Well, I dreamed I saw the silver spaceships flying
In the yellow haze of the sun
There were children crying and colors flying
All around the chosen ones
All in a dream, all in a dream
- Neil Young, After the Gold Rush, 1970
Recent contemporary photography, particularly examples frequenting the walls of major museums, often seems drained of political poignancy, given over instead to aesthetic and commercial concerns: epic scale, vivid color, and the elastic potential of digital manipulations. But if the traditional—and vital—imperatives of documentary photography have been superseded by the tropes of high art, a compelling show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art rethinks the terms of this transformation.
After the Gold Rush: Contemporary Photographs from the Collection is on view in the Met’s dedicated space for modern photography, a short walk from the snaking lines of viewers patiently waiting for a turn in the dramatically presented Alexander McQueen exhibition. As Associate Curator Douglas Eklund writes in the introductory text, the 25 pictures gathered together represent the first time this space has engaged directly with the state of the world, our ‘culture at large’. But this is a show as much about the state of the medium, and about the commitment of the museum to represent the diversity of photographic practices. All of the pictures here have been made in the last three decades, and many of them are recent acquisitions.
The show juxtaposes more obviously politically potent work from the era of the culture wars with more recent conceptual work. The appropriated and re-configured text and images from a corporate annual report in Hans Haacke’s Thank You, Paine Webber, 1979, points to the absurdly feeble attempts of corporate America to sooth its collective conscience, and the constructed, surreal violence of Laurie Simmon’s Walking Gun, 1991, calls up an active resistance to gender inequality that is strikingly powerful if somehow also nostalgic for a time when such imagery felt more like a loaded gun.
Moyra Davey’s Copperhead Grid, 1990, anchors the room, ten neat rows showing the decaying surfaces of American pennies, an elegy for the economy.
Adjacent to it, an early Jeff Wall, The Storyteller, 1986, sits casting its signature glow in the corner. Despite its contextual relevance here—it shows a group of Vancouver’s down and out gathered by a looming overpass—it is still a kind of elephant in the room, edging out some of the work around it by sheer girth, and foretelling the waning of the artist’s own political interest and the general shift in tone his brand of ‘museum’ photography has led.
But the show also offers the possibility of a sea change, or at least a subtly altered, more socially engaged institutional perspective on recent work.
The state of war and US military strategy is the subject of two very different pieces. Trevor Paglen’s work uses sophisticated technology to track covert American military activity, often resulting in abstractions of captured light—in this case, KEYHOLE IMPROVED CRYSTAL from Glacier Point (Optical Reconnaissance Satellite; USA 186), 2008, shows a streaking satellite purportedly on a reconnaissance mission somewhere above Yosemite. A recent work by An My Lê, in contrast, shows detailed images of its titled subject, Suez Canal Transit, U.S.S. Dwight Eisenhower, Egypt, 2009, that invite close examination. Sequence and perspective, however, are intentionally confused, destabilizing any feeling of a fixed point of view.
On the wall opposite, one of James Casebere’s meticulously photographed cardboard constructions has never seemed so fragile or so perfectly chosen a subject. In this model, Landscape with Houses (Duchess County, NY) #1, 2009, shows a complex of suburban dream-houses, the likes of which we have seen vanished in the recent housing market collapse.
Like the repetition of Davey’s pennies and these rows and rows of houses, and despite the inevitable encroaching visual power of each piece on one another, the pictures in this room undeniably gather force together. The gallery space is occupied by their collective energy: violence, decay, suspicion, and the slow-burning failure of late capitalism.
A constellation of images by Wolfgang Tillmans (who was involved in their arrangement), including a sleeping baby and Shanghai’s TV tower, ends the show in a glittering attempt at restoring some meaningful connection to the alienated world pictured in the surrounding room.
As in the three-verse Neil Young song it invokes, the idyllic past and dystopian present conjures an irrevocable passage that leaves space only for a dream of a possible future.
After the Gold Rush: Contemporary Photographs from the Collection also includes work by Gretchen Bender, Philip-Lorca diCorica, Robert Gober, Katy Grannan, Curtis Mann, Adrian Piper, and Christopher Williams. It is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until January 2, 2012.