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It’s nearly a century now since Alexander Rodchenko urged the world to “wage war against art as against opium … photograph and be photographed” and nearly forty years since Susan Sontag declared that “just about everything has been photographed”, which kind of leads you to wonder where we are now.
Rodchenko was part of the Constructivist movement, a maverick motley of just-post revolution soviet artists and writers (a bit like the A Team but with posters) whose self-proclaimed mission was to create a new language. A language for the masses, visual, visceral, urgent and direct, their main medium appeared in the form of posters, they’re responsible for the graphic you see on Socialist Worker Party posters, and that Franz Ferdinand album cover (but not, I hasten to add, the members of the Socialist Worker Party. Or Franz Ferdinand. No one deserves blame for that.).
Rodchenko declared that “Art has no place in life”, art, until then, being the preserve of the elite, the great and the good, those with the cash to procure. Photography, with its relative inexpense and its enormous potential for ubiquity, was the medium with which war could be waged. Portraits were no longer the domain of the land owning classes, beauty could now be found in the mundane, the everyday and was no longer the preserve of natural wonder and its prescribed purpose in the realm of the church. The representation of life, the handle of truth would now, it appeared, be firmly ensconced within the realm of the proletariat (at least until Stalin changed his mind).
For their brief existence the Constructivists were able to challenge, through the mediums of photography, architecture and the printing press, what constituted the beautiful and divine.
So the old Russian woman, freed of her chains of peasanthood becomes the saintly Madonna, the revolutionary pamphlet the revelationary gospel, the workers club the cathedral of the Soviet Socialist State.
“Permanence” as Sontag had it “…is not one of beauty’s more obvious attributes; and the contemplation of beauty, when it is expert, may be wreathed in pathos… the most stirring beauty is the most evanescent”. Photography, with its natural propensity to capture the fleeting and mundane, to compartmentalise and fragment our existence, with its nostalgic overtones as base, was the perfect tool with which to explore this changing tide. To render it a thousand fold and analyse microscopically its complexities.
Of course a lots changed in a century, a lots changed in forty years. Colour, digital, Photoshop to name a few. It is now possible to exact whole new worlds onto the canvas of what lies before our eyes. Now, in super reality, we retouch, delete and add as our fancy dictates, to polish nature into the straight lined plasticity of our own fantastical worlds. We break down into millions upon millions of pixels that which was once panoramic, as never ending as the back of your head.
As we float further down this maelstrom, as the hedges become more pixellated, as the skies go d.p.i, as we snip further and further away at an increasingly fragmented world view, are we, the people, the proletariat of the new U.S.S.R of the self, any closer to our truths?