Metamorphosis and Purpose in Objects Recognized in Flashes

Objects Recognized in Flashes, currently on view at MUMOK, testifies to the ambiguities in processes of visualisation; in the subtle state-changes between the static and the fluid in generating images. The four artists showing work – Eileen Quinlan, Michele Abeles, Josephine Pryde, and Annette Kelm – each play, in one way or another, with attuning the gaze, with the mysterious and particular nature of focus (on an object, on a surface, on a texture, on a body, on a field of colour). The exhibition formidably and courageously takes on a range within consumer aesthetics, stage photography, and digitality as guiding themes, which are not analysed through direct responses in the form of the artworks, but rather traced, dissected, and left ambiguous. A substantial number of pieces from each contributing artist is included and the group show has a strong tone of overlap and collaboration, such that at times the synchronicity between pieces implements the questioning of authorship.

One of the striking photographs is the work Untitled (Bag) from Annette Kelm, where we see a rough linen bag printed with steamboats and an inscription in the centre reading “American Queen”. This is a suitable example of the obtuse nature of a non-advertisement advertisement (one of the common proposals in the show), where the product being “displayed” seems to represent a service or a subject, that of the “American Queen”, which is neither something purchasable nor something that should be asserted as “useable”, rather an imaginary social position placed within a fictitious monarchy, arguably in reality an oligarchy based on abuse of resources and human trafficking (as underlined with the pattern of steamboats which surrounds the statement). The disturbing critique hides inside the symmetry and neutral colours, making Kelm’s piece an example of a strong argument for the dangerous potential of stage photography and further its function within a larger matrix of consumer-oriented product placement to implement the credence of strategically destructive messaging, which shockingly is rarely sublimated but lives directly on the surface. Dialectically, the potential of allegory embedded in composition is addressed in the piece Red Rock, Cigarettes, Newspaper, Body, Wood, Lycra, Bottle from Michele Abeles. It is of specific interest that the title of the work enumerates what is visible, but leaves out a dominant element of the photograph which is a rainbow gradient fabric printed with vertical code, written in an meta-language of hieroglyphs and numbers, streaming downwards, seemingly a metaphor for a conglomerated stock exchange. This fabric covers a table which supports a headless male body in whose fingers are hanging many unlit cigarettes.The piece is simultaneously cautionary and vivid, emphasising the moral degradation, burnout, and apathy that are married to the viral machinery of neoliberal capitalism. Taking the surface as a space to create hybrid environments, Abeles meticulously weaves a photographic tapestry which could not be called a collage. In a work by Eileen Quinlan, the photograph Statuary Marble, a form is pressed towards the viewer. It seems to be skin, perhaps a shoulder, perhaps a knee, such that the supposed body-part fills nearly the entirety of the frame and remains unidentifiable. The black and white image is uncanny and Quinlan uses this off-kilter formalism to raise the question “Are you seeing what you think you are seeing, and if it is something else, what will you do?”. In many of Quinlan’s works, the amplification of this intrinsic and primal discomfort of not knowing what is being represented produces an alienating tension which draws us into our otherness. With the piece Who were you?, Josephine Pryde also gives us a close up of something, a woman’s hands holding a smart phone, the fingers are caught in a blur, captured in the act of typing. This moment of anticipated communication is elongated and suspended in the photograph, which directly references the apparatus of the camera to preserve the kinetic and render it potential.

All four artists take the liberty to arrange, provoke, and theatricize with liberty and calculation such that the viewer has an opportunity to analyse their own expectations of the complicit economics between the photographic surface and the object. Objects Recognised in Flashes is curated by Matthias Michalka who offers in the following brief interview, a behind the scenes look into the exhibition and its contributors:

Josseline Black – All of the four artists in the exhibition seem to appropriate and re-figure, with certain irony, the still life (nature morte) as some proto-typical form of advertisement.What do you think about this in their work?

Matthias Michalka – I know that some of these things are related to this traditional category of still life, but I am not sure if this can subsume everything. I prefer the term “studio photography”, a certain form of staging things, and a certain form of spaceless presentation. Still life has this historical background. It was more the idea, when I look around at contemporary photography i see a lot of objects there, presented in a way as if they would come right out of the studio or a fashion magazine or consumer related photography. If you think about still life this aspect of consumerism and product aesthetics, is not so important. For us, product aesthetics was a crucial category.

JB – I also feel its important to raise this question of distinguishing the works, the four of them I start to see them overlap. Did they collaborate? You selected works that really have coincidence in them, can you go into this? Its hard to cut it up, It is a group show but it feels like a multitude of one single entity of vision…

MM – I agree, this is what we were looking for. We were looking for this tension between a connection on one side, similarities and overlapping, and differences on the other side. We chose them because of course they were questioning this consumer aesthetic and they do this by questioning the surface of things, of bodies and the photograph as such.

JB – Can we talk about the title of the show: Objects Recognized in Flashes?

MM – We had a different title before, and we discussed it a lot, in the very end Josephine came up with this title and its a quote from Wordsworth, a romantic philosopher. He used this sentence differently than we use it. For us it works in relation to the objects, to the flash, and flashes are also common in the studio situation where things are staged.

JB – “Recognized” is an interesting word, recognition is one of the layers of perception, but its almost a final act, and I feel the exhibition is not about conclusion, and if we talk about recognition as a conclusion to a process of perception how do you deal with this as a contradiction?

MM – Recognition in flashes can also mean recognizing something immediately, not as a development. This is how this sentence was originally related, it had nothing to do with photography, and for us it worked, it opened up a possibility without nailing it down to one dimension of reading.

JB – I wanted to ask you about this, in the show there are two times two cars. Can you go into detail about that choice?

MM – In advertisments a car is not presented as a functional tool, its always presented to produce emotions, desire, beauty and dynamics or something else. In the way Annette Kelm and Josephine Pryde are presenting the car, they are using the car totally differently. I think this question of the formal within these photographs is part of this question of how desire in advertisement in general is produced, and this has to do with a certain tension between the physicality of the things and the visuality of the things.The surface is exactly this fine line where the physical and visual meet.

JB – Yes, I wanted to ask you because the the central work of this tryptic is a woman with a green bag and she is holding an ice cream cone, and there are these metal shafts coming out of the photograph, how are you handling the sculptural intervention on the surface?

MM – Thats part of the question about the surface as the area where the visual and the physical meet. That is crucial in our contemporary discussion of how we deal with photographs. We have in our exhibition a series by Josephine Pryde which ends with a tablet, thats the form how you perceive photography now, on these touch screens ,what you are touching is glass.There are different ways with how we come to terms with our differentiated order of the senses and sensibilities. The way how you question the surface can be done in different ways.

JB – I feel this is a good way of summarising the works, as you said “a transformation of a transformation of a transformation, having undergone some metamorphosis.”

MM – I want to say that we did this show together. I invited these artists and we decided collectively. This was a very important way of producing a group show. I tried to avoid this conservative idea that a curator has his or her argument and then chooses certain pieces. This was the other way around. I saw a certain question or tendency in the bodies of work of these artists, I could have involved more artists but then it wouldn’t have been possible to have this collaboration.


Museu Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (MUMOK) Michele Abeles, Annette Kelm, Josephine Pryde, Eileen Quinlan, curated by Matthias Michalka, until 13 April.

Josseline Black is a contemporary curator, writer, and researcher. She holds an M.A. in time-based media from the Kunst Universität Linz and a B.A. in Anthropology (specialization Cotsen Institute of Archaeology) from the University of California Los Angeles. She operated for five years as in-house curator of the international artistic residency program at the Atelierhaus Salzamt (Austria) wherein she had the privilege of working closely with a number of brilliant artists. Included in her duties within the institution she allocated and directed the Salzamt hosting of the E.U. CreArt mobility for artists program. As a writer, she has reviewed exhibitions and co-edited texts for Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea do Chiado, Portugal, Madre Museum Naples, the Museums Quartier Vienna, MUMOK, Guimarães Gallery, Gallery Michaela Stock. She is regular theoretical contributor to the Contemporary Art Magazine Droste Effect. In addition, she has published with Interartive Malta, OnMaps Tirana, Albania, and L.A.C.E (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions). In tandem to her curatorial practice and writing, she has for the past decade used choreography as a research tool inquiring into the ontology of the performing body with a focus on embodied cartographies of public memory and space. She has held research residencies at the East Ugandan Arts Trust, the Centrum Kultury w Lublinie, the University of Arts Tirana Albania, and the Upper Austrian Architectural Forum. It is her privilege to continue developing her approach to curatorship which derives from an anthropological reading of art production and an ethnological dialectic in working with cultural content generated by art makers. Currently, she is developing the methodology which supports the foundation of a performance-based trans-disciplinary platform for a spectral critique on art production.

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