The exhibition Shoot! Existential Photography opened a few weeks ago at The Photographers' Gallery and i never got to mention it so far. The selection of work is fantastic, the theme is seductive and it makes you want to locate the nearest playground.
Load, aim, Fire!
In the period following World War I, a curious attraction appeared at fairgrounds: the photographic shooting gallery. If the punter's bullet hit the centre of the target, this triggered a camera. Instead of winning a balloon or toy, the participant would win a snapshot of him or herself in the act of shooting.
The exhibition celebrates the use of the shooting gallery at fairgrounds by the famous (from Jean-Paul Sartre to Federico Fellini) and the non-famous but also the contemporary artists who have been intrigued by the idea of shooting oneself.
The most stunning work in the show is probably the video-sound installation Crossfire by Christian Marclay. I felt like that rabbit in the headlights of a car (or was it a hare? or a deer?) Crossfire is a super fast, loud and powerful sampling of shooting scenes from Hollywood movies. You stand in the middle of the room and wherever you turn your gaze there's Clint Eastwood, Antonio Banderas or some other action hero star aiming and shooting at you.
Since the late 1970s, Jean-François Lecourt has been literally shooting his own image. In his early experiments, the bullet smashes the camera. The roll is pierced by the shoot. In the second series, the bullet perforates a wall of the lightproof box, a ray of light comes in and leaves a mark on the photosensitive paper.
Similarly, Rudolf Steiner uses the camera as a target. In the series Pictures of me, shooting myself into a picture, the bullet hole is the aperture for a pinhole camera, creating an image upon impact.
The story of Ria van Dijk is endearing. Every single year, the lady goes to a fairground shooting gallery in Tilburg, Netherlands to shoot a self portrait. She started her pilgrimage to the shooting booth in 1936, when she was 16. The artist Erik Kessels collected all the images she has taken at the fair. Going from one self-portrait to another is fascinating. You see her hair getting greyer, her glasses following the fashion of the passing decades, her friends or fans coming along with her, etc. The only pause in the sequence is from 1939 to 1945.
The action takes place in total darkness with the flash being triggered just as the bullet breaks open the analogue camera and hits the negative inside it.
Sylvia Ballhause bought a shooting rig from the booth of a family business in Germany. It was the last booth working with analogue, large-format cameras in the country.
The shooting gallery is not as popular as it used to be but you don't need to go far to try the amusement yourself, the Photographers' Gallery has turned on of its rooms into a photographic shooting gallery so that visitors can shoot (at) themselves.
Shoot! Existential Photography is up at the Photographers' Gallery in London until 6 January 2013.
Related story: The cameras that record the moment of their own destruction.
A new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present ResonanceFM, will be broadcast today Tuesday 27th November at 4:00 pm. There will be a repeat on Thursday 29th November 10:30 pm. You can catch it online if you don't live in London.
This week, i'm talking with Ruairi Glynn, architect, artist, curator, ex-fantastic blogger and if that were not enough he is also a lecturer in Interactive Architecture at Bartlett. His interactive kinetic installations have earned him awards and exhibitions across the world, from the Centre Pompidou in Paris to the National Art Museum in Beijing. Ruairi Glynn was one of the first artists invited to fill in the Tank space at Tate Modern where he installed Fearful Symmetry, a glowing tetrahedron that glided above visitors' heads, danced and encouraged the public to become an active part of the performance.
It's been a fascinating conversation with a pleasant guy. We talked cybernetics, interactivity, puppetry and machines with a mind of their own. I hope you like the programme!
This afternoon i stopped by the Victoria & Albert Museum to see Light from the Middle East, an exhibition of contemporary photography from and about the Middle East. It wasn't overwhelmingly brilliant but the show has some very strong pieces. In particular, a photo series that appears to draw parallels between the water towers photographed by Bernd and Hilla Becher and the Israeli watchtowers in Occupied Palestine.
The artist writes:
As a Palestinian born in Gaza I am not authorized to return to the West Bank, so I delegated a Palestinian photographer to carry out these photos. They are out of focus, clumsily framed, imperfectly lighted. In this territory, one cannot install the heavy equipment of the Bechers or take the time to frame the perfect position, let alone afford to wait days for the ideal light conditions. Aestheticization becomes a vivid political challenge, both in the creation of these photographs and in their reception, as these images challenge viewers to see these functional military constructions as sculptural, or as a part of a formal architectural heritage.
Resurrection men were body snatchers who often worked in gangs to steal corpses from mortuaries and to dig up recently buried corpses to supply anatomy schools with bodies to dissect and study. Unsurprisingly, the poor, often hastily buried, were easier to unearth and carry to the nearest anatomy school.
Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only bodies that hospitals were legally allowed to use for surgeon training were the ones of executed criminals. And because the gallows only provided surgeons and anatomy schools with a few bodies each year, the medical profession had to resort to illegal means to get a practical understanding of human anatomy. Surgery was a dirty and agonizing affair back then. There was no anaesthetic nor antiseptic and even if the operation went well, the patient could still die from shock, loss of blood or infection. Surgeons had to be fast, their gesture confident and for that, they needed bodies on which to practice.
Some resurrection men were more unscrupulous than other. A handful even killed people to provide the corpses needed for surgery practice. The most famous case was the one of Thomas Williams and John Bishop who murdered 16 people and sold the bodies of their victims to science. They were convicted in 1831 and the irony is that after their execution, their own corpses ended up on the surgeon's table. The exhibition is showing fragments of their tattooed skin and even a slice of the brain of infamous body snatcher and murderer William Burke.
To end the ensuing public hysteria, the parliament passed the Anatomy Act in 1832. It expanded the legal supply of bodies to "unclaimed" corpse from hospitals, workhouses or prisons. Once, again, it was the poor who usually ended up on the anatomy lesson table.
Because they feared to have their body or the body of a loved one stolen by resurrection men, people defended their right to 'rest in peace' by being buried in gilded iron coffin, outfitted with locks, and graveyards were protected by fearsome "man-traps", loaded pistols with trip-wire, etc.
The exhibition starts on firm historical ground but by the third room you realize that the theme finds an echo in 21st century Britain. First of all because Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men was inspired by a recent event: the finding in 2006 of a burial ground at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. They remains excavated by archaeologists showed marks of dissection, autopsy and amputation, along with skeletons of animals dissected for comparative anatomy. The discovery suggests that the hospital dissected the body of diseased patients for surgery practice both before and after it was legal to do so.
The second reason is that the Anatomy Act was only replaced in 2004 by the Human Tissue Act which ensures that access to corpses for medical science in the UK is now regulated by the Human Tissue Authority. But even today, demands for bodies to either dissect or use as a source of organ for transplantation far exceeds the offer.
Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men, as you can guess, often verges on the gruesome but it is also remarkably instructive and engaging. I'm leaving you with a few more images from the show, starting with the work that impressed me the most:
Anatomy classes also took part at the Royal Academy of Arts. In 1801, 3 artists demonstrated that most depictions of the Crucifixion were anatomically incorrect. With the assistance of a surgeon, they acquired the body of a criminal and nailed it into position, flayed to remove all skin and then cast in plaster. The cast was never intended as a work of art but is otherwise on display at the Royal Academy of Art.
Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men is up until April 14 at the Museum of London.
Related story: Brains: The Mind as Matter.
This morning i went to the press view of Gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union at the Saatchi Gallery and I'm not sure that the artists participating to the exhibition heartily agree with Joseph Stalin's statement. Although this survey of contemporary art in Russia contains humour, balls and a few satisfyingly good pieces, the show is not exactly cheerful.
Take the gentlemen portrayed by Sergei Vasiliev. Their skin is their biopic: each of their tattoos carries political messages and details about their criminal life. The motifs were drawn using whichever tools and ink they could get their hands on: melted books, urine, blood, etc.
Vasiliev worked both as a photographer for a newspaper in Chelyabinsk and as a prison warden when he encountered the work of Danzig Baldaev. Baldaev was the son of an ethnographer who was arrested as an "enemy of the people", he grew up in an orphanage and spent over 30 years working in the Soviet penal system. Baldaev recorded the horrors of the Gulag in dozens of drawings but he gained fame for his meticulous documentation of the tattoos etched on the skin of the inmates. His notes and part of the 3,000 drawings he made of the tattoos are published in 3 volumes entitled Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia: Volume I, Volume II and Volume III.
Photographs by Sergei Vasiliev are featured in the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia. Now they are also at the Saatchi Gallery where they are covering the walls of one of the exhibition rooms:
More photos on the website of Fuel Design.
Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union: Art from Russia, Saatchi Gallery, London, runs from November 21 2012 till May 5 2013. Don't miss the accompanying show upstairs Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art, 1960-80s, it has some stunning works.
It's back! After a Summer/early Autumn break, #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present ResonanceFM is on air again. Starting today Tuesday 6th November at 4:00 pm. There will be a repeat on Thursday 8th November 10:30 pm. You can catch it online if you don't live in London.
My guest this week is Neal White. Neal is Associate Professor of Art and Media at Bournemouth University and the Director of Emerge - Experimental Media Research Group, a practice-based initiative which is developing critical, creative and technical experiments in media. But the reason why i invited him to the studio of Resonance FM is his activity at the Office of Experiments, a structure that explores, maps and records the advanced labs and facilities that are - on purpose or not - concealed from public view. You can find these records on a website evocatively called Dark Places.
I interviewed Neal White a few months ago already so our radio conversation focuses on what happened a couple of months ago when The Office of Experiments and The Arts Catalyst took members of the public on a 'critical excursion' to discover and study these Dark Places from up close. Called Experimental Ruins: West Edition, the event invited Londoners to discover little-known places of scientific secrecy and technology in the West London corridor.
We will be talking declassified materials, underground bunker housing alternative Cabinet War rooms, cold war archive footage, Atomic Weapons Establishment, sites used by the UK Nuclear peace protestors, etc. I'd tune in if i were you.
Previously: Dark Places and experimental geography - Interview with Neal White. Image on the homepage via Dark Places.