The last two weeks of May 2013 were a wild and wooly time in the San Francisco arts community: two mammoth art fairs, MFA exhibitions highlighting the work of graduates from numerous regional institutions, and all the events leading up to the temporary closing of SFMOMA means there's a lot to see. In the midst of that whirlwind, a pair of intimate exhibitions opened at SF Camerawork that consider, by different and fascinating means, the use and meaning of still imagery.
New York-based filmmaker and photographer Jem Cohen presents Museum Pictures, a project comprising a full-length film and the set of photographs on exhibit. Cohen filmed in locations around the world for more than two decades. In that time, he used photographs as notes, reminders of what he had seen and where he had been. In 2010, Cohen began working at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Austria's lauded state art museum. What emerged are two aesthetic moments -- one cinematic, the other photographic -- that share a common subject, but function independently of one another.
In the film, for which Cohen was awarded the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival last month, we watch a relationship develop between Johann and Anne. Their association, first as museum guard and visitor, respectively, and later as friends, begins in the museum but moves beyond the physical and psychological restraints of the building.
While the film has been described as the most narrative in Cohen's body of work, the photographic series by comparison does not provide the same pay off. Rather, we see visitors captured in unscripted moments; standing, looking, some jockeying for space in front of very famous paintings. As often as not, Cohen photographed visitors in moments of boredom and rapturous appreciation of the objects before them. The dreary interior lighting and Cohen's off-center compositions -- including awkward, humorously incomplete fragments of paintings and sculptures -- do not portray the best view of the museum's treasures or of the people visiting. In fact, nothing in Cohen's photographs is idealized, which is why they are compelling. Museum Pictures as a photographic series takes up the mundane details that are briefly visible in cinematic form, providing further commentary on the ever-changing relationship between photographic and filmic practice in contemporary art.
Also on view is the work of Vietnamese-American artist Dinh Q. Lê. The piece, Môt Cõi Ði Vê, which translates as "spending one's life trying to find one's way home" is roughly 14 by 22.5 feet and includes 1,500 vernacular postcards and photographs the artist collected during visits to his native country in the 1990s. The cards, woven together to create a loose tapestry, are notated in English, French, Vietnamese, or Chinese and shimmer beneath the late afternoon sun. Some of the notes are personal, revealing details or anecdotes of the photographs on the other side. Other cards are notated with passages from James Freeman's book Hearts of Sorrow: Vietnamese-American Lives (1989), or the English translation of Nguyen Du's The Tale of Kieu (1820). The passages were selected and inscribed by the artist, his partner, various family members, and long time collaborator Moira Roth, and put into words the complex feelings stirred by life during and in the aftermath of armed conflict.
Lê's journey, which began as a search for his family's lost valuables, eventually broadened into a metaphor representing lives and histories lost during the Vietnam conflict. Walking around the piece, which fully occupies the space despite minimal installation, one sees that Lê chose objects or scenes representing the gamut of life's triumphs and failures: funeral parties, newlyweds, elders in conversation, and children playing in the streets. For those whose personal or family stories link them to Vietnam, Lê's work is an evocative touchstone, much like Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial, where memory long outlives the chaos of war.
Though unrelated, the photographic projects of Jem Cohen and Dinh Q. Lê raise similar and timely questions, particularly about the function of a photograph. In Cohen's diverse practice, photographs remind and reinforce ideas for his films. With Museum Pictures, Cohen goes further by creating a body of work that both complements and departs from the established cinematic narrative. By comparison, it is a desire to re-establish familial and social ties, to rebuild what was destroyed by calamity that drives Lê's labor-intensive project. In both instances, it is the shifting role of the photograph -- as prompt, as touchstone, as the embodiment of memory -- that makes for a satisfying gallery visit.
Museum Pictures and Môt Cõi Ði Vê run through June 22, 2013 at San Francisco Camerawork. For more information, visit sfcamerawork.org.