InventoryMarch 24, 2010
Inventory, an exhibition of work by Miriam Böhm currently on view at Ratio 3, is composed of nineteen Charlie Kaufman-esque photographs of packaged artworks. With their informal styling and close-ups of 2-D artworks prepared for storage, these modestly sized images bring to mind a showcase of ULINE products. They depict corrugated cardboard boxes, archival boxes, neatly taped Kraft paper wrappings, and packages swathed in tissue paper. The containers lean against cellulose-based fiber wallboard, and sit atop a wood surface on scraps of Bubble Wrap or felt. In their crisp presentation and reductive impulse, the photos bear formal integrity. The parcels look like stacked monoliths or Donald Judd’s one-thing-after-another Minimalist forms. Many photographs are compositions in tan, khaki, and brown, recalling Byron Kim’s skin paintings. The Bubble Wrap occasionally has a slightly magenta tint; in this monochromatic context, it’s almost colorful.
The point is not art packaging per se, but back-mounted first-generation photographs, re-arranged in situ and re-shot without glare or surface texture. The result is a delicate picture-within-picture illusion, in which representations of 2-D surface and 3-D space visually intertwine. It’s puzzling. As with an M.C. Escher print, it takes viewers on a roller coaster of perspectival vortices.
Author Jonathan Miller once wrote, “The more we can see on a mirror the less we can see in it.” In relation to Böhm’s work, the more readily we are able to see the first-generation image, the less easily we can see the mounted print bearing it. To perceive the depicted photo, viewers must focus on clues such as the telltale edge of the mounting substrate, its shadow, and the shifts in scale and color. These clues raise questions of fidelity and originality. Direct experience is mediated not once, but twice. A straight reading of Böhm’s photographs of photographs is flummoxed by this representation of mediation. It is meaningful to note Böhm’s economy: she utilizes only one level of re-photography here, thereby avoiding the temptation of nihilistic recursion and trite statements about endless reproducibility. Walter Benjamin’s notion of aura lurks, but it informs the means rather than forms an end.
I imagine Böhm modeled the set after museums’ accessions offices, shooting what essentially amounted to fictive still-life images. There is something amusing about an artist acting as an art worker, letting the viewer peek behind the curtain. The abstract field of discourse, Böhm reminds us, is grounded in the occupational field of institutions. It’s only through the press release that viewers learn that the packages contain artwork. The identity of the artworks—their subject matter, significance, history, and authorship—is opaque and irrelevant. Their archival treatment suggests value, but our view, restricted to packaging, is uniform and mundane. They are shrouded in mystery without affect.
Böhm’s goal, as stated in the press release, is to interrogate “the very nature of the art object; how it is made, perceived, and how we derive meaning from it.” By literally displacing the artwork and presenting representations, Böhm suggests that the superimposition of ideas onto objects and images is often tenuous. These photographs of photographs—this art about art—highlight the gap between idea and object, meaning and form.
Miriam Böhm’s Inventory, along with photographs, collages and prints by Berlin-based artists Katarina Burin, Mathew Hale, and Matt Saunders in the second gallery space, is on view at Ratio 3 in San Francisco through April 24, 2010.
 Jonathan Miller, “On Reflection,” (London: National Gallery Publications Ltd, 1998) p. 12-13.