I am standing in the middle of a gallery space divided off to form a room smallish in floor area but tall. Surrounding me are huge black and white photos of buildings. All out of focus so that they loom fuzzy and misty, giving the essence of shape but not the detail. They would not work if they were smaller print; they have to be big to have an impact and disorient you a little. There is none of the crisp detail of standard photos that give you the illusion of being able to see something clearly. This is hazy so you have got work at deciding its meaning.
I have a notebook in my hand and start with the name and dates of the photographer (Hiroshi Sugimoto b1948), from the information panel at the entrance of the room. It is useful to put a little stake in the ground as a point of reference, along side the fact that he describes himself as an artist rather than a photographer. Afterwards it is followed by brief, staccato impressions, sometimes there is nothing much to say at others there are things to be be expanded on later. For example I look at the photo of the Twin Towers and cannot help by being blown away by how ghostly it looks. The word ghostly came to me spontaneously and obviously, as it has done to many other people as I now know it is a commonly used adjective for this work, but it was my instant reaction. But this is because of a mixture of an other worldly haziness and the history of what happened on 9/11. How much should outside events affect what you see and how you look, especially as at the time the work was made there were no such connotations? Interesting but now we just cannot avoid that frame. Every time we look at something we bring what we already know. So on with the notes. All is tentative still because that is the way I look at pictures: an initial overview, then details, how do they together? No firm conclusions, play with ideas, move around, look at different parts, come back, look at the whole.
I was once told that it is not unreasonable to spend three hours immersing yourself in a painting to try to develop an understanding. I have never spent anywhere near that time in one stretch. I peck at things: look and come back. But nevertheless the idea is that if a work is worthwhile a quick first impression is not enough. You should not rush your judgements. If you go too fast all you are doing is ticking off things from a list.
I am still standing in the middle of the gallery. Time has moved on when the thought comes, unbidden, that what I am doing is exactly the same as what I do when tasting a whisky. The whole process of making sense of what’s in the glass is almost the same. An initial impression then smell balanced by taste then by length and type of finish followed by the memories. There may not be any actual meaning in a glass of whisky: no comment on the state of the world, no amusing juxtaposition of concepts, nor an exploration of an intellectual tradition. None of that. But there is a sense to be made through sorting and sifting the sensory inputs, searching for associations. There are mental shapes to be formed. Most importantly though, in exactly the same way, the process might be rushed but it is better if it is not.
In my previous blog I wrote about the blind tasting for the TWE Whisky of the Year and how the Clynelish grew and changed throughout the evening. I really liked that. It is one of the reasons why it feels as if whisky has life.
Now back to those photographs.
The exhibition Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age continues at the Barbican until 11th January