Archive for the ‘Memory’ Category
War’s End: An Island of Remembrance is Kirk Palmer latest film installation which interrogates the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is the third film of a trilogy which began with the visually arresting piece Murmur in 2006 and Hiroshima in 2007 – a nuanced and subtle portrait of a city which has seemingly overcome its troubled past. With War’s End from 2012, Palmer’s deep and intense involvement with the subject matter comes to a befitting finale.
The 40-minute film was made on Yakushima, an island in the south of the Japanese archipelago. In a dramatic opening sequence, a NASA satellite image not only indicates the precise geographic location of this island, but also hints at the reason why it became notorious in relation to the atomic bombings. As a natural landmark in the East China Sea, with an unusually high mountain of nearly 2000 metres, it was the meeting point of the US Air Force bombers that dropped a nuclear bomb on Nagasaki on the 9th of August 1945. In order to avoid all radio contact, and thus make itself undetectable to the Japanese Army, the US Air Force habitually relied on visual markers as rendezvous points to complete secret missions. Lead by a B-29 endearingly named Bockscar, the bombers circled Yakushima for 40 minutes – the precise length of Palmer’s film – before they began their approach together to Nagasaki. The delay over Yakushima ultimately prevented the bomb from being dropped on the city of Kokura, which was the primary target, and as a result Nagasaki’s fate was sealed.
In complete contrast to the horrifying and traumatic events of a war that was, by all accounts, already over, Palmer’s film is a collection of carefully paced shots that depict an island so beautiful and visually captivating that it seems utterly surreal. Filmed with high definition equipment, Palmer purposefully transports the viewer into a world of subtropical nature, crystal clear rivers, waterfalls, marshes, slowly changing cloud formations and a constant mist lingering in the mountains of this otherworldly island. Similar to a still image, each shot is carefully constructed, often by using natural elements as a self-referential framing device. An ancient tree, said to be one of the oldest trees in the world, becomes a re-occurring motif in this beautiful montage. The slow pace and rhythm of this film is further emphasized by one shot dissolving into another. Aesthetically, the sublime landscape shots in War’s End are evocative of Romanticist painting while the textures and details of the subtropical fauna perhaps allude to the work of Henri Rousseau.
Yet it would be misleading to place too much emphasis on the seemingly overindulgent aesthetics of the film. They are only one part in a complex narrative. An intense and reverberating sound, not too dissimilar to the long horn sound in the film Inception, ads a dark twist throughout the film. The sound in War’s End actually originates from the Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki which rings its bells every year on the 9th of August in remembrance of the victims of the atomic bombings. Palmer slowed his original recording of the bells to dramatic effect. The haunting sound and the aesthetically pleasing visuals create a film that is at once meditative and tranquil, as it is ambiguous and unsettling.
In Palmer’s work, the visual experience of the film is replicated in the physical setting where the film is presented. For instance Murmur, which was first screened at the Royal College of Art in 2006, not only stood out for its sublimely beautiful depiction of bamboo slowly waving in the wind in the ancient city of Kyoto. The visual experience of the short black and white film was also dramatically underscored by a completely blacked-out room. The carpet on the floor, especially installed for the film installation, firstly allowed viewers to sit on the floor and secondly, it ‘softened’ the sound emitting from the screen. In this context, I am therefore quite consciously referring to film installations. Palmer’s attention to detail with regard to the presentation of the film in the context of the gallery is comparable to the meticulously detailed video work of the Belgian artist David Claerbout.
The location, the aesthetics, the sound, the pacing, the length and even the presentation of War’s End are all deeply metaphorical. In one sense, this is a film about a beautiful island in the south of Japan. Yet to another extent, this is a film about the many ambiguities of war and the seemingly banal sequence of events that create and end wars in the first place. One cannot help but wonder what would have happened if the B-29 bombers couldn’t find the misty mountains of Yakushima. Or what if they confused Yakushima with another island and consequently get lost in the East China Sea. If they circled Yakushima longer than 40 minutes, when would they have to abandon the mission because of a lack of fuel? What if? What if? What if?
While watching War’s End, I couldn’t help but think of Keisuke Kinoshita’s classic film 24 Eyes from 1954. The film tells the story of a schoolteacher and her students on a remote island called Shodoshima. The film captures a section of Japanese society at peace with itself, yet struggling to cope with increasing nationalism, militarization and, towards the end, all out war. Like Palmer’s film, 24 Eyes is noteworthy for its beauty and aesthetics which seemingly stand in complete contrast to the ugliness of war.
The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan has argued that trauma is partially defined by the fact that it cannot be represented. A holocaust survivor might be able to retell the horrors of the concentration camps, yet the trauma he or she has suffered can never be fully represented in any visual or textual medium. Instead, Palmer’s film seems to suggest, this trauma can only be referenced on a metaphorical level. The trauma of the Real (with a capital ‘R’) remains unknown. The importance of metaphor is emphasized in the last few minutes of War’s End: filmed from an airplane, the clouds that are gathering above and around Yakushima are eerily reminiscent of the giant cloud formation taking shape above Nagasaki after the bomb was dropped.
Palmer’s films are subtle and carefully constructed observations that allow the viewer to make subjective interpretations. In his own words, Palmer does not wish to be ‘didactic’ and as a result, his films are deeply ambiguous and metaphorical. Watching his trilogy is akin to a form of meditation that not only questions our relationship to memory and trauma, but ultimately, it questions our relationship with the image purporting to communicate this trauma. III Originally published on photomonitor.co.uk.
Kirk Palmer‘s recent works will be exhibited at Paradise Row Gallery, London from 15 March to 13 April, 2013.
Lisa Barnard’s new photobook Chateau Despair was born out of a commissioned photo-project in which she documented the abandoned Conservative Central Office at 32 Smith Square – HQ for the Tories from 1958 to 2004. The majority of images in the book are interior photographs of a building that has lost its place in the world. Scratched walls, empty hallways, missing appliances – these are the signifiers of architectural decline. The overall impression of malaise is underscored by the colour blue, the official colour of the Conservative Party. The images are purposefully ‘cold’: both in terms of colour symbolism and in terms of Barnard’s dispassionate photographic methodology.
Barnard makes some surprising discoveries in the abandoned building: a forgotten pair of shoes, a tear in the shape of a laughing mouth cut into a studio backdrop, or, what appears to be, a bright red rocket leaning against the wall. These photographs, subtly humorous yet still matter-of-fact depictions of an interior space, are strongly reminiscent of the work by the Canadian photographer Lynne Cohen. Despite the lack of people in these images, the presence of man is emphasized by these quirky interventions.
Looming over this body of work are a number of scanned images depicting the former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Her status as political and ideological icon in the UK is emphasized by including several seemingly identical images of her. Although in each image she is shown with the same bright red lipstick, the same immaculate hair, and the same confident smile into the camera, each image differs slightly from the others, as well as to the extent it has physically deteriorated. Watermarks and dirt are creeping up on them, while a fingerprint gives an indication on the actual size of the original photograph. The decline of the building is thus mirrored by the imperfections represented in the damaged portrait of Thatcher.
Inasmuch as the photobook documents the remains of a once-thriving party headquarters, the project also alludes to Thatcher’s immense impact on political, economic and social issues in the UK. Her knowing smile not only affects our reading of the interior photographs of Chateau Despair, it equally affects our understanding of current debates such as those on housing, social security, immigration, foreign relations or economic policies. Her presence is akin to that of a phantom. This is particularly the case with regard to the current Conservative-led coalition government that consistently tries to locate its own position in relation to the Thatcher years.
In spite of the re-emergence of Conservatism in the UK, the photographs strongly allude to the collapse of an ideological and political framework. The abandoned rooms at 32 Smith Square perhaps evoke comparisons with representations of other fallen regimes such as Daniel and Geo Fuchs’ photographic series on STASI buildings in the former GDR. To the back of the book is a collection of fifteen scanned images of objects Barnard has found in the building. Chateau Despair fulfills the archaeological function of archiving a vision from the past.
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The photobook ‘Hesitating Beauty’ interrogates the complex family history of the American photographer Joshua Lutz. More specifically, the main subject of the book is Lutz’ mother who suffers from a psychological illness. The book combines old family photographs, text and Lutz’ own photographic observations that capture the decline of his mother’s mental well-being. By presenting visual and textual information as purposefully non-linear and kaleidoscopic, Lutz not only mirrors his mother’s fragmented state of mind, but also, it represents his own fragmented childhood and upbringing. It is a deeply personal and self-referential project that places the photographer at the very centre of inquiry.
The title of the project is derived from a song by the folk musician Woody Guthrie who also suffered from mental health issues towards the end of his life. Indeed, the ‘hesitating beauty’ of Lutz’ mother (H.B. from hereon) is accurately captured in old family photographs in which she can be seen smiling while sitting on a bicycle, or, in another photograph, adoringly looking up at Lutz’ father. These images paint the image of a free-spirited and happy person who has her whole life ahead of her.
Yet the cryptic text increasingly reveals that behind this sparkling smile is a complex and troubled history with mental illness. A more recent family photograph of H.B. shows her looking at a photograph – her happy smile is now replaced with scepticism and suspicion. In a sense, H.B. metaphorically queries her own representation in this image. Lutz consciously uses family photographs in order to deconstruct the ideology of the Kodak moment, or the perfect family photograph. Perfection, happiness, beauty – all these dimensions begin to crumple behind the glossy surface of the Lutz photographic archive from the 1970s and 80s.
In addition to old family photographs (or ‘found’ photographs as they are sometimes referred to), the book incorporates photographs that Lutz himself took of his mother – many of which at the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Centre. She is barely recognisable in comparison to images from her youth. One image shows H.B. lying in a hospital bed, an oxygen tube is attached to her mouth, the white tape holding on to the tube bears the hand-written remark: ‘Do Not Wake’. Her head is on the far edge of the photograph, perhaps emphasising the peripheral state of her mental condition. Another image shows the various wrist tags that H.B. is wearing while in treatment. One reads ‘Fall Risk’ while the other reads ‘Haldol’: a potent drug prescribed for the treatment of acute psychosis or schizophrenia.
Lutz is careful not to turn his mother’s mental decline into a spectacle. The ambiguousness of many images is amplified by a photographic methodology that embraces obscurity, coded messages and what appear to be re-enactments. In addition to bending the limitations of the photobook with an eclectic collection of photographs, text and archival images, ‘Hesitating Beauty’ cunningly also blurs the very boundaries between fantasy and reality.
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