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Still, a solo exhibition of work by Sarah Sweeney
January 28, 2017 - March 3, 2017
January 28 – March 3, 2017
Curated by Rachel Seligman, Assistant Director for Curatorial Affairs, Tang Teaching Museum, Skidmore College.
Opening Reception: Saturday, January 28, 4 – 6 pm
This event is FREE and open to the public.
Gallery Hours: Tues – Fri 12 – 5 pm, Sat 12 – 4 pm
In her work, Sarah Sweeney explores the space between information that is stored in our memory and the information that is captured by documentary technologies, such as cameras, phones, stereoscopic images and home videos. She explains: “When a photograph is taken, or a voice is recorded, or a video is captured, there is a duplication that occurs. One is a memory stored internally by the body to be reconstituted later, while the other takes a physical form and enters into the archive of memory objects. It is the relationship between the two forms – one living and malleable, the other rigid and enduring – that my work takes as its subject.”
Still, Sarah Sweeney’s recent series of work, comprises large scale archival pigment prints and animations created from video footage and photographs captured at different sites in Iceland. Each work is constructed from dozens of images of the landscape combined with images of tourists taken at the same location. Sweeney digitally repositions bodies like theatrical props or mannequins among the the waterfalls, glaciers, and lava fields. Sweeney says: “Iceland’s tourism board describes their natural landscapes as a contrast between majestic mountains, picturesque lagoons, catastrophic glaciers, and raging torrential rivers. Close to a million tourists overrun Iceland every year hoping to capture and bring home these landscapes in the form of photographs. In the photographic series Still I explore the paradox that arises when hundreds of tourist bodies armed with cameras around their necks invade these remote landscapes hoping to capture a sense of wilderness, isolation, and untouched space.”
Sarah Sweeney earned her BA in Studio Art from Williams College and MFA in Digital Media from Columbia University School of the Arts. Her work has appeared nationally and internationally in exhibitions at locations including the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, the Los Angeles Center for Digital Art, the New Jersey State Museum, the Black and White Gallery, and the UCR/California Photography Museum. Her work was recently featured at Laughter and Forgetting, Bucharest Art Week, Bucharest, Romania; Screening Scholarship Media Festival Exhibition, Annenberg School Of Communication, University Of Pennsylvania; and Slingshot Festival of Music, Electronic Art, Tech, Film & Comedy, Athens, Georgia. Other recent exhibitions include Re-Picturing Photography, Union Street Gallery, Chicago Heights, Illinois;This into That: Found Object Art, Assemblage, and Other Transformed Work, Nave Gallery Annex, Somerville, Massachusetts; The Dam Show, Reservoir Art Space, Ridgewood, New York; Selected Art Faculty Exhibition, Schick Art Gallery, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York; public media, private media, curated by Nick Montfort, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, Massachusetts. She is currently Associate Professor of Digital Media and Interactive Design in the Art Department at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY.
You can learn more about her at sarahelizabethsweeney.com.
Sarah Sweeney in Conversation with curator Rachel Seligman:
RS: Could you start by sharing a little about your background as an artist?
SS: I grew up with photography because my grandfather was a serious collector. I was a photographer in high school and I wanted to be one in college. My junior year I went to the Museum School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There I studied digital photography for the first time and I was introduced to the computer. That was first time I had any type of experience with a computer and I made a piece that was really important to me. My father died when I was 17, right before I went to college. I loved photographs but I felt that in the time after he died photographs let me down. They had been promised to be memories, and I was terribly disappointed because I used the same photographs over and over and they stopped bringing back my father. And I just felt very much like it was photography’s fault that I was losing my memories. With the computer, I could do things that reflected the way I was thinking about memories, so my first real piece was called My Father Died Four Years Ago and it involved removing him from all the photographs I had of him. And one of the ideas was that you could see the hole that he left, which was a much more present reality than actually seeing his body, which was no longer here. So it was a way to alter the photographs to reflect the present reality, as opposed to something that was in the past.
Since that time, all of my work has been about exploring photography without taking photographs. Instead, I work mainly with found photographs, slides I buy from eBay, things like that. I hadn’t taken photographs in 10 years before the Still series, and I haven’t taken them in any of my projects since.
RS: What do you think about the relationship between the photograph as a perceived document – we like to think they are snapshots of reality – and the fact that your work involves altering or fabricating the photograph?
SS: My work relies upon that perception – of photography as reality – because it allows for a sense of wonder when seeing my work. But I believe that all photography is completely constructed. While we consider photographs to be really near and dear (they’re the first thing you grab in a fire, right?) I actually think that photographs are really problematic. I think that they’re false and artificial in ways that we don’t readily perceive. And I think that’s one of the reasons all my work is in photography, and is why I alter them, because I think that when we see photographs, we don’t think about all the ways that they don’t actually equate to reality or memory…
RS: And do you feel like your personal experience of loss was the moment that you had that realization?
SS: Yes. I think because I love photography so much, and felt so betrayed.
RS: I’m interested that you had such a powerful and emotional feeling of betrayal, but that instead of completely rejecting photography and going in another direction, you ended up diving in deeply, creating your own path into photography.
SS: Every one of my works questions a different aspect of photography and our relationship to it. Not to suggest that people shouldn’t love photography, because I think photography is incredible. But to see how strange and awkward photography is, instead of just familiar, and warm, and cuddly, and all those things people generally feel about it.
RS: Tell me about the current series: how did you come to make this work, which is different from all your previous work in that you’ve actually taken these photographs yourself?
SS: People are not still in reality. We don’t see that. We don’t know what that looks like. But in photographs, we totally accept that moment. Stillness is weird and strange, but to make people see that, I rotate people 90°, because then the awkwardness seems more obvious. Also, when you’re vertical you don’t notice how rigid our bodies are, but when you turn them, they’re so rigid, almost like rigor mortis. And there are all these postures and gestures that we’re not even conscious of, because they’re so familiar. So by turning people on their side it becomes unfamiliar, and we start thinking a little bit more about what it is to be still. The other thing that really got me excited was taxidermy, and thinking about photography as visual taxidermy. Because taxidermy has all the same things as rigor mortis, it’s unnatural, but very lifelike.
The related artifice with photography is this sense… (and that goes back to my dad) …that it can bring someone back. I think our culture is very obsessed with this.
RS: Did you go to Iceland with this particular project in mind?
SS: I did. I’d been working with old slides for a long time and I decided I wanted to work with contemporary images. For this project I started looking at Flickr, but none of the photographs were a big enough size for me to use. I decided Iceland was the best place to go to make my own images because I was looking at a lot of Caspar David Friedrich, and thinking about the Rückenfigur [a figure placed in a landscape painting, seen from behind, contemplating the view]. I knew that Iceland looked a lot like some Caspar David Friedrich paintings. And one of the best things about Iceland is that it’s so compact, with many different kinds of landscape. I had a map that I had planned out with 28 sites that I would visit in 14 days. I would visit a site, and just sit there and wait for tourists to come. And it was a very odd experience of feeling like I was hunting tourists, because I’d get very excited when they would show up en-masse, armed with cameras around their necks, swarming into these remote landscapes. And then I would “shoot” them. I also took a lot of photographs of the backgrounds, so I could put them together piece by piece, because I wanted some of the work to be really big.
RS: I want to talk a little bit about the role of humor in this work.
SS: My work is not usually funny; I don’t intend it to be funny.
RS: Why do you think that people think this work is funny?
SS: I think maybe because it’s kind of uncomfortable. If you’ve ever been to a place and been one of these people, I’m somewhat poking fun at you. If you’ve ever been a tourist, you’re somewhat implicated through these people. I also think there is irony in the images: that masses of tourists descend on these sites to capture a sense of wilderness, isolation, and untouched space.
RS: It seems to me that this is a critique of how we flock to places that have been designated as being special, and we try to capture them in some way, to own them, to possess them.
SS: Yes, and I don’t understand that. I guess that’s one of the weird parts for me about this series, is that I don’t usually do this. If I go to a foreign country, I don’t take images. I don’t take pictures of my children (my husband does). I don’t take pictures of myself, I don’t take pictures pretty much at all. So this is very foreign to me.
And there’s this sense that because we’re taking all these photographs with cameras that we’re not taking anything away from a place.
RS: What do you think about that?
SS: I do think that we are taking something away from a place. I do. And I think it’s strange that on a given day in Iceland, hundreds of people have the same exact photograph. It seems incredibly wasteful. It’s digital so nobody thinks it’s wasteful. And so part of this trip was a lot about me coming to terms with, “Is it Okay? Is it not Okay? What does it mean when all these people travel through this place? What does it mean when you take something? What does it mean to own a digital piece of a place?” And so I guess one of the things that occurred to me about this is that I really think photographs are not necessarily just for memory. I think they’re a lot about communicating what it is we’re doing at a given time. I guess I’m interrogating the act and the culture of it.
RS: So you think – because you started to allude to this – that it’s about both the moment of taking it, but also the moment of sharing it with others? Maybe even more about the sharing?
SS: Yes, I think a lot of it is sharing. And I think the sharing is, on one level, tied to capitalism and colonialism. “I went to this place. You should see it… These are the most amazing things…” People who have enough money go to a country that’s not theirs, take photographs (among other things) from that country, and bring them back as a way to show off their wealth and power.
RS: Photography as a mode of conquest…
SS: It is a mode of conquest and that’s the part that is very intriguing to me. I’ve read a lot on tourism and conquest. To be in someone else’s country to “experience” it… I’m interested in what that means, and how the camera becomes a tool in service to the impulse for control and possession.
But I also don’t take photographs of my life now because I find it to be a really strange practice. You have this very odd moment where everyone is stopping, becoming still, to take the photograph. At least for me, that’s very odd. But I love photographs. That’s the paradox for me, because I love photography. And in my work, I’m trying to bring to the surface some of the paradoxes that exist for me in photography. We hold photography very close but I feel it needs to be more closely examined.
This exhibition is funded in part by The Community Exchange Foundation, Adirondack Studios and the New York State Council on The Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. The Courthouse Gallery hours during exhibitions are Tuesday through Friday 12 – 5 pm, Saturday 12 – 4 pm, and all other times by appointment. The Courthouse Gallery is located at the side entrance of the Old County Courthouse, corner of Canada and Lower Amherst Streets, Lake George, NY.<