Aperture #212 (Fall 2013)—Editors’ Note
Over the course of her career Helen Levitt found no shortage of off-the-cuff comedy playing out in New York’s streets. It’s fitting then that Tim Davis shared Levitt’s images with his photography students as examples of both levity and joy in the medium. Davis, in a diagnosis in these pages of “ photogeliophobia”—fear of funny photographs—observes that photographers have tended to downplay their sense of humor while responding to a world full of unexpected hilarity. Famously laconic, Levitt didn’t comment much on her work— maybe explanation took the fun away—but she did once admit to “looking for comedy more and more,” a quality she often found by surreptitiously photographing children at play.
This issue is loosely organized around the title Playtime, a nod to French filmmaker Jacques Tati’s brilliant 1967 send-up of the absurdities of modern living. Tati’s signature pokerfaced slapstick is felt across these pages. Erwin Wurm, speaking of his jarringly illogical One-Minute Sculptures and other works, remarks that he views humor as a vehicle to arrive at other meanings, including pathos. With her Drape series, Eva Stenram digitally rewires vintage pinup pictures, performing a kind of détournement that takes the wind out of the original images’ erotic charge. Italian polymath Bruno Munari—who began his artistic career as a Futurist painter in the 1920s—also worked as an illustrator, designer, and inventor, and brought all these talents to bear upon his photographs, which are performative, inventive, and unabashedly fun.
What are games and play without rules? Invented, often arbitrary rules governed the work of the Conceptual artists of the 1960s and ’70s discussed by Robin Kelsey: figures such as John Baldessari and Eleanor Antin, who responded to a tumultuous, uncertain era—and to the machismo and self-importance of “serious” art—by making games and clever gags a purposeful artistic strategy. More recently, Maya Rochat, one of the artists in the portfolio of young Swiss photographers assembled by Bruno Ceschel, suggests that “ non-seriousness is a refusal to fall asleep.” This group of artists exchange austerity and formality for absurdity and humor, freely mixing media to create brash and messy images fueled by a curiosity about how the medium can be stretched and explored. A number of these figures are associated, as instructors or one-time students, with two of Switzerland’s major art academies.
Schools, clearly, can serve as incubators for experimentation, playful thinking, and productive distraction. Over the last few years, James Mollison has photographed the anarchic theater that unfolds each afternoon across the globe’s schoolyards. Campus antics are of course nothing new, as we see in a portfolio from the 1930s showing a group of daredevil students at the University of Cambridge performing a precursor to parkour: scaling the walls and turrets of King’s and Trinity Colleges as though they were alpine slopes. Their dizzying images are reminders of how vertigo can remove us from the everyday, that play is often purposeless—sometimes undertaken primarily for the benefit of a spectator. Jo Ann Callis’s darkly physical images, published here for the first time, suggest a game of what does-this-feel-like? enacted for the photographer.
In his 1961 book Man, Play, Games, philosopher Roger Callois noted that “secrecy, mystery, and even travesty can be transformed into play activity.” Sophie Calle, an artist celebrated for her clever, mischievous projects, discusses her new series revisiting the brazen theft of artworks from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In her conversation with Melissa Harris, Calle teasingly suggests of her “documentary” project: “Maybe everything is invented. . . . Who knows?” Inversely, Japanese photographer Kazuyoshi Usui offers us admittedly fictional images that appear to be real, spinning Japan’s bygone Showa era into a pink-tinged future that never really happened. Poet Frances Richard speaks with Christian Marclay about his snapshots of found musical notation, repurposed and then literally played by musicians. Marclay notes that his approach to photography “includes a sense of playfulness because you’re not sure what the consequences are going to be.” This inquisitive spirit unites the many guises of play found in this issue—play as games, as fictions, as digital simulations; role-playing, playing music, and so on. The beauty of play, it seems, is that you never quite know where the game will take you.
After this issue, Diana C. Stoll, Aperture’s longtime senior editor, will be moving on to pursue personal projects. We will greatly miss Diana’s endless wisdom, brilliant editing, and impeccable eye. We wish Diana the best of luck in her new endeavors, but we don’t consider this a good-bye as we look forward to having her as a writer in our pages.