Mixed Messages: Disordering Documentary
By Mark Durden
Most current photographers merely reflect the 'objective' misery of the human condition-- a wretchedness which has apparently become a positive object of perverse desire for so many aesthetes and image racketeers. Just as there is no primitive tribe which does not have its anthropologist, soon there won't be a homeless person sleeping curled up amid his filth who doesn't find a photographer leaping out of the urban jungle to capture on film the eternal sleep of the pauper.
Jean Baudrillard's damning attack on the documentary photographer is perhaps a useful way to begin to think about the implications of John Goto's series, Gilt City: full figure 'portraits' of outsider urban types-- street entertainers, homeless people, drug dealers, hawkers. Many of these colourful characters are set against the blank 'grey' corporate architecture of late capitalism, the generic faceless fašades of the banking worlds of the over developed West; fašades which, in a comic version of modernity, sometimes reflect the rushing masses of suited business types.
What distances Goto from documentary's tradition of picturing misery and wretchedness is his recourse to a staged tableau photography and the use of digital compositing. Friends and associates of the artist-- including critics, curators, students, neighbours-- are dressed and posed by the artist in a studio setting. The portrait is then digitally mapped onto particular spaces in the City of London's financial district. As a result there is neither filth nor degradation in his pictures. Indeed, Gilt City might be seen to continue the ethical disavowal of documentary photography which characterises the work of Jeff Wall. Only Wall's pictures are bereft of the parody and playfulness of Goto's tableaux. And while Wall will meticulously mime a documentary look, Goto never disguises his pictures' artifice. Instead, artifice and theatre is flagged up in Gilt City.
Goto uses the codes of documentary to frame and identify his subjects. Playing out permutations of difference and otherness, his photographic theatre, however, deliberately upsets the familiar patterns of viewing such documentary-type subject matter. The pictures are discordant in this respect. For all the immediate signs and signals of alterity, the people who populate Gilt City fail to cohere as distant and distinct from its middle class audience. As a result, his pictures resist and oppose the simple liberal humanist reflex of pity. They are also bereft of the affective dimension which tends to be associated with documentary practice: the pathos accrued by the photo as index and that sense of the residue of the emotionally charged interaction-- however respectful, however abusive-- between subject and photographer.
Details in Goto's staged and knowing tableaux function as signs whose connotations very often flout and undermine the codes and conventions, the rhetoric, ordinarily associated with documentary. There is an attention to signifying details: to do with the style of clothing, incongruously often fashionable and trendy-- evident through all the designer labels and logos-- and the accompanying objects, which are often just as anomalous, like the can of Beck's in his 'portrait' of the urinating man, for example: Beck's, renowned for its sponsorship of contemporary art, being more readily associated with the YBA crowds than the street drinker. The man also carries a copy of Bill Jordan's book A Theory of Poverty and Social Exclusion, implying an improbable self-reflective and theorised view of his own position. All this suggests a conscious playing with the codes and signs used to judge, identify and 'label' people.
If many of his subjects accord with the idea of the generic outsider type, and many are iconographically familiar as postures and stances drawn from the history of art and the history of photography, they also carry a sense of character and presence to do with the physical particularities of those who pose for him. The fiction and theatre of this series of contrived and knowing poses tends to be disrupted and countered by the facticity of individualising corporeal details: particularly evident in the suited but shirtless figure in Bacchant: the body's emaciated state, the detail of the intravenous plug attached to his stomach, the scarring on the skin round his jaw.
In Beggar the posture of the subject suggests something more than the act of begging. There is a saintliness to the kneeling figure. That he begs using a McDonald's drinking cup, whose golden arches echo the top of St Paul's which is reflected in the background, adds to the picture's contradictory spiritual resonance. Of course this is all heavily parodic, involving both a perverse reversal of value in a materialistic icon for global fast food consumption and a perverse variant of the idea of the saintliness of the deserving poor. McDonald's is here a very incongruous sign, undercutting the religiosity of the El Greco-like begging figure.
Dorothea Lange: White Angel Breadline (1932) Records of the Social Security Administration
The picture also parodies the documentary trope of giving the poor spiritual and saintly import-- Goto's Beggar echoes Dorothea Lange's photograph White Angel Breadline, which shows a lone elderly figure, set apart from the hungry crowds, his hands tightly held together around his cup in an attitude that resembles prayer.
McDonald's and Coca Cola served as occasional interrupting signs amidst the poverty in Boris Mikhailov's post-Soviet documentary, Case History. Mikhailov foregrounded the unethical exchange which forms the basis of his pictures. He paid his subjects, drawn from the 'new homeless' of his home town in the Ukraine, to undress and pose for him. Underlying his portraits is a warped version of Western capitalist exchange as his 'bought' impoverished subjects strip off and parade their nakedness to him and subsequently to the West. Goto's Naked, in which a rather androgynous male figure hurriedly takes off his pants on the steps of the portals to a big bank, seems a clear parody of Mikhailov.
Goto's reference to fast food and homelessness in Beggar also alludes to Philip-Lorca diCorcia's series Hollywood, which sets a number of its portraits of male drifters and prostitutes against the glowing signs of fast food eateries; suggesting corollaries between fast food consumption and the commodification of its subjects. Their availability for purchase was further underscored by diCorcia's disclosure of the amount of money he paid each of his subjects to pose for him. In Goto's picture of charity, in which the subject invites passersby to give to the needy through a cup which bears the sign of the global greed of a multinational, we have a succinct reminder of the bigger problems of economic exchange and inequities-- made evident in both diCorcia's and Mikhailov's documentary-based projects.
Many of Goto's pictures play on an unexpected disparity of codes-- a joining of sign systems that seem inappropriate. The stylishness of his subjects rubs up against our assumptions of alterity. Much as they may appear to stand apart in Goto's tableaux, such figures are partly assimilated by the globalism of commodity culture.
In Bucketman, one of the most theatrical and comic, the male does a headstand with his head in a semi-transparent bucket. Goto plays with associations here. The performer's body position is emblematic of the artist's satirical perspective on the world. The inversion of the figure corresponds with the inversions of values which recur in Gilt City. The performance of this street entertainer also points to a condition of wilful blindness, of putting your head in the sand. One might then ask: who is this critical commentary addressed to? It certainly is not this street performer. Instead, Goto seems to direct his satire at the liberal humanist viewer. The punning title of the series draws attention to the guilty unease with which the middle-class tend to view such outsider types, misfits, and marginals. It also might be seen to suggest the atrophy of social conscience (guilt) by money (gilt) and free market ideology. So, in contrast to much documentary, this is not about trying to speak for the socially disempowered, but instead uses signs of difference-- albeit skewed and reconfigured-- to say something about the value systems which keeps these types in their place, on the streets, begging, dealing, hawking, performing etc.
Goto's Ecoist is a hybrid figure. Sporting a briefcase and umbrella, she represents the outsider as insider, the subversive mutating into a business type. Alternative causes have now become capitalist concerns. The stylishness and modishness of Goto's 'portrait' also links up with the readiness with which recent colour documentary can glamourise and idealise outsider types. Much as his pictures play with difference and outsiderness, as such a transitional and modish figure succinctly demonstrates, difference is now increasingly blurred and indeterminate, like the reflections on the polished slick surfaces of the postmodern space, which now provides the Ecoist's environment.
Many of the characters in Goto's tableaux provide a parodic mimesis of the activities of people within the city. Tout, for example, does not deal in contraband goods, instead what he is selling, as revealed when he flashes open his coat, are the company logos for companies listed in the FTSE 100. Trading on the stock exchange is replayed in the form of the low trade of the street hawker; both, Goto implies, are just as shady. Similarly Bullfighter and Bear Trainer, offer a comic allusion to trading on the stock exchange-- only reversing the relationship between bull and bear traders, the bull a mere calf and the bear ferocious and threatening its tamer. Appropriately and inevitably the artist also includes himself in Gilt City. In Hawker, Goto appears as a dodgy guy on the street corner attempting to flog one of his pictures. Hawker finds its counterpart in the parodic portrait of the art Collector, here pictured as an obsessive scavenger, clutching a batch of newspapers and wearing a stylish pair of Converse sneakers.
Security is arguably Goto's most contentious image, playing with white anxieties and hang-ups about race and representation. Here a white male with face blacked up, guards the glass portals to some financial building. The figure highlights Goto's white and predominantly male repertoire of characters. That he also looks like a military type, an army irregular, is important. Much as he stands to defend the building, at the same time he also can be seen to evoke a threat, represent a potential rogue force. The picture itself is formally constructed to highlight division and opposition-- brought out through the approaching figure of a suited young male who can be seen reflected in the glass doors. The burly security guard serves to block his entrance; a separation further brought out through the way the X formed by the door handles serves as a barring cross over the reflected figure. Security thus serves to raise questions about all sorts of exclusions and divisions and rebounds back onto the series as a whole, in the way the bouncer figure serves to physically enact a resistance to the viewer's identification.
In Writer, the slogan seems more like a corporate (or nation state's) mission statement than a challenge to the building the figure is vandalising: 'A State of War A World of Opportunity'. Made in response to the second Gulf War, a war very much driven by the US's desire to control Iraq's oil reserves, the resonances of such a message are quite clear. In Writer, protest and opposition is nothing more than endorsement. Twisting and distorting signs, such a picture points out the coextensive relationship between an imposing neo-classical corporate edifice and the subject who spray paints it.
Much as the series Gilt City might suggest the idea of resistance associated with its parade of street types, all potentially symbolic of revolutionary and counter cultural forces, the overriding message is about their ultimate ineffectuality. Documentary is not only disordered here, but its ideals are radically shaken. Capitalism, in Goto's pictures, becomes a pervasive monolithic force, readily assimilating and commodifying any signs of subversion or deviance. At the same time, the work itself is nevertheless clearly positioned as resistant, using irony, satire and farce as oppositional forms, but from within not from without.
Documentary traditionally functioned to engage with injustices and inequities in order to provoke active responses. The current vogue for documentary in contemporary art, has entailed a documentary in extremis, often consciously unethical and sensational, and often aggressive and shocking in its subject matter: reducing human misery to an object of consumption. As a result it has lost much of its political meaning and import. Goto, rooted in a tradition of satire and irony, revisits documentary's history but keeps his distance from it. He borrows and distorts the codes of documentary in order to portray contemporary capitalist concerns and tap into liberal humanist guilt, desires and fears.
Mark Durden is Professor of Photography at Newport School of Art, Media and Design (University of Wales) and is also part of the artists’ group Common Culture.
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