— Talking Heads, "Once In A Lifetime" (1981)
The photography of artist David Boyce is infused with a self-awareness of its own fallibility – the very nature of identity. All human experience, perception, identity and memory are subject to fallibility and editing. Is anything objectively real, or as René Descartes argued, cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am”? Philosophers from Immanuel Kant to Bishop Berkeley have struggled with that question of whether there is such a thing as existing knowledge, whether everything continues to be there when we can’t see it. A similar argument finds application in Quantum Mechanics. Recently scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison were even able to use stem cells to transplant memories in mice. Photography is supposed to be an infallible record of time and place, of identity and memory. For many years Eastman Kodak’s slogan was “we capture your memories,” but even that is subject to the whim of the photographer’s judgement - even more so since the arrival of digital imaging technology. There is no such thing as a photographic memory, nor would it seem there is such a thing as a photographed memory. Who are we? Do we actually know?
Born in New Zealand, Boyce has been living in Hong Kong since 2006. He studied history at the University of Victoria, Wellington and having largely taught himself the techniques and theories of his art, has exhibited in New Zealand, Hong Kong and the United States and his works are held in a number of private, public and corporate collections in New Zealand, North America, Europe and Asia. Boyce took up photography because in his own words:
“I often joke that I am too ADHD to paint or draw. In part I think that has a grain of truth in it. I have always been drawn to the potential immediacy of photography. I started using a camera in my teens as a way to document what was around me, and, at the time I was influenced by both documentary photography and Dada. I wanted to not be a traditional painter or sculptor, but someone who used a more mechanical means of creating. I have continued, generally reasonably contented, down this path ever since, even if the desire to make documentary work has been replaced by other creative desires.”
Boyce’s photographic career is very much bound up in these issues of identity, reality, perception and memory, based around two broad themes: the exploration of spirituality and language, and an attempt to uncover beauty in the everyday world. In Mixed Message (a joint exhibition with Ling Lai at YY9 Gallery, Hong Kong, 2010) for example, Boyce elliptically tells a story through images. In total contrast to the directness of photojournalism, the emphasis in Mixed Message is the aesthetic and harmonious aspect, the sweeping installation inspired by Chinese calligraphy, not the photographs of tennis courts. Just as a conversation is like the back and forth of a tennis match, Boyce required the audience to be a collaborator by allowing equal emphasis on the viewer’s reading of the work. The result is open ended, a garden of forking paths with the only constraints being the limits of the viewers’ imagination. An earlier version of this work was shown earlier in 2009 at Photospace Gallery, Wellington, along with another Boyce work, The Philosopher’s Stomach, consisting of images of koi carp similarly installed on the walls in sweeping and expressive calligraphic lines. Both works transcend the sum of their parts, pulling a cumulative beauty from a catalogue of mundane elements. Perhaps identity is a transcendence of the sum of its parts as well.
The theme of memory and identity, and in particular photography as a metaphor for memory and therefore identity, is an important one for Boyce. The photographic medium represents an absolute record of the past in a way that human memory simply is not. In ... a poorly remembered childhood (2009) Boyce created a series of small, cropped and blurred contact prints of significant places in Boyce’s New Zealand childhood in order to evoke the ambiguous nature of childhood memory when recalled in adulthood, and the futility of trying to remember anything wholly and unedited, if indeed the memory is even real in the first place and not a figment. The illusion-of-truth effect states that a person is more likely to believe a familiar statement than an unfamiliar one, so if something is repeated to us over and over again we are likely to remember it as the truth. Memory can be skewed by mood, fooled by manipulated images, and the phenomenon of False Memory Syndrome. There is a sense that this uncertainty, this ability to self-edit and forget, is what keeps us sane. We automatically give ourselves plausible deniability, which is as much an aspect of identity as anything else.
Another project, Memories Passing, also deals with this near cliché of the relationship between photography, identity, and memory. A cliché, like a pearl, begins with a grain of truth. Boyce likes to find new approaches to that truth. The Memories Passing project is a performance piece based on a psychological theory that memory operates like a jpeg - the brain only stores part of the memory and a mental algorithm fills in the rest. Boyce takes a photograph with a digital camera and then uses someone else’s camera to take a photograph of the LCD screen, and then someone else’s camera to photograph that LCD screen and so on and so on until all that exists is a distanced version of the original – a distant memory vaguely recalled, as if perceiving the memory through the wrong end of a telescope. Who we think we are may very well be based on some erroneous assumptions.
“If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.” (Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814)
The untrustworthy nature of memory, Identity and perception plays a part in another theme important to Boyce’s work – the anxiety of influence. In his 1973 book The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, the critic Harold Bloom put forward the thesis that poets are hindered in their creative process by the ambiguous relationship they consciously or unconsciously maintained with the work of earlier poets. Logically the same observation can be made of visual artists in relation to other visual artists, that artist is inspired to make art by seeing another artist's art and will tend to produce work that is derivative of existing art. Bloom identified six strategies by which creative people negotiate this anxiety. Boyce consciously and ironically uses elements of these strategies in his work. Boyce in his God, it is All Dark (Photospace, Wellington, 2003) knowingly employs aspects of these strategies in relation to the work of the insurmountable figure in New Zealand art history, painter Colin McCahon (1919-1987). McCahon is regarded as one of New Zealand's greatest painters and New Zealand’s most well-known twentieth century artist. His example had a profound influence not on the development of modern New Zealand art and the way in which New Zealanders see their landscape.
As with Boyce, doubt and the human condition were important themes for McCahon. The title God, it is All Dark is a reference to McCahon’s 1969 scroll work of the same name, inspired by a poem by John Castleberg). McCahon also becomes a stalking horse for Boyce, alluding by one or two removes to the visual traditions of Roman Catholicism through McCahon’s religious art, the Stations of the Cross for example, and the Cross form itself. Faith is also one of the crutches that protect against uncertainty, Papal infallibility for example or literal interpretations of the Bible, and the counterpoint to scientific rationality. Identity can only be judged by identities gone before.
As demonstrated by Memories Passing, Boyce is also deeply interested in the performative and conceptual act of photography. This is further explored in the Looking for the Light series, which is an attempt to depart from the figurative/physical aspect of his practice. The word Photography is derived from the Greek photos- for "light" and -graphos for "drawing". In Looking for the Light Boyce observes the way light falls and tweets it on twitter at @everydayabstract as a way of bringing together and subverting the ephemeral, experiential and descriptive aspects of the photograph. This leads us back to fallibility and uncertainty. Psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons show in their book The Invisible Gorilla (2010) our intuitions and direct experiences deceive us, which is a question we must ask about Boyce’s descriptions.
Philosopher Karl Popper wrote in his Knowledge without Authority (1960): “The question about the sources of our knowledge . . . has always been asked in the spirit of: ‘What are the best sources of our knowledge—the most reliable ones, those which will not lead us into error, and those to which we can and must turn, in case of doubt, as the last court of appeal?’ I propose to assume, instead, that no such ideal sources exist—no more than ideal rulers—and that all ‘sources’ are liable to lead us into error at times. And I propose to replace, therefore, the question of the sources of our knowledge by the entirely different question: ‘How can we hope to detect and eliminate error?’” We once believed that photography could “detect and eliminate error” and Boyce seems to suggest that we are mistaken and that photography is as subjective as any other form of human perception. In Boyce’s hands and in the realm of contemporary art their ambivalences mirror each other.
The eye is unusual among all the senses in that it is a direct protrusion of the brain. Boyce reminds us that not only is the visual important in the evocation of memory, but it is also a powerful communicator of emotion. The ambiguity and disquieting nature of his photography reminds us that even the clarity and permanence of photographs ultimately cannot make the mind perfect, nor can it tell us who we are.