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Rodney Graham

Schoolyard Tree, Vancouver, 2002

Photograph | C-Print
130 x 160 cm
Rodney Graham is interested in photography as a system for representing reality. It seems to present what is around us objectively, but he uses art to talk to us about fiction and the language game we take part in when looking at photographic images.

Graham decides to show upside down photographs of trees for different reasons. The selection of the tree, and this one in particular, is not fortuitous. He comments that the tree is given as an example of the arbitrary relation between signifier and signified in a book by Saussure. The image we see is called “tree” and that is a social construction we assume.

At the same time the tree selected in this photograph is outside a school in Vancouver. It is used by the school to teach the pupils about the seasons, so that they see the passage of time and observe the colours of the leaves and how they change. And so the tree is a source of knowledge. But we keep looking at the tree upside down, since for Graham it serves as a metaphor for education itself and how we take concepts to be valid without reasoning them for ourselves.

The tree is also a representation of nature, but a nature under human control, since it is in an urban context. When he photographs a tree, that tree becomes an individual object, with no relation to other possible trees. It almost ceases to be nature and becomes a construction of our gaze.

Graham has photographed different trees, trees which have a historical or human value, and made them particular. These are portraits that also speak to us of the portrait itself, of the fact that the portrait implies that what is shown has a value that has to be preserved from death. Jeff Wall has said a propos of his work that “the solitary tree is the classic symbol of individual mortality”.

The idea of the construction of the gaze and its objectification is crucial in this work. To take these photographs, he works with large format cameras (following the principles of the camera obscura). At the moment of taking it he sees the image upside down, as it is presented to us. By showing it this way he is demonstrating that he is offering the spectator a photograph and not a tree.

The art in this work is found in the will to turn the photograph around. He works as a traditional photographer, doing impeccable work, but he is looking for a specific reception by the user. He wants to make us think about how we look, about the codes of language that direct our gaze. He is searching for an initial perplexity in the spectator, who will later think about the fact of looking at a photograph upside down and will have to think again about how to look at the image. He is looking for a similar relation to the kind offered by the Dadaists (an initial surprise that leads to a criticism of what we are looking at) and, as he says himself, with the strategy of Duchamp’s readymades.

Martí Manen


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