To The Friends Who Saved My Life at Callicoon Fine Arts
May 19 to June 21, 2013
124 Forsyth Street
New York City, (212) 219-0326
Between the photographs in To the Friends Who Saved My Life at Callicoon Fine Arts floats an uncanny correspondence. Francesca Woodman, the American photographer famously known for her beautiful and evasive black and white self-portraits, is paired in this show with the lesser-known French photographer and writer Hervé Guibert. Both Woodman and Guibert, who share an affinity for exposing the mortality of their subjects, inform the self-effacing, restrained gazes of the other photographers exhibited in the show. Perhaps this restraint, this desire to hold a body as well as hold back, imbues the photographs with a palpable ambivalence, which is echoed in the title of Guibert’s dispassionate account of his experience living with AIDS, To The Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (1990).
The spectral presence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and ‘90s retroactively informs the content of many of the photographs. Figures are captured half-turning or obscured as they silently drift past. In the case of Guibert’s Thierry, Amsterdam (1982), a young man’s back is to the camera, refusing the gaze solicited by the photographer-friend to a powerful effect. Vietnamese-born curator, artist, and recent winner of the Hugo Boss Prize, Danh Vo’s photographs of hands as depicted in Untitled (2013) are grasping, but with a limp grip. When placed next to Moyra Davey’s Bottles 11 and 10 (1998), Vo’s hands (which belong to those of a sculpture, but could also be said to belong to those of a corpse) further suggest the slipperiness of not just the empty glass objects, but the slippery instability of the images themselves. The significance of the actual objects, let alone their representation as images, cannot be confirmed by the viewer anymore than Davey’s Bottles can be apprehended by Vo’s phantom hands.
The result of these juxtapositions is disquieting, for it suggests that part of the queer nature of friendship is that the photographer concedes to its conditions without being fully prepared for what comes after, or, fails to come at all. Such noncommittal gestures are harrowingly echoed in Heinz Peter-Knes’s folio box of 36 images, titled very near sighted; but unspectacled (1990-2008). The box, composed of one unedited roll of film, invites the viewer to witness the bookends of process where, for example, an image of an eager museum crowd becomes dispersed among prints that are flared, grey, or just altogether blank and inconclusive. Like Guibert’s Thierry, the images refuse, but they do so in shades that are considerably muted. Rona Yefman’s Mirror and Legs from the project “My Brother and I” (1996-2010) offers a queer counterpoint to the theme of friendship between photographer and model. Whereas Yefman’s project does not disclose who specifically is the gendered subject of these images, the photographs reveal a lively collaboration between a brother and sister, and challenges the conventions that bind family, intimacy, and friendship.
Despite being in the company of what appears to be the artifacts of so many intimate friends, it’s hard not to feel haunted, surrounded by what Guibert would call so many “ghost images.” Such images, arresting as they may be, provoke a kind of violence in the viewer. In Guibert’s book Ghost Image (1996), a meditation on the relationship between photography, memory, and death, his friends keenly observe that it’s unfair for the photographer to be alone in this dilemma, gesticulating, hesitating “whether to tear up the photograph, or to keep it.” Similarly, Jason Simon’s photographs enact the artist-as-curator’s dilemma in two works from his Polaroid collection from 1990-2000, Michele and Simin; these artifacts reveal the difficult task of building an archive that features family resemblances, be they resemblances between strangers, or friends. In this sense, each artist in his or her own pictorial language strives to reproduce their own set of ghost images, so that like Guibert, they may hold on if only just for a little while longer.
To the Friends Who Saved My Life is a show that daringly exploits the fragility of the photograph in order to address how projects of preservation are unavoidably coupled with the despair and joy that accompanies queer friendship. It’s comforting to know that this fundamental human dynamic remains elusive to even the sharpest intellect; as Jacques Derrida asks in The Politics of Friendship (1997), “Friendship, the being-friend—what is that anyway?”print