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Are Virtual Viewing Rooms the Future of Photography?

With museums and galleries closed, the touch-screen world is the only one we have.

By Jesse Dorris

Ray K. Metzker, 59 R-5, Chicago, 1959
© Estate of Ray K. Metzker and courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

They say it’s spring. I should be dreaming and adrift. Instead, I am moored to my Womb chair, which is covered in cat hair. This is the chair in which I used to read, but lately I’ve been watching drone footage of men in white hazmat suits fill a crumbling trench with coffins. I’ve been thinking about Hart Island and anonymous graves, for victims of AIDS in the 1980s, for victims of the coronavirus today. I’ve been thinking of Helène Aylon, who, in 1982, unloaded a truck full of pillowcases, filthy with uranium mine dust, onto stretchers and buried them near the UN headquarters in Manhattan. Aylon called the action Earth Ambulance; she died of COVID-19-related causes earlier this month, on April 6.

Helène Aylon, The Earth Ambulance, 1982
© Estate of Helène Aylon and Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects

The internet was supposed to be everything at once, unfurled on a series of scrolls. Lately, it just feels like peepholes. I watch that drone footage on a browser next to a tab with a long scroll of photos of Aylon’s action; and another of footage from an “Anti-COVID-19 Volunteer Drone Task Force” demanding social distancing above Manhattan’s East River Park; and some porn; and my endless fucking email; and the initial iteration of David Zwirner’s Platform: New York digital viewing room, which gathers artists like Troy Michie and Nathaniel Robinson from a dozen New York galleries and presents a piece of theirs for sale. “Brandon Ndife’s work envisions a post-disaster horizon where vegetal and fungal forms take over our built environments,” reads one sales pitch, “a prescient mirror to our current reality.” It’s preceded by a glamorous headshot of the artist, something you would never see in a gallery IRL, and a new practice that probably doesn’t bode well for artists who are less attractive than their art.

Nathaniel Robinson, Untitled, 2020. Oil on canvas
Courtesy the artist and Magenta Plains, New York

Enough.

The repetitive black boxes on the Zwirner platform make me think of Zoom, and then of Zoe Leonard. I once went cruising and took the train home, blotto, looking at Leonard’s photographs of empty MTA stations that Douglas Crimp reproduced in his memoir Before Pictures, which means it was 2016. I was coming home alone and thinking, Doesn’t Leonard make NYC look lonely? Not ruins, not tombs, just a place built for gathering where nobody does. And now no one can.

Zoe Leonard, from the series Downtown (for Douglas), 2016
Courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, New York

On the Whitney’s website, details of Leonard’s The Fae Richards Photo Archive (1993–96) are part tackboard, part ungridded social-media platform, too small on my screen but still larger than life. Leonard just won a Guggenheim fellowship to carry on work like what she’s offering in The ties that bind, a new Hauser & Wirth online show that—opened? launched? went live? on April 11. One of her works, Untitled Aerial (1988/2008), is a gelatin silver print of something traveling through somewhere. It might be a river winding in the sun, gathering silt. (An electronics wipe clears up nothing on my computer screen as it heightens the contrast of some central flares.) However, there’s no doubt about Chastity Belt (1990–93)—that puts the current lack of sexual congress, for the single or otherwise unbothered, in context.

Zoe Leonard, Chastity Belt, 1990/1993
© the artist and courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Thirty-seven days since a man has touched me in any way, I put my finger on the screen of my phone and push toward a photo my friend has sent me of his two cats. Each furls inside a rather nice MCM wooden bowl. He texts to tell me the cats have already somehow broken other bowls (they’re valuable!) and these might be next. I’m in the viewing room for Wide Open Spaces, a show at Howard Greenberg (which was supposed to close on April 7): a row of Joel Meyerowitz photos taken in a pre-AIDS Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the ocean rumples like sheets and sheets flap like sails; then a Mark Citret image, where light comes through a grate and turns the air into grains of Xerox.

Joel Meyerowitz, Laundry, Provincetown, Massachusetts, 1977
© the artist and courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

Further down, I see Vivian Maier’s Self-portrait, Chicago, early 1960s, a mystery in ice blue and concrete. I am grateful that the website allows me to poke and prod at the photo, to draw it open until I can sort the snow from the grit, the lake from the sky. My fingers are the focus. I go wash my hands.

Vivian Maier, Self-portrait, Chicago, early 1960s
© Estate of Vivian Maier, and courtesy Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

Later, drinking two fingers of whiskey bathed in cubes of frozen ginger pulp (I’ve gone through the lemons), I’m in Paul Graham’s The Seasons digital viewing gallery at Pace, a series of single exposures of Park Avenue bank headquarters. There’s one called SPRING (missing), J.P Morgan Chase, 270 Park Avenue (2018), in which the horizontal stripes of an American flag intersect the vertical steel-and-glass façade, and there are pink trees, like the one outside my window. The 1961 modernist building was designed by Natalie Griffin de Blois—though her bosses at the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill took the credit—and was the tallest building designed by a woman for almost fifty years; JP Morgan Chase was set to demolish it as of January, though now, who knows? Anyway, Graham’s photograph looks good and flat on my screen; it really works. Pace has helpfully labeled it “Available” and listed the price. Maybe a banker will click that pill-shaped Inquire button and buy it for his corner office. If he still has one.

Paul Graham, SPRING (missing), J.P. Morgan Chase, 270 Park Avenue, 2018
© the artist and courtesy Pace Gallery

I hope TV Eye in Ridgewood, Queens, still has its new Zone 6 Art Gallery, so I can someday check out Ebru Yildiz’s high-contrast snaps of women in the music industry. There’s a quick slideshow on Yildiz’s Instagram, but that’s it—and everything on Instagram looks better because we’ve all decided that’s how things look. (Every picture of someone on Instagram makes them look like somebody you might want to drink an iced coffee and walk through the park with. Well, I’m lonely.) I bet Yildiz’s images are beguiling in person. So, too, probably is Naima Green’s Pur·suit, an update of Catherine Opie’s Dyke Deck (1995), playing cards with portraits of people Green’s gallery describes as “queer womxn, trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming.” Green’s pack poses people solo and in groups in front of mauve drapery; their existence is sui generis and the evidence thrills. Her idea is to accompany the deck with open studio hours for further portraiture. The world will be a better place when that resumes.

Naima Green, Kenya+Alexandra, from the series Pur·suit, 2020
Courtesy the artist and Recess, New York

For now, though, we’re all living in the world of the moods, myths, and illusionary schemes Blossom Dearie sang of.

I’m dreaming of throwing my arm around someone as we walk down John Boskovich’s Millennial Hallway, and examine, let’s say, the conversation pieces in his Psycho Salon. When Boskovich’s partner, Stephen Earabino, died in 1995, Boskostudio was born as an LA studio and residence, in which every last inch out of grief had been aestheticized and activated. A lá Joris-Karl Huysmans’s fictional recluse Jean des Esseintes in the novel À Rebours (1884), Boskovitch conceived a retreat to push the limits of his own imagination and—reversing the rarified des Esseints—of a trash aesthetic. Before whenever this now is, only Toshi Yoshimi’s photographs—and the tales of those who claim to have visited—could vouch for the pentagram area rug; chain-link menorah emblazoned with a quote from Jean Genet; black-and-white tiger-stripe, peace-sign bong; and chandelier with leather bondage mask diffusers. David Lewis recently pulled off the infernal task of recreating, on the Lower East Side, four Bokostudio rooms. Who knows when we can enter them again?

Installation view of John Boskovich’s Psycho Salon. Photograph by Phoebe D’Heurle, 2020
Courtesy the artist and David Lewis, New York

There’s some occult perversity in looking at photographs of a space recreated from photographs of a space. It’s alchemical, like a smudge on your thumb from a gold-leaf wrapping of a gold-plated piece of fool’s gold.

The toddler upstairs has been running in circles for thirty-two days now. On Twitter, in the air above quarantined Manhattan, a lightning rod bisects a pink supermoon.

I want to go where I cannot get to.

Jesse Dorris is a writer based in New York and a frequent contributor to Aperture, Metropolis, and Pitchfork.

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