In the 1930s, when photography was still quite young, the cultural critic Walter Benjamin voiced his concern about the colossal impact that the ability to mechanically reproduce works of art may have on what he called the “aura” of the artwork – its specialness, in other words. In his preface to Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Paul Valéry put it like this:

“In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, and which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time have been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”

Nearly a hundred years later, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, contemporary conceptual artists operating at the highest level, produce a body of photographic images printed onto the backs of the cardboard boxes in which the precious materials that they usually work with – inks, chemicals and expensive archival paper – are shipped to them. The works formed an exhibition, Bandage the knife not the wound, which showed at Goodman Gallery during April and May. Where once the rareness of an image was a great marker of its value, these days the value curve steepens in direct proportion to how many images of the artwork happen to be hurtling around the internet, being liked at high speed and low resolution. The press release for the show makes it quite clear that one of the intentions of the work is to remark, as Benjamin would have put it, on the degradation of the artwork’s aura in this context – “Dissecting their images along industrial folds and perforations on this cheap, readily available material suggests something frightening about the life of images in the digital age: algorithmic, disposable and further than ever from the original.” But make no mistake about the tizz that must have occurred among the collectors about whether their investment would be worth anything at all within a year, even if that ink is UV-cured onto the surface of that box. (I also wonder whether the gallery’s packaging-spend went up that month – imagine if the cardboard box artwork got crushed in the back seat en route to the framer.)

Clever. Let’s not mess around: these guys are intellectual aristocrats. The work they have produced over the last two decades has been consistently rigorous from a political and conceptual point of view. Scrupulous, elegantly cross-referenced, theoretical frameworks hold each body of work tightly together. They have earned their place in the likes of the Tate and the Centre Georges Pompidou. You can go down the philosophical rabbit hole with Broomberg and Chanarin, and the ride is wild.

This body of work is no different, and I could spend a long time having a rollicking good intellectual wank about how many ways the work satiates, from a cerebral perspective. But there’s something else in it that I found much more interesting, but is almost impossible to pin down. At first I thought it was just because when you’re operating at the level that Broomberg and Chanarin are – up there where the air is clear – you’ve got people hanging on every word: curators and collectors, gallery directors, fair organisers, the media folks. You’re under pressure. No one wants to say anything sufficiently peculiar to cause a leak in the watertight theoretical framework of the project. There’s a spiel; stick to it. 

But then two clues came my way. The first was in the brief conversation I had with Chanarin about the body of work. He began by explaining how the work was made: since their early 20s, when they first bonded over a stubborn piece of IKEA furniture in Wupperthal, the two have made work together in the same space – their shared studio in London. Recently, however, Broomberg has moved to Berlin, while Chanarin has remained in the UK. They share a space in Hamburg, where they are both professors of photography at the University of Fine Arts, but seldom do they physically cross paths. As a result, the making of this body of work mimics the Surrealist parlour game, exquisite corpse: one would print an image onto a cardboard box and leave it for the other to find. The other would then print another image on top, or next to it, contributing their visual thoughts to the creation, and leave it for the next round of commentary. Chanarin described this process as speaking across the void. The implications of expression caught my attention more than anything he could have said about content forms, or metadata, or printing onto the surface of water using UV technology. Of course, the conversation went to all those places when I asked about how the void feels, perhaps because the personal is a very hard thing for a conceptual artist to talk about in the context of his work.

During the course of Bandage the knife not the wound, an erudite talk was held at the Goodman Gallery between Bronwyn Law-Viljoen and the artists, about their practice and all the clever things brought to the table in the exhibition. At some point, Broomberg broke away and tentatively mentioned the optical unconscious, but the thought was quickly washed away in the flow of the intellectual stream. 

The term was my second clue to the elusive quality in this body of work. It was also coined, aptly, by Benjamin in his Short History of Photography (an essay penned a few years prior to The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction), in which he proposed that photography allows us access into an “optical unconscious.” He is referring to the unconscious of the psychoanalysts – the stuff of dreams, the submerged mass of the iceberg. The idea of the optical unconscious was picked up by the art historian Rosalind Krauss, who used the term as the title of a book in which she undermined the mainstream modernism to which she had been committed throughout the 1960s. She broke with “rational opticality”, and intellectual and objective pursuit, in favour of something with a bit more heart, governed by the shadow self of monolithic modernism, by something unconscious.

Through the processing of their separation and the process of making this work, Broomberg and Chanarin have tapped into this under-the-surface region in their own practice. As forensic archivists and pictorial detectives, Broomberg and Chanarin have sought to shed light on the nature of photography in the public and political realm in innovative and penetrating ways. Titles and captions play an important role in their work – as explanation and as a means of adding further layers of information to the visual aspects. Here, they have turned to their own archives, as well as to the images in others’ archives that have remained meaningful to them over time. As a result, and owing to the intuitive way they have allowed one another’s thought threads to overlay through the exquisite corpse play, images of mothers and daughters are interwoven; vulnerable moments captured in the lives of their own children live alongside the mutilated profile of Paolo Pasolini; somebody’s grandfather in his concentration camp stripes and nobody’s stripe-panted Vogue model are printed top to toe. The sepia tone of the cardboard, such a ubiquitous and throw-away material, seeps through the lot, imbuing it with a nostalgia that is simultaneously obvious and obfuscating.

Included in the show are all the substrates onto which the boxes were laid before going through the printer. The images were larger than the irregular cardboard forms, and so what is left on the support structures are empty white spaces, surrounded by palimpsests of everything that was not included – all the things that fall outside the frame. Broomberg and Chanarin have returned to this idea throughout their careers, most often in talking about political liminality. But here, everything outside of the frame is more about that thing on the tip of your tongue that you don’t catch quick enough to say before it slips away into the back of your mind. It’s the dream that you can’t quite remember, but the feeling of which nevertheless haunts you throughout the day. For this show, there is no accompanying explanatory text. There aren’t even any titles. In a time when fine art photography is so slick that it’s slippery, one cannot help but experience this as acquiescence to something of the heart – as uncomfortable or impossible as it is to speak about – and it is deeply nourishing.

WEBSITE www.broombergchanarin.com