Museum Fatigue

Yesterday I went to the Getty with Snooze. After Snooze ran some errands, like getting a copy of his photo ID, we waited in a winding line for security to let us onto a tram. I told him a bit about “museum fatigue,” where people start speed-running through exhibits, with less interest in the galleries towards the end of their visit. One suggestion, according to an article, is that museum staff find ways for visitors to “engage with an exhibit.” So we stood in line where most people around us were pretty quiet, and took the tram up where most people seemed pretty quiet, and walked to a photo exhibition (the one I wanted to see, and had been postponing, and so here we were now).

                  The first object to look at in the Photography Exhibit was “metal typeface mounted on wood,” with “offset prints.” So much for photography! The exhibit said, “please feel free to take a poster.” Snooze took one. I took one too. And I only saw one other person take one, but then put it back down.

                  We walked to a collage at the back of the exhibit. I turned to Snooze and said something about the materiality of photography represented here, and its history as a scientific (objective?) medium, and he said how one of the objects in the collage was not a photo, but maybe it was based on a photo? It was a rendering, somehow, of a jaw, like an artifact, taken from a screenshot of a computer program. And I said something about how if photos, by definition (a pretty boring literal definition, in my mind) have to do with light, and this model were, maybe originally, based on some sort of light-based capture, then, well, maybe it counts as photography? Isn’t it strange, I said, how these more contemporary photos (very “post-,” I would say), find ways to reference themselves as objects, while the older photos (I pointed behind us, to another wall with old landscapes) trust the medium as kind-of straight-forwardly referential (as far as we know!) and are (almost trying to be) “about” the object they’re depicting? “I like this one,” Snooze said. “This is good,” I said. 

                  A picture of Yosemite stood on our right. The photographer wanted to take a picture of an “untouched landscape,” and I said that he should not have taken a picture.

                  So we walked into a room where some important early-photo history guy took pictures of indigenous peoples in certain poses. An artist, taking these photos and drawing on them and annotating them, responded by giving more information, context, and really kind-of deflating this idea of a photo-in-itself (art for art’s sake!). In my mind, this is what photography should be—not some straightforward propagandic depiction of ‘reality,’ as if taking a photo of someone, maybe even technically “well,” is the strength of the medium, but instead, some sort of interaction with the “moment” that has been captured. The moment is already mediated. Mediate the moment more.

                  Speaking of moments, one artist put strips of black, white, and gray on the wall, putting “120 FPS” in the title. I think there were 120 of them. In my mind these were slices of time, or whatever “moments” are supposed to be. I think time is unintelligible when it’s sliced up like that. 

                   On the outside of the room with the annotated photos, a “landscape” photo of a tree came with the caption. Apparently, “untouched” landscapes contained records of the past. In this case, the record (this pretty landscape photo!) depicted in a lynching tree. 

                  Which is when I mention that one of the artists I came to see exhibited: Lieko Shiga. Her work was on the wall. I do not have much to say about her, because I do not really care for the history of “spirit photography.”

                  Next: a room filled with images of “evidences” of psychiatric conditions and criminals (Snooze needed to grab a replacement driver’s license before arriving to the Getty) contained audio clips that sounded documentarian, official, and incriminating. They were just descriptions, from the part that I heard, though. And I said something about this as Sontagian, or that Foucault would have a party with this portion of the exhibit (maybe he already did) or how some of the artist captions contained things that were Benjaminian, and nobody else was really talking at all throughout the gallery, except one of the workers talking to someone else. I felt really pretentious, because Walter Benjamin is so basic. And so is Sontag. Their theories are relatively superficial, along with, in my mind, most photo theory, because photography is a superficial medium. Was someone falling asleep on the chair?

                  On the outside, portraits. Like, those old portraits, from the 1800s, older than your grandparents, probably in oval frame, in sepia, that took time and effort. Click the shutter and wait twenty minutes. One caption said that studios allowed “sitters [in the photo] an active role in constructing their identities.” And I said, “well that’s kind-of like a selfie today. I think so many terms that we use to think about photography in the past just apply to social media today. That’s why a lot of photo theory just feels like shrugging, because we’re so inundated with imagery these days that so many people, with their phone in their pockets, could say ‘that’s not so special—I’ve seen better on my Instagram feed.’” On the other hand, “studios provided clothing so subjects could feel like they were living different lives,” and I thought, “that’s not so different to today.” 

                  Next to these were Black portraits—ambrotypes on color-stained glass—so that the images were difficult to see, raising the question of the camera’s racialized gaze. And behind that, a “portrait” “reflecting on issues depicting the Black body” (also dealing with queer desiring…if you follow the implied gazes in the portrait, you can feel it…), where, in a large print of a studio, with the camera facing the mirror, only the subject’s hand, cut off on the very edge of the frame, was visible. A print of another male body hung next to the mirror. I turned to Snooze and said “I can’t imagine a straight person making this.”

                  Hopefully, by now, although this is our first gallery, you get the sense that there is no museum fatigue going on. I don’t get why people get so exhausted. I think they just need someone to chat with about the art, and kind-of take a stab at it, even if it’s a wild statement like, “what the hell piece of shit is this: a ‘photo’ that darkens, and ultimately dissolves, in the light?” And then all of a sudden, instead of relying on that too-easy answer of photography as this light-object, photography (somehow) becomes a chemical-electrical object, or a print? And we’re back to the beginning: a print with only text began the gallery—as soon as this light-component (but we need light to see in the first place…) is removed, photography gets funky.

                  So we walked over to “where the photos are supposed to be,” (which is what I told Snooze), to see what one of my old professors (honestly, kind of naïvely, and self-righteously, and, worst, condescendingly) would call “snapshots.” There was an artist collective called “Gemini,” which was not so well-explained by the captions, but the whole process of art-making was documented by a photographer. And so plastered across the walls were candid photos of artists doing their work. “In the 90s,” I told Snooze, but I can’t remember if I told him this earlier (or made this up right now!), “there was a movement in ‘art photography,’ like—photos of artworks, to take on what some call an “unauthored” or “non-art” look, so that people would focus on the art object instead. And so we have these “photos” that are “candids,” and also some of them are literally just glued to the wall—who cares about a frame?—in a way that suggests that the material photo is not important, but the event that it documents is. And I think this is photography’s strength, that we forget the composition and art and maybe the more formal elements that constitute a photo, and put ourselves in the world that the photo is based on.”

                  And so we walked outside, and talked about prints a bit—that nobody really prints their photos anymore. And it’s strange that a photo used to be “complete” with a print, and now we just take a digital photo and hide it away forever. “Why do we treat this medium as continuous,” I asked Snooze. Darkroom techniques are incredibly different than digital techniques, which are different than me just pulling out my phone and taking a photo. And if a medium is defined by its tools, photography seems to be such a diverse medium, all collapsed into this thing we call “camera,” like an epistemological placeholder for a certain way of connecting an image to the world.

                  So we walked around looking at old religious statues in the more permanent, less rotating section of the Getty. Jesus Christ himself (sometimes called Jesus H. Christ) was glaring at us from all angles. So we took wide angled pictures of statues, laughing. Snooze said it was sacrilegious. People do treat museums seriously, like a cathedral, like art is out-of-our reach, with a (Benjaminian) “cult value,” walking through solemnly, feeling all morose.

And then we entered the Still Life room, full of Dutch still lives, and I told Snooze, “isn’t it weird how we’ve been immersed in religious imagery up until this point, which is full of depth and narrative and passion, and all of a sudden Still Lives pop up, which are full of color and surface and just objects? Like, some of these have references to death in them, some of them have symbols, I guess, but others are just paintings of flowers, or paintings of lemons, and they’re so full of detail.” I stayed in the still life room for a while, and Snooze moved onto the next room. Mark Doty mentions that Still Lives are a testament to life and intimacy, and I guess I felt that. But there was a Still Life called “Still Life with Dead Birds.” I think the artist forgot about the “life” part of “still life.” I showed it to Snooze. And then we moved on. The museum began to close. It’s hard to have museum fatigue when you’re on a time limit and have to make the most of each object you see. But what do I know. Not all the still lives had a memento mori in them.

                  So we got in line for the tram back down the hill at sunset and, in this long and winding line that took several tram trips to diminish, only two other people stood with their posters. The line was mostly quiet, except for Snooze and I talking. The tram drove down the hill. The sun had already set under the Los Angeles smog, humid on July 5th. Guitar music played, and we left the tram. I gave Snooze a projector and a sound board, and then drove home.