The largest private estate ever 'owned' by man in recent history was perhaps an area of Africa acquired by Leopold II King of the Belgians in 1885.
For over 20 years, he would be the de facto owner of over a million square miles of central Africa (a territory roughly 76 times larger than Belgium.) He ironically called the country Congo Free Stateand modestly named its capital Leopoldville (via.)
Hiding behind humanitarian and philanthropic promises to develop the region and insure the prosperity of native people, Leopold II acquired the territory and set out to extract its resources. In particular ivory, rubber, and minerals. Nowadays, his rule over the country is associated with the regime of violence, murder or mutilation of the Congolese people. No human right consideration could indeed stop Leopold II's agents in their efforts to meet the growing demand for rubber and maximize profits:
Failure to meet the rubber collection quotas was punishable by death and a hand of the victims had to be presented as proof of the punition, as it was believed that they would otherwise use the munitions for hunting. [...] Soldiers sometimes "cheated" by simply cutting off the hand and leaving the victim to live or die.
When Harmony Went to Hell. Congo Dialogues at Rivington Place in London brings side by side archive photos shot by Alice Seeley Harris while Leopold II was still the sole owner of the land and new work from Sammy Baloji, a Congolese artist who has been investigating the legacies of colonialism in his country.
In the early 1900s, the English missionary Alice Seeley Harris was traveling the Congo Free State with her husband and one of the world's first portable cameras, a Kodak Brownie. Shocked by the contrast between the king's claims of colonial benevolence and the oppressive regime, she carefully documented everyday life as well as the atrocities and brutality towards the inhabitants.
The result is often regarded as being the first photographic campaign in support of human rights. The couple took the images on a tour around Europe and the US. The photos of the Harris Lantern Slide Show were accompanied with powerful lectures which managed to raise the public awareness about human rights violations in Congo.
The Alice Seeley Harris archive was last shown to the public 110 years ago. Her black and white prints are exhibited in an up stair gallery at Rivington Place. The ground floor, however, hosts Sammy Baloji's stunning photos which explore the cultural and architectural 'traces' of Congo's colonial past; in particular, the Katanga province and its capital, Lubumbashi. Some of the pieces exhibited belong to a series of photomontage works that juxtapose post-industrial landscapes with ethnographic archival imagery.
The photos i found most extraordinary, however, are part of Baloji's new body of work. The photos of the Gécamines mining district and of the derelict Office of Post and Telecommunication in Kinshasa are simply jaw-dropping, even for someone who has seen her fair share of derelict buildings. I can't seem to find much images of them so you will have to take my word for it and swing my Rivington street to see them. You won't be taking much risk, the show is free.
I'm going to end this post with an anecdote i read online..
With his ZZ Top beard and his neat outfits, Leopold was also a feisty man and he particularly loved women. His last, embarrassingly younger, and most adored mistress was Caroline Lacroix. She gave him two sons, the younger was born with a deformed hand, leading a cartoon to depict Leopold holding the child surrounded by Congolese corpses with their hands sliced off. The caption said Vengeance from on high!
When Harmony Went to Hell. Congo Dialogues is at Rivington Place in London until 7 March 2014. If, like me, you're a Belgian expat who's never really been taught the whole colonial story at school, you shouldn't miss the show.
The Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool is probably the most exciting photo gallery in England (especially now that Foto8 has closed.) On 22 February they will open a show dedicated to Letizia Battaglia's chronicle of the brutal anni di piombo in Sicily. And right now they have a show that brings together self-taught photographer Alvin Baltrop and 'anarchitect' Gordon Matta-Clark.
I went to see Alvin Baltrop and Gordon Matta-Clark: The Piers From Here a couple of weeks ago. I had never heard of Alvin Baltrop before. His photography met with very little artistic appreciation until after his death when art institutions finally started paying attention to his portrayal of emerging gay subculture in New York.
At first glance, Matta-Clark and Baltrop seem to have very little in common. In fact, the two men probably never met. But they both turned their artistic interest to the Piers of New York City during the mid 1970s.
They found Manhattan's West Side piers abandoned and decaying as a consequence of the oil crisis that reconfigured the geography of the city along with the international trading system. Left to rot, the vast industrial space on the outskirts of the city was soon occupied by people living at the fringe of society: graffiti writers, artists, drug addicts, prostitutes. the homeless, etc.
Pier 52 is the site of one of Matta-Clark's famous building cuts. In 1975, the artist made large cuts into the floor, ceiling and sides of a derelict metal hangar, exposing the Hudson River and sky, creating a sculpture brought to life by the rotation of the sun. Matta-Clark argued that he had created an indoor park. He called it Day's End out of a decrepit space. However, visitors were afraid to cross the large lacerations, the police shut down the opening event and the artist faced an arrest warrant for trespassing and defacing property.
Matta-Clark described the piers as being completely overrun by the gays. So much so that the piers became the site of at least two pornographic films, Arch Brown's Pier Groups (1979) and Steve Scott's Non-Stop (1983). And while Matta-Clark was seesawing his architectural installation, Alvin Baltrop was documenting men having sex, cruising or sunbathing there. Or corpses dredged up from the river.
Most of the time, Baltrop was hiding from his subject, hanging from steel girders, shooting from afar, capturing the freedom these crumbling spaces gave to their occupants. The images are voyeuristic but, perhaps paradoxically, they are never pornographic.
Baltrop photographed the piers and their residents from 1975 to 1986, right up to the moment they were razed. The result is an archive of thousands of photographs that hover between raw passion, violence, furtiveness and tenderness.
Gordon Matta-Clark believed that art could be used as a tool for urban regeneration and the exhibition offers an opportunity to reflect on that very topic but also on the gentrification of (sub)urban areas that usually comes with the dissolution of underground culture.
Both the Piers in New York and the docks in Liverpool experienced a similar process of transformation during the 1970s. Dispossessed of their industrial activity, the areas were gradually reclaimed by people living at the margins of society (from prostitutes and drug dealers to visual artists, performers and film-makers.) I've never been to what is left of the New York piers but Liverpool's docks, where Open Eye is situated, has now left place to office buildings and luxury apartments.
Alvin Baltrop and Gordon Matta-Clark: The Piers From Here is up at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool until 9 Feb 2014.
More art adventures in Derry/Londonderry....
Willie Doherty is currently at the City Factory Gallery with some of the photos and videos he made from the mid-Eighties in and around Derry/Londonderry. The show is called Unseen. Because unseen is the way Doherty used to work when had to remain as inconspicuous as possible to the British military that kept a close watch on Northern Ireland.
Unseen are also the memories of violence, control and conflicts that are lurking in overcast landscapes and dark city corners. There's always something in his images (and their laconic title) that seem to conceit and conspire. At least that's what the viewer suspects because Doherty is a master of making them paranoid.
Doherty, I keep reading, was born in the city, witnessed the Bloody Sunday killings from his bedroom window when he was 12, was later told by the media later that 'it didn't happen' and is still looking at the indelible marks that past violence has left on the local community.
Doherty, however, doesn't do documentary photography, he uses dark images to explore issues of surveillance and brutality but also the truth that a photo can both hide and reveal, the multiple meanings of an image and the blurring between fiction and non-fiction.
The voiceover of his new film, Remains, dispassionately describes three kneecappings. This form of punishment for serious offence was often carried out by paramilitary groups who imposed their own idea of "justice," especially at a time when police was regarded as the enemy.
The fictitious work is situated in Derry and it is based, said Doherty to The Guardian, on real events. Two of the kneecappings took place in the 1970s, the other is much more recent. "A father from a prominent republican family in Derry was told to bring his son and another boy, a cousin, to a certain place to be kneecapped." This was a punishment for drug use, an activity the IRA saw itself as policing.
"It had happened before that a father had been told to bring in a son to be kneecapped or expelled from the city or be murdered," Doherty said. "So I used these locations and the idea of the generational nature of the conflict, how it passes through families and how there is a vicious circle that people get caught up in."
I very much enjoyed this retrospective of Doherty in his hometown but it could have been titled UNTOLD as well because the exhibition space contained so little information about the works. It was frustratingly intriguing.
Related story: Donovan Wylie: Vision as Power.
There's a couple of cities where i keep going over and over again just because they have an art center worth a several hour long journey. Some of them may or may not be on your usual culture map. There's Eindhoven, Hasselt, Manchester and there's Florence where i traveled again a few weeks ago to see the exhibition Unstable Territory. Borders and identity in contemporary art at the Centre for Contemporary Culture Strozzina.
The show presents artwork that reconsiders the notion of territory in a time when the obsolescence of concepts such as the nation state and borders coincides with new forms of nationalism and a corollary desire to affirm the individuality of a community or to protect their privileges with the construction of new physical demarcations. The map of the walls being erected to separate people from each other that The Guardian has recently published illustrates the extent of the latter tendency.
The astonishing development of mobility for both people and goods, the digitisation of communication and knowledge, migration and an increasingly global economy have all radically changed people's perception of territories, borders and boundaries. In view of the instability of these concepts crucial to the definition of personal identity, two different -though not necessarily conflicting - trends appear to be taking shape: one based on seeking shelter in the safety and proximity of the micro-territory, the region or even the family; the other, as theorised by sociologist Ulrich Beck, involving a new conception of cosmopolitanism in its most democratic and egalitarian sense.
The Enclave, by Richard Mosse, shows territory in the grips of violence. The six-channel video-installation translates the ongoing civil war opposing the central government of the Democratic Republic of Congo and groups of rebels for the control of the provinces of North and South Kivu, into disturbing yet seducing hues of pink and magenta.
The pink colour is due to the special infrared film that Mosse is using. The Aerochrome film was developed for surveillance purposes in the 1940s (Kodak stopped the production of the film in 2007 but Lomography has since brought it back to life.) This infrared technology allowed the army to detect armaments that were concealed by vegetation. Since the DRC landscape and the camouflage outfit of the militia are dominated by shades of green, the resulting images come with an eerie balance of threat and beauty.
The Enclave does not allow us any firm ground, a perspective from which to contemplate reality according to conventional standards like good and evil. Mosse does not explain, or tell a story, or illustrate, nor does he seek symbols for a possible further meaning. The Enclave seems to hover between brutality and poetry, between the testimonies of dramatic stories and unusual experiences and the universality of images of Africa at war.
This time the artists are presenting Chicago, a series of images of the mock-up of an Arab town built in the middle of the Negev desert by the Israeli Defense Force for urban combat training. "Everything that happened happened here first, in rehearsal". All wars led and to be led by Israel in the future get a test run in the streets of Chicago, where the only traces of human beings are photographs of Arab militia used for target practice. Chicago comprises different settings that reflect the terrains where the IDF might have to strike: a fake refugee camp, a fake downtown neighbourhood, a fake rural village, a dense market area, etc.
Two large wallpapers on the walls of the gallery room communicate "real" details of the "fake" Chicago. The star-shaped hole in the cement walls is a scar left by "worming", a tactic used by IDF soldiers to move through dense urban areas while avoiding streets and squares where they are more likely to be attacked. Using explosives or hammers, the soldiers carve their way horizontally through walls and vertically through ceilings and floors. The fact that some of the buildings they invade are inhabited by innocent civilians is an irrelevant detail for the IDF. This form of movement, described by the military as 'infestation', sought to redefine inside as outside, and domestic interiors as thoroughfares, explains Eyal Weizman. The IDF's strategy of 'walking through walls' involved a conception of the city as not just the site but also the very medium of warfare -- a flexible, almost liquid medium that is forever contingent and in flux.
The privacy of the home is thus violated. Meanwhile, the other wallpaper shows the opposite end of the spectrum or how the road, a public place of movement and exchange, is instead literally walled up. The wallpaper is indeed zooming on a detail of the walls that border the roads built for the transit of Israeli colonists through the Palestinian territory in which they live, to arrive safely in their workplaces in Israel.
Broomberg & Chanarin are also showing a video of Mini Israel and that one was new to me. Mini Isreal is an automated model of the country, built as a tourist attraction and it looks far more sophisticated than the Mini Europe my parents always tried (and failed) to convince me to visit when i was growing up in Belgium. Just like Chicago, the miniature park filters reality, reflecting on the theme of the real vs the symbolic construction of a territory. Emphasis is put on ancient history and the building program of new infrastructures and new settlements. The Arabs, however, are mere extras, they are dressed in traditional attires, they pray, attend to their livestock and generally seem to be far less refined and modern than the Israeli. Furthermore, the makers of Mini Israel have chosen to represent their country as one devoid of any Wall, checkpoints, nor observation tower.
The exhibition leaves the field of political conflicts with the temporary constructions that Tadashi Kawamata has grafted on the facade and courtyard of the Palazzo Strozzi, creating an amusing contrast between the majestic Renaissance building and his parasitic precarious wooden constructions that evoke dwellings erected in emergency situations. The Three Huts redefine and redesign the territory of the palazzo: they are attached to it and as such extend its borders but they are also alien structures bound to be dismantled and rebuilt in some other part of the world by the artist.
Kawamata has also created a new installation for the CCC Strozzina gallery space. Having discovered dozens of disused doors and windows that were left in storage at Palazzo Strozzi, the artist flipped them from their usual vertical position to an horizontal one and had them hang above the heads of the visitors. The result is stunning. I would normally never pay much attention to doors but seeing them floating from the ceiling give them a poetical dimension. The doors suggest a world on the other side and as such, they redefine the proportions of the space.
Loophole for All, by Paolo Cirio, looks at the notion of territory from an economic perspective. At the core of the project are the offshore jurisdictions, the tax havens where corporations place their headquarters in a bid to avoid tax controls. After a thorough research of the mechanisms that enable the 'de-territorialization' of data, money and information (see video below), the artist made accessible to every citizen a scheme to benefit from the tax evasion in the Cayman Islands that so far was the sole privilege of multinational companies.
The artist set up a limited liability company with headquarters in London, Paolo Cirio Ltd. He then created an online platform where anyone can select a company from the over 200,000 companies fiscally registered in the Cayman Islands and obtain, for 99 cents, a certificate that enables them to generate invoices in that company's name. For $50, the user can also obtain their own post office box in the Caymans where they can receive invoices that, through the intermediary of another post office box in New York, are returned to the user's real address anonymously.
On his website, Cirio sells certificates bearing his signature as the proprietor of the company granting licenses. These documents become the physical and concrete result of his work, works that allow an ironic critique the notions of authorship and reproducibility of a work of art, but also of the system of attribution of its commercial value. The forced closure of the account associated with Cirio's website by PayPal further amplified this type of reflections, leading the artist to opt for free concession of the license certificates that a user can select on the Loophole4All.com website and that are in distribution during the exhibition.
The Right of Passage investigates how the nation state dictates the conditions of political, social and economic inequality through the granting (or denial) of citizenship. The artists interviewed curator Ariella Azoulay, philospher Antonio Negri, political theorician Sandro Mezzadra as well as a number of people who live, under various degrees of legality, in Barcelona. It is striking to hear how a white guy who has no 'paper' encounters less hurdles in his everyday life than a black guy who lives in Barcelona legally.
Ressler and Begg question the relationship between the structure of the Nation-State--the legacy of an order that has been superseded, if not by laws, then by facts--and the individual who, if deprived of bureaucratic documentation, finds his or her freedom of movement, and very identity, denied.
The Cool Couple, aka Simone Santilli and Niccolò Benetton, investigated a little-known episode from the final months of the Second World War. Between October 1944 and April 1945, Carnia, a peripheral region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, was occupied by over 20,000 Cossacks. The soldiers and their families were assigned the area, re-baptized "Kazackaja Zemlja" (Cossack land in Northern Italy), as a thank you gift from the Nazis for their help during the war against the Soviet Union.
The episode offers another opportunity to examine the concept of the Nation-State and the enforced encounter between different ethnic groups and cultures.
Research revealed that traces of the Cossacks passage had been concealed, and often gleefully destroyed by local people after the victory of the Allies and the repatriation of the Cossacks. The memory of the events transforms into reconstruction, and above all narration, which takes account of the reality but also of the projections and the suppressions.
The Fiume Tagliamento, Trasaghis #001A/B diptych shows the Tagliamento River, taken from the same viewpoint with a 180° rotation: this was the border crossed by the Cossacks when they invaded the area, and then crossed again when they were sent back to the Soviet Union.
Unstable Territory. Borders and Identity in Contemporary Art was curated by Walter Guadagnini and Franziska Nori. It remains open at Centre for Contemporary Culture Strozzina, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence until 19 January 2014.
I used to go to the Imperial War Museum in London just to watch the hanging planes, the V2, the tanks, etc. The place is under renovation right now and i stopped paying attention to their programme (the war machines are wrapped up somewhere.) Big mistake! A few weeks ago, they've opened Donovan Wylie: Vision as Power, a show that explores the impact of military architecture on the landscape.
Vision as Power brings together five projects from radically different parts of the world but that are interconnected through the surveillance apparatus. Donovan Wylie grew up in Belfast during the Troubles and living under military surveillance has had an undeniable impact on his work.
Built in 1976 to house terrorist prisoners, the Maze prison segregated men according to their political beliefs and membership of paramilitary organizations.
Wylie started working on the series in 2002, just as the prison had closed under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and the last inmates had been transferred to other prisons.
Wylie then extended his research to the British Watchtowers, the surveillance architecture built at the height of the Troubles, when South Armagh was one of the most heavily militarised areas of Northern Ireland. The British army built a network of watchtowers and observation posts in order to control cross-border smuggling and paramilitary attacks but also to maintain an intimidating presence.
As part of the Northern Ireland Peace Process, the watchtowers were dismantled between 2005 and 2007. As Whyle documented their presence in the surrounding countryside, British troops were deploying to Afghanistan, taking with them elements of the Northern Ireland watchtowers.
The Maze informed the watchtowers, and the watchtowers informed the Afghanistan work. I wanted to show this evolution, the photographer explained in an interview for the British Journal of Photography. When I was making the pictures of the watchtowers, they were coming down [being dismantled] and many of the soldiers working on them were going to Afghanistan. Elements of the structures were being taken to Afghanistan. Modern warfare is very transient, it is built to move, but basically it's the same idea regardless of nationality or politics or whatever - take the high ground and use vision as a method of strength and protection. Ultimately what I think is fascinating is how we use landscape as a tool of war.
Another series shown at the IWM explores American defensive structures in Baghdad, Iraq. The Green Zone was the international administrative zone of central Baghdad, controlled by the Coalition forces during the Second Iraq War. Wylie saw similarities in the way people were contained in the Green Zone and how they were imprisoned in the Maze.
Wylie's series Arctic closes the exhibition. The white and extreme environment is home to cyber radar stations unmanned and operated electronically to detect any presence seeking out lucrative natural resources along Canada's Arctic frontier made more fragile by global warming and the new routes though the Northwest Passage it enabled. Once again, the only analogy is with dystopian sci-fi. To Wylie, they are a striking example of surveillance attempting to deter future conflict.
Ultimately, the exhibition reminds us that surveillance is not confined to the spaces of military conflict. Surveillance is the default characteristic of our society, as the revelations about the extent of mass online surveillance have recently demosntrated.
Donovan Wylie: Vision as Power is at the Imperial War Museum in London until 21 April 2014.
A quick and hopefully efficient post to show some of the works i've discovered at Artissima, Turin's contemporary art fair which closed last weekend. As i mentioned a few days ago, Artissima is, in my view, far far more exciting than Frieze London. Maybe i'll explain why in a coming story (and get my Frieze 2014 request for a press pass refused in the process?!?) I didn't exactly rack my brain to figure out how to screen the many photos i had taken or received in the press package. This post will be mostly black and white. I won't insult you and say how the next one will look like.
Many of the works below were part of Back to the Future. The section presents solo exhibitions by artists active in the 60's, 70's and 80's and selected by a jury of museums directors and curators
Right, let's start with an image which isn't strictly b&w. The wall drawing below is a diagram showing internal correlations and their external consequences marked out by key figures of thought balancing between reflecting and representing symbols of power affected by the structures of human experience and the various forms of interpretation.
I'm not going to pretend that i fully understand Nikolaus Gansterer's constellations, diagrams and other representations of thought processes but i've been charmed and intrigued by his work ever since i discovered it. Keep your eyes peeled for that one.
I had never heard of Croatian artist Tomislav Gotovac before but he is a man who ran bearded and naked through the streets of Belgrade. A performance he reiterated 10 years later in Zagreb. Another one to keep your eyes peeled for, then.
Linda Fregni Nagler collected a thousand anonymous images of babies and young children taken between the 1840s and the 1920s. Apparently the conventions of the time wanted that the mothers were hidden or erased from view. Some of the feminine figures are covered with a piece of fabric or a carpet, others have their face blacked out from the photo, others crouch behind a chair.
It is only fair that after those painfully hidden mothers, i'd show how in the late 1960s, Valie Export brought to a crude day light the relationship between the sexes. She walked her partner, Peter Weibel, on a leash, taking to the extreme women's liberation from male oppression.
I wrote about the work of Sicilian photographer and photojournalist Letizia Battaglia in the post Portraying the Mafia. She spent decades covering the cronaca nera, the crime stories for the left-wing newspaper L'Ora in Palermo.
And now for something completely different...
I couldn't resist pairing it with...
One of the things i like about Artissima is that you won't see Frieze's usual suspects there. They might, however, make an appearance in other artists' photos.
Daidō Moriyama gained fame for the way he portrayed the dark sides of post-war Japan.
Probably not strictly speaking b&w either but since we're in Turin and the Mole Antonelliana is by far its most puzzling monument...