Archive for October, 2012
Edited by the London based photographer Rut Blees Luxemburg, Seeing For Others brings together the work of 21 individuals studying photography at the Royal College of Art between 2011 and 2012. The concept for the book is at once simple yet also equally complex: the students were asked to anonymously write down their dreams, ‘real or invented’ as it says in the manual to the book. They selected a dream blindfolded, while this random selection would then become the starting point for a series of photographs produced in response to the dream. The two elements in the book, the original dream and the photographs derived from that dream, are each connected by a text written by the German philosopher Alexander García Düttmann. Via this quasi-social experiment, the book can be seen to uncover, through word and image, the latent meaning of dreamscapes.
The viewer will feel the urge to search for key passages mentioned in the dream: the dreamer’s father, a black cat, a sexual encounter and so forth. The interpretation of the dream is however rarely straightforward and these imaginary subjects remain unrepresented in the photographs. Rather, the students appeared to have interpreted the dream on a metaphorical and psychoanalytical level. In response to a dream about the opening of doors and entrances for instance, in Nebule I & II Theo Niderost photographed lusciously green fern growing in mist and fog. The photograph is devoid of any detail as the viewer tries to distinguish where and how the image was taken. This lack of clarity signifies the uncertainty of not knowing of what lies behind the imaginary doors of the original dream.
Another dream addresses the notion of feeling out of sync with the world. In the dream this impression is triggered by a bus driver who, unusually, accepts foreign currency. The photographic interpretation appears less concerned with the detail of the narrative of the dream, than it is with the lasting feeling the dream has evoked. To achieve this, Jolanta Dolewska photographed the barren concrete walls of what appears to be an industrial site. The walls are lit by a lamp, the wires of which precariously dangle from the ceiling. The harsh lines of the interior architecture are visually penetrated by the haphazard lighting system and the awkward wires attached to it. In this case, the out-of-syncness is evoked by the light, which, although not entirely out of place, does not completely ‘fit’ into its environment either.
Given that dreams are often strung together from multiple experiences and encounters, a number of students responded to the dream in the form of a collage or images layered upon each other. Here, in other words, the deconstructed and perhaps confusing narrative of the dream is in fact emphasised in the very format of representation. Considering that the dreamers are artists and photographers, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of the dreams are inherently visual. One student wrote his dream in the form of a mini screenplay which even included the type of cinematic shot (medium long shot, close up etc.) the dream was perceived in. This particular case vividly illustrates that the division between image and word is perhaps more blurry than might first be assumed. Here, the initial starting point for a visual interpretation is not as much based on words, but rather, it is based on words describing an imagined visual experience.
An essay at the end of the book, written by the head of the Royal College of Art Photography department Olivier Richon, adds a thought-provoking art historical and philosophical dimension to the project. As a result of the various visual and textual elements in the book, Seeing For Others can be read and looked at like a puzzle of the imagination – a puzzle that will never be fully completed yet the viewer is still absorbed in putting the different pieces together. III Originally published at photomonitor.co.uk.
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The exhibition ‘Geschlossene Gesellschaft’, literally translated as the closed or the shuttered society, is a survey of art photography in the German Democratic Republic 1949-1989 currently on display in the Berlinische Gallerie in Berlin. It is a timely exhibition which brings together the works of artists and photographers working in East Germany under the heavy weight of state censorship, political repression and growing social dissent until the eventual collapse of the GDR in 1989. The official art form endorsed by the state was called ‘socialist realism’: an integral element employed by the regime to promote the benefits of socialism and maintain order amongst the masses. Yet rather than succumbing to the brutal ideology of Stalinism in the GDR, the photographers in this exhibition appear to question this ideology by representing a society constantly investigating and questioning its identity and place in the world.
Many photographs on display initially appear to represent a harmonious relationship with the regime. For instance, Jens Rötzsch’s photograph shows a group of young women waiting to perform for the spring meeting of the Free German Youth – the official communist youth movement of the GDR. While the woman in the foreground obligingly smiles, the expressions of her compatriots further back in the image are far less laden with celebration. This was June 1989 and the regime was already crumbling from within. Erasmus Schröter’s photograph ‘Woman in Red’ is a candid reference to the dominance of communist ideology in the GDR. On closer investigation, the woman’s expressionless face signifies a sense of numbness provoked by a lack of freedom and a lack of opportunities in the dying years of the GDR.
Peter Oehlmann’s photograph of so-called Plattenbauten, mass housing-estates, on the outskirts of East Berlin is an eerie document of the socially and culturally impoverished living conditions millions of East German citizens were subjected to. In Oehlmann’s photograph, this urban landscape is represented like a labyrinth out of which there is no escape. Matthias Hoch’s photograph of the interior of a Mitropa canteen in a train station appears to ridicule the working conditions in the GDR: with the exception of two hours in the morning, the canteen is open from midnight to midnight every day of the week. Hoch photographed public places at night so that that they appeared like empty theatre stages. In the photograph, the repetitive cycle of work, commute, eat and sleep is punctuated by a cluster of rather pathetic looking plants on the top of the food display. The image is a depressing remnant of an amazingly inefficient and labour-intensive socialist system.
Despite being locked into a repressive regime, the title of the exhibition ‘Shuttered Society’ is nevertheless slightly misleading. Precisely because East Germany was so closed off from the rest of the world, particularly from the capitalist West, young East Germans looked to the West with a growing sense of curiousity. It is impossible therefore to view Sven Marquard’s 1986 photograph of a male nude without reference to the American photographer Nan Goldin. In fact, Goldin has visited and lived in West Berlin since the early 1980s. Goldin once said: “The only place I feel myself and comfortable and feel real love for my friends is Berlin.” Goldin’s iconic slideshow “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” was first shown in Berlin’s Kino Arsenal Cinema in 1984 and had a tremendous impact on the artistic community at the time. Marquard’s image is likely evidence that the wave of Goldin’s impact would splash over the concrete structures of the Berlin Wall from West to East Germany.
Artists working in the GDR were under the constant threat of professional marginalization, surveillance, political pressure and state punishment if they fell out of favour with the regime. It is therefore understandable that most photographs on display are subtil and cryptic in their apparent criticism. An exception is Matthias Leupold’s photograph of a young man standing up in a 3D cinema, shouting at the screen with anger, while others continue to watch the film. This stunt was set up by the photographer and a friend, both of whom were immediately kicked out of the theatre after causing a ruckus. The photograph poignantly references the growing dissent in a political system which was finally brought to its knees, not by military force or foreign intervention, but by its own people. III Originally published on the foam blog.
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This month two years ago I started this blog. I am nostalgically looking back at my first post on the infamous TV footage of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s final speech. Hoping that this post will not by my final speech, I want to thank you, my readers, for reading this blog. Without your continued interest in my writing, I would have given up a long time ago. Your comments and feedback over the past two years make me understand that I am not writing for an anonymous mass, but rather, that I am writing for real people who share my passion for photography and visual culture. For this, I want to thank you.
Since its inception in October 2010, the Visual Culture Blog blog has grown and expanded thanks to the continued interest of our readers. In order to recuperate the increasing cost of running and maintain the blog (mainly hosting fees and technical support), I have introduced a voluntary paid subscription scheme. I want to thank those who took the time to respond to my online survey which provided me with a lot of positive feedback for this scheme. Those who enjoy reading the blog and those who have an expendable income are welcome to pay a voluntary monthly subscription fee of either $2, $5 or $10 deducted via Paypal. How much you want to contribute or even if you want to contribute at all is entirely up to you. With or without your contribution I am grateful for your interest in the blog and I hope you will continue to read it in the future.
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