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 know you're not supposed to ever be tired of London but if you feel like a change of atmosphere, there's some rather spectacular disused wind tunnels to gape at in Farnborough, a mere 35 minute train ride from Waterloo station.
The Wind Tunnel project filled with site-specific commissions two wind tunnels buildings, known as R52 and Q121, that were built to test planes, from Spitfires to Concorde. These buildings were decommissioned after the 1960s and have remained closed to the public ever since.
Opened in 1935, Q121 is the largest wind tunnel in Great Britain. Inside, two gigantic holes face each other. One is a powerful fan with 600kg blades which would drag air fast and furious across the space between them to test complete planes and sections of bigger airplanes.
R52 was built in 1917. It is now an empty hangar but it used to house one of the world's earliest aerodynamic testing facilities.
McIntyre-Burnie's sound pieces makes use of archive materials from the BBC to fill the impressive Q121.
The basis of his sound work is an outside recording made by the BBC of the song of a nightingale in 1942 in a garden in Surrey. It was a yearly broadcast since 1924 but this year, the microphone accidentally picked up the sound of RAF bombers flying overhead on their way to Germany. The program had to be interrupted, for fear it would have tipped off Germany about the upcoming bombing attack.
McIntyre-Burnie's new composition fills the wind tunnel. It doesn't try and compete with the impressive structure (that would be foolish.) In fact, it make the whole experience of going through the historical space even more awe-inspiring.
One of Bridle's works, Rainbow Plane 001, also paid homage to the history of the site. The installation outlines the silhouette of a Miles M.52, an experimental supersonic aircraft developed in secret to break the sound barrier at Farnborough in the early 1940s.
The contour is shown as if distorted by the pansharpening effect of satellite photography, as if viewed, in flight, from space. There never was any original photography of that Miles M.52 in flight. First of all because, the aircraft never flew. It was a research project that was cancelled in 1946 even though its aerodynamics had been successfully demonstrated by a scale model. Besides, satellites don't take 'photos' of what lays below them. Instead, they use sensors to look down onto the earth and acquire information about its surface and atmosphere.
Rainbow Plane 001 is ducted tapped under the site's portable airship hangar. The structure was one of the 6 airship sheds in the UK at the outset of WWI and it probably isn't as 'portable' as its name suggests. It is estimated that it would take 50 men ten days to dismantle the structure, 7 to load it onto railway and 2 to 3 weeks to reassemble it.
The Wind Tunnel Project was organised by Artliner and curated by Salma Tuqan. I must say that the website of the project is one of the most frustratingly dysfunctional i've ever visited. Anyway, you can see the tunnels and artworks in Farnborough until the 20th of July. A shuttle service is helpfully available outside the Farnborough railway station.
More images from the wind tunnel (I also posted a photo set from the opening on flickr, if ever you're interested):
The Sick Rose" Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration, by academic medical historian Dr Richard Barnett.
Publisher Thames and Hudson writes: The Sick Rose is a visual tour through the golden age of medical illustration. The nineteenth century experienced an explosion of epidemics such as cholera and diphtheria, driven by industrialization, urbanization and poor hygiene. In this pre-color-photography era, accurate images were relied upon to teach students and aid diagnosis. The best examples, featured here, are remarkable pieces of art that attempted to elucidate the mysteries of the body, and the successive onset of each affliction. Bizarre and captivating images, including close-up details and revealing cross-sections, make all too clear the fascinations of both doctors and artists of the time. Barnett illuminates the fears and obsessions of a society gripped by disease, yet slowly coming to understand and combat it. The age also saw the acceptance of vaccination and the germ theory, and notable diagrams that transformed public health, such as John Snow's cholera map and Florence Nightingale's pioneering histograms, are included and explained. Organized by disease, The Sick Rose ranges from little-known ailments now all but forgotten to the epidemics that shaped the modern age.
The images in the book might not be to everyone's taste. They date back from the late 18th century to the early 20th century, a time when medicine was moving away from the principles of Hippocratic humoralism that saw the body as unified whole and starting to see disease as a form of specific physical disorder. It's no coincidence that in the early 19th century, Mary Shelley would imagine Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who subverted the integrity of the body and created his living creature by assembling parts originating from various human corpses.
The period also saw the beginning of the mass-production of books for the education of medicine students. The medical images these books contained were the result of a collaboration between several professions. Physicians, surgeons and anatomists would first secure, dissect and prepare bodies. Draughtsmen would then be called to reproduce the subject in great details and under the guidance of the medicine man. Finally, engravers would cut woodblocks or copper plates as mirror images of the illustration. The anatomical reality would thus have to be filtered by the minds, eyes and hands of subjective humans. That's without taking into account any further involvement of the printers and publishers.
The Sick Rose is a wonderful book. Not just because of the eye-catching illustrations but because Richard Barnett is a talented narrator. And the stories he tells are fascinating.
First of all, there is the origin of the corpses to dissect and portray. At first, they came from the gallows. Starting in 1752, the sentence for murder in English courts included indeed public dissection. Body snatchers would supply corpses of pregnant women and foetus and any extra cadaver if needed. The 1832 Anatomy Act, however, abolished the dissection of executed criminals but allowed anatomy schools to use the body of anyone who had died unclaimed in hospitals. Which means that it was no longer crime that lead you to the dissection table, it was poverty.
Then there are the stories that accompany each disease studied in the book. Leprosy, aka the "Imperial Danger", that reappeared in the 19th century when doctors and missionaries traveled to tropical colonies. Smallpox and how the first vaccine was successfully developed with the help of pretty milkmaids. Venereal diseases and syphilis in particular which was treated by injection or ingestion of mercury. Et cetera.
My favourite page in the book may well be page 246, aka "Places of Interest", a list of the pathology museums, anatomy museums, medical history centers and other public collections of all things bodily and gruesome. I'm definitely going to drop by some of those in the coming weeks.
Views inside the book:
The Guardian has a photo gallery.
Related story: Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men.
The Michael Hoppen Gallery has just opened an exhibition featuring a selection of vintage prints by Dr. Harold Edgerton, a photographer whose works are found hanging in art museums and galleries across the world. He even won an Oscar with his short film Quicker 'n a Wink. Yet, Edgerton was adamant that he was a scientist, not an artist.
The professor of electrical engineering at MIT invented the ultra-high-speed and stop-action photography when he synchronized strobe flashes with the motion being examined, then took a series of photos through an open shutter that could flash up to 120 times a second. The invention enabled him to photograph motion that was too fast to be captured by the naked eye: balloons at various stages of bursting, bullets tearing through fruits, divers rotating through the air, devil sticks in action, an egg hitting a fan, drops of milk coming into contact with liquid, etc.
If that were not enough, Edgerton was also involved in the development of sonar and deep-sea photography, and his equipment was used by marine biologist Jacques-Yves Cousteau to scan the sea floor for shipwrecks. Or for the Loch Ness monster.
During the Second World War, he pioneered superpowered flash for aerial photography used to create night time reconnaissance images, revealing the absence of German forces at key strategic points just prior to the Allied attack on June 6, 1944.
To trigger the flash at the right moment, a microphone, placed a little before the apple, pickes up the sound from the rifle shot, relays it through an electronic delay circuit, and then fires the microflash (via.)
Moments after the apple was pierced by the bullet, it disintegrated completely.
A .30 caliber bullet, traveling 2,800 feet per second, requires an exposure of less than 1/1,000,000 of a second. Edgerton turned the card sideways and the rifling of the barrel caused the rotation of the projectile, which, in turn, carved out the S-shaped slice of card between the two halves (via.)
After World War II, the Atomic Energy Commission contracted Edgerton and two of his former students to photograph atomic bombs as they exploded. The trio developed the rapatronic (for Rapid Action Electronic) shutter, a shutter with no moving parts that could be opened and closed by turning a magnetic field on and off.
Revealing the anatomy of the first microseconds of an atomic explosion, the fireball was documented in a 1/100,000,000-of-a-second exposure, taken from seven miles away with a lens ten feet long. The intense heat vaporized the steel tower and turned the desert sand to glass (via.)
The exhibition Dr. Harold Edgerton: Abstractions is at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London until 2 August 2014.
The musée du Quai Branly, my favourite Paris museum, has recently opened a fascinating show called Tattooists, tattooed. I haven't stopped telling people they should go and see it if they happen to be in town in the coming months. In town and french speaking preferably because a large part of the information in the gallery spaces hasn't been translated in english.
I was expecting the usual about tattoos: the criminals, the freak shows, the Māori warriors, the virtuosity of contemporary tattoo artists. I certainly found all of that in the show. I wasn't however expecting to be shocked by the way tattoos were used to mark women.
In the 1920s, thousands of Armenian girls and women managed to escape the Genocide of their people by feeling to Syria. They were kept in slavery and forced into prostitution. In order to identify them and prevent their escape, their pimps tattooed their face and arms.
The girl in the photo above had just been rescued from a Turkish house and was cared for by the Y.W.C.A. workers at Aleppo.
The significance of the tattoos worn by Ainu women couldn't be more different. In the Ainu culture of Northern Japan, only women tattooed and were tattooed. The traditional practice was a prerequisite to marriage and to the afterlife. Mouth tattoos were started at a young age with a small spot on the upper lip. The design would gradually increase in size over the years.
The exhibition looks at tattoo through ages and cultures. It also demonstrates that tattooing is an art in constant evolution that traverses all continents, even if its essence, acceptance and purpose differ from one culture to another. While in societies from the Oriental, African and Oceanian worlds, tattooing had a social, religious and mystical role, the West saw it as a mark of shame. In the past, only criminals, prostitutes, sailors, circus freaks and other marginals would wear one. Or many.
The exhibition displays 300 historical and contemporary artefacts, including photographs, prints, paintings, posters, short films, tribal masks, books, clothing, tattoo-making instruments (such as Thomas Edison's perforating pen) and even mummified samples of body parts and preserved tattooed human skin.
I was obviously drawn to the displays showing how tattoo was used by 'the underworld' to frighten, claim their belonging to a certain gang, parade their crimes or share secret codes.
Tattoos were of great interest to European criminologists during the late 19th century. Many scholars believed that the presence of tattooing in European culture represented worrying signs of atavism, criminal proclivity, or dangerous 'degeneration' within their populations (via.) French criminologist Alexandre Lacassagne, however, believed that the choice of tattoo offered an insight into the criminal mind. He catalogued thousands of images according to type and body location. In 1881 he published Tatouages: Étude Anthropologique Et Médico-légale, or Anthropological and Forensic Tattoos.
Lacassagne's archives offer an interesting parallel to the drawings and photos detailing Russian criminal tattoos.
Sergei Vasiliev worked both as a photographer for a newspaper in Chelyabinsk and as a prison warden when he encountered the work of Danzig Baldaev, the son of an ethnographer who was arrested as an "enemy of the people". Baldaev spent over 30 years working in the Soviet penal system. He 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.
Nowadays, you don't have to be a criminal to wear tattoos. But the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gangs of Los Angeles and Central America wear their symbols and languages on their faces.
With the help of a priest working on the rehabilitation of gang members, Isabel Muñoz gained access to a prison in El Salvador where she made stunning portraits of the men.
More images from the show:
Marc Garanger's 1960 portrait of a woman whose village was destroyed during Algeria's war of independence from France. She clearly wasn't impressed by the French photographer.
You probably don't want to see this video but here is the Lizardman, i discovered its existence in one of the videos screened at the museum:
Tattooists, tattooed is at the musée du Quai Branly until 18 october 2015. It was curated by Anne & Julien, founders of the magazine "Hey! Modern Art and Pop Culture," in collaboration with tattoo artist Tin-Tin, anthropologist Sébastien Galliot and journalist Pascal Bagot.
Related: Russian Criminal Tattoo portraits.
In 1800, Alessandro Volta made the first electro chemical battery. The 'voltaic pile' demonstrated that a moist, porous material sandwiched between two dissimilar metals can produce an electrical current. The scientist tested several metals and found that zinc and silver gave the best results.
In his experiment, Volta used a disk of copper, covered it with a disk of cloth soaked in brine (i.e., the electrolyte), and stacked that with a disk of zinc. He repeated the copper-cloth-zinc disks piling up until the pile reached a height of about 30 cm. The positive end of the pile is the bottom copper disk, and the negative end is the zinc disk on top.
Volta's experiment was re-enacted on a gigantic scale at the Age of Wonder festival a few weeks ago in Eindhoven. Or maybe i should write that Michiel Pijpe and the Artscience Interfaculty re-enacted the re-enactment of the voltaic pile discovery that media art pioneer Dick Raaijmakers realized in 1995. Raaijmakers (or Raaymakers) is regarded as one of the founders of the Dutch electronic music. He is also closely connected to Eindhoven through his research at the Natlab (Philips Research Laboratories) in the fifties.
Over the course of a several hour long performance, the Volta team built up a giant and foul-smelling pile that alternated copper plates, clothes drenched in acid and zinc.
I didn't stand and stare until the final moments of the performance but I wish i had. The goal was to use the oversized battery to produce enough energy for one light bulb, suspended from the ceiling. I might have missed the grand finale but i've nevertheless been impressed by this over-sized lesson in physics and by the calm, repetitive gestures required to light up a mundane bulb for a few seconds. Also, it's always good to be reminded what a genius Raaijmakers was.
Thus, the audience can experience the relation between the invested labor and the resulting electric energy. And also, how and why the original visual quality of this 'proto-element' has been lost in favor of the efficiency of the modern battery. 'Volta' intends to recreate this lost plasticity, if only for a single moment.