Dead Sets, Celebrity Portraits

 

Essay Published in Hotshoe International June/July 2011

A site less than a millimeter deep

Curated by Edgar Martins with text by Adriana Salazar Arroyo

‘The field of vision has always seemed to me comparable to the ground of an archeological excavation.’ Paul Virilio

A television screen is not a window and neither is it a door. Although its purpose is to display, in order to function, a screen must remain sealed, its form integral. Much like the face, this surface holds the promise of deeper contents that carry meaning but if physically excavated, both structures will reveal nothing behind them, only components, bones, flesh; one will find no meaning, no soul to speak of.

Excavation is a method widely used by archeologists in their quest to trace the history of life on earth. Although they are also an important part of archival archeological procedures, photographic records of a site would not suffice as evidence for a scientist in a search for details from the past. For this scientist a photograph would be considered of even less use if the site that it presents has not been dug. In order to access the material history of humanity the archeologist must dig.

A television set is a different kind of site though, and unless one is a curious engineer-to-be searching for the technical secrets in the machine, one will most certainly be disappointed by its contents. Digging into this kind of box might allow us to learn about technological developments but will not bring us closer to the truths about the many stories that unfold on its surface. In the event that individuals from a future society born after our extinction, were to find a buried television, they might – by opening it – be able to arrive at details about our industrial history or use of materials. They wouldn’t however, be able to get many hints about the torrent of images that such a machine once gave life to.

George Benson’s excavation of fragments in the history of television remains stubbornly two-dimensional. What could potentially be a sculptural installation, showing his findings from another era, becomes instead a series of flat surfaces. The square, frontal angle used in the framing of the image further emphasises a resoluteness to portray something which only exists in the fractions of millimeters of depth inhabited by a photographic surface. We are thus not encouraged to understand his subjects as three dimensional forms but instead, they seem to be constituted by the same number of dimensions that make ghostly things.

The series Deadsets deals with the short life span of television characters and the rapid pace at which technology becomes obsolete. It seems relevant to point out however, that while we are looking at something essentially defunct we are not faced with mortality in the same physical way as when looking at a corpse in a coffin. Instead, the photographs behave more as retinal afterimages, which are an equally strong physical experience. They make us aware of vision as something bodily and internal but at the same time they appear intangible, extremely ephemeral, thin, apparition like. A person who is old enough to remember the kind of televisions depicted in Benson’s work, will be able to call upon images that reside not necessarily in photo albums but somewhere inside the thin layer that holds our archive of visual memories. The presence of Benson’s images is more akin to those very memories than to the materiality that constitutes the actual photographic object.

The irony is that whilst the images lead us in the direction of things bygone, the objects that the artist used have not yet completely disappeared. They are still physically present somewhere. Obsolescence paradoxically implies the lingering of the object in question in the material world. It is only through the figurative language of photography that we are able to make the leap of faith into the fiction surrounding the spectral qualities of Benson’s television sets.

Several images in the series depict characters from television programmes staring away into space or with their eyes closed. We are invited to look but we are not allowed in. It feels as if our presence, our looking at them is being ignored. Unlike much portrait photography, the gaze of the subject does not confront us. It is thus that they remain a flat surface, a screen which we cannot penetrate, not even through the illusion of looking into their eyes.

This hermeticism together with the iridescent halo surrounding the screens allows for a distance to be created. A distance not dissimilar to the one provoked by images of a resurrected Jesus, who is somewhere between the Earth and the Heavens. Aloofness works as a veil that shields the saintly from the mundane, at the same time allowing the actor to become a kind of divinity, a celebrity. Perhaps unintentionally Benson’s work takes us not only as far back as the 1980s but further still to the etymological roots of television: the word has a mixed origin meaning far sight, tele from the Latin far, and visio from the Greek sight. It seems as if it is only by maintaining a fair distance that television functions, through excavation one will find no meaning, no soul to speak of.

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Deadsets was a Winner of Flash Forward 2010, Magenta Foundation, Toronto

Exhibited at:

Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, 2010
Worcester Open, 2010