Saturday, 15 May 2010

An Analogue Art of Seeing

An Analogue Art of Seeing
By Charley Peters
Exhibition Essay for 'Where Time Gathers' by Dan Fontanelli
Menier Gallery SW1 1RU, 12 May–16 May 2009

The temporal art of Dan Fontanelli gives us a monochromatic vision of the inner city through an explosive mash up of photography, painting, screen printing and the space in between. Using imagery captured on photographic film on long walks through back streets and alleys in London, Fontanelli’s multi-layered photographic assemblages are developed into painted and printed surfaces over long periods of time, sometimes taking years for an artwork to be fully realised. His work records the textures, surfaces and ephemera of the city where the passage of time and shifting geographies tell stories and reveal mysteries in equal measure.

Where Time Gathers is the culmination of a two-year period of production, during which time Fontanelli has created a series of works exploring his personal dialogue with contemporary urbanism. The works are characterised visually by repetitive screen prints of the iconography of modernity—mass transportation, printed media and mechanisation, overlaid with areas of paint executed with the rawness and fluidity of graffiti. In a time when digital processes are a common aid to mainstream photographic production, the works in Where Time Gathers are made using more hands-on methods. Espousing Fontanelli’s work as ‘a rare example of authentic photography in an age of digital fauxtography’, curator of Where Time Gathers Eddie Otchere, a freelance curator of photography who has previously produced exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery and Southbank Centre, was first drawn to the work through its unashamed use of analogue processes. Otchere explains, ‘the noughties have seen a large-scale migration from paper to pixel, which I have started to see as being to the detriment of visual connoisseurship. When I first saw Dan’s work I was struck by the old skool attitude to visual production—it was like revisiting the warm sound of vinyl after listening to the sterility of MP3s for years.’

In 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (1936) Walter Benjamin commented on the destruction of the aura of authenticity as plurality of copies substituted for unique artifacts. The process of experiencing reality is modified through new technologies of production. Digital media compress time and space, making it possible to generate a photographic record at the touch of a button and eliminating the physicality of the image from a frame on a negative to a series of pixels existing on an LCD screen. Fontanelli rejected using digital photographic processes from the start of Where Time Gathers in favour of a return to the traditional, embedding the record of his journeys through inner city London with the visual noise of film. Otchere maintains that, ‘we are living in an age where the photographic image increasingly exists only in a virtual sense, young photographers I have worked with have never used film or even been in a dark room. I’m not opposed to technological progress, but I do fear the imminent death of photographic language.’ The work of Fontanelli turns society’s thirst for ceaseless development and technological progress on its head, presenting multiple images of modernity by using processes that pre-date our current understanding of photography.

Where Time Gathers also suggests an allegorical link between the process of Fontanelli’s art production and the current condition of the city. Increasingly the urban environment has come to be understood metaphorically, through schemes of other provinces of human experience that are projected onto the more ambiguous notion of the city. Our cultural perceptions of the contemporary city are indicative of an anthology of metaphors; influenced by our histories, our technologies, and our experiences of time and place. In the contemporary city, the technological revolution has been characterised by improvements in transportation and communication systems. In turn these aspects reduce the limitations of space, making the city easier to navigate and faster to traverse than ever before. The collapse of distance and time in terms of our understanding of the city is explored by Fontanelli during his passage through London on foot. Rebuffing the use of main roads, maps and transport, Fontanelli wanders, like Baudelaire’s flâneur, through the city in order to experience it, regarding what he sees and recording all as texts. The flâneurship of Fontanelli has developed over years of experience in street photography, during which time he honed an observer-participant dialectic through his work—negotiating, surveying and understanding the city through the lens of his camera. This in turn is symptomatic of the contemporary city; CCTV cameras in London can capture one person’s image as many as 300 times a day. Fontanelli’s analogue art of seeing reminds us that although technologies may change, the city and all within it are constantly under scrutiny, and the indelible traces of our passage through the urban space remain long after we have gone.

Where Time Gathers presents a materialised experience of the inner city. The fingerprints of contemporary urbanism are evident on the surfaces of Fontanelli’s canvases as a synthesis of disparate yet familiar symbols, re-assembled to create a non-linear map of a undisclosed journey. The works are a fragmented view of reality, a personal record of an artist’s travels through the back streets of London. Moreover, they are also a form of visual shorthand for a universal encounter with the city and the traces of modernity that surround us; aeroplanes, newspapers, cogs and clocks. We may all paint our own pictures of what the city is but some things will remain constant—technology, movement and noise, all of which we see in the work of Fontanelli. In 'On Photography' (1977) Sontag describes how, since the development of hand-held cameras in the early 20th century, the photographer is an‘armed’ version of the lone walker who is skilled in the arts of watching and investigating. In Where Time Gathers, Fontanelli has perfected an art practice imbued in the traditions of street photography and removed from visual culture’s current love affair with digital technologies; he is ‘armed’ with an understanding of photography that Otchere describes as, ‘honest and true. When Fontanelli takes his camera for a walk, he means it.’

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