22
Jan
11

Exhibition: ‘Portraits and Power: People, Politics and Structures’ at Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina – Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Florence

Exhibition dates: 1st October 2010 – 23rd January 2011

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Many thankx to the Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Martin Parr
‘France. Paris. Haute Couture’
2007
from the series ‘Luxury’
Pigment print
© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

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Tina Barney
‘The Ancestor’
2001
C-print
Courtesy the artist and Janet Borden Inc., New York

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Tina Barney
‘The Brocade Walls’
2004
C-print
Courtesy the artist and Janet Borden Inc., New York

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Tina Barney installation view

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The characters Tina Barney portrays are the representatives of a social class that normally exercises careful control over the circulation of pictures of its members, whether in the form of family photographs or official portraits, which are often published on the pages of glossy magazines. She is one of the first photographers to have made artistic use of this kind of representation. Hers is not merely the gaze of an onlooker, but that of a trusted person, who has personal relationships with her subjects. What she is interested in is not so much the idea of displaying the wealth of these families, but that of analysing social and family dynamics – such as the ambivalent relationship between children and parents. Her work is conceived as a means to improve self-understanding.
The people portrayed all come from families educated in the awareness of their own social role: discipline, self-control and rigour are features to be observed in all the subjects photographed, and they share the same high level of composure. For the series entitled The Europeans, which was produced over a period of about eight years, the author was introduced by one circle of friends to another, and thus given the opportunity to portray Italian nobles, Austrian bankers and landowners, proud representatives of the wealthy Spanish bourgeoisie, and English gentlemen in their sophisticated dwellings. Neither the formal way of dressing nor the furnishings can be traced back to any particular fashion: Tina Barney seeks to produce timeless pictures that at first sight will appear closer to traditional painting than to contemporary photography. Tina Barney creates her portraits through a careful observation of people in their everyday lives; to capture transient moments she asks her subjects to repeat something in front of the camera in such a way as to fix them. Her work tool is a fixed, large-size camera; an extended time exposure and high resolution enable her to render the details of each setting in detail. The figures portrayed have a rigid and formal countenance, which makes them appear markedly detached from one another, even though it is often brothers and sisters or parents and children who are photographed together: “this is the best that we can do. This inability to show physical affection is in our heritage”.
Tina Barney’s photographs give a sense of the fleetingness of their relationships behind the mask of self-controlled bearing. The artist thus unveils the game of social roles and attitudes conducted by her subjects, a veritable Theater of Manners (to quote the title of one of her most famous series) which demands enough sensitivity on the viewers’ part for them to focus on those details in the pictures that render hidden and non-immediately obvious features visible.

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Tina Barney
‘The Granddaughter’
2004
C-print
Courtesy the artist and Janet Borden Inc., New York

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Jim Dow
‘Library Metropolitan Club, New York’
1999 / 2010
Chromogenic color print
Courtesy the artist, Janet Borden, Inc., New York

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By taking shots that are as objective as possible and completely devoid of any human presence, Dow gives a concentrated and authentic view of the architecture, furnishings and frameworks of these backdrops of life. “My interest in photography centres on its capacity for exact description. I use photography to try to record the manifestations of human ingenuity and spirit still remaining in our country’s everyday landscape.” For one of his most recent series, Dow has been able to make his way into some of the most exclusive private circles of New York City. He selected circles that are still active and have a long and significant history behind, such as the renowned Metropolitan Club, which was founded in 1891 by John Pierpont Morgan, and once listed James Roosevelt and William K. Vanderbilt among its most illustrious members. Most of these circles require strict adherence to rules consolidated by tradition. Only those introduced to the club by one of its members can join it, a practice that contributes to keep it a kind of network; a specific commission will then consider whether the candidate is fit for acceptance. Though there are over twenty circles of this kind in New York, outsiders will rarely notice their presence. While they no longer exercise the kind of political influence they used to as seats of power and decisionmaking bodies, these clubs are now undergoing a new renaissance. An increasing number of politicians and businessmen are choosing to meet in their secluded rooms, which public opinion often perceives as places of intrigue and the setting for secret appointments of various kinds. With his descriptive and comparative photographs, Dow is giving a face to these exclusive meeting places, inviting viewers to join him in admiring the timeless opulence of their rooms. Architecture is the “primary and most powerful form of mass-communication”; at the same time, it is a mirror for power and its strategies, for the consolidation of authority and its effects on those who exercise it. “Architecture is power. The powerful build precisely because they are powerful. Yet architecture is also an expression of the capability and resoluteness – as well as resolve – of the powerful. Politicians intentionally exploit architecture to seduce, impress, and intimidate.” (Deyan Sudjic, The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful Shape the World, 2006).

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Clegg & Guttmann (Michael Clegg and Martin Guttmann)
‘Grand Master’
1985
Cibachrome
Courtesy Galerie Christian Nagel, Cologne, Berlin, Antwerp

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“The CCCS – Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina – Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, will be staging an exhibition entitled Portraits and Power: People, Politics and Structures, from 1 October 2010 to 23 January 2011, which will run concurrently with the retrospective devoted to Bronzino, the undisputed master of the Mannerist portrait, on Palazzo Strozzi’s piano nobile.

The exhibition, based on an original project by the CCCS in consultation with Peter Funnell (curator and director of research programmes at the National Portrait Gallery in London), Walter Guadagnini (chairman of the “UniCredit & Art” project’s scientific committee) and Roberta Valtorta (director of the Cinisello Balsamo Museum of Contemporary Photography) and coordinated by Franziska Nori (director of the CCCS), will show the work of international artists and collectives such as Tina Barney, Christoph Brech, Bureau d’études, Fabio Cifariello Ciardi, Clegg & Guttmann, Nick Danziger, Rineke Dijkstra, Jim Dow, Francesco Jodice, Annie Leibovitz, Helmut Newton, Trevor Paglen, Martin Parr, Wang Qingsong, Daniela Rossell, Jules Spinatsch, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and The Yes Men – who have all proved capable of developing a critical analysis of the portrayal and depiction of political, economic and social power in the media.

The exhibition explores its theme from two main standpoints: it analyses power as an expression of the charisma of those individuals who have become icons or symbols of their age; and it probes the power of institutions and social models that either represent themselves or are represented in a critical light.

The role played by images has grown to such an extent that it has led to the predominant emergence of their value not only in terms of portrayal but also of the successful establishment of power. The works of art on display bear witness not only to the self-referential strategies of power, but also to the different approaches artists adopt in deconstructing or chipping away at the images that represent social, economic and political power in a way that can not only bolster a leadership but that can also undermine its authority.

The National Portrait Gallery in London will be contributing works by three famous international photographers that explore the image of political authority. The series devoted to Queen Elizabeth II by Annie Leibovitz evinces a celebrated contemporary artist’s dialogue with the great tradition of official portraiture, and the cycle entitled Blair at War by Nick Danziger gives an extraordinary vision of Tony Blair’s daily life in the days immediately preceding the outbreak of the war in Iraq. The portrait of Margaret Thatcher by Helmut Newton keeps alive the iconic role of one of the most influential politicians of recent decades despite the fact that her authority had waned.

Clegg & Guttmann show the photographs of three managing directors of the Deutsche Bank. These images, while based on the official portraiture genre, provide the opportunity for a conceptual reflection on the theme of the public presentation of individuals who are at the same time both subject and patron of the work. Christoph Brech portrays a modern patron of the arts in a video that dwells on a detail of the hull of his yacht, Sea Force One, a floating museum filmed from a distance in Venetian waters.

The role of the image not only as representation but also as a tool for the construction or exploration of power is analysed by artists such as Hiroshi Sugimoto, whose Portraits bring to life wax effigies of historical or contemporary political figures through the evocative power of photography, and Rineke Dijkstra whose series of images of a soldier with the French Foreign Legion prompts a reflection on what remains of the individual when he becomes the representative of a military authority. Francesco Jodice, in his video entitled Dubai Citytellers, analyses the development and the social impact of one of the new centres of global economic power.

In the photo triptych Past, Present and Future, Wang Qingsong portrays himself as a bystander, bearing witness to fighters in poses mimicking celebrative and monumental Socialist sculptures, reflecting upon the contradictory nature of the actual power of masses in contemporary China.

Tina Barney records the life and domestic environment of the beau monde, combining the spontaneous feel of a private snapshot with a sophisticated aesthetic approach strongly echoing the world of art and traditional photography. The provocative photo series Ricas y Famosas by Daniela Rossell portrays the taste and excesses of the new super wealthy social oligarchy in Mexico, while Martin Parr’s series entitled Luxury, which is devoted to fashion shows, horse-racing and art fairs in the world’s major capitals, probes the lifestyle of the upper class in a globalized Western world. The pictures of Jim Dow portray the luxurious rooms of the great private social clubs of New York City’s elite, fashionable places that are inaccessible to the general public.

A different critical approach to the theme of power is offered by the French collective Bureau d’études with its project involving mapping the links between political and economic power. The CIA’s secret missions and operations, on the other hand, provide the focus for the work of Trevor Paglen who reconstructs top secret movements and connections. Jules Spinatsch presents a new work taken from his Temporary Discomfort video-photographic series, denouncing the controversial transformation of a place such as the island of La Maddalena in Sardinia into the venue for the G8 summit that never took place. Also on view is the antagonistic activism of The Yes Men, a collective who will be presenting their spectacular media initiative that rocked the image and power of the multinational corporation responsible for the Bhopal environmental catastrophe in India.

Finally, the composer Fabio Cifariello Ciardi uses famous politicians’ public speeches as his raw material for the creation of electroacoustic music that will underline their rhetorical techniques of persuasion.

The exhibition catalogue, published in Italian and English, contains a series of essays by authors from different countries, backgrounds and disciplines, offering the visitor a chance to explore in greater depth the themes addressed by the exhibition.”

Press release from the Strozzina website

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Rineke Dijkstra
‘Olivier’
Quartier Vienot,
Marseille, France, July 21, 2000
On loan from The Bank of America Merrill Lynch Collection

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Rineke Dijkstra
‘Olivier’
Quartier Monclar,
Djibouti, July 13, 2003
On loan from The Bank of America Merrill Lynch Collection

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A crucial feature of Dijkstra’s photography is her desire to show the true personality of her subjects, as opposed to any simulated one. Up against the contemporary mystifying quality of the Internet and digital manipulation, her images illustrate in a very convincing way how photography is still capable of transcending the surface of subjects to grasp their deeper and constantly evolving identities. Her series feature, for instance, young bullfighters immediately after a bullfight, young mothers with babies born only a few minutes before, and portraits of boys and girls from various parts of the world at the beach. Her work method, whereby subjects are given very few directions and are usually portrayed frontally, leads to the creation of bare and detached pictures in which people display an inevitably fragile and vulnerable air. The Olivier Silva project, which the artist has developed over the course of more than three years, centres on the figure of a young man who in July 2000 voluntarily enrolled in the French Foreign Legion. Dijkstra portrays crucial moments of his intense training in France and Africa – from the day of his enrolment, in Aubagne, near Marseille, to the missions he was sent to fulfil in various parts of the world (Gabon, Ivory Coast and Gibuti) in 2003. The photographs clearly illustrate the metamorphoses the young man underwent over the course of the years: the innocent looking boy becomes an energetic and professional elite soldier enlisted in one of the world’s toughest and most controversial army corps. The centrepiece of the work is the artist’s interest in Olivier as an individual whose personality evolves in the course of his training, as is clearly revealed by his attitude and the look in his eyes, as well as by the very way in which his facial features change. The training imparted in military units of this kind is aimed at annulling the recruit’s personality in order to then recreate it according to new parameters: the youngster draws closer and closer to the prototype of the soldier as we progress from one photograph to the next. Just as all new recruits of the Foreign Legion are assigned a new name and identity, after three years Olivier no longer looks (even physically) like the same person as before. Like an accelerated film sequence, this series shows the dissolution of the original identity of a man subjected to the conditions dictated by an apparatus of power. Every soldier is at the service of the country he fights for and becomes one of its official public representations, embodying its military power. The same power he now wields is that which in a few years has conditioned him – or even produced him, one may say. Through her aesthetically minimalist photographs, Rineke Dijkstra illustrates the paradox of opposition between individual values and those of the community, between identity and conformity.

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Jim Dow
‘Dining Room, Morgan Library, New York’
1999 / 2010
Chromogenic color print
Courtesy the artist, Janet Borden, Inc., New York

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Martin Parr
‘England. Epsom. The Derby’
2004
from the series ‘Luxury’
Pigment print
© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

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Martin Parr
‘Russia. Moscow. Fashion Week’
2004
from the series ‘Luxury’
Pigment print
© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

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Unlike most of his colleagues, Parr has little interest in the great themes of photographic reporting, such as the documenting of war and poverty. Working around the world, he finds his motifs in everyday life. At the beginning of his career, he focused in particular on the observation of people from lower middle class backgrounds engaged in different activities, in the context of themes such as consumption, communication and leisure. He has left it ambiguous as to whether these pictures of his are charged with critical overtones or intended to serve as a mere means of social documentation. Through this approach to his work, Parr has developed a highly distinctive and almost unmistakable style marked by dazzling colours obtained by the use of flash on top of natural light. Parr takes his camera near people and their social milieus, creating images that appear grotesque or exaggerated at first. Their motifs, which often coincide with moments of everyday life, are shot from unusual perspectives.
The feeling these pictures convey is that of being spontaneous photos, similar to snapshots. Only under closer scrutiny you understand they have been skillfully construed and arranged. While always highly charged and taking widespread social stereotypes as their starting point, Parr’s images are never banal. The perspective they convey stands out for the way in which it takes viewers by surprise and for the ironic detachment with which the photographer turns to his subjects.
According to Parr, his photographs never fail to elicit extreme emotions because they always show some truths: “We are so used to digesting pictures that are pure propaganda, that people are surprised when someone like me shows them images that are closely tied to reality. I, at least, don’t lie”. The photographer’s gaze takes the viewer into his confidence, leading him through the pictures to discover the absurdity of what we deem normal. Gathered in large series regularly published in volumes, these shots transcend the irony of individual images to concentrate on the analysis of a given social milieu.
The Luxury series portrays personages from the international jet set, photographed in different settings around the world – from the Miami Art Fair to horse races in Durban, from polo tournaments in Dubai to the Beijing Auto Show. With these images, Parr has intentionally moved away from his previous subjects to focus on the life of the upper classes: for, as he himself has noted, the main problem the world is facing is not poverty but wealth – excessive development and prosperity. These photographs offer the perspective of an external, noninvolved observer, whose gaze is drawn towards minor details that usually find no place in the common representations of these events.
The centrepieces of these photos are the superficial clichés that the people participating in the events adopt as tokens of their upper-class identity. The pictures fix moments in which this enactment reveals itself to be so fragile or so exaggerated that the people involved become extras in a comedy – one that the photographer’s eye has fallen upon, finding interest not in individuals as such, but in their belonging to a given social system with all its rules and values.

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Nick Danziger
‘Helicopter Flight from RAF Lyneham to Battersea, 3 April 2003’

Bromide print
Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London
© Nick Danziger

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Centre for Contemporary Culture Strozzina
Palazzo Strozzi, Piazza Strozzi, Firenze

Opening hours:
Tuesday-Sunday 10.00 am – 8.00 pm
Special free Thursday 6.00 – 11.00 pm
Monday closed (open on 1/11, 6/12, 27/12)

Strozinna website

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Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Études’ 1994

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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