Analysis of Image as Icon


Analysis of ‘Image as Icon: Recognising the Enigma’

In Tracey Warr’s essay, ‘Image as Icon: Recognising the Enigma’, she identifies and discusses four discourses of performance photography–the document, the icon, the simulacrum and the live act–and what is at stake in these discourses is the ‘truth’.

What she describes as ‘contradictory’ and contentious between the discourses, I believe what she has shown is the different ways in which photography is utilised and read as a medium for documenting and presenting a live performance. Although these photographs may offer themselves as an accurate record of the event, or the complete ‘truth’, Warr shows how incomplete, though necessary, photography is in depicting the experience of the live performance.

Adrian George offers a loose definition of live performance art as primarily consisting of a living ‘human presence–a body (or bodies) in space and at a specific moment, or for a definite period’. What is difficult about performance art is that most people expect to see ‘art’ in a traditional sense, which is an art object. Performances do not have a ‘fixed referential basis’, much like Robert Smithson’s earthwork, Spiral Jetty 1970, whose spiral formation no longer exists physically due to erosion by the sea. Because performances and works like Spiral Jetty ‘continue to exist only through an accumulation of documentation and discourse’ documenting these works become very important in placing them in a historical context.

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In Warr’s discourses of performance photography as the document and the simulacra, we have what appear to be two polarising discourses–the ‘real’ evidence and the simulation; however, her development of both discourses arrives at similar conclusions about truth telling. Warr defines the discourse of the document as ‘the image perform[ing] the role of materialist evidence and proof–showing us exactly what happened so we can ‘know’ it’ while the discourse of the simulacra ‘explores fakery, the performative and representation’. According to Susan Sontag, unlike writing or even paintings and drawings which are perceived as ‘interpretations’, the photograph is perceived not so much as ’statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire’. However, both Warr and Sontag debunk the myth that the photograph is objective or factual. The performance is filtered through the photographer and camera through the process of framing, cropping and composing the photograph.

Then there is the process of choosing the best photographs to represent the entire performance, which Warr points out are usually the most composed photographs. In addition to this process of reduction, the experience of ’sound, time, space, [and] often the audience’ are missing from the photograph. The photograph as document is exposed, so to speak, as being like the simulacra, a mere representation or a simulation–the document is a construction. In reference to Hans Namuth’s photographs depicting Jackson Pollock painting, Fred Orton and Griselda Pollocks’ pose the question: ‘how far does the photographer document what happened and how far does he or she create the ‘documented’ phenomenon?’

Although Namuth’s photographs can be read as historical documents of the painter, Warr points out that these images are actually ‘Namuth and Pollock staging Pollock’. Another question that could be asked is how much does the artist perform for the audience and how much does the artist perform for the camera? Many performances during the 60s and 70s are ‘hybrid performance photography’ which were performed especially for the camera as opposed to a live audience.

This kind of performance photography subverts the function of the photograph as an objective, unobtrusive document as the hybrid performance photography blatantly uses the camera as an accomplice to stage its performance.

Hybrid performance photography also subverts the central idea in the discourse of the live act. In this discourse, documentation is relegated to a mere ’subsidiary status’ while the live performance itself is ‘primary, cathartic, witnessed and ontological’. Here, documentation is supposed to be as ‘unobtrusive’ as possible because the most important aspect is the interaction between the performer and the audience, an aspect that comes from the traditions of the theatre.

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However, trying to capture the experience of the interaction between the performer and the audience is problematic as not only is the photograph incomplete as a truth teller as mentioned already but the viewer of the photograph cannot intervene with the performance. During the live performance, there is an opportunity for the audience to react ‘with a corporeal response’ but when viewing the performance through a photograph, the viewer is ‘already in interpretation mode’. Trying to decipher whether or not the photograph of Chris Burden’s nail-scarred hands in Trans-fixed 1999 is real or staged is an example of being in the interpretation mode.

Because the live performance lacks a fixed referent, the performance photograph itself is liable to become an icon. Here, the photograph functions beyond just a mere document or a staged image. In this discourse of performance photography, the ‘icon presents us with a manifestation of the unknowable and an encounter with that manifestation in a state of belief’. Warr points out that the role of the photograph as an icon is riddled with contradictions and compromise. The icon ‘is both indexical and documentary’, presenting itself as tangible evidence but in doing so it also ‘compromises it status as a manifestation of an unknowable to be believed’–conjuring up issues of fakery. The icon is a paradox because the iconic ‘must be universally familiar and …enigmatic’, or ‘the known and the unknowable’. In the world of art, the photographs of Jackson Pollock and Joseph Beuys–images of two famous and well-known artists–are as much icons as are their artwork.

Warr’s exploration of the four discourses presents contradictions between the discourses but at times they also complement each other. However, all four discourses point to the conclusion that even performance photography, like the art object, has no fixed meaning nor is there a fixed relationship between photography and performance. As Warr has shown us, it is a relationship that is highly complex.