Archive for the ‘Art and Visual Culture’ tag
The exhibition Moments of Reprieve: Representing Loss in Contemporary Photography is, in collaboration with Paradise Row, currently on display at the David Roberts Foundation on Great Titchfield Street in London. By connecting photography with the manifold meanings of loss, the curators Louisa Adams and David Birkin dig into an intellectually and philosophically dense subject matter. The photographs, produced by ten different artists, were intelligently chosen for representing various notions of loss invoked by conflict, crime, disaster, war and ultimately death. That the scope and scale of this exhibition could easily be expanded is testament to a timely and well-conceptualized curatorial approach.
In stark contrast to the potentially invasive, even pornographic visual language of photojournalism, the artists chosen for this exhibition approach their subject matter with subtlety and care. Taryn Simon’s contribution, a rather banal photograph of a rundown house in Ayer, Massachusetts for instance, predominantly hinges on reading the caption to the photograph: serving 18 years of a life sentence for murder and robbery, the occupant of the house died from an accident six months after his exoneration. Jane and Louise Wilson’s super large and detailed photograph of a gym in Pripyat, located within the 30km wide Exclusion Zone to Tchernobyl, functions as an eerie architectural post-mortem of a manmade disaster. The paint crumbling off the wall signifies the physical and indeed psychological wounds incurred by those who survived. A photograph of books on a library bookshelf is slightly more ambiguous: rather than the aging books themselves, it is the dust they have collected that underlines the trauma of loss – the loss of an entire community and all the infrastructure associated with it.
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s dramatically titled piece Day Nobody Died III consists of a 6-meter long strip of colour photographic paper, haphazardly exposed to the Afghan sunshine. While being embedded with British troops in Helmand province, the artist duo exposed the paper to represent a short reprieve from constant news of death and fatal injuries amongst soldiers and civilians. David Birkin’s own contribution to the exhibition, displayed directly opposite to Broomberg and Chanarin’s piece, is a small AP wire photograph from 1992 depicting mourning Afghan women. The artist covered the photograph with the ultramarine pigment from lapis lazuli – a pigment more valuable than gold. The manipulated image can be read as an allegory for one of the many paradoxes of war: beyond any ethical concerns for those who suffer, the camera (e.g. the media) also has an economic interest in the representation of loss.
For some artists, the notion of loss is rather more personal. Indre Serpytyte’s monochromatic photographs depict tightly folded shirts or three neat stacks of paper – the photographs are strongly reminiscent of photography’s capability to document artifacts. Consistently photographed on a black background, the images inadvertently also glorify the banality of these subjects. The viewer wonders, why am I being presented with these shirts or these papers? A visit to Serpytyte’s homepage reveals that this series of photographs, titled A State of Silence, is a response to the sudden and unexplained death of her father who died in a ‘car accident’ in 2001. At the time, Albinas Serpytyte was the Head of Government Security of Lithuania.
Idris Khan’s piece, in which he individually photographed and superimposed every single page from Roland Barthes’ classic book Camera Lucida, alludes to the historically, culturally and socially complex relationship between photography and death. Writing about a photograph of his deceased mother a few months before his very own death, in the book Barthes’ came to the conclusion that death is the ‘eidos’ of photography. In other words, photography operates on the commonly perceived notion that the photograph will, eventually, outlive the subject photographed. While analysing various different photographs reprinted in the book, Barthes’ cherished photograph of his mother, ironically, was not reproduced. As Khan photographed and superimposed the pages from the book, the subjects in the photographs turn into faintly visible ghosts, hovering in between the pages and coming to the surface of the print.
This article was originally published at photomonitor.co.uk.
We all know this feeling: you need to scratch your back but neither your left nor your right hand can reach the itchy spot. In an attempt to soothe the itching, you are involuntarily contorting your body into a position that is appears desperate and awkward. Such acts of corporal contortionism are running throughout the work of the Japanese photographer based in New York Satomi Shirai. Shirai’s references to bodies in a twisted position draws comparisons to the American photographer Bill Durgin. Both Shirai and Durgin appear to break from traditions of representation in their unusual, sometimes comical, depiction of the human form. While Shirai photographs her subjects (quite possibly herself) in the familiar environment of her New York apartment, Durgin, on the other hand, choses the clinical space of a studio. It is due to the barren surroundings that Durgin’s representation of the body appears almost pseudo-scientific, as if to test what is photographically and humanly possible. Durgin’s photographs are a visual continuation of a small but distinct photographic project that began with John Coplans, Joel Peter Witkin, or maybe even Andre Kertesz.
Beyond the confines of the studio, Shirai’s representation of the body tells a larger narrative that also incorporates aspects of gender identification. In one photograph a young women can be seen on weighing scales, her body leaning forward as she holds on to a sink and a door knob. The resulting effect of this contortion is that the subject’s weight is partially suspended. The pink and the baby blue plastic bag hanging off the wall are neatly mirrored by, what appears to be, two pregnancy test packs in the same colour next to the sink. Is the subject weighing herself after realizing that she is pregnant? Is she disavowing her bodily transformation by suspending her increased weight? Unlike the male photographers before her, Shirai confronts us with a complex narrative that also addresses the politics of a representation of gender.
Above all, Shirai’s photographs are about her own experience as a Japanese expat living in New York. Here, the contorting body signifies the struggle of fitting into a vastly different culture. In one photograph this struggle is represented in a balancing act in a kitchen interior. The books leaning over to one side on the top shelf in the kitchen are reminiscent of the movement in a ship. In a sense, the subject fails to control the environment around herself.
Another photograph depicts in an almost violent matter a topsy turvy world of visual paradoxes. Only on closer inspection does it become apparent that the subject’s elbow is actually bent in the opposite direction of what the viewer might first assume. The dichotomy between appearance and actuality referred to in Shirai’s photographs of the body signifies a type of cultural contortionism only an outsider could identify with.
If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.
A consistent theme running through Hellen van Meene’s photographs is gravity, or, as it appears, its lack thereof. In one particular image by the Dutch art photographer, a young girl appears to levitate as it leans against a wall. The harsh sunlight coming through the windows falls on the girl’s white gown, resulting in the photograph being overexposed at her feet touching the ground. The visual effect of levitation is caused by the lack of visual information in the overexposure, but also, because the girl appears taller than her childish facial features might first suggest. Yet van Meene quickly debunks the perception that this is a girl in a woman’s body by also depicting the edge of a door frame to the side of the image as a reference point. It is within this framework that the viewer gets an understanding of the child in relation to the rather decrepit surroundings of an attic. In the photograph van Meene appears to tap into the visual iconography of the classic horror film ‘The Exorcist’ (1973), where, in a key scene, a girl possessed by the devil is floating above her bed. The levitating body in the attic, despite the bright warm light shining through the window, ads a haunted aura to van Meene’s photograph.
The seemingly dated and unkept interiors in many of van Meene’s photographs of the body also establishes a binary opposition between the ‘old’ surroundings and the ‘young’ age of her female models. It is in relation to the surroundings that the juvenility of the subjects is further emphasized. The raw interiors and the dramatic light falling through the windows also creates a form of visual realism similar to that by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Many photographers make use of such a visual device: the British photographer Tom Hunter amongst others uses a Vermeeresque style of lighting in his photographs. It appears, that van Meene is alluding to a type of ‘Dutchness’ established in art and visual culture.
The lighting in van Meene’s photographs, also with a reference to the double meaning of the word ‘light’, further underlines the central trope of levitation and defiance of gravity. Here, gravity and the lack of gravity helps to situate the young models in the context of teenage identification and a coming-of-age. Levitation in van Meene’s work further signifies the condition of the bodies that she photographs: developing, awkward, growing, not yet complete.
An inevitable comparison can be made with the American photographer Anna Gaskell who also appears to play with gravity as a visual allegory for the ambiguous stages of growing up. While Gaskell’s photographs are situated in the dreamlike condition of an ‘Alice in Wonderland’, van Meene’s photographs are situated in a more realistic circumstance of the everyday. A number of van Meene’s photographs thus allude to (real) bodily sensations: a girl holds her head under a hand dryer, another girl lets her hair float in a bucket of water.
These photographs of the body and of a corporeal experience have the uncanny effect of grounding van Meene’s levitating bodies in the realm of the real. This relationship between a humanly impossible condition of floating in midair, and, at the same time, bodily sensations of the everyday, creates a tension that runs throughout van Meene’s body of work. On one hand, her subjects appear to defy the logics of gravity, and on the other, they are engulfed in the seemingly most banal earthly sensations – sensations that equally tap into our very own childhood memories.
Hellen Van Meene: Tout Va Disparaitre is available as a book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.