The Photograph as Discarded Object: Parker Davis of Wintergarten Ltd Talks Art
Artist Parker Davis doesn't really want you to know his name. In fact, he'd prefer if you didn't.
The 27-year-old Los Angeles native would rather you know Wintergarten Ltd, the collective that he and his creative partner, who wants to remain anonymous, formed in 2008 and under which name the duo exhibits and prints catalogues of their work, mainly composed of found amateur photography.
"In certain ways we feel at odds with how artists' lives are examined by the public," Davis says, "and with how their work is placed under certain scrutiny based on their personal lives. The point [of Wintergarten] is to obscure the identity of the artist and in doing so create a tension that isn't normally present."
In the space created by the artists' absence, viewers are left to consider the dialogue between the meaning of "Wintergarten" and the work it presents, which is predominantly found photography snapped by amateurs.
When the housing market collapsed approximately two years ago, Davis and his partner started to see an increasing number of estate sales and pawnshops offering personal photographs as commodity objects; the documented memories of strangers living in the margins of society became of particular interest to them. "These photographs were somehow unable to survive in their 'natural habitats'," Davis says with a tone of earnest intrigue. "So they became objects in this system of trade."
But Davis is quick to say that Wintergarten Ltd is just as present within this "system of trade" as any other element, despite that the collective uses the photographs for artistic purposes. "The 'Ltd' part of Wintergarten is a very slight tongue in cheek way of commenting on this process of capitalist trade while also conveying that we are part of it," Davis says.
The artistic pair sifted through heaps of disowned images in garages, flea markets and private auctions to find photographs that met their creative sensibilities and expressed the various themes that Wintergarten sought to explore. The collaborators then edited and curated hundreds of appropriated images to create 35mm slide projections, installations of tables with photo prints atop, and catalogues with varying titles and themes.
A body of work from 2010 entitled Chinese Bondage in Peru, for example, takes its name from an academic paper on the history of the Chinese Coolie in Peru from 1849-1874. But Davis and his partner use the title metaphorically, he says, to examine issues of "commodity, capitalism, labor, and displacement" within the images they ascribe it to. "The name implies something being exported from one region to another," Davis says. "And I’m interested in how our practice of appropriating and re-contextualizing all of these photographs is also, in a way, a process of displacement."
Chinese Bondage in Peru presents images of the arid swimming pools and empty living rooms of vacant suburban houses; half-clothed multiracial men and women gazing into the camera for sensual non-professional portraits; and gas-masked Vietnam soldiers marching, rifles in arms, through a cloud of wartime smoke. The photographs construct an atmosphere of longing – of disconnection and nostalgia – through a loose narrative that hovers between the U.S. and developing countries, between the countercultural 1960s and the recession of recent years.
One image in the series, an untitled 4x6 inch print, shows the point of view of a barefoot man sitting in a seventies' motel room with a bottle of wine, a pen and notepad and a book by Rousseau on the nightstand in front of him. The anonymous man (who is subject, object and photographer all at once) represents a recurring character in Wintergarten's work: the concerned, yet carefree, hippie-wanderer.
Wintergarten's series Mike Wilson (Diary of a Deceased Amateur Photographer) approaches this issue of the itinerant flâneur directly. Wilson, a destitute drifter who faithfully documented his post-60s milieu and the travels it entailed, had "a good eye,” Davis says. "He understood composition, and his subject matter fits in with what we are doing.”
Wilson’s photographs as presented by Wintergarten portray the photographer’s group of sun-kissed longhaired friends, basking joyfully on white sand beaches, wading nude into the sea; a blue eyed boy stares up from his activities aboard a ship, a mess of curls atop his head.
In another image, a blonde woman in a black bikini sits on a beach-towel, with her back to Wilson, staring pensively out at sea. These ultra saturated photographs bear the faded and fragile aesthetic of their pre-digital era, and their utter materiality stirs a sense of yearning for something unknown, lost far off in the distance.
But photography was never a source of income for Wilson, who died homeless about eight years ago. "He just pushed these 35mm slides around in a shopping cart at the end of his life," says Davis, who came into contact with Wilson's images through the man's sister, a longtime friend of his parents. “I think he died in Las Vegas.”
Davis says that he and his partner work together to formulate the “loose narratives” throughout the work, but stops short of explaining to say:
"This work is not about any type of direct statement… I like work that opens doors instead of closes them – work that asks questions instead of gives answers. I want the viewer to do a large amount of the work by trying to connect how these images work together and what they mean as objects."
“I’m definitely a Marxist in the sense that I tend to look at everything in terms of how capitalism has shaped peoples’ circumstances,” Davis says. “And I think that – and Lacan talks about it too – people, when they’re really alienated from their environments, have to find some strange way of attaching what they feel is missing onto some other thing, and that’s why these [photographs] are fetish objects; they’re people looking for some kind of warmth where there is none.”
Davis was born in 1983 into a family that engaged with the arts: his father was a “failed amateur photographer” who tried to break into commercial work (“something that I would never personally pursue,” Davis says) but ended up getting his real estate license, and his mother was a teacher who was “very good at fostering creativity.” As a teen, Davis attended the L.A. County High School for the Arts and frequented galleries with artist friends.
After high school Davis attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which alumna photographer Nan Goldin, among many others, helped shape. "She and Jack Pierson and the whole Boston School definitely influenced me," Davis recounts, while also saying that artists like Boris Mikhailov, Peter Hujar, and Hans Bellmer had a notable impact on his work.
"When I was younger, I liked the idea that art was a medium through which you could live your life however you wanted and by virtue of documenting it somehow or other you could legitimize it. And I was like, 'Oh, that's like a free pass to do whatever I want!' …then I got to art school and my thinking changed about that; I grew up."
When asked if, more recently, artists like the late Dash Snow have been an influence, Davis says, "I think he's someone whose photographs I would find and then use. But not someone who I would want to be like. I'm interested in Dash Snow as this sad, sad, story…but his ideology worked much more subconsciously than mine. I think I am making work about that type of practice rather than being in it. And I think that that critical self-awareness becomes somewhat evident when a viewer starts to examine [Wintergarten’s] images, and the relationships between them, more closely.”
Wintergarten Ltd’s upcoming show at Actual Size Gallery opens on November 13.
To contact writer Heika Burnison, click here.