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
Going even further in its exploration of the invisible infrastructures that make up our world, The Lighthouse in Brighton currently takes part in the Brighton Festival with two projects that illustrate how the military uses technology to intrigue, screen and hide its activities. The investigation started in 2011 with the exhibition, Invisible Fields, which focused on the invisible but ubiquitous radio spectrum. The research went further with last year's show of Trevor Paglen's photos The Other Night Sky and Limit Telephotography, works i can't seem to be able not to mention almost every month on this blog.
One of the projects that you can see right now in Brighton is a body of work, by Mariele Neudecker, that makes visitors reflect upon (and reluctantly admire) the use of technologies in contemporary warfare.
Most of the works were developed during an artist residency that Neudecker undertook the Historic Nike Missile Site, a former Nike Missile launch site located to the north of San Francisco. Opened in 1954, the site was intended to protect the population and military installations of the San Francisco Bay Area during the Cold War, specifically from attack by Soviet bombers. The site was decommissioned in 1974 and is now open to the public as a museum.
Neudecker documented with seducing photo portraits and patient rubbings a series of weapons of mass destruction that were developed at the height of the Cold War.
The title of the exhibition, The Air Itself is One Vast Library, is drawn from a quotation from Charles Babbage, the 19th century mathematician and engineer, who originated the concept of a programmable computer. In 1837, he wrote:
"The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are for ever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered. There, in their mutable but unerring characters, mixed with the earliest, as well as with the latest sighs of mortality, stand for ever recorded, vows unredeemed, promises unfulfilled, perpetuating in the united movements of each particle, the testimony of man's changeful will."
In the context of the artist's work, the quotation suggests that despite the machinations of warfare being beyond our daily perception, the air retains a memory of these exploits.
The portraits of the Hercules missiles are as appealing as they are threatening. They seem to float silently into a dark room, as if they were waiting to be fired one day.
As Neudecker explained in her presentation at The Lighthouse last week, photography would never have enabled her to represent accurately the length and power of the Hercules missiles accurately. She thus obtained the authorisation to sit on the missiles and produced two 13 meter long graphite rubbings of the vast missiles. The close contact with the weapons made her realize that while one of them was real, the other was a fake, designed to trick the enemy into thinking that the U.S. military could count with far more deadly resources than it actually had.
Programme curator Jamie Wyld reminded me that during Second World War, Germany built an airfield that looked real from the air but was actually entirelymade of wood.: hangars, trucks, anti-air guns, planes, etc. To show that they could not be so easily fooled, an Allied bomber dropped a lone wooden bomb on the fake airfield. And not so long ago, Marguerite Humeau was telling us about illusionist Jasper Maskelyne who was hired by the British Army during the same conflict. He would use magic tricks on a large-scale to camouflage, hide, trick or to make dummy military vehicles and soldiers appear.
Other works investigate military imaging and tactical communication, which provide us with new ways of detecting what is intended to be camouflaged and out of view.
I was particularly moved by the photo above. A day that she was browsing through a charity shop, the artist found a set of postcards showing military planes. Her artistic intervention was simple: she just applied correction fluid on the planes. The silhouette is thus hidden as much as it is highlighted. By superposing an additional layer of disguise, Neudecker made the plane even more unsettling and threatening that it would have been had the photo remained untouched.
I thought i'd add a few words and many images about a couple of exhibitions i saw in Madrid a few weeks ago. Just like Anonymization, these two are photo exhibitions. If it weren't for the fact that exhibitions are planned years in advance, I'd be wondering whether the current crisis is the reason why Madrid has so many photo shows right now. They are easier/cheaper to ship, install, insure? Maybe?
Anyway, let's kick off with Robert Adams: The Place We Live, a Retrospective Selection of Photographs at the Reina Sofia because it is simply stunning.
Since the 1960s, Robert Adams has been documenting the landscape of the American West. Lonely roads, small town lights, deforested woods, the Pacific, the great plains, the suburban residential estates, the truck stops and the shopping malls. The paradises lost and the ones about to be built.
For a European like me, there's something extremely exotic about his images. It's the Colorado i see in old Hollywood movies. Yet, the urban development and the over-exploitation of natural resources are realities we are all familiar with.
Robert Adams: The Place We Live, a Retrospective Selection of Photographs is at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid until 20 may 2013.
The other retrospective i wanted to mention is dedicated to the Galician photographer Virxilio Vieitez.
Virxilio Vieitez (Pontevedra, 1930-2008), one of the most important photographers of Spain's photographic history, carried out commissioned works, particularly intended for Galicians who had emigrated to Argentina, Mexico and Venezuela and wished to keep a visual record of their families in Galicia.
Almost no one ever smiles in those photos. Besides, people often chose to pose with some atypical companions: a radio, a goat, a couple of potted flowers.
Everyone however is impeccably dressed.
Special mention to the Pirelli girls who deserves to feature on calendars:
For some very odd reason, this sissy lady made me think of myself...
A few views from the exhibition space:
The Virxilio Vieitez retrospective is at Espacio Fundación Telefónica in Madrid until 19 May 2013.