Contemporary art and photography in artPublications

crude metaphors 2005-12

crude metaphors in hot shoe 2005-12




In his essay on Shells, Gaston Bachelard makes reference to Paul Valéry’s own meditation on shells(2).  For Valéry, ‘the created object itself is highly intelligible; and it is the ‘formation’, not the form, that remains mysterious. As to the form it would eventually assume, a vital decision governing the initial choice that involved knowing whether the shell would coil to the left or to the right.’ He concludes, somewhat enigmatically given the dogmatism of the assertation, that, “Actually, however, life begins less by reaching upward, than by turning in upon itself”. For Valéry, the man-made, carved, shell ‘would be obtained from the outside, through a series of enumerable acts that would bear the mark of touched-up beauty; whereas  ‘the mollusc exudes its shell’, it lets the building material seep through, and “distil its marvellous covering as needed”.

In 1994 Thomas Kellner (b.1966) used a snail-shell as a camera. Prior to this. in 1990, he used a van as a camera. In 1991 he made pictures from the inside of a garbage can.  The progression from the manufactured, to the discarded, to the natural is one of a downwards spiral of sorts, into an increasingly abject territory, and one that is the more delightful for the (discovery of the) descent. Walter Benjamin claimed that all the best moves are made left-handed and there is something wonderfully saturnine about Kellner’s working methods from the earliest to the ongoing ‘Monuments’ series.

In this series, Kellner has produced for himself, with his negative strip grids form(ula), a way of approaching the public sphere from a private space, an interior of sorts, if one that is simultaneously as conceptual as it is formal; it a inherently photographic inside which speaks of the darkroom as much of as the prison cell.  A detail of a doorway in his NY Guggenheim (Gehry) work caught my attention and I asked for a larger version. Although there are already, in the architecture itself, affinities via nature and the organic between the work of Gehry and the late work of Le Corbusier, it is the space around a doorway (presumably ‘Staff Only’, thus private) on the underside of the spiral to which I refer. It is reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s Chapel at Ronchamp in its secretiveness, a kind of private way in to a space which is simultaneously secular and sacred. Such is Kellner’s approach to the production of photographs. In fact Le Corbusier’s use at Ronchamp of tiny, irregular windows produce a view from the inside vaguely similar to those frames of Kellner’s Monument strips.

Having appeared, upon first viewing, as a rather eccentric attitude towards trying to picture the selected site across a grid 35mm film strips, the device gradually began to assume a more (or less) rigorous shape. It seems that physical restraint may one of the formal constraints of the process. It is quite conceivable that Kellner somehow managed to position himself inside something like a post-box, with only the space of the letter-hole from which to shoot the site/scene. Presumably, on a less absurd note, the camera was attached to a fixed position tripod, although the image of working from a vertical, man-sized inside is certainly apt . Thus it is, perhaps, that the angles within each frame are so diverse from one to the next. The perverting of clean architectural lines back into a kind of nature (the opposite of the fantasy of architectural photography, which seeks to align and straighten with specialist camera movements intended for the purpose), as an attitude towards modernism (as an unfinished project) perhaps, may be illustrated with regards to the development of plans for Luis Barragan’s Gilardi House around an already existing jacaranda tree(4). The trunk of the tree is rather oddly bent at an oblique (135º) angle at about the middle(5). Since the base of the trunk is also at a slight angle (about 20º off vertical in a cock-wise direction) and, obviously, from the top of the truck the branches branch in all directions, the effect is one, given also the context in which Barragan has consequently placed it, of “an introverted composition, which turns its back on the city to face the private space, where the tree serves as a fulcrum.” (6)

Barragan’s own fragmentary writings on the disappearance of private space in the age of mass communication resonate with Kellner’s work at the level of the space from which they are produced:

Everyday life is becoming much too public. Radio, TV, the telephone, all invade privacy. Architects are forgetting the need of human beings for half-light, the sort of light that imposes a tranquility, in their living rooms as well as in their bedrooms. About half the glass that is used in so many buildings – homes as well as offices- would have to be removed in order to obtain the quality of light that enables one to live and work in a more concentrated manner.(7)

What I propose is that what is being shown is not what we see: we see something at speed which visually complex; what we are being shown is the fantasy of the primordial inside and outside; of an outside in which it is all falling down as much as it is the simultaneous production of it in ruins, of it returning to the nature of ruins; an antidote to Barragan’s decree that within Mass Society, “Nature becomes a scarp of Man and man a scrap of nature.” (8)


[1]Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, tr. Maria Jolas, Beacon Press, Massachusetts, 1994, p106

[2]Paul Valéry, The Merveilles de la mer. Les coquillages, p5, Collection “Isis”, Plon, Paris cited in Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, tr. Maria Jolas, Beacon Press, Massachusetts, 1994, p106. I would also refer the interested reader to the issue of Architectural Design dedicated to the influence of the writing of Bachelard on architecture, Poetics in Architecture, AD, Vol. 72, No. 2, March 2002

[3] I have to add to the above that I have no real idea what Kellner’s formula is, or if there is even one with any sort of fixed parameters.

[4], Gilardi House, Colonia San Miguel, Chapultepec, Mexico City, 1975

[5] Obviously for the tree truck to be straight the angle I would not have thought to mention would have been 180º i.e. a straight line.[6], Gilardi House, Colonia San Miguel, Chapultepec, Mexico City, 1975

[7] Clive Bamford-Smith, Builders in the Sun: Five Mexican Architects, New York: Architectural Book Publishing Co., 1967, p74. I am indebted to Kenneth Frampton’s essay The Status of Man and the Status of His Objects: A Reading of the Human Condition for bringing the Barragan texts to my attention, see Modern Architecture and the Critical Present, AD Profile, 1982

[8] ibid, p77


Beasley, B., 2005. Crude Mataphors. Tango Metropolis. In: Hotshoe. Fresh perspectives on contemporary photography. London: World Illustrated Limtited. pp. 39-47.

>>> right page image: Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco 2004