I haven't seen that many exciting exhibitions in London over the past few weeks. I was however, bowled over by the photos of Philip-Lorca diCorcia at the David Zwirner Gallery. The East of Eden series brings side by side biblical references and the American dream gone sour. East of Eden is named after John Steinbeck's 1952 novel, contains direct references to the book of Genesis and is inspired by the collapse of the economy as well as the political climate of the United States towards the end of the Bush era.
"It was really about the loss of innocence I think the whole world went through when the financial crisis started," diCorcia explains. "The financial crisis was the beginning of an economic crisis that led to a political crisis. It took two administrations to learn that the war on Iraq was based on a lie, that Saddam Hussein didn't work together with Al-Qaida, and that Afghanistan was an impossible country to transform. Now we have natural disasters that we never could have imagined before. And then there are all those people with no homes. I did feel some compulsion to respond. I never respond directly. But I had a distinct motivation for the conceptualization of the imagery."
The only photo in the gallery that is not likely to throw you into a melancholy state is the one with the two placid white dogs watching porn in a Hamptons home. They were actually looking at much tamer images. 'I rarely manipulate photographs after they are taken,' said diCorcia, 'but in this case the dogs were watching Bambi. I put in the porn later.'
The lady in Iolanda is the artist's mother-in-law. She is either staring at her own reflection or looking at the sky outside, waiting for the tornado forecast on tv.
The tempting Serpent from the Garden of Eden is symbolized by the stripper gliding up and down a pole.
Everything has a meaning and purpose in diCorcia's photos. One man is wearing a red jumper, the other a blue one, while a pregnant woman looks at them from the door. Cain and Abel are locked in reluctant embrace before one kills the other. They also represent U.S. politics and more precisely the Democrat/Republican relationship.
UPDATE: David Zwirner will host a talk by Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the V&A, about the artist's work, 19 October 2013, 11 AM, RSVP to +44 (0)203 538 3165.
Last Launch. Discovery, Endeavour, Atlantis, by photographer Dan Winters.
Publisher University of Texas Press writes: Americans have been driven to explore beyond the horizon ever since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. In the twentieth century, that drive took us to the moon and inspired dreams of setting foot on other planets and voyaging among the stars. The vehicle we built to launch those far journeys was the space shuttle--Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. This fleet of reusable spacecraft was designed to be our taxi to earth orbit, where we would board spaceships heading for strange new worlds. While the shuttle program never accomplished that goal, its 135 missions sent more than 350 people on a courageous journey into the unknown.
Last Launch is a stunning photographic tribute to America's space shuttle program. Dan Winters was one of only a handful of photographers to whom NASA gave close-range access to photograph the last launches of Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. Positioning automatically controlled cameras at strategic points around the launch pad--some as close as seven hundred feet--he recorded images of take-offs that capture the incredible power and transcendent beauty of the blast that sends the shuttle hurtling into space. Winters also takes us on a visual tour of the shuttle as a marvel of technology--from the crew spaces with their complex instrumentation, to the massive engines that propelled the shuttle, to the enormous vehicle assembly building where the shuttles were prepared for flight.
Dan Winters has a passion that's completely alien to me: he is fascinated by the NASA space program. U.S. space exploration never made me dream nor even bat an eyelid. Yet, when i read a 3 line-long review of his book in a free men's magazine in London, i knew i needed to get a review copy. Because i might not be into astronauts and giant leaps for mankind but photography is something i respond to. And Last Launch is all about that: jaw dropping images of engineering marvels and explosive lift off. Even the black and sepia archive photos (not by Winters) that illustrate the introduction texts are magnificent.
Speaking of introduction! The photo book starts with a series of essays. One by the photographer who tells of a long love for space adventures that started as a kid watching the Apollo 11 launch broacast live on the family's new tv set on July 16, 1969. The second essay was written by Al Reinert, director and producer of For All Mankind, a 1989 Award-winning documentary about NASA's Apollo program. The film maker charts the successful and unsuccessful episodes that make the history of the transport system that propels Earth-bound humans into low orbit. Some of the anecdotes he shares are dramatic, others are slightly laughable such as the Coke-Pepsi taste test that took place on board of the Challenger in 1985 to determine which beverage taste more like itself in zero gravity. Coke won, Reinert explains, because they manufactured a zero-gravity soda can. Pepsi didn't bother.
A third text is the rather short and moving account by former astronaut Mark Kelly of the few moments before the take off of STS-134 (one of the very last missions of NASA's Space Shuttle program) on May 16, 2011.
A final text at the back of the book brings an answer to the question i've been asking myself while flipping through the pages. How does he make it? How can he get so close to the spectacular liftoffs?
Dan Winters was one of only a handful of photographers to whom NASA gave close-range access to photograph the last launches of Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. "Close-range" shouldn't be taken too literally though. When they launch, space shuttles are surrounded by an evacuation zone that stretched up to three miles (almost 5 km) in all directions.
The cameras had to be remotely activated. The day before lift-off, Winters places them, up to 9 at a time, around the launchpad, the closest located 700 feet (213 m) from the shuttle itself. Winters calculates the type of photo to shoot according to shuttle's path, he sets the frame, checks the focus point, attaches to the cameras custom-made electronic triggers that are sensitive to sound and fire at five frames per second in response to the rockets igniting. He also has to use sandbags to minimize camera shake, and cover the equipment with plastic to protect it from the rain.
If there's one person who might finally get me interested in the NASA adventures, it's Dan Winters. Pity the Space Shuttle was retired from service two years ago.
If you're as horrified as i have been by the endless queues to see the David Bowie exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum, maybe you could walk by and try the ticket-free and crowd-free Making It Up: Photographic Fictions.
V&A has selected from its vast archives some 30 images that denies the assumption that photography captures 'the truth'. Since the early days of its history indeed, the medium has also been used to stimulate viewer's imagination or simply to deceive.
The exhibition is small but dense with narratives that entertain, betray, trouble or convey extra layers of information. Some of the stratagems used in these images are subtle, others are downright theatrical.
Roger Fenton's Valley of the Shadow of Death photos are, i've been told, extremely famous. I must admit that i had never read about them before. Fenton was commissioned to document the Crimean War in 1855. Because of the limitations of photographic techniques of the time, because of the danger of entering the battlefield with a cumbersome photo equipment, but also because of the government's wish to present the war in a light that would not upset the public, Fenton couldn't represent the conflict directly.
Valley of the Shadow of Death is a striking example of how Fenton communicated the aftermath of a battle. The photo doesn't show corpses nor wounded soldiers but cannonballs strewn over a road near Sevastopol.
It was later discovered that Fenton had taken another photograph of this scene, with only rocks laying on the road this time. Historians speculate that Fenton probably staged the scene, moving cannonballs from the ditch onto the road in order to create an image dramatic enough to evoke human casualties on the battlefield.
Terry Towery (born 1963) aka Timothy Eugene O'Tower (1829-1905) claims to have 'discovered' this photo by his descendant Timothy Eugene O'Tower, a 19th century photographer. The photo immediately recalls Roger Fenton's. O'Tower is in fact a figment of Towery's imagination and his photos show table-top constructions masquerading as landscapes.
Jan Wenzel's compositions are made entirely inside a photobooth. He used to work in a booth located in the Census Office of Leipzig until, in 1998, he found an old Fotofix booth, repaired it and installed it in his studio. For each of his tableaux, he would set up the scene inside the photo booth and rearrange each frame at 28-second intervals.
The photos above are not the ones exhibited at the V&A but they are close enough to give you an idea of his work.
Nothing in Oliver Boberg's images is what it seems. He selects a location, takes a snap of it then goes back to his studio where he builds a model of the place, carefully lights it and then photographs the scene from predetermined vantage points.
He calls the result "generic modernism". His 'locations' are banal and familiar urban scenes, yet they are alien, stripped of any human or non human life. A reality so controlled and constructed, it becomes almost abstract.
Bridget Smith´s image depict sets purposely built for an activity that the photographer does not represent as such. The bathroom above (the work in the V&A exhibition was a locker room but i couldn't find any photo of it online) is an empty stage set used in the porn industry. The photo is part of the series "Glamour Studios" which catalogues architectures of desire.
Gregory Crewdson works on a Hollywood movie scale with actors and a large crew but it is only after an elaborate process of digital editing that an effect of "hyper-visuality" arises in both the details and the ensemble of these Amercan suburb scenes. More than film stills, Crewdson's images are 'frozen moments', they allude to mysterious, disturbing events usually taking place at twilight. The puzzling scenes leave viewers wondering what has just taken place or what is going to happen.
Duane Michals uses sequences of photos to suggest a narrative. In this sequence, two men pass in an alleyway without incident, but the encounter seems loaded with significance.
Lady Hawarden used her two eldest daughters as models who play out courtship scenes, dressed in 18th-century costume.
Robert Thomson Crawshay was the owner of an ironworks and an amateur photographer. The sitter is not a fishwife but his own daughter whom he photographed in various guises.
More images from the show:
Making It Up: Photographic Fictions is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until March 16th 2014.
Related story: Manipulating Reality - How Images Redefine the World.
The Hayward Gallery in London has recently opened a fairly eccentric exhibition filled with the works of outlandish inventors, maverick engineers, self-taught architects, and other people whose imagination won't stop at the laws of physics nor at the rules set by society.
Contributors to the exhibition explore fictional identities and design imaginary cities; they build healing machines and record the unseen energy flows of our bodies. They speculate on mysteries of time and space; create devices for time travel and communication with other dimensions; and fashion new letter forms designed to liberate the alphabet from the strictures of Western civilization.
The Alternative Guide to the Universe is never dull nor predictable. And it is as much about artworks, models and speculation as it is about the stories and personalities of the individuals behind them..
Take Jean Perdrizet for example. He was a civil engineer who lost his job because of mental health troubles. Around 1955 he became an "inventor", stretching the limits of physics, drawing and prototyping machines to communicate with ghosts or aliens. He also invented a language, the "sidereal esperanto" that enabled all humans to understand each other but also to communication with extra-terrestrials. His machines are lost, only the intricate drawing, plans and mathematical formulas remain.
Lee Godie is the one who fascinated me the most. Godie was living on the streets of Chicago in the late 1960s. She called herself a French Impressionist and was selling her drawings and paintings on the steps of the Art Institute. So far, so almost normal. What makes Godie a star of the Hayward show are the theatrical self-portraits she was taking inside a photo-booth at the bus station. She'd bring along accessories, bits of fabric and other props to build different personae. She would then add bright colour to her lips or paint her eye brows in a Scouse fashion. Godie was thus doing theatrical self-portraits long before Cindy Sherman did. And long before celebs started invading twitter with 'selfies.'
The romantic in me is charmed by a self-taught photographer who sees his wife as his muse and takes thousands of photos of her dressed as a pin-up, wearing little more than cascades of pearls or donning christmas tree decorations on her head. Preferably against a rococo backdrop. From the early 1940s to the mid-1950s, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein documented the Marie's beauty but even when she is naked, the portraits have more tenderness than kinkiness.
Bodys Isek Kingelez uses cardboard, candy wrappers and other materials found in the streets of Kinshasa to make what he calls Extrêmes maquettes (Extreme Models) of extravagant buildings and utopian cities. They look neither purely African, nor European, even when they bear the name of a European city. I wouldn't say that they are futuristic either. In truth, these buildings can't be assigned to any architectural movement. They are in a league of their own.
Richard Greaves sculpts houses as much as he builds them. Like many of the artists in the exhibition, Greaves is self-taught. He never learnt to be an architect. Yet, his constructions successfully defy the laws of gravity. The cabins and shelters he erects in the middle of the forest in Canada are made from abandoned barns which he takes apart and rebuilds at his whim.
Rammellzee's graffiti and art work are based on his theory of Gothic Futurism. He imagined a world in which letters of the alphabet would arm and liberate themselves from the slavery and corruption of language. Made from found objects and customised skateboards, his Letter Racers are flying armoured vehicles poised for linguistic and galactic warfare. His style is stunning. Why had i never heard of him before?
I guess everybody knows about Wu Yulu's amazing, rural robots. Using rubbish that he finds near his farm, Wu Yulu creates robots that do the cleaning, wash dishes, light cigarettes, or take him to market. The Hayward is showing the small robot that climbs a wall and a child robot that chases people (as Ralph Rugoff, Director of the Gallery and Curator of the show, pertinently noted, it's not a coincidence if a man from the country of the one child policy decided to build himself a little boy.)
I'm going to stop here because unfinished, unpolished, unpublished posts are piling up and i need to move on but in an ideal life, i'll find the time to write about Karl Hans Janke, the man who discovered the 'radiation-free German Atom'; Philip Blackmarr and his theory of "quantum geometry"; or Emery Blagdon who built a 'Healing Machine' from wire, copper, aluminium foil, Christmas tree lights, ribbons, beads, leaves, butterfly wings, magnets and 'earth elements'. I cannot vouch for the scientific soundness of their theories but i'm glad an art gallery has given them a chance to expose them to the public.
If you can't make it to London, i guess that the next best thing is to get your hands on the catalogue The Alternative Guide to the Universe: Mavericks, Outsiders, Visionaries. It's on amazon .co.uk and .com.
A few weeks ago i was in Liverpool for the opening of Turning FACT Inside Out, an exhibition that celebrates the 10 years of existence of the UK's favourite media arts centre (I will get back with a report later this week.)
My well documented love for Liverpool has been growing since i discovered the Open Eye Gallery last year. The independent not-for-profit photo space is now showing the sensational Charles Fréger, The Wild and the Wise. The exhibition opened in collaboration with LOOK13, Liverpool International Photography Festival and as befits the theme of the festival this year (WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?), the gallery has selected the work of an artist concerned with both individual and collective identity.
One of Fréger's series documents some of the pagan rites that still celebrate the cyclical patterns of nature and life in general in Europe.
I could go on and on with those images. They might be less fancifully attired, but the Namibian Hereros, dressed in a vernacular version of colonial uniforms, impressed me just as much as the European revelers of all things folk and pagan.
I smiled at the Wilder Mann and at the Hereros series but i was moved by the portraits of rikishi ('sumo wrestlers' in Japanese) as children and adults.
Charles Fréger, The Wild and the Wise is at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool until 26 August 2013.
Image on the homepage stolen from the Double Negative.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired this afternoon at 4pm (London time.)
Today i'm talking with Helen Pynor. You might have seen one of Helen's most striking photos in bookshops and on the tube last year, it showed a brain in all its organic glory and was on the book cover and on the posters advertising the exhibition Brains: The mind as matter, which opened last Spring at the Wellcome Collection in London.
Helen Pynor has a background in science but later studied visual art. Three years ago she also became a doctor of philosophy. Her practice combines biological science and visual expression to explore the inside of our bodies, and to investigate the relationship between the physicality of the human body and its culturally constructed status.
During the show we will be talking about how she managed to get her hands on a fresh human brain but Helen will also discuss some of her broader projects such as The Body Is A Big Place, a large-scale installation that explores organ transplantation and the thresholds between life and death.
Peta Clancy and Helen Pynor (sound by Gail Priest), The Body is a Big Place