Modern Societies I
January 15, 2021
Texas State Galleries (Jan. 19–April 11, 2021)
Single-channel video installation
Exploring what photography historian George Baker has referred to as “photography’s expanded field,” Modern Societies I operates in the liminal format of a moving still image—a play on the genre of still life or nature morte. The video work marks a departure from a technique that Esther Choi began exploring nearly fifteen years ago, wherein the artist photographed “post-natural materials” using medium and large format cameras, and then pieced the photographs together by digitally weaving them to create a pictorial surface of continuous landscapes.
Choi’s conceptual and technical considerations for this new project are informed by her interest in bodegón, a kind of 17th-century Spanish genre painting, wherein everyday objects, often pantry items, were combined in dramatically lit tableaus with elements of nature, such as flowers or fruit, uncooked vegetables, and dead animals. Modern Societies I features sculptural materials derived from enriched wheat, water and salt, performing symbolically as the earliest materials used for modeling as well as the elements constitutive of the staff of life. Arranged in forms that elicit multiple associations to the geological, animal and the botanical, the sculptures operate in a state of representational ambiguity, offering up a commentary on the synthetic and ontologically entangled conditions of nature and culture today. Their performance in the video, set to an audio composition by Allyson Baker, speaks to the status of what it means to create a photograph as a form: the disciplining of liquid, light, paper, plastic and time, operating in elastic tension between animation and stasis.
Choi’s Modern Societies I is an allegory of a moment: created out of a sense of limbo during the pandemic, the piece incorporates sculpture and photography as methods of description intended to mirror the indeterminacy of a contemporary state of being, between entropy, ruin, fecundity and new life.