Tony Ward: Tableaux Vivants 1993 to 2000
“My visual dialogue is based on the premise that life is the play – and display – of creation. I agree with Shakespeare that “all the world’s a stage.,” an endless enigmatic production with moments of great joy, sorrow and surprise. Surprise is a magical element that I try to create in a tableau process.
Tableaux are my vehicle. The cast of characters consists of friends, acquaintances, lovers or strangers who enjoy the performance of being photographed. Like the jazz-fusion artist I look for the odd juxtapositions, the unexpected mise en scene or multicultural influences that sometimes create a new or ambiguous view of the world.
The Tableaux Vivants of Tony Ward
Essay by Zenon M. Feszczak
Tony Ward brilliantly redefines the tableau vivant through his photography. His images aim to intrigue, to challenge, to inspire, to convey a renewed sense of beauty while confronting pre-existing sensibilities. This Art is shaped via both its inherent creative process and its purposes, implicit and explicit, conscious and unconscious, intentional and unintentional.
Process is integral to the photographic Art of Tony Ward. The viewer’s full appreciation of the work depends on apprehending this essential synthesis of process and result. In contrast to an exclusive valuation of result at the expense of process, this work values the means as embodied in the end, dual aspects equally relevant to the artwork. This process-awareness immediately and powerfully connects the Art to life itself, and viscerally involves the viewer in the fascinating visual narrative.
The tableau vivant (“living painting”), the silent and motionless representation or re-creation of a preconceived scene by live actors, follows a rich and contradictory history, and Tony Ward’s modern reinterpretation is further evolution of the aesthetic.
The tableau form is related to theatrical or performance art, fusing an improvisational aspect with the dramatically staged. Traditionally, the form takes its inspiration from existing artworks. In the Middle Ages, the form was used mainly for recreating Biblical scenes. In the 19th century, the aristocracy served an educational didactic function, aimed at an reinforcing traditional conservative values and instilling aesthetic sophistication. On the other hand, tableaux, also served as an artful circumvention of legal, moral, and conventional restrictions on displays of nudity. At the furthest extreme from religious concerns, the Marquis de Sade aimed to enact extreme private and public tableaux, and his controversial literature itself has been formally compared to the tableau. Much has been made of the theatricality of Sade’s literature in the writing of Michael Foucault, amongst others.
The photographic tableaux of Tony Ward draw their inspiration from the imagination, rather than from other pre-existing artworks. These unique tableaux allow for both the capture of a planned scene, and the selection of the creative accident.
The image here exists as an endpoint, or better midpoint, a single frame of both a creative and narrative process. Ambiguity encourages multiple interpretations, intriguing the viewer, raise questions, challenging the viewer to assume an active rather than passive role to the image.
Is a photograph reality or illusion? These images cross boundaries of reality, unreality, dis-reality. The work challenges the preconceived borders between reality, illusion, reality and representation, real and ideal.
Pure photography differs fundamentally from other representative visual methods in that the depicted scenes necessarily existed, at least for the duration of the film exposure. As Ward refrains from later editing of the photographic contents, this process forces the actors to interact, and this real interaction itself affects the final artistic result, an effect impossible to realize via the contrasting collage approach.
These images are fantasies incarnate, their ephemeral nature and spirit captured: at once created scenes of the imagination, yet which necessarily occurred in the arena of reality. Fantasies, but in this sense “real” fantasies.
The improvisational aspect enhances and vitalizes the work. Ward begins with an imaginative idea, the topography of an image, including setting, costumes, characters, relationships, motifs. The idea then evolves collaboratively over the process of creation. The actors themselves contribute to the improvisation, and enhance the result with their own characters and vision. Ward expresses a deep affinity for the inventive and experimental nature of improvisational jazz fusion, especially the ceaselessly progressive music of the late Miles Davis. As with this musical idiom, these visual works are at once playful and purposeful, an aesthetic fusion of disparate elements into a novel and harmonious unity.
“Life is Play”: Tony Ward offers this deceptively simple statement of his philosophy. In his Art, life exists as game and theater, playful yet serious. The work is intrinsically designed to pose questions, to encourage the viewer to think critically, to draw the viewer into the scene. The audience is challenged to enter into a philosophical dialogue with the work.
Ward modestly declines to identify an ultimate purpose or motivation for his Art, characterizing that purpose as irreducible to verbal expression or formulaic interpretation, explaining that the aspects of that purpose are unconscious and subconscious motives to the act of creation.
Yet clearly there is purpose to the work, as expressed in the language of the images. One must, of course, view and experience the Art itself to truly assess its intent. These images aim to visually intrigue, to encourage exploration of one’s own mind, to fascinate and perhaps elucidate, to inspire a sense of wonder. Elements combine, variously beautiful and shocking humorous and dramatic.
Tony Ward is his own critic and judge, at once creator and enlightened viewer. He considers an image successful if he judges it an original and deeply moving and challenging aesthetic work. As the two-dimensional image takes on the problematic challenge of competing with three dimensional reality for the viewer’s attention, silently impinging on only the visual sense where reality calls on all one’s faculties, the image must aim to evoke or provoke a forceful response from the viewer. That immediate response may be positive or negative, but ideally the internal dialogue engendered by this reaction will be positive.
Recurring themes occupy the content of these images: power, sexuality, gender roles, racial issues, lives alternative or entirely alien to the mainstream, human relationships, ideas and ideals of beauty, normality, reality and illusion. Much of the work’s power can be attributed to the effective juxtaposition of opposites or seeming opposites, creating beguiling and often unexpected contrasts. The captured narratives are open to various interpretations as moral tales.
Character archetypes of various sorts appear repeatedly in unexpected contexts. Contrasts are utilized symbolically: clothing and nudity, light and darkness, male and female. Even the ubiquitous eroticism is not always what it seems, with sexuality and power at times cynical, yet hardly nihilistic. A sense of joi de vivre still pervades Ward’s Art.
These metaphorical works offer only a tantalizing narrative fragment; the remainder is left to the viewer’s imagination. The artist will not spoil the opportunity by revealing a fixed narrative.
In one rather romantic view of aesthetics, Art requires no further justification, as long as it comprises the “true” expression of the self. Aesthetic experience is of intrinsic value, and needs no further justification as means to a utilitarian end. In that view, there is no need to be concerned with the reactions of others. This view represents only half of the story of these images.
The photography of Tony Ward embodies values balanced between the aesthetics of beauty and self-expression and a utilitarian aesthetic. His artistic values hybridize those of the pure aesthete and of the commentator with social conscience. He creates the Art first for himself – for his own internal critic – and then hopes that the result will bring the ideal response from others. Art is then defined as events in the minds of both the creator and viewer.
Regarding the specific aesthetic of the work, the immediate beauty of the textural photographs themselves is superimposed on the erotic beauty of the content. The images convey a generally classical sense of balance, composition, proportion, and of the human form in statuesque and dramatic poses. Where the Art strays far from classicism is in content, via the range of humanity encompassed. The work creates a new mythology with its own archetypes, drawing elements from surrealism and symbolism.
The aesthetic experience here is not intended as a passive perception of the work. Rather, the viewer is invited to imaginatively enter into the often erotically alien world of the work.
Does art have moral content? Can aesthetics be separated from morality? Kant considered the beautiful to be the symbol of the morally good. Contemporary views generally consider the two realms of aesthetics and morality is distinct. Nevertheless, this modern approach does not necessarily negate the possibility of their coexistence in a work.
Many thinkers have considered the defining characteristic of art per se to be its redeeming social utilitarian value. Ancient philosophical views were often sympathetic to this view, as in the Platonic view of life imitating Art imitating life suggested an immense ethical responsibility for the artist. Tolstoy adhered to an extreme ethical standard, rejecting most of his own work as a failure. In this view, Art’s goal is the elevation of one’s moral character, while providing insight into reality.
In this sense, Tony Ward’s Art is more moderate, avoiding the extremes of iconoclastic hedonism and of authorization proselytization. Ironically, for the frequently explicit and sensuous subject matter, the tableaux fundamentally confront ethical and moral issues. The photographer here suggests difficult questions on society and values, refraining from preaching preordained answers.
In the descriptive functionalist view of Art, Art is taken to serve a certain end, whether the artist intends it so or not. And so here, there is often a moral to the fractured narrative subject matter. This work takes a visual and modern Socratic approach of forcing its audience to confront internal preconceptions critically. This Art challenges both our aesthetic and moral preconceptions, offering a broadened horizon of beauty and values. The image should invite the viewer into dialogue and confrontation with the inherent issues.
Is the photographer’s eye for his lens, as it were, transparent? Can anyone be absolutely objective in their narration? Representative art in general, and these images in particular, exist in the ambiguous zone between objectivity and subjectivity.
Marcel Duchamp exemplified with his infamous pranks, even to select an object as subject is already an aesthetic judgement, and so defines the process of Art. Ward, of course, selects his subjects, scene and settings, though not necessarily with a preconceived idea of the effect. Rather, he mixes distinct elements in an empirical alchemy. Furthermore, his technique and aesthetic decisions – lighting, distance, angle, proximity, even the darkroom processing and cropping of the image, the selection or rejection of the image – must realize his personal viewpoint and vision.
In Zen Buddhism, satori is a state of awakening or enlightenment. In this ideal state, there exists no distinction between knower and known. The goal of these tableaux is the inspiration of an aesthetic, emotional, and intellectual satori in the viewer. Beyond the transient experience of the work, the aim is to inspire something of more lasting value, to enrich the life of the viewer. The element of surprise is essential here, in circumventing the preset defenses of the audience and shocking the viewer into developing new ideas.
An aspect of education or edification pervades this work, but intentionally general rather than strict. This Art’s aim is to teach an appreciation of the world in all its diversity, to force one to consider one’s ethical, social, aesthetic, moral preconceptions critically, and to arrive at one’s own conclusions.
If, in the process of viewing the work, one experiences internal contradictions in one’s worldview – a likely scenario, given the complexity of human character – then ideally, one will be motivated to seek answers and resolutions. In the Platonic/Socratic theory of knowledge, learning is an awakening of what is already in us, rather than an injection of something novel. Similarly, Tony Ward’s Art encourages the viewer to seek answers within oneself, and aims to open the mind’s eye to this possibility. While this Art seems to foster what may at times be non-Platonic “virtues”, nevertheless the intent is idealistic. The artist then functions as a unique teacher, a challenger to complacency and numbness.
Tony Ward claims not to have in mind any specific social or political goal. The desired enlightenment is of a more general form, yet the underlying theme persists, of accepting various ways of life, tolerance and even a sense of unification, empathy and inclusiveness, showing beauty in many different ways of life: the unification of a divided and divisive culture.
By representing lives one might never directly encounter, the Art dares one to identify with others perhaps presumed unacceptable or inconceivably different, even frightening. Such an aesthetic experience becomes a virtual shared cultural (or subcultural) experience.
Tony Ward modestly calls himself a “cultural observer with a camera”. In fact, he also offers a social commentary, critical without being authoritarian. Yet he does also document fascinating aspects of our culture. As he explains, he is creating his Art for future anthropologists, a unique and distinctive record and interpretation of our times to perhaps inspire a satori in future generations.
The desired personal effect of this Art is to enrich and enliven the world of the audience. By confronting viewers with their own latent inner conflicts, this Art can initiate a process of inner harmonization, an ordering of psychological chaos. If one consider conflict intrinsic to human existence, this presentation of extremes leads us higher on a ladder of conflicts and resolutions, in which one progresses to increasingly sophisticated levels of dialectic development. Perhaps more pessimistically, one could say Art is an expression or exploration of fundamental and endemic internal conflicts, which perhaps can at best only be known but never resolved. Yet this work seems more positive, in that it apparently encourages us to progressively evolve.
These tableaux vivants lead us to difficult and valuable questions, to know oneself via the mediation of the living image: “What is my response to this work?” “Which images represent fantasies or fears?” “What does this tell me about myself?” “Do I accept what I see in myself through this work?”
The Art of Tony Ward should ideally enrich the lives of its audience as individuals. Such a goal is realizable via the philosophical aim of encouraging an internal dialogue with object of Art. The tableaux vivants confront the viewer with profound questions, conveyed through beauty and even humor, intriguing through their enigmatic composition, challenging and enlivening our worldview.
Editor’s Note: A signed copy of Tony Ward’s monograph, Tableaux Vivants is available in Store here: http://tonywardstudio.com/shopping-cart/tony-ward-books-bonus-gift/
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