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Dena Beard

The Form of the Visual Essay: Horn, Sekula and Varda

Roni Horn (Another Water series), 2000, Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery

             Although the visual essay has experienced many different forms of re-articulation, from the ‘assayments’ of Montaigne, the ‘essayism’ of Weimar to the post-structuralist video practice of the ’80s, the contemporary form of the essay is motivated by an attempt to reduce the ambivalence of previous methods.  Ambivalence can either operate as an allegorical mask, projecting large denotative categories upon social relations, or it is simply mimetic, re-appropriating popular culture in ‘shocking’ or traumatic ways. Refusing this kind of social alienation, the contemporary visual essay performs personal knowledge in a radically singular manner. This type of singularity explores the dialectical relationship of affective and representational modes of visual essayism.

            While engaged in Roni Horn’s Another Water (The River Thames for Example) (2000), the reader/spectator is confronted with a natural displacement and anecdotal experience, posited through footnotes at the lower margin of the page. In this manner, Horn’s piece creates a direct correlation between the image and the essay form, providing her ‘readership’ with circumstantial notations by which to ground the images in experiential landmarks. A complicated mirror, Horn’s object—the Thames—encounters both the artist and the spectator/reader through the means of self-implication.

            Allan Sekula’s work, Black Tide/Marea Negra (2002-2003), adheres to this principle through realism rather than displacement. First published in a magazine supplement to the Barcelona Newspaper, La Vanguardia, Black Tide documents the oil catastrophe in Galicia, Spain, with photographs of volunteer workers accompanied by the script and stage notes for his Fragments of an Opera. Ironically, the narrative marks Sekula’s refusal to turn inward, toward allegory or psychologism, and instead allows him to propel his essay outward through a montage of ‘official’ and ‘folk’ material. Sekula’s essay is an experimental use of documentary and neo-romantic methods to mobilize the subjective statements of those photographed against the objective effects of an invisible aggressor.

            Agnes Varda’s documentary film The Gleaners and I (2000) takes the form of an objective investigation that meanwhile captures the essence of a spiritual and material activity. Varda’s use of the digital camera demonstrates how the technological device can be subsumed into the experience it means to ‘fix’ into document. Varda’s inversion of traditional models creates an essay that depends on both the self-implicating forms of Roni Horn’s work as well as the realistic affect of Sekula’s.

         I use these three projects for their inclusion of a particular dialectic around representational/affective relations. Their  ‘arguments’ either succeed or fail to project each mode of perception singularly and dialectically. Horn’s work is focused on sensual perception, thus it puts more positive weight on the affective model, Sekula’s work is focused on detached realism, thus it puts more positive weight on the representational model, and Varda switches between the positivity and negativity of both models with her interruptions of self-relation. This is precisely the radical path that the visual essay can take concerning the representational and affective structures: it imbues realism with an unabashed singularity.


           Dena Beard has presented papers at the Art Institute’s Graduate Seminar on the work of Arnulf Rainer and, at UCLA, on Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour. She was also Associate Editor of FNewsmagazine and research assistant to artist Ellen Rothenberg.


Thesis Advisor: Michael Newman, Associate Professor; Art History, Theory, and Criticism

Thesis Reader: Gregg Bordowitz, Associate Professor; Film, Video, and New Media

Second Reader: Margaret Olin, Professor; Chair; Art History, Theory, and Criticism


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