Yesterday i spent a few hours in Florence to see Emerging Talents at Centre for Contemporary Culture Strozzina (CCCS). The exhibition brings the spotlight on 16 artists nominated to the 2011 Emerging Talents award, created by CCCS to identify, promote and support young Italian art.
The selected artists, aged between 25 and 35 years, are talented Italians whose work has found its way into galleries but has not yet won broad public recognition. I can't applaud enough the initiative, there are plenty of young Italian contemporary artists and most of them don't get half of the support they deserve.
The works on show are radically different from each other and i've discovered a few artists whose career i'm going to follow with much attention from now on. More about them soon. Today, i'm going to introduce the show with an artist many of you probably know.
A few years ago, Alberto Tadiello's work started touring the blogs. The dysfunctional and elegant music boxes of his EPROM piece proved popular with both the media art and the contemporary art world. Quite an achievement in itself.
The piece currently on view in Florence is directly inspired by early prototypes of sound weapons. As the artist explained to Italian mag arte e critica: I found a series of very suggestive images of some real "sound armies" set up by the Japanese army during the Second World War. They were like guns pointing to the sky, conceived for shooting down planes by using particular airwaves. Unlike current acoustic weapons, which are real weapons, those first prototypes have never been activated. Those images fascinated me a lot. This work probably still recalls these suggestions. It is a structure that juts out a lot from the wall, overhanging and conveying a sort of dangerousness. It produces a deep guttural sound and can be "exhibited" in every sense, both from a spatial and a sound viewpoint. It is fixed to and hanging on the wall and sound becomes a physical presence in movement able to sculpt the space.
Tadiello's version of the weapon looks down, it is dark, sleek, mysterious and looks like a commercial device (its name actually refers to an identification code for car horns.)
The "deep guttural sound is triggered by visitors as they draw near the sculpture. Just like the disconcerting noise of the Japanese weapons was engineered to unsettle the enemy, the sound of Tadiello's sculpture hits the visitor in the stomach, becoming a physical presence that shapes the space. Unfortunately or fortunately for me, the installation had been turned off yesterday afternoon which tells you how troubling the sound must have been for the employees who spend the whole day surveying the gallery.
Credit image on the homepage: Alberto Tadiello, E13 000625, 2010. Electric horns, pipes, cables, transformers, metal brackets, steel tie-rods, 60 x 150 x 110 cm. Courtesy T293, Naples.
Previously: Olivier - The French Foreign Legion.
It was a masterful idea to open the exhibition Portraits and Power at CCC Strozzina in Florence with the dramatic and almost intimidating portrait of Fidel Castro by Hiroshi Sugimoto. The photography is deceitful though, the Cuban leader never stood in front of Sugimoto. His wax figure at the Madame Tussaud's Museum did. The figures are illumined by a source of direct light and strongly stand out against a black background in an extremely theatrical way, imitating poses typical of the characters they represent, while removing them from all context and thus emphasizing their nature as icons rather than human beings. Interestingly, the resulting image appears "more real" than the wax statues.
Portraits and Power explores portraiture and contemporary representation of political, economical and social power through the works of artists. Images nowadays have the role not only to represent but also to affirm power. Ask David Cameron. The UK Prime Minister has appointed his "personal photographer" Andrew Parsons to a civil service post responsible for recording the coalition in government. The controversial move ensures that, right from the start of the electoral campaign, the Prime Minister has been represented in the most opportune fashion (an approach that mister Putin is no doubt working on.) Before him already, Tony Blair had benefited from the 'unofficial' and 'intimate' photographs that Nick Danziger had shot of the PM everyday life on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday.
Portraits and Power not only dissects power as an expression of the charisma of those individuals who have become icons of their age. It also explores the power of institutions and social models that either represent themselves or are represented in a critical light. Thirdly, Portraits and Power investigates the mechanisms of powerful but hidden authorities.
The current UK constitution might not have left Queen Elizabeth II of England as much authority as her ancestors enjoyed. Her aura, status and personality however have granted her an unique power over public imagination. American photographer Annie Leibovitz was commissioned a series of portrait of the sovereign in occasion of her travel to the United States.
The series is almost as famous for the images as it is for an episode in which Queen Elizabeth II would have allegedly 'lost her cool' and stormed out of a photo shoot after Leibovitz had suggested she'd remove her crown for a portrait.
However, it soon emerged that a BBC video was responsible for the scandal in the British press. BBC had indeed edited a series of sequences about the photo shoot to suggest that the Queen had found the photographer's request outrageous. In reality, the Queen had remained calm and composed all along. The broadcaster immediately apologized for the unfortunate video editing.
A chapter of the exhibition is dedicated to the representation or self-representation of members of the 'high society.' As their title indicates, Daniela Rossell's Ricas y Famosas series portrays young women from the Mexican upper classes flaunting their prosperity (or rather their father's or husband's) and garish taste.
The Ricas y Famosas are a minority in their country. Rossell is actually one of them. That's probably why the young women felt comfortable with her and agreed to be photographed in the setting of their own choice. However, after the photos attracted critical press, many of them requested to pull out of the project.
The most moving work for me was Francesco Jodice's viceo DUBAI_CITYTELLERS, part of a trilogy exploring how certain areas in the world have become complex symbols of power. Jodice's portrayal of Dubai alternates scenes we know too well (spectacular buildings by starchitects, camel races, snow park, ladies in jewels but also shots of the appalling quarters where migrant workers are condemned to sleep) with short and compelling interviews with Western and Eastern immigrants, as well as local politicians and journalists.
Contrasting views expressed in the movie shape a land where overkill dreams are possible but where immigrants, who are employed as cheap labour in the building sector and as servants in the house of wealthy Dubaites, live in dreadful conditions. It's also on the exploitation of their work and of social inequalities that the economic growth of the country is made possible.
The critical investigation of the curators doesn't stop at the portraits of the rich, the famous and the powerful whose faces are regularly gracing newspapers and magazines. A section of the show is dedicated to hidden authority structures such as multinational corporations, business banks, the CIA and supranational inspection bodies.
Paradoxically, that's also where we meet the artists this blog is more familiar with: Bureau d'études, Trevor Paglen and The Yes Men. In consequence, and even if i admire their work immensely, i'll just brush on their contribution to the show.
On 3 December 2004, Andy Bichlbaum of The Yes Men appeared on BBC news in the role of Jude Finisterra, a fictional spokesmen for Dow Chemical - the multinational corporation that owns Union Carbide, the company responsible for the chemical disaster that took place in the area around the city of Bhopal in India. He was announcing to the world that 20 years after the Bhopal tragedy Dow was finally accepting full responsibility for the world's worst industrial catastrophe and offering compensation to all the victims of the disaster, for a total of around twelve billion dollars.
While the company immediately denied these statements, in the twenty minutes that followed the interview Dow's stocks lost 4% of their value. The action, which mimicked the media strategies adopted by multinationals, also helped to bring the Bhopal disaster back to the attention of the public.
Their action proved more effective than other protest strategies, as modern corporations, institutions and political bodies base their own credibility, and hence power, on the well-planned construction of a positive public image. In the contemporary society of images, attacks against the power of an economic or political authority will prove more effective if they are directed against its façade as opposed to its internal mechanisms.
I've been a regular visitor of the Florence cultural center since early 2008. This exhibition, just like the ones i saw before, did not disappoint with its selection of artworks from both emerging artists and auction house favourites, solid investigation into a timely topic, and availability of the catalogue essays online.
Portraits and Power is a project of the CCC Strozzina, with the consultancy of Peter Funnell (National Portrait Gallery, London), Walter Guadagnini ("UniCredit & Art" project) and Roberta Valtorta (Museum of Contemporary Photography, Cinisello Balsamo) coordinated by Franziska Nori (CCCS, Firenze).
Portraits and Power is on view at CCC Strozzina in Florence through 23 January 2011.
I wonder if the rest of the world fantasizes as much about the French Foreign Legion as they do in France. Marie Dubas's song Mon légionnaire (made popular by Edith Piaff) tells the story of a woman longing for the return of a handsome Légionnaire. He is bitter, bad-mannered and disappears after a one night stand. Yet, she keeps hoping she'll see her blond lover again. Alas, he is found dead in the desert before she can tell him she loves him. Serge Gainsbourg covered Mon Légionnaire in the 1980s:
Rineke Dijkstra photographed a 18-year-old legionnaire named Olivier Silva, minutes after he had been accepted into the elite military unit. She portrayed him six more times over the course of thirty-six months while he was following the Foreign Legion stern training in Aubagne, near Marseille, when he was stationed at Castelnaudary and in the Pyrenees and right up to the moment when he is sent out to Gabon, the Ivory Coast, and Djibouti. ''The idea was to follow a soldier, someone who comes in soft and young, then turns tough,'' the photographer explained, ''but I'm really talking about a mental change, not a physical one.'' It's not so much the change of uniform, the chest hairs or the stronger biceps that matter. It's the hardening of Olivier's look, the realization that he has acquired authority, assurance and control.
The pictures might expose what Olivier has endured and achieved during his stay at the Légion but he won't allow them to reveal anything else. As Dijkstra tells the NYT: ''Olivier always looks like he has everything under control. I wanted to photograph him right after exercise, hoping he might be less concentrated on the fact that he was posing, to catch him less composed. But he seems never to let down his guard -- not that he is hiding anything, just that he reveals so little.'' Exactly like in the song Mon Légionnaire.
A relative anonymity is part and parcel of the légion. Legionnaires can enlist under a pseudonym and new nationality, a disposition which enables people to start their lives over. After one year's service, Legionnaires can resume their true identity.
Portraits and Power is on view at CCC Strozzina in Florence through 23 January 2011.
Last week i introduced briefly Manipulating Reality, a show that ran until January 17 at CCCS in Florence. This truly enjoyable exhibition explored the way photographic images and videos represent reality as much as they can construct and betray it. The issue has taken a key importance in a society where images have gradually taken over the role of words as a vehicle of communication.
Manipulating Reality presents a selection of 23 artistic approaches that work through photography and video to develop possible models of reality. Its aim is not to understand whether photographs can convey reality but how this can occur. The works exhibited represent different artistic strategies addressing the construction, reflection or distortion of reality in images. In addition to investigating the value of documentary photography today, many of the artists presented reflect in part the conditions of the tool of photography and adopt known artistic techniques such as collage, presentation in model form, abstraction and the assemblage of different elements.
His Presidency series is devoted to a place we have seen countless times on tv and cinema screens: the U.S. President's Oval Office. The office, seen from different angles, is empty of any human presence. At first sight, it looks like a mere photographic reproduction of the real office until a closer examination reveals that it is the photograph of a paper model.
Demand never set foot inside this symbol of supreme power. Basing his work on images encountered in newspapers and magazines, he meticulously crafted life-sized models made of paper and cardboard. Their sole purpose was to be photographed. After the shooting, they were destroyed.
Interestingly, Presidency was commissioned by the New York Times Magazine, a publication which has undoubtedly at his disposal bags of photos taken in the real office. The frontal image of the desk in the Oval Office made the cover in November 2008, immediately after the presidential elections. Demand's images does not offer any clue as to the identity of the president working there. The artist's version of the famous office addresses not only the illusion of power but also the illusory authenticity of photography in a society where communication goes hand in hand with "digital revolution".
The setting of Tatjana Hallbaum's IN-BETWEEN photos is impeccable: an emergency squad works composedly around a plane disaster, a building destroyed by an earthquake waits tranquilly to be surveyed by a rescue team. The pictures look fake and doctored. They are not. At least not completely.
The catastrophes never took place, they are mere training exercises to prepare personnel of the police, fire-fighting and civil defense departments should a real disaster occur. As the title of the series suggests, the artist's interest is focused on the space 'in between', the one that separates reality and fiction. Hallbaum describes her works as follows: "The work is questioning the gap between 'true' and 'false', 'reality' and 'fiction'. It should show that photography circumvents this. The question is not what reality is, but how we can represent it."
The haunting Museum of Nature series by Ilkka Halso portrays a distressingly believable vision of a future when the only nature to enjoy will be the one that has to be preserved, just like a work of art, inside a museum.
Like the IN-BETWEEN series, Still Lovers documents a niche phenomena in which fiction is made to be confused with reality. Elena Dorfman met men and women who have made the famous RealDolls part and parcel of everyday domestic life. The dolls come with a heavy aura of porn but Dorfman's images are intimate, not sexual. They explore the emotional bonds created between ordinary-looking people and their silicon partner.
Gregory Crewdson's works brings this idea of manipulated reality to Hollywood level. Metaphorically and literally. seem to defy any attempt to define them. One moment they evoke high-definition stills from big budget movies. Next, they remind viewers of Dutch paintings. Or maybe a scene from a fantasy video game. Set in the most generic American suburbia, the puzzling scenes leave viewers wondering what has just taken place or what is going to happen.
Although Crewdson works with a team of professionals one might expect to meet on a cinema production, it's only after an elaborate process of digital editing that this effect of hyper-reality and "hyper-visuality" arises in both the details and the ensemble.
My images on flickr. Photo on the homepage: Cigarette, 2007 © Sarah Pickering.
This exhibition explored the way photographic images and videos represent reality as much as they can construct and betray it. One of its section was dedicated entirely to the treatment of images in the context of war.
As James der Derian notes in his essay for the exhibition catalog: No State or state of mind can exercise full authority in the contemporary infosphere - which of course does not stop many from trying.
Images and politics are of course intimately intertwined. A clamorous example is offered by the German and Italian fascist movements in the 1930s. Inspired by the techniques of agitprop of the Russian Revolution, both governments used the relatively new media that were photography, radio and film to bolster their power through visual messages where propaganda and reality appeared to be one and only.
The issue was brought to the public attention more recently when the Pentagon imposed a strict blackout on media coverage of US soldiers' coffins returning from Iraq (a censorship which seemed to extend to art portraits of living but reclining soldiers.) The ban, in force since the Persian Gulf war, was eased last year.
Artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin followed the British army in Afghanistan as embedded photo reporters in June 2008. Embedded reporters are expected to 'document' the conflict while complying with the rigid directives of military command. Only the images that make it through their censorship process are published.
Instead of running after bullets and casualties, Broomberg and Chanarin exposed a roll of 76.2 cm wide and 6 m long photographic paper to the sun for twenty seconds every day. The result, titled The Brother's Suicide, is a series of abstract, mostly white images, with colourful marks where the light and the heat triggered a chemical reaction on the paper.
The next step of their work in Afghanistan is The Day Nobody Died, a video that traces the return of the cardboard box containing the roll of photographic paper. The artists followed the soldiers and filmed them as they had to load and unloading the roll of photographic paper from one military base to another. The same gestures are repeated as the soldiers and the box step inside on Chinooks, planes, buses, tanks and jeeps. The object bore no meaning nor probably any sense for the soldiers who become the involuntary protagonists of an absurd performance encapsulating the repetitive nature of military life outside the battleground. A touching and quirky moment in the video sees the soldiers watching the reality show Big Brother under a military tent, with the big cardboard box 'sitting' among them.
The choice of communicating their experience on the war front through abstract and formalistic representation might seem almost irrational. When it is impossible and even forbidden to faithfully communicate the pain and horror of the personal tragedy of soldiers waiting for the moment to fight or die, The Brother's Suicide and The Day Nobody Died force us to reflect and imagine what we do not see and what we are not told.
What Broomberg and Chanarin seek to demonstrate with this paradoxical work of "anti-documentation" is that their images are equivalent in terms of truth content to the photographs of embedded reporters approved by military censorship. Their abstract painting of light bears witness to the reality of the conflict in the same almost paradoxical way as the work of the war photographers, which in any case does not present the truth.
Previously: Community Performance in Google Street View.
Last week i introduced briefly Manipulating Reality, a show that ran until January 17 at CCCS in Florence. This truly enjoyable exhibition explored the theme of the manipulation and reconstruction of reality through photographic images and videos.
One of the artists whose work i discovered while visiting Manipulating Reality is Moira Ricci, a photographer and video artist who gained fame and critical respect for a series of photos she never shot. 20.12.53 - 10.08.04, which appears to have been born out of the artist's desire to investigate her personal past and memory, embodies the views put forward by Roland Barthes in his celebrated Camera Lucida: photography endows the past with a certainty so solid as to be equivalent to the present, thus blurring the boundary between reality (what was) and truth.
A series of amateur photographs from a family album are lined-up on the walls of the gallery. They star the same people whose fashion style evolve as the photographs turn from b&w to coloured by hand to slightly yellowed colour. As your eyes go from one image to another, you realize that two women keep appearing. An elegant woman with black hair who parties, goes to Milan with her fiancé, makes babies and gets older and a slim young woman with a long sad face alla Modigliani, upon whom time seems to leave no trace.
The young woman is Moira Rossi. In the images she stands slightly aloof and stares intently in the direction of the other woman, as if she'd hope that the lady would turn and acknowledge her presence. That other woman is her mother who died in 2004. On 10.08.04 to be precise. Hence the title of the series.
Digital processing of the old photographs of her mother's life enabled the artist to appear beside and observe her mother in the moments that, at the time, were thought worthy to be 'immortalized.' Ricci carefully chose her clothes so that they would match the fashion of the time, she adjusted the lighting to fit unobtrusively in the portraits and cast herself as a shy figure at the edge of the photo.
The reconstructed images manipulates both the present and the past, building a bridge that enable her to try and reach out to her mother virtually in various moments of her life.
To be continued...