Seven points of reference for the recent work of Carl Zimmerman, with quotations from the artist.
[First published as a brochure for the Carl Zimmerman exhibition, 14-25 August 1990 at Nova Scotia Photo Co-op Gallery and later expanded into a piece in Charlottetown's Arts Atlantic 39, 1991, 19-20.]
1) Nobody knows exactly what photography is: this was made clear in 1989's big 150-year retrospective exhibitions of photography. Photography's terrain is too big and amorphous to parcel out in a few exhibitions, however huge and ambitious they might be. Personified, photography has a fascist's totality of vision, leaving the traces of its technique on the tiniest silicon chip and the biggest billboard.
What has not been photographed?
There is no doubt that the immediate post-war period in which I grew up was essentially a different world from our present world, a world still bathed in the late afternoon haze of pre-war positivism. If I could categorize the time since, I would say that the cold light of day has exposed the emptiness of almost every ideal.2) The production of billions of photographs results in the dumping of billions of kilos of toxic chemicals into the environment - a James Bay Dam's worth of chemical waste is spewed out by photographic processing companies every year.
While Germany and Italy looked to the past, America looked also to technology and a vision of the future. Dam construction and the development of hydroelectric power under the New Deal (T.V.A.) created the largest structures (up until that time) ever built. These projects were the symbolic American counterparts to Germany's great halls and stadia....3) Zimmerman's installation reminds me of a room for the 'Ark of the Covenant', a secular room meant to stir a viewer's feelings about many forms of power: electrical, fascistic and aesthetic...
The face of technology itself was molded accordingly. The clean windswept lines of 'streamform' styling embodied ideas of speed, power, progress, and the world was redesigned (everything from vacuum cleaners and radios to cars and trains) according to the futurist aesthetic. The theme achieved its zenith at the World of Tomorrow World's Fair in New York in 1939....4) He affixes photographs to individual bases ('tiered structures' and 'hydrostats') - handcrafted things made of lead, plywood, paint, etc., placed on a wood slatted base. This structure: table, base, and photograph, like Brancusi's series of plinths, elevates photographs as objects, and carries the viewer through a procession of viewing as the support of a photograph is built up and transposed into a stepped reliquary.
America, no less than Germany or the Soviet Union, built a dream of along the Biblical proportions of a new Jerusalem: one has to consider the 'naïvete´' of these evangelical promises and impossible expectations....5) The gently rounded, streamlined elegance of Zimmerman's 'hydrostats' bespeaks a pre-war era of speed and weight (however quaint it may seem today), the 1930's and 1940's, an era when sheer scale, as embodied in the hydro projects of America and Russia, was readily comprehensible. By contrast, no individual can imagine the scale of contemporary life.
The development of dams and water systems, once emblematic of the rise of this and former eras, now represents the complexity of current economic and environmental concerns....6) To some photographers, Zimmerman's objects might read like overwrought frames or ponderous vehicles, especially seeing as they are being exhibited in a photo gallery. The work of the artist Alan Belcher, who also makes photo/objects, may come to mind. Zimmerman's shrine to power is constructed in the language of Minimalism, and attempts to express the artist's misgivings about an object of worship.
Although I was essentially not interested in the basic tenets and direction of minimalism, minimalism seemed to accommodate alternate readings for me; minimalist reductiveness, minimalism's concern for materials and integrity of approach begin to make sense in terms of my own experience and environment (living rural Cape Breton). In many ways the minimalist program offered to uncover the essential self, the essential community...7) Zimmerman's evocation of Stalinesque or New Deal power generation suggests a transaction wherein what is thought to be the limitless generosity of nature is wrestled into use by means of limitless supplies of cheap (even slave) labour. The Stalin-ruled workers of the Soviet Union and North American Depression-era work-camp labourers figured too heavily in utopian power schemes. Zimmerman consolidates a number of misgivings about several kinds of power in this exhibition.