Object Five | An Exhibition by Carrie May Weems

Visitors looking at art at the Carrie Mae Weems exhibition, at the Tate Modern
Tate Modern, (London 2017) From Here I saw What Happened and I cried 1995-6 by Carrie Mae Weems.
Multimedia guide (Narrated by Jemma Dixon)

In ‘Politics of the Archive’, Hito Steyerl considers a problem of archival research, that keeping the control over reproductions of material is the basis of the power condensed within archives (Steyerl). She alleges that archives often preserve the history of the victors while presenting it as a historical reality or scientific truth, and this repetitive enactment of power and knowledge is problematic because this is where power resides – this is effectively archival mass deception and artifice (Steyerl).

The wall text (or didactic label) at Tate Modern confirms that Weems’ exhibition subverts archival power when she takes images from a number of archives, including daguerrotypes of slaves taken in the 1850s, [that] extend to the 1950s and the Civil Rights era (Tate Modern). The images have been re-photographed, enlarged, and overlaid with red tint and poetic commentary. The archive Weems creates is multiple, where text and image show African Americans being forced into servile roles, such as cooks, maidservants or sexual objects. They are presented as evidence to prove dubious scientific theories… (Tate Modern). The exhibition does not present one story or one image, it does not allow us to ponder what voices and stories we can choose and afford to privilege in that archive (while other voices are marginalised), because Weems refuses to tell a single story. She selects images from several archives, effectively rupturing what Steyerl terms the archival ‘basis of power’ as Weems presents the complexity of history from the perspective of the oppressed.

Weems overthrows the power of archives that present African Americans as ethnographic or historical types when she addresses the subjects of the photographs as ‘You’: You became a scientific profile. The wall text reads that the ‘You’, encourages the viewer to recognise each face as an individual rather than an ethnographic or historical type (Tate Modern). In Rational Geomancy, Steve McCaffery and bpNichol consider the reading experience – the idea that nothing is talked ‘about’, but rather talked ‘with’ (Macaffery and bpNichol 80). I consider this idea in the third image I present from Weems’ exhibition that reads, & A photographic subject. In this image, I am acutely aware of my own bodily reflection captured in my photograph of a photograph; I hold a camera to the photograph of a bare-chested woman (with a raw gaze) and see myself merge with the image. Whether or not an intended effect of the daguerrotype, Brown University Library confirms in ‘Digitizing the Mirror with A Memory’, that daguerreotypes are extremely reflective by nature – if you hold the image at the right angle, you see yourself looking back (Brown University Library). As Macaffery and bpNichol consider with a literary approach, in a reading experience we come up against a mirror – we deal with a mirror within the mirror within the mirror where what’s reflected back at us is what we ourselves are doing… we are left to confront and compare our own reading experience (Macaffery and bpNichol 82). Applied to Weems’ photography, this glitch/lacuna in the archive where we see ourselves as part of that archive presents a problem of research relating to the digital and physical museum. Fortunately, I can look online and view images from Weems’ collection, but the photographs are not displayed as pieces that belong to a whole – the photographs do not possess as great a reflective capacity; the art no longer feels as participatory. One photograph from the collection sells for $20,000 – $30,000 (Weems). As it is sold, the archive is disassembled. Those who can afford it have access to the fragmented archive. Does a collective history become singular? This is a potential problem– the archive will never remain a passive storehouse or Arkheion (a term of Greek origin utilised by Jacques Derrida to mean house of the powerful) (Steyerl). The lacunas that form as an archive fluctuates alters the appraisal of its meaning, particularly when we consider the periphery of objects partake in their relationship to a collection. Moreover, part of this archival shift has a consanguinity with capital interest – but reconceptualisations of the archive cannot forever exist in the Tate.

Red-overlaid circular portrait of a woman in profile, in a black frame. The text 'You became a scientific profile' is splashed on top.

Portrait of African man with a red overlay. Text over the image says 'An anthropological debate'

Circular portrait of an African woman with a red overlay. The image has text, which says '& a photographic subject'

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *