Energetic Photograms (Robert Buelteman)
From the curators: Since 1999, artist Robert Buelteman has created images by passing high voltage electric current through various specimens of flora native to different regions of North America. His process needs no camera, lenses, or post-production computer wizardry to achieve the final, hypnotic result. In the 1999–2000 series Through the Green Fuse (its title taken from Dylan Thomas’s 1933 poem of the same name) and Sangre de Cristo (2006), Buelteman’s process creates an aura or halo around plant leaves and petals arranged against photographic plates. His camera-less approach is not new—both Anna Akins’s exquisite cyanotypes from the mid-19th century and, as Geoffrey Batchen notes below, Kirilian photography indicate long precedent. The connection between the act of photography and the unsettling, shocking qualities we associate with death and dying is also well established. Camera Lucida (1980), Roland Barthes’ famous meditation on the nature of photography and the death of his mother, poetically confirms that each photograph is resounding evidence of that “that has been.” Just like Buelteman’s plant life.
Can a plant scream? These ones have been sliced into paper-thin sections and then electrocuted with 40,000 volts, leaving behind a colorized trace, a photogram. The violence seems obvious, but why regard these photographs as an example of design? Perhaps because these particular photographs are hand-crafted objects in every aspect, objects that have been made, not taken. In any case, it’s not the first time that The Museum of Modern Art has declared a photographer to be a designer. In June 1936 the Museum allowed Edward Steichen to present three galleries full of delphinium flowers, gathered by the photographer from his estates in Connecticut and displayed in vases in conjunction with an ongoing exhibition of Modern Exposition Architecture. During a period of eight days, Steichen showed various groups of blooms—some garden hybrids of pure blue self-colors and fog and mist shades, then another selection of the same, and finally some unusually tall elatum strains, amounting in total to about 1,000 delphinium stalks. Steichen saw his blooms as creative examples of genetic engineering, ruthlessly cross-breeding his plants (and therefore destroying many in the process) and using a drug called colchicine to increase their chromosome count and turn diploids into tetraploids. These stalks were designed, not just grown. But any exhibition of cut blooms can’t help but also be a meditation on mortality and the ephemeral nature of life. Sacrificed in the interests of both science and art, Steichen’s delphiniums were killed by his always meticulous adoration and by our desire to look.
Buelteman’s blooms have suffered the same fate. Having already been vivisected, we see them radiating their means of execution, as if surrounded by an aura of fire. Such images cannot help but recall the electrocution of human beings, a distinctively American spectacle. In 1997, flames burst from the head of Pedro Medina while he was being electrocuted in Florida. Apparently this was not enough to have it regarded as a “cruel and unusual punishment,” with the electrocution of criminals being undertaken in Virginia as recently as 2013. The electric chair that makes this possible was designed by employees of Thomas Edison in 1888, in part to demonstrate the dangers of adopting alternating current rather than the direct current favored by Edison. Many animals were killed in public exhibitions to underline this commercially advantageous point, most notoriously Topsy the elephant in 1903, who was filmed while being electrocuted at Luna Park, near Coney Island. The New York Daily News published a photograph of the electrocution of Ruth Snyder in 1928; more recently, photographs of electrocuted criminals have also been distributed on the Internet. These photographs by Buelteman therefore join a long-established traffic in images of death by electricity, images that horrify and fascinate in about equal measure.
The horror is accentuated in these examples by their colorization, an additional treatment by the artist that has an ambiguous purpose. Color is traditionally associated with beauty and life, even with the natural. But the color here is unreal, almost electric in its extremity of tone (the same, by the way, was said of Steichen’s artificially induced delphinium hues). If pain has a color, then this is what it would look like. The Kirlian photography adopted by Buelteman (a procedure known since the 1880s but associated by name with the experiments of Russian electrical engineer Semyon Kirlian and his wife Valentina in 1939) means his photographs are of electricity, or at least of its effects on his chosen botanical specimens. They flare with an inner light, as if emitting an energy field, a field the Kirlians imagined could offer an insight into the physical and emotional state of their subjects. This coronal discharge has a more scientific explanation, of course, but still, the Kirlians’ diagnostic speculations have an undoubted appeal. They promise to make visible what is otherwise beyond sight, to allow photography to venture beyond its obstinate dedication to the recording of surfaces and appearances and become the perfect medium. But all this is achieved only at the cost of an intervention in which an illusion of inner life masks the spasmodic death of that same subject. Buelteman’s photographs allow us to enjoy electrocution without having to feel complicit with its consequences. As luxury goods made for a market deeply invested in such enjoyments, they represent yet another American instance of designer violence.
March 20, 2014, 3:45 am
There are people whom these images would clearly upset and offend, in the same way (or a similar way) Adel Abdessemed’s work has upset people. The interesting thing is the visualization of “pain,” as we anthropomorphize these plants (do we know if plants feel pain?). The flip side of this is the erasure of any visual marker. For instance, it has recently come to light that the reason photographs of Osama bin Laden’s corpse have not been released is that he was shot over one hundred times. In other words, his executors took too much pleasure in killing him. The results, in a sense, were as “ugly” as the unrestrained action.
March 20, 2014, 9:22 am
Hi Geoffrey thanks for a great post. I am reminded of Luigi Galvani’s early studies in bioelectricity – he found in 1771 that that dead frogs would twitch when struck by a spark, and if I recall correctly this led to false reports of electrically revitalized human corpses in medical literature. Mary Shelly was familiar with this when she wrote Frankenstein in 1818, and while she didn’t name the electrocution method at the birth of the monster, she did describe the doctor being witness to electricity’s potential when he saw a tree get struck by lightning. (And electrical revitalization of man-made monsters became stock theme in later film adaptations of Frankenstein.) I see the violence and spasmodic death that you describe in these pictures, but I also see rousing vivification …
March 21, 2014, 1:44 am
You have to be kidding? Worried about electrocuting plants? It’s art, not violence. It’s color and vibrance, not a Frankensteinian reanimation experiment. There is no more spasmodic death here than in a caesar salad. Lighten up and sit back and look at the pretty pictures.
March 21, 2014, 6:53 pm
Electricity = Death?
I pity the author that he may never enjoy a walk though a forest in the autumn. For him, it must be like walking through a concentration camp, littered with the corpses of dead and decaying leaves.
Let me correct myself. Leaves don’t die. They are organs of the tree or plant from which they came. The tree lives. Think of them as the fingernail clippings of a much more complex organism.
In both pieces above, we see the leaves on display, not a living organism nor anything that was once alive.
I can’t imagine what the author eats, for even the most morally strict vegans would have to at least pluck a leaf to keep from dying.
March 21, 2014, 11:25 pm
The artistry of the pictures is wonderful and to make “violence” a part of the title is amazing. It makes even vegetarians sound awfully cruel.
March 21, 2014, 11:37 pm
Some critics like to think they know what they're talking about
I was aghast at the comparisons made to human electrocution in regard to Rob Buelteman’s amazing work. This is not to also mention the misinformation also included (“paper thin sections…eviscerated” they are not), but rather individual leaves or flowers that have come in many cases from Rob’s own garden. I believe some people become critics so they can pontificate, rather than enlighten.
March 22, 2014, 6:38 am
Design and Violence
SHAME on you MOMA! You’ve completely missed the point of this man’s life work. I suggest you redeem yourself with a retraction and an apology. Sad…just sad!!
March 22, 2014, 3:19 pm
That's the point
Provoking string reactions–in favor, against, as a consequence–in order to fine-tune out understanding of violence and its manifestations in contemporary society is exactly the purpose of this website. We have tremendous respect for Buelteman’s work and that is why we have chosen to feature it. Its strength, incisiveness, and quite honestly, its tremendous form lead us to update our idea of the sublime, of romantic, terrifying beauty. We see Buelteman not as the object of our criticism or judgment, but rather as a precious partner in a quest.
Thank you for being part of this.
March 22, 2014, 5:51 pm
These ugly imaginative comments have nothing to do with the images, and everything to do with the responses of viewers who should know better. They seem to begin with the curator’s “connection between the art of photography and the unsettling, shocking qualities we associate with death and dying.” The critic then adds a collection of inappropriate loaded negatives – “vivisected,” “electrocuted,” “images of death,” “horror,” “pain,” and “viewers complicit in crime,” These comments have nothing to do with the art, and everything to do with the critic’s personal responses. I think curator and critic should be ashamed to admit and print such unwarranted opinions.
March 22, 2014, 6:45 pm
eauty and energy of
I know Rob and his work. I know that he has a great love and commitment to the environment. I see this reflected in his photographs which i see as HONORING nature and the beauty, energy, mystery of plants. I think this take on his work is off. I do not see violence when i see a beautiful vase of flowers, yet they are “cut flowers.”
March 23, 2014, 12:18 am
Vibrant, not violent
How amazingly crass and uninformed for this writer to compare Robert Buelteman’s vivid, light-filled photograms of plants to electrocution. His technique is unique and the resultant prints are compellingly beautiful.
MOMA should offer Buelteman an exhibition, not an absurd analogy.
March 24, 2014, 11:24 pm
A discussion worth having
Thank you to everyone who has contributed comments so far. Collectively, many of these comments seem to bear on two main issues: the role of criticism and the function of works of art and design. Criticism is not art appreciation (every observer is capable of appreciating a given work in their own terms). Criticism considers a work’s contribution to the larger culture, entering into a dialogue with the work and with its web of references and implications. It assumes, therefore, that every work of art or design exceeds the maker’s own intentions or understandings. In this case, we have a set of photographs made in a very singular way, by running 40,000 volts of electricity through plant specimens, and in a very singular place—the only country in the world that executes its own citizens by a similar means. I chose to imagine that these photographs, as acts of critical design, could be about both a celebration of the beauty of nature and about their own means of production and its social, historical and even political ramifications. This assumption is not a derogatory one; on the contrary, it allows for the possibility that design and art actually have important things to say to us, beyond a capacity to delight the eye or confirm established aesthetic tastes. It also allows for debate, for the possibility that works of art might have many meanings (and that those meanings are not static and eternal). Finally, it draws attention to a concern that is surely central to any debate about violence in the United States—the fact that the U.S. is the only First World nation that still imposes capital punishment on convicted criminals, thus answering private acts of violence with state-endorsed ones. This is surely a discussion worth having.
March 25, 2014, 8:58 pm
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[…] “These photographs by [Robert] Buelteman therefore join a long-established traffic in images of death by electricity, images that horrify and fascinate in about equal measure.” Geoffrey Batchen • Design and Violence / MoMA […]
April 13, 2014, 5:03 pm
I’m afraid I am coming to this party long after the band has gone home and the lights have been turned off. That said, I think that the commentary is a very interesting dialogue about the intent and reception of criticism. Geoffrey Batchen’s commentary lead me in a very different direction from where I expected to go and introduced me to a totally unexpected way of thinking about these photographs. Personally, I find this very positive. It did not, however, give me a better understanding or appreciation of why I should like, dislike, engage with, or think about the photographs themselves. And that, too, is (should be?) often a function of criticism.
April 16, 2014, 1:44 am
Criticism and its functions
Thanks for your comment Glenn. Like and dislike can, I think, be left to each individual to determine. You say yourself that my commentary “introduced me to a totally unexpected way of thinking about these photographs.” But you seem to distinguish this outcome from criticism that leads you to “think about the photographs themselves.” A lot seems to hang on this last word. How could one separate a thinking about the photographs from a thinking about the photographs themselves?
July 18, 2014, 8:38 pm
As someone who has followed and very much admired Robert Buelteman’s work for many years, I find this commentary to be completely and utterly absurd. What is more, I find it to be a perfect example yet another critic spouting an “out of the box” opinion just because (they think) they can. This gives art commentary a bad name.
When I view these images and Mr. Buelteman’s others, I see a visual representation of life, of the deep, beautiful complexity of living. Making the connection between these images and the horror of electrocuting humans — because both processes use electricity?!? seriously? — well, there’s no other word for it than “absurd.” Is public discourse regarding capital punishment valuable? Sure. But in the context of discussing works of art that inspire and celebrate life? Ridiculous. MoMA, I would have expected better. Thank you for highlighting the incredible work of this artist, but next time you choose to do so, please have something reasonably intelligent to say.
January 7, 2016, 2:04 pm
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Hello! I could have sworn I’ve visited this site before but after looking at many of the posts I realized it’s new to me. Regardless, I’m certainly delighted I discovered it and I’ll be book-marking it and checking back regularly!