Joachim Brohm’s exhibition Places & Edges – the artist’s first solo show in the UK – is currently on display at Brancolini Grimaldi in London. It brings together three bodies of work that highlight Brohm’s propensity towards peripheral and quotidian spaces. The works also display a marked shift away from ‘German’ photography most commonly associated with former students of the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Here, instead, the viewer is drawn to seemingly banal views of the everyday, visually characterized by modesty and even restraint. The photographer does not assume the grand role of auteur, but rather, he acts as a quiet observer, standing at the sidelines of a world waiting to be photographed.
The first project Culatra, photographed from 2008 to 2010, brings the viewer to a small island off the coast of Portugal. The physical location of the island on the very periphery of Europe confirms Brohm’s ongoing interest in marginal spaces. Culatra is also characterized by economic marginality as Brohm’s camera depicts the islanders’ weather-beaten shacks – the sand beneath them has the effect of stretching and bending their structures. Brohm emphasizes this topsy-turvy environment, perhaps reminiscent of the recent film Beasts of the Southern Wild, by incorporating crooked telephone poles, lampposts, wires and cables throughout many of the works. Despite the potential messiness of Culatra, the images appear as if Brohm was keen to create order in this environment by focusing on reoccurring motifs such as tractors abandoned in the sand or objects washed up from the sea.
Brohm is probably best known for his project Ohio which he produced while on a Fulbright scholarship in 1983-84. Based in the town Columbus, Brohm photographed the American Midwest as a dispassionate and non-judgmental observer. Nevertheless, many images allude to a dysfunctional environment: a car burning in the driveway of a middle-class house, the shards of a recently destroyed sign strewn on the sidewalk, or the lack of human presence so common in a culture that is dominated by the automobile. One photograph is in fact taken from the viewpoint of a driver, looking through the windscreen towards a railway crossing. Although the work might reference the romanticism of the road as depicted in Jack Kerouac’s literary works, overall the photographs create an ambiguous and slightly uneasy atmosphere.
The last project, Ruhr, was photographed in the industrial heartland of Germany in the years 1980 to 1983. Here too Brohm is essentially exploring peripheral spaces as he navigates the dividing line between nature and civilization. More specifically, Brohm appears to follow loosely defined groups of individuals who seek to encounter the natural in this heavily industrialized part of the world. The clash between nature and industry is all too apparent in many activities depicted in the works: ice skating beneath a gigantic bridge, sunbathing in the vicinity of industrial buildings, or simply trying to demarcate a plot of land in an otherwise heavily populated area. His matter-of-fact depictions of the everyday are aided by consistently seeking an elevated viewpoint and keeping a respectful distance towards his subjects. As a result, his images also appear unusually timeless: they are less documents of an era than they are a representation man’s struggle to define himself in relation to his neighbour. III Originally published on photomonitor.co.uk.
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The overriding theme of this year’s international photography festival Format, currently on display at various locations in Derby and beyond, is Factory – a purposefully broad term that has vast economic, social and political implications in a globalized world. The very first location of the festival, a former chocolate factory on the outskirts of the city, thus cunningly relates to the very subject exhibited in many of the photographs. Darek Fortas’ melancholic and equally aesthetic portrait of a coal mining community in Poland captures an outdated industry in decline. These images are however smartly juxtaposed with Ian Teh’s work which depicts a booming (and potentially threatening) coal mining industry in rural China.
Many of the works appear to focus on the relationship between labour and class. Rather than representing the working class as anonymous mass however, the photographers selected for this exhibition appear keen on representing how social conditions affect the individual in a quickly shifting global economy. Janet Delaney’s project, for instance, vividly captures security personnel guarding houses of the wealthy in Delhi. The economic disparity between the rich and poor is referenced by the security guards’ little huts providing just enough space for one man. Confirming the Marxist undertone apparent throughout the festival, here, the worker has – quite literally – become alienated.
As a consequence of the division of labour, classes, too, are divided and separated. Economic segregation and even ghettoization is brutally captured in Sebastian Liste’s portrayal of a community living in a former chocolate factory in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. Liste’s work, reminiscent of the aesthetics in contemporary Danish photojournalism, depicts a tense, desperately unequal and unforgiving social environment in perpetual decline. In spite of this, Liste makes surprising discoveries of beauty, desire and perhaps even hope. Inasmuch as Liste’s monochromatic prints cover the full gamut from black to white, the exhibition as a whole covers a wide variety of emotions and subsequent interpretations.
David Chancellor’s project Pelepele focuses on KwaZulu-Natal women who work in the tree farming industry in the greater Eastern Cape area of South Africa. The beauty of the lone figures in the vast landscape clearly evokes the trope of the farm worker commonly found in Dutch and Flemish landscape painting. Yet in Chancellor’s project, the focus shifts from the labourer to the product of her labour – in this case timber. The photographs allude to the dynamics of an increasingly globalized world in which the prices of commodities rise and fall in line with global demand. Similarly, in this economic exchange, the labourer too becomes an exchangeable commodity.
The commodification of the worker, or more specifically, the commodification of the body in a globalized economy is most directly explored in the digitally altered photographs of Russian ‘mail-order-brides’ by Maria Kapajeva. In these ‘found’ boudoir photographs, Kapajeva protected the identity of her subjects by digitally covering their half-naked bodies with textured elements that appear in the original image – wallpaper or curtains for instance. Yet these visually very effective alterations of the original image do not disguise the fact that the women crudely objectify themselves in the photographs. The subjects’ vicinity to the bed quite directly implies a promise of sexual gratification for those who wish to place an ‘order’.
The University of Derby (Markeaton Street Campus) is another major exhibition site for the festival. Here, the focus appears to be a more overt reference to the dynamics of globalization. Freya Najade’s project ‘Strawberries in Winter’ documents vast greenhouses that grow fruit and vegetables destined for the European market. As the lack of human presence indicates, the production of food as a commodity is almost entirely computerized and artificial. Wolfgang Müller on the other hand photographs so-called ‘mingong’, Chinese migrant workers, who provide factories with a constant flow of cheap and easily exchangeable labour. In contrast to the shiny surfaces of products destined for the West, the images vividly indicate that the social condition of the migrant worker is characterized by exploitation, alienation and claustrophobia.
Andrew Emond’s oblique images of abandoned factories and workplaces in the UK confirms the downfall of once thriving industries – a fact that is all too apparent in Derby which is located in the former industrial heartland of England. Joanne Betty Conlon’s photographs of British office workers alludes to what is left once production has shifted to the Far East: meaningless and mind-numbing jobs in the service industry. Conlon emphasizes the banality of her subjects’ condition by photographing them as reflections in the office window. The result is a visually and conceptually loaded double image of an outside and an inside world. The workers appear trapped, longing to be elsewhere, outside.
The reoccurring motif of the closed-down factory as a signifier for the economic shifts of globalization is revisited at the Quad Gallery in the city centre which is also the main location for the festival. Patricia van de Camp’s surprisingly surreal photographs show wildlife traversing abandoned factories. The series constitutes a form of poetic justice as the animal kingdom is portrayed as repossessing a land that was once theirs. Dionysis Kouris on the other hand photographs migrants who have made their temporary home in a former Columbia record studio in Athens. The vast studio complex functions as a social microcosm with its own laws and rules for about 200 migrants waiting to move on.
Eric Kessels’ collection of found photography albums has been given the most amount of space at the festival. The headline act, so to speak, is the photograph as material object. Here too, the exhibition purposefully indicates an industry that is in decline: in a digital age the family photo-album is quickly becoming a curious object from the past. Kessels’ work as a collector of photographs is akin to that of an archaeologist digging up visual artifacts from the past: a French couple totally obsessed with taking pictures of their dogs, an Indian couple proudly photographed in a studio setting or a moustache-wearing man’s frequent visits to a belly dancer bar in Istanbul candidly captured in a series of black and white photographs.
The photographs on display at the Format festival provide a challenging and intellectually stimulating representation of globalization from a multitude of perspectives and sources. Reaching across geographic boundaries and photographic methodologies, the beauty of the works can be found in the way that the nearly 100 photographic projects not only relate to the setting that they are displayed in, but also how they relate to each other. It is here that the photographs create new meanings and new ways of interpreting a constantly changing world. III Originally published at photomonitor.co.uk.
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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.