The Artist as Teacher as Chemist as Artist
19 • 06 • 27Flóra Barkóczi
On entering the Capa Centre’s Project Room, visitors see black and white monochrome and organically abstract framed pictures as well as objects (glass covers and petri dishes) placed on shelves. They are artworks by Máté Dobokay, and they seem to be a long way from the standard notion of photographic pictures. As is his custom, the photographer Dobokay is once again testing the limits of photography: ignoring the camera itself and recycling the raw material used and discarded by his students, he explores the essence of the materiality of photography – the materiality of silver (Ag in the periodic table) – while applying photographic imaging in a minimal way and for merely a conceptual purpose.
Dobokay’s point of departure is the relationship between his own work as a photographer and his teaching work in the photography courses that he has given over the past four years in Budapest’s Eighth District, as well as his ability to pass on to others what he has learnt from these experiences, as the problem that concerns him at present. An inquiry into the interrelationship between the two activities revealed a tangent upon which the works shown in the exhibition can be placed: thinking about the recyclability of the raw materials discarded by the students and the workings of the traditional photographic process in the darkroom, led Dobokay to experiment with the material of silver and the choice of precious metal. The theoretical questions underlying the exhibition resulted in analytical exercises at the intersection between scientific experimentation and visual art. The exhibited works illustrate this attitude and the process leading to it, while citing – as the curator Judit Gellér mentions – alchemy, that is, the practice of making silver.
The exhibition titled Ag provided a novel interpretative framework for Dobokay’s work by offering a reflective approach to the knowledge cycle. Contrary to the traditional master-student exhibitions, the artist, by placing in a new context the materials and tools that have arisen as by-products of the work of his students, thematised his own attitude to the relationship between teaching and creating. Meanwhile, he involved his students in the exhibition by utilising the “pictures” created by them – but then assessed as discards – and the raw materials that have been used up or used wrongly (e.g. the test strips for exposure, and fixer that has been used up) as basic material for his own works. In the case of the group of photos titled Fényt Kapott (Alison Rossiter után) [It was exposed (after Alison Rossiter)], Dobokay framed the photographic paper that had been exposed to light (and thus rendered useless) at the photographer training facility. In this way, he created works of art by making a link between the students’ learning process and the creative attitude, thereby establishing a symbiosis of the two activities. The young artist – who is only a few years older than his students – builds a bridge between the creative and teaching work by mentioning in the title of the work one of his own “masters”, namely Alison Rossiter – a photographer with a similar attitude towards the recycling of raw material.
In the exhibition, reflection upon the act of creating photography, photographic pictures and technical pictures is coupled with the artist’s analysis of his own working processes, which can be interpreted as a continuation of Dobokay’s earlier creative practice: the series titled Ezüst papíron [On Silver Paper], which is being shown at the exhibition for the first time and which comprises etching papers dipped in fixer and brought into a reaction by means of electrolysis, examines the possible dimensions of the materiality of photography, similarly to the 2014 series titled Hommage à Simon Hantai. The series mentioned above – Fényt Kapott (Alison Rossiter után) [It was exposed (after Alison Rossiter)] – places in a new context the photographic imaging process, citing the pseudo-landscapes of the Spots series (2013-15). Just as in the earlier series, so too in the present one Dobokay explores the possibilities of medium awareness, doing so as a continuation of the interdisciplinary approach and conceptual ideas pioneered by György Kepes and László Moholy-Nagy.
At the exhibition, the spatial dimension and the sculptural idea are at the focus of the works comprising the complex installation of a Wunderkammer type (Wunderkammer = cabinet of curiosities), whose wooden elements were made by Fanni Hegedüs. In the case of the works titled Ezüst cinklapon [Silver on a Zinc Sheet] and Ezüst üvegen [Silver on Glass] the prints – which can barely be called “photographic” or pictures – appear, not on photographic paper or on other traditional surfaces, but on zinc sheets, developer beakers, and petri dishes – that is, the silver deposited on the zinc and glass material in the course of the reaction with the fixer liquid. Although the movement of the silver ions is artificially directed through the intervention of the artist, the ions nevertheless form a unique arrangement. In this way, the deposited silver layers – by rendering the tools into artworks – call into question the conceptual limits of a photographic picture and object, as well as illustrating the interaction of materials. The new material quality arising through the process of chemical experimentation points to a possible ending, a separate work titled Ezüst chips [Silver Chips], placed under a petri dish: stepping into the spatial dimension of the material giving rise to the photo and dispensing with all types of surfaces and concentrating on the object, thus also eliciting a radically new definition of the photographic picture.
The artist – who earlier studied to be an optician and media technologist – approaches the breaking down into atoms of the raw material of a photo, the depositing of silver, and thus its salvaging, with the attitude of an analytical researcher and with the interest of a natural scientist. In his opening speech, Gábor Pfisztner described the phenomenon of how the photographic procedure originally was far more closely tied to chemistry than to the free experimentalism of the artistic modes and means. Indeed, it was thanks to the science of chemistry that the demand for pictures could be satisfied. This aspect of technology history was mentioned by Roland Barthes in his work Camera Lucida, published in 1980: „It is often said that it was the painters who invented Photography. […]. I say: no, it was the chemists. […] And if Photography belonged to a world with some residual sensitivity to myth, we should exult over the richness of the symbol: the loved body is immortalized by the mediation of a precious metal, silver (monument and luxury); to which we might add the notion that this metal, like all the metals of Alchemy, is alive.”*
At the same time, the discourse surrounding photographic technology was dominated for a long time by its interpretation as a magical phenomenon – owing in part to the complexity of the technical aspects and the myths surrounding the capturing of light. By decrypting the procedure that leads to the making of a photo and by breaking down the objective nature of the photo into elements, the works by Máté Dobokay point to the scientific exactness of photographic imaging, to its systemic nature, and to the interaction of the materials giving rise to the photo. Several “classical” photographs shown at the exhibition – enlarged reproductions of the Ezüst cinken [Silver on Zinc] objects – illustrate the randomness of the depositing of silver, doing so in accordance with the standards of natural scientific analysis.
Albertus Magnus, one of the best-known alchemists in the medieval period, who was furthermore a major figure in German scholastic philosophy and theology, recognised, in the course of his experiments in the thirteenth century, the photosensitive nature of silver compounds (notably, silver nitrate). It is no accident that alchemy drew a link between silver and the sole source of light at night – the Moon (whereas gold symbolised the Sun). Máté Dobokay returns to the question of the significance of the light-sensitiveness of silver (that is, of silver salts and solutions), an issue that is of fundamental importance not only to photography. The aim of the exhibition Ag is nothing less than to rethink the materiality of photographic pictures and to revise the relationship between a photo and object-ness, as well as to analyse the interrelationship between the teaching of photography and the making of photographs. In other words, it seeks to broaden the definitional framework and context of photography.
*Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida. Translated by Richard Howard. Published in English, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
The title of this review is a reference to the figure of speech that arose in the wake of Hal Foster’s article “The Artist as Ethnographer” (1996).
The author is a holder of the Kállai Ernő Scholarship (Ministry of Human Resources/Capacities)
Máté Dobokay, Ag
Capa Centre, Project Room, 28 May - 1 July 2019