When Gertrude Stein declared, “A writer should write with his eyes and a painter paint with his ears,” she was challenging artists to shift their perceptions. The upcoming exhibition at the Fondation d’Enterprise Hermès, opening March 16, takes the assignment a step further, tasking not only the artist but also the subject of the work and the viewer with this complicated mission. Titled Matt Ducklo & Matthew Monteith: Mind’s Eye, it examines the way in which an individual views and experiences art, referencing the personal biases and perceptions that influence our encounters. Photographs by Matthew Monteith capture art viewers in Rome as they consider different works—from the Roman Forum to Bernini’s David. Matt Ducklo, meanwhile, presents images from his series “Touch Tours,” which documents blind and visually impaired individuals in prestigious art museums as they use their sense of touch to “see” artwork. From their particular corners of America, Matt in Memphis and Matthew in New York, the artists took a moment to discuss the deceptive nature of photography, the enimga of art and why you should carefully consider that café au lait before hitting the MoMa.
Erin Dixon: Tell us a bit about your respective projects.
Matt Ducklo: I was photographing seeing-eye dogs in New York City and before that I had been photographing newscasters, which I still do, on their sets. One day, I saw a seeing-eye dog get on the bus with a newscaster, and I started thinking more about seeing-eye dogs and living in New York City and getting around and navigating the world—having this animal be your eyes. Then, a friend told me about the touch tour program at the [Metropolitan Museum of Art]. I’d never heard of it and thought it sounded amazing, so I went to the Met and I photographed touch tours in the Egyptian Galleries there, and then I found out that there are programs like that all over the place. Once I took the first picture, I knew that this was something I wanted to do.
Erin: Matthew, how did you arrive in Rome and did your motivation for the series come prior to your arrival in the city or after having observed people observing art there?
Matthew Monteith: It kind of goes back to the work that I did for a book with Aperture called Czech Eden. It’s not related in any direct way, but I was interested in these particular concepts of “paradise” and who creates what kind of social utopia based on what ideology. How does it work and what happens in that whole process? Then I went to graduate school at Yale, and when I was there I got very interested in this idea of “thinking utopias.” Do they work and does art education work? And how does it work when it does work? Then I heard about the American Academy in Rome, and I started to think about the Villa Medici and the development of all these different academies in Rome—how they were created to sort of make these national tours of art, which was important to Western society in some way. Then I went to Rome and I visited the Academy, and I realized, “Wow, this is this sort of incredible, anachronistic thing—and also wonderful.” People go for an entire year and they stay there, they look at art…and I knew that was something I had to do. I had to get engaged with that. I think there was also something about how classical art relates to contemporary work in some way.
Erin: How did your own way of viewing art change during that period?
Matthew: Well, I didn’t really have any formal education in art history at all. So when I went to Rome, I saw it as this opportunity to do exactly that—to go around to people who knew tremendous amounts about all sorts of different architecture, art, painting and everything. I got to experience that first-hand, which was really wonderful. I’ve always been really intrigued by the idea that you go to a museum or a gallery and you see a piece of work; you see it once and it really excites you. Then you come back a year later, and you go to the same city and you say, “I’m gonna go back and see that sculpture. It’s going to be great!” You walk in and something has changed. It looks totally diminutive and you’re like, ”What? That’s not the same thing.” Or it’s way better than you imagined. It’s so much about what you bring to it. That’s something I was really interested in as well.
Matt: What Matthew just said, I agree with a lot. I don’t live in New York right now, but I did. And now whenever I go back for a couple weeks, I hit all the museums. I look at a lot of art and I enjoy it so much, but it’s crazy how much your own psychological state or whether you’ve had a cup of coffee or not [affects how] you react to something on one visit. Then, you see it again and don’t react to it. Or you feel nothing and then the next day you’re thinking about it. I don’t get to touch art, but when you’re touching a work of art you’re getting a special privilege that sighted people don’t have, which is exciting. You’re having access to a world that you can’t fully access. It’s probably a lot heavier than me strolling through the American Wing at the Met. Each [touch tour] “viewing” is a thing. You go up, you get permission, you touch it… It’s not like you can spend five seconds looking at this and turn around for 15 seconds and look at that.
Erin: How, then, do you define art as an entity, given that you’re working with people who are both sighted and not?
Six Percent, San Bernardo, Rome, Italy, 2009. Archival pigment print, 24 x 32 inches.
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Matthew: I think it’s probably a bit like…what was it in the obscenity trials? You know it when you see it?
Matt: That’s hilarious. I called a friend last night and she said the exact same thing, but I don’t even know [art] when I see it. When you make a book and you edit the book, you hone it and try to make the sequence good and resonate. You cut things out and put things in, and you think about how people are going to perceive it. Then the thing gets printed and it goes off; it’s like this ship that sets sail. You no longer own it or have any control over it. It goes out into the world and people see it however they are going to see it. It’s always so surprising; they tell you, “Oh, I love that thing,” or “I hate that you did this.” And you didn’t have any way of anticipating any of this. I guess what I’m saying is: Some work goes out on that journey and it just crashes. It doesn’t ever arrive. There is no levity to it. Whereas for other works, those perceptions carry them along—something resonates. It doesn’t have to be what you intended, necessarily, but it goes on and develops its own life. I guess that’s the closest thing I can think of: Does it develop it’s own life? Does it resonate? Does it keep going on?
Erin: Given that, why is photography an important artistic medium—particularly if you say that art is something that takes on a life of its own? Can photographs be as ambiguous as other art forms?
Matthew: It’s a tricky thing, but for me that’s what I’m attracted to about photography. It seems that it is so specific, because it has to represent what was in front of the lens at the moment of exposure. So we have this belief. We say, “There’s the thing we can trust it.” But the more engaged with photography anyone gets—and you don’t have to get that engaged—the more you start to realize that’s not it at all. Photography is a total fabrication and it’s really ambiguous because it has the ability to convince us of the reality. I guess that’s the thing that keeps me excited about photography: this sort of razor’s edge. It’s the thing that makes me think it might be one of the most surreal and bizarre mediums that there is out there.
Matt: I agree, because that’s kind of it for me too. I’m a very gullible person. I look at a picture and my first instinct is to believe what I see. I guess 100 years from now, they won’t see photography that way at all, but right now I look at photography and my gut instinct is to believe that actually is what happened.
Matthew: It’s almost like a faith-based practice.
Matt: That’s exactly right. But isn’t art [in general] a faith-based practice? You can be competent but you have to have some sort of faith that something good is going to happen. I know it sounds hokey…
Erin: And by good, you mean its resonation factor?
Matt: That some magic is going to happen. Something is going to happen that you couldn’t have predicted, because if you predicted it there wouldn’t have been magic. Something is going to happen that is beyond yourself. You can’t make magic. You just have to have some faith that if you work hard enough and are consistent then something will happen. But if you don’t work hard, nothing will happen.
Matthew: There’s a Raymond Carver essay, “On Writing,” though it could be about anything. In it, he’s talking about writing short stories, getting a phrase or a sentence and realizing that this phrase or sentence comes out of the mouth of this [character], and the character sort of emerges and develops, and you [as the artist] just keep sketching it, redoing it until it feels right and true. That’s exactly what Matt was just saying in a way. With photography, there are these instantaneous gifts that happen, and they are more pronounced because they happen in the world that you could have never dreamed up.
Erin: So what role does the viewer play in creating the meaning of a photograph or in discerning its magic?
Matthew: It’s a kind of difficult because everyone brings their own meaning, but I think there is something about pictures that resonates. Different people have these different readings of them, but there is something shared, so you can say, “That’s a great picture,” or “I know that picture.” Then you can disagree completely about the meaning of the picture but there is something sort of ineffable about the quality of certain things.
Erin: What does the way in which people view art reveal about them? Did you find yourself judging them?
Matthew: I think that’s a primary issue whenever you’re making a portrait. Not that my pictures in Rome are portraits, but they do include that element. [How a person views art] deals a lot more with who the person is, how they see themselves and how they want to project themselves—and do they understand what you are doing? Are they participating in the whole idea or are they just trying to be in your picture? If they are just trying to be in the picture, it never works. It’s tricky. There’s a lot of failure. There are a lot of people you think are going to be really great. Then you take them somewhere—and you think, ‘That’s wonderful; their work revolves around this subject,’ and it’s terrible. It’s a disaster. You waste the entire day. The people who are best are those who really get lost in the process. The more successful photographs were made on the fly or they were heavily set-up to the point where people were exhausted, then they just started looking at the thing and they didn’t care what I was doing anymore.
Erin: Where does fashion or clothing factor into your photographs?
Matthew: One of the things I’m always disappointed in is when someone has too well a curated sense of fashion. In the pictures in Rome, that’s definitely a factor. I always sort of wished that if you made an appointment with somebody, it would be somebody who was maybe wearing some really ugly shoes with maybe a really nice skirt with maybe a mismatched dress, because this is how life really happens. I was just recently doing a job for the architects who did the redesign for Lincoln Center and it involves people passing through the space, so it’s spontaneous in some ways, and the people in Lincoln Center really have one of the best off-kilter senses of fashion. You have ladies waiting in line for scalper tickets and they’re wearing a pair of house slippers and some kind of Patagonia leggings, but they’re also wearing a fur coat.
Erin: Did your project achieve its goal and/or what about the project makes you proud?
Matt: I guess I’m proud of the fact that it’s a lot of work to get access [to the museums]. It’s a lot of emails and it’s a real drag to get these things organized and get permission to bring a big camera into a museum, but I keep doing it and I keep finding it interesting. Most of the pictures are in focus. I don’t really know what I set out to accomplish, but I like the pictures and I still want to take more. It’s part of a continuum and I still find it interesting after nearly five years…so that’s something.
Matthew: Something I love about the touch-tour pictures is that there is something that is totally non-visual, because how do you make photographs of something that isn’t a visual thing, in general?
Matt: I thought a lot about the fact that it seems sort of screwed up to take a photograph of someone who can’t see the photograph but who is experiencing art. Of course everyone knows they’re being photographed, and even though you might not know what a photograph looks like, you know what it is.
Erin: Given that, do the two of you feel there is a shared thread that binds your works?
Matt: Sure, there is the exploration of the modes of perception. That’s definitely the impetus behind both of these projects in some way, though I suppose you could say that about anything…
Matthew: We all spend a lot of time looking at art and [when you do that], you question the process. We were talking about this before… Sometimes you go and see something and you have this great experience, and sometimes you don’t. It’s not always about the art. It is, a lot of times, about you.
Erin: Can you tell me about current influences and projects, and how the projects we’re discussing here have influenced your present work?
Matthew: I’ve started taking pictures of docents, mostly. My wife is writer and very interested in history. She was a docent at the Merchant’s House Museum in Lower Manhattan for quite awhile, and when I got back from Rome I was sort of captivated by this idea of history and the things we think we know but that have to be told. They have to be told in a way that is enticing and interesting and accurate. All these scholars in Rome are constantly talking about the validity of this concept versus this concept; it’s kind of ridiculous on some level, but the narration of stories is really interesting. The more I watch people describe things and try to convince you, the more I realize: This is amazing—these gestural forms people make and the way they contort their faces when explaining which emperor slaughtered more people, or didn’t… So when I came back, I started to try and make these pictures of docents engaged in sort of “fraught” moments of description, but I think I only have two.
Matt: I am photographing church vans that are locked in cages. Two years ago, I moved to Memphis, where I grew up and [where] there are lots of churches. There are churches in rough neighborhoods or [in places] where there isn’t enough money to have a full-time staff, so they lock up their vans in cages with barbed wire around them and they’re usually the exact size of a parking space. I do it at night.
Erin: In curating the images you would show in this exhibition, what led you to select the particular images you did?
Matthew: It’s a little challenging as there are really two parts of the project: There are these funky little weird abstractions of my own observation, which I made largely with this Canon G10 point-and-shoot camera. Some of them are made on film and they’re in all different formats, but all of them are sort of odd, quirky observations. It’s kind of like when you go to a museum and you think you’re going to see this great thing, and then the baseboards in the museum are really weird and you get really caught up in this architectural detail or another random thing—the light fixture or the view… I really wanted to make those super subjective pictures. I think that’s what’s really interesting about looking at things. Then I sort of balanced them against these other pictures of people having their experience. Those I didn’t want to be so much about the space as they were about the people and what was happening to them in that space. So I kind of organized [my images] in a way that you have those pictures and you have the little detailed pictures, and the detailed pictures are smaller. I think they’re like 15 by 20 inches and the pictures of people looking are like 25 by 30 inches.
Matt: I have taken one Touch Tour picture in the last two years, so I put the pictures I had. I know that’s a bad answer. There’s not really much of a difference in the actual form of the pictures so I just picked the best pictures.
Left: Walk, Don’t Walk, 1976, Whitney Museum of American Art, 2011. C-print, 50 x 40 inches. Right: Marie Breath, Rome, Italy, 2009
Archival pigment print, 24 x 30 inches.
Matt Ducklo & Matthew Monteith: Mind’s Eye runs from March 16-April 28, 2012 on the fourth floor of Hermès at 691 Madison Avenue.
Lead Image Left: Notation Leaves, Rome, Italy, 2008. Archival pigment print, 15 x 20 inches. Lead Image Right: Evocation of a Form: Human, Lunar, Spectral (1950, enlarged and cast 1957), Hirshhorn Museum, 2008, C-print, 50 x 40 inches.