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Time Zone: Owen Kydd’s Durational Photography

In 2006, Owen Kydd had his first solo exhibition at CSA Space in Vancouver, British Columbia, which surprised a number of his friends and acquaintances because many were unaware that he was even still a practicing artist. Perhaps four years working as a studio assistant for Jeff Wall had its effect on Kydd, although the reality of his artistic development is far more complex than the influence of working at an artist’s studio. In 2000, Kydd exhibited a video titled Hotel at Anodyne Gallery in a two-person show with Scott McFarland. In 2003, he again collaborated with McFarland for that artist’s solo show, “Coastal Cabin,” at the Contemporary Art Gallery. The collaboration, also titled Coastal Cabin, consisted of McFarland photographing Kydd’s family cabin on the Sunshine Coast and Kydd writing a text to accompany the images, presented as magazine-layout posters installed on the gallery walls.

And then nothing for five years.

Although some people neglected to understand those early pieces as works in an oeuvre, Kydd had already been exhibiting as an artist before 2006, only with a low profile.

Kydd was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, where he attended both elementary and high school. His parents—now retired and living in British Columbia—were scientists: one a science educator, the other a chemist. He claims his first significant job was working at a Mormon-owned ice-cream store, which stayed open all year round, an almost Sisyphean prospect for an Albertan winter. Toward the end of high school, Kydd moved to Vancouver, where he later enrolled at Simon Fraser University—although his roots on the West Coast are deeper because he spent his childhood summers on the Sunshine Coast. In 2001, Kydd earned a Bachelor of Arts from SFU with what was called a “double extended minor” (because SFU did not grant double majors) in English literature and contemporary art, with a film specialization. At SFU, his teacher Jerry Zaslove, the Kafka and Benjamin scholar, had an impact on him. In 1999, Kydd attended Zaslove’s legendary annual Kafka course in Prague (The Castle is still Kydd’s favorite novel). His graduating film, surprisingly good for a student production, is quite telling: made in collaboration with Jordan Paterson and Gloria Wong, it is a documentary titled You Are Here (2000), shot on 16mm, “made up,” Kydd has said, “mostly of moving photographs.” The documentary contrasts footage of activist squatters in an abandoned retirement centre with a senior’s writing group in a functioning one. With this film, Kydd’s preoccupations with the formal relationship between still and moving images and the documentary aspects of photographic-based art are already present. While in university, Kydd also worked in the Vancouver film industry as a sound recording assistant; not long after graduating, he started working for Wall.

In other words, Kydd’s sudden “appearance” as an artist in 2006 is an inaccurate rendering of his life. In fact, he had been honing and developing his métier for almost 10 years, in which film, photography, the documentary and the pictorial are placed in dialogue.

In 2009, Kydd had a small exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, presenting a trilogy of works: Mission (2006), Night (2008) and Joshua (2009). Each consisted of three monitors placed side by side; every monitor repeated a loop of silent images, resting on each frame for 30 to 40 seconds in duration. Together these suites formed portraits: of places, such as Mission, BC, or Joshua Tree National Park in California, or of times, such as night. Kydd had created a cycle of videos, each consisting of the petit genres (landscape, portraiture and still life). The loops, which were not synched with each other, had up to 11 images per monitor, so that the triptych was rarely repeating the same three images, creating a variety of montages. In these works, Kydd’s continual preoccupations are already visible, specifically the relationship between moving image and static picture.

At the crux between cinema and photography, Kydd’s digital videos draw from genres in traditional pictorial art. He is also concerned, however, with technological innovations in picture-making: how digital cameras, for example, made new forms of depictive art possible. Kydd often chooses a commonplace object to film (a tree, for example, or someone’s face). He holds the camera on his subject for a couple of minutes so that time itself becomes an essential part of the depiction.

Kydd has stated that his desire to be an artist stemmed from a “frustration with filmmaking and cinematic time…Being an artist,” he continued, “became a way to deal with this because it provided the most open framework for problem solving issues of depiction and time.” Hypnotic, sensuous and meditative, Kydd’s work, then, articulates a kind of picture-making that became available in the mid-2000s, when digital cameras on the market started to have decent video capabilities.

With its use of contemporary digital technology and focus on contemporary objects, Kydd’s work is an attempt to depict time, not only in its duration and passing, but also the time in which we live. In Charles Baudelaire’s seminal essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” the poet and art critic writes, “The past is interesting not only by reason of the beauty which could be distilled from it by those artists for whom it was the present, but also precisely because it is the past…The pleasure which we derive from the representation of the present is due not only to the beauty with which it can be invested, but also to its essential quality of being present.”

Kydd endeavours to capture the ephemeral nature of the present by focusing on trees, people, plastic bags and reflections in windowfronts. “Every age had its own gait, glance and gesture,” writes Baudelaire, and Kydd understands that the quotidian is imprinted with its time, with its gestures and glances, in inescapable ways.

In 2010, he and his wife Magyn, along with their newborn daughter, moved to Los Angeles, California, where he enrolled in the MFA program at UCLA to study with James Welling and Catherine Opie. After his first year in school, Kydd abandoned those earlier multiple-image video loops, which often implied narrative, for static, singular images. His work from this point on refers even more explicitly to pictorial depiction. Similar to the earlier works, however, one object is filmed for a period of time so that the loop feels continuous, without beginning or end; in a sense, the passing of time becomes part of the picture. But they are no longer montaged with other images. And because of their ambiguous temporality, they create a sense of time unfamiliar in most works of cinema, which depend on a beginning, middle and end.

The way Kydd films his subjects, as in Two Curves, Pico Boulevard (2012) (the light refracting off the side of a building on that street, for example), can tend toward abstraction, much like the work of Welling. One of many differences, however, is Kydd’s relationship to time, hence a similarity with video art. But classifying Kydd’s work as “video art,” or reducing it to that category, misses the point, particularly because the tradition that grew around that term differs from the photographic one with which Kydd’s work engages.

In 2008, while discussing the films of James Benning, Kydd and a friend came up with the term “durational photography” to describe the particular way in which Kydd’s videos fluctuate somewhere between cinema and photography, much like Benning’s work has been described as “durational cinema.” Kydd’s durational photographs, then, function like pictures, because they are static, but also have the element of duration, like films, hence the term. Andy Warhol’s screen tests, the early collaborative film-works of Willem de Rooij and Jeroen de Rijke, the aforementioned films of Benning and—perhaps most important to Kydd himself—the final sequence of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse (1962) have all influenced his approach. But the difference between the durational photographs and cinema per se lies in his execution. He is not trying to make films that use duration for narrative purposes. Instead, Kydd’s pictures attempt to stage depiction. In conversation, he described trying to make works based on “something that looks like it’s being photographed.” His work attempts to capture the event of depiction, instead of merely depicting an object.

Composition, Warner Studio (on Green) (2012), for example, from a series taken at the Warner Studio at UCLA, documents a garbage bag stapled to a green wall, rustling in the wind. The folds suggest fabric, which was frequently found depicted in Western painting, from Baroque masters like Vermeer to Post-Impressionist innovators like Cézanne, often to give the illusion of depth of field. Fabric also registers the time in which the picture was composed—what Baudelaire calls its “modernity”—capturing the fashion of an era. In Composition, Kydd seems to suggest that plastic signals our modernity, much like fabric once did. Instead of providing the illusion of perspective, the folds of the plastic bag appear abstract, so that a subject that once provided the illusion of three dimensions now brings our attention to the surface of the image. In Composition, the folds in the plastic rustle, incorporating the element of time into the picture.

If these works attempt to represent the moment of depiction, their status as films, videos or photographs remain uncertain. In a certain sense, they fit into none of that nomenclature. Even in their form—that interstitial space between the dominant image-based mediums of our time—Kydd’s work identifies our present moment in history when, due to technological innovations, the categories we have, such as “photograph” or “movie”—to say nothing of “film”—are collapsing.

The shift from chemically produced images on film to digitally produced images rendered by light sensors—and the proliferation of handheld devices such as smartphones or tablets, on which moving images and static images can be captured and viewed simultaneously—have transformed not only the way we interact with photographic images, but also the categories we use to understand them. Kydd’s work avoids the discursive endgame of “Post-Internet” art, which, in many cases, is mired in taking technological change as its subject instead of employing those changes in a generative way. Rather, his work opens up ways of thinking about pictorial depiction under a new set of technological circumstances.

Another from the Warner Studio series, titled Warner Studio Framing Floor (2012), can be understood as Kydd’s examination of his own métier. The camera frames a section of a concrete floor, some of which has been painted blue. A frame that had been placed on the floor previously left an outline on the concrete after it had been painted blue, so that in Kydd’s picture of a concrete floor there is a blue outline. A bucket of water is dumped just outside of view, and it washes over the floor, creating ripples; reflections of birds and airplanes appear. The water becomes a surface on which images (airplane, bird) are depicted within the outline of a frame left by the negative space of the blue paint.

Of late, Kydd has been showing less in Canada than he has internationally. A group exhibition called “What Is a Photograph” opened at the International Center of Photography in New York in January, and throughout the coming year a number of others in Leeds, Amsterdam and Minneapolis will follow. Since graduation, Kydd has continued to live and work in Los Angeles with his family, now also including a son, although he maintains close ties to Canada. This May in Toronto, for example, he participated in the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival. In Los Angeles, he also has established a printing business with artist Marten Elder, one from a group of UCLA-educated artists that include Kydd, Marina Pinsky and Lucas Blalock, among others, who have been rethinking post-digital photographic practices in art.

Recently, in 2013, Kydd completed a series of works of Los Angeles storefronts, some of which are documented in situ, and some of which are reconstructed in his studio, such as Retail Composition (2013) or Windows and Walls (2013). The content in the displays can often only be described as junk. In these works, moreover, nothing happens. The scant movement a viewer may detect comes from reflections in surfaces or the subtle shifting of objects due to wind or gravity.

The southern California light suits him well.

To view three recent works by Owen Kydd, visit canadianart.ca/kydd. This is an article from the Summer 2014 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, visit its table of contents. To read the entire issue, pick up a copy on newsstands or the App Store until September 14.

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