A large, ambitious body of work has ensued from what Huey calls “intermarriages” between different techniques and categories of materials, secondhand or otherwise.1 For the 2009 exhibition “ASH, inc.” at Song Song in Vienna, he began with the name of a now defunct family investment firm—itself taken from the initials of his paternal grandfather, Arthur Sandmeyer Huey—and brought together photographs and objects into a time-shifting meditation on loss, destruction and restitution. The show contained three sculptures: a rack containing 14 years’ worth of checks from his grandfather’s business; a black box, inlaid with the words “TIME/WILL/TELL,” opened enough to reveal three ingots of silver that were purchased in part through the sale of silver serving pieces inherited by Huey; and an assemblage of correspondence-related materials, including a postage scale and the package in which a relative’s ashes were sent through the mail. Notwithstanding this foray into three-dimensional work, Huey’s focus was—and is—primarily on photography and its unreliable transference of memories.
“ASH, inc.” included in its catalogue an old sepia image of an erupting Mount Vesuvius juxtaposed with a 1964 color photo of a mother and child looking out over a snowy landscape and a curving inlet, one that echoes—at a great remove in space and time—the Bay of Naples in the accompanying photo. A related work, Ash Cloud (2008), Huey’s rephotographed version of an 1872 shot of Vesuvius dwarfed by its own billowing plume of smoky debris, offered another riff on the show’s punning title. Along with this wordplay came a photograph of a Pompeian mural that boasts a convoluted history reminiscent of Flaubert’s story problem. As outlined in the catalogue’s timeline, the tale goes like this: A mural depicting animals, human and/or godly figures and fantastic architectural elements is painted in Pompeii in 64 a.d. and buried by the volcanic eruption in 79 a.d. Rediscovered in the 18th century, the mural is reconstructed from fragments as a drawing in the 19th century. A photograph of the drawing, shot around 1870, is then hand-colored and placed in a souvenir album. This picture deteriorates over the years until Huey rephotographs it and blows it up to wall size in 2008. And here, if you can work it out, is the rub: To what extent has the image changed—in appearance, in significance—after 2,000 years and multiple metamorphoses and translations?
So it is with all of Huey’s image-making. An archive is consulted and several of its numbers are salvaged, reprinted and enlarged. Lifted from their original context, these photographs become repositories for present-day storytelling and myth, for conjecture and happenstance. Of course, such artistic devices—of historical image recuperation and misremembered connections to the past—have been prevalent in contemporary painting since Richter and Anselm Kiefer, and can be found in the photographic work of other German artists like Hans-Peter Feldmann, who mines vernacular sources to compile his idiosyncratic collections (women’s knees, footballers, mountains, airplanes), or Peter Piller, who culls press images and groups them into categories such as “Policemen Searching” or “Vandalism.”
As global exhibitions like New York’s “Deep Storage” (1998) at P.S.1 and “Archive Fever” (2008) at the International Center of Photography [see A.i.A., May ’08] have attested, artists today often find a wealth of strategic possibilities in archives, whether pre-existing or invented. And we have lately seen a trend for art inspired by the semi-autobiographical writings of Germany’s W.G. Sebald. (In 2006, for example, Tate Modern staged a Sebaldian group show named after his book The Rings of Saturn.) Certainly Sebald’s meandering inquiries into individual and collective consciousness, interwoven with historical digressions, memoirs and occasional photographs, may well have informed Huey, even though the artist avows a greater debt to, and preference for, Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Huey doesn’t so much want to drag up repressed memories or familial connections as to capture them anew, perhaps even creating entirely fictional ones along the way. He has likened this process to “being sought out by the material, not the other way around.”
Julio Cortázar’s 1959 short story “Las babas del diablo,” which was translated into English as “Blow-Up” and inspired Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film of that name, might suggest a way of looking at Huey’s relationship to source material. In the Argentine’s elliptical tale, a photojournalist enlarges an image he’s taken earlier in the day of a young man and an older woman, apparently in a love tryst. With every darkroom magnification he witnesses a new horror being revealed in the scene: first it’s a forced seduction or maybe a kidnapping, then the youth’s enslavement and possible murder. Huey’s work, likewise, prompts an underlying struggle to discern the real from the imagined, to correctly assess the supposed verisimilitude of the photographic image. The artist’s magnified, enhanced versions of history sometimes resemble falsified documents. Like a fake passport, they offer a superficial likeness but remain profoundly unreliable about true identity and empirical facts.
Huey’s reticence—he supplies little explanatory information when his works are displayed—was vividly reflected in the exhibition “Don’t Say Things,” on view in summer and fall 2009 at the Kunsthalle Wien. The show, which took its title from a Ralph Waldo Emerson adage, featured a looped video of the artist’s great-grandfather, Richard K. Huey, filmed in the 1920s swallowing a hardboiled egg. His gesture, continuously repeated, comes across as a comic take on Emerson’s words: “Things said in conversation are chalk eggs. Don’t say things.”
For the solo show “Houseguests,” mounted this spring at the Galerie Schloss Damtschach, Huey reshot his step-great-grandfather’s photographs (made in the 1950s) of American interiors adorned with mock 18th-century European furnishings and placed them in the complementarily pastel-colored rooms of the Schloss Damtschach (built in the 1820s) near the Austrian-Italian border. Once again in these wry photographs, Americana both vies with and assimilates into historical precedent. Indeed, the notion of “houseguest” may be a key to Huey’s entire body of work, with its incessant parade of strange places and faces, its visitations to and from the ambiguous past. The artist’s shows—like his individual images—convey a sense of entering a space, physical and psychological, where one has been invited but can never feel entirely at home.
After I left Huey’s debut London exhibition, his ideas gradually but insistently insinuated themselves into my mind in an almost unwelcome manner. Not too long before this, in a discussion about my own descendants, my father had recounted that the Ward family hailed from Vienna and, before that, Hamburg, where they manufactured violins, double basses and other musical instruments. (It may just be a coincidence that Huey lives and works in Vienna, the birthplace of psychoanalysis, but when it comes to the exorcism of personal heritage through photography, his investigations are more than just nostalgic. Like Freudian exercises, they not only echo his past, albeit erratically, but also hold up a suitably cracked and misty mirror to our own.) However, continued my father, sometime in the 1930s the Schildt family, as they were then known, were forced into exile by the Nazis, changing their overtly Jewish name to Child and finally to Ward, a name once given to any watchman or guard. More to the point, it’s now a common, everyman’s surname that is easy to hide behind. All of this remains incomplete, anecdotal and lacking in documentation. But then that’s my story problem. I guess we’ve all got one to solve.
Unless otherwise identified, Michael Huey quotations are from an undated artist’s statement sent to the author in April 2010.
Michael Huey’s show “Story Problems” appeared at Josh Lilley Gallery, London, Jan. 29-Mar. 6. “Houseguests” was on view at Galerie Schloss Damtschach, Austria, Apr. 24-May 22. A solo exhibition by the artist will take place at Newman Popiashvili, New York, Jan. 20-Feb. 12, 2011.
OSSIAN WARD is aLondon-based art writer.