The notion of “aura” and its relation to the mechanical means of reproduction, introduced into critical thought over seventy years ago by Walter Benjamin, has proven to be one of the more fruitful analysis of its time. Its influence resonates through much of contemporary critical thought, even when some of Benjamin’s predictions have proven to be wrong, as in the case of photography. A simplified version of Benjamin’s thesis would be to say that with the increasing technical capacities for mechanical reproduction and the consequent availablity of reproductions, the “aura” of the “authentic” or original work would fade. This has certainly not proven to be the case with paintings or sculptures, and a look at recent auction house prices for photography proves that even with this, the most reproduceable art form, the aura of the authentic still holds sway.
Benjamin’s predictions may not be as far off as appears to some critics, however, for although reproduced original works of art maintain an aura (and corresponding sticker price), it is a slightly different aura than the one described by Benjamin. The aura famous works of art take on in the age of mechanical reproduction is a fetshistic one; it is not the aura the work originally had but a new aura, pumped up by the hot air of cultural identity, corporate sponsorship and art historical turf battles.
The influence of the internet’s rapid spread on this “aurafication” has been tremendous, making more and more images of art more and more available. Reproductions make the imperative to “see the original” more, well, imperious, but also more problematic; with a famous work of art, tourists and glass are not the only thing obstructing one’s view and it is not always possible to look past one aura to see the other. With work by a lesser known artist, however, mechanical reproduction can actually serve to clarify one’s perception of the original aura. This is what struck me when I visited the work of Annie Kennedy at the Kimball Art Center a few weeks ago.
Earlier this year, I designed a website for Annie (read here: disclosure of conflict of interest). Over the months I became very familiar with her work as I manipulated digital images, placed them in web pages, applied titles and added explanatory texts. But I had only actually seen two of her works in person — one, her “Angel Moroni with Eleven” drawing, as Adam Bateman, director of the CUAC, pulled it out of his truck while I was visiting him in Ephraim. The other, her installation piece, “365 Days,” I saw when it was on display at the Rio Gallery last year.
But when I stepped down to the Kimball’s Badami Gallery and saw her current exhibit of work I was struck with one thought: the internet sucks. I say that with full knowledge of the statement’s irony, considering that for the past two weeks I have been urging people to send donations to keep up this current internet project, Artists of Utah. In truth the internet is a fabulous tool, but what I mean to say is that despite its power as a tool, the internet still falls woefully short of conveying the “aura” of the original.
Mechanical (or in this case digital) reproduction creates an aura when it confronts a good work of art because it reminds the viewer, by means of comparison, of the qualities of art that make an original piece, well, original. “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be,” Benjamin says. Which means that as long as the work has not become clouded by that other type of aura, the aura of the original will shine even brighter for being so much better than what was expected on the basis of a reproduction based on ones and zeros displayed on a monitor.
Kennedy’s works are unique. She uses found objects, such as bandages, beef jerky, nail clippers and ribbon, to create a work like her “Family Quilt.” Her process of baking paper stained with oils and other natural products make for particularly interesting pieces. And digital images reduces all these elements to one flattened surface. When you see the original, you realized that the olive oil has been baked into the paper in such a way that it doesn’t seem so much a stain sitting on top of the paper (as one assumed) as it does a unified surface itself. On top of this substrata float a series of small blue ovals and the pencil marks that enclose them. Her works of torn and layered paper are particularly attractive in person, where you can see the edge and get a sense of how each fragment sits on the next. By reading the explanatory note on her site, you can know that in her installation piece, “Veil,” Kennedy has encrusted felt with salt crystals, but until you see the actual encrusted salt, hanging from the felt and falling on to the floor, you are not truly experiencing the piece.
The work of Mary Iverson, on exhibit upstairs at the Kimball in the Garage Gallery, is completely different in effect from Annie’s. Executed in flat layers of opaque color, washed pigments and thin straight pencil lines, there is very little tactile quality in these pieces that would be lost in reproduction. But Iverson is a marvelous colorist, and the balance of colors is something mechanical reproduction has yet to match in real art, whether it be the pricey coffee-table art books with widely varying color prints, or the images on the internet which, no matter how expertly they might have been manipulated to match the original on the designer’s computer, are still susceptible to the vagaries of interpretation supplied by the variety of monitors and color settings.
I imagine that Iverson’s attention to color comes largely from her work en plein air, a practice you would not readily assume by looking at her works at the Kimball; she reduces the Seattle dockyards into geometric diagrams of rectangular flat color laid out in strict lines of persepective. More Mondrian than Monet. Her fascination with the port of Seattle began with more naturalistic plein air studies of cranes, but while on the premises (another example of the importance of being there) she began to look closely at the shipping containers the cranes spent all day moving. Her best works in this exhibition are those where overt references to the port, such as cranes, bridges and large buildings, disappear and give way to an endless repetition and variation of her shipping crates. The planes of these are executed in a variety of ways (including a lack of execution) and Iverson’s sometimes shifting perspectives can be vertiginous at times.
Iverson’s subject matter is perfect for our times. In a period of globalization, when companies are building cargo ships so large they will not fit through the Panama canal (and so are forcing its enlargement) and most sea cargo, with the exception of bulk commodities like grain and oil, travel in standard-size containers, there may be no better subject to depict the idea of a global network, and its standardizing effects, than Iverson’s endlessly repeating and shifting cargo crates.
Part of the relevance of original art, its aura, is its refusal to completely accept this standardization. A visit to these two exhibits, at the Kimball Art Center through the end of November, will remind you of the power of the original (and the weakness of the reproduced). “What no examples of the work?” you ask. Well, considering the topic at hand, reproducing the images here would seem ironic to say the least. The message of course, is to see the originals but if you’d like a watered down (or monitored down) version to clarify your vision of the original, visit the artists’ webistes: www.anniekennedy.net and www.maryiverson.com.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.
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