Photographer Vesna Pavlovic's work always points back at itself and at the photographic process in general. Her interiors of Eastern European hotels resonate with references to the recent past, and what seems to be a simple photograph of a basketball game can actually be bristling with decades of political meaning and consequence. Scrutinizing Pavlovic's subjects reveals how her actual places and faces came to be, and how they became captured images — framed photographs on a gallery wall.
With such self-reflexive work, it's logical to sift through the artist's oeuvre for its explanation of itself. Pavlovic's installations are her most affecting and thought-provoking works: They examine her medium while literally walking viewers through her process. Pavlovic's "Display, Desire," from her 2011 Frist show Projected Histories, was a sprawling installation of black-and-white images projected through suspended, colored sheets of transparent Plexiglas. Viewers could walk freely between the sheets, in front of the projector and around the installation's perimeter. For Pavlovic, these interactions put the viewer inside the slide projector or between the layers of a photographic image.
Pavlovic's new Real Images installation at Seed Space realizes a similarly enveloping experience in a much more challenging environment. The gallery features four low walls with no ceiling, in the middle of artist Adrienne Outlaw's studio in the Chestnut Square building. The floor inside the space measures about 90 square feet — generously. "Display, Desire" showed in a Frist gallery about six times as big. Pavlovic's laudable negotiation of the comparatively tiny Seed Space speaks to her abilities as a creative problem solver, and Real Images is the best installation so far this year.
The floor installation finds two clacking slide projectors situated at a right angle, crisscrossing series of images. One projection is shot into a half hemisphere of transparent plastic that distorts and warps the image before the light passes through to hit a mirror in the corner of the gallery; the mirror washes the space in front of it with reflected light while casting a shadow into the intersection of the walls behind it. The other projection shines inside a similar plastic form that's only partly translucent. The images can be seen stretching across the curving outer surface of the Plexiglas and reflected in another mirror that stands flat against another gallery wall.
Viewers are encouraged to walk into the installation and explore it from the inside. The space is filled with light, shadows, reflections, mirrors and lenses. It's almost as if Pavlovic is evoking the inside of a camera. But these elements also recall the human eye, and that interpretation creates the slightly disorienting feeling that — as Seed Space curator Rachel Bubis quipped — "you're in Being John Malkovich." In the case of Pavlovic's viewer-interactive work, though, the head you're in might be your own.
The show's title refers to an optics term that defines a "real image" as one that is visible in the plane of the converging light rays coming from a particular object. A movie screen presents a real image. Your eye's retina also captures one. The science here can get a bit slippery, but viewers will be better informed if they understand that Real Images is as much about how we see as it is about what we are seeing.
The piece evokes perception itself, but it also speaks to photography's role as a space-time transcendence machine. The pictures in the show are found tourist photos. In Pavlovic's presentation of flashing fragments and incomplete images, there are recognizable elements: old men at a market, even older paintings in a church, ancient-seeming structures in an arid landscape, a Buddha statue in a shrine, more architecture. Though difficult to identify, the locations don't create a feeling of being stranded in the middle of nowhere. On the contrary, the exotic-seeming sites and scenes create a sense of omniscience that reminds me of photography's power to put us any place at any time. Early travel photographs, site-specific stereoscope images and even the first View-Masters attest to our hunger for images and the challenge of distance: I've never been to Paris, but I've seen the Eiffel Tower on countless occasions. Of course, no one has taken a picture of the Paris of the future, and Real Images recalls Susan Sontag's observation, "Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality. ... One can't possess reality, one can possess images — one can't possess the present but one can possess the past." With that in mind, perhaps the truest images are the photographs on freeway billboards, racing into the space we leave behind.