Scott McFarland’s The Granite Bowl in the Berlin Lustgarten (2006) is the epitome of uncanniness. The large-format photograph shows a pair of young children standing in front of a large granite monument looking at something out of frame. A dog, a mother and child, and other people at leisure occupy the scene, but our focus is on these two central figures: a boy and girl. Of equal height and similar complexion, their pear-shaped heads, strawberry blond hair and lanky, stiff arms suggest they may be twins. Yet another child, seated behind them, wearing a mint green cap and holding a toy accordion, barely conceals her coincidentally similar traits. The mother with child, her face turned slightly away from us, might even be their mother. Despite this genetic congruence, each figure is peculiarly distant from the others. The hyper-real crispness of the image posits these figures as unrelated parts connected by contingency rather than kinship. This aura of distension runs throughout McFarland’s second solo exhibition at Regen Projects. Yet it is an affect produced not by the camera’s chance snapshot but by deliberate digital depiction. McFarland doesn’t hide the fact that his images are digital fabrications, and his aesthetic enhances the premeditated manner of his compositions. In Opuntia pitteri (2006), one of numerous small-scale works in the exhibition that were made at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in Pasadena, the subject is a plant species that keeps reappearing in other images, each time surrounded by a different botanical composition. Calculatedly arranged, the lighting of the plant is awkward and unnatural, with shadows falling in conflicting ways within a single image. This awkward lighting creates a subtle sense of discomfort within an otherwise deceptively ‘real’ image. His works agitate us with the most modest manipulations of nature.
McFarland’s subjects – public parks, botanical gardens, zoos – further emphasize the young photographer’s interest in creating a sense of unease with the artificiality of digital imagery. His photographs depict the world as arbitrarily structured around empirical categorization. In the most striking work, Display for Porcupines (Hystrix africae australis), Zoologischer Garten, Berlin (2006), we got a clear sense of McFarland’s aim. The photograph depicts a zoo’s porcupine display within a broad panorama. At the far left end of the ten-foot-long image, a child and his parents peer over a railing into the display, while at the far right a zoo-keeper tends to the animals. The snow-covered ground adds to the quiet surreality of the scene. The animals’ eccentric bodies and blunt faces appear displaced in this synthetic environment, and McFarland’s image captures a reality as manufactured by the artefacts of modern science as his own image.
McFarland’s photography has clearly been influenced by Jeff Wall’s staged realities and knack for digital enhancement. Yet in creating a mise en abîme of fabricated environments, where photographic manipulation is reflected in the manipulation of the ‘natural’ world being photographed, McFarland distinguishes himself from Wall. Scanning McFarland’s images, the viewer is fully aware of the simulation being produced. Wall, while tending towards these ends, often keeps the theatre of digital manipulation backstage. Furthermore, Wall has become enthralled by the language of Modernist and history painting. Proponents of this approach applaud the ‘anti-theatricality’ that allows digital depiction to be valued for its recursive strategies. That is, digitally rendered photography, like painting, can be seen as a reflection of its own artificial nature and revered for its instrinsic aesthetic principles, rather than being concerned with the referent it captures.
With a shared tableau aesthetic McFarland would seem a natural addition to this landscape of digital Modernism, joining the ranks of Thomas Struth, Andreas Gurksy, Thomas Ruff and others. Yet his sense of temporality suggests a different fate. In Display for Porcupines … for instance, there is a movement away from the image itself. Of the family seen in the photograph, the father glances to some distant object outside the space of the subject. His gaze is thoroughly lost in the picture and lost to us. McFarland disrupts the autonomy of Modernism by leaving his photographic scenarios uncertain. As the positivist structures of Modernity (its aesthetics, its sciences) appear to fold in on themselves within his open-ended compositions, the solid certainty of the world around us becomes evidence of its own undoing.