A Trillion Sunsets: A Century of Image Overload @ICP

JTF (just the facts): A group show consisting of photographic and video works by 40 artists, spread across two floors of the museum. The show was organized by David Campany.

The following works are included in the show:

2nd Floor

  • Hannah Höch: 14 spread reproductions from Album (Scrapbook), 1933
  • John Heartfield: 2 photogravures, 1935
  • (in vitrine) Ernst Friedrich: 1 photobook/spread, 1925
  • Franz Roh: 1 collage, 1930
  • Robert Capa: 1 gelatin silver print, 1934-1935
  • Barbara Morgan: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1938/1972, 1938-39/c1980, 1965/c1980
  • Walker Evans: 1 digital inkjet print, 1936/2007
  • Tomoko Sawada: 1 gelatin silver print, 1998
  • Manuel Álvarez Bravo: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929/1974
  • Robert Frank: 1 gelatin silver print, 1958
  • Robert Rauschenberg: 1 offset lithograph poster, 1970
  • Romare Bearden: 1 offset lithograph poster, 1968
  • Harry Callahan: 1 dye transfer print, c1957
  • (in vitrine) Bertolt Brecht: 1 photobook, 1955
  • (in vitrine) Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin : 1 photobook, 2011
  • Frank Mouris: 1 single-channel video, 8 minues, 52 seconds, 1973
  • Justine Kurland: 2 photobook collages, 2021
  • Aaron Hegert: 3 digital inkjet prints, 2018
  • (in vitrine) Stefan Lorant: 16 spreads from Lilliput magazine magazine, 1938-1948
  • (in vitrine) Masao Mochizuki: 2 photobook spreads, 1975-1976
  • Emma Sheffer: 1 Instagram feed video, 4 minutes 17 seconds, 2022
  • Jason Salavon: 1 chromogenic print, 2000
  • Richard Prince: 1 aerosol enamel and graphite on Ektacolor print, 1984-1985; 1 chromogenic print, 1983
  • Joan Fontcuberta: 1 digital inkjet print, 2005
  • Claudia Angelmaier: 2 chromogenic prints, 2008
  • Sara Greenberger Rafferty: 1 installation of inkjet prints on vinyl with grommets, 2018
  • Patrick Pound: 6 site specific installations of found objects, 2005/2021, 2009/2021, 2011/2021, 2019/2021
  • Nakeya Brown: 2 pigment prints, 2017

3rd Floor

  • Erik Kessels: 1 installation view, 2011
  • John Baldessari: 1 wall drawing, 1985; 1 lithograph, 1989
  • Alexandra Bell: 1 diptych (screen print and chine collé on paper, pigment print), 2019
  • Hank Willis Thomas: 4 digital chromogenic prints, 1932/2015, 1944/2015, 1972/2015, 2008/2015
  • Guanyu Xu: 2 pigment prints, 2018, 2019
  • Carrie Mae Weems: 1 pigment print, 2014
  • Jess T. Dugan:  1 single-channel video, 14 minutes, 53 seconds, 2017
  • Andy Warhol: 1 screen print, 1980-1983
  • Louise Lawler: 1 silver dye bleach print, 1993
  • Pacifico Silano: 1 photobook, 2021
  • Sheida Soleimani: 2 digital inkjet prints, 2019, 2020

(Installation and detail shots below, starting with second floor.)

Comments/Context: The idea that the world is being overloaded by too many images is the zombie of photography writing cliches – we methodically kill it off again and again, only to have it return from the dead to haunt us once more. Its roots lie in a simple volume argument, where a calculation is made that shows that an astonishing if not unfathomable number of pictures are now being made and consumed. This math isn’t particularly hard to do, given a contemporary world with hundreds of millions of smartphones, all taking photographs everyday – the total number of images jumps to the billions quickly, at which point we cue the mock outrage and the wringing of hands. We pretend to scream in horror, how can we possibly live with so many images?

The underlying framework of this show provides evidence that this hackneyed question of overload has been with us for more than a century, and photographers have been creating compelling and original responses to the “ocean of images” (remember the 2015 MoMA show of this same name?, here) for that entire time. In this way, it’s a tension diffuser, telling us to relax just a bit and let the self-imposed hysteria subside – our worries about the grim effects of too much imagery (or the “wrong” imagery) are generally unfounded, and artists will always step into the breach to help us make sense of the visual riches.

A different way to think about A Trillion Sunsets is that is it an exhibit entirely filled with artworks made from photographs – pictures of pictures, physical collages, digital constructions, installations of pictures, and even a few videos made from pictures. The structural premise is that the prevailing artistic response to “too many pictures” isn’t to cower in the-sky-is-falling fear, but to dive into and embrace that swirling visual complexity, reusing the available imagery in innovative ways. The show turns back to the 1920s, where the growth of picture magazines and daily newspapers triggered a wave of image anxiety (although there were probably even earlier zombie versions going back to the first invention of the medium), and follows a loose chronological progression forward to the Instagram-able cascade of the present.

Several thematic threads weave the show together, offering alternate artistic solutions to similar questions or problems across time. One set of works essentially uses the available imagery against itself, building up collages and re-interpretations that deliver biting political and social commentary. Anti-war artworks and political satires by John Heartfield and Ernst Friedrich begin the parade, followed by an update to those ideas by Bertolt Brecht in the mid 1950s, and an incisive re-consideration by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin some sixty years later. Robert Rauschenberg builds a 1970 Earth Day poster out of images of water contamination, smoky fires, rusting cars, and overcrowded beaches, almost mocking the proud bald eagle they surround. And more recently, Hank Willis Thomas unpacks the evolving roles (and stereotypes) of white women, via images of bored mooning housewives, energetic wartime workers, and the powerfully bloodied legs of a women’s soccer team, while Sheida Soleimani deconstructs Iranian politics via assemblages representing recurring patterns of corruption and failure.

A second approach found here for making sense of the sometimes overwhelming flow of imagery around us is to redirect it back toward an investigation of self and identity. Tomoko Sawada tries on a seemingly endless stream of personas in hundreds of passport-style headshots gathered into one densely elusive array. Guanyu Xu reinterprets the rooms of his teenage home in Beijing with all-over fragments of his queer existence. Nayeka Brown uses dated album covers and hair styling equipment to tease out facets of Black identity. And Jess T. Dugan gathers up family snapshots to sensitively probe (via a self-narrated confessional video) the ongoing traumas and injuries left in the wake of an estranged relationship with her father. Along a related track, two other approaches, by Frank Mouris in the early 1970s and Sara Greenberger Rafferty in 2018, re-create a personal kind of image-driven stream-of-consciousness, alternately piling images into manic collages and spreading them into an edited universe of thumbnail documents, Internet searches, and saved pictures.

Perhaps the most natural human instinct when faced with “too muchness” is to try and impose some kind of order, by searching for connections, patterns, links, and structures that can make sense of the senseless. Hannah Höch’s album pages (from 1933, seen as a series of enlarged reproductions) invite us inside this cerebral process, where visual similarities in natural forms, women’s faces, industrial architecture, and dance movements (among other subject matter categories) are seen with an abstract sense of formal congruity. The same might be said for Stefan Lorant’s inspired image pairings for Lilliput magazine, where unexpected visual connections are found in clever juxtapositions of coiled hair/shell, dragonfly/high jumper, dancer/calla lily, and airplane vapor trail/delphinium. More blunt image repetition takes shape as an organizing principle for artists like Andy Warhol (portraits) and Richard Prince (waves), and then the idea morphs and evolves into something different (and more performative) in the age of social media, as seen in Emma Sheffer’s Instagram feed of pictures made in the same places with the same poses.

The final line of thinking that emerges from the show is one focused on process, where technical innovation is the force that drives the inspired re-use of readily available imagery. In this way, “what can be done” is the fundamental building block that supports the options for “what can I say”, at least photographically. Early examples from Barbara Morgan and Harry Callahan alternately show us the techniques of image sandwiching and rephotography of aggregated scraps, and as the decades pass, the technological options get even more computationally powerful. Jason Salavon collapses every frame from Titanic (the top grossing film at the time) into an intricate carpet of thin stripes. Joan Fontcuberta uses image search algorithms to rebuild Niépce’s famous first exposure with thousands of component pictures. And Aaron Hegert digs deeper into the inner workings of the software, matching images with algorithmic best guesses, creating composite photographs that explore the nested process of image translation.

All of this smart thinking brings us back to the comically overfilled installation image by Erik Kessels that shows a gallery space packed to the ceiling with the photographic uploads of a single day (in 2011). That one picture seems to want to intimidate us with its scale, but the entire rest of the show is a kind of rejoinder to its bulky massiveness. A Trillion Sunsets readily admits that we are unceasingly surrounded by imagery, but ultimately sees this reality as an artistic blessing rather than a curse. It rejects a conservative “the past was simpler and better” vantage point, and actively embraces the idea that our artists will help us to successfully navigate a world with more imagery than we can reasonably process. It challenges the zombies of “too much imagery” to keep coming, assuming that the most inspired of our artists will keep mowing them down.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices, and given the broad range of work on view, we will forego our usual discussion of individual gallery representation relationships and secondary market histories.

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Read more about: Aaron Hegert, Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Alexandra Bell, Andy Warhol, Barbara Morgan, Carrie Mae Weems, Claudia Angelmaier, Emma Sheffer, Erik Kessels, Frank Mouris, Franz Roh, Guanyu Xu, Hank Willis Thomas, Hannah Höch, Harry Callahan, Jason Salavon, Jess T. Dugan, Joan Fontcuberta, John Baldessari, John Heartfield, Justine Kurland, Louise Lawler, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Masao Mochizuki, Nakeya Brown, Pacifico Silano, Patrick Pound, Richard Prince, Robert Capa, Robert Frank, Robert Rauschenberg, Romare Bearden, Sara Greenberger Rafferty, Sheida Soleimani, Stefan Lorant, Tomoko Sawada, Walker Evans, International Center of Photography

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