Duncan Oja


“Yes, at this time, everything becomes image, and the essence of the image is to be entirely outside, without intimacy, and yet more inaccessible and mysterious than the innermost thought; without signification, but summoning the profundity of every possible meaning; unrevealed and yet manifest, having that presence-absence that constitutes the attraction and the fascination of the Sirens.”
-Maurice Blanchot

I have always been drawn to signage, especially road signs and billboards, images and words jutting out of the passing landscape. Ignoring their specific messages, the signs became symbolic of the general link they create between the physical world and the invisible world of language and concept, metaphors for metaphor. This project became about severing that link, subverting the purpose of the signs, looking at them in a way that hides their intended message and makes them only objects, signifiers without their signified, monuments of absence. From behind we see the signs as things in themselves; their abstract message replaced by form.

The photographs are largely taken over several cross-country road trips. Spending weeks alone on the road, I became very interested in the process of my project: the idea of trying so hard to get to the wrong side of something, traveling so far and looking so hard for an absence or lack of something. I liked very much the idea of taking meaning away from the scene in front of me instead of trying to bring some outside meaning to it. I was of course, also looking for something, an aesthetic presence; taking away meaning while creating it. From behind the signs, there is a simultaneous feel of presence and absence and the play between the two is what I came to enjoy most about this work.

There is something very photographic about this presence of absence and about creating meaning through taking meaning away. A photograph gives us a feeling of presence, because it is a record of a thing that has been and has a real relationship to it. But, it also gives us one of absence or distance, because that moment is gone and the precise thing exists only in the photograph. There is also something inherently subtractive about the medium – the image is given a frame and the moment is frozen, picked out from the flux of the world in front of the camera. It is of course also creative, information is taken away but what is left takes on a new meaning.

A photograph, somewhat like a sign, creates a link between the physical world and an imaginative, metaphoric one. More like the backs of signs than the fronts, the meaning of my photographs is somewhat ambiguous and left to the viewer, they are intended to stand alone outside of any conceptual framework, as the signs become only objects and find a place in the landscape.

Duncan Oja was born in West Virginia and raised in Northern California. He received his B.A. in photography from Bard College in 2011. Since graduating, Duncan has exhibited throughout New York City, and in the upstate area where he lives and works. He has two upcoming solo shows in 2013, one with Sawkille co. in Rhinebeck, NY, and one in ARC Gallery in Chicago, IL.

Duncan’s work focuses on the American landscape and the culture of interstate travel. His photographs are often about people, but rarely of them. He is more interested in the structures that we create, inhabit, and leave behind. His work often returns to a feeling of simultaneous presence and absence.

Artist’s Website: duncanoja.com