Tyler Green
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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Trying to consider Michael Snow’s “Sight” (1968)

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Because I’m neither Canadian nor European, I haven’t seen as much of Michael Snow’s work as I’d like. Sure, I’ve seen a few films and other pieces at the Museum of Modern Art, which is nearly alone among U.S. museums in keeping the Canadian Snow’s work in pretty regular rotation, but that’s about it. The rest of my exposure to Snow has been via Ubu Web, YouTube and Vimeo, via JPEG, and through whatever the Art Gallery of Ontario has had on view during my periodic visits to Toronto. (The AGO has a major Snow collection; none of it is online.) Bummer: As I noted in the introduction to this week’s Modern Art Notes Podcast, Snow is one of the most influential filmmakers and artists of the last half-century. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is exhibiting a major survey of Snow’s photography called, “Michael Snow: Photocentric.” It’s up through April 27. Sight isn’t in it.

The greater part of Snow’s five-decade-long project has been to examine perception: How we see and how our brains process what we see. Or, to put it another way, he shared a certain set of interests with many of the California light-and-space artists, but went at the idea of perception from a quite different angle.

This is one of the Snows I’ve never seen. It’s Sight (1968), at the Vancouver Art Gallery (which also hides its collection from the digital world, sigh). The view of the piece at the top of the post is how you’d see the window-installed piece from outside a building. The image below is how you’d see it from inside a gallery. For the last couple weeks, I’ve been trying to think about how to think about Sight.

That parallelogram is a cut-out that admits light into the gallery. Because I haven’t seen Sight, I’ll let Snow himself describe it:

  • In a 1978 interview with Pierre Théberge, Snow described Sight as “framing the fortuitous to make it part of a specific and finite thing. Unlike a camera, Sight… [is an attempt] to enclose whatever happens through an aperture in such a way as to make that become part of the work. In photography, not only is framing involved as an aspect of selection, but there is a selection in time since photographs are preserved instants. The exhibition is involved with that as well as having works where the instants are not fixed but whose effects are related to the focusing concentration involved with the camera.”
  • In a 1982 interview with Bruce Elder, Snow described Sight as “a black plastic plane with an incised white line diagram with a small (in relation to the amount of surface) shape cut out, making a hole. The work is to be installed in a window and incorporates aspects of flux in a static two-dimensional ‘container’ by invoking a relationship between these two elements. The view through Sight becomes part of the work, but its becoming an image in a determinate setting.”

I asked Snow about Sight on this week’s MAN Podcast, specifically if it was related to the same kind of thing that John Singer Sargent was interested in his Venetian Interior (ca. 1880-82, collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh), a particularly dramatic, even thrilling evocation of how light enters a darkened space. Snow humored me and gave a good answer, but even as we talked about it, I was acutely aware of how I knew only so much about Sight.

In hindsight, a better point of comparison — or at least a more alike, direct comparison — might be a series of works Robert Irwin has made, including the masterpiece 1° 2° 3° 4° (1997) at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. I’ve stood ‘inside’ 1° 2° 3° 4° several times and it’s no overstatement to call those among the greatest moments of my life. The Irwin completely and thoroughly confuses my perception of indoors and outdoors, of right angles and not, of actual experience and imagined experience. The excitement of the piece derives in part from how the viewer realizes that imagined experience is, in fact, actual experience.

1° 2° 3° 4° effectively fathered a work Irwin made in 2012. The first image below is Irwin’s Black & White One (2010-12) with an untitled 2012 piece reflected on its surface, and the right-hand side of the second features a detail from the same untitled 2012 piece. The installation was at New York’s Pace Gallery.

While the untitled 2012 Irwin is playing on the same field as the Snow, I think the 1997 MCASD work is probably more engaged with “invoking a relationship between these two elements,” between the inside and the outside. But again, I’m not really sure.

Finally, I wonder if there may be a relationship between the Snow, the Irwins and camera lucidas. Let’s consider a specific artwork made with a camera lucida: Zoe Leonard’s 100 North Nevill Street (2013), which is on view through the end of 2014 at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas.

I think there’s something going on here, that these works are involved with similar ideas and maybe even with each other. While I haven’t seen the Snow, thinking about what it might be like in the context of Sargent, Irwin and Leonard makes me really, really curious…

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  1. [...] The week you missed on MAN: Considering some context for Michael Snow’s Sight (1968); the Detroit News runs a poorly researched story on a small, apparently carefully selected [...]

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