Have we been here before? Will we all be in this same spot again soon? Smeary visions of famous destinations, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Colosseum to the Hollywood sign, Corinne Vionnet’s aggregate compositions provoke a puzzling, often beautiful feeling of déjà vu. As in Impressionist paintings, Big Ben resolves amid splotches; Yosemite Valley looms with familiarity. Only the iconic structures clarify out of the gauze, while figures fold into the blur, ghosts in the mist. Yet in the haze there’s an invitation to go on imagining. I may have personally only visited four of the 18 locations on display in Vionnet’s Danziger Gallery exhibition, but I could envision myself in all of them, an unseen face in the crowd or perhaps the one behind the camera, lining up my own personal shot.
In 2005, just as Flickr and other photo-sharing sites where coming into being, Vionnet began to comb the internet in search of repeated, similar-looking photos of the same site, sets she would then layer by the hundreds into hazy composites. Early on, she noticed a trend in how amateur travel photographs were being constructed, and by extension how leisure and reality were being conceived. You’ve almost definitely done it yourself: taken a picture at that iconic site you visited. Some of these photo opps may seem arbitrary, but that’s beside the point; it’s become essential to have a record of having been somewhere.
The thing that doesn’t appear arbitrary is from what vantage and how the photos are being taken. In their muddled yet clarifying way, Vionnet’s compositions reveal what she began to see: unconsciously similar frames by the thousands. And so, out of the grains of countless photos, the Great Pyramid of Giza arises relatively distinct. Vionnet’s work achieves a durational, performative, critical perspective. It’s as if, instead of her layering technique, the compositions were made by the fires of our collective wishes (our pictures), their smoke smudging, wisp by wisp, an image onto a mirror. Years and yearning weave together in portraits of unplanned conformity. What is being sought by tourists and mass media? What is being left out?
Like early photomontage and film (e.g. Man with a Movie Camera), Vionnet’s work is an implicitly critical response to the advent of a new technological age. But whereas the turn-of-the-20th-century forms expressed multiplication, fragmentation, and explosive optimism, Vionnet’s augurs a smeary singularity, our desires limiting rather than expanding our visions.
In his analysis of Brave New World and 1984, cultural critic Neil Postman argues that it was Aldous Huxley who got the future right more than George Orwell. For, he writes, “Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.” In its own way, Vionnet’s work suggests it might be love that denies us an expansive, uniquely imagined world. Humane, open, and impersonal is a feel-good but problematic way of seeing — the hive mind’s eye, a glimpse of our collective, collapsing, hungry vision.
Corinne Vionnet continues at Danziger Gallery (521 West 23rd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 7.