Mishka Henner’s exhibition ‘Precious Commodities’ made clear the artist’s nuanced intervention into the fragile and exploitable economies (both material and immaterial) that give meaning to photography today. Henner has become the poster boy for a new kind of adventitious and appropriative practice which acquires much of its energy from engaging the photographic culture spawned by camera phones and social media, as well as from the equally inventive uses of the Internet by governments, intelligence agencies and corporations.
One of the Manchester-based artist’s most provocative works, Less Américains (2012), was created by using Photoshop to erase more than half the content from the 83 images in Robert Frank’s 1958 classic, Les Américains. Produced as a self-published book (he is part of the Artists’ Book Cooperative, which is engaged in collaborative self-publishing), and exhibited at Open Eye Gallery as 20 prints, Henner literally takes away the Americans, leaving the dark details of star-spangled banners, automobiles, top hats and bouffants, the latter transformed into surrealist wigs floating over ghostly silhouettes. This might seem a slightly flat attack on documentary, irreverently sticking one to the myth of the hallowed vision of the star documentarian. What’s more, the act of erasure isn’t new – Kathy Grove (a less well-known member of the so-called Pictures Generation), for example, excised all of the women from the photographs of Brassaï and Man Ray. But Henner isn’t just taking something away: he is producing something new through a technologically mediated and laboured act of negation.
Unlike conceptualists such as Ed Ruscha (whose investment in DIY photo-books makes him an obvious precedent for this work) or most of the ‘Pictures’ artists, however, Henner worked as a jobbing documentary photographer for several years. In re-creating Frank’s legendary photo-book, he magnified the images until they no longer bore any resemblance to their documentary subjects, until their iconicity and iconography fell away. In his distancing and estranging of Frank’s photos, Henner has as much in common with his post-digital peers such as Willem Popelier or Jon Rafman, as with the subversive experiments of the early 20th-century avant-garde, particularly László Moholy-Nagy. The latter also explored new technologies of vision and published photo-books full of appropriated images producing new kinds of knowledge and new publics photographically.
This is exactly what all of Henner’s work does – it uses new and old technologies to look really close-up at something, until something new is revealed. His new work, Levelland Oil Field and Feedlots (2012–13), presented here as a wall-size print and three large-scale prints, at first appears to be Abstract Expressionist paintings – the frenzied reworkings of De Kooning and Franz Kline. On closer inspection they reveal themselves to be painstakingly layered images of American oil fields and cattle feed lots taken from Google Earth. Displayed alongside is a selection of geological maps of gas and oil fields produced in the 1970s and ’80s, which continue to be used by petroleum companies to locate potential drilling sites. Henner begins with traditional cartography to locate the specific geographies, then supplements Google Earth – which can’t provide sufficiently detailed imagery – with GIS data, montaging hundreds of abstract depictions of landscapes which have themselves been rendered abstract in real life by modern industry’s ceaseless exploitation for resources. This is where Henner’s interest in technologically mediated visions becomes explicitly political and social. His work asks us to think not only about the visual manifestations of this data, but how it is put to different uses. Levelland Oil Field and Feedlots’ nod to Abstract Expressionism also takes on an equally political resonance, given the mobilization of the artistic movement by the CIA during the Cold War. Similarly, the banal typography of Ruscha’s gas stations is replaced in Henner’s Fifty-One US Military Outposts (2010) with the locations of overt and covert military outposts used by the United States in 51 countries across the world. His use of satellite technology makes obvious comparison with other artists engaging in such military technologies and vision, such as Harun Farocki, Trevor Paglen and Omer Fast. But one difference is that all of the technologies and data used by Henner are already available in the public domain – they are out there, waiting to be seen and mobilised.
Levelland Oil Field and Feedlots also engages with photography’s commodification, circulation and production of publics – last year, after Henner submitted it to Vice magazine, one image was featured on the cover of the ‘Hopelessness’ issue (here displayed in large format). Immersionist, DIY and deliberately controversial, but run entirely on advertising revenue, Vice parodies and simultaneously embodies a rampant money-is-everything neoliberal ethos. Understood in these contexts, Henner’s exhibition offers a critique of American capitalism gone mad. Henner’s complex work demands an activated and invested viewer, one prepared to follow its investigations into the precarious, violent, fetishistic, mythological geographies and economies that continue to produce, exploit and circulate ‘precious commodities’, be they oil, beef or photography. These are exactly the places that need to be looked at more closely until something new emerges.
Sarah James is a lecturer in Art History at University College London. She is the author of Common Ground: German Photographic Cultures Across the Iron Curtain, published by Yale University Press.
First published in Issue 156