Catalog Essay from Reorientations: Looking East
January 19 – March 5, 1994
Takashimaya Gallery, New York
Miwon Kwon: In the past you’ve photographed your work through a screen material. How did you come to the screening process and what kinds of effects were you looking for?
Ellen Brooks: At one point, I became curious about whether one could photograph a person in a way so as to eliminate all personal or social readings. The human image as a photographic subject is generally infused with personal and social histories, mostly fictitious and inaccurate; I wanted to see if I could make the portrait generic.
Kwon: Do you mean you wanted to depersonalize the portrait?
Brooks: Yes. I was looking for a method to generalize the information without relying on anything so obvious as blurring the focus or other photographic techniques that obscure the image. I came across a screen in a catalogue and I started photographing people through it. At the same time, I was looking at a lot of things in magazines — certain kinds of flower arrangements, food presentations, and arrangements of other delectable things — and I wanted to neutralize them in a way, too. Level them off so that they would all be the same.
Kwon: For me, the use of the screen produces two very contradictory effects. One is toward a luscious and quite beautiful painterliness that is reminiscent of Seurat’s Pointillism. But on the other hand, the screen is so visibly present that there seems to bean impossibility of reaching what’s on the other side.
Brooks: I know that Impressionism is often invoked in relation to this work, but I’m not interested in that reference because, to me, the work is about the deadening of space, a claustrophobic atomizing of object and space into one depthless plane. The photographs are Cibachromes. The surface is very glossy, almost like cloisonne, creating a kind of tactile seductiveness that is impenetrable. I also see the screen as a leveler of the subjects because the process of dense fragmentation has the same transformative effect on whatever is represented. I could use pure paint, a person, a reproduction, a real still life — they would all read the same. The source becomes eradicated.
Kwon: How did the shift occur from portraits to these landscapes and images of nature?
Brooks: When I was doing the heads, I was also working on still-life arrangements. Some of the earliest ones were of sushi — plastic models of sushi. Around that time, I found a sushi calendar which struck me as very peculiar. Pinup calendars are usually of swimsuits or skin, but this one had centerfolds of sushi, a different piece each month. And seeing this calendar made me realize how popular sushi had become — a way for the exotic to be absorbed into the middle-class or yuppie culture.
Kwon: That moves into the Japanese connection. Roland Barthes, in his meditation on Japanese culture, Empire of Signs, devoted many chapters to food. He seemed particularly fascinated by the aestheticized presentation of food where it is registered as a picture before it is seen as edible and where the process of eating becomes the dismantling of a picture…Anyway, can you talk more about your turn to Japanese subjects?
Brooks: I had taken Japanese art history as a graduate student, but when I began working with Japanese ideas it wasn’t in an academic or intellectual way. In general, I think the bonsai series most clearly articulates my interest, because even though I know that the bonsai tradition is about reverence, honor, and beauty, it is also always dependent on constant shaping and interference with nature. It’s kind of creepy to me. In order to have this perfect replication and miniaturization of nature, the roots and branches have to be cut and maintained with small, precise movements. It’s an obsessive tampering with the natural design to control it and present it as an ideal. There is also something similar in ikebana, the art of flower arranging, which is extremely controlled and precise.
Kwon: I think what makes these works a little creepy is that they are about freezing a certain moment, so there is a lingering sense of death around them, which to me is very linked with photography.
Brooks: Absolutely. The bonsai tree’s growth is retarded and restrained in much the same way as a photograph restrains a visual image.
Kwon: The notion of exoticism in relation to other cultures, like Japan, is in some ways also operative now in relation to the idea of nature. Within the current milieu of eco-consciousness, nature is also something very exotic, foreign, and unattainable. In your work there seems to be a crossing of these strains — cultural exoticism, the fantasy of other lands, and the fantasy- of the naturalness of nature.
Brooks: My work is really about how we commodify nature. I’m trying to present these elusive images of controlled nature to mark that sense of estrangement from what is originally natural. In terms of making nature accessible, sometimes by preserving it, we have to render it artificial. We experience nature in fragmented and preserved slices, in rarefied moments that are isolated from any natural continuum.
Kwon: I don’t know that you necessarily have an ecological agenda in trying to represent nature, but ecology seems to be a consistent theme in all the series, whether it be the tiny bonsai trees or the golf courses.
Brooks: I would not align myself with the “eco” school of art making, but the golf courses were about what I call “palatable nature” — palatable mostly to upper leisure class males who traipse through these spaces in a reverie of being in nature, when it really isn’t nature.
Kwon: But it doesn’t seem like you’re advocating that we go back to “real” nature, a virginal one, but rather that you’re trying to articulate the contradictory relationship we have to it.
Brooks: Yes, and how what we think is nature is not really nature but an artifice posing as nature. And it’s lifeless to me. There is a sense of deadness, maybe due to the fact that people so willingly accept something artificial as their only experience of what they wish to believe as real and alive. The over-cultivation and careful grooming and packaging of nature is a form of acceptable mutilation that is grotesque but is in fact what is desired. It’s a bit of cynicism on my part.
Kwon: About scale: the striking thing about the bonsai photographs is their tremendous size. It’s as if you’re trying to enlarge or grow the tree. What was the rationale for making them so big?
Brooks: Scale has always been an issue for me in terms of photography. A photograph is usually accepted as documentation of reality, flattened and shrunk down to an easily manageable size. By enlarging the scale of the photograph or altering it in some way, I want to challenge the reading of what is real and insist on the photograph’s distinctness as an object in itself. A photograph is a separate entity, a real object existing in addition to whatever reality is suggested by its pictorial content. I always consider the relationship between the photograph as a physical object and the environment in which it is placed.
Kwon: Is that part of the same process of trying to create a sense of estrangement and defamiliarization, flattening out the possibility of personalization?
Brooks: Or it could be about entering the space of the exhibition and having some sort of physical energy present. In terms of the bonsai, I thought that they should be large, monumental. I cropped them to give them a feeling of being too large for their space. But at the same time, I left an indication that they are in dishes or in a mound of dirt so that there would not be any confusion.
Kwon: You’re speaking as a sculptor at this point because you’re not just talking about the content of the image but also about the physicality of the photograph in space, experientially.
Brooks: My degree in school was in both photography and sculpture. And I always had this physical relationship to art making, to photography. The physical part of the process is very important to me. But it’s my own kind of physicality, not like being out in the world with the camera.
Kwon: I read somewhere that you didn’t like to go out “into the world” to shoot photographs.
Brooks: No, I don’t want to do that because I want to be more interactive with my source material than would be possible outside my studio. I want privacy and very direct control. The sources of my images come from various places — with the sushi, I used calendar and display pictures; with the golf courses, I got the images from books, magazines, calendars — but I always redo them. I make a copy and do some painting on the reproductions before I rephotograph them through the screen.
Kwon: Are the different methods of manipulation part of a process to make the image yours? Or is it that you want to make the image even more foreign?
Brooks: It’s probably a little bit of making it mine, but with the golf courses, for example, I wanted the greens to be perfectly matched. It was a formal consideration. And that’s both a sculptural and painterly concern because I wanted to create a kind of green space. I do like to be physically engaged in making the work, but I never want the painting or my hand to show. And the screen enables my hand to disappear