“the story of one who set out to study fear”

“my mission for my own art i think was to break the certain ‘no-no’s’ and ‘taboos’ for galleries. one: that you never saw photographs in art galleries, they were always in photo galleries. so, i wanted to do that. . . photography as a tool that an artist can use. then, i was very much interested as using language as a tool for art and just information, rather than something visual. both of those battles have been won. ”

-john baldessari, (interview, artnet.com)

lately we have been looking at a lot of essays on photography and essays made up of photographs. it prompted me to think about john baldessari‘s 1982 conceptual  (where the ideas represented in a work matter more than exactly what is represented)  piece, “the story of one who set out to study fear.”

notice that this work is made up of 12 photographs. only the center one is in color; the rest are black and white. (according to one source, the color one is supposed to sum up the meaning of the entire piece.) obviously, judging by the title, the viewer is supposed to relate the set of images to an exploration of “fear.” so, that is the context in which we will view the images.

at first glance, the animals at the top row stand out to me. both the alligator (first image) and the wolf (third image) bare their teeth at the camera.  i am next drawn to the hippo (first image in the third row), who is rising out of the water, almost like a non-blurry loch ness monster or something of that nature. these animal images are certainly ones that could invoke “fear” in a viewer. they are large animals to begin with, but this context (exploration of fear) and the fact that they look angry, the concept of “something to be feared” is definitely conveyed. the other images need a little more reading into. the bull bucking the rider in row two (third image) represents, to me, impending pain. the rider will fall off of the bull. it will hurt. he will be injured. (i, of course, also assume he will become paralyzed. but that is just me) now, keep in mind that fear is being “studied” in this situation. there are varying degrees of fear, so perhaps the image of this bull rider shows the lack of fear that he has. fear could be being examined in its absence, or in the ability to invoke it in an observer, who “fears” for the person who should actually be afraid.

now that we have begun to view this in terms of “a study of fear,” we have to look at the “bigger picture”-” the story of one who set out to study fear.” we don’t know who exactly is studying fear. is it the artist, baldessari? is it a “narrator” created by the piece? or is it the viewer’s own created story- an “interpretation”? i lean towards baldessari, because i believe he probably “set out to study fear.” this is baldessari’s story. a viewer may not understand the exact nature of the photographs or why they are included, but will be able to interpret that they are a collection of photographs that convey “fear,”- its presence, absence, and causes.

while a viewer cannot tell what is going on in some of the images, the viewer recognizes and trusts the artist (based upon the recognizable images and the title text) that the image has something to do with fear, whether it be lack of fear where fear is due, or actual fear. for example, the first row, the second photograph- a woman is in bed reading a book. a man lies to the right of the bed on the floor, and another man watches them from the left corner. this is open for interpretation. where is the fear in this image? the man in the left corner certainly looks menacing. i can’t read the expressions on anyone’s face, but because baldessari has told me this is a study of fear, i know it is present somewhere. (note: i know that baldessari is fascinated by old film stills- “i collected [the images used in my work] for years. they are all the stuff that nobody wants, because they’re always from some movie that never made it. ” i am inclined to believe that this may contribute to some meaning in this particular image.- source)

while one could puzzle for days over a concrete meaning or particular way in which to read “the story of one who set out to study fear,” a viewer must realize that “baldessari transforms the key events of the story into a fragmentary plurality of stills, which take the significance of the tale in multiple possible directions. besides, as produced by the collective unconscious and handed down in their migrations by generations of narrators, the stories represent an endless process of redevelopment of a complex symbolic content. this explains why they can be retold, analyzed but ultimately never explained.” (source)

for fun, here are two other baldessari pieces i like a lot:

“concerning diachronic/synchronic time: above, on, under (with mermaid),” 1976.

(this doesn’t require much interpretation- basically, everything is happening at the same time)

“blasted allegories (colorful sentences and purple patch): starting with red father,” 1978.

This entry was written by picturesofmeghan and published on February 13, 2012 at 1:12 am. It’s filed under art history, meghan's posts, Photography and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on ““the story of one who set out to study fear”

  1. Very thought provoking post, Meghan! Thanks for sharing.

    I think the interpretation of something (whether it’s art. poetry, etc.) is nearly endless, and that is what makes it so fun. Even if i can never know exactly what the intentions of the author or artist were, I like the fact that I can continue to derive infinite possible meanings from one particular text (and sometimes those meanings may not have been premeditated). One picture or one poem can have so many layers, and anyone who reads or views it will walk away with a different understanding. In that way, art (broadly speaking) is similar to how we perceive life. Two people could be a part of the same event or experience, but their understanding and perception of what happened will not be exactly the same. Very cool.

    In “The Story of One Who Set Out to Study Fear,” I can see a correlation of all the animal pictures to the one with the woman reading the book because it could represent the animal nature in all humans. The color photo depicts both animals and a human figure, which meshes the two ideas. The bottom row of photographs seem to show more of a fear of self, or self doubt caused by fear. I’m sure if I looked at it a while longer, new layers of meaning would start to form.

    • i agree with that- plus i feel as if some of the “people” oriented stills have deeper dramatic themes. the woman could be worried about illness or the two men pictured could be at odds. something could be happening that ties this picture to the bull rider (maybe she is afraid for one of the men, who is the bull rider? a stretch, maybe), and then even to the 4th row of images- lots of men jumping, maybe being shot at? the possibilities are almost infinite, but as long as you can imagine fear, you can create any scenario from these pieces.

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