The Wet Archive: History, Desire, and Photography’s Liquid Intelligence
January 24-April 5, 2015
Oscar F. and Louise Greiner Mayer Gallery, Chazen Museum of Art
The Wet Archive restages the gallery as a version of the photographic dark room. Here the wet lab of volatile processes meets the open closet of intimate exposure and the exchange of looks. In this fresh take on the history of photography, the archive’s vault of dry, hardened images that capture their subjects is shown to be a place in which the images are not still but still emerging, their subjects eye us, and our quickened senses and feelings form part of the scene of encounter.
Assembled principally from major gifts to the Chazen Museum by D. Frederick Baker from the Baker/Pisano Collection, the Andy Warhol Foundation, Inc., and Dr. Kristaps J. Keggi, the exhibition configures an astonishing archive to whet the appetite. Bringing into conversation Oscar Wilde’s cabinet card and Andy Warhol’s Polaroids, portraits and porn, back alleyways and the main drag, the exhibition juxtaposes a wide range of photographic practice from that of the theatrical stagings of Cindy Sherman and Man Ray to the documentary strategies of Diane Arbus and Weegee.
The curatorial team in Dr. Jill H. Casid’s new seminar in curatorial practice shaped and developed the exhibition’s content, design, and installation. The course is a key part of the Department of Art History’s initiative to provide first-hand curatorial training.
The exhibition represents the work of The Wet Archive Curatorial Team: River Bullock, Jill H. Casid, Jessica Cooley, Xiaoqian Gu, Andi Heile, Natalie Kirk, Alexa Lichte, Lauren Miller, Kyungso Min, and Fernanda Villarroel—with the research and editorial assistance of Lex Lancaster and research assistance of Melanie Saeck.
The dark room or camera obscura is a liminal space of enclosure and revelation. At once the closet where we store our secrets and the chemical lab of photographic development, the dark room may feel like an intimate space of protective seclusion and also like a vulnerable threshold on the edge of exposure. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick explores in Epistemology of the Closet, the closet is a way of seeing that functions as a way of knowing. Like the camera’s exposure of the negative, the closet claims to turn the unseen into the visible.
The closet’s optic calls us out as if who and what we are can be read on the surface of our bodies. Its scrutiny positions us on one side or the other of the cutting opposition of straight or gay. The camera techniques developed in the nineteenth century are still exploited as methods for measuring the surface of the body and attributing the governing determinations of race, class, criminalized behavior, disability, and sexuality. But the vulnerability of paper to moisture and the instabilities of dark room chemical processes also point to the currents of the photograph’s surface signs that may carry us into uncharted depths.
The Wet Archive invites you to ride the waves of photography’s unruly excesses. Photographer Jeff Wall calls these excesses “liquid intelligence.” The traces of photography’s liquid intelligence persist in the residue of the liquid baths that never completely evaporate. Liquid intelligence washes up in the present as the watery remainder and reminder of photography’s pre-digital history. Wall uses this material metaphor to reverse the direction of the look and bring out the unpredictability of what may surge in the photographic encounter: “[i]n photography the liquids study us, even at a great distance.”
The Wet Archive activates the fluid turbulence of the scene of seeing, bringing out how study is not an activity of distanced remove. As a space for public feeling, The Wet Archive asks us to contend in the company of others with the way photographs surface unsettled and unsettling sensation. The Wet Archive summons you into the not-so-back-alley of the sweat, spit, and tears of contacts that leak across the prophylactic barrier of what we call the historical, melting the then and there of these photographs into the here and now of what happens and what may yet emerge as we are seen looking.