by Ricky Varghese
Late capitalism has worked meticulously to alienate the modern subject; the hyper-mediation and circulation of images, cultural knowledge and information has been one manner by which this alienation has occurred. All of this is done under the guise of accessibility, connectivity and the formation of networks. It is precisely in its responsiveness to this context that makes the slowness of Angela Grauerholz’s large-scale photographs feel radical. Her quiet, provocative new untitled series, which showed at the 2018 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, captures the vacant, emptied-out, closed-for-renovations spaces of the Musée Carnavalet in Paris. It’s no coincidence that her subject matter consists of the empty nooks and crannies, long, shadowy passageways and silent corridors of the vacant museum. It would seem that she wants us to linger alongside these images as one might within the actual space of the museum itself. The viewer is asked to slow their pace and reconsider the cult of the image. What does it mean to archive slowness in this vertigo-inducing era where we are confronted by images from so many different and disparate quarters on a quotidian basis? By slowing down reception, Grauerholz is not asking us to tarry with the nostalgia of a bygone era; rather, what is under examination here is the very nature of speed itself and its relationship to both loss and memory.
Loss, or more precisely, what remains in the aftermath of loss, is a preoccupation of Grauerholz’s extensive practice. In her Privation series (2001), she took to photographing the charred, crumbling remains of her books after a fire ravaged the library at her home in Montreal – a library “representing some twenty-five years of collecting.” In her own words, the remains came to “embody privation made visible.” It feels apt, then, that Grauerholz’s present subject matter are the melancholic spaces of a now-closed and evacuated museum. Where Privation might have represented scarcity, want and need, mired under the heading of a deep and profoundly personal loss, here the artist gives attention to a sense of loss that is more generalizable.
If the museum is a site that archives human history, a repository for our memory of ourselves – as was the case with the Musée Carnavalet, which was meant to showcase the history of the city of Paris then what do we make of the museum that turns into a tomb, emanating a sort of coldness, devoid of signs of life? Under Grauerholz’s photographic gaze, it is as though the very site, meant to serve as a mere placeholder for memory and commemoration, itself aches to be commemorated. The museum seems to mourn itself, reckoning with the frightening possibility of being forgotten. As philosopher Rebecca Comay has suggested, “the museum [here] becomes a mausoleum”; it becomes a counterintuitive space, going against the grain of unchecked, “easy” consumption and, as such, asks us to reflect upon mourning and memorialization. How does mourning or memory operate in the absence of the very images and objects that we use to mourn or remember the past? Grauerholz’s images are iconoclastic in that they resist and decry fast transmission and ask us to reconsider the conditions under which an archive may or may not exist, as both a reservoir and a marker of the repertoire of human history. The gaze is, then, directed squarely back at the viewer’s own subjectivity and at the gestures and affects that inform that subject’s capacity for museological consumption. The viewing subject is asked to confront their own alienation, one that is seen to coexist with and is perhaps pre-eminently suggested by the structural emptiness of the museum. Grauerholz’s museological spaces are no longer sites that obsessively archive the history of human accumulation; rather, they become spatial placeholders signifying and acting as stark reminders of – the emptiness at the very heart of humanity’s melancholia about speedy accumulation.
What is striking in approaching Grauerholz’s images with a slower-than-usual gait is that embedded in the images themselves is a brilliant act of reversal. While we might recognize these large-scale archival pigment prints to be photographs, at first glance and even, to a certain extent, up close, they appear to be paintings. The effect is compelling precisely for the way it plays with our eyes, forcing us to look closer at the details of each image. While in the photorealist tradition, paintings are rendered to look like photographs, Grauerholz’s photographs appear to take the form and texture of paintings. It is a suggestive exercise in translation between and across mediums and recalls Walter Benjamin’s statement that “[i]t is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.” One might recognize a kernel of truth in Benjamin’s thought that finds resonance with this entire series: in re-casting the space of the museum, it would seem that Grauerholz reveals it to be the mausoleum that, perhaps, it has always been and always will be.