19 December 2006

Remixing Memory: the Copied Image in Australian Photography

Shaun Wilson
No. 77, Autumn 2006, pp. 35-37

The imbeddedness of memory in the copied image is a theme well explored throughout Australian photography. Recent examples have yielded a reinvented context – the memory of an original image repositioned through a second-handed facsimile. The idea, of course, is to bring this copy to something else which, in turn, becomes a third image; an archive of collected images catalogued through a process to what media theorist Lev Manovich claims as ‘a cultural remix.’

Evidence of this is found in the Duraclear prints of Lyndell Brown and Charles Green. The Map of Atlantis (2005) reconstitutes several key images – ‘a NASA Space Shuttle mission, Johnny Depp as William Blake in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Redfern Max the Elder with India Pirrie, Harmony Day, 2004, and Robert Smithson breaking plate glass for Map of Atlantis’ – through assemblage as painting reproduced as photography. What is striking about this artwork is not a developed pictorial aesthetic but rather the process of layered images as if some kind of mnemonic montage under strain.

The Map of Atlantis explores a central idea that address how images change when copied, and from this, how the ‘memory’ of the first image is ever present in its successive copies
Like the American scholar Robert Smithson, who wrote that memories trapped the future as if they were buried under the pressure of multiple sheets of glass' , Brown and Green approach image making as a means of coming to terms with how their artworks use the archived image as a mode of articulating memory, art and the archive. Yet it is the method of this process rather than identification of the archival, which seems to have the greatest presence, a wider state of play within the Map of Atlantic and other works. Here, ‘remixing’ becomes the process and memories turn into the ‘by-product’ of remixing.

Of greater concern is what happens to an image after remixing. Does it loose its value and become a watered-down hybrid or is nothing lost and everything gained? The Map of Atlantis provides some clues. If the premise behind this artwork is centred on the process of memory as a generational copy and how the image withstands such reinvention — both in terms of aesthetics and context — then the viewer only has to look at how the embedded image of Johnny Depp within the picture looses its original value – a film still anchored to the motion picture Dead Man (2001). Yet by placing this film still into a grouping of other images and the context changes: a memory of an image placed in context to foreign agents which renders the first image under pressure; it has ceased to be a film still and is now a cultural facsimile.

Furthermore, the image experiences another kind of stress: are we looking at a photograph of a painting or is it a photograph made from a painting? Either way, both artists’ deconstruct the process of photography, which then reconstructs itself through the memory of a painting - the photograph of a painting of a photograph.

The same process occurs in the recent work of Aaron Seeto. His mammoth undertaking of One Thousand Other Things congeals the artists ‘interest in the ways in which the memories and stories found within photographic images and archives alter and change with their retelling.’ By the methods used to create his artworks, Seeto comes to terms with his own ancestry from using photocopies, as opposed to painting used by Brown and Green, as a means of establishing images– from photograph to photocopy to photograph.

The artworks exist as hand manipulated silver photographic prints on prepared duck eggs described by the artist as part of a wider investigation into ‘the ways photographs and their meanings continually alter and transform through the degeneration (oxidation) of its silver chemistry, and how they provide us with both poetic possibility as well as political imperative.’

Here, the viewer witnesses the third image through multiple family portraits from Seeto’s family archive of relatives migrating from China to Australia in the early 1900s. This also plays with how we ‘collect’ the past and the interpretations with which we understand it.

Although the artist’s priority of process-over-product focuses attention on how the image was made, the double layered photographs found in One Thousand Other Things appear to be grounded in issues that focus on collecting the past through the photographic image and then, after remixing, coming to terms with a past – not the past but a version of history as we know it.

The methods used by Seeto to creating such a picture, itself steeped in historical references of a by-gone practice, says much of our preoccupation with the past, and of identity: mapping the past onto objects etched with the memory of the original portraits.

Seeto further establishes a context of history in the translation of his images not unlike the artwork of Alan Cruickshank. Works in his series Moco Polo or Museum of the Colonial Post Colonial (1997-2001) ‘are based on J.W Lindt’s photo album of Australian Aboriginals [Koori], created in the 1870s.’

In replacing the faces of Koori people with those found in ‘famous historical photographs – of a construction worker, or the Sydney Harbour Bridge, or of First World War Aviators’, as described by Phillip Jones (Curator, Museum of South Australia) as ‘cut and pasted identities and facts’ , Cruickshank establishes a moral dilemma in this resultant third image. Although it is blatantly obvious that there are two variants of each image, the viewer is confronted by a two-folded oddity: first, the absurd brutality of colonialism in nineteenth century photography versus the historical remix of post colonialism and; second, the memory of the original figures morphed into someone else, a third person.

In an untitled work from the Moco Polo series, father and son pose for the camera presiding over the apparent hunt of a kangaroo. In Lindt’s original image, complete with a Boomerang positioned in the sprawled paws of the kangaroo carcase, two Koori figures are placed in a constructed theatre-like set exemplifying this sinister genre which portrayed indigenous people as sideshow exhibits. The defeated figures stand morphed into position, which, through Cruickshank’s third image, reverses the conquered with superimposed faces of the conquerors. The viewer is left with no other choice than to revisit Lindt’s original photograph with questions of accountability, and most importantly, issues of white guilt.

Brendan Lee also plays with memories in Anthology, which continues the deconstruction of the first image by reinventing his memories of Australian New Wave films, namely the Mad Max trilogy, as the third image. Based on an investigation into Australian cultural identities, Lee brings to the viewer an archetypal Australian outlaw pointing his double barrel pistol directly at the camera. On first read, one might be mistaken for assuming a connection to the Tarentino-esq filmic genre: Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. However, on closer inspection, the artist’s reinvention of the Australian filmic badlands reveals an interception between the Mad Max trilogy and the artist’s memories of these films.

While it is clear that Lee is not re-appropriating a first image directly through a second and third generation, he is, rather, reinventing a memory of the Mad Max genre through a theatrical-base. Anthology prompts our own recollections of the film and of the Australian outlaw thematic that we bring to the image, from the embedded narrative to the restaged context. The third image becomes our own imagined pictorialisation remixed from what we see in Lee’s artwork and from our filmic memories that give rise from the subject.

The clever part about Anthology is closely linked to the artist’s awareness of cultural identity through the language of cinema and its relationship with the third image. By presenting an iconic gun-slinging character the viewer is immediately forced to access their mental database of related images committed to memory, which are, in turn, interconnected with cultural identities.

So, can it be that this merger of memory and identity through the remixed image is central to not only Lee’s work but also to a wider collective of artists including those already discussed? Maybe, but if there is such a merger between these factors, of authorship and originality/ first image and third image, memory and the imbeddedness of memory, it must be delivered in context beyond the Postmodern and reconfigured back to the survival of the image itself. In the age of remix, when original images are themselves under threat from a co-authored and pre-existing ancestry, artists are exploiting these issues in Australian photography through visual enquiry that creates not only a surface tension between the surviving image but of the on-going relationship between memory and art.

[1] See Lev Manovich,
The Language of New Media, (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2001).
[2] ibid., artist notes for
The Map of Atlantic (2005).
[3] ibid. See (Robert Smithson “The Shape of the Future and Memory” (1966), in Robert Smithson,
[4] Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of CaliforniaPress, 1996), 332.
[5] Aaron Seeto, artist notes (2005)
[6] ibid.
Museum of the Colonial Post Colonial: Alan Cruickshank, exhibition catalogue with essay by Lee Weng Choy,(Singapore: The Substation, 2003), 5.
[8] Ibid., 7
[9] Ibid.