To place a poultice on desire’s empty gape
Fifteen years ago, I made a series of staged photographs, nine in all, that conjured a thing I had invented—a person, a proxy, a golem—that could carry out specific tasks and embody certain sentiments in a kind of psychological land of make-believe. I have agreed to return to the “Understanding Joshua” series for this publication, to peer over my shoulder to when I was twenty-seven and discuss where these images came from and what I think of them now.
In the sliver of time between the euphoria of the new millennium and the horror of two towers tumbling into the granite from which they once rose was the solitary, nearly erased year 2000. To recall it with clarity is to scalpel off the cataracts that trauma has formed on a nation’s psyche. The 20th century was over, but as we now know, the 21st had yet to commence. This was the moment before: before terror, before ongoing war, before governmental spying on citizens, before the unceasing droughts and risen oceans. The year 2000 was a rare and placid island. Fantasies require such stability, and at that moment in time, it was possible to pretend that the center might hold.
Looking back, the “Joshua” photographs attest to such an immature vision. But what they lack in profundity, they seem to compensate for in the perverse, laying bare particular anxieties and concerns I had housed for many years. Time is a force, much like gravity: as we age, we shelter, withdraw, and compartmentalize our desires. The libido no longer shapes the contours or fills the crevices of our actions and presentation. Instead, its cleaved mandibles retract and tuck neatly under whatever uniform of labor or cloak of parenthood we bear. Freud’s “quantitative magnitude,” Jung’s “psychic energy,” are carefully shackled, harnessed, underfed and left to attrition. The libido becomes an invited guest rather than the sordid intruder. It’s a loss we undergo for some other gain—a trade-off of sorts.
The “Joshua” photographs were fully realized projections through which I was able to craft my own meditations on interiority. In their ham-fisted and clunky staging, they were fashioned in the flat space of pornography’s corner sets and artifice—an aesthetic learned in the 4:3 aspect ratio drawn from cassette viewings of Ginger Lynn traipsing across a flimsy Gregory Dark set piece. The photographs were a translation and transposition of a familiar place where there is no fake, a base product so low it has no counterfeit. As such, they ultimately gained a second life online as something novel and without origin—a pictorial mystery unhitched from whatever fragile anchor kept them within the realm of art. One image, which has spread widely for more than a decade, now traffics the Internet within a field of black in the style of a motivational poster, branded with the puerile language of the web: “WELCOME TO THE INTERNET, WE’VE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU.”
There is a sadness to it all, something post-coital, flaccid and desolate. Its weakness only weakens it further. Can I hate these photographs without hating myself? That seems a logical question, and it loops every time the images reappear, like viewing the half-lidded mug shot of a tattered stranger only to realize it is you. But I can’t dislike them, simply because I know too well what they are. The answer to understanding them requires a renewed relation to the photograph. The image must be understood as a temporal object, and each of these photographs is a scene scaled to a clip, the clip to a loop, and the loop to a still in an elaborate paring down—a honing that allows for no ornamentation between the viewer and that being viewed. Here, the recurrence of what Barthes defined as “that accident which pricks, bruises me” cannot be avoided.
I see it now. The “Joshua” series was never truly addressing itself to the photographic, or to the cinematic, or even to narrative. It was a series of clips—and as such, the measure of its meaning is no more within photographic vernacular than would be the meanings of the glossy images on a VHS sleeve, or the “family portrait” for a leading sitcom on the cover of TV Guide. So perhaps its online life is fitting. Certainly, the Internet is now a location in itself, so different from fifteen years ago, when it was little more than an orphanage for unremarkable oddities. Within this realm, I believe that these works salve desire’s empty gape and tend to the hairline fractures caused by the urges of the past. I bear such hatred toward these photographs, and yet I grapple with my uncomfortable fondness for them as well.
Charlie White (American, b. 1972) is an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. He is represented by François Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles and Loock Galerie, Berlin. He will have a solo presentation with François Ghebaly Gallery at Frieze London in October, as well as a solo exhibition at the gallery in 2016.
Images: Charlie White, Sherri's Living Room; Fantasy; Her Place; Ken's Basement; Getting Lindsay Linton From the series Understanding Joshua (2001). Courtesy of the artist and François Ghebaly, Los Angeles