Feb 25, 2013

Divorcing the Medium from the Message

There is a noticeable trend among the moving images that have been curated for Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925 toward diminishing their significance as objects of art, which undercuts the curators’ argument for the emergence of abstraction as a “cross-media” creative tool. Currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art’s Joan and Preston Robert Tisch Exhibition Gallery, Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925 is a five month-long banner exhibition that attempts to re-contextualize the appearance of abstraction by re-defining it as an intrinsically cross-disciplinary movement rather than as a creative trend occurring solely within the realms of painting and sculpture.

Before patrons enter the exhibition, they are greeted by an enormous graphic that provides a visual illustration of the exhibition’s primary thesis, which posits that abstraction grew out of the relationships shared by artists who were working across a wide variety of media. (Inventing Abstraction, 1920-1925, 2012) (MoMA)

The curators' emphasis on the cross-disciplinary nature of the movement yields an exhibition that is ambitious in both its size and scope, including 350 works by 84 painters and sculptors, poets, composers, choreographers, and filmmakers. Of these, nine are moving images. However in spite of the fact that all of the works in the exhibition were originally shot on film, the curators have made the decision to install them as as High Definition QuickTime files that run off Western Digital media players and are displayed either on Panasonic HD digital projectors or on LCD HD monitors rather than projecting analog prints. The curatorial decision to display these films digitally cannot be ignored, and raises a series of important questions: Did the curators believe that the playback technology is irrelevant to the work, or that there is no difference between a digital file and its analog source? Do curators have an obligation to maintain the original characteristics of a piece, if it is possible (even at significant expense) to do so? Why have the curators chosen to present digital versions of these films, yet have insisted on presenting original paintings rather than high quality reproductions?

Anemic Cinema
(1926) by Rrose Sélavy (Marcel Duchamp) playing alongside Duchamp’s Rotary Demisphere (Precision Optics) (1925), featured in the film. 

For museum-goers visiting the exhibition, the majority of whom were families and young couples, the fact that these works were being displayed using digital rather than analog technology did not appear to matter. In fact, given that Inventing Abstraction is a blockbuster exhibition that is designed to draw in as many visitors as possible, the absence of a loud film projector that would have taken up valuable floor space probably helped the viewing experience by making it easier for more visitors to crowd around the moving images.

However I believe that the decision to include movies rather than films does matter. Within the context of this exhibition, the curators’ decision to screen digital versions of these films contextualizes them as less significant than the paintings and sculptures that they reference by signalling visitors to understand the films as being less important and significant, and not unlike something they might be able to watch on YouTube. Overall Inventing Abstraction is a strong exhibition that ultimately fails with respect to the moving images on display.

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