‘Point de Gaze’, Lisa Oppenheim’s second solo show at Galerie Juliètte Jongma, opened with two photograms showing the upper and lower sections of a large piece of antique lace, from a series entitled ‘Leisure Work’ (2012). The lace, possibly used as a bedspread (although no date or provenance is given), is an intricate example of the point de gaze technique of fine needlepoint forming a gauzy surface around the floral decoration and filigree. On close examination, small tears in the lace appear as plainly, and intimately, as a hole in a pair of tights that I could imagine poking my finger through. In the exhibition notes, Oppenheim described how her use of the photogram is an echo of William Henry Fox Talbot’s first experiments with the calotype process of photography in the mid-19th century. The lace pattern provided the perfect combination of positive and negative detail to demonstrate the indexical process of this early form of contact printing. I was amused to learn from the notes that, similar to my own experience, the first people Fox Talbot showed his experiments to couldn’t believe the photograph wasn’t the lace itself, deriding him that they ‘could not be so easily fooled’.
Some of the first images made using Fox Talbot’s technique were used in the production and documentation of lace design but, owing to the general classification of lace-making in the early 20th-century Belgian census as ‘leisure work’, produced by women in their own time, the lace from this period remains unattributed. With almost two centuries of hindsight, we can see how the multiplication of uses for the imagery that photography made possible moved the focus away from the process of how the image was produced. As a result, the value of post-industrial commodities, art included, is mostly speculated upon with little relation to the material or labour costs involved. Oppenheim’s re-presentation of the photograms, rather than simply repeating Fox Talbot’s magic trick, reveals a layer of suppressed female economic history, filling the image and the artefact with a political presence and aesthetic distinction as you look again at the delicacy and attention of the patternmaking.
Before reaching the back room of the exhibition, another photogram, Eclipse May 1890 / June 2011 (2011), shone dimly from a sheet of glossy photo paper. The image was made from a negative Oppenheim discovered of an eclipse at the end of the 19th century, exposed to the light from a partial eclipse more than a century ‘in the future’. Again, the real-time presence of the subject and its representation implode as the flare of the sun becomes integral to the composition of the image. Where now we can feel numbed by the hopelessly easy availability of images, found objects and obsolescent processes are often treated with some distance and neutrality. Oppenheim’s anachronistic practice of bringing the past into the present offers a context for reconsidering the history of the photographic medium analogous to the duration of time spent looking in the gallery.
Smoke (2011–13) was installed across two screens hung low and positioned facing each other toward the centre of the room. A series of video clips of slowly swelling plumes of smoke flicker past on both screens. In the notes, Oppenheim explains her process whereby, instead of using an enlarger, she used the light from a struck match to expose the 35 mm film she’d shot from stock footage of smoke – volcanoes erupting and industrial pollution – found on the web. Exposing the negatives to the light from the flame also had the effect of solarizing the prints, producing an inverse or negative image within the image, appearing like a thunderous backlight or silver lining around the clouds. Despite the careful explanation of each step of the imperfect process of animating this digital video by hand, the resulting light show was nothing short of sublime.
There was a temporal confusion as the silent video projection flickered with dust from the dark room alongside digital artefacts stuttering across the screen; the video was ‘old’ and ‘new’ at the same time. You imagine Fox Talbot and his friend Charles Babbage who produced the first computer prototypes, marvelling at the coming together of ones and zeros and the presence and absence of light in this reinvention of both their techniques. Interrupting the constant drive towards a greater optimization of digital processes, Oppenheim’s works remind us of the anonymous subjectivities and overlooked methods that lie behind production. Like the smoke shown without the fire at its source, key details remain outside the frame.