Leaving Your Treasures Behind: On the Photographic Process and the Paintbrush.
Enkaryon, Independent Art Critic
Separated by a three-year gap from her previous solo exhibition, Poetic Footsteps, at Galerie Grand Siècle, Taipei, Hsu Meng-Han’s Flesh and the Everydayness presents the artist’s departure from the cold imagery and tension forged in her past work. Having picked up photography in recent years, she has recast her focus on the miraculous moments of everyday life. In Flesh and the Everydayness, the viewer is invited to look through a different kind of eye, the eye of the camera, and to join in the mind games at play in Hsu Meng-Han’s work.
The application of optical technology in painting is nothing new in the history of art. In the 17th and 18th centuries, for example, the use of camera obscura was already popular amongst painters. Vermeer was an expert of the technique. And by the 18th century, artists and hobbyists alike could often be seen with camera obscura in hand, a device they would use as an aid in painting — the artist and the technical apparatus. From such a perspective, it can be seen how optical aids and their use could thus shape the practices of artists, first as a thread in their work and beliefs, and later as a dense web woven through the experience and forms of art. While Flesh and the Everydayness is by no means situated within a simulation of this relationship between the paintbrush and the camera, it is a testament to the expansion of Hsu Meng-Han’s visual vocabulary and practice, expressing the ‘flesh’ and the ‘everyday’ in 41 works created using a multiple media, from acrylic and oil paint to photography.
Two series of works in the exhibition, Lilliputians and Flesh and the Everydayness, present a variety of scenes captured by Hsu Meng-Han’s lens, be that out with friends or at an ice skating rink, visiting the Miniatures Museum in Taipei, or at the Hakka Compound’s Catraccoon Studios in Miaoli. “Flesh and the Everydayness 051”, the leading work in the exhibition’s promotional materials, depicts a symmetrically constructed European-style garden on the side of a lake — an image that actually comes from a photographic paper backdrop placed behind a miniature window frame. The multiple focal lengths and refractions come from the artist’s use of a multiple exposure technique, taking advantage of a focal-length effect commonly seen in special scenes shot at miniature photography studios. It is an optical illusion created by the interplay of naked and mechanical eyes, forming a space between the true and the false, in between fiction and fact, where all kinds of strange and exotic appearances converge.
The defamiliarized atmosphere that exudes from this space, this treasure chamber, is even more apparent in Lilliputians. Drawing on the kind of atmospheres common to amusement parks in Taiwan, the work depicts peculiar scenes of lifelike statues amidst natural landscapes — strange figures lurking in forests and plastic vegetation, along with the artist’s darkroom mishaps. As for the inclusion of these chance outcomes that arise in the darkroom, there’s a certain degree of resonance with Benjamin’s concept of the “optical unconscious”: the subconscious or dreamlike state of photography that exists on a separate level than the optical technology itself, beyond the scope of the human eye. Considering new photography theory as well, we might look more broadly at the relationality of optical technology and optical information in the darkroom, the editing and conversion of digital information, even camera obscura. Here, with Meng-Han’s frequent return to certain scenes and themes, and in the process by which she selects her photographs, the discourse around camera obscura and the creation of visual art once again has room to breathe.
Whereas the style of Hsu Meng-Han’s earlier work in acrylics is marked by the vibrant reds of dissected flesh in the brushwork and color palette, Flesh and the Everydayness tends instead towards horizontal brushwork and lines. In the pieces numbered “001”, “004”, “006”, and “020”, for example, it’s easy to see how stripes are used as a visual element, having either been intentionally captured by the lens or culled from otherwise incidental shots. The development of new photography theory in recent years has followed a course in which photography is considered to be but one of many techniques to record the an object’s optical qualities, which is exactly what Patrick Maynard would suggest. And there is now more room than ever within the discourse for theories of the photographic event and the informatization of the image. This emphasis, especially as it concerns the processing and display of an image’s information, not only proves quite valuable for Flesh and the Everydayness, it is also enriches Derrida’s theories regarding the frame around a painting. For Derrida, it is through the opening of a fourth surface where, in the empty center of the square, between its four sides, one is to be entrained, carried off, and cast into a state of incomplete, unending labour. He suggests that this square or, as he terms it, this cube, is bound to never be closed up. Perhaps it is this notion of the frame or that of the parergon, introduced in “The Truth of Painting”, that would determine the way in which a painting’s structure relates to its motifs. That is to say, there are stylistic similarities in this exhibition that are suggestive of this dialogue between the parergon of a painting and the photographic process. Likewise, there are the motifs and forms that appear throughout Meng-Han’s photographic events, in particular with the Miniatures Museum, suggestive of how her art practice and personal persuasions orient her visual repertoire.
In terms of the relationship between the artist and her optical instruments, Flesh and the Everydayness demonstrates how Hsu Meng-Han’s paintings have undergone a thematic expansion since she started working with the camera. The nonautomatic processes inherent to photography, both pre- and post-darkroom, have surely intervened in the production of these works, even impacting the themes found in her paintings. In works such as “Flesh Landscape 03 — Portrait” and “Flesh Landscape — Manuscript Series 04”, as well as numbers “007” and “055” in the Flesh and the Everydayness series, we can see how the themes in her work have shifted from the symbolic and poetic and to the quotidian and concrete. Over the course of this transformation, while Meng-Han’s painting practice has often had an affect on the parergon of her photographs, such is not so clearly the case in the Manuscript Series — a set of works which amplify various visual forms and objects. Simply put, the sense of intensity by which lines are used in her earlier work has since transformed into the tension through which sections of colour expand and stretch across the scenes she paints. By way of the photographic process, strange themes have been brought forward in her work — motifs aided by the optical instrument they pass through, so that instead of miniature models of flesh we see these moments captured in movements of color. This visual conversion is not only perceptible in the Green Trick of “Flesh Landscape — Manuscript Series 06” but throughout the development of this series, with its peculiar visual vocabulary owing to the elements that Meng-Han has chosen to focus on as a photographer.
Flesh and the Everydayness is a showcase of the medium-spanning art of Hsu Meng-Han, with work from both before and after she began her practice in photography. While Lilliputians exhibits the strange atmosphere of the Miniatures Museum, Flesh and the Everydayness presents the artist’s select scenes documenting her photography excursions, and Flesh Landscape — Manuscript Series takes on a quotidian sort of left-over state, in stark contrast to the style of her past acrylic works. The artist’s multifaceted relationship with her optical instruments is manifest in these works. And this relationship, in turn, creates the potential for a dialogue and negotiation between the photographic process and her painting practice. The sorts of mechanisms for pinning down pictures, the observations of camera obscura, and chemical reactions in the darkroom are all relevant in the discussion of the photographic process. Equally so are the artist’s hands and eyes, how they coordinate to shape the work, how they resonate to create harmony, such as Meng-Han achieves in this exhibition, so fluidly translating her art across different media.
Photography scholar Diarmuid Costello synthesized the discourse in the philosophy of photography after the 1990s, reorganizing a decade’s worth of in photography theory and philosophy’s arguments against Bazin’s automatism while also advancing his notion of the “photographic process” as it concerns the production process of digital images. The photographic process includes four aspects: (1) the sensing of the physical level of light between an object and an environment by a light-sensing component, (2) the photographic event in which that optical image has yet to transform into the information state of the photograph, (3) the storage and copying of that photograph’s information, (4) and the viewer who learns of the context of the photographic event through the photographic object. Following this conception, new photography theory from the past decade has tended to focus on power structures, intellectualization, and stylization — phenomena which are discussed in accord with variably rigorous or flexible standards. As for the resulting photographic content, the discussion ranges from the science of color application and authoritative knowledge, to the narrative of the viewer who faces photographic paper, the actual practice of epistemology, and aesthetic taste.
把妳所珍愛的留下 ── 相攝過程與畫筆
徐夢涵的《日常與肉身》、《小花園》系列拍攝了一系列參觀袖珍博物館，貓貍影城（客家大院）、溜冰場與偕友外行捕捉的畫面。這次展覽 DM上頭的正是此系列《日常與肉身》第 51號作品。這張對稱構圖的歐式庭園風景，是鏡頭對準了袖珍模型窗外的背景相紙造就的。模型相紙所涵納的湖邊風景與藝術家的再攝，讓多重的焦距、折射的闕無，構成了肉眼與機械眼共同交織的幻象。這種焦距現象是特攝場景模型攝影棚常見的現象。但真假虛實之間，卻形成了各種異國情調、怪誕景象的收藏空間。這種由珍寶室（treasure chamber）收藏空間延伸出陌生化的氣氛其實在《小花園》中更為明顯。《小花園》借重了台灣遊樂區造景本身的氛圍，栩栩如生的雕像與自然景色中的衝突在這組作品中組成了怪奇的特色。《小花園》的主題包括林間掩藏的怪異雕像、塑膠植物以及暗房沖洗的意外。這些從偶發現象到照片沖洗出現的意外，某種程度與光學無意識的概念相通。班雅明對於「光學無意識（optical unconsciousness）」的解釋是：「除了墊基於光學技術層面的視覺紀錄以外，攝影亦有一種潛意識般地、宛如夢境的，而超出人類肉眼範疇的特質。」但這種特質我們在新攝影哲學中開始考量光學技術‧資訊在暗房、編輯以及數位資訊的轉換與暗箱之間的關係時，徐夢涵這些照片的挑選過程，以及對於視覺現場的屢次重返，就再次讓暗箱與視覺藝術創作留下了更多討論的空間。
從風格比較來說，過往在徐夢涵壓克力畫作中鮮紅色的解剖肌肉的色塊與筆觸，橫向的筆觸、線條在《日常與肉身》頻繁出現。例如在 1號、4號、6號、7號、20號等作品中，並不難發現反覆條紋的視覺元素如何在鏡頭中被捕捉或是在偶然拍攝中被挑選而出。從近幾年新攝影理論發展的系譜來看，Patrick Maynard 將攝影只當作許多記錄物件表面光學特色的技術的一種，從而讓影像有資訊化以及影像事件的討論空間。這種強調攝影事件到影像資訊處理與展示在《日常與肉身》相當有價值。這種看法也進一步豐富了德希達討論繪畫框架的說法，德希達曾在〈嫁接，澆鑄〉講過：「通過第四個面（surface）的開啟，在四面之間、（立方體）中心那空無的場地（square）內，你將被封存（entrained）、完成（carried off）、澆鑄於某種未完成的、無止境的勞動之中。這場地（square），或者，如果你願意這麼說的話，這立方體永不閉合（closed up）。」或是其在《繪畫的真理》討論的框性（parergon）如何決定了繪畫構圖以及主題的關係。換句話說，在徐夢涵這一次展覽中這些風格的類同指向了相攝過程（photographic process）與繪畫框性的對話。這樣看來，在攝影事件中不斷出現珍物館的主題以及風格指向的是藝術家本身對於視覺元素的挑選喜好與慣習。
藝術家與視覺裝置的關係，在《日常與肉身》呈現的是隨著夢涵拿起相機後所發生的繪畫主題擴張。也就是攝影本身的非自動（nonautomatic）過程，從暗房到事後的許多過程對於相紙成品的干涉甚至對油畫作品主題的影響。《日常與肉身》7號與 55號作品、《肉身風景 03－肖像畫》以及《肉身風景－手記 04》等作品，我們就看到了夢涵的繪畫主題由詩意的象徵平移滑向了具有日常特性的主題。在藝術家這幾年的主題轉變中，更多的是繪畫慣習影響了攝影機框性的完成，而又歸返成為了《手記》這一組作品各種物件各種視覺風格放大的作品。簡單地說，過往作品強烈的線條感過度成為了油畫色塊面積在畫面中拉長、擴張的張力。而較為細緻地說，透過了相攝過程（photographic process）展示出的怪奇主題，這些主題透過視覺裝置協助下像肌肉模型的風格轉變成了色彩運動可以捕捉的瞬間。這個視覺轉換可從《肉身風景－手記 06》的綠石竹看到，也正是這種在攝像中視覺元素的發現讓《肉身風景－手記》系列的整個發展有了一種怪奇的繪畫語彙。
註：攝影學者 Diarmuid Costello 綜合了九零年代後的攝影哲學討論，將這十年間攝影理論與哲學中反巴贊自動主義的論點重新整理，並考量了數位影像的生產過程提出相攝過程（photographic process）。相攝過程包括了（一）環境與物件間物理學層次真實的光線被光線感應元件接受（二）光學影像尚未成為相片的資訊狀態，攝影事件（photographic event）（三）影像資訊的儲存與拷貝（四）最後是讓觀者可以知道攝影事件脈絡的攝影物件。在這個概念下，這十年間新攝影理論在這嚴謹或寬鬆的標準下討論權力機構、知識化以及風格化的現象。而在最後的攝影內容上，也就出現了科學影像上色與權威知識以及觀者面對相紙敘事跟真實現場知識論與審美學的討論。