Archive for June, 2012
Last and First Men. Towards a New Anthropology is the title of a group exhibition currently held at The Library Space in Battersea which explores the relationship between contemporary art practice and anthropological discourse. The exhibition is organized by Armsden, a new art venture dedicated to promoting emerging and mid-career artists through an ambitious programme of off-site exhibitions. The all-wood antique bookshelves of The Library Space provide an intriguing backdrop to the eclectic, colourful and intellectually challenging works on display. Rather than being weighed down by the historically dense relationship between anthropology and art practice (Surrealism for instance), the exhibition provides a fresh interpretation of how contemporary artists tackle cultural differences, myth and ritual.
Sculptures, perhaps because of their size and intricacy, appear to dominate the exhibition. Jan Crombie’s series of works produced from found objects, for instance, function as a metaphor for the act of collecting, archiving and categorizing so central to the task of the anthropologist. Likewise, Vincent Chevillon’s sculpture Moonfleet’s Matriarch (Spermwhaler’s Dream), in which the smooth surface of natural wood stands in contrast to a harsh, even menacing-looking iron construction, evokes a clash between nature and culture. Many works in the show similarly reference the centrality of the binary opposition in anthropology as made popular by Claude Lévi-Strauss’ classic study, The Raw and the Cooked. The exhibition is, however, no reductive juxtaposition of cultural differences, but rather, the work appears to comment on the validity of such juxtaposition between cultures in the first place.
This refreshingly new approach is perhaps most evident in a series of photographs produced by the artist Namsa Leuba. Born and raised in her father’s Switzerland, Leuba travelled to her mother’s homeland Guinea Conakry to produce a striking set of images, each of which depict an individual dressed, draped, wrapped, or painted in an unusual way. The series taps into rituals, cosmology and ceremonies practiced in Guinean culture. In the photographs, Leuba consciously appears to ‘construct’ a representation of her subjects by not only producing the photograph, but also, by constructing the way the subject represents him- or herself. Even the titles of the photographs on display, each beginning with the francophone term ‘Statuette’, imply that the artist makes no secret of literally objectifying the individuals that she photographs. In that sense, the various ‘statuettes’ that Leuba photographed establish a cunning aesthetic and conceptual link to the sculptures on display in the context of the gallery.
One aspect in Leuba’s impressive body of work requires particular attention. Straddling the cultural gap between a country she has biological roots to and a country she grew up in, the photographs clearly decontextualize the ‘sacredness’ of the rituals not only in the act of photographing, but also in the act of exhibiting the work (not least in this very exhibition). Yet rather than pretending to produce a representation of a ‘real’ ritual in Guinea, Leuba’s constructed photographs allude to a Western construction of ‘Africa’, a construction of the ‘Other’, a construction of ‘that which is not me’. Here, Leuba’s photographs refer to far more than ritualistic practices in Guinea; rather, they depict a construction of a Western discourse that historically equated ‘Africa’ with myths and rituals.
The photographs are therefore also noteworthy for aspects of modern Africa that are clearly excluded from the photographs. Leuba’s highly subjective interpretations of Guinean rituals puts into question the fallible notion – historically embraced by anthropologists in particular – that photographs produce ‘truthful’ and ‘accurate’ representations of cultural artifacts. If anything, Leuba’s photographs are evidence of a visual game in which the artist also questions the viewer’s expectations of an imagined ‘Africa’.
For those interested in the complex relationship between photography and anthropology, please read Christopher Pinney’s Photography and Anthropology. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.
The photography gallery C/O Berlin has recently experienced a paint bomb attack on a publicity image which depicts a woman’s genital area and which is poignantly displayed in full view of the public above the entrance of the gallery. In the photograph by the American photographer Larry Clark, just above the subject’s pubic hair is a small tattoo which reads ‘Larry’. The tattoo fulfils an important function in the photograph as it reads as a type of artist signature. Yet rather than signifying the authenticity of the photograph, here, ‘Larry’ didn’t make his mark on a work of art, but rather, he made his mark on a body, a female body.
The tattoo literally re-inscribes the old orthodoxy of female subject ‘captured’ by the male photographer. ℅ Berlin quite consciously selected this image for their main publicity as it immediately introduces the viewer to Clark’s contentious and highly voyeuristic body of work. Placing the work above the entrance of the gallery is an obvious provocation to the public, as if to suggest that entering the gallery is metaphorically entering the body of Clark’s subject. The image seeks to forebode the experience of viewing Clark’s work: a highly intimate and personal encounter with those he photographs. Similar to the visual aesthetics of pornography however, here the body is entirely fragmented, cropped, even displaced from any social or political context with the exception of the word ‘Larry’.
The paint bomb attack raises a number of interesting questions. In the first instance, what and/or who was attacked? The photograph? The anonymous subject? The photographer as the person responsible for the representation? Or the gallery, as the institution responsible for displaying the work to the public? And who was the potential attacker? A group or an individual opposed to the representation of the naked body in public places? In the context of Berlin’s complex history, this attack is particularly relevant. In 1900, following a crackdown on urban vice emanating most notably from Berlin’s illustrious nightlife, the parliament of Imperial Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II put in place an ‘Obscenity Law’, also referred to as Lex Heinze, which stated the following: “Imprisonment of up to one year and a fine of up to one-thousand Mark, or one of those punishments, will be enforced on those who … are in the possession of, sell or distribute obscene [unzüchtige] writings, images or representations in places that are accessible to the public, including their exhibition …” This law, written in the archaic language of a crumbling empire, illustrates that Berlin, before Paris, London or New York, has historically been at the forefront of navigating the question of what constitutes obscenity. Art, may it be photography, painting, theatre, cabaret, consistently pushed against these definitions to the extent that Berlin remained a hot bed for subculture and radical art until the 1930s. In other words, Berlin has a history of seeking a definition of obscenity in view of the public.
With regard to Larry Clark’s photograph, rather than looking at the paint destroying the image, it might be useful to consider what the paint actually contributes to it. In this context, the red colour of the paint bomb signifies a woman’s menstrual cycle, or, metaphorically speaking, the blood signifies the lived condition of the female body. Visitors to the gallery will be vividly confronted with this metaphorical blood as it drips from the image on to the steps of the gallery. This new version of Larry Clark’s photograph bears similarities with the work of feminist artist such Carolee Schneemann or, more recently, Yurie Nagashima.
The intention of the attackers – if they even be called that – might never be known. They might have been a group of radical interventionist, seeking to highlight the pornofication of the female body. A cynic might even say that the gallery is ultimately profiting from the extra publicity produced by the German media (and of course this blog) which results in more awareness of the Larry Clark exhibition. The answers to who threw the paint bomb for what reasons will likely remain unanswered. Yet what can be deduced from the attack is that the image clearly had an affect on an individual or a group, to the extend that they went through the trouble of throwing the paint bomb. In other words, the image caused a reaction which outweighed the financial, physical, psychological and legal ramifications of being caught. The paint bomb not only functions as an homage to the vulnerability of the body, but it also functions as a reminder that a definition of obscenity – particularly in Berlin – is a constantly shifting, unpredictable and sometimes contradictory discourse.
For more on the relationship between art, the female body and obscenity, please read Linda Nead’s classic book The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.
Alluding to a mock dictionary that the French surrealist Georges Bataille edited for the journal Documents, David Evans’ book Critical Dictionary is an eclectic, enlightening and at times humorous collection of images, essays, interviews and puns largely concerned with the way photography and photographs can be conceptualized. Rather than editing information in the order of artists’ or authors’ names however, in the Critical Dictionary images and texts are ordered under a wide variety of umbrella terms ranging from ‘Algeria’ to ‘ZG’ (an independent journal which went into ‘hibernation’ in 1986). Like in Bataille’s project, Evans does not claim that the Critical Dictionary is in any way complete. Rather, by presenting the reader with an extremely subjective selection of about fifty words in total, Evans alludes to the fact that no dictionary is, or can be, complete. A dictionary is always a culturally specific and ideologically charged selection of information.
The artists and writers selected for the book, ranging from historic figures such as Ernst Jünger to contemporary artists such as Mark Bolland, tend to use photography as a means to articulate and express ideas. As a result, the majority of images presented in the book are politically charged, or, at the very least, evocative of a critical engagement with forms of representation. This should not suggest however that the selected photographs are somehow embedded in codes of representation that are too complex to decipher. In fact, the most simple concepts at times produce the most surprising results. Penelope Umbrico’s collection of photographs depicting sunsets she found on the image-sharing website Flickr reflects the universal desire to capture a natural phenomenon in all its glory. Umbrico’s collection of anonymously taken photographs is extremely homogenous, with the setting sun always in the centre of the photograph. At the same time differences in weather conditions, colour, and pixelation suggest that man’s ritualistic relationship with photography produces subtle variations beyond the homogeneity of the subject.
Another project that appears to comment on our complex relationship with the image is Paola Di Bello’s La Disparition. Here, the artist photographed maps of the Paris Metro displayed in or near Metro stations. Indicative of people trying to locate themselves on the maps with their index fingers, Di Bello’s photographic montage ingeniously reveals that the maps are unusually worn precisely at the spot where people believe they are located. The more frequently the Metro station is used, the more the location of the station on the map is worn. This rather tactile way of encountering an image (both the map and the photograph of the map) is noticeable in the Critical Dictionary as a whole: a number of photographs were scanned in such a way that the reproduction almost appears to hover on the page. An image accompanying the dictionary entry ‘Ghost Image’ purposefully appears three dimensional on the page.
Evans’ witty and often unsuspecting humour is best displayed in a number of interviews accompanying the book. For instance, Evans appears to take the contemporary artist Candice Breitz completely off guard with a peculiar discussion of whether she produces ‘films’ or ‘art’. Equally, contributions by the anonymous group Al Gebra hint at the fact that Evans’ nod to the surrealists inevitably also includes a good dosage of play. As such, the book covers a wide and diverse range of ‘dictionary’ terms, which also evoke a wide range of emotional responses with photography, the way it is produced, consumed and conceptualized, always at its centre.
Critical Dictionary edited by David Evans is available as a book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.