Eugenia Raskopoulos’ new body of work Vestiges (2012) at first appears a digression from her focused exploration of immaterial aspects of everyday experience. The recurring subject of language within her recent video installations and photographs is absent, as are the ephemeral gestures of performing figures. Instead we are confronted with images that are intently focused on objects and their materiality. And yet, the conceptual scheme that informs these images is grounded in the domain of familiar social transactions. Each of the twelve photographs depicts the wrapping that once contained a gift to the artist. Raskopoulos has salvaged every such piece of paper, plastic and fabric on her birthday for the past three years. In turn, each wrapping has been systematically documented – centre frame, evenly lit against a blue-grey background – with the resulting images forming a catalogue of remnants that she has since discarded.
In themselves, the images do not bear out the specificities of this chain of events: the temporal framework, the particular function served by each piece of material, or the web of intimate relations that informed their exchange.[i] Most conspicuously absent are the contents the wrappings were used to conceal, although they sustain – to varying degrees – the imprint of these things. Devoid of such associations, the photographs attend instead to the precise physical character of each wrapping in its state of expended utility. Deep, lurid colours contrast with subtle pastels, minimalist neutrals and metallic sheen. Glossy surfaces are juxtaposed with the coarse and matte, the thick and opaque with the delicate and translucent. Above all, the images scrutinise the way each material ‘performs’, how it folds and furrows, and the final shape it has come to assume in lieu of any deliberate manipulation.[ii] In this way, Vestiges alludes to the process of transformation each object has undergone, from a pristine, generic commodity to a kind of ruin, marked literally but also metaphorically by the history of its use.
While the objects refer to memory in this way, the images are resolutely not nostalgic. They stubbornly elide the private circumstances and sentiments that each wrapping connotes for Raskopoulus, perhaps by extension insisting on the irreducibility of affects into images. Coupled with the work’s temporal logic, the strikingly impartial demeanour of the photographs recalls the infamous ‘date paintings’ of On Kawara, which depict only the date each painting was made. Vestiges is similarly a statement of the artist’s presence at a particular moment and a record of the inexorable forward trajectory of time. However, where Kawara addresses these ideas through a daily practice reflexively conceived for an artistic purpose, Raskopoulos co-opts the material detritus of interactions that are embedded in the realm of everyday life.
Although the meaning of those interactions remains obscured, the images evoke elements of their enactment. Raskopoulos’ process of peeling each wrapping away – sometimes cautiously, other times with vigour – is impressed upon the materials; it lingers in every tear and scrunch. She refers to this as evidence of a kind of ‘soft violence’, an act of destruction that is inflected by tenderness. She also consciously conflates this tempered violence inflicted upon the object with the violence that Barthes describes as inherent to the photograph. This is not related to its contents, he proposes, but to its material state ‘because in it nothing can be refused or transformed’.[iii] On one level, then, Vestiges plays the transformative function of the materials it depicts against the fixity of the photographic record. But ultimately, the work also alludes to the sensation of contact bound up in both. The contiguity the photographic image enables between subject and spectator is mirrored in the moment of ‘touch’ each wrapping mediates between the giver and receiver. Like the ritualised exchanges from which these traces are derived, the images in Vestiges are concerned with how we mark out our place in the world and attest to what has been.
Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales
[i] Although one image notably reveals the date of Raskopoulos’ birthday on the header of a piece of newsprint. The years to which the project relates – 2010, 2011 and 2012 – are also engraved into three separate glass objects that complement the photographs.
[ii] Robert Rauschenberg’s series of ‘gluts’ are a point of reference here, both in terms of a contorted sculptural aesthetic and the use of spent commodities as the material basis for works
[iii] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, translated by Richard Howard, London: Vintage, 1993, p91