How to Look... is a room-sized installation that examines how viewers engage with the photographic image. The work is a reconstruction and re-configuration of Mangolte’s first museum installation, A Photo Installation, staged at PS1 in New York in May 1978. For the original installation, Mangolte built a temporary wall measuring twenty four feet (approximately 7.3 metres) long by sixteen feet (approximately 4.9 metres) high, which she covered with a grid of black and white photographs. The photographs were all taken in New York and depict a number of subjects: studio portraits of models (predominantly friends of the artist); street photographs of buildings, often taken from dramatic angles and arranged to accentuate their abstract qualities; and more informal photographs, including family snapshots. This wall of photographs was only viewable from afar: a simple railing was situated at waist height in front of the wall, preventing viewers from being able get up close to see the individual images. The artist has described this strategy in a text that now forms part of the work: ‘The distance encouraged an analytical look at the photo variations … The wall arrangement implied creating an order from nothingness.’ (‘Archeology: The 1978 Original Installation’, artist’s statement from How to Look... 2010.)
In the installation a long table is situated in front of the banister. On this, are displayed smaller prints of some of the photographs from the wall display. These small prints have been made to look like playing cards, with Letra Set numbers and letters printed in their corners. In the original showing of the work, viewers were encouraged to handle these prints and use them to play card games. The installation was deliberately staged to emphasise different ways of looking: from near and far; at objects of a large and small scale; relying purely on vision and with the additional sense of touch. A typewritten wall text highlighted the work’s themes, suggesting several ways in which viewers could engage with the installation, ending with the open-ended suggestion ‘You make your own rules’.
In 2010 Mangolte was invited to re-stage How to Look... for the Whitney Biennial in New York. In this version the wall of photographs, the railing and the table covered with photographic playing cards are laid out in the same configuration but viewers are not allowed to handle the cards on the table, which are arranged under a perspex cover. However, it is the artist’s intention that their arrangement be changed on a weekly basis. In addition to these original elements, How to Look... now also features a black and white film that includes footage of people handling the playing cards, documenting the de-installation of the 1978 work. The film accentuates the work’s historical and archival qualities, and the ultimately cyclical nature of its installation, de-installation and re-installation.
A prolific cinematographer, Mangolte has described how the installation grew out of her work on the film The Camera: Je, La Camera: I 1977. With the exception of a group of family photographs which document Mangolte’s relationship with her nephew between 1967 and 1977, the prints in How to Look... were made during the shooting of the film in 1976 and 1977. The film has a two-part structure which juxtaposes the human face and the architectural environment. After its completion the artist was interested to extend this bipartite structure and did so by making composite images using her source photographs.
William S. Smith, ‘Babette Mangolte’ in Whitney Biennial 2010, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 2010, pp.76–7.
Aimee Walleston, ‘Five from the Whitney Biennial: Babette Mangolte’, Art in America, 19 February 2010, http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-opinion/finer-things/2010-02-19/five-from-the-whitney-biennial-babette-mangolte/ (accessed 3 August 2010).
Chus Martinez, ‘Whitney Biennial’, Artforum, May 2010, http://www.artforum.com/inprint/id=25449 (accessed 3 August 2010).