Wordweary at Bas Fisher Invitational
I found out about Tao Rey’s Instagram account the same way I find out about most cool art stuff—Domingo Castillo told me. This bit of Miami art news was initially striking because at the time (and probably still), Domingo didn’t even have a smartphone capable of viewing Instagram. Compounding my surprise was the fact that though I knew of Rey’s artwork and his involvement with “the House,” I had never seen him show any of his own artwork anywhere ever.
For the most part, my experience of looking at Instagram feels like “check out my baby and teacup poodle at the farmers market in 1922.” But Tao Rey is one of the few people I follow whose account occupies a singular place in his production as an artist. Obviously not intended as a promotional tool, and too concise to be casual, wordweary is a distinct rarity.
Writing in pre-iPhone times, Susan Sontag (aka the boss of image theory), discusses photographs as tangible paper objects (ha!), and identifies books as the most “influential way of arranging (and usually miniaturizing) photographs”, though in her view, books are “still… not a wholly satisfactory scheme for putting photographs into general circulation.”
She points to a film by Chris Marker from 1966 (available here if you speak French) that forces the viewer to experience the still images as Marker dictates. Various still images grace the screen for a proscribed amount of time accompanied by the filmmaker’s narration and textual interludes. According to Sontag, while this method for presenting images is pretty rad, the images unfortunately “cease to be collectible objects.”
If only Sontag was here now to encapsulate the uninterrupted and intangible transmission of digital photographs to web applications like Instagram and Facebook. Negatives are old news and the sharing of images on Instagram is implied in the act of taking a photograph. For better or for worse, the social aspect of photography is more pronounced than ever before.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s for the better (note: most of my friends don’t have babies yet). As Katia Rosenthal mentions in the press release for the show, having left Miami for frigid Chicago makes the wordweary feed all the more bittersweet. I personally revel in the snippets of landmarks and buildings isolated by Rey’s cropping and focus. The many birds that appear in his feed were practically my only exposure to wildlife during the winter months (unless you count subway rats, which I do not). Turns out I wasn’t the only ex-pat finding solace in wordweary. I felt a slight thrill when a high school friend living in Chicago asked if I knew the Instagram users wordweary and bhaktimar (the alias of Rey’s colleague, Bhakti Baxter) “IRL.”
In fact, I had known Tao Rey for quite awhile, since my time working for Dimensions Variable around the corner from Rey’s old (now demolished) studio in the Design District. Rey’s artwork prior to wordweary dealt primarily with text, and more specifically, graffiti. Recycled from his earlier textual work, the phrase, “Word Weary,” succinctly describes Rey’s transition to photography.
Formal and austere, wordweary is devoid of the food pix, #selfies and memes that clutter Instagram like highly saturated bits of litter. Rey’s small square images are sensitively considered abstractions of the rich visual information he encounters on his daily excursions through the city of Miami. According to the artist, many of these photographs were taken from the seat of his bicycle. It’s about the tiny details; a streetlight enveloped by an overgrown bush, a meandering chain-link fence. Piles of trash transformed into minimal and elegant compositions.
Recently while visiting home for a wedding, I was delighted to discover that Rey was hosting a Weird Miami Bus Tour inspired by the exhibition of his photos at Bas Fisher Invitational beginning with a walkthrough of the gallery with the artist himself. Perfect.
When I arrived at BFI there was a small crowd milling about the space waiting for the Weird Miami tour to being. Having left Miami for Chicago just as BFI was moving from their old space in the Design District to the their new location in the Downtown ArtHouse (formerly Captain Harry’s Fishing Supply), the new gallery still feels like uncharted ground. Mirroring the phone app, the gallery’s open and industrial walls contained a horizontal strip of perfectly aligned square photos. I pictured the gallery wall as the screen of a gigantic cell phone.
The wide and colorful grid looked like pixels across the white drywall. While the experience of seeing photographs in an exhibition could never replicate the feeling of seeing them on your phone, in bed, or on the el and vice versa, there was definitely a pleasing affinity. While the iPhone experience of the images is spectacular in it’s commonness, the exhibition granted the circumstances for overdue celebration of Rey’s photographic accomplishments. From the 584 posts taken over about a year and a half and posted on his Instagram feed, Rey paired the selection down to 200 that were printed and edited to the 160 used in the final installation. The images are chronologically ordered from left to right, but it doesn’t matter. Each is equally arresting in it’s own right. There are no throwaways.
The exhibition is peppered with the assorted themes that make the Instagram feed so interesting. What all the images share is something Rey described as an “honest moment.” As far as I know, Rey isn’t professionally trained in photography, though it’s noteworthy that his ideas on photography resonate deeply with Henri Cartier-Bresson, who originated the idea of the “decisive moment” as a way to describe the elegant convergence of space and time in the creation of a successful photograph.
Honest or decisive, either type of moment is difficult, if not impossible, to catch. Snapping just one great moment would be a feat worthy of praise. Try the 500+ plus that make up wordweary. The selection of images feels almost supernatural, as if rays of light and seagulls know instinctively to line up in perfect formation in the presence of Rey’s iPhone. More likely though, is that everyday life is teeming with these fleeting moments, and Rey just has the good sense to pay attention and let it unfold. One might expect that the massive proliferation of cameras throughout the modern world would render these moments more obvious though, unfortunately, most users appear to be more absorbed by their own indulgence than the magic realism just beyond the flower in your latte.
Or, maybe he’s just that good.
Walking into the exhibition space, the first thing I noticed was the blue vinyl letting on the beat up loading-zone wall. In keeping with Rey’s knack for precise incidental alignment, the words are comfortably situated between smudges that underline and punctuate the title. As with the photos in the show, everything just fits.
The first set of 9 images arranged in a square on the short wall of the exhibition space are the most recent, just as you would see them if you were in the app. A dapper man sits in a cluttered City of Miami bus stop, absentmindedly mimicking the Stuart Weizman ad behind him. Another photo features the biggest nest I’ve ever seen, with a hawk-like bird oddly visible through the fog.
There’s also the image of a monk taking a photo on the path of Shark Valley, with a small alligator creeping up from the bottom right hand corner of the frame.
Sandwiched right in between the bus stop and the monk is an image so exuberant you could swear that it’s moving. A bright blue motorcycle leaps into the composition from the upper right hand corner at an angle so dramatic it’s impossible not to extrapolate its movement in your mind. The peach and orange building it’s poised to crash into balances the color and weight of the composition.
In his monograph from 1952, The Decisive Moment, Cartier-Bresson said, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”
No doubt Rey’s Instagram feed functions in the same way. Like the evocative motorcycle photograph, each image is triangulated according to Cartier-Bresson’s definition. Despite their situation on a phone app where images move briskly through the feed, Rey’s images resonate. One look isn’t enough, and many of the images Rey posts have prompted me to consider and then reconsider what is going on in the frame. This is especially true in the images where Rey juxtaposes his subjects in the foreground against busily printed advertisements, creating a confounding depth.
The image stream continued across the walls of the gallery. Like a greatest hits record, the walls were filled with images I remembered from the feed, while others made me wonder how I had missed them. Favorites of mine include the image of a sidewalk and walkway where the fence had slowly carved white concentric circles into the beigey-gray concrete. There’s also the most characteristic image of a construction worker perfectly positioned under the claw of an excavator and the synchronized seagulls lined up in a triangular formation in the center of the composition. Never one to take himself too seriously, Rey even threw in a #tbt (“throwback Thursday”) image of the artist as young man with his family.
While I’m thrilled I had the chance to see the exhibition and talk about it with Rey in person, reflecting on both the brick-and-mortar and in-app experiences of wordweary has lead me to realize that what is exceptional about these photographs is their unmediated presentation in the digital realm. Rey’s images float freely amongst the #selfies, Rick Rosses, and the flotsam and jetsam of daily life.
When questioned about his intentions with the wordweary feed, Rey responded, “I thought I was doing what everyone else is doing and I still think that.” He admitted feeling anxiety about trying to learn the names of all his followers and pointed to his friends in Miami, on Instagram or not, as the inspiration for his photographs. I imagine Bhakti Baxter’s and Rey’s tandem Instagram feeds and commentary back and forth as a 21st century version of Picasso and Braque’s friendly painting rivalry.
One thing Sontag might have appreciated about wordweary is its firm position outside of the prying interpretations of the canonical art world. I view his images daily without preparing myself to have an “art experience.” I don’t have to go anywhere; the images are immediately accessible, even routine. Despite their humble presentation, they’re no less captivating than when shown in a gallery. Glancing at Instagram while I wait for the bus, it’s too cold to extract hidden metaphors from my feed. It’s all I can bear just to see.
In 1966’s On Interpretation, Sontag wrote, “The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and, by analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.”
It is what it is because of where it is. Without the pressure of meaning and context, Rey is free to post images of whatever he pleases without having to justify them later, or even worse, having someone else impose their own justifications. He detains life’s fugitive movements and is gracious enough to share. It is awesome and I hope he never stops.
PS- I thought a list of other really wonderful Instagram accounts I follow might be appropriate here:
@danabassett (me duh)
@Bhaktimar (Bhakti Baxter)
@Caspersamples (Joel Dean)
@Jessikurrrrrrrrrrrr (Jessica Gispert)
@oscararroila (Oscar Arriola)
@thisispaulc (Paul Cowan)
@Diegoleclery (Diego Leclery)
@Clayhickson (Clay Hickson)
@Carsonfiskvittori (Carson Fisk Vittori)
@Llaauurreeen (Lauren Anderson)
@rajivpinro (Rajiv Pinto)
@Anjalipinto (Anjali Pinto)
@loganjaffe (Logan Jaffe)
@Tuskchicago (Maryeleanor Wallace/ TUSK)
Tao Rey – Wordweary ran from September 20th to October 26th, 2013 at BFI.
Written by Dana Bassett.