Last month, i visited the Liverpool Biennial. It was boring (BO-RING) but it was still worth the trip. One: because I love Liverpool and i'm happy as long as people around me have that cute accent. Two: because of the show at the Open Eye Gallery. It is part of the official programme of the biennial but it was one of the few shows in town that made me think and reflect upon the art world and the way it is represented/represent itself.
Not All Documents Are Records: Photographing Exhibitions as an Art Form looks at photographic works that bring a critical and artistic gaze on some of the most important art events in the world and asks the question: "Can photography be the site where the history of an exhibition is produced and still retain its independent artistic autonomy, thus overcoming pure documentation?"
Four bodies of works are brought together to make us reflect on this question. Two are contemporary, they are by Cristina De Middel of the Afronauts fame and by Ira Lombardia. The other two, by Ugo Mulas and Hans Haacke respectively, are historical.
I'm going to start with Ugo Mulas' take on the Venice biennale of 1968. I knew the photographer's work for his portraits of the superstars of the art world in the 1960s. But the photos exhibited at the Open Eye Gallery are miles away from the glamour you might expect from the Venice event.
Mulas had been covering each edition of the Venice biennial since 1954. The images in the gallery date from 1968, a year marked by social uprisings around the world (Mai 68 in France, anti-Vietnam war demos, etc.) The art biennial, which naturally echoes changes in society, experienced similar turmoils. Students and intellectuals took to the street to protest against the establishment represented by the Venice Biennale, brandishing banners that denounced the "policed biennial of the bourgeoisie" (policemen were indeed guarding the entrance of the Giardini) and claiming that 'La Biennale è fascista.'
They also questioned the institution itself on matters such as freedom of speech and vilified it for its sales department, accusing the biennial of being a capitalist playground for the rich. The biennale's board subsequently dismantled the sales office.
In solidarity, some of the participating artists covered up their works, withdrew their work, turned them over or wrote over "in these conditions i'm not working."
Mulas photographed the most salient moments of the opening: the protests, the curators carelessly drinking spritz on Piazza San Marco, the police crackdown against demonstrators, etc.
The context of Hans Haacke's photos of the second edition of Documenta in Kassel is very different from the one of the 1968 biennial. Founded in 1895, the Venice biennial is the oldest exhibition of its kind. Documenta was created 60 years later as a means for bringing Germany up to speed with the most modern and contemporary art forms that had been banned under Nazi's politics of artistic obscurantism and censorship.
Haacke, still a student at the Art Academy in Kassel in 1959, worked as an exhibition guard for the second edition of Documenta. In his free time, he independently took on the task of visually 'documenting Documenta'. The 26 black and white images hanging on the walls of the Open Eye Gallery are witty and full of humour. Instead of being strictly about the art exhibited, the images display Haacke's interest into the rituals and peculiarities of an art event. They show how absurd the dialogue between artworks and viewers can be. A family attempts to find some relationship between a description in the catalogue and the work hanging on the wall. A young boy is far more interested in mickey magazine than in the Kandinski hanging behind his back. Other photos gives us a glimpse of what happens behind the curtains of the art world: cleaning ladies doing their job, a Moore sculpture waiting next to a pile of bricks to be carried to the exhibition room.
Nowadays, most of us have seen images of the kind. The museum photos of Thomas Struth or Martin Parr's sneaky portraits of collectors at Dubai Art Fair, for example. In 1959, photographers' sociological explorations of the art world were pretty unusual.
Cristina De Middel was invited by the gallery to imagine what the future edition of the Liverpool Biennial would be like. The commission came as the preparations for the event were underway.
Instead of going into wild speculations, the photographers looked for evidence in the archives of photography and press cuttings that documented past editions of the event. She then used and remixed the images and headlines in prints that cover the walls of the first room of the gallery.
To create her collage, she contacted both the photographers who had made the original images and the artists whose work appear in the photo. The photographers gave her the permission to use and rework their images. Many of the artists, to my great surprise, refused. So while artists have been constantly borrowing and re-appropriating other artists works to create new ones, they negate photographers the possibility to do so. Does that mean that a photographer is not an artist? That they can only produce images that document? To meet their censorship, De Middel painted over the artworks appearing in the photos, blurring and often even distorting their contour. Her new body of work interrogates thus the authenticity of photography (something she had done previously with the Afronauts, a series that charted the 1964 Zambian space programme which never actually came to its full realization) and highlights the tension between creativity and documentation that the photographic medium encompasses.
Upstairs, i almost missed the work of Ira Lombardía. During her visit of the last edition of Documenta, the artist saw a light phenomenon on the floor of one of the exhibition gallery. She mistook it for an authentic work of art (such confusions happen to the best of us when dealing with contemporary art.) Lombardía took a photo of it and went on to create a whole narrative around it. She invented an artist and a description for the artwork that never was. She then copied faithfully the catalogue of the Documenta exhibition and substituted one of the artworks by her photo of the light phenomenon and added the bio of her fictitious artist. She later wrote a letter of apology to the artist whose name and work she had removed from the catalogue.
Not All Documents Are Records: Photographing Exhibitions as an Art Form, curated by Lorenzo Fusi, remains open until 19 October 2014 at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool.
I entered the PEER gallery a bit by chance and quickly realized that the exhibition involves one artist whose work i admire, an interesting-sounding organization called Archive of Modern Conflict and a photographer who has won numerous awards for his work on AIDS in Uganda, the conflict in Kosovo, the war in Lebanon, anti-terrorism in Algeria, etc.
The artist is Fionna Banner and the photographer is Paolo Pellegrin. Banner asked the photo reporter to explore the City of London and to reflect its activities, behaviours, customs and costume through the lens of conflict photography.
The photos are every bit as good as you would expect from Pellegrin and the way Banner has orchestrated them in the exhibition only adds depth, humour and an extra layer of information. Hundreds of the images are sequenced in a short and gripping film, accompanied by a mixed soundtrack of open cry trading at the London Metal Exchange, melded with a persuasive and hypnotic drumbeat. The other photos are either displayed in museum-type vitrines or inside frames hanging on the walls of a second gallery. Floor to ceiling graphite drawings magnify traditional City pinstripe suits to the point that they become overbearing (or maybe it's just me who's uncomfortable with having a drawing of a banker's crotch at eye level.) The iconic pattern of the financial district even finds itself, absurdly, turned into nail art design. An amusing juxtaposition if you think that the financial sector in London has been relentlessly accused of being sexist.
Speaking of sexy sex, i had to smile in front of the map that shows how strip bars are surrounding the Square Mile. The City of London Corporation has its own electoral system and its own laws. One of them forbids the presence of strip bars in the City. :
The title of the show is Mistah Kurtz--he not dead. Mistah Kurtz is a character from Joseph Conrad's book Heart of Darkness. Kurz is a shrewd and corrupt ivory trader in Africa who has managed to turn himself into a demigod of all the tribes surrounding his station. Towards the end of the book, the death of Kurts is announced by a 'manager boy' with the words 'Mistah Kurtz - he dead.' The City culture of excess, greed and aloofness from society offers indeed parallels to Conrad's narrative.
It is not the first time that Banner references Heart of Darkness. Two years ago, she organised a performance of Orson Welles' screenplay Heart of Darkness, based on Conrad's story. It would have been Welles' first film but it was rejected. He made Citizen Kane instead.
Mistah Kurtz - He Not Dead, 2014, High definition digital film projection and mixed media wall drawing, 6.19 minutes, 2014. Image Fiona Banner
Mistah Kurtz--he not dead is at PEER in London until 26 July 2014:
Previously: Fiona Banner at Tate Britain.
It took me ages to go through all the photos and bits of info scribbled all over flyers and scraps of papers but here's finally a few notes about the Fotofestiwal which closed in Łódź a couple of weeks ago
When it was first launched in 2001, the Fotofestiwal was the first independent photography event of its kind in Poland. I had never visited the festival before but the program looked good: young talents, Eastern European artists whose work was new to me and a few blockbusters which, this year, included Roger Ballen's portraits of marginalized people in absurd settings and Volker Hinz's quirky portraits of fashion stars and celebrities of the 20th century. Predictable blogger that i am, i only had eyes for the new names and the socially-engaged exhibitions. So that's what this report from the festival is going to focus on. That and the city.
I really really enjoyed Łódź. I discovered the city by following the parcours of exhibitions and by getting lost on my way from one abandoned courtyard to a world famous National School of Film, from a street art mural to all kind of ex-industrial buildings spectacularly converted into art centers or shopping malls.
But let's get back to the exhibitions.
Evgenia Arbugaeva grew up in Tiksi, the most northerly settlement with a population of (barely) over 5,000. She came back to her home town 20 years after having left to live abroad. She photographed the Tiksi of her childhood memories. Her other objective was to capture a town "in the middle of nowhere," before it disappears.
She explained in an interview with Leica camera blog: Under the USSR, Tiksi was to be an important seaport on the Northern Sea Route. In those times the government put a lot of energy into development of the Arctic regions building military bases, meteorological stations, towns, etc. After the fall of the USSR all these projects went into decline, people left and ships stayed, rusting in seawater. It's scary to see those monuments to what was once a big dream of the great North.
Ciril Jazbec, Waiting to move documents life on an island no wider than 400 meters and 5 kilometers in length, in Alaska. The island is threatened by the effects of climate change: erosion, storms and inclement weather, as well as by the thawing of permafrost. Al Gore referred to its inhabitants, a modern Inupiaq Eskimo community called Shishmaref, as the first climate refugees.
The most exciting exhibition for me however was the Grand Prix Fotofestiwal, a competition for young artists with 'cohesive ideas' and 'brave visions.' I already blogged my two favourite: A guide to life forms altered by the human species and Norilsk, daily life inside an environmental disaster.
David Takashi Favrod is the son of a Japanese mother and a Swiss father. When he was 6 months old, he moved from Japan to Switzerland where he was mainly brought up by his mother who taught him her culture. When he was 18, he asked for double nationality at the Japanese embassy, but they refused.
It is from this feeling of rejection and also from a desire to prove that I am as Japanese as I am Swiss that this work was created. "Gaijin" is a fictional recital, a tool for my quest for identity, where auto-portraits imply an intimate and solitary relationship that I have with myself.
The aim of this work is to create "my own Japan", in Switzerland, from memories of my journeys when I was small, my mother's stories, popular and traditional culture and my grandparents war recitals.
From 2010 to 2013, Antoine Bruy hitchhiked throughout Europe to meet men and women who chose to abandon their urban lifestyle and adopt self-sufficient life styles.
Kirill Golovchenko in photographed the people who spend their summers selling fruit and vegetables on the roadsides in Ukraine. When night comes, many of them retire in tents, trailers, or makeshift shacks erected 10 meters away from the road. Many come from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia and mix with the locals in a microcosm made of people who want to make money to simply get along or save up and improve their living conditions in their respective homelands where most return for the winter months.
And now for an awful amount of photos:
Screened at the festival:
Lots and lots of big spaces that look abandoned:
I see far more exhibitions than i can blog (i could but i'm fairly lazy, you see.) So this morning, i went through all the photos i took in London galleries and museum in June and threw them hastily in this almost laconic post in case you're in town and bored. Being bored in London seems to be my latest obsession but that's another story.
Here we go...
The ever fabulous Science Museum has a small show about the work of scientist and inventor James Lovelock. I spotted this apparatus to test if a detector would work on Mars. Lovelock built it in his home lab in the 1960s while working on NASA's Viking Mission to Mars. It is made with an ordinary kitchen jar and lid. The detector was sealed inside the jar and air was removed via the valve on the left to replicate Martian atmospheric pressure.
Check out the Exponential Horn while you're in the building.
Speaking of wild inventions. I caught the very last day of the Paul Granjon exhibition at Watermans. It was called Is Technology Eating My Brain? and it was very very funny. It's not every day that i laugh my face off all alone in an art gallery. The show was the result of the artist's residency in the art center. He had a couple of works in the gallery (including a magnificently visitor-unfriendly Biting Machine), the rest were works made by participants of Granjon's Wrekshop. They included a slicing photo booth and a geranium survival kit.
I spent far too long watching the videos of Granjon's fancy inventions and performances:
I watched this one three times:
And I now need this book: Hand-Made Machines [Includes DVD]
The show's already closed alas! but here's a few images. And a video.
The Victoria and Albert museum was showing the short listed artists and the winner of the Prix Pictet. The theme was Consumption in all its disastrous relationship to environmental sustainability.
Abraham Oghobase photographed hand scribbled texts advertising the various informal services offered by people living in Lagos, a city of over ten million inhabitants and the commercial capital of Nigeria.
In Lebensmittel, Michael Schmidt portrayed the mechanized, industrialized food system of contemporary Western culture. From pigs standing skin to skin in a factory farm to piles of discarded food. Seeing the images one next to the other up on the wall was both shaming and mesmerizing. No wonder the series won the prize.
The exhibition closed a couple of weeks ago.
Talking in the context of her Post-Surveillance Art series, she said that: "What has altered for me post Snowden, is not an awareness and negotiation of a changed condition, but the knowledge that now almost everybody else knows something which was clear as day if you did a bit of research, and it's great to no longer be called a conspiracy theorist."
I have no time for design products, except when they come with a Soviet aura. The GRAD: Gallery for Russian Arts and Design is showing all kinds of plastic toys, a dial-less Telephone, red velvet flags, retro futuristic vacuum cleaners, etc.
Work and Play Behind the Iron Curtain is at the GRAD: Gallery for Russian Arts and Design until 24 August.
I also visited The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture during the press view. I can't say that was the show of my life. AT ALL! But there were a couple of works i was glad to see again....
The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture is at the Hayward until 7 September.
Gun Architects's rainforest-inspired pavilion at Bedford Square for the 2014 London Festival of Architecture.
Photojournalist Nick Danziger visited North Korea in 2013. He recorded the everyday life in the DPRK and was given rare access to cities outside Pyongyang. The story behind each photo is probably more interesting than the photos themselves. The subjects are doing very ordinary things (getting their hair done at the hairdresser, sunbathing by the sea with their kids, etc.) only it does look like the photos were taken in the past.
According to the British Council the exhibition is "the first cultural engagement of its kind" between the UK and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The Guardian adds that it opened in London with no advance publicity, for fear that the dire relations between North Korea and the west might sink the first cultural project of its kind.
Above the Line: People and Places in the DPRK (North Korea) is open at the British Council HQ in London until 25 July.
I spotted this one in the street.
Now that i've finally got some quiet and lazy time home, i can not only catch up on crime tv series but also post a few stories that have been languishing in draft limbo for far too long. Let's start with Elena Chernyshova's Days of Night - Nights of Day, a photo series i discovered at the Fotofestiwal in Lodz. The series was among the finalists of the Grand Prix Fotofestiwal. It might not have won the award but it was the work that impressed me the most. Of course, part of my fascination is due to that typical look at the post-Soviet world but the images also made me realize the banality and almost romanticism of living right at the heart of an ecological disaster.
The young photographer traveled to Norilsk, one of the biggest cities above the Arctic Circle. In Norilsk, inhabitants live in darkness 45 days a year, temperatures can drop to minus 53 °C in the Winter and the air is one of the most polluted in the world. There is no green space in Norilsk and even leaving the city is a challenge. The easiest way to get away is by air (Moscow is a four hour flight away) and for most residents, plane tickets are barely affordable.
The reason why people would want to live there is that most of them work for the biggest metallurgical and mines complex in the world. Workers in Norilsk extract and process nickel and other metals making up approximately 2% of Russia's GDP.
Every year the metallurgical combine emits almost 2 millions of tons of gas into the atmosphere, leading to alarming rates of cancer, depression, respiratory, cardiovascular and digestive disorders, allergies, and other health dysfunctions are widespread. The amount of sulfur dioxide in the air is so high that almost 100,000 ha of the tundra around the city is dead or in danger. Residents are forbidden from gathering berries or mushrooms due to high toxicity.
Even the story of the city is dark, the city, mines and factories Norilsk were constructed by the prisoners of Gulag in the 1930s and 40s.
Days of Night - Nights of Day is as much about the city itself as it is about how people manage to cope with harsh climate conditions, environmental disaster and isolation:
I hope these photos awake some questions, Elena Chernyshova told National Geographic. Where are the limits of human ambition in the race for natural resources? How much are we willing to damage nature and the health of hundreds of thousands of people in the drive for riches? What are the limits of human adaptation to extreme living conditions?
More images and info in Lens Culture.
Also part of the Fotofestiwal in Lodz: A guide to life forms altered by the human species.
I'm spending a couple of days in Lodz for the Photo Festival. Or rather, the Fotofestiwal. I haven't seen all the exhibitions yet but so far, so good. I've been particularly fascinated by Zhao Renhui's A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World which has been selected for the Grand Prix Fotofestiwal.
The photo series attempts to document the ways in which the human species has altered the planet, and in particular other life forms.
The result of his research is a visually stripped back catalogue of curious creatures and life-forms. Some had to evolve in order to cope with the pressures of a fast changing world. Others appeared as the results of direct human intervention, mutations engineered to serve purposes ranging from scientific research to the desire for ornamentation:
Remote-controlled coakroach, peanuts injected with the DNA of a lobster so that they will never go bad, medicinal eggs with extractable antibodies against cancer, caterpillar-killing cabbage carrying the gene responsible for producing the poison in scorpions, tomatoes that do not go bad, sugar cane engineered with human gene, the first tiger mosquito found in Norway, etc.
Zhao's work addresses man's relationship with nature, and related issues of morality and ethics, paying close attention to how our attitudes assumptions about the natural world are often shaped by institutions of authority and the media.
Quick selection, with comments copied/pasted from the project website:
Every year, scientists report findings of bees being attracted to discarded soda cans, leftover drinks and various sweet things. This is due to the combined effect of a declining natural supply of nectar in the wild and the insect's possible craving for caffeine. In Singapore, a community of bees has been raiding a factory producing sodas of various colours. The red dye from a certain brand of soda remains in the bees' bodies even after they have processed their food into honey. Over time, it is found that the stomachs of these bees have turned red, changing from their usual orange amber hue. The honeycombs in the hives are also found to have turned into a shade of blood red.
A company in Japan has developed a technique to create eggs that are so strong that they cannot be broken. The only way to access its contents is to puncture a hole in its shell with a pointed tool. The egg was created by adding the plant protein of a banyan tree to a chicken, thus creating an egg with a bark-like texture.
Corn is the number one crop grown in the United States and about 88% of it is genetically modified. Although there is little evidence that these crops pose a threat to humans, scientists are still understanding the effects of genetic engineering on corn. Scientists recently discovered non-genetically modified corn emit chemicals when they are being attacked by pests. These chemicals, which signal wasps to attack pests, are not present in genetically modified corn. Through Kirlian photography, the aura of a non-genetically modified corn can still be seen.
A small population of white rhinoceroses in Africa has evolved to have horns so small that they are barely visible. Experts believe this could be due to years of hunting individuals with large horns. The remaining rhinoceroses with smaller horns left to breed will eventually created a whole new hornless generation.
It has recently been found in China that pork has been made to aesthetically look like beef. 'Beef colouring' and 'beef extracts' were added to pork to make it look and taste like beef.
China organised the first International Goldfish Championships in Fuzhou in 2012. Over 3,000 goldfish from 14 countries competed for different titles including the World Goldfish Queen crown. Goldfish are judged by five criteria: breed, body shape, swimming gesture, colour and overall impression. The show stealer was a giant goldfish weighing around 4kg. The judges noted that not all goldfish can grow this big as factors such as breeding may affect size. Goldfish are bred out of generations of genetic mutations since the Jin Dynasty and their exact origins are unknown.
Flowerhorn cichlids are ornamental aquarium fish noted for their vivid colours and bulbous humped heads. A man-made hybrid, the flowerhorn was popular in Singapore in the late 1990s. When their popularity waned, owners released the fish into the local waters. Today, the fish thrive in large numbers in local reservoirs and waterways. Scientists have reported that the flowerhorn has taken on a different adaptation in recent years. The bulbous and round head it once had has given way to a sharp, flat and rounded disc. It is posited that the more streamlined form allows them to swim quickly away from predators.
Less than 4% of Singapore exists in total darkness after 10pm. Insects are attracted to artificial light sources, though no one knows exactly why. The insects are usually killed by exhaustion or through contact with the heat from lamps. After being incinerated, their bodies become a heap of ash, collected in the covers of street lamps. The ash, also referred to as 'moon dust', is used by scientists to study the ecological impact of light pollution on insects.
Sold in a department store in South Korea, these square apples were created as gifts for students taking the College Scholastic Ability Test, with some inscribed with the words 'pass' or 'success'. A similar square watermelon was developed in Japan in the 1980s. The cubic fruits are created by stunting their growth in glass cubes.
Falcons are diurnal birds but have recently adapted to become nocturnal, like owls. Urban falcons have begun to use artificial illumination from street lamps and lit buildings to hunt for bats throughout the night.
Photo on the homepage: Remote-controlled cockroach., from the series, A guide to the flora and fauna of the world. More at The Institute of Critical Zoologists.
The Grand Prix Fotofestiwal is on view at ART_INKUBATOR in Lodz until 15 June, 2014.