heuristic: enabling a person to discover or learn something for themselves; hands-on; interactive.
In her catalog essay for Michael Snow: Photo-Centric, Adelina Vlas describes Snow’s work as heuristic, explaining, “in many instances the viewer must walk around them, bend down, handle parts, and above all, be aware of his/her own body in the process.” 1 That is exactly the word I would use to describe my experience going through the exhibition, currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. As we literally crouch to see the images on the underside of the series of three hanging photographs titled, Crouch, Leap, Land (1970) or lean over to see the bottom rings of the nine photographs, Of a Ladder (1971), we are confronted with a series of questions: What is a photograph? How do we, the viewer, interact with the photograph both intellectually and physically? What physical space does it occupy?
One of the works which best exemplifies these questions is Digest (1970), a stack of twenty-three laminated photographs placed alongside a metal basin filled with hidden objects encased in resin. Each photograph reveals a layer of resin and the objects underneath it. As we physically hold the object-thing of a photograph, we are confronted by both the corporal and temporal weight of the photograph. Not only is it a physical thing capable of being handled and taking up space, but it also allows us to hold a past moment in our hands. In the case of Digest, the past moment also corresponds to a physical thing, slowly unveiling objects we can no longer see except in the photograph in our hands. By hiding common objects, such as a pink cup or dishtowel, and instead having the photographs, which are traditionally not thought of as physical objects, Snow emphasizes the physicality of the image over the items, all through our participation with the work. Heuristic indeed.
1 Adelina Vlas, Michael Snow: Photo-Centric, 10.