Off the Wall: Photography Beyond the Frame

by , March 2021
Dayanita Singh, Museum of Shedding, 2016; courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London; © Dayanita Singh; image courtesy Stephen White & Co.

The new exhibition Off the Wall presents photography-based installations that literally move the art off the wall and into the gallery space. The featured pieces by artists Dayanita Singh, Sarah Sze, Oliver Chanarin, Liz Deschenes, and Lieko Shiga aren’t linked thematically, but in how they challenge traditional expectations of photographic display and presentation. The results of these very different approaches and practices are contemplative, intimate, and provocative works that invite viewers to experience photography in fresh and engaging ways.

Singh’s The Museum of Shedding is one of the artist’s “portable museums,” wooden structures that can be reconfigured to display photographs in a method she calls “photo-architecture.” These furniture-like constructions, such as a standing screen, bed, desk, and stool, provide environments and literal frameworks where photographs can be presented, interchanged, and personalized to create an intimately curated museum of the artist’s own making.

In this piece, Singh creates the personal space of an imaginary museum curator, where austere home furnishings are embedded with black-and-white photographs of various buildings taken in her native India. Singh’s work merges private life and work life, while exploring the notion of home as a curated space. It plays off of the Latin word cura, “to care for,” the root for curate — the act of caring for or stewarding, whether artwork, a home, or memories.

Sze’s Images in Translation (2019), a small-scale installation including a table, computer, and projected digital renderings, is a working sketch for her larger Crescent (Timekeeper), where multiple projectors in a dark room display images onto photographs, small pieces of paper, and other objects arrayed on the floor. Together they produce a mesmerizing kaleidoscopic effect that radiates onto the surrounding walls.

As described by Alan Gilbert in a Hyperallergic article, “Sze has always been concerned as much with how things are taken apart as with how they are assembled.” This installation “enables Sze to exert a modicum of control over the anxiety of image and information overload,” but in a way that is engaging to viewers in the dream-like multimedia state it conjures.

“We’re very familiar with the social rules of how to interact with objects that are framed and on the wall,” says exhibition curator Erin O’Toole, Baker Street Foundation Curator of Photography. “But the sense of intimacy that you can feel with an artwork is different when you experience it in your personal space as you move around the gallery.”

Oliver Chanarin, 0006320102 from The Apparatus, 2020; courtesy the artist and Goodman Gallery, London; © Oliver Chanarin

The installation by Chanarin raises this intimacy to another level. The piece combines the automation of modern-day commerce with deeply personal images made by Chanarin in collaboration with his wife, Fiona Jane Burgess, during shelter in place. Before COVID-19 struck, Chanarin had intended to do a photographic survey of contemporary British people—a modern-day take on August Sander’s Citizens of the Twentieth Century, which featured German people circa 1920–1930—but government shutdowns forced him to switch his focus. He began photographing her in their London apartment every morning and night. “This has felt like one of the most personal and intimate experiences of my working life, and that is a direct product of the lockdown and the political forces, which have shaped our response to the pandemic,” he says of their collaboration.

In the gallery, a robotic apparatus designed after the mechanical arms used to stock shelves at Amazon fulfillment centers hangs and re-hangs photographs on rails along gallery walls based on how long visitors look at them, similar to how web page dwell time impacts advertisements on the Internet. Chanarin describes the installation as a reflection on “our everyday experience of images online, in which our attention is claimed as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales.”

These works by Singh, Sze, and Chanarin, which will be accompanied by installations by Lieko Shiga and Liz Deschenes, all use photography in an expanded sense, sometimes breaking out of the frame entirely, and into the larger space of the gallery. “In some cases the artists do so by making the work freestanding, and in others by creating mechanisms that hold pictures away from the wall,” O’Toole says. “But in every case, it’s really about extending the understanding of what photographs can be, and how we relate to them.”

Generous support for Off the Wall is provided by Kate and Wes Mitchell.

Meaningful support is provided by Fundación Botín, Takeo Obayashi, and Eleanor and Francis Shen.

Cristina Chan

Cristina Chan

Cristina Chan is the Managing Editor at SFMOMA.
read more