incredible amount to take in here. The gallery walls are crowded with bodies and faces; personalities and desires of both sitter and image-maker jostle for attention. Sitter ranges widely, cataloguing the many ways that photography has adopted and refashioned portraiture. Rineke Dijkstra’s Vila Franca de Xira, Portugal, May 8, 1994, (1994) establishes painting as the initial referent for the medium, a reverence quickly punctured by airplane lavatory self-portraits from Nina Katchadourian’s Seat Assignment project (2010, ongoing) that recreate solemn 15th century Flemish portraits using napkins and an iphone. Also included are works that abstract the body, such as John Coplans’s Back with Arms Above (1984) drawing out the human form’s sculptural qualities, along with virtuoso, soul-baring street portraits by Katy Grannan.
Photographs from Brian Ulrich’s Thrift series (2005–2008) show store workers hemmed in on all sides by leftover consumer goods and detritus. Shot from waist height, these photographs are lush and still, the people sharing a dazed expression, appearing frozen in the midst of some unknown choreography. Similarly, the subjects in Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Heads series (2000) exude their own theatrical presence––an old man, a young girl—captured with flash photography while walking on the street or in a crowd, and all without their own knowledge. In such portraits, diCorcia formally isolates his subjects, who emerge rapt in their own private drama, surrounded by things and people, yet completely alone. Seductive, beautiful and cool, these images appraise and distill, redacting the people they depict, who seem to become stand-ins for this or that, or any given societal ill: consumerism, addiction, isolation, sadness.
If these works cut to the solipsism of contemporary life, works by Doug Ischar, Kelli Connell, and Hrair Sarkissian shatter such singularity of vision and narrative, evoking the need for connection, visibility, and deeper readings of their images. Positioned directly opposite diCorcia’s works, Kelli Connell’s long running series, Double Life (2002–2015) employs photography’s realism in a sustained investigation into the multifaceted nature of self and desire, plotting identity as fluid points on a graph. Her photographs are uncanny; the familiar becomes strange and ambivalent via the doubling of the figure. These doubles possess the space of the image and the terms on which it––and they––are viewed. Ischar’s 1985 series Marginal Waters also stakes claim to contested space (an urban beach in Chicago), and asserts a mode of representation in which the gay community is unapologetically alive, at a time when the AIDS crisis was paramount. Inviting the viewer into an intimate space, the photographs depict a Chicago beach that formed an active center of gay life in the city at that time. We are folded into the playful, urgent embraces of lovers and a community struggling to carve out a place for itself in the world, while grappling with the threat of disappearance This binary between being seen and disappearing is taken up again in Hrair Sarkissian’s Zebiba (2007), a gridded installation of portraits of Egyptian “pious men,” so named for the prayer scars marking the place on their foreheads where the pressure is greatest when kneeling to pray. Eyes shining, their faces bear the outward marks of personal sublimation in the presence of God that paradoxically increases their visibility here on earth.
It is in these moments, as you go between images that seem scripted and those whose readings are unfixed, that Sitter asks its most pointed questions. Questions that, while basic, still seem fundamental to the practice and instruction of photography on a college campus––who gets to tell the stories of others, and why? How do they tell them, and how does their identity, inherent bias, or relationship to the subject play a role in constructing the story that is presented to the viewer? To what end are these photographs ultimately used? And does the photographer’s skill automatically create the value of an image? Does the thrill or triumph of capture (and the uncomfortably predatory language around that idea) establish the photograph’s right to be viewed, regardless of any other concerns?
Amplifying the show’s reach and resonance, Sitter was accompanied by robust public programming and a series of talks by featured artists. It presented an argument for self-reflexive, generative and pensive kinds of photography, adding complexity to the conversation. And, when documenting humans, conveying greater complexity is generally better than less, even when the results yielded are not as easily consumed.
Emperors of Eternal Evil, From the Crypts of Black Dust was on view at COR&P from February 21 to March 14, 2015.
Sitter and The Morgue of Memories were on view at CCAD through March 24, 2015.
Elena Harvey Collins is an artist and writer, and Curatorial Assistant at MOCA Cleveland. View more articles by Elena Harvey Collins.