Archive for the ‘The Other’ tag
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.
A tumblr site dedicated to Kim Jong Il Looking at Things is the latest online craze in visual culture. As the title of the site suggests, it’s a collection of photographs depicting the North Korean dictator ostensibly caught in moments of ‘looking’. By now, the site is so popular that the tumblr server periodically breaks down. The timing of the tumblr site is impeccable: launched on the 26th of October 2010 by an anonymous user in Lisbon, Portugal, the site was barely up and running for a month as North Korean missiles hit South Korean targets, killing two civilians on the 22nd of November 2010. By that time, the tumblr site already had a solid following. In this time of mounting tension between the two Koreas, it appears that Kim Jong Il’s image was never as popular as it is now.
What is it about these photographs that makes them so popular? As the viewer is looking at Kim Jong Il, he is looking at fish, a factory, a radish, a powerpoint presentation and so forth. Sigmund Freud defined this dualistic relationship between the pleasure of looking and being looked at as Schaulust, or scopophilia. The viewer is drawn to these photographs of Kim Jong Il by the scopophilic drive to encounter the Other. Here, the Other is a notorious dictator, bathing in the cult of personality, reigning over a introverted and closed off regime once described by George W. Bush being part of the ‘axis of evil’. In a sense, the popularity of photographs of Kim Jong Il points to the desire to put a face to this Western construct of evil.
The anonymous photographer taking these pictures must have worked under immense pressure to produce flattering images of Kim Jong Il. One of the big problems is that Kim Jong Il is short built and, despite a special pair of plateau shows, consistently appears smaller than those who are supposed to be ‘below’ him. The photographer seeks to avoid this visual contradiction by photographing Kim Jong Il from a lower vantage point. This methodology is apparent in most photographs in which Kim Jong Il conducts so-called ‘tours of field guidance’ – a tradition he inherited from his father Kim Il Sung. In the photograph of Kim Jong Il looking at wheat for instance, the lower vantage point of the camera underlines his position as leader, looking forward, his gaze directed to the future, while everyone else (including the camera and by extension the viewer) is looking at him. The tragic irony in photographs of Kim Jong Il looking at his country’s agriculture is that chronic food shortages have caused millions of deaths in North Korea over the last two decades. Here, the photograph is clearly part of a propaganda apparatus that seeks to establish that the North Korean regime is capable of feeding its own people.
However, the photographs are also, although they are not intended to be, tragically funny. There is for example the image of Kim Jong Il holding a radish with this right hand. The left hand, like in most photographs of the ‘Dear Leader’, remains hidden or tucked into a pocket. The West has long been speculating that Kim Jong Il’s health is fading and that his left side of the body is partially paralyzed. In the photograph, the physical decline of Kim Jong Il is signified by the radish (the phallus) pointing downwards thus prompting a look of disapproval by the dictator. Next to Kim Jong Il is his Vice Marshal Ri Yong-Ho, one of the most senior military officers in North Korea, with a notepad. A cursory glance at the collection of photographs reveals that people standing next to or near Kim Jong Il customarily carry a notepad and a pen. They are, as it appears in the images, always prepared to make a note of sudden bursts of ingenuity exclaimed by Kim Jong Il. He is the speaker while others make note of it.
And while senior military staff and members of the Politbüro are always prepared for guidance by their leader, the photographer too, is prepared to react when Kim Jong Il indulges in his well-known eccentricities. In one image he puts on a straw hat, while in another he appears to crack a joke about a red bucket. These are the kind of uncanny moments that humanize Kim Jong Il. The photographs of him smiling and making others smile don’t sit well in the larger context of military aggression and brutal state oppression. The discomfort felt looking at these photographs of Kim Jong Il is comparable to a key scene in ‘The Downfall’ in which Adolf Hitler is depicted petting his German Shepherd. How can evil be caring? In the same way, how can evil be funny?
This is maybe the main reason why these photographs have become so popular recently: the uncanny desire for a visual encounter with the Other during a time in which a simple dichotomization between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ through a Bushian looking glass seems to fail. And while American and South Korean warships gather in the East China Sea in preparation for an all out war with Pyongyang, effectively turning the geopolitical gaze from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq to North Korea, a little site depicting a little man keeps on attracting new visitors eager to look at him – trying to understand, who is this man.
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