Arriving at the photo exhibition, you’re encouraged to tear a picture from the wall and scribble a note to take its place. Not the typical exhibition experience. For his 2011 show ‘Dearest of Dearest’, American photographer Ruvan Wijesooriya encouraged his audience to do just that. While his photographs get their fair share of attention, the notes remain an enigma. We spoke with the man himself to shed some light on the mystery.
Do you always encourage your audience to leave a note when they take one of your photographs?
In most of my shows the audience is allowed to take my pictures home with them, but people only leave a note for ‘Dearest of Dearest’. However, there is always a sort of exchange – whether the audience realizes it or not.
What’s the significance of the notes then?
The notes left by the audience in ‘Dearest of Dearest’ – the most recent consisting of around 2500 photos of friends, family and associates – provide affirmation that my pictures mean something. I shoot for tons of magazines and companies, but it is these personal pictures that have a deeper and more soulful meaning.
Is it all about the exchange, are they simply wall-fillers, or are they cherished memories of what was?
I do keep the notes and cherish them, though I haven’t figured out exactly what I will do with them yet. At the second ‘Dearest of Dearest’ show, notes from the first one were on display. I imagine if I do a third show, notes from the first and second shows will be on display.
Allowing your audience to take a picture home is a nice gesture, but is there more to it than generosity?
The ability for people to take my prints allows for them to be appropriated and used beyond what I would expect them to be used for. I enjoy that the pictures people forward and post and pass on are pictures of pictures and in effect there is an original that is not a digital file. It is counter-intuitive to what is supposed to happen in this day and age, especially as all of the pictures were shot on analog cameras. As the creator of the images, I hope for the use, appropriation, re-use and re-appropriation for my own use to be part of a conversation started by those identified with the ‘Pictures Generation’ of the 1980s.
In the future I plan to do a show of my own images in a manner related to the work of Louise Lawler, except for that it would be modern and democratic, and unrelated to the insular and privileged focus of her work. It would undermine elements of the art market, as my work inherently does at times. In some of my other works I play with these ideas of ownership, authorship, etc. This is very important for me, and because they are complicated and legal matters, they are fascinating to me. For example I made a picture to pay homage to Juergen Teller, and then coerced him into signing it “To Ruvan, Love Juergen.” It’s playful and perhaps subversive in a stupid way, but I get a kick out of it. I’ve made a few homages to Richard Prince as well, borrowing ideas and achieving them poorly due to lack of funding and resources.
Sometimes the decision of whether or not to take or leave a picture becomes what the art is about. For example, I saw a girl reach for a picture of herself looking sexy, but then she decided to leave it there. I was sure she wanted other people to see it. I printed a picture of my friend’s baby for her to have, but she decided to leave it because she knew her friends were coming later and she wanted them to see it, but they wouldn’t be able to if she took it for herself. The print and the singularity of this experience is different than if I posted all of these pictures online.
On a conceptual level, my work is more about this interaction and tug-of-war than it is about the images themselves. I do love the pictures, but what becomes of them is more interesting. However, back to art and also me having to make a living, it is hard to hang a vague, intangible idea on a wall and say, “look at how beautiful that is”. It is important that my pictures are beautiful and meaningful, if not humorous and ridiculous.