This afternoon i stopped by the Victoria & Albert Museum to see Light from the Middle East, an exhibition of contemporary photography from and about the Middle East. It wasn't overwhelmingly brilliant but the show has some very strong pieces. In particular, a photo series that appears to draw parallels between the water towers photographed by Bernd and Hilla Becher and the Israeli watchtowers in Occupied Palestine.

Bernd and Hilla Becher notoriously documented in black and white the disappearing industrial architecture of Europe. Taysir Batniji's series similarly attempts to index typologies of constructions. His subjects are the military watchtowers erected by Israel to control the movements of Palestinians inside and outside their own land and unlike the Berchers' fading industrial structures, they are still in use. The photo tableau does look like a Bechers: the use of black and white, the grid disposition, the front views of the buildings, etc. However, closer inspection reveals that the geopolitical context didn't allow the photographer to reproduce faithfully the Bechers' method and impeccable compositions.

The artist writes:

As a Palestinian born in Gaza I am not authorized to return to the West Bank, so I delegated a Palestinian photographer to carry out these photos. They are out of focus, clumsily framed, imperfectly lighted. In this territory, one cannot install the heavy equipment of the Bechers or take the time to frame the perfect position, let alone afford to wait days for the ideal light conditions. Aestheticization becomes a vivid political challenge, both in the creation of these photographs and in their reception, as these images challenge viewers to see these functional military constructions as sculptural, or as a part of a formal architectural heritage.

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Taysir Batniji, from the series: Watchtowers, West Bank/Palestine, 2008

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Taysir Batniji, from the series: Watchtowers, West Bank/Palestine, 2008

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Taysir Batniji, from the series: Watchtowers, West Bank/Palestine, 2008

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Taysir Batniji, from the series: Watchtowers, West Bank/Palestine, 2008

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Taysir Batniji, from the series: Watchtowers, West Bank/Palestine, 2008

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Bernd and Hilla Becher, Water Towers (Wassertürme), 1980

Light from the Middle East is at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 7 April 2012. Admission is free.

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This morning i went to the press view of Gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union at the Saatchi Gallery and I'm not sure that the artists participating to the exhibition heartily agree with Joseph Stalin's statement. Although this survey of contemporary art in Russia contains humour, balls and a few satisfyingly good pieces, the show is not exactly cheerful.

Take the gentlemen portrayed by Sergei Vasiliev. Their skin is their biopic: each of their tattoos carries political messages and details about their criminal life. The motifs were drawn using whichever tools and ink they could get their hands on: melted books, urine, blood, etc.

Vasiliev worked both as a photographer for a newspaper in Chelyabinsk and as a prison warden when he encountered the work of Danzig Baldaev. Baldaev was the son of an ethnographer who was arrested as an "enemy of the people", he grew up in an orphanage and spent over 30 years working in the Soviet penal system. Baldaev recorded the horrors of the Gulag in dozens of drawings but he gained fame for his meticulous documentation of the tattoos etched on the skin of the inmates. His notes and part of the 3,000 drawings he made of the tattoos are published in 3 volumes entitled Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia: Volume I, Volume II and Volume III.

Photographs by Sergei Vasiliev are featured in the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia. Now they are also at the Saatchi Gallery where they are covering the walls of one of the exhibition rooms:

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Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.12, 2010

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Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.10, 2010

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Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.8, 2010

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Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.5, 2010

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Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.4, 2010

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Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.15, 2010

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Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.20, 2010

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Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.13, 2010

More photos on the website of Fuel Design.

Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union: Art from Russia, Saatchi Gallery, London, runs from November 21 2012 till May 5 2013. Don't miss the accompanying show upstairs Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art, 1960-80s, it has some stunning works.

On Friday, bored and in Brussels, i took the tram to see the solo exhibition of Leigh Ledare at Wiels, a contemporary art center housed in a former beer brewery.

Ledare is famous for being one of the very few contemporary artists who still manages to shock and break taboos. His most famous series was shot over a period of 8 years and stars Tina Peterson, his own mother. Posing gleefully for him in négligé, naked or in fur hat. In sickness and in health. Flirting with the camera (or maybe the man behind it), masturbating, having sex with men the same age as her son, etc. One moment she is defiant, powerful and utterly stunning. The next, she's chubbier and wearing a brace around her neck.

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Leigh Ledare, Alma, 2012

The opening work of the exhibition doesn't pull any punch. Right at the entrance, there is Alma, a very L'origine du monde portrait of the mother laying on her bed, all porcelaine skin and spread legs. Alma is the name of the 3 year old girl who was given the photo to scribble over. Being so young, the child was deemed too innocent to read anything suggestive in the photo.

The photos are accompanied by hand written lists of the kind of men his mother met through personal ads in newspapers (the "Gonzo porn king", "the horni rabi", "the feisty fireman", etc.) or of the "Gifts mom has been showered with". Each list along with the letters, videos, souvenirs, vintage photo sinks further into the intimacy of the woman.

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Mom Spread with Red Heels, 2003

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Mom in New Home, 2007

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Mom Fucking in Mirror, 2002

The mother seems to be present in other series, even when she doesn't appear on the image. For The Collector's Commissions, Ledare contacted collectors and asked them to photograph him, in the setting of their choice. But the photographer adopts the position that his mother would normally take on those portraits.

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Collector's Commissions (Thea Westreich), 2008

In the series Personal Commissions, Ledare answered personal ads from women whose desires echoed those of his mother's, and paid them to photograph him in their apartments, he lets them direct him and chose the scenario. Ledare doesn't see these works as portraits of himself but rather as individuals portray of the ladies who photographed him. Just like he regards people's interpretation of his relationship with his mother as telling more about the spectator than about himself.

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Personal Commission, "A dream into the Real...", 2008

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Personal Commissions: "Let the Good Times Roll. 1 Blond, 53 yrs old, curvey, buxom, slim, clean, petite. No diseases or drugs. Seeking healthy, honest, reliable, financially secure younger man for discreet sensual fun. Ext#1084", 2008

The show contains more series than i'm covering here: works by Larry Clark and other friends of Ledare, portraits of Ledare'ex-wife by both himself and her new husband, portraits of an anonymous wealthy lady who hired him as her 'erotic photographer', etc.

These distinct but related bodies of work are studies not only of their visible subjects, but also of photography itself: how it mediates identity, relationships, love, loss, and, perhaps above all, human vulnerability. They are also indexes of the relationships of the artist with others - mother, family members, ex-lover, collectors, anonymous patrons, etc. - which, from the start, have played a central role in Ledare's work.

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Me and Mom in Photobooth, 2008

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Mom with Hand on Bed, 2006

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Mom with Hand on Bed Ed#2/5 w/ Intervention by Nicholas Guagnini, 2008

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Mom as Baby Jane, 2005

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Mom After the Accident, 2005

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Mother and Catch 22, 2002

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An Invitation, 2012

Leigh Ledare et al. runs until 25 November at Wiels Contemporary Art Center, in Brussels.

Previously: Leigh Ledare at Guido Costa Projects in Turin.

Probably my favourite photo at Artissima art fair in Turin last week:

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Arnold Odermatt, Vierwaldstättersee, 1972

I wrote briefly about Arnold Odermatt in the past but i'm glad that the Springer Berlin gallery chose to highlight his work for Back to the Future, the fair's (utterly brilliant) section dedicated to artists active in the '60s and '70s.

Odermatt never studied photography. He was a traffic policeman in Switzerland and part of his job consisted in taking photographs of road accidents and of other members of the police at work. From 1948 till 1990, when he retired, he would make one set for the insurance or police reports and a second one for himself.

His photos of accidents are sometimes compared to the ones taken by Weegee, Mell Kilpatrick or Enrique Metenides who chronicled accidents, scenes of violence, suicides for newspapers or pulp magazines.

Odermatt obviously had a very different job but the settings for the car crashes and other accidents he documented makes his work even more distinctive. More scenic, with a peaceful and pleasant atmosphere. In the policeman's photos, the horror seems to be under the spell of the elegant landscape.

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Arnold Odermatt, Hergiswil, 1982

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Arnold Odermatt, Hergiswil, 1982

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Oberdorf, 1965

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Stans, 1965

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Buochs, 1965

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Stansstad, 1966

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Oberdorf, 1982

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Arnold Odermatt, Stansstad, 1973

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Stansstad, 1952

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Buochs, 1965

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Oberdorf, 1964

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Arnold Odermatt, Buochs

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Arnold Odermatt, Stansstad, 1963

Previously: Karambolage.

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Thomson & Craighead, stills from October, two-channel installation, 2012. Commissioned by Photoworks © Thomson & Craighead

To be honest, i'd take any excuse to hop on a train and go to Brighton. Two Saturdays ago, it was sunny, i needed a break from the Frieze art fair and the 5th edition of the Brighton Photo Biennial had the kind of theme that makes me buy a train/plane/bus ticket, Agents of Change: Photography and the Politics of Space.

BPB12 explores how space is constructed, controlled and contested, how photography is implicated in these processes, and the tensions and possibilities this dialogue involves. This year's Biennial provides a critical space to think about relationships between the political occupation of physical sites and the production and dissemination of images.

Agents of Change is a theme that belongs to the moments of economic and political uncertainty we are experiencing today. The exhibitions are at times dark and disturbing but they also demonstrate the role that photography can play in servicing a cause, an agenda, a belief. Whether it is the one of a corporation advertising its products, of a government attempting to enforce new measures or the one of grassroot activists struggling to give another view of a contentious or under-discussed issue.

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Omer Fast, 5000 Feet is the Best, still by Yonn Thomas, 2011. Courtesy of the artist, Arratia, Beer, Berlin, and gb agency, Paris, © Omer Fast

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Omer Fast, 5000 Feet is the Best, still by Yonn Thomas, 2011. Courtesy of the artist, Arratia, Beer, Berlin, and gb agency, Paris, © Omer Fast

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Omer Fast, 5000 Feet is the Best, still by Yonn Thomas, 2011. Courtesy of the artist, Arratia, Beer, Berlin, and gb agency, Paris, © Omer Fast

The most compelling work in the biennial for me was Omer Fast's video about drone surveillance and warfare.

The film is based on two meetings with the operator of a Predator drone sensor. The operator had been based in the desert outside of Las Vegas for 6 years while he was working for the U.S. military. The artist met him in Vegas where he was looking for a job as a casino security guard.

But Fast's film is not a documentary with news footage and testimonies from real protagonists of the events. Instead, the stories are told by an actor cast as the drone operator. His narration is moving, informative and sometimes even humorous.

The operator is sitting in a nondescript hotel room. He unenthusiastically recalls his missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, unsure that the audience will ever understand what he went through. The soldier never set foot in the countries where the unmanned plane he piloted fired at civilians and militia from the optimum height of 5000 feet.

At times, the ex-soldier seems to ramble, using unrelated stories as metaphors. The most striking of the anecdotes he recalls is the one of an American family that takes the road for 'a long drive' (see the video below.) To leave town, they have to go through security checkpoints and present documents to the "occupying forces," which are depicted as Asians. It's a complete reversal of the situation in which Americans get to see how much a war in their own turf would affect daily life. Except that the U.S. is at war too but for most citizens, only from a distance. The drone operator never leaves the material comfort of his own country to fight in foreign countries, most of the American population never gets bombed or fired at by drones.


Omer Fast, 5,000 Feet is the Best

The dark world of the U.S. military goes far beyond the drones and bombings as Geographies of Seeing, the show on view at The Lighthouse, convincingly demonstrates. But I'm going to try to keep this one short because i seem to be unable to let a month pass without writing about the work of artist and geographer Trevor Paglen.

The exhibition is focused on two series of photos that document the secret activities of the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. The first one is The Other Night Sky which tracks and documents classified American satellites in Earth orbit. With the help of a network of amateur "satellite observers" and of a specially designed software model able to describe the orbital motion of classified spacecraft, Paglen calculated the position and timing of overhead reconnaissance satellite transits. He then photographed their passage using telescopes and large-format cameras.

The second body of work shown at The Lighthouse is Limit Telephotography. For this series, Paglen used high powered telescopes to picture the "black" sites, a series of secret locations operated by the CIA. Often outside of U.S. territory and legal jurisdiction, these locations do not officially exist, they range from American torture camps in Afghanistan to front companies running airlines whose purpose is to covertly move suspects around.

Well, that wasn't so short but i do have to confess that i merely copy/pasted texts i wrote about Paglen's work a few months ago.

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Trevor Paglen, They Watch the Moon, 2010, C-print © Trevor Paglen, Courtesy of Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne and Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco

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KEYHOLE 12-3 (IMPROVED CRYSTAL) Optical Reconnaissance Satellite Near Scorpio (USA 129), 2007. Courtesy of Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne, and Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco, © Trevor Paglen

A couple of years ago, Edmund Clark traveled to Guantanamo to document three experiences of home: the home of the American community at the naval base; the camp complex where the detainees have been held; and the homes where former detainees, never charged with any crime, find themselves trying to rebuild lives.

With the body of work presented at the Biennial, Clark pursues further his interest in structures of control and incarceration. In December 2011, the photographer was the first artist to be granted access to a house in which a person suspected of terrorist related activity had been placed under what the UK calls 'a Control Order.'

The 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act granted the Home Office the power to relocate any controlled person to a house in an alien town or city and impose restrictions and conditions, similar to house-arrest. So far, 48 people have been made subject to a Control Order.

Clark could not reveal the identity of the controlled person nor the location of their house. He also had to pre-register all digital equipment and to accept restrictions on how the equipment could be used. All his photos were then screened by the Home Office and the controlled person's lawyers.

The series is still a work in progress and i wish i could be in England on Thursday, 1 November 2012 because the photographer will be discussing his work at The Lighthouse.

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Edmund Clark, Control Order House, 2011. © Edmund Clark

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Edmund Clark, Control Order House, 2011. © Edmund Clark

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Edmund Clark, Control Order House (view of the exhibition space)

The images screened on Thomson & Craighead's October installation are brutally shocking. Maybe because even when the videos were shot at the other end of the world, they echo the social and economic inequalities we are experiencing in Europe (or wherever you're living right now.) The film installation creates a portray of the Occupy protests by drawing on amateur footage that the activists uploaded on YouTube. Below the video screen is a luminous compass that points to the locations where the videos were originally filmed, adding the precise distance of the location of the footage from the viewers. The piece examines the relationship between geographical space and the Internet: the role online organisation plays in shaping offline activism.

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Thomson & Craighead, October (view of the exhibition at Space @ Create)

The exhibition of photographer, journalist, researcher and political activist John "Hoppy" Hopkins also document peace marches, protests and underground movements from the inside but this time in and around London in the 1960s. Some 50 years are separating the Occupy videos from Hopkins' photos but both show the power of the image when it comes to telling the activists' side of a news story.

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John 'Hoppy' Hopkins, Speakers' Corner, 1964. © John 'Hoppy' Hopkins

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John 'Hoppy' Hopkins, Homeless March St Paul's

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John 'Hoppy' Hopkins, A CND protest in West Ruislip

There's so much more to say about this biennial. There are many other exhibitions i don't have the space to mention here. And talks, tours, workshops. I'll close my superficial review of the biennial with random photos of the shows and of the city.

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The Argus Archives, Anti-nuclear protestors block the road by lying down, holding up traffic until police were able to remove them, London Road, 1982. ©The Argus

I forgot to mention Whose Streets?, an outdoor show located on one of the city's public square that looks at the archive of local newspaper The Argus, to extract images that depict Brighton as a contested political space for protest. From the late 70s to the present.

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The Argus Archives. Exhibition in the streets of Brighton

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The Argus Archives, The far-right National Front march through Brighton. The party's membership had decreased significantly by the early 1980s. Castle Square, 1981. ©The Argus

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Jason Larkin, 'Untitled #2', Cairo Divided, 2011, © Jason Larkin

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Theo Simpson, from Four Versions of Three Routes by Preston is my Paris, 2012. © Theo Simpson

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The 2012 Brighton Photo Biennial is curated by Photoworks Head of Programme, Celia Davies and Programme Curator, Ben Burbridge. Brighton Photo Biennial is free and it is up all over the city of Brighton until 4 November 2012.

Previously: Exhibition tip - Omer Fast at the Netherlands Media Art Institute,
Architecture of Fear - a conversation with Trevor Paglen
and Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out by Edmund Clark.

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Yasusuke Ota, Namie-machi. On one hot July day, pigs that escaped from a pig barn were trying to cool themselves down in a small pool of water.

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Yasusuke Ota, Okuma-machi. One ostrich escaped from the Ostriches Farm. Lucky that he's an omnivorous animal, he's living off on dried pet food that was left by volunteers inside the area.

During my short stay in Amsterdam, i enthusiastically entered the exhibition
Yasusuke Ota: The Abandoned Animals of Fukushima. What had i imagined that i'd see? Birds flying over beautiful urban ruins? Pets sauntering gaily on car roofs and pigs fooling around in empty supermarkets? I couldn't have been more mistaken.

A day after the tsunami damaged a nuclear reactor at Fukushima on 11 March 2011, inhabitants living within 20km of the power plant were forcibly evacuated. They were not allowed to take their personal belongings, pets and farm animals with them. On 14 March, the hydrogen explosion at the power plant made it unlikely that the evacuees might be allowed to return home on time to find their animals alive.

A few weeks after the disaster, Japanese photographer Yasusuke Ota accompanied a group of volunteers who entered the 'No go' area at risk to their own life to bring food and water to the animals. They 'found themselves in a hell on earth.' I'm not brave enough to copy paste the details of the tragedies they witnessed but you can find more information on the exhibition page.

The surviving animals are still - 18 months later - patiently waiting for owners to come back.

'This tragedy was for some reason not reported by the Japanese media at first, and the truth is that there has been no proper help given to these animals even after one and a half years. I felt I needed to inform the world and leave evidence of what really happened. So I started to take photos of this while going inside the zone on rescue,' writes Ota. 'Please don't turn your eyes away from the reality.'

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Yasusuke Ota, Namie-machi

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Yasusuke Ota, Odaka-ku. Minisama City. I named this miniature dachshund 'Kurumi' that stayed at a dike that was destroyed by the Tsunami. We tried to rescue her on several occasions, but her death was confirmed in September

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Yasusuke Ota, Tomioka-machi. Some cows were roaming in the parking lot of Mega Electronic Appliances Store along Route 6. A bizarre scene we can hardly see in everyday life.

Yasusuke Ota: The Abandoned Animals of Fukushima, is a 'pop-up' exhibition by Huis Marseille. You can visit it until October 14 at Atelier 408 at Herengracht 408 in Amsterdam.

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