Legacies of the Television Age

Susan Fereday, Anish Kapoor and Borna Sammak abstract television imagery in their work employing analogue broadcast, digital post-production and post-internet techniques respectively. Disrupting ideas of the structure and format of television, the artists use abstraction in varying ways as a method of information analysis. Fereday, Kapoor and Sammak introduce ambiguities that render images illegible, techniques which are antithetical to the realism and documentary qualities otherwise expected of television broadcast.

Since the 1980s Fereday has quietly and intelligently interrogated photography, cameras, lenses and the condition of photography and seeing itself. As artist and writer Jeffrey Fereday wrote, her

evolving conceptual framework has consistently challenged received meanings of representational photography and has informed the development of an abstract photographic aesthetic.1

In the 1989–90 series Value, Fereday dramatically enlarged photographs taken of the television screen, producing the final abstracted images by a process of mediation and distancing using different technologies. She recently described the idea and framework for the production of Value:

When I first saw the [John] Berger TV series Ways of Seeing (1979) at art school in the 1980s, I recall being shocked at the clarity and radicalism of his ideas. No one had spoken so plainly or profoundly about the value of art under capitalism. It was like seeing the Emperor’s New Clothes. Now I couldn’t not see the grubby lure of glamour in oil painting; the cruel display of lack haunting advertising images; the brutal display of women as sight for male pleasure. I felt a huge gratitude to Berger’s intellect and courage.

In Value I was trying to understand photography as the primary medium of mechanical reproduction: not only of fine art, but also of advertising. VCRs were still quite new and offered a way of stopping the flow of electronic imagery for closer examination. I borrowed Berger’s TV series on video from the local library and frame-stopped some of his close-ups of Dutch still-life painting. I focused on the tiny shiny details – wine goblets, fabric, fruit, jewellery – that Berger says engage the visual sense of possession through haptic seduction. When I re-photographed them on the television screen, the paintings’ original texture would merge with the tapestry-like grid of an analogue screen. Blown-out highlights, frame movement and ambiguous blurs would exaggerate the gleams of the objects as originally depicted in oil paint.

Where Walter Benjamin had claimed that the original aura of a work of art is lost by mechanical reproduction, I found that in the era of electronic reproduction another form of aura accrues: one resulting from an increased distance from the original, produced by the spectral, evanescent qualities of the medium itself.2

Artists Patricia Piccinini and Peter Hennessey described viewing the Value series when it was first exhibited in Melbourne in 1989:

There is a fascinating tension between these images’ explicitly referential origins … and their deliberately ambiguous forms. Mediated almost to the point of ‘abstract’ self-signification, half glimpsed and residual references remain trapped within the dual phosphorescences of pixel-grid and emulsion. The tense relationship between Fereday’s products and their source stretches the iconic signifier/signified relationship inherent in photography to breaking point, tearing a space for lateral movement … This transience becomes in itself seductive, since the nature of desire is not predicated on the presence of its object, but on its lack, on the understanding of its absence.3

The physicality of the television set and television broadcasting technologies are also addressed in the Wounds and absent objects project, 1998, by Kapoor. Presented in Transmission as a suite of nine prints, the project was also presented as a video work; both manifestations are representations of pure colour, with a shimmering, pulsing sphere that morphs gradually between colours and between two-dimensional flatness and the illusion of three-dimensional depth. Kapoor was commissioned to create this ‘TV sculpture’ for British Television Channel 4 in 1998. His contribution ‘evolved from experimentation with post-production digital TV equipment. Via electronic matting devices, the artist made an electronic impulse morph into pulsating vividly coloured forms’.4By asking the viewer to stop and watch the television, rather than flick through programs and channels, the project emphasises the sculptural presence of the television set. With this work, as Catherine Elwes has written:

Kapoor attempted to change the grazing viewer into a meditative participant in a quasi-spiritual communion with the solid presence of both colour and the television cube that contained it.5

The flat screen TV in Sammak’s Splash into me yeah, 2014, presents video as a digital canvas. A cacophonous animation of morphing abstracted forms and colours displayed on the screen calls to mind the lurid, high-key colours of Nickelodeon cartoons, lashes of paint in an expressionist painting or a visualisation of catastrophic weather patterns. The computer-generated ‘paint’ splashes across the screen at relentless force, while the screen itself is framed by store-bought pulleys and lime green rope – a common trope in Sammak’s recent work. Whatever references may have inspired or been appropriated into this painterly-type abstraction are beyond recognition, with depth and perception confused and compounded by Sammak’s rendering of digital matter. The bewildering layers of digital images are barely contained on the screen – the ropes and pulleys appear to exist as an attempt to physically restrain the rhythmic ‘splashes’ from moving from between dimensions.
  1. Jeffrey Fereday, ‘The Object of Photography’, in Susan Fereday, The Object of Photography: A Theory of Photography in (my) Pictures, self-published, Melbourne, 2013, pp. 181–2.
  2. Susan Fereday, email to Maggie Finch, 30 March 2015.
  3. Patricia Piccinini & Peter Hennessey, ‘Exhibition review: Value’, Eyeline, Winter, no. 12, 1990, pp. 43–4.
  4. Patrick Elliott, ‘Anish Kapoor’, In Print Contemporary Art from the Paragon Press, <http://visualarts.britishcouncil.org/collection/artists/kapoor-anish-1954/object/untitled-kapoor-1998-wounds-and-absent-objects-p7070>, accessed 17 Dec. 2014.
  5. Catherine Elwes, Video Art: A Guided Tour, I. B. Taurus & Co. Ltd, London, 2006, p. 124.