Yesterday was the press view of Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age at the Barbican Art Gallery. I eagerly go to those journalist tours because i'm allowed to take photos to my heart's content. The day after it's often strictly verboten.
Constructing Worlds looks at how photographers have documented key moments in the history of 20th and 21st century architecture: the skyscrapers rising up in New York, the remains of an industrial Europe well past its glory days, the glamorous Californian lifestyle of the 1940s, the unstoppable urbanisation of China, the traces of colonization in Africa, the aftermath of the war on Afghanistan, India's enthusiasm for modernity as built in Chandigarh by Le Corbusier, etc.
I was particularly seduced by the photos from the 1930s to 1970s. Their authors looked for beauty and evidences of social changes where most people would have only registered dust and mortar.
Constructing Worlds exhibits the work of 18 photographers only. But that's good enough for me as i'm no fan of those Barbican shows that asphyxiate you by their discouragingly high amount of images and information. I'm therefore going to follow suit and keep my comments short.
In 1929, Berenice Abbott traveled to New York City after having spent eight years in Europe. In her absence, countless 19th-century buildings had been razed to make way for skyscrapers. She decided to stay in the country and document the changing face of the city. By 1940, the photographer had completed "Changing New York," an invaluable historical testimony of a life in Manhattan that has disappeared.
Walker Evans is famous for the work he did for the Farm Security Administration documenting the effects of the Great Depression. I've seen these images several times before but i doubt i'll ever get tired of them. The photos were taken at the same time as Berenice Abbott's.
Guy Tillim's work examines modern history in Africa against the backdrop of its colonial and post-colonial architectural heritage.
Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age is at the Barbican Art Gallery until 11 January 2015.
Over the years, Burnham-on-Sea, a seaside resort in Somerset has been regularly affected by tidal flooding. As a response, a high wall was erected along the coastline, returning waves back to the sea. The 1.6 kilometres long and 3.2 metres high sea wall regulates access to the sea by a series of raised steps and vehicle access points which can be closed during storms.
As part of her BA Design course at Goldsmiths, designer Hannah Fasching decided to make use of that gigantic wall and reacquaint the inhabitants of the town with the intertidal zone, the space between the high and low tide. She organized a screening along the sea wall, using footage shot in the 1930s, before the wall was built. The films shows how people used to ride bicycles and do sport on the beach and how in the past, the seafront functioned as a vibrant cultural hub.
The project, called the Intertidal Cinema, established a conversation with this architecture of control and neutralization. It also looked at how new relationships can be established between humans and the temporary spaces provided by nature.
Can we continue to exist within an infrastructure that seeks to not only resist, but nullify natural forces? How might we approach increasingly fragile sites in a way that challenges the inherited attitude of conquering nature as though it were an opponent? Can the temporary spaces that occur naturally in the environment provide us with a new way in which design can operate?
Hannah has recently exported the project to London. For three nights, she turned the tidal beach of Deptford creek into a social space. I caught up with Hannah to have her talk about the project in general and about the film she projected in Deptford.
Hi Hannah! Could you first tell me again the story of that beautiful vintage cinema sign we see emerging from the water in Burnham-on-Sea?
The first Intertidal Cinema took place in Burnham-on-Sea's intertidal zone, between high and low tide. We stood the sign in the mudflats on the beach at low tide. What we didn't realise at the time was that the speed of the tide coming in depends mainly on the bank of the beach and that the flats being 'flat' submerge within minutes. Thinking we had time to play the film and collect it afterwards, at sunset, just as the film began playing we turned around just in time to see a wave sweep away the bottom rung of letters. And a few minutes later the whole sign was submerged; an unexpected but appropriate demise.
What made you chose Deptford Creek for the second edition of the IC, rather than any other area by the river bank?
Deptford is at a pivotal point in its history, the waterfront that I remember less than a year ago is now unrecognisable. As a former royal dock, it has evolved from an area defined by its natural topography into an area characterised by rapid urbanisation and gentrification.
In Deptford, much like in Burnham, there is an abrupt contrast between the natural and artificial landscape though the artificial is much more dominant here. The tidal river, Ravensbourne runs from the Thames through Deptford and creates an intertidal zone fluctuating 7m in the heart of Deptford.
As a project that explores this relationship by creating social spaces in temporary environments, taking the project to Deptford meant it developing in a new way.
I've never been there but i had a look on google image. It seems to be a radically different from Burnham. How is the tidal creek of Deptford used now? Is there any social activity there?
Things do happen here, but many are not specifically tied to the river. There is a big community of artists along this part of the river, with studio spaces and galleries as well The Laban Dance Centre, which was built 11 years ago.
The creek creates a unique wildlife area which the local authorities are keen to preserve. The creekside centre, an educational facility, provide tidal walks once a month on the creek. The ahoy centre, a charity in Deptford based on the waterfront, encourage water activities and sports on the river. The Ha'Penny hatch bridge, which can open to allow boats to pass, is a public walkway with many commuters passing over every day. The creek runs underneath this bridge.
How did you make the space more comfortable and enjoyable for people?
Holding a cinema in an area where it doesn't normally function instantly transforms it. Using the bridge as a watching platform, we projected onto structures which faced out onto the creek. One of the projections leaned out over the bridge, projecting vertically onto the water. The cinema took place as the tide was going out, as the water emptied from the creek the projection became clearer, until it eventually hit the rocks below the surface. The tide became the factor which focused the image.
Could you talk to us about the Deep Ford film? It seems to be very different from the film you showed in Burnham.
The film in Burnham consisted of archive footage, a window into the history of the seafront before the wall.
In Deptford it's more of a contemporary take on gentrification and how the area has developed relating back to the history of the dock.
The Deep Ford is a reference to the ford on which Deptford developed. The film shows historical architectures and landmarks around Deptford, many of which played an important part in the shipping industry. Voices of people who were interviewed as part of the project are used to animate these architectures, each voice representing a different place, as though the places are talking to you. These people are people who live, grew up and work in Deptford, but also people involved with how it's changing such as redevelopers. The physical space starts to take on the voice of the social.
Why do you think that it is important that humans (re)connect with natural forces?
To use a quote from Wendell Berry, a poet, environmental activist and cultural critic:
"The cities have forgot the earth and will rot at heart till they remember it again."
Wendell Berry, 1969
In its broadest context the project is about climate change, though it addresses in a different way than a project that might involve weather robots and cloud seeding. I think what is required is an increased understanding of the natural environment, but it seems to me that the well documented expansion of cities is fundamentally incompatible with this. A city is essentially a hardscape.
Using an extreme example; Tokyo as a city sitting on a tectonic boundary, is in permanent conflict with it's natural surroundings. The strict building codes in Tokyo mean that the architecture responds the the natural surroundings. Building foundations are built to move with seismic activity. If our natural environment is to be increasingly volatile, a failure to understand and act in relation to it will only ever cause problems.
The Intertidal cinema that took place in Deptford works in direction relation to the tide, using this force to focus the image of the projection.
Your project explores ways for people to "experience the extremes of the environmental conditions'. Is that out of concern for the future of a country threatened by sea rising?
It can't not be. The project began by documenting an area of land artificially lower than sea level, and suffers from flooding as a result (Somerset).
If the sea is rising what will our relationship with it be?
I think this is already happening, this relationship is being configured through sea wall's and flood defences. Whether it's on the coast in Burnham or in the city of London. They both dissolve the relationship with the water and are also potentially apocalyptic because of the risk of them failing.
What's next for the Intertidal Cinema?
Following on from the last answer, I see the project developing towards larger scale responses to the temporary spaces in the natural environment.
The Media Space at the London's Science Museum has recently opened a retrospective of photographer Joan Fontcuberta's work. The series on show explore constellations, geography, natural history and many more science-related topics. Each of the body of works exhibited would deserve its own blog post but i'm going to focus on the Fauna series because it brings to the attention of the broader public the long-lost archives of a German zoologist called Professor Peter Ameisenhaufen.
Fontcuberta discovered the archives by chance during a trip to Stockholm with his friend writer and photographer Pere Formiguera. Ameisenhaufen gained fame in the first half of the 20th century for his controversial research on rare animals. Many of his colleagues refused to believe these creatures were real but Ameisenhaufen spent decades collecting evidences of their existence. The archives uncovered in the late 1980s by Fontcuberta were surprisingly rich and well detailed: photos, field notes, dissections drawing, audio clips documenting the calls and other sounds of these truly exceptional animals. Several specimens were even remarkably preserved by taxidermy.
Here are a few examples of the creatures the professor discovered over the course of his career:
Alopex Stultus- An herbivorous animal, completely inoffensive and very timid. When it senses the proximity of an enemy, it finds a shrub of the species Antrolepsis Reticulospinosus and digs a hole in the earth, into which it sticks its head, leaving the rest of the body suspended in a vertical posture in an attempt to mimic the shrub. Unfortunately, the outcome is not particularly satisfactory and both men and predators usually capture it at this point.
Solenoglypha Polipodida- Extremely aggressive and venomous, it hunts for food and also for the pleasure of killing. It is quite rapid and moves forward in a curious and very rapid run, thanks to the strong musculature of its 12 paws and the supplementary impulse which it obtains by undulating all of its body in a strange aerial reptation. When facing its prey it becomes completely immobile and emits a very sharp whistle which paralyzes its enemy. It maintains this immobility for as long as the predator needs to secrete the gastric juices required to digest its prey, which can vary between two minutes and three hours, as determined by the size of the victim. At the end of the whistling phase, Solenoglypha launches itself rapidly at its immobile prey and bites the nape of its neck, causing instantaneous death.
Cercopithecus Icarocornu- the sacred animal of the indigenous Nygala-Tebo tribes, for whom it represents the reincarnation of Ahzran (he who came from heaven). The females give birth inside a large cabin in the village to which only the great shaman has access. The baby animals remain inside the cabin until they have completely developed their ability to fly, at which point the tribe celebrates a lavish ceremony during which Cercopithecus undergoes an operation in which it is grafted with the skin of the silver fish of the Amazon, which covers all of the pectoral and abdominal zone. Once this has been done, the animal is set free, although it never strays very far away from the village, and participates by its presence in all of the sacred festivals of the NygalaTebo. During these festivals the animal is given a spirituous beverage which it drinks eagerly, sinking into a state of complete inebriety, at which point it begins to flap its wings so madly that it hovers in mid-air with its body immobile, singing like one possessed.
Of course none of these animals have ever existed and i knew of the hoax before i entered the show. Yet, i wasn't sure. Fontcuberta is such a master in deception and seduction that i needed to remind myself that this wasn't 'documentation'.
In fact, when Fauna was shown at the Barcelona Museum of Natural Science in 1989, 30% of university-educated visitors aged 20 to 30 believed some of the imaginary animals Fontcuberta devised could have existed.
I didn't know at the time what Fontcuberta looked like, otherwise i might have detected that Hans von Kubert, the assistant of Professor Ameisenhaufen bears an uncanny resemblance to Fontcuberta himself:
More evidences of the existence of the creatures, i just can't resist:
Joan Fontcuberta grew up in Spain under the dictatorship of General Franco, at a time when propaganda shaped what people should believe and trust. Like many other members of his family, Fontcuberta worked in advertising until the late Seventies, when he decided to learn photography by himself and investigate how the medium constructs truth and untruth.
The other photo series shown in the exhibition Stranger than Fiction are as amusing and deluding as Fauna. The show closes on the hilarious Miracles & Co series which shows Fontcuberta in the guise of a monk living in a Finnish monastery school specialized in teaching how to perform all kinds of wonders. By the time i exited the show, there really remained no doubt in me that photography shouldn't be trusted unreservedly.
"Photography is a tool to negotiate our idea of reality. Thus it is the responsibility of photographers to not contribute with anaesthetic images but rather to provide images that shake consciousness."
Views of the exhibition space:
Stranger than Fiction is at Media Space Gallery, the Science Museum in London until 9 November 2014.
A few weeks ago, i discovered the existence of the Barts Pathology Museum. And then i visited it so you don't have to.
The museum was opened in 1879 and its collections of organs and tissues were used to train medical students. The museum is located in a charming wood, steel and white shelves space with three mezzanine levels and a spiral staircase. The 5,000 specimen collection, however, is even more gruesome than i had suspected.
The jars are filled with all kinds of deformed and diseased body parts: a gout-swollen hand, an inguinal hernia from around 1750, the bound foot of a Chinese woman, the skeletons of conjoined twins, a liver dented by years of wearing tight corsets, a brain perforated with an ice pick during a frontal lobotomy, a rat that died of tuberculosis, a cabinet of surprisingly voluminous objects that people inserted into their bodies (more about that one in the video below), etc.
I loved the place and i hope it will be open to the public more often in the future. Even though that museum will haunt my nightmares for years to come. Photos were not allowed on my visit. I've therefore stolen as many images as i could online (with due credit wherever i could find it, of course.)
Here's a quick presentation of some of the specimens. Some with comments, others with only the shortest description:
On the afternoon of 11 May, 1812, John Bellingham, a bankrupt businessman, walked into the lobby of the Palace of Westminster and shot prime minister Spencer Perceval, making him the only UK prime minister to be assassinated. Bellingham was sentenced sentenced to death by hanging. As was customary for the time, his body was donated to hospitals to be dissected and anatomized. His skull is preserved at Barts Pathology Museum.
These vertebrae were damaged following a method of judicial hanging called The Long Drop or "Measured Drop" which takes the person's height and weight into consideration. It meant that the rope was the right length to ensure an instantaneous death caused by 'a broken neck' but didn't result in the decapitation of the victim which did occur frequently.
This pot contains a large portion of the liver of a 52 year old female. It is supposedly exhibiting the deformities caused by prolonged 'tight-lacing' of corsets and is dated 1907. The liver is on its side in the glass pot, and the deformity can clearly be seen in the form of a cleft splitting the right lobe of the liver in two.
"A fracture of the mandible. The jaw is broken between the canine and the first bicuspid teeth on either side. This is the common seat of fracture. It was wired during life. (1886)
I'll close this post with a little gem. Carla Valentine, Assistant Technical Curator at the museum takes us through some of the dangers of inserting foreign objects into orifices:
The Barts Pathology Museum is located at the St Bartholomew's Hospital in Smithfield in the City of London. The museum is usually closed to the public. Except for a few afternoons in August and for special events and taxidermy classes. Unfortunately, The Gordon Museum of Pathology which seems to be bigger and fascinating is not open to the public either.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has recently opened an exhibition that "examines the powerful role of objects in movements for social change." It is called Disobedient Objects. That's the kind of title that chic and cheerful designers would use to describe how their work is 'subversive' but, thankfully, this is probably the most un-designy show the V&A has ever organised (except for the whole communication and setting which was orchestrated by the studio of Jonathan Barnbrook.) Disobedient Objects is not one of those fashionable activist art exhibitions either. This is a show about activism with a capital A, a show inhabited by artefacts that had never graced the venerable rooms of a museum or art gallery until now.
Many of the items exhibited are often mundane objects that were either given a new purpose or modified in haste in answer to an emergency situation. As modest as they might seem, these artifacts show the resourcefulness and ingenuity of people. They testify of their courage as well. Confronted with the sophisticated (except maybe in London where our good Mayor favours cut-price water cannons that are being phased out in Germany amid concerns about their safety) and potentially harmful equipment used by security forces, these artefacts look almost pitiful. But that doesn't make them less efficient.
Disobedient Objects focuses on the period from the late 1970s to now, a time that has brought new technologies and political challenges. The items displayed range from the very rudimentary to the sophisticated, from a slingshot made from a Palestinian child's shoe to mobile phone-powered drones for filming demonstrations or the police, from textiles sewn by women to communicate the atrocities they have experienced under the Pinochet regime in Chile, in particular the 'disappearance of their children to a robot that spray paint slogans on the pavement.
I entered the show ready to sneer at V&A's grand attempts to glamourize popular protests and turn evidences of genuine and at times violent dissent into food for cool hunters. My fighting mood quickly vanished. Disobedient Objects is a show that invites visitors to get out and raise their heads, to be inspired and fight for their rights. And that's what matters to me.
As the curators wrote: "Peaceful disobedience only works when protesters have cultural visibility and the government acknowledges their right to protest. Without this, struggles for freedom can sometimes take other forms."
Here's a very small overview of the stories you can discover in this ridiculously crammed with visitors but invigorating exhibition:
As usual, I bow (me saco el sombrero?) to Spanish wittiness. No one does protests as eloquently and astutely as they do these days. TAF! and Enmedio worked with Plataforma de Artefactos por la Hipoteca (a platform for mortgage debt victims) against dehumanizing media representations of people affected by Spain's mortgage crisis. The group pasted portraits of evicted homeowners on the facades of banks responsible, showing evicted people, not statistics.
The inflatable cobblestones were rolled across the streets in Berlin and Barcelona to confuse police and generate sympathetic media attention.
When many people run the program FloodNet (1998) together, they can target and overload websites. The Java applet was created in response to the massacre of 45 peaceful supporters of the Zapatistas in Mexico. Ten thousand protestors disturbed the website of the Mexican presidency and the Pentagon. FloodNet has since been adopted by many groups and movements.
The first Bike Bloc was part of the mass civil disobedience organised during the 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen. Moving in swarms, bikes helped protesters breach the summit's security cordon and hold an alternative People's Assembly. The leading bike carried a sound system and pirate radio antennae. It broadcasted via other bikes around it with independent speakers, each on a separate channel. The sound could jump between bikes inside the crowd, and change in tone to respond to different situations.
The banner was made for the 2009 Climate Camp at Blackheath, London. It identified capitalism as the source of climate chaos and as an ongoing crisis of inequality and injustice.
One of the banners hanging over the exhibition space was designed and hand-stitched by Ed Hall (whose name appears in almost every single post i've written about Jeremy Deller's work.) Hall has been making banners used by union groups for over 30 years. This one was used in a protest march in support of the NHS in Manchester in 2013. It features the Thatcher quote 'Still the enemy within', which is surrounded by iconography referencing the miners' strike, poll tax rebellion and welfare cuts.
Andy Dao and Ivan Cash circulated dollar bills stamped with fact-based infographics that communicate the widening economic disparity in the U.S.A. The designs were also released on the Internet enabling anyone to participate.
The artists/advertising experts were commissioned by the museum to design stamps about the UK's wealth disparity on the £5 note: in 2011, 1% of the UK population earned £922,433 while 90% earned £12,933. Any visitor can use the stamp to make their money a bit more riotous.
There is a long, long tradition of bank notes used for protest. The show also reminded that in 1990, a Burmese currency designer very subtly painted the face of Aung San Suu Kyi onto a new note after she had been democratically elected then placed under house arrest by the military junta. The designer softened the features of Gen. Aung San (the father of Aung San Suu Kyi) so that his face resembles the one of his daughter. People could thus hold up their bank notes to the light and see a hidden portrait of the opposition leader.
In 2013, the Turkish government used record amounts of tear gas against people protesting against the redevelopment of the Gezi Park in Istanbul. Protesters devised their own makeshift gas mask using plastic bottle, surgical face mask, foam and rubber bands.
Greek protesters adopted an equally cunning strategy. People resisting government austerity discovered that a solution of antacid and water sprayed onto the face offered relief from the burn of tear gas. However, it left a white residue that market protesters out.
The protest shields painted to look like books were first made in Italy, in November 2010. Students were protesting against the drastic cuts to the public university system. The oversize books were held up at the front of demonstrations so that when the police hit the students with sticks, it looked as if they were attacking literature.
Students in London produced their own book shields after they saw videos of the actions online. The tactic quickly spread to other parts of the world.
A couple of artworks did sneak into the exhibition. I guess that the Graffiti Writer doesn't need any introduction....
The gallery also featured Molleindustria's Phone Story, a free game app that players win by forcing children to mine coltan in the Congo, preventing worker protest-suicide in China, managing rabid consumers in the West and disposing of electronic waste unsafely in Pakistan. The game was banned from Apple's iTunes store four days after its release.
The Guerrilla Girls was formed in 1985 to protest against the ridiculously low number of works by female artists in the most prestigious galleries and museums of New York. Their fight is as relevant as ever today (and not just in NYc obviously.)
More images from the show:
The museum has PDF guides to DIY some of the objects exhibited.
Disobedient Objects was curated by Gavin Grindon and Catherine Flood. The show is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, until 1 February 2015.
I'm one day late (how lame!) for my wrap-up of the exhibitions i enjoyed in London in July.
Starting obviously with the favourite one. Men y Men by TrujilloPaumier at New Art Projects. Joaquin Trujillo and Brian Paumier went to Oxaca to portray two communities who communicate radically different ideas of masculinity. Paumier's Moros are cowboys standing next to their horses, while Trujillo's Muxes shows a community of mixed gender people living in the indigenous Zapotec culture of Oaxaca.
Trujillo Paumier: Men y Men closed on 20 July.
British Folk Art at Tate Britain is bizarre, quirky but thankfully never condescending. Instead of wasting time speculating on is it art/is it not art?, the exhibition celebrates people's creativity and resourcefulness. Expect gigantic boots that served as tradesmen's signs, a cockerel made by prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars out of mutton bones, imposing ship figureheads, embroidered remakes of classic paintings, etc. I'd be more enthusiastic if folks didn't have to pay £13.10 to enter.
The show is up until 31 August 2014. Happy Famous Artists has a great flickr set.
One of the most interesting galleries in London, Calvert22, is showing the work of photographers and video artists who explore identity and place in early 21st century Russia alongside the pre-revolutionary works of Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky.
I liked the work of Alexander Gronsky a lot. Especially the series Pastoral, which looks at the desolate spaces where the urban and the rural meet.
Close and Far: Russian Photography Now is at Calvert22 until 17 August.
I also went to the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill, London. The building and botanical gardens opened in 1901 to host the collection of a business man who traveled the world to gather objects related to world culture, natural history and music. Among the 350,000 objects, there are lots of stuffed animals, a Spanish Inquisition torture chair and a charming little Merman (the husband of the mermaid?)
I never found the merman, alas! But i discovered doublepreps: half the animal is shown as taxidermy, the other half is stripped to its skeleton.
One of the Horniman galleries has a fascinating photo exhibition that documents the lives of indigenous peoples in the Russian Arctic. The photos were taken by British photographer Bryan Alexander who has been travelling to the Arctic since 1971.
Whisper of the Stars: Traditional Life in Arctic Siberia is at the Horniman Museum until 07 September 2014. Interview with the photographer. More photos in The Guardian.
I'll end with An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition at the Wellcome Collection. The exhibition offers a selection of some of Henry Wellcome's objects, medical artefacts, paintings, photographs and sculptures, along with a couple of contemporary artworks.
I wasn't as impressed as every single journalist who published glowing reviews of the show in their newspapers but i did enjoy some of the artefacts. Such as this photo of rubber beauty masks that removed wrinkles and blemishes.
Or this fetching corrective ear-cap, patented by Adelaide Claxton in 1945 to wear at night in order to 'correct and prevent the disfigurement of outstanding ears'.
The exhibition is up until 12 October 2014.