Sherry Millner: Prosthetics of the Image
Sherry Millner’s works interrupt our habitual judgments concerning ideas of collage and nostalgia. The displacement of images has always been a characteristic of her work, but it is nowhere more unsettling than in her series of large-scale prints of torn and repositioned fragments of snapshots from everyday life. When figures appear, the body is fragmented, sometimes covered over or doubled, producing a complex play between a “represented” disappearance—a body occluded within the original photographic field—and the disappearance of a figure through absence (a tear) or accretion and overlay. This prosthetic relation between images reveals a sad incompleteability, as if within the patterns of tears and scars by which the final image-field is constructed, something has been forgotten, unaccounted for. Not that there is something missing that could have been captured, but rather that the basic ontological condition of photography as being unable to fully contain any representation, is what is revealed. Here the armature plays upon small, intimate matters, such as the differences in photo-finishing processes, knit together within the same surface. The mark of the hand, so apparent in Millner's earlier collage works, has been replaced by the tracery of the machine, for which memory, the hand, and the eye are already figured as prosthetics.
All of Millner’s images deal, in complicated, intertwined ways, with such notions of prosthesis and the boundaries of the body. In her series of digital prints of reworked postcards, we see—over a naturalized field of landscapes,or domesticated cityscapes—a picture interrupted by human figures covered in environmental suits, gas-masks or goggles, thematically cut off from the image-sites that they contaminate. They are bodies divided against themselves, doubly enveloped. Their foreignness cannot be subsumed into the image, either as nostalgia or appropriation or allegory. Without the irruption of these figures on the surface of the image, there is nothing there, and the task becomes an interpretative one. Once freed from a direct linkage to reference, the photographic fragment enters into a complex register of relations with other such fragments. This is the notion of the post-modern collage as an endlessly extending and renewable combinatory. The world, of which a photograph “captures” only the most minute impression, has passed away, irretrievably lost to the flow of time. But Millner’s images are not nostalgic, and if they call to mind the originary lost world, they also evoke the secondary order of the archive, the database of images which is relentlessly and probabalistically, malleable.
Through the simple and profound gesture of literally tearing up photos—snapshots of family vacations and daily life— Sherry Millner reveals hidden complexities of photography as, in her hands, the photographic image is cast free, no longer domesticated and fixed within a conventional habitus. Shards of images combined in a collage-like compositional matrix resonate in a different rhetorical register, pluralizing reference (is the new image a tacit whole or a field of particles? Is it a configuration of the public sphere,or of the traces of private memory alone? Whose memories? Is it a narrative? How is it legible, how does one read such an image?). Here, one absence stands for another, marked by the tear.
At a time when photography’s imaginary—its presuppositions of truth and verisimilitude—suffers an all-out assault of simulacra of all sorts, and questions of reference, verifiability, and persuasion circumscribe its duress, Millner’s works stand out brilliantly as a re-problematization of photography as a material artifact, and of the ordinarily hidden interstitial logic of images, whose temporality is edited, reproduced, and smoothed for consumption. Millner’s radical cuts and ablations and abrupt interpenetrations foreground the primordial condition of the photographic image as loss, and its persistence as a form of mourning. Remembrance and mourning, appropriate to the passage of time, are the most salient tropes in these works. Whether it is someone else’s memories, or one’s own, doesn’t matter. These images are autonomous fractures, prostheses forming a reflective index of our own mortality.
Thomas Zummer is an independent scholar and writer, artist, and curator. As an artist he has exhibited internationally since 1976, including at Exit Art, Thread Waxing Space, Frederieke Taylor Gallery, and the Wexner Center, as well as at MuKHA in Antwerp, and Drawing Room in London. He is faculty in philosophy at The European Graduate School and a professor in the Division of Graduate Studies at Rhode Island School of Design.