In two dimly lit corners of the 18th Biennale of Sydney at the Art Gallery of New South Wales hang the meager-in-size, large-in-impact work of U.S. artist Binh Danh.
As you approach them, Danh’s work in their modest frames seem to only contain spottily etiolated plant leaves. But sunlight – you will discover later – literally made these works. Arching in for a closer look, you discover that there are images on these leaves: a jagged line of troops on patrol, a distressed woman cradling a child, a prisoner’s grave mug shot. These photographs have been leached onto the near insubstantiality of the first light-sensitive material.
Born in Vietnam, Binh Danh left with his family when two years of age to live in the U.S. He journeyed back as an adult and his reaction to the history of his birthplace led him to create his first solo exhibition, ‘Immortality: The remnant of the Vietnam and American War’ in 2001.
Danh creates his work via a self-devised method he calls ‘chlorophyll printing’, a kind of re-invented daguerreotype. A photographic print of a pre-existing image is pressed close against a leaf and secured together. They are then left in the sunlight, sometimes for days, until an image of required density and shade is transposed from the print to the leaf. The leaf is then sealed gently with a resin. These detailed, tenebrous images -further locked within protecting frames and displayed in low light- are brittle fragments of lives lived and ended.
The French photographic great Eugene Atget also eschewed the darkroom, leaving images captured on a glass negative to be soaked into light-sensitive paper in the Paris sunshine. Walter Benjamin, the mid-century essayist and critic, compared Atget’s sometime apparitional streets to the scene of a crime. This is a comparison that Danh’s images of war, nature and genocide can take without filter. Except here, you look at a photograph that is not photography.
Photography was the 20th century’s craft, a light weave of keepsakes and embedded memory. This domestic documentary – and its curatorial counterpart – served to complicate photography’s sometime status as art. But if the chance of a striking photo seemed at least possible for anyone with a camera, the best documentarians (like Atget) nudged it further with not just the principles of composition at play in shadow and light, but with a sonorous inexplicability.
The images Dhan uses in his work do not begin as his; he selects and downloads them from the internet. Photography, together with landscape and mortality, are rather reference points plotted together in the night sky of his work.
Much of contemporary art does not survive the syntactical oil slick of the explanatory panel. This is, of course, an old story – not everything works.
While the individual elements of Danh’s practice (appropriated images, use of natural or found materials) are not surprising in the contemporary art world, his particular combination ensure their resonance. His motivating ideas may be readily apparent but his method renders them opaque, in the manner of a religious icon representing spirituality by the distracting malachi of gold leaf.
Part of memory is built from certain, then uncertain, application of brief retinal flashes. These remnant fragilities are Danh’s true subject.