Archive for the 'cultural commentator' Category

02
Nov
18

Text: Marcus Bunyan. ‘Death and the image’ 2018

November 2018

 

This text was written in 2017 for a special issue of the international magazine Text on the subject ‘Writing Trauma’. While the text was accepted, the peer-reviewers wanted heavy revisions, including reordering the piece and editing out my personal stories. At the time, I was going into hospital for an operation on my hand and such revisions were impossible to undertake.

Now, over a year later, I have reread the text… and I have amended and extended it, but otherwise I am going to leave it as I wrote it in the first place. I like the way I write and I like my personal stories. While it is a long read the writing addresses an important subject with, I hope, some interesting insights along the way.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

Word count: 8,137

Download Death and the image (4.3Mb pdf)

 

 

Abstract

This text investigates how the act of photography visually writes trauma. Through an analysis of the context of images of death by artists such as Alphonse Bertillon, Robert Capa, Alexander Gardner, and Walker Evans the paper ponders how the camera captures human beings ante-mortem, at the death point, post-mortem and vita ad mortem.

It seeks to understand that line between presence and absence where life was there… and now death is in its place. Death was one step removed, now it is present. How does the act and performance of photography depict the trauma of death, this double death (for the photograph is a memento mori and/or the person in the photograph may already know that they are going to die).

“The text of eternity that the photograph proposes, imparts and imposes a paradoxical state of loss. The secret of telling truth in a photograph is that the more truthful, “the more orgasmic, the more pleasurable, the more suicidal” the pronouncement of the perfect paradox (you are dead but also alive) … then the more we are strangled while uttering it. The language of deferral in the writing of trauma in death and the image becomes the dissolve that seizes the subject in the midst of an eternal bliss. In death and the image we may actually die (be)coming.”

Keywords

Trauma, photography, death, art, memento mori, war, execution, memory, victim, representation, Alphonse Bertillon, Robert Capa, Alexander Gardner, Walker Evans, ante-mortem, point of death, death point, post-mortem, punctum, empathy, vita ad mortem, life after death.

 

 

Death and the image

 

 

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“Photography, because it stops the flow of life, is always flirting with death…”

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John Berger1

 

“On the most fundamental level there are transitions from continuous to discontinuous or from discontinuous to continuous. We are discontinuous beings, individuals who perish in isolation in the midst of an incomprehensible adventure, but we yearn for our lost continuity. We find the state of affairs that binds us to our random and ephemeral individuality hard to bear. Along with our tormenting desire that this evanescent thing should last, there stands our obsession with a primal continuity linking us with everything that is.”

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Georges Bataille2

 

 

German Gen. Anton Dostler is tied to a stake before his execution

 

“German General Anton Dostler is tied to a stake before his execution by a firing squad in the Aversa stockade. The General was convicted and sentenced to death by an American military tribunal. Aversa, Italy.” Blomgren, December 1, 1945. 111-SC-225295. National Archives Identifier: 531326

 

 

Trial and Execution of General Anton Dostler

The still photograph (above) can be seen being taken by the flash from a still camera that occurs at 5.16 secs in the YouTube film. The photographer can then be seen walking off. Later in the film another angle of the execution is shown, again with the flash of the absent camera recorded, starting at 7.10 secs. The displacement of time and space, between one point of view and another, with the absence of the still camera in both instances (in the image and in the film), is uncanny.

 

 

1

One of life’s recurrent themes is mortality. As Bataille notes, we are discontinuous beings: we live, we breathe, and we die. Photography’s recurrent theme is also mortality. In a ghostly evocation, the medium possesses an odour of death that sticks in the throat. So how then does photography visually write the trauma of death – over time, through space, in different contexts, with multiple narratives and different points of view?

As a first point of reference, we need to define trauma. Trauma can be an injury to living tissue; a disordered psychic or behavioural state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury; an emotional upset and an agent, force or mechanism that causes all or any of these conditions.3 Atkinson and Richardson note that the work of theorists such as Nicolas Abraham, Maria Torok, Shoshana Felman, Dori Laub, Dominick LaCapra, and Cathy Caruth in broad terms view trauma,

“… as the delayed manifestation of a psychic wound sustained during an experience that has happened too quickly to allow registration and processing of the event at the time of its occurrence. To study trauma in literary or cultural terms, then, is to be concerned with the tension between what is known and what is not known, and with the impact and dynamics of the woundedness and machinations of trauma – not only its purely physical instantiation, but in all its reverberations. This is what brings the study of trauma to the uncertainty of truth, the impossibility of bearing absolute witness to catastrophe, the multiplicity of historical narratives.”4

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Constitutive of trauma and its affects is the “piercing of the psychic shield” which protects a fragile subjectivity leaving in its wake shattered individuals, communities and even whole nations.5 Further, Michalinos Zembylas citing Kaplan (2005) notes that “an important distinction that needs to be made here is one’s positioning and context of encountering trauma,”6 between being a primary or secondary witness. Personally, I believe that a testimony (a formal written or spoken statement that something is true) in the first instance… becomes a testament (something that serves as a sign or evidence of a specified fact) in the second.

When looking death in the face, we can state that death is a trauma not only for the physical body and the psyche of the person involved (the direct trauma victim), but also for the witness of the event, be they a primary witness – one who actually witnesses the traumatic event – or a secondary witness, a person “who has no personal connection to the victim but may encounter trauma through other sources such as the media and oral or written accounts of a catastrophe.”7

These secondary encounters can never be the actual experience of trauma but, acting through language (be it oral, written or visual), they may embody sensations that stimulate feelings and thoughts in the secondary observer. A social construction of a testament may produce an empathetic engagement in viewers as “secondary witnesses.”8 Through an understanding of spectatorship, experience, aesthetic effects, narrative strategies and temporal shifts in the polyvocal nature of language we can begin to understand how the affect of secondary traumatisation – on memory, history and the body – can break down the subject-object dichotomy, can break down the realist norms of representation to produce “a mode of cognition involving sensuous, somatic and tactile forms of perception.”9 Here language (the photograph in this case, reinforced by the title of the photograph) stands in for that which is absent, but it is not in opposition to an intensity of feeling. The language of the photograph can intensify the affect of the image, especially if the photograph becomes transcendent, embodied, in the vitality and “aliveness” of the viewer.10

This mimetic experience “promotes a critical and self-reflexive empathy” and knowledge in the secondary witness that LaCapra observes is a “virtual, not vicarious, experience … in which emotional response comes with respect for the other and the realization that the experience of the other is not one’s own.”11 Essentially, this is a social concept, a social construction of reality, a matrix-like view of the world that draws on relational and contextual dimensions for understanding trauma. This concept requires careful consideration of issues related to history, culture, race, gender, ideology, beliefs, agency and power.

“From a social constructionist and narrative perspective, people reconstruct their selves through the stories they tell about their past and the meaning they ascribe to the present in anticipation of the future. They shape their stories through active and creative interpretation of their lives and are in turn shaped by these stories. However, the self is not only a product of narratives. People are purposeful and moral beings, having the power and agency to change scripts, discourses and ideologies…”12

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Here we can ask, what are the machinations of the image in the affective dynamics of photographs of trauma and how are they situated in a certain relation to trauma? What do photographs actually do that give rise to a way of thinking and feeling about trauma?

Although no representation can fully describe the first hand experience of trauma because of the partial nature of language – its gaps, elisions and impossibilities of speech13 – it is because of these very gaps that new spaces of interpretation can open up. Rather than just representing the perceived reality of trauma (this happened, at this time, in this location – an ordering of reality), images have the unique ability to transcend their indexical relationship to the real, pointing and touching (as if with the index finger) to the relationality of trauma as it touches human emotion. With its ability to police and regulate it subject, the implicit violence of photography is a predatory means of taking possession of both its victim (the subject) and its viewer.

Anna Gibbs has stated that we live, “in a more or less continuous state of mediatized emergency and traumatic aftermath, desensitized by the onslaught of images … to the affect we ought to feel.”14 I strongly disagree. I would argue that the traumatic numbing15 and supposed “death of experience”16 allegedly present in the world of image circulation, translation, and accumulation only occurs if the witness lets it be so.

Personally, I believe that something in the image is transferred to the witness pre-cognition – intuitively, imaginatively – which can then be interpreted cognitively and relationally with regard to history and memory, art and culture, politics and experience through an orthogonal movement through time and space. As viewers and interpreters, we are not fixed at a particular point in time and space, nor do we observe from one particular point of view. Our existential engagement provides a space to close the gap between affect and enunciation.

“Facts can vibrate; they can give of colors, sounds, smells, images. To talk of these facts with no recognition of this is to lack any awareness of the act of enunciation, of the gaps between language and experience and the unpredictable ways that sparks can break out of language, leap across the gap and ignite the tinderbox of traumatic memory.”17

 

2

Surfing Pinterest (a photo sharing website) recently, I absentmindedly clicked on an abstract image of three hanging black shapes from the pantheon of image tiles that presented itself to me. Up popped this horrific image of three Afro-Americans who had been lynched in the Southern United States in the 1920s. I was shocked and dismayed. I had such a strong emotional reaction to the image. But more than that, my feelings and memories of the bigotry that I had faced as a young gay man growing up in the 1970s swelled in my consciousness. This story is a example of how exposure to an image can bring to the surface unresolved aspects of being ‘Other’, of being different, and being persecuted for that difference. I thought about the lives of these people that had led them to that point, their families, their histories and the terror that they must have experienced on that day. You cannot begin to understand that, but you can have empathy and anger against the systems of racism and bigotry that exist in the world.

Then the cognitive part of my brain linked the image to a report I had only just seen a few days before on lynching, which told of the thousands of Afro-Americans who had been killed between 1882 and 1968.18 Mentally, I then linked this to a Facebook posting which put forward the analogy that the current killing of Afro-Americans by police in the United States was akin to a contemporary and publicly endorsed and enforced form of lynching. Finally, in my head I heard Billie Holiday singing that famous song Strange Fruit, “a dark and profound song about the lynching of African Americans in the Southern United States during the Jim Crow Era, “strange fruit,” as they hang from trees, rotting in the sun, blowing in the wind, and becoming food for crows upon being burned.”19 I watched the video of Billie Holiday singing this song on YouTube.20 Every time I think of this image I have these associations of animate thought intrinsic to the original experience,21 where the micro and macro conditions of production work to “embody and register trauma,”22 a communicable language of sensation and affect, time and time again.

 

 

Billie Holiday – Strange fruit

 

 

These chains of affect, the nexus between affect / feeling / emotion / cognition, are a form of synaesthesia where facts, emotions, feelings, memories, sounds and images vibrate against each other as an active and continuous engagement of the self with the world in which one lives. In a human being who is un/consciously aware, these real and mediated experiences may encourage a sensory intensification that elicits thought and empathic vision in the materiality of embodied experience, something (the punctum?) that takes us out of our selves into a higher register of being.

As part of this system of impressions, of an instantaneous, affective response triggered by an image,23 photographs force us to engage visually and involuntarily. “Impressions that force us to look, encounters which force us to interpret, expressions which force us to think.”24 Encounters which force us to comprehend. The conjunction of affect and critical awareness “constitute the basis of an empathy grounded … on a feeling for another that entails an encounter with something irreducible and different, often inaccessible.”25 This combination of affective and intellectual operations – about forcing oneself to look (and that process of looking/surrendering) but never forgetting your ‘point of view’, your memory, history and identity, is when empathy becomes that process of surrender, “but also the catch that transforms your perception.”26 How is this “catch” enunciated in photographs? I now want to look at a few images that explicate these phenomena.

 

Ante-mortem: present but absent

3

With the invention of photography in the late 1830s, the photograph as memento mori allows the spectator to observe death not at first hand, but through the representation of the image “taken from life.” Photographs provide a verification of reality through their apparent verisimilitude, while being woven into narratives – oral, textual, intertextual, spatial and temporal – that frame the event in multiple ways.

“Photographs … have come to stand in for reality … despite the fact that it is relatively easy to manipulate their meaning. As a result of their ability to project reality, images, and particularly those that depict death and destruction, are seen as potentially powerful pieces of documentary evidence…”27

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Photographs are embedded in “a context of the cultural circumstances at the time, and therefore exist rarely in isolation or without meaning”28 and can be seen as having a denotative level (what they physically represent) and a connotative level (the meanings attached to that representation).29 Photography quickly changed how death was displayed because it introduced a “reality” and immediacy of representation that was democratic, personal and everyday.30

 

Alexander Gardner. 'Lewis Paine' 26th April 1865

 

Alexander Gardner (1821-1882)
Lewis Paine
26th April 1865
Albumen silver print from a Collodion glass plate negative

 

 

An example of the personal, everyday and documentary nature of photography can be seen in the photograph taken by Alexander Gardner in April 1865. This portrait is of Lewis Thornton Powell (aka Lewis Payne or Paine) who was one of the conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln which occurred the same month. The photograph has a background of dark metal, and was taken on one of the ironclads U.S.S. Montauk or Saugus, where the conspirators were for a time confined. The reality is Paine was executed in July 1865 just eight short weeks after this photograph was taken, so in effect (and in the affect on us of this knowledge), he is (already) a dead man walking. This is a double death – that death buried in the very act of taking any photograph, La petite mort or “the little death,” an idiom and euphemism for the orgasm of the photographic time freeze; and the fact that we know that he was going to die, those short weeks later.

The photograph forms the central panel of a three-panel Renaissance-like altarpiece, the form in which the three photographs are usually displayed. The left and right hand photographs were taken within minutes of each other, with the camera in the same position, whereas in the centre photograph the camera has been lowered to show more of the body, and the image has been cropped at the top. In the central plate the figure of Paine has been raised up in the frame – almost prematurely brought back to life by his placement. The centre image is the only one where Paine stares directly at the camera. He surveys the viewer with a gaze I find enigmatic.

 

Alexander Gardner. 'Lewis Paine' 26th April, 1865

 

Alexander Gardner (1821-1882)
Three photographs of Lewis Paine
26th April, 1865
Albumen silver prints from a Collodion glass plate negative

 

 

This is a very modern face, a very contemporary face. His hair is similar to Justin Beiber’s. Who brushed his hair across for this picture, and would it normally be this long, or has it just been ignored because of his fate? He still has good muscle tone – has he been exercising in his ironclad cell? And finally, his clothing – are they navy issue, as his top appears to have been given to him, perhaps the coarse, navy blue wool of the Northern states. If we were to place this image within the metaphysical school of photography which peaked with Paul Caponigro and Minor White we could say: Hovering above his head, has his spirit already begun to leave his body?

One reading of his gaze is that he is interested in what the photographer is doing – almost the gaze of an apprentice wanting to apply these skills in the future. Given his fate is he insane because of his interest? Another reading could be that he is looking out to the future in the hope of finding that he will be judged in another way. And another is the immediacy of his gaze – it is a gaze that is happening now!

The other thing that I find mysterious is the distance of the photographer from the subject. Was it fear or the presence of the guards that stopped Gardner getting any closer, or are there deck fittings we cannot see that prevented his approach. Imagine being Paine, having a photographer point a damn great view camera at you, documenting your countenance for prosperity. What was going on in Paine’s mind – what is his perspective on this performance by the photographer? And what brought Paine to this place?

Michel Foucault calls the methods and techniques by which human beings constitute themselves, “technologies of the self.” Foucault argued that we as subjects are perpetually engaged in processes whereby we define and produce our own ethical self-understanding. According to Foucault, technologies of the self are the forms of knowledge and strategies that “permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of immortality.”31 As we look into his eyes he knows that we know he is going to die, has already died but the intensity of that knowledge is brought into present time. In this instant, what Paine emanates is a form of i-mortality.

Roland Barthes in his seminal work Camera Lucida observes in Section 39:

“He is dead and he is going to die… The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: this will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me the absolute past of the pose, the photograph tells me death in the future. What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence.”32

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This is Barthes anterior future, a moment where truth is interpreted in the mind of the photographer, not out there but in here (your head and your heart), where past, present and future coalesce into a single point in time: his death and our death connected through his gaze, and the knowledge of our joint discontinuity. In this moment in time, what we are doing is making a list about the human condition when we talk about something that is remarkable. Language can never fully describe the human condition, much as it may try… and this is why this photograph is remarkable, because it is ineffable, unknowable. The photograph inhabits you; it haunts you like few others, because it is a memoriam to a young man and his present death. Here he is present but absent at one and the same time.

As such, this is an image as triple death – the death of the photograph (past time / memento mori / remembrance of death), the death of the person in the photograph and also a third death, the knowledge that Paine is going to die. Death, like life, can be cyclical. This is the catch that transforms your perception, in Barthes terms the punctum of the image, in which the wounding, personally touching detail (past pose, future death) establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it.

“The punctum (a Latin word derived from the Greek word for trauma [my emphasis]) … inspires an intensely private meaning, one that is suddenly, unexpectedly recognized and consequently remembered (it “shoots out of [the photograph] like an arrow and pierces me”); it ‘escapes’ language (like Lacan’s real); it is not easily communicable through/with language. The punctum is ‘historical’ as an experience of the irrefutable indexicality of the photograph (its contingency upon a referent). The punctum is a detail or “partial object” that attracts and holds the viewer’s (the Spectator’s) gaze; it pricks or wounds the observer.”33

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This trauma, prick or wound that lifts the viewer out of themselves, out of their everyday existence, “points to those features of a photograph that seem to produce or convey a meaning without invoking any recognizable symbolic system. This kind of meaning is unique to the response of the individual viewer of the image.”34 This punctum also accounts for the importance of emotion and subjectivity in interacting with photographs; memory of that photograph displaces it from its moment of origin.35 Photography enacts the trauma of death even while being enacted upon.

Now we can read Eduardo Cadava’s comments on Walter Benjamin’s analysis of the photograph:

“As Benjamin suggests … the photograph, like the souvenir, is the corpse of an experience. A photograph therefore speaks as death, as the trace of what passes into history. I, the photograph, the spaced out limit between life and death, I, the photograph, am death. Yet, speaking as death, the photograph can be neither death nor itself. At once dead and alive, it opens the possibility of our being in time.”36

 

4

Photography then, can be seen as death taken away from itself.

Through the oscillation between studium (historical, social or cultural meanings extracted via semiotic analysis) and punctum (those features of a photograph that seem to produce or convey a meaning without invoking any recognisable symbolic system) the traumatic photograph of death, death’s afterimage, transcends the initial shock inducing signifier leading to a more extended form of engagement that addresses the duration of trauma in memory – through the images elisions, slippages, and conceptual, political and historical complexities. Our negotiation with imaging and imagining, therefore, takes place within ever-expanding contexts of meaning – some relating to the past and some to the present – which impact future interpretations.

I believe that these negotiations are, firstly, linked to what Deleuze calls the encountered sign, a “sign that is felt, rather than recognized, or perceived through cognition.”37 A feeling that is a catalyst for critical enquiry or deep thought. “For Deleuze, affect or emotion is a more effective trigger for profound thought because of the way in which it grasps us, forcing us to engage involuntarily…”38 Secondly, I believe that these negotiations are linked to what Barthes calls the images “third meaning.”

“In Barthes’ view, the image’s third meaning compels viewers after they encounter and deplete both its literal/informational side and its symbolic dimensions. Barthes argued that the third meaning is difficult to locate, because it is not situated structurally or in a certain place of the image. It is similarly difficult to describe, because it involves what he called the image’s obtuseness, its accent or anaphoric side.”39

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Again, we have this idea of the catch, accent, or punctum that grasps us and takes us out of ourselves, that modulates the images “voice” (which is how the image takes on an already provided meaning upon its initial appearance), a voice which then also “helps us to understand both the image’s third meaning and the role of contingency in visual memory.”40

 

Death point

5

 

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“Ah, wretched as I am … to dwell not among the living, not among the dead.”

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Sophocles, ‘Antigone’41

 

 

Commentators such as Barbie Zelizer observe that images, especially about-to-die images, easily “reduce complex issues and circumstances to memorable but simplistic visual frames.”42 The image,

“… depicts for its onlookers a moment in an event’s unfolding to which they attend while knowing where that unfolding leads. This means that visual work often involves catching the sequencing of events or issues midstream, strategically freezing it at its potentially strongest moment of meaningful representation.”43

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Other writers such as Susan Sontag note that these images have the potential to stir public emotions, simply because they freeze a moment in time and can be looked at again and again… but at the same time the repeated viewing of images of atrocity can have a numbing effect.44 The pain and fear evidenced in the photograph as seen in the victim’s eyes (for example in the photograph of the shooting of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy), expands the literal / informational side and its symbolic dimensions (chivalry, love, devotion, hope – Camelot!) into a Barthes’ third space. While Kennedy is a victim twice over (the victim of the assassin and the camera) in a guttural interpretation of the image he is to remain a victim for eternity in the contingency of the future, as long as we continue to look at this photograph.

For me, this is sad and painful photograph. I remember the day it happened. I was ten years old at the time. It’s one of those events that you will remember for the rest of your life – where you were, who you were with – like the moon landings or 9/11. I was in a car outside a small newsagent when the news came on the radio. Robert F. Kennedy had been shot: first aural, then visual on the black and white TV that night, then textual in the newspapers and then visual again with this photograph, then associative. The pain of the loss of those heady days of hope lessens not.

 

Boris Yaro (American, born 1938) 'LOS ANGELES. KENNEDY MOMENTS AFTER SHOOTING' June 5, 1968

 

Boris Yaro (American, born 1938)
LOS ANGELES. KENNEDY MOMENTS AFTER SHOOTING. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy Lies Gravely Wounded on the floor at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles shortly after midnight today, moments after he was shot during a celebration of his victory in yesterday’s California primary election
June 5, 1968
Gelatin silver print
17.2 x 21.1 cm (6 3/4 x 8 5/16 in.)
Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2010

 

While photographs of the actual moment of death are rare I have been able to find around ten images that capture this vital moment, a freezing of reality at the point of death, the death point: that line between presence and absence where life was there… and now death is in its place. Death was one step removed, now it is present.

However, I would argue that in the contextual language of the photograph, there is no singular death point. I would propose the idea of an extended period of time and space embedded in the spatio-temporal matrix of the image, so that there is no single point, no singular resolution to the traumatic moment of death – either for the person involved, nor the witness or viewer.

Setting aside the concept that the image could have been staged, in Robert Capa’s famous photograph Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936 (below), there is something about this image where space or some basic element is being democratised at the moment of death – or maybe in the choice to struggle with death. In an ontological sense of becoming, perhaps it is this that becomes the pure representation of time. In contrapunto, there is an anonymous image of a German soldier at the point of death on the steppes of Russia that is totally unknown. Why has one become famous and the other not?

Has it to do with the fame of the photographer, the pose of the person, or the agency of photography itself, where one photograph regarding the pain of others is too damning a legacy and of too plain a purpose to bare contemplating, while the other – with its masked face, outflung arm and falling, quasi-religious nature – has become possibly the most famous of war photographs through its proliferation in newspapers and magazines.

Whatever the merits of each image, these death point photographs are noteworthy for what is not said: the violence that is being perpetrated on the victim every time a person looks, and looks again, at the photograph. The writing of trauma by photography never ends, is always and forever infinite.

 

Robert Capa (1913-1954) 'Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936' 1936

 

Robert Capa (1913-1954)
Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936
1936
Gelatin silver print
Photograph by Robert Capa © Cornell Capa / Magnum

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Falling German Soldier, Eastern Front' c. 1942

 

Anonymous photographer
Falling German Soldier, Eastern Front
c. 1942
akg-images / Interfoto AKG138118

Caption: A German soldier pays the ultimate price of war. German casualties were less than those of the Red Army, but the steady attrition suffered by the Wehrmacht began to undermine its effectiveness.46

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Russian spy laughing through his execution in Finland, 1942' 1942

Anonymous photographer. 'Russian spy laughing through his execution in Finland, 1942' 1942

 

Anonymous photographer
Russian spy laughing through his execution in Finland, 1942
1942
Rare Historical Photos website 2013

Caption: A Soviet spy laughs at his executioner in a picture taken in Rukajärvi, in East Karelia, in November 1942. It has been thought within the Finnish Defence Forces that the decision to withhold pictures of the fate of Russian POWs and spies may also have been prompted by concerns that pro-Soviet elements in Finnish society could have used the images for propaganda purposes. This picture was declassified by the Ministry of Defense of Finland in 2006, with the description: Unknown Soviet intelligence officer before being shot, Finland, 1942.

It’s a pretty amazing picture. To capture the last few moments of life. He knows he will die in a few seconds, in a forest in the snow. And there he will bleed out and be forgotten. His life, his experience, has come to an end. What else could he do but smile? That smile was his final defiance. Death smiles at us all, all a man can do is smile back.47

 

 

6

Here we might ask, is it possible, through the use of encountered signs, “voice”, punctum, catch or accent, to extend the unreal time of death?

Personally, I believe it is and I would argue for a sense of a Buddhist “no-time”. A transcendent time embedded into the fabric of the image. In Walker Evans’ terms an “unconscious phenomenon” that culminates in amazing accidents of composition, where things constantly rub up against each other “in the desire to create a type of friction that tests the boundaries of representation.”48 An example of this spatio-temporal dimensionality, third meaning or Thirdspace, can be seen in the interplay between the still image and film footage of the execution of German General Anton Dostler by a firing squad in the Aversa stockade December 1, 1945. By examining the film we see a flash of light at 5.16 secs, which is the still photograph at the top of this text being taken by the flash of a camera. The photographer can then be seen walking off. Later in the film another angle of the execution is shown, again with the flash of the absent camera recorded, starting at 7.10 secs. The displacement of time and space, between one point of view and another, with the absence of the still camera in both instances (in the image and in the film), is uncanny.

The fluidity of Barthes’ third meaning, where the image’s obtuseness compels viewers, has obvious links to Edward Soja’s conceptualisation of “Thirdspace”, which emerged from the spatial trialectics established by Henri Lefebvre in The Production of Space and Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia. Soja defines Thirdspace as, “an-Other way of understanding and acting to change the spatiality of human life, a distinct mode of critical spatial awareness that is appropriate to the new scope and significance being brought about in the rebalanced trialectics of spatiality-historicality-sociality.”49 In this amorphous space, “everything comes together… subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined, the knowable and the unimaginable, the repetitive and the differential, structure and agency, mind and body, consciousness and the unconscious, the disciplined and the transdisciplinary, everyday life and unending history.”50

A further example of the presence of a third meaning in a still photograph can be seen in the image by an unknown photographer Photo taken at the instant bullets from a French firing squad hit a Frenchman who collaborated with the Germans (1944, below). Caught like a rabbit in headlights, the flash illuminates the collaborator kneeling, bound, and masked but it is not quick enough to freeze the explosion of wood, the dynamic breaking of the rope or the slight movement of the hands. The body seems to float on a bed of leaves. The cheap, dirty shoes and striped trousers leading up to the material that covers the victim’s face. Is that his hair, or a hat or another hood over his head? Although we know the what, why, and where of the photograph – an encounter with both its literal/informational side and its symbolic dimensions – the placing of the image, its accent and obtuseness is much more difficult to understand. The photograph and its protagonist seem to exist beyond time and space, the anonymous man surrounded by a death bed of leaves, bursting the bonds that wrapped him and held him tight. Like the mystery of Man Ray’s L’Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse (1920), the photograph has disturbed the trialectics of spatiality-historicality-sociality, destroying the imploring label, “Do not disturb.”

 

Unknown photographer. 'Photo taken at the instant bullets from a French firing squad hit a Frenchman who collaborated with the Germans. This execution took place in Rennes, France. 21 November 1944'

 

Unknown photographer
Photo taken at the instant bullets from a French firing squad hit a Frenchman who collaborated with the Germans. This execution took place in Rennes, France. 21 November 1944
1944
Silver gelatin photograph
U.S. Army Signal Corps
National Archives Identifier (NAID)

 

 

Post-mortem: absent but present

7

 

Letherolfsvile Oct 29 AD 1859

This is the likeness of Catherine Christ

When I am dead and in my grave

And when my bones are rotten

Remember me

When this you see

Or I shall be forgotten

The grass is green The rose is red

here is my name when I am dead 51

 

 

This short poem written on a piece of paper hidden underneath an image in a daguerreotype case implores us to remember the person – a plea to the future to remember them – through a composite narrative of portrait and text. Through the creative addition of text, the language of photographs can be supplemented which adds to the functionality of the photograph as an effective memory object.52 But what if the scene of the text (the photograph) contains an absence, no depiction of the person who has died? What happens to the writing of trauma in images of the dead then?

If we acknowledge that a photograph of a person always prefigures its subjects passing then what we are doing “in reality” is deferring the death of an/other onto the foreseen death of ourselves. In this process, we must remember that every photograph is a construct, a performative act by the photographer. What the photographer chooses to record is an act of will, whether ethical or not. Photographers have the presence of mind to attend to a certain manufacture of history. When viewing this instant narrative the viewer must acknowledge a loss of a sense of time:

“This lost sense could manifest as reliving a traumatic episode as if it is taking place in the present … In the context of trauma… a loss of sense of time deprives one of the ability of remembering and telling one’s narrative in a chronological order.”53

 

Emmet Gowin (b. 1941) 'Avebury Stone and Rennie Booher, England and Danville, Virginia' 1972

 

Emmet Gowin (b. 1941)
Avebury Stone and Rennie Booher, England and Danville, Virginia
1972
Gelatin silver print
Collection of Emmet and Edith Gowin
© Edith and Emmet Gowin and courtesy of Pace MacGill Gallery, New York

 

 

One way that artist’s upset this chronological order is by playing with the fragmentary nature of time, space and memory – of present absence/absent presence. In Emmet Gowin’s accidentally double-exposed negative, Avebury Stone and Rennie Booher, England and Danville, Virginia, 1972 (above), the photograph combines “a funerary image of his wife’s grandmother, Rennie Booher, with the surface of a Neolithic monumental stone he had photographed in England a few days earlier.” Floating through eternity, encased in ancient rock that nourishes her spirit, Gowin’s photograph acts as a kind of testament of absent but present, neither here not there. This loss of sense of space and time can be deeply disturbing (like trauma) as it questions one’s physical presence in the world, but it can also have a transcendental dimension as both time and space are inextricably bound to the very specific conditions of the material world. Photographs like the one of Booher have the potential to draw together what would otherwise seem to be incompatible. To form what Jacob Bronowsi calls a “hidden likeness”, one that transcends time and space, one that is reactivated with every looking.

“The poem or the discovery exists in two moments of vision: the moment of appreciation as much as that of creation; for the appreciator must see the movement, wake to the echo which was started in the creation of the work. In the moment of appreciation we live again the moment when the creator saw and held the hidden likeness. When a simile takes us aback and persuades us together, when we find a juxtaposition in a picture both odd and intriguing, when a theory is at once fresh and convincing, we do not merely nod over someone else’s work. We re-enact the creative act, and we ourselves make the discovery again…”54

.
An important fact about the nature of trauma is the compulsion of the human psyche to repeat traumatic events over and over again. The reproducibility of photographs and the ability to look at them again and again – their machine-like repeatability, their citationality or iterability to use Derrida’s signature term – feeds into this repetitive “death instinct” (Thanatos). However, Bronowsi’s “hidden likeness” (also the name of one of Emmet Gowin’s exhibitions and a form of punctum) is perhaps a liminal moment, one that may upset the death instinct. These liminal moments may occupy a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. By disrupting the threshold – between life and death, between past, present and future time – they are requisite of the ghost (the soul) in the machine (the camera).

As Derrida observes, building on the work of Barthes,

“It belongs to it without belonging to it and is unlocatable in it; it never inscribes itself in the homogenous objectivity of the framed space but instead inhabits, or rather haunts it: “it is the addition [supplement]: it is what I add to the photograph and what is none the less already there.” … Neither life nor death, it is the haunting of the one by the other … Ghosts: the concept of the other in the same, the punctum in the studium, the dead other alive in me.”57

 

8

In this scenario, perhaps the act of writing trauma through death in the image becomes the true act of learning, and the interpretation of that act becomes an act of creation rather than one of rote memorialisation. These are images that require contemplation, time, analysis, and sensation, where the subject of the photograph is transformed “from somebody merely seen to someone really felt,” which is, as Batchen says, “an emotional exchange transacted in the heart.”58

This emotional exchange can take many forms. It can be triggered when the dead body is only metaphorically represented in the image, when the physicality of death has been transmuted. For example, photographs such as Walker Evan’s Child’s grave, Hale County, Alabama (1936, below), or the documentary image Place where the corpse was found (1901-8, below) by the French photographer Alphonse Bertillon, propose a re-imaging and re-imagining of the life of the person. They do so through an un/ambiguous photographic context, that is, through the marking of place in the photograph. In the latter case, this marking of a life is represented by two pieces of wood lying on the ground and two pieces of wood propped at 45 degrees against the wall. As though this is all that is left of the existence of Mademoiselle Mercier in a street (Rue de l’Yvette) that still exists in Paris to this day. A photograph of pieces of wood and an empty space.

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Child's grave, Hale County, Alabama' 1936

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Child’s grave, Hale County, Alabama
1936
Silver gelatin print
7 3/8 x 9 7/16″ (18.7 x 23.9 cm)
© 2016 Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Attributed to Alphonse Bertillon (French, 1853-1914) 'Place where the corpse was found' 1st November 1902

 

Attributed to Alphonse Bertillon (French, 1853-1914)
Place where the corpse was found
1st November 1902
From Album of Paris Crime Scenes
Gelatin silver print
Overall: 24.3 x 31 cm (9 9/16 x 12 3/16 in.)
Page: 23 x 29 cm (9 1/16 x 11 7/16 in.)
Gilman Collection, Purchase, The Howard Gilman Foundation Gift, 2001

 

 

Other photographs picture the place of death nearly a century later in order to commemorate the traumatic death of “deserters” at the hands of a firing squad during the First World War. These are some of the most traumatic photographs of death I have seen, for they require me to imagine the mise en scène that was enacted at dawn almost 100 years ago, in the very place where these photographs were later “shot” at dawn.

The artist, Chloe Dewe Mathews, realised that “I was placing my tripod around the same spot where the firing squad had stood and looking directly at the place where the victim was placed.” It was, she says, “a solitary and sombre undertaking,” an undertaking (with that name’s etymological link to the word undertaker) which the viewer is invited to partake of, a re-imaging of those traumatic events that requires an active imagining, and thinking, in the neo-spectator. It is this duration of trauma in cultural memory which calls for an active negotiation in ways of seeing, a re-negotiation which can produce an empathic vision that “changes the terms of our engagement” with the image.

 

Chloe Dewe Mathews. 'Former Abattoir, Mazingarbe, Nord-Pas-de-Calais' 2013

 

Chloe Dewe Mathews (b. 1982)
Former Abattoir, Mazingarbe, Nord-Pas-de-Calais
2013
Eleven British soldiers were executed here between 1915-18
From the series Shot at Dawn
© Chloe Dewe Mathews

 

 

Vita ad mortem: life after death

9

 

.
“… the life of spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself.”

.
George Wilhelm Frederich Hegel61

 

 

The absence/presence contained within all photographs speaks to the ultimate affect: that of la petite mort – the “little death” – the sensation of orgasm as likened to death, a short period of melancholy or transcendence as a result of the expenditure of the “life force.” While Barthes metaphorically used the concept to describe the feeling one should get when experiencing any great literature, it can also be used when some undesired thing has happened to a person and has affected them so much that “a part of them dies inside.”

A photograph can also contain this melancholy transcendence, a catastrophe that has already occurred.

“Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe… This punctum, more or less blurred beneath the abundance and the disparity of contemporary photographs, is vividly legible in historical photographs: there is always a defeat of Time in them: that is dead and that is going to die… At the limit, there is no need to represent a body [in photographs] in order for me to experience this vertigo of time defeated.”63

.
Barthes’ concept of an extended punctum may be useful here, when he states, “I now know that there exists another punctum (another ‘stigmatum’) than the ‘detail’. This new punctum, which is no longer of form but of intensity, is Time, the lacerating emphasis of the noeme (‘that-has-been’), its pure representation.”64

Here Barthes is proposing a punctum of intensity; a punctum as lacerating “detail”; and/or “the vertigo of time defeated.” This “temporal hallucination” embedded and embodied in the photograph – the temporality of the “will-have-been”, they are dead (today), they are already dead (yesterday), Barthes’ anterior future – represents a symbolically mediated subject bound up in three extases of time (past, present, and future).65

The subject becomes lost in the language of the photograph, the intersection of Lacan’s the Imaginary (in which the human subject creates fantasy images of both himself and his ideal object of desire), the Symbolic (the social world of linguistic communication and inter-subjective relations), and the Real (defined as what escapes the Symbolic, the Real can be neither spoken nor written, it is impossible, but is ceaselessly writing itself). These concepts serve to situate subjectivity within a system of perception and a dialogue with the external world.

According to Lori Wike, the experience of punctum and the structure of iterability can be aligned to Lacan’s concept of the death drive (or death instinct) present in the Symbolic order, in which the signifier “materializes the agency of death.”66 This may account for the role of the photographic punctum as trauma, in which the punctum opens up “a kind of subtle beyond” where “a blind field is created (is divined)…”67 As Barthes notes, “Photography is a kind of primitive theater, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead.”68 Further, we can say that, “unlike the symbolic, which is constituted in terms of oppositions such as “presence” and “absence”, there is no absence in the real,” for the real is undifferentiated, “it is without fissure.”

“The symbolic introduces “a cut in the real,” in the process of signification: “it is the world of words that creates the world of things.” Thus the real emerges as that which is outside language: “it is that which resists symbolization absolutely.” The real is impossible because it is impossible to imagine, impossible to integrate into the symbolic order. This character of impossibility and resistance to symbolization lends the real its traumatic quality.”69

.
The “mark” of photography is eviscerated in the intensity of the real, a traumatic loss of time that confronts us with our own mortality and the knowledge that we will not be remembered. This is where images of death can take us once the initial affective connection is established – to a noumenal space where in the play of representation, the point of origin becomes ungraspable (Lacan’s différance).70

“In French, différance simultaneously contains within its neo-graphism the activities of differing and deferring, a distancing acted out temporally as well as spatially.”71 Where the moment (the time freeze of the shutter) turns in, on and around its own fulcrum, where there is always difference at the point of origin. For all of its instantaneous nature, in photography there is always a perverse moment of displacement and deferral. In its history, “a perverse complicity of continuity and resemblance with its supposed opposite, discontinuity and difference”72 … the latter only existing in a reciprocal relationship to the former.

The circle is closing and we return to where we started.

 

10

Human beings in their longing for lost continuity are mirrored by their photographs which transition from continuous to discontinuous and back again. While we yearn for our lost continuity, we must acknowledge that death is an unedited event, one that we cannot look back on. There is no following event to blank out that moment… and the dead are always dying. But what images of death in photography do is this: they allow us to approach the noumenal, that state of being of which we can have knowledge of, but can never know. We can approach, touch, feel, analyse, and have empathy for traumatic events in the representation of an unknowable reality. The photograph has the ability to go beyond the symbolic, to approach the impossible, the real.

The photograph may proffer a ‘releasement toward things’,73 a coexistence between a conscious and unconscious way of perceiving which sustains the mystery of the object confusing the distinction between real time and sensual time, between inside and outside, input and output becoming neither here nor there. As Martin Jolly notes, citing John Thompson, “… images of death can be seen a form of “mediated, non-reciprocal intimacy, stretched across time and space” in which we are increasingly unconstrained by our location or our time.”74 Further, John Thompson observes, “While lived experience remains fundamental, it is increasingly supplemented by, and in some respects displaced by, mediated experience, which assumes a greater and greater role in the project of self-formation.”75

In the sense that the photograph becomes la petite mort, the little death, it embodies our desire for the soul to become eternal in the form of this mediated experience… the displacement of the soul via the ghost in the machine, the soul remembered throughout time in the traumatic trace of the photograph. Death in the language of photography is always postponed and deferred: into the physicality of the photograph; into cultural memory; into the gaze (of the photographer, the camera and the viewer); and into the body of the observer. Here, a relationship exists between an impossible reality (an encounter with an “outside” which is unknowable) and a floating referent in an image that is both formative and transformative. And in that relationship, as Donna Haraway observes, “Relationship is multiform, at stake, unfinished, consequential.”76

The text of eternity that the photograph proposes, imparts and imposes a paradoxical state of loss. The secret of telling truth in a photograph is that the more truthful, “the more orgasmic, the more pleasurable, the more suicidal”77 the pronouncement of the perfect paradox78 (you are dead but also alive) … then the more we are strangled while uttering it. The language of deferral in the writing of trauma in death and the image becomes the dissolve that seizes the subject in the midst of an eternal bliss. In death and the image we may actually die (be)coming.

© Dr Marcus Bunyan 2018

Word count: 8,137

 

 

Addendum

“Empirically acknowledged as tragic, the photographic print was really just that when, at the turn of the century, it became the instrument of the three great authorities over life and death (the law, the army, medicine). This is when it demonstrated its power to reveal the unfolding of a destiny from the word go. As deus ex machina [god from the machine or, providential intervention], it was to become just as ruthless for the criminal, the soldier or the invalid, the conjunction between the immediate and the fatal only becoming more solid, inevitably, with the progress of representation.”

Virilio, Paul. The Vision Machine (trans. Julie Rose). Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, p. 43.

 

“Written with her trademark flair and force, Sontag’s book [On Photography] inaugurated a wave of criticism, much of it influenced by Foucaultian theory, that underscored the instrumentality and implicit violence of photography, its ability to police and regulate it subjects, especially those lacking social and political power: the poor, presumed “deviants” or “criminals,” and workers. As Sontag herself acknowledged, however, photography is not only a predatory means of taking possession, but also a mode of conferring value; it can potentially be put to counter-hegemonic uses, used to see and frame in ways that affirm and legitimate, rather than strictly contain and control, the presence of culturally disenfranchised persons.”

Entin, Joseph. “Milton Rogovin’s Approach: Photography, Class, and the Aesthetics of Making Space (2008),” on the ASX website July 12, 2010 [Online] Cited 27/10/2018

 

Adrien Constant de Rebecque (Swiss, Lausanne 1806-1876 Lausanne) '[Man in Chainmail Tunic Posing as a Dying Soldier]' c. 1863

 

Adrien Constant de Rebecque (Swiss, Lausanne 1806-1876 Lausanne)
[Man in Chainmail Tunic Posing as a Dying Soldier]
c. 1863
Albumen print from collodion glass negative
17.9 x 24.2 cm (7 1/16 x 9 1/2 in.)
Gilman Collection, Purchase, The Howard Gilman Foundation Gift, 2012
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Manuel Álvarez Bravo. 'Ouvrier en grève, assassiné (Striking worker, assassinated)' 1934

 

Manuel Álvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1902-2002)
Ouvrier en grève, assassiné (Striking worker, assassinated)
1934
Silver gelatin print

 

Manuel Alvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1902-2002) 'La Buena Fama Durmiendo (The Good Reputation Sleeping)' 1939, printed c. 1970s

 

Manuel Alvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1902-2002)
La Buena Fama Durmiendo (The Good Reputation Sleeping)
1939, printed c. 1970s
Silver gelatin print

 

 

One of my early heroes in photography was Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Many Mexican photographs tell such stories based on the mythology of the country: there are elements of the absurd, surrealism, macabre, revolution, political and socio-economic issues, also of death, violence, beauty, youth, sexuality and religion to name but a few – a search for national identity that is balanced in the photographs of Bravo by a sense of inner peace and redemption. This potent mix of issues and emotions is what makes Mexican photography so powerful and substantive. In the “presence” (or present, the awareness of the here and now) of Mexican photography there is a definite calligraphy of the body in space in most of the work. This handwriting is idiosyncratic and emotive; it draws the viewer into an intimate narrative embrace. Two famous photographs by Bravo illustrate some of these themes (Apollonian/Dionysian; utopian/dystopian). When placed together they seem to have a strange attraction one to the other.

 

Anne Frank, photograph inscribed with her wish to go to Hollywood, October 10, 1942

 

Anne Frank, photograph inscribed with her wish to go to Hollywood, October 10, 1942

 

 

References

Atkinson, Meera and Michael Richardson 2013 ‘Introduction: At the Nexus’, in M Atkinson and M Richardson (eds) Traumatic Affect Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 1-21

Atkinson, Meera and Michael Richardson (eds) 2013 Traumatic Affect Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Barthes, Roland 1981 Camera Lucida – Reflections on Photography New York: Hill and Wang

Bataille, Georges 1962 Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo New York: Walker and Company

Batchen, Geoffrey 2004 Forget Me Not: Photography & Remembrance New York: Princeton Architectural Press

Batchen, Geoffrey 1997 Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography paperback 1999 Massachusetts: MIT Press

Bennett, Jill 2005 Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art Palo Alto: Stanford University Press

Berger, John 1985 The Sense of Sight New York: Vintage International

Brett, Donna West 2016 ‘Damaged: Ruin and Decay in Walker Evans’ Photographs’ Walker Evans Symposium Melbourne: Centre for Contemporary Photography

Bronowski, Jacob 1958 Science and Human Values New York: Harper and Row

Brown, Andrew (ed. and trans,) 1987 Sophocles: Antigone Wiltshire: Aris and Phillips Ltd.

Cadava, Eduardo 1992 ‘Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History’ Diacritics 22 no. 3-4 (Fall-Winter), 84-114

Chaouat, Bruno 2005 ‘Image malgré tout’ (review) L’Esprit Créateur vol. 45 no. 1, 110-111

Deleuze, Gilles 1964 Proust and Signs New York: George Braziller, 1972 in English

Edwards, Janis L. 2012 ‘Visual Literacy and Visual Politics: Photojournalism and the 2004 Presidential Debates’ Communication Quarterly vol. 60 issue 5, 681-197

Foucault, Michel 1988 ‘Technologies of the self’ in L H Martin and H Gutman and P H Hutton (eds) Technologies of the self: A seminar with Michel Foucault Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 16-49

Gibbs, Anna 2013 ‘Apparently Unrelated: Affective Resonance, Concatenation and Traumatic Circuitry in the Terrain of the Everyday’ in M Atkinson and M Richardson (eds) Traumatic Affect Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 129-147

Gibbs, Anna 2007 ‘Horrified: Embodied Vision, Media Affect and the Images from Abu Ghraib’ in D Staines (ed) Interrogating the War on Terror Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 125-142

Hanusch, Folker 2010 Representing death in the news: Journalism, Media and Mortality London: Palgrave Macmillan

Haraway, Donna and Cary Wolfe 2016 Manifestly Haraway Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Hegel, George Wilhelm Frederich 1807 Phenomenology of Spirit Preface (trans. A. V. Miller 1977) Oxford: Oxford University Press

Heidegger, Martin 1966 Discourse on Thinking New York: Harper & Row

Houlihan, Kasia 2004 ‘Annotation on Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida – Reflections on Photography’ New York: Hill and Wang 1981 in Theories of Media, Winter

Jolly, Martyn 2015 ‘An Australian Spiritualist’s Personal Cartes-de-Visite Album’, in A Maxwell and J Croci (eds) Shifting Focus: Colonial Australian Photography 1850-1920 North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 71-87

Kopelson, Kevin 1990 ‘Wilde, Barthes, and the Orgasmics of Truth’ in GENDERS no. 7 Spring, 22-31

Lacan, Jacques and Jeffrey Mehlman 1972 ‘The Seminar on the ‘Purloined Letter” in Yale French Studies no. 48 French Freud: Structural Studies in Psychoanalysis Yale University Press, 39-72

Martin, Luther H and H Gutman and P H Hutton (eds) 1988 Technologies of the self: A seminar with Michel Foucault Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press

Maxwell, Anne and Josephine Croci (eds) 2015 Shifting Focus: Colonial Australian Photography 1850-1920 North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing

O’Hagan, Sean 2014 ‘Chloe Dewe Mathews’s Shot at Dawn: a moving photographic memorial’ The Guardian website

Papastergiadis, Nikos and Mary Zournazi 2002 ‘Faith without certitudes’ in M Zournazi Hope: New Philosophies for Change Annandale NSW: Pluto Press Australia, 78-97

Randell, Karen and Sean Redmond (eds) 2008 The war body on screen, New York: Continuum

Rastas, David and Maria Schlachter 2016 Art as a Sanctuary for the Mad: Six characteristics of mystical experience and their visual accompaniment in contemporary art

Rogobete, Ileana Carmen 2011 Reconstructing Trauma and Recovery: Life Narratives of Survivors of Political Violence during Apartheid PhD thesis Cape Town: University of Cape Town

Rutherford, Anne 2013 ‘Film, Trauma and the Enunciative Present’ in M Atkinson and M Richardson (eds) Traumatic Affect Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 80-103

Sontag, Susan 1977 On Photography New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Staines, Deborah (ed) 2007 Interrogating the War on Terror Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Strawberry 2013 ‘Roland Barthes: studium and punctum’ Museum of Education website

Thompson, John 1995 The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of Media Cambridge: Polity Press

Virilio, Paul 1994 The Vision Machine (trans. Julie Rose). Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Walsh, Stephen 2000 Stalingrad: The Infernal Cauldron, 1942-43 London: Simon and Schuster

Wike, Lori 2000 ‘Photographs and Signatures: Absence, Presence, and Temporality in Barthes and Derrida’ In[]Visible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Studies issue 3, 1-28

Zelizer, Barbie 2002 The Voice of the Visual in Memory Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania

Zembylas, Michalinos 2008 The Politics of Trauma in Education New York: Palgrave Macmillan

 

 

Endnotes

[1] Berger, John 1985 The Sense of Sight New York: Vintage International, 122

[2] Bataille, Georges 1962 Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo New York: Walker and Company, 15

[3] Anonymous 2016 Definition of Trauma by Mirriam-Webster, at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/trauma (accessed 8 November 2016)

[4] Atkinson, Meera and Michael Richardson 2013 ‘Introduction: At the Nexus’ in M Atkinson and M Richardson (eds) Traumatic Affect Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 5

[5] Rutherford, Anne 2013 ‘Film, Trauma and the Enunciative Present’ in M Atkinson and M Richardson (eds) Traumatic Affect Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 82

[6] Michalinos Zembylas 2008 The Politics of Trauma in Education, New York: Palgrave Macmillan 4

[7] Ibid., 4

[8] Rutherford Op. cit., 87

[9] Rutherford Op. cit., Footnote 49, 93

[10] Rutherford Op. cit., 94

[11] Bennett, Jill 2005 Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 9

[12] Rogobete, Ileana Carmen 2011 Reconstructing Trauma and Recovery: Life Narratives of Survivors of Political Violence during Apartheid PhD thesis Cape Town: University of Cape Town, at https://open.uct.ac.za/handle/11427/10884 (accessed 8 November 2016)

[13] Rutherford Op. cit., 85

[14] Gibbs, Anna 2013 ‘Apparently Unrelated: Affective Resonance, Concatenation and Traumatic Circuitry in the Terrain of the Everyday’ in M Atkinson and M Richardson (eds) Traumatic Affect Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 130

[15] “Perhaps rather than numbness, what we actually feel is our own helplessness or impotence, and the shame of helplessness, which robs us of agency. Helplessness is what Tomkins calls an affect complex, and within it distress is the dominant affect, although there may be admixtures in it of fear, anger and shame… Helplessness immobilises, and this is what induces the shame which, as a reduction of interest, makes us lower our gaze and look away.”

Gibbs, Anna 2007 ‘Horrified: Embodied Vision, Media Affect and the Images from Abu Ghraib’ in D Staines (ed) Interrogating the War on Terror Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 139-140

[16] “To suffer is one thing; another thing is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them. Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more – and more. Images transfix. Images anaesthetize…”

Sontag, Susan 1977 On Photography New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 20

“Are we making too much of images? Are we lured by our own voyeurism and iconophilia, numbed as we are by the democracy of the spectacle? Or, on the contrary, do images open the eyes of our conscience? In other words do images merely entertain and anaesthetize us or do they shame us and awake our conscience?”

Chaouat, Bruno 2005 ‘Image malgré tout’ (review) in L’Esprit Créateur vol. 45 no. 1, at https://muse.jhu.edu/article/265181/pdf (accessed 8 November 2016)

[17] Rutherford Op. cit., 89

[18] Anonymous 2016 ‘Lynching in the United States’, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynching_in_the_United_States (accessed 11 November 2016)

[19] Anonymous 2016 ‘Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday’, at http://genius.com/Billie-holiday-strange-fruit-lyrics (accessed 11 November 2016)

[20] ‘Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit’, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnlTHvJBeP0 (accessed 11 November 2016)

[21] Rutherford Op. cit., Footnote 55, 95

[22] Bennett, Jill 2005 Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 4 quoted in Rutherford, 95

[23] Ibid., 11

[24] Deleuze, Gilles 1964 Proust and Signs New York: George Braziller (1972 in English) 7, in Bennett 161

[25] Bennett Op. cit., 10

[26] Papastergiadis, Nikos and Mary Zournazi 2002 ‘Faith without certitudes’ in M Zournazi Hope: New Philosophies for Change 94-95, in Bennett, 10

[27] Hanusch, Folker 2010 Representing death in the news: Journalism, Media and Mortality London: Palgrave Macmillan, 55

[28] Ibid., 56

[29] Ibid., 56

[30] Randell, Karen and Redmond, Sean (eds) 2008 The war body on screen New York: Continuum, cited in Hanusch, 30

[31] Foucault, Michel 1988 ‘Technologies of the self’, in L H Martin and H Gutman and P H Hutton (eds) Technologies of the self: A seminar with Michel Foucault Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 18

[32] Barthes, Roland 1980 La Chambre Claire (Camera Lucida) (1981 in English) New York: Hill and Wang Section 39, 94

[33] Houlihan, Kasia 2004 ‘Annotation on Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida – Reflections on Photography’ New York: Hill and Wang 1981 in Theories of Media, Winter at http://csmt.uchicago.edu/annotations/barthescamera.htm (accessed 12 November 2016)

[34] Strawberry 2013 ‘Roland Barthes: studium and punctum’ Museum of Education website 12 March, at https://educationmuseum.wordpress.com/2013/03/12/roland-barthes-studium-and-punctum/ (accessed 11 November 2016)

[35] “For memory is always in a state of ruin; to remember something is already to have ruined it, to have displaced it from its moment of origin. Memory is caught in a conundrum – the passing of time that makes memory possible and necessary is also what makes memory fade and die.”

Batchen, Geoffrey 2004 Forget Me Not: Photography & Remembrance New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 78

[36] Cadava, Eduardo 1992 ‘Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History’ Diacritics 22 no. 3-4 (Fall-Winter), 110 in Batchen 172

[37] Bennett Op. cit., 7

[38] Ibid., 7

[39] Zelizer, Barbie 2002 The Voice of the Visual in Memory, at http://www.sas.upenn.edu/folklore/center/ConferenceArchive/voiceover/voice_of_the_visual.html (accessed 13 November 2016)

[40] Ibid.,

[41] Brown, Andrew (ed. and trans,) 1987 Sophocles: Antigone, lines 850-52 Wiltshire: Aris and Phillips Ltd., 91

[42] Edwards, Janis L 2012 ‘Visual Literacy and Visual Politics: Photojournalism and the 2004 Presidential Debates’ Taylor Francis Online at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01463373.2012.725000 (accessed 13 November 2016)

[43] Zelizer Op. cit.,

[44] Sontag Op. cit., 18 cited in F Hanusch 2010 Representing death in the news: Journalism, Media and Mortality London: Palgrave Macmillan, 105

[45] See ‘Robert Capa: The Falling Soldier’, The Met website, at http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/283315 (accessed 13 November 2016)

[46] Walsh, Stephen 2000 Stalingrad: The Infernal Cauldron, 1942-43 London: Simon and Schuster, 23

[47] Anonymous photographer 2013 ‘Russian spy laughing through his execution in Finland, 1942’, Rare Historical Photos website 29 December, at http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/russian-spy-laughing-execution-finland-1942/ (accessed 13 November 2016)

[48] Brett, Donna West 2016 ‘Damaged: Ruin and Decay in Walker Evans’ Photographs’ Walker Evans Symposium Melbourne: Centre for Contemporary Photography October 7, 5 at https://www.academia.edu/29201498/Damaged_Ruin_and_Decay_in_Walker_Evans_Photographs (accessed 13 November 2016)

[49] Soja, Edward W. 1996 Thirdspace Malden (Mass.): Blackwell, 57

[50] Ibid., 57

[51] Batchen Op. cit., 47

[52] Ibid., 48

[53] Rastas, David 2016 Art as a Sanctuary for the Mad: Six characteristics of mystical experience and their visual accompaniment in contemporary art, at http://www.davidrastas.com/kunstglaube/madness&mysticism/essays.html (accessed 19 November 2016)

[54] Bronowski, Jacob 1958, Science and Human Values New York: Harper and Row, 31

[55] Anonymous 2015. ‘Hidden Likeness: Photographer Emmet Gowin at the Morgan’, The Morgan Library & Museum website May 22 through September 20, 2015 https://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/emmet-gowin (accessed 08 May 2018)

[56] See Turner, Victor 1966 The Ritual Process: Structure and Antistructure Chicago: Aldine. For a definition of liminality see Anonymous ‘Liminality’, Wikipedia website https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liminality (accessed 08 May 2018)

[57] Batchen, Geoffrey 1997 Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (paperback 1999) Massachusetts: MIT Press, 194

[58] Batchen Forget Me Not, 94

[59] O’Hagan, Sean 2014 ‘Chloe Dewe Mathews’s Shot at Dawn: a moving photographic memorial’ The Guardian website 29 June, at https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jun/29/chloe-dewe-mathews-shot-at-dawn-moving-photographic-memorial-first-world-war (accessed 25 November 2016)

[60] Bennett 2005 Empathic Vision 69

[61] Hegel, George Wilhelm Frederich 1807 Phenomenology of Spirit Preface (trans. A. V. Miller 1977) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 10

[62] Anonymous 2016 ‘La petite mort’ Wikipedia website at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_petite_mort (accessed 25 November 2016)

[63] Barthes Op. cit., 96

[64] Barthes Op. cit., 96

[65] See Wike, Lori 2000 ‘Photographs and Signatures: Absence, Presence, and Temporality in Barthes and Derrida’ in In[]Visible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Studies issue 3, at http://www.rochester.edu/in_visible_culture/issue3/wike.htm#BackFromNote10 (accessed 25 November 2016)

[66] Lacan, Jacques and Jeffrey Mehlman 1972 ‘The Seminar on the ‘Purloined Letter’’ in Yale French Studies, no. 48, 53 quoted in Wike 2000

[67] Barthes Camera Lucida, 57-58 quoted in Wike 2000

[68] Barthes Camera Lucida, 31-32 quoted in Wike 2000

[69] Anonymous 2016, ‘The Real’, Wikipedia website at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Real (accessed 25 November 2016)

[70] “Derrida sees differences as elemental oppositions working in all languages, systems of distinct signs, and codes, where terms don’t have absolute meanings but instead draw meaning from reciprocal determination with other terms… Différance is the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences, of the spacing by means of which elements are related to each other… the a of différance also recalls that spacing is temporization, the detour and postponement by means of which intuition, perception, consummation – in a word, the relationship to the present, the reference to a present reality, to a being – are always deferred.”

Anonymous 2016 ‘Différance’ at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Différance (accessed 25 November 2016

[71] Batchen Burning with Desire 179. Information on photography and differance 178-179.

[72] Batchen Burning with Desire 186

[73] “We stand at once within the realm of that which hides itself from us, and hides itself just in approaching us. That which shows itself and at the same time withdraws is the essential trait of what we call the mystery… Releasement towards things and openness to the mystery belong together. They grant us the possibility of dwelling in the world in a totally different way…”

Heidegger, Martin 1966 Discourse on Thinking New York: Harper & Row, 55-56

[74] Thompson, John 1995 The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of Media Cambridge: Polity Press, 208 quoted in M Jolly 2015 ‘An Australian Spiritualist’s Personal Cartes-de-Visite Album’ in A Maxwell and J Croci (eds) Shifting Focus: Colonial Australian Photography 1850-1920 North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 84

[75] Thompson 233 quoted in Jolly 2015

[76] Haraway, Donna and Cary Wolfe 2016 Manifestly Haraway Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 122, at https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed 26 November 2016)

[77] Kopelson, Kevin 1990 ‘Wilde, Barthes, and the Orgasmics of Truth’ GENDERS no 7 Spring, 26

[78] You are dead but also alive, the dissolution of the distinction between objective and subjective realities, “the image is an interface connecting inner and outer, past and future, affect and cognition.”

Gibbs, Anna 2007 ‘Horrified: Embodied Vision, Media Affect And The Images From Abu Ghraib’ in D Staines (ed) Interrogating the War on Terror Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 130

 

 

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20
Aug
18

Exhibition: ‘Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing’ at the Barbican Art Gallery, London

Exhibition dates: 22nd June – 2nd September 2018

 

Dorothea Lange. 'Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona' 1940

 

Dorothea Lange
Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona
1940
Silver gelatin print
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

 

 

Damaged, desperate and displaced

I am writing this short text on a laptop in Thailand which keeps jumping lines and mispelling words. The experience is almost as disorienting as the photographs of Dorothea Lange, with their anguished angles and portraits of despair. Her humanist, modernist pictures capture the harsh era of The Great Depression and the 1930s in America, allowing a contemporary audience to imagine what it must have been like to walk along blistering roads with five children, not knowing where your next meal or drink of water is coming from.

Like Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis from an earlier era, Lange’s photographs are about the politics of seeing. They are about human beings in distress and how photography can raise awareness of social injustice and disenfranchisement in the name of cultural change.

#dorothealange @barbicancentre

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Many thankx to the Barbican Art Gallery for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Dorothea Lange. 'Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California' 1936

 

Dorothea Lange
Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California
1936
Silver gelatin print
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

 

 

Dorothea Lange took this photograph in 1936, while employed by the U.S. government’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) program, formed during the Great Depression to raise awareness of and provide aid to impoverished farmers. In Nipomo, California, Lange came across Florence Owens Thompson and her children in a camp filled with field workers whose livelihoods were devastated by the failure of the pea crops. Recalling her encounter with Thompson years later, she said, “I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction.”1 One photograph from that shoot, now known as Migrant Mother, was widely circulated to magazines and newspapers and became a symbol of the plight of migrant farm workers during the Great Depression.

As Lange described Thompson’s situation, “She and her children had been living on frozen vegetables from the field and wild birds the children caught. The pea crop had frozen; there was no work. Yet they could not move on, for she had just sold the tires from the car to buy food.”2 However, Thompson later contested Lange’s account. When a reporter interviewed her in the 1970s, she insisted that she and Lange did not speak to each other, nor did she sell the tires of her car. Thompson said that Lange had either confused her for another farmer or embellished what she had understood of her situation in order to make a better story.

Text from the MoMA Learning website

 

  1. Dorothea Lange, “The Assignment I’ll Never Forget,” Popular Photography 46 (February, 1960). Reprinted in Photography, Essays and Images, ed. Beaumont Newhall (New York: The Museum of Modern Art), 262-65
  2. Dorothea Lange, paraphrased in Karin Becker Ohm, Dorothea Lange and the Documentary Tradition (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1980), 79

 

Installation view of the exhibition ‘Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing’ at the Barbican Art Gallery, London

Installation view of the exhibition ‘Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing’ at the Barbican Art Gallery, London

 

Installation views of the exhibition Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing at the Barbican Art Gallery, London showing Dorothea Lange’s photograph Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California 1936
Photos: Ian Gavan/Getty Images for Barbican Art Gallery

 

 

“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean- to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.” (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).

The images were made using a Graflex camera. The original negatives are 4×5″ film. It is not possible to determine on the basis of the negative numbers (which were assigned later at the Resettlement Administration) the order in which the photographs were taken.

Text from The Library of Congress website

 

Florence Owens Thompson: The Story of the “Migrant Mother” 2014

Thompson’s identity was discovered in the late 1970s; in 1978, acting on a tip, Modesto Bee reporter Emmett Corrigan located Thompson at her mobile home in Space 24 of the Modesto Mobile Village and recognized her from the 40-year-old photograph.[10] A letter Thompson wrote was published in The Modesto Bee and the Associated Press distributed a story headlined “Woman Fighting Mad Over Famous Depression Photo.” Florence was quoted as saying “I wish she [Lange] hadn’t taken my picture. I can’t get a penny out of it, she didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures, she said she’d send me a copy. She never did.”[2]

Lange was funded by the federal government when she took the picture, so the image was in the public domain and Lange never directly received any royalties. However, the picture did help make Lange a celebrity and earned her “respect from her colleagues.”[11]

In a 2008 interview with CNN, Thompson’s daughter Katherine McIntosh recalled how her mother was a “very strong lady”, and “the backbone of our family”, she said: “We never had a lot, but she always made sure we had something. She didn’t eat sometimes, but she made sure us children ate. That’s one thing she did do.”

Florence Owens Thompson on the WikiVisually website

 

Dorothea Lange. 'White Angel Breadline, San Francisco' 1933

 

Dorothea Lange
White Angel Breadline, San Francisco
1933
Silver gelatin print
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

 

 

“There are moments such as these when time stands still and all you do is hold your breath and hope it will wait for you. And you just hope you will have enough time to get it organised in a fraction of a second on that tiny piece of sensitive film. Sometimes you have an inner sense that you have encompassed the thing generally. You know then that you are not taking anything away from anyone: their privacy, their dignity, their wholeness.” ~ Dorothea Lange 1963

Davis K F 1995, The photographs of Dorothea Lange, Hallmark Cards Inc, Missouri p. 20.

 

White angel breadline, San Francisco is Lange’s first major image that encapsulates both her sense of compassion and ability to structure a photograph according to modernist principles. The diagonals of the fence posts and the massing of hats do not reduce this work to the purely formal – the figure in the front middle of the image acts as a lightening rod for our emotional engagement.

© Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007

 

There was a real “White Angel” behind the breadline that served the needy men photographed by Dorothea Lange. She was a widow named Lois Jordan. Mrs. Jordan, who gave herself the name White Angel, established a soup kitchen during the Great Depression to feed those who were unemployed and destitute. Relying solely on donations, she managed to supply meals to more than one million men over a three-year period.

Jordan’s soup kitchen occupied a junk-filled lot in San Francisco located on the Embarcadero near Filbert Street. This area was known as the White Angel Jungle. The Jungle was not far from Lange’s studio. As she began to change direction from portrait to documentary photography, Lange focused her lens on the poignant scenes just beyond her window. White Angel Breadline is the result of her first day’s work to document Depression-era San Francisco. Decades later, Lange recalled: “[White Angel Breadline] is my most famed photograph. I made that on the first day I ever went out in an area where people said, ‘Oh, don’t go there.’ It was the first day that I ever made a photograph on the street.”

Text from the Arts Edge website

 

Dorothea Lange. 'Drought Refugees' c. 1935

 

Dorothea Lange
Drought Refugees
c. 1935
Silver gelatin print
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

 

Dorothea Lange. 'Family walking on highway - five children. Started from Idabel, Oklahoma, bound for Krebs, Oklahoma' June 1938

 

Dorothea Lange
Family walking on highway – five children. Started from Idabel, Oklahoma, bound for Krebs, Oklahoma
June 1938
Silver gelatin print
Library of Congress

 

Dorothea Lange. 'Cars on the Road' August 1936

 

Dorothea Lange
Cars on the Road
August 1936
Silver gelatin print
Library of Congress

 

Dorothea Lange. 'Dust Bowl, Grain Elevator, Everett, Texas' June 1938

 

Dorothea Lange
Dust Bowl, Grain Elevator, Everett, Texas
June 1938
Silver gelatin print
Library of Congress

 

 

This summer, Barbican Art Gallery stages the first ever UK retrospective of one of the most influential female photographers of the 20th century, the American documentary photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965). A formidable woman of unparalleled vigour and resilience, the exhibition charts Lange’s outstanding photographic vision from her early studio portraits of San Francisco’s bourgeoisie to her celebrated Farm Security Administration work (1935-1939) that captured the devastating impact of the Great Depression on the American population. Rarely seen photographs of the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War are also presented as well as the later collaborations with fellow photographers Ansel Adams and Pirkle Jones documenting the changing face of the social and physical landscape of 1950s America. Opening 22 June at Barbican Art Gallery, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing is part of the Barbican’s 2018 season, The Art of Change, which explores how the arts respond to, reflect and potentially effect change in the social and political landscape.

Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing encompasses over 300 objects from vintage prints and original book publications to ephemera, field notes, letters, and documentary film. Largely chronological, the exhibition presents eight series in Lange’s oeuvre spanning from 1919 to 1957.

Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican, said: “This is an incredible opportunity for our visitors to see the first UK survey of the work of such a significant photographer. Dorothea Lange is undoubtedly one of the great photographers of the twentieth century and the issues raised through her work have powerful resonance with issues we’re facing in society today. Staged alongside contemporary photographer Vanessa Winship as part of The Art of Change, these two shows are unmissable.”

Opening the exhibition are Lange’s little known early portrait photographs taken during her time running a successful portrait studio in San Francisco between 1919 and 1935. Lange was at the heart of San Francisco’s creative community and her studio became a centre in which bohemian and artistic friends gathered after hours, including Edward Weston, Anne Brigman, Alma Lavenson, Imogen Cunningham, and Willard van Dyke. Works from this period include intimate portraits of wealthy West Coast families as well as of Lange’s inner circle, counting amongst others photographer Roi Partridge and painter Maynard Dixon, Lange’s first husband and father of her two sons.

The Great Depression in the early 1930s heralded a shift in her photographic language as she felt increasingly compelled to document the changes visible on the streets of San Francisco. Taking her camera out of the studio, she captured street demonstrations, unemployed workers, and breadline queues. These early explorations of her social documentary work are also on display.

The exhibition charts Lange’s work with the newly established historical division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), the government agency tasked with the promotion of Roosevelt’s New Deal programme. Alongside Lange, the FSA employed a number of photographers, including Walker Evans, Ben Shahn and Arthur Rothstein, to document living conditions across America during the Great Depression: from urban poverty in San Francisco to tenant farmers driven off the land by dust storms and mechanisation in the states of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas; the plight of homeless families on the road in search of better livelihoods in the West; and the tragic conditions of migrant workers and camps across California. Lange used her camera as a political tool to critique themes of injustice, inequality, migration and displacement, and to effect government relief.

Highlights in this section are, among others, a series on sharecroppers in the Deep South that exposes relations of race and power, and the iconic Migrant Mother, a photograph which has become a symbol of the Great Depression, alongside images of vernacular architecture and landscapes, motifs often overlooked within Lange’s oeuvre. Vintage prints in the exhibition are complemented by the display of original publications from the 1930s to foreground the widespread use of Lange’s FSA photographs and her influence on authors including John Steinbeck, whose ground-breaking novel The Grapes of Wrath was informed by Lange’s photographs. Travelling for many months at a time and working in the field, she collaborated extensively with her second husband Paul Schuster Taylor, a prominent social economist and expert in farm labour with whom she published the seminal photo book An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion in 1939, also on display in the exhibition.

The exhibition continues with rarely seen photographs of the internment of more than 100,000 American citizens of Japanese descent that Lange produced on commission for the War Relocation Authority following the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Lange’s critical perspective of this little discussed chapter in US history however meant that her photographs remained unpublished during the war and stored at the National Archives in Washington. It is the first time that this series will be shown comprehensively outside of the US and Canada.

Following her documentation of the Japanese American internment, Lange produced a photographic series of the wartime shipyards of Richmond, California with friend and fellow photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984). Lange and Adams documented the war effort in the shipyards for Fortune magazine in 1944, recording the explosive increase in population numbers and the endlessly changing shifts of shipyard workers. Capturing the mass recruitment of workers, Lange turned her camera on both female and black workers, for the first time part of the workforce, and their defiance of sexist and racist attitudes.

The exhibition features several of Lange’s post-war series, when she photographed extensively in California. Her series Public Defender (1955-1957) explores the US legal defence system for the poor and disadvantaged through the work of a public defender at the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland. Death of a Valley (1956-57), made in collaboration with photographer Pirkle Jones, documents the disappearance of the small rural town of Monticello in California’s Berryessa Valley as a consequence of the damming of the Putah Creek. Capturing the destruction of a landscape and traditional way of life, the photographs testify to Lange’s environmentalist politics and have not been displayed or published since the 1960s.

The exhibition concludes with Lange’s series of Ireland (1954), the first made outside the US. Spending six weeks in County Clare in western Ireland, Lange captured the experience of life in and around the farming town of Ennis in stark and evocative photographs that symbolise Lange’s attraction to the traditional life of rural communities.

An activist, feminist and environmentalist, Lange used her camera as a political tool to critique themes of injustice, inequality, migration and displacement that bear great resonance with today’s world, a prime example of which is her most iconic image the Migrant Mother (1936). Working in urban and rural contexts across America and beyond, she focused her lens on human suffering and hardship to create compassionate and piercing portraits of people as well as place in the hope to forge social and political reform – from the plight of sharecroppers in the Deep South to Dust Bowl refugees trekking along the highways of California in search of better livelihoods.

Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing is organised by the Oakland Museum of California. The European presentation has been produced in collaboration with Barbican Art Gallery, London and Jeu de Paume, Paris.

Press release from the Barbican Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition ‘Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing’ at the Barbican Art Gallery, London

Installation view of the exhibition ‘Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing’ at the Barbican Art Gallery, London

Left: Dorothea Lange. Displaced Tennant Farmers, Goodlet, Hardeman Co., Texas 1937. ‘All displaced tenant farmers, the oldest 33. None able to vote because of Texas poll tax. They support an average of four persons each on $22.80 a month’. Second left: Dorothea Lange. Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle June 1938

 

Dorothea Lange. 'Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle' June 1938

 

Dorothea Lange
Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle
June 1938
Silver gelatin print
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California
Gift of Paul S. Taylor

 

Installation view of the exhibition ‘Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing’ at the Barbican Art Gallery, London

Second left top: Dorothea Lange. Mexican field labourer at station in Sacramento after 5 day trip from Mexico City. Imported by arrangements between Mexican and US governments to work in sugar beets. 6 October 1942. Second left bottom: Dorothea Lange. Filipino Field Worker, Spring Plowing, Cauliflower Fields, Guadalupe, California. March 1937. Right: Dorothea Lange. Damaged Child, Shacktown, Elm Grove, Oklahoma. 1936

Installation views of the exhibition Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing at the Barbican Art Gallery, London
Photos: Ian Gavan/Getty Images for Barbican Art Gallery

 

Dorothea Lange. 'Filipino Field Worker, Spring Plowing, Cauliflower Fields, Guadalupe, California' March 1937

 

Dorothea Lange
Filipino Field Worker, Spring Plowing, Cauliflower Fields, Guadalupe, California
March 1937
Silver gelatin print
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California
Gift of Paul S. Taylor

 

Dorothea Lange. 'Damaged Child, Shacktown, Elm Grove, Oklahoma' 1936

 

Dorothea Lange
Damaged Child, Shacktown, Elm Grove, Oklahoma
1936
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland
Gift of Paul S. Taylor

 

Dorothea Lange. 'San Francisco, California. Flag of allegiance pledge at Raphael Weill Public School, Geary and Buchanan Streets' 1942

 

Dorothea Lange
San Francisco, California. Flag of allegiance pledge at Raphael Weill Public School, Geary and Buchanan Streets. Children in families of Japanese ancestry were evacuated with their parents and will be housed for the duration in War Relocation Authority centers where facilities will be provided for them to continue their education
1942
Silver gelatin print
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 210-G-C122

 

Dorothea Lange. 'Centerville, California. This evacuee stands by her baggage as she waits for evacuation bus' 1942

 

Dorothea Lange
Centerville, California. This evacuee stands by her baggage as she waits for evacuation bus. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry will be housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration
1942
Silver gelatin print
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 210-G-C241

 

Dorothea Lange. 'Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California. An evacuee is shown in the lath house sorting seedlings for transplanting' 1942

 

Dorothea Lange
Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California. An evacuee is shown in the lath house sorting seedlings for transplanting. These plants are year-old seedlings from the Salinas Experiment Station
1942
Silver gelatin print
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 210-GC737

 

Dorothea Lange. 'Manzanar Relocation Center' 1942

 

Dorothea Lange
Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California
July 3, 1942
Silver gelatin print
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

 

Paul S. Taylor. 'Dorothea Lange in Texas on the Plains' c. 1935

 

Paul S. Taylor
Dorothea Lange in Texas on the Plains
c. 1935
Silver gelatin print
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

 

Dorothea Lange. 'Sacramento, California. College students of Japanese ancestry' 1942

 

Dorothea Lange
Sacramento, California. College students of Japanese ancestry who have been evacuated from Sacramento to the Assembly Center
1942
Silver gelatin print
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 210-GC471

 

Installation view of the exhibition ‘Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing’ at the Barbican Art Gallery, London

Installation view of the exhibition ‘Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing’ at the Barbican Art Gallery, London

 

Installation views of the exhibition Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing at the Barbican Art Gallery, London
Photos: Ian Gavan/Getty Images for Barbican Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition ‘Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing’ at the Barbican Art Gallery, London

Installation view of the exhibition ‘Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing’ at the Barbican Art Gallery, London

Installation view of the exhibition ‘Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing’ at the Barbican Art Gallery, London

 

Installation views of the exhibition Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing at the Barbican Art Gallery, London
Photos: Ian Gavan/Getty Images for Barbican Art Gallery

 

 

Barbican Art Gallery
Barbican Centre
Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS

Opening hours:
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Sun: 11am – 11pm
Bank Holidays: 12 noon – 11pm

Barbican Art Gallery website

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09
May
18

Exhibition: ‘Balthasar Burkhard’ at Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur, Zurich

Exhibition dates: 10th February – 21st May 2018

 

Balthasar Burkhard

Balthasar Burkhard

 

 

As is so often the case with an artist, it is the early work that shines brightest in this posting.

The works from On the Alp possess an essential power; the daring capture of actions and performances by the international avant-garde of the day make you wish you had been there; and the installation photograph of ‘The Knie’, Kunsthalle Basel in 1983 (below) makes me want to see more of his 1980s installations, with their shift in scale and repetitive nature. There are no more examples online, but a couple of photographs can be seen in the first installation photograph below.

I can leave the underwhelming aerial, cloud and landscape work well alone. There are many people in the history of photography who have taken better photographs of such subject matter. His life-sized photographs of animals again do nothing for me. They possess a reductive minimalism riffing on the canvas backgrounds of Avedon blown up to enormous size (as in most contemporary photography, as if by making something large the photograph gains aura and importance) but they lead nowhere. Perhaps in their actual presence (the physicality of the print) I might be transported to another place, but in reproduction they are a one-dimensional non sequitur.

From the energy of the earlier work emerges “a beauty contest between animals in a photo-shoot”, scrupulous studio photos that demand to be taken seriously, but mean very little. Here, passion has lost out to rigorous and deathly control.

Marcus

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Many thankx to Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

Together, Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz will showcase the oeuvre of Swiss artist Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) in a major retrospective. Burkhard’s work spans half a century: from his early days as a trainee photographer with Kurt Blum to his seminal role in chronicling the art of his time, eventually becoming a photographic artist in his own right who brought photography into the realms of contemporary art in the form of the monumental tableau. More than 150 works and groups of works chart not only the progress of his own photographic career, but also the emergence of photography as an art form in the second half of the twentieth century. An exhibition in collaboration with Museum Folkwang, Essen, and Museo d’arte della Svizzera italiana, Lugano.

 

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) from 'On the Alp' 1963

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
from On the Alp
1963
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'oT (Urs Luthi, Balthasar Burkhard, Jean-Frederic Schnyder), Amsterdam' 1969

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
oT (Urs Luthi, Balthasar Burkhard, Jean-Frederic Schnyder), Amsterdam
1969
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Untitled (Jean-Christophe Ammann at Andy Warhol's Factory), New York' 1972

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Untitled (Jean-Christophe Ammann at Andy Warhol’s Factory), New York
1972
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Jean-Christophe Ammann. 'oT (Balthasar Burkhard), USA' 1972

 

Jean-Christophe Ammann
oT (Balthasar Burkhard), USA
Venice, 1972
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

 

Together, Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz have launched a major retrospective exhibition dedicated to the lifetime achievement of Swiss artist Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010). His oeuvre is almost unparalleled in the way it reflects not only the self-invention of a photographer but also the emancipation of photography as an artistic medium in its own right during the second half of the twentieth century.

The exhibition charts the many facets of Burkhard’s career, step by step, from his apprenticeship with Kurt Blum – in which he adhered closely to the traditional reportage and illustrative photography of the 1960s, and undertook his first independent photographic projects – to his role alongside legendary curator Harald Szeemann, and his documentation of Bern’s bohemian scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Balthasar Burkhard is the author of many iconic images of such groundbreaking exhibitions as When Attitudes Become Form at Kunsthalle Bern in 1969 and the 1972 documenta 5, capturing radical and frequently ephemeral works, actions and performances by the international avant-garde of the day.

Meanwhile, Burkhard endeavoured to make his mark both as a photographer and as an artist, developing his first large-scale photographic canvases in collaboration with his friend and colleague Markus Raetz, trying out his skills as an actor in the USA, and ultimately being invited to hold his own highly influential exhibitions at Kunsthalle Basel and Musée Rath in Geneva in 1983 and 1984. These enabled him to liberate photography from its purely documentary role by creating monumental tableaux in which he developed the motif of the body into sculptural human landscapes and site-specific architectures.

Throughout the course of his career, Burkhard turned time and again to portraiture. Whereas his early photographs tended to show artists in action within their own setting, his later portraits adopted an increasingly formalised approach. During the 1990s, he transposed this stylistic reduction to a wide-ranging series of animal portraits reminiscent of the encyclopaedic style of nineteenth century photography.

Another milestone of Burkhard’s oeuvre can be found in his vast aerial photographs of major mega cities such as Tokyo and Mexico City. These images, shot from an aircraft, like his images of the earth’s deserts, were destined to become a personal passion. Balthasar Burkhard’s quest for a morphology, for a formula that could encapsulate both nature and culture, is particularly evident in his later work, which ranges from pictures of waves and clouds, Swiss mountains and rivers, to the delicate fragility of plants. His interest was always focused on the materiality of the image. Alongside the highly idosyncratic and somewhat darkly sombre tonality of his prints, Burkhard constantly sought to explore every aspect of photography’s aesthetic and technical potential.

Encompassing half a century of creativity, the joint exhibition by Fotomuseum and Fotostiftung not only shows individual works, but also reflects on Balthasar Burkhard’s own view of how his photographs should be presented, underpinned by a wealth of documents from the archives of the artist. The exhibition is divided in two parts and shown in parallel in the exhibition spaces of Fotomuseum and Fotostiftung.

Press release

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) / Markus Raetz. 'The Bed' 1969/70

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) / Markus Raetz
The Bed
1969/70
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'oT (Michael Heizer, Berne Depression), Berne' 1969

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
oT (Michael Heizer, Berne Depression), Berne
1969
© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Untitled (Richard Serra, Splash Piece), Berne' 1969

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Untitled (Richard Serra, Splash Piece), Berne
1969
© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'oT (Harald Szeemann, the last day of documenta 5), Kassel' 1972

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
oT (Harald Szeemann, the last day of documenta 5), Kassel
1972
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

 

With this major retrospective, Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz pay homage to the Swiss artist Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010). His oeuvre is almost unparalleled in the way it reflects not only the self-invention of a photographer, but also the emancipation of photography as an artistic medium in its own right during the second half of the twentieth century.

Together, the two institutions chart the many and varied facets of Burkhard’s career, step by step. Fotostiftung presents early works from the days of his apprenticeship with Kurt Blum and his first independent documentary photographs. The exhibition also traces Burkhard’s role as a photographer alongside the curator Harald Szeemann and capturing images of Bern’s bohemian scene in the 1960s and 1970s. During that time, Burkhard carved his niche as a photographer and artist, developing his first large-scale photographic canvases in collaboration with his friend Markus Raetz and eventually breaking away from the European art world in search of both himself and new inspiration in the USA.

The second part of the exhibition at Fotomuseum shows the work created by Burkhard after his return to Europe, and his exploration of the photographic tableau. It was during this phase that he largely succeeded in emancipating photography from its purely documentary function. Using monumental formats, he translated the motif of the human body into sculptural landscapes and site-specific architectures. He went on to apply his stylistic device of formal reduction to portraits and landscapes. This marked the beginning of a series of experiments in the handling of photographic techniques. From long-distance aerial photographs of mega-cities such as Mexico City and Tokyo to close-up studies of flowers and plants, Burkhard seemed to be constantly seeking a formula that would embrace both nature and culture, encapsulating a sensory and sensual grasp of visible reality.

Encompassing half a century of creativity, the exhibition not only shows individual works, but is also underpinned by applied projects, films and many documents from the archives of the artist. This wealth of material allows a reflection both on Balthasar Burkhard’s own view of how his photographs should be presented in the exhibition space as well as his constant weighing-up of other media.

 

Part I (Fotostiftung Schweiz)

Early photographs

Balthasar Burkhard was just eight years old when his father gave him a camera to take along on a school excursion. Burkhard himself describes this early experience with the camera as the starting point of his career. It was also his father who suggested an apprenticeship with Kurt Blum, one of Switzerland’s foremost photographers, ranking along-side Paul Senn, Jakob Tuggener and Gotthard Schuh. Blum taught the young Balz, as he was nicknamed, all the finer points of darkroom technique as well as the art of large-format photography. The earliest work from Burkhard’s apprentice years is a reportage of the school, in the form of a book, while his documentation of the Distelzwang Society’s historic guildhall in the old quarter of Bern was clearly a lesson in architectural photography. Yet, no sooner had he completed his apprenticeship than Burkhard was already embarking on his very own independent projects inspired by post-war humanist photography, such as Auf der Alp, a study of rural Alpine life, for which he was awarded the Swiss Federal Grant for Applied Arts in 1964.

 

Chronicler of Bohemian Life in Bern

Even during his apprenticeship, Burkhard moved in the Bernese art circles to which his teacher Kurt Blum also belonged. In 1962, he created a first portrait, in book form, of painter and writer Urs Dickerhof. Shortly after that, he became friends with his near-contemporary Markus Raetz, and started taking photographs for the charismatic curator Harald Szeemann, who was director of Kunsthalle Bern from 1961 to 1969. Burkhard immersed himself in the vibrantly dynamic Swiss art scene, documenting the often controversial exhibitions of conceptual art at the Kunsthalle, and capturing the lives of Bern’s bohemian set with his 35mm camera. These visual mementos would later be collated in a kind of photographic journal. Initial collaborative projects with artists included a 1966 artists’ book about the village of Curogna (Ticino) and a window display for the Loeb department store in Bern featuring photographic portraits of the Bernese artist Esther Altorfer, devised in collaboration with Markus Raetz and his later wife, fashion designer Monika Raetz-Müller.

 

Landscapes 1969

Inspired by his friend Raetz, Burkhard photographed bleak and rugged snow-covered landscapes in the Bernese Seeland region. Heaps of earth piled up along the wayside reminded him of Robert Smithson’s Earthworks, which had just emerged in contemporary art. As Burkhard would later explain, “I wanted to leave out everything relating to myself, so that I could truly relate to what remained. I distanced myself from my subject-matter. I succeeded in stepping back both from myself and from my work.”

A close-up of bare agricultural soil, vaguely reminiscent of a lunar landscape, forms the basis for an object with a neon tube created in 1969 for the legendary exhibition When Attitudes Become Form in collaboration with Harald Szeemann, Markus Raetz and Jean-Frédéric Schnyder. In 1969, Burkhard’s brown-toned landscapes were included in the 1969 exhibition photo actuelle suisse in Sion. They were subsequently published as his first independent portfolio by Allan Porter in the May issue of Camera magazine, which was dedicated to avant-garde European photography and its affinity with contemporary art.

 

The Amsterdam Canvases 1969-70

When Markus Raetz took a studio in Amsterdam in 1969, he and Burkhard continued to work on joint projects. Photographs of everyday motifs were enlarged, practically life-sized, onto canvas, and caused a sensation in the spring 1970 exhibition Visualisierte Denkprozesse (Visualised thought processes) at Kunstmuseum Luzern, curated by Jean-Christophe Ammann, who wrote: “On huge canvases, they [Raetz and Burkhard] showed, among other things, a spartan studio space, a bedroom, a kitchen, a curtain. They relativised the purely object-like character by hanging the canvases on clips. The resulting folds enriched the images by adding a new dimension.” In other words, the folds in the canvas created a “quasi ironic and disillusioning barrier.” Burkhard’s large-format works foreshadowed the monumental photographic tableaux that would eventually herald the ultimate march of photography into the museum space some ten years later.

 

Documentarist of the International Art Scene

By the end of the 1960s, Harald Szeemann and his polarising, controversial exhibitions were drawing increasing attention far beyond the boundaries of Switzerland. In particular, his (in)famous 1969 show When Attitudes Become Form unleashed heated debates that ultimately led to Szeemann’s resignation as director of Kunsthalle Bern. Then, in 1970, he shocked the members and visitors of the Kunstverein in Cologne with an exhibition dedicated to Happening & Fluxus. Here, too, Burkhard was on hand with his camera. Jean-Christophe Ammann, with whom Burkhard undertook a research trip to the USA in 1972, photographing many artists’ studios, proved no less controversial a figure. Moreover, Burkhard also photographed artists, actions and installations at the 1972 documenta 5 in Kassel, which was headed by none other than Szeemann himself. Given the expanded concept of art that prevailed at the time, which strengthened the role of performance art and installation works alike, photography, too, gained a newfound core significance. Indeed, it was only through photography that many of these innovative works were preserved for posterity.

 

Chicago and the Self-Invention of the Artist

Following a relatively unproductive period in the wake of documenta 5, during which he worked, among other things, on an unfinished documentary project about the small Swiss town of Zofingen, Burkhard spent the years between 1975 and 1978 in Chicago, where he taught photography at the University of Illinois. It was while he was there that he once again reprised the series of photo canvases he had been working on in Amsterdam between 1969 and 1970. This led to new large-format works portraying everyday scenes such as the back seat of an automobile or the interior of a home with a TV, as well as three now lost photographs of roller skaters and a very androgynous back-view nude study of a young man. In 1977 the Zolla/Lieberman Gallery in Chicago presented these canvases together with a selection of the Amsterdam works in what was Burkhard’s first solo exhibition. Critics were impressed by his “soft photographs”. The Chicago Tribune, for instance, enthused: “‘European’ grace is wedded to ‘American’ strength in a supreme artistic fiction that suggests the wide-screen format of film.”

 

Self-Portraits

In Chicago, Burkhard rekindled his friendship with performance and conceptual artist Thomas Kovachevic, whom he had first met at documenta 5 and who now introduced him to the local art scene. At the same time, Burkhard toyed with the notion of trying his chances as a film actor in Hollywood. With Kovachevich’s help, he produced a series of self-portraits, both Polaroids and slides, which he presented in a small snakeskin-covered box as his application portfolio. He approached Alfred Hitchcock and Joshua Shelley of Columbia Pictures, albeit unsuccessfully. His only film role was in Urs Egger’s 1978 Eiskalte Vögel (Icebound; screened in seminar room I). Burkhard later transformed some of his self-portraits into large-scale canvases, through which he asserted his newfound sense of identity as an artist, making himself the subject-matter of his own artistic work. One of these was also shown in the Photo Canvases exhibition at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery.

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'feet 2' 1980

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
feet 2
1980
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'The Knie', Kunsthalle Basel (installation view) 1983

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
‘The Knie’, Kunsthalle Basel 
(installation view)
1983
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Study of The Head' c. 1983

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Study of The Head
c. 1983
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Design for Body II' c. 1983

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Design for Body II
c. 1983
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

 

 

Part II (Fotomuseum Winterthur)

Body and Sculpture

The 1980s heralded the advent of a particularly productive period for Balthasar Burkhard in which he adopted a more sculptural approach to photography, treating his prints as an integral part of the exhibition architecture. Just as he himself had witnessed how the generation of artists before him had called the classic exhibition space into question, so too did his own latest works now begin to take control of that space. Burkhard became one of the foremost proponents of large-scale photographic tableaux, as evidenced by his groundbreaking exhibitions at Kunsthalle Basel in 1983 and Museé Rath, Geneva, in 1984.

It was in the photo canvases he made in Chicago during the late 1970s that Burkhard first turned towards the motif of the body as a sculptural form with which he would continue to experiment over the coming years. Such an overtly sculptural approach to the body and to the nude as landscape soon began to demand a larger format than Burkhard had previously been using. An arm, almost four metres long, framed by heavy steel, or the multipart installation Das Knie (Knee), reflect the very core of his creative oeuvre in all its many facets: monumentality, fragmentation and the breaking of genre boundaries by transposing two-dimensional images into spatially commanding installations.

 

Portraits: Types and Individuals

The increasing formal reduction of Balthasar Burkhard’s images continued in the field of portraiture. He invited fellow artists such as Lawrence Weiner and Christian Boltanski to sit for him. With this series, it seemed that he had finally put behind him his days as a chronicler of the art scene, reliant on the techniques of applied photography.

Portraits of a rather different kind are his profiles of animals, in an equally reduced setting, against the backdrop of a tarpaulin. Redolent of Renaissance drawings or nineteenth century animal photography, his images of sheep, wolves and lions come across as representing ideal and typical examples of their species without anthropomorphising them, while at the same time wrenching them out of their natural environment. These images reached a broad audience through the popular 1997 children’s book “Click!”, said the Camera, which was republished in its second edition in 2017.

 

Architectural Photography

Given his increasing success in the art world, Burkhard could well afford to be selective about his choice of commissioned works. He had already been taking photographs for architects connected with the Bern-based firm Atelier 5 back in the 1960s, and was still accepting commissions in this field in the 1990s. Burkhard’s photographic essay on the Ricola building designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron indicates just how thoroughly his own distinctive artistic syntax permeates his commissioned and architectural photography, right through to the details of fragments and materials. These photographs were shown in the Swiss Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 1991, having been explicitly designed for this particular exhibition space. As in his artistic oeuvre, Burkhard operates here with spatially commanding installations, skilfully dovetailing the architectural motif with the presentational form.

 

Aerial Photography

In the 1990s, before the art world had even begun to turn its attention to the subject of megacities, Burkhard was already taking a keen interest in the world’s major conurbations. Following in the footsteps of his father, who had been a Swiss airforce pilot, he took bird’s-eye-view photographs from a plane. His panoramic shots of cities such as London, Mexico City and Los Angeles were preceded by small-format studies of clouds: the so-called Nuages series. Having incorporated a study of rural Switzerland into his formative training in 1963 with the series Auf der Alp (On the Alp), he returned once more to focus on the landscape of his homeland in the early 2000s with an entire series of aerial photographs of the Bernina mountain range.

 

Landscape and Flora

In the last two decades of his life, Burkhard concentrated primarily on landscape and flora, turning to historical precedents both in his techniques and in his choice of motif. The desert formations of Namibia, in which all sense of proportion is lost amid the remote and untouched wilderness, set a counterpoint to the sprawling urban expanses of Mexico City and London. The diptych Welle (Wave), by contrast, pays homage to the work of French artist Gustave Courbet, with Burkhard making a pilgrimage to the tide swept shores where the father of Realism had painted in 1870.

In another series, Burkhard adapts the aesthetics of botanical plant studies, which were as widely used around the turn of the twentieth century as the complex photographic process of heliography, and transposes these to larger-than-life formats. Whereas Burkhard, as a young photographer, had captured the exuberant art scene of the 1960s and 1970s, snapshot-style, he later went on, as an artist-photographer, to explore the potential of the photographic tableau, diligently researching near-forgotten techniques and the sensual details of the visible world.

 

Artwork and Commissioned Work

The site-specific installations of his photographs and Burkhard’s own dedicated approach to museum spaces warrant an excursion into the archives of the artist, paying particular attention to four exemplary exhibitions.

One spectacular and iconic show was the Fotowerke (Photo works) exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel in 1983. Curated by artist Rémy Zaugg, the installations can be reconstructed thanks to the catalogue and copious documentation. Contact prints and studies, for instance, help to give an insight into the no longer extant thirteen metre work Körper I (Body I) as well as shedding light on the choice of motif for further body fragments.

A 1984 solo exhibition at the Le Consortium in Dijon, on the other hand, shows how Burkhard responded with his group of works Das Knie (Knee) to an entirely different installation context within the given space. Similarly, at the Musée Rath in Geneva that same year, Burkhard, together with his friend Niele Toroni, instigated a radical juxtaposition of photography and painting based on the pillars of the exhibition venue.

At Grand-Hornu in the Belgian town of Mons, by contrast, his life-sized photographs of animals were mounted at eye level. While Burkhard chose a large format for the exhibition venue, the images in his children’s book “Click!”, said the Camera tell of a beauty contest between animals in a photo-shoot. This apparent discrepancy between artwork and commissioned work never seemed to be relevant to Burkhard. The sheer volume of his studio photos, alone, indicates just how scrupulously precise he was about the way he wanted to be perceived as a serious photographer.

Wall text from the exhibition

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Balthasar Burkhard' at Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur, Zurich February - May 2018

Installation view of the exhibition 'Balthasar Burkhard' at Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur, Zurich February - May 2018

Installation view of the exhibition 'Balthasar Burkhard' at Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur, Zurich February - May 2018

Installation view of the exhibition 'Balthasar Burkhard' at Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur, Zurich February - May 2018

Installation view of the exhibition 'Balthasar Burkhard' at Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur, Zurich February - May 2018

 

Installation views of the exhibition Balthasar Burkhard at Fotomuseum Winterthur and Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur, Zurich February – May 2018

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Balthasar Burkhard in his studio' 1995

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Balthasar Burkhard in his studio
1995
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Camel' 1997

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Camel
1997
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Bull' 1996

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Bull
1996
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'The Reindeer' 1996

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
The Reindeer
1996
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Mexico City' 1999

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Mexico City
1999
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Mexico City' 1999

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Mexico City
1999
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Nuages ​​8' 1999

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Nuages ​​8
1999
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Ecosse' (Scotland) 2000

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Ecosse (Scotland)
2000
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Bernina' 2003

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Bernina
2003
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Silberen' 2004

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Silberen
2004
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010) 'Rio Negro' 2002

 

Balthasar Burkhard (1944-2010)
Rio Negro
2002
© Estate Balthasar Burkhard

 

 

Fotostiftung Schweiz
Grüzenstrasse 45
CH-8400 Winterthur (Zürich)
Tel: +41 52 234 10 30

Opening hours:
Daily 11 am – 6 pm
Wednesday 11 am – 8 pm
Closed on Mondays

Fotostiftung Schweiz website

Fotomuseum Winterthur
Grüzenstrasse 44 + 45
CH-8400
Winterthur (Zürich)

Opening hours:
Tuesday to Sunday 11 am – 6 pm
Wednesday 11 am – 8 pm
Closed on Mondays

Fotomuseum Winterthur website

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16
Jan
18

Book review: ‘The Lumen Seed’ by Judith Crispin (2016)

January 2018

Publisher: Daylight Books

Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers should be aware that the posting on this book contains images and names of people who may have since passed away.

 

 

Judith Crispin. 'Sonya Napaljarri Cook Painting' 2015

 

Judith Crispin
Sonya Napaljarri Cook Painting
Warnayaka Arts Centre, Lajamanu Community NT, December 2015

 

Judith Crispin. 'Tabra Nakamarra's Puppy' 2015

 

Judith Crispin
Tabra Nakamarra’s Puppy
Lajamanu Community NT, June 2015

 

 

Truth and consequence in red dirt country

Australia has a long tradition of social documentary photography, dating back to the late nineteenth century. From Fred Kruger’s photographs of the Aboriginal community at Coranderrk in the 1870-80s through, variously but not exclusively:

Frank Hurley‘s photographs of the First World War, Antarctic exploration, Aboriginal communities and Australian industry

F. Oswald Barnett and his photographs of the slums of Melbourne in the 1930s

Charles P. Mountford (1890-1976) was an ethnographer and photographer, working from the 1930s-1960s who “showed a keen interest in and respect for Aboriginal culture, a fact that is evident in his archive. Although peppered with the vernacular and attitudes of the times, Mountford’s writing, and more tellingly his photographs, are indicative of his belief that Aboriginal life was richer and more complex than most white Australians conceded.” (State Library of South Australia)

Mervyn Bishop (born 1945), followed in 1974, an Australian news and documentary photographer whose work combines journalistic and art photography. Joining The Sydney Morning Herald as a cadet in 1962 or 1963, he was the first Aboriginal Australian to work on a metropolitan daily newspaper and one of the first Aboriginal Australians to become a professional photographer. Focusing on Indigenous self-determination, Bishop’s work “covered the major developments in Aboriginal communities throughout Australia, including the historical moment in 1975 when the (then) Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, poured a handful of earth back into the hand of Vincent Lingiari, Gurindji elder and traditional land owner. This image – representing the Australian government’s recognition of Aboriginal land rights – became an icon of the land rights movement and Australian photography.” (Art Gallery of New South Wales)

Harold Cazneaux and Max Dupain‘s photographs of Australian life from the 1920-1980s

Jim Fitzpatrick and his Drouin series from WW2

Rennie Ellis‘ photographs of celebrity and Melbourne life

William Yang‘s photographs exploring issues of cultural and sexual identity

Female photographers of the 1960s-90s, such as Micky Allan, Sue Ford and Carol Jerrems who all crossed over into art photography

Robert McFarlane (1960s onwards) who specialises in social issues

John F. Williams who photographed Sydney in the 1970s

Jeff Carter who photographed all around Australia from the 1950s onwards

Ian North and Gerrit Fokkema who photographed Canberra in the 1980s

Joyce Evans (1980s onwards) who took important portraits of a diverse cross-section of Australian intelligentsia and personalities and documented Australian country towns and events for the National Library of Australia

Glenn Sloggett who photographed Australian suburbia with a startling mix of warmth and melancholy from the 1990s onwards

More recently, the war photographs of °SOUTH members such as Tim Page, Stephen Dupont, David Dare Parker, Jack Picone and Michael Coyne

Trent Parke who is the only Australian member of the Magnum Photo Agency, whose work moves beyond the strictly documentary to sit between fiction and reality, offering an emotional and psychological portrait of family life and Australia that is poetic and often darkly humorous

And Juno Gemes Indigenous social documentary photography, who documents the changing social landscape of Australia

.
Unlike America, where social documentary photographers are well known, hardly a name from the above list (save perhaps Max Dupain and possibly Frank Hurley) would be recognised by a wider Australian public and there is little evidence or acknowledgement of their work in Australia. I believe that this is because social documentary photography has never been heavily promoted in this country and that this type of photography is a slice of many people’s work without becoming the driving force behind their oeuvre.

As my friend and curator Nick Henderson observes, “Perhaps the lack of visibility is in part due to many of the social documentary photographers undertaking work for the various state libraries, who regularly commission work documenting place – sometimes external, but also staff photographers – whose work is then not exhibited: many of the institutional galleries haven’t devoted much time to displaying and promoting that work.” While there may have been social documentary photographers in each country town and embedded within federal and state institutions, their work never seems to reach the audience it deserves.

 

And that is the true

Into this amorphous arena comes a brilliant book Sydney based poet, photographer and composer Judith Crispin titled The Lumen Seed (Daylight Books 2016), a book of that addresses the stories of the Warlpiri people of Lajamanu through conversation, poetry, drawings and photographs, a book that should be compulsory reading for all Australians.

This smallish book (in size, 23.5cm wide by 15cm high) of 120 pages has good strong boards, excellent typography, nicely weighted paper and feels solid in the hand. The book is well printed, although some of the highlights of the photographs have gone missing in action. The layout of the images and text is engaging, challenging the reader to comprehend, contemplate and consider what is being shown and spoken to them. Use of negative space, as can be seen in the example pages below, is excellent. The reader does not feel overwhelmed by comatose verbiage, but empowered when listening to the stories, proposed: “This book is about magic. Not the magic of Kabbalists, Theosophists, or conjurers, not Crowley’s magick with a k, not the magic of the New Age or Western religion – but magic that describes the world hidden inside this world, a world seen only by Aboriginal elders and the dying.” (Judith Crispin, Introduction, p. 12)

As Crispin states, this book is not a book of photojournalism and is the most subjective it can be, the photographs growing out of her love for this community. The multi-dimensional photo essay, for that is what it is in more traditional terms, represents some of the views and customs of the Warlpiri people and for Crispin, her journey started in the centre of Australia’s Anglophile government, Canberra, and ended at Wolfe Creek Crater, birthplace of the rainbow snakes, the Warnayarra, which underpin all Australian Aboriginal cultures. The peoples of this ancient culture speak to the earth, they tend it and understand it; they believe in the deep magic of the landscape, and strengthen the land through gardening and the trees through song. They speak to the spirits of the waterholes and have a deep respect for the spirit of the animals that inhabit the land. “The deep love that Warlpiri people have for the landscape, its mountains and waterholes, is almost incomprehensible for white people.” (Juno Gemes, Foreword, p. 9)

I’m British and I have been here in Australia since 1986 and I have never understood the non-relationship Australia has with its Indigenous people. Growing up on a farm for the first twelve years of my life in England gives me some understanding of a life lived well on the land. We were working class poor, my mother having to boil water on a stove so us kids could have a bath in a copper on the kitchen room floor; and we lived on what we could shoot from the land – pigeons, pheasants, rabbits and hares – and we were acutely aware of the providence and blessings of nature for our sustenance. A totally different connection to land than an Aboriginal one, but a connection none the less, as I found out when I visited the old farm on a recent visit to the UK in August. Walking up the cart path where I had played as a kid brought all the magic rushing back… the flowers, the forest, the trees, the animals and the earth.

Therefore, when I read of the white man’s abuse of the traditional lands of the Aboriginal people I am appalled. If you read the extract from Five Threnodies for Maralinga printed below, you begin to understand the pain and anguish of these people, killed by the atomic cloud of over 7 major tests and 700 minor trials involving plutonium, uranium, and beryllium at the Maralinga site which occurred between 1956 and 1963, part of the Woomera Prohibited Area in South Australia and about 800 kilometres north-west of Adelaide. “In 1948, Warlpiri people were forcibly relocated almost 600 kilometers from their spiritual homeland to Hooker Creek, now Lajamanu, in Gurindji country. Old people, afraid to live among Gurindji ancestors and spirits, tried to walk back to Yuendumu but were rounded up and returned.” (p. 45)

This beautiful, powerful and deeply personal book tells some of their stories. It saddens me beyond belief that these wonderful people have been estranged and displaced from their traditional lands; decimated, killed, and abused; have been exposed to nuclear radiation, poverty, and untold harm and deprivation, both physical and mental. That they endure is a testament to their courage and culture. Juno Gemes observes that, “Crispin’s images are filled with compassion and tenderness. This is not an easy work… The Lumen Seed is a tough and powerful work in photographs, narrative texts, drawings, and poems it sings stories off the Warlpiri at Lajamuna at five minutes to midnight.” (p. 9)

The book needs to be tough to tell the true. But through poetry, love and light a new cosmology emerges that brings hope for a better future. Truth and consequence in red dirt country.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for Art Blart

.
Many thankx to Myrtille Beauvert, Daylight Books and the artist for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

The Lumen Seed by Judith Crispin (Daylight Books), a cultural dialogue that is taking place before a backdrop of offences against the Australian continent, as well as a history of systematic discrimination against Indigenous peoples on the part of the country’s white population.

 

 

“Yeah, it make me real sad and cry for my country. Because God bin put me there, God put my people there. Why someone could move us, because of his power, because of his idea? Cutting off God’s power, God’s idea here. God’s word, God’s light… and that is the true. Cut off like this electric wire, if you cut him off, like that.”

.
Jerry Jangala, senior Warlpiri elder and Law man from Lajamanu in the Tanami Desert

 

“The Lumen Seed is a tough and powerful work. In photographs, narrative texts, drawings, and poems it sings stories of the Warlpiri at Lajamanu at five minutes to midnight. Who will hear, who will see, who will act?

Judith Crispin’s experience echoes mine 40 years earlier, although I could not always get back to the same teachers. We belong to a long photographic tradition. It is the tradition of Tina Modotti and Josef Koudelka – a generation of documentary photographers who believe fervently that if you show people what is actually happening in the world, they will understand and be moved to demand change. Activist social documentary photography has always been defined by this passionate subjective belief in democracy and action.”

.
Juno Gemes, Introduction to The Lumen Seed, 2016

 

 

 

Judith Crispin. 'The Lumen Seed' cover

Judith Crispin. The Lumen Seed book cover

Judith Crispin. 'The Lumen Seed' p. 29

Judith Crispin. The Lumen Seed p. 29

Judith Crispin. 'The Lumen Seed' p. 32

Judith Crispin. The Lumen Seed p. 32

Judith Crispin. 'The Lumen Seed' p. 46

Judith Crispin. The Lumen Seed p. 46

Judith Crispin. 'The Lumen Seed' p. 55

Judith Crispin. The Lumen Seed p. 55

Judith Crispin. 'The Lumen Seed' p. 74

Judith Crispin. The Lumen Seed p. 74

 

 

 

 

Foreword: Five Minutes to Midnight

There is nothing like twilight in red dirt country – the soft crackling of fire warming your billycan as the Seven Sisters begin their dance across the night sky. Or the camaraderie around a campfire as people speak in their indigenous languages – the women making jokes about the day’s goings-on or about mistakes made in the intricate protocols of a Law you are learning, day by day. Everything that lives has meaning here. Upholding knowledge is a lifelong obligation for First Nation Custodians – not only in the present but into the future. How can we Australians know this land or our place in it, if not through relationship with our hosts, the Aboriginal people?

When inviting me to write this foreword, Judith Crispin explained her choice, saying, “You are uniquely positioned, as Australia’s premier and longest-serving photographer who has worked collaboratively with Aboriginal people in communities around the country making their culture and struggle for justice visible.” Truly, in both a professional and a practical way, I know the difficulties and the deep satisfactions of working in community. I understand the privileges of learning about the Law, the reciprocity of gratitude, and the obligation to stay true to the received teaching over a lifetime.

As a photographer of long experience, with friendships in Aboriginal communities, I know how everything depends on one’s openness to experience, on the give and take inside relationships that informs how one sees and feels. Photographers in this tradition work in slow time. You learn to move with the people, move within the rhythm of their days, within their country, their wind and sky. What is learned through these relationships can change how one sees forever. By invitation, we become messengers from the frontier of interpersonal experience, conveying urgent messages from our teachers and hosts.

Into this collaborative tradition of relational interpersonal documentary photography – which began with the work of committed photographers in Australia during the 1970s – now steps Judith Crispin with her important book about magic, knowledge, and history. She relates teachings of the Law men who adopted her, who gave her the skin name Nangala, a name that defines her relationship to everyone in the community. In this way, she is being “growed up,” learning how to see the universe according to Warlpiri Law.

“There is a particularly miraculous vision of the world that comes only with the diagnosis of serious illness. . . . Something is different now – because I know there is a secret world nested inside this one. I’ve seen it.”

.
The Lumen Seed
opens onto an apocalyptic scene. A hardwood mulga tree, reaching for the sky, holds a placard: “The Lord’s Return is Near.” In Coober Pedy, a curved handmade house rendered in warm mid-tones is edged with the sign “Welcome to Nowhere.” Dusty desert roadscapes unfold into the giant sacred stones of Karlu Karlu. An emu wanders nonchalantly into a gas station. We’re in Emu Dreaming Country now, meeting Crispin’s traveling friends.

A UFO mural at the gas station resonates later in the book with stories of Wolfe Creek Crater, where the meteorite landed. In the Jukurrpa we are told two rainbow snakes created that country, way back at the beginning. UFOs “zipping around the trees” form part of our desert lore. Funky and surreal, these images are imbued with humour. The images that follow lead us onward into a country of visual narratives – foretelling beginnings and endings. Intuitions manifest unpredictably. We enter a thousand kilometres of “bull dust and bone-jarring track, into the Tanami Desert,” which is as nothing compared with the howling grief of Crispin’s first poem…

Foreword extract by Juno Gemes, Hawkesbury River, April 11, 2016, pp. 6-7.

 

Introduction

In late 2015 I was diagnosed with cancer. Before then, I’d not understood how five words could change everything. “I’m sorry, Judith,” my doctor told me, “it’s cancer.” It’s a cliché that you only learn to value life when death is walking beside you, but it was absolutely true for me. I remember driving over Clyde Mountain to bring the word cancer to my parents’ home. Every tree on the range seemed invested with vital force. Every leaf was vibrant, iridescent. Gray mountain gums, in headlights, seemed to manifest ancient intelligence – bearing witness to the fleeting existence of human beings. The threat of death reminds you how precious people are – your oldest friends, children, lovers, parents – you wonder how you’ll bear to leave them. There is a particularly miraculous vision of the world that comes only with the diagnosis of serious illness.

The interval between diagnosis and surgery is an eternity. The surgeon showed me a chart – “If the cancer falls into this range,” he said, “you’ll live; this range and you’ll die.” I felt like Schrödinger’s cat, neither living nor dying. People who see their own death live in two worlds, one mundane and one miraculous. Later, when the cancer had been removed and my death sentence lifted, I watched that other world diminish day by day. No matter how I clung to that miraculous vision, it faded – just as the certain knowledge of my death faded. But something remained. Something is different now – because I know there is a secret world nested inside this one. I’ve seen it. …

The earliest photographs in this book were taken in 2013, when I still believed the Warlpiri needed my help – to promote literacy and health, to outline positive pathways toward reconciliation, and so on. The later photographs were taken in December 2015, when I knew, without a shadow of doubt, that I was the drowning woman and the Warlpiri were the lifeboat. Lajamanu’s elders, especially Wanta Jampijinpa, Henry Jackamarra, and Jerry Jangala, were kind to me. They gave me a skin name1 and showed me how to be a “policewoman” for Jdbrille Waterhole. They seemed genuinely delighted by my interest in Warlpiri cosmology, which they illustrated with stories and drawings – some of which are reproduced in this book. The older women took me “hunting” for wattle seed and bush potato. They told me stories of covenants entered into with ancient star-beings and showed me places along the Tanami Track where min-min lights had chased travellers. Fairy tales and mysteries take on new importance when your life feels precarious.

Lajamanu in 2016 is a meeting of two universes. Elders check their Facebook status on iPhones while explaining, in matter-of-fact tones, about a landscape that will hold you or kill you, depending on your scent – where spirit snakes live in the waterways and the dead walk side by side with the living. In Lajamanu I lost my fear of dying, and more importantly, I lost my fear of living. This is a book about magic. Not the magic of Kabbalists, Theosophists, or conjurers, not Crowley’s magick with a k, nor the magic of the New Age or Western religion – but magic that describes the world hidden inside this world, a world seen only by Aboriginal elders and the dying.

This is not a book of photojournalism and makes no attempt to be objective. Quite the contrary, in fact, I wanted this book to be as subjective as possible. These photographs, especially the portraits, have grown out of my love for this community – the poetry of these often physically fragile people, whose unshakable belief in the deep magic of the landscape gives them a strength rarely evident in the city. Warlpiri culture is gentle; it leaves no tracks on the earth. The history of Aboriginal Australia is largely a record of gardening – “cleaning up country” with firestick farming and ceremonies to strengthen trees through song. When Warlpiri people move through the landscape, they introduce themselves. They apologise to that country for breaking twigs. They ask permission to take water from the creeks. If humanity ever transcends its selfish and murderous nature, it will be because of people like the Warlpiri.

Introduction extract by Judith Crispin pp. 11-13.

 

 

You shall not trap me in this fish-trap of yours in which you trap the dead,

because I know it, and I know its name,

I know the name in which it came into being.

.
(Coffin Texts)

 

 

Judith Crispin. 'The Lord's Return is Near' 2014

 

Judith Crispin
The Lord’s Return is Near
Coober Pedy SA, November 2014

 

 

The Stuart Highway is a bisecting line in a thousand kilometres of nothing. The sheer scale of the landscape is overwhelming. I’d driven for two days with only Leonard Cohen and David Bowie for company, and had never felt more isolated. I don’t know why I stopped, leaving the Land Rover idling in the middle of the highway, and walked over to the tree. Perhaps its tallness startled me – its length so exposed above the desert floor. I wanted to lay my palm against its bark. At first I didn’t notice the sign nailed high on its trunk: “The Lord’s Return is Near.”

This stretch of highway lies south of the rocket range at Woomera. There are oceans of blood on this land. The Woomera immigration detention centre continued a legacy of suffering that began years earlier, in the 1950s, when Maralinga’s radioactive clouds blew over Woomera, a military township, and killed all the children.

Between 1952 and 1963, British forces dropped nine nuclear weapons and nine thermonuclear weapons between Woomera and the Western Australian border, within contamination distance of urban centres. The Menzies-led Australian government of that time was wholly complicit and lied about the known dangers of nuclear tests. Between these bombings, Britain conducted continuous “minor trials,” which, according to the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia, additionally detonated 99.35 kg of beryllium, 23.979 kg of plutonium, and 7968.88 kg of depleted uranium. By contrast, Little Boy, dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 by the United States, contained only 64 kg of uranium-235, and Fat Man, dropped on Nagasaki in 1945 by the United States, contained only 6.4 kg of plutonium. Anyone who wishes to immediately lose faith in the human race should read the short transcript of the Royal Commission, which is freely available online. (pp. 16-18)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Welcome to Nowhere' 2014

 

Judith Crispin
Welcome to Nowhere
Coober Pedy SA, November 2014

 

 

I arrived in Coober Pedy the same week that dust storms tore the roof off the pub. This dugout, borrowed from friends in Alice Springs, was built from a disused shaft. I slept near the door separating their home from the remaining length of shaft, extending far into the rock. Strange sounds echoed behind that door – sounds of wind, or dogs howling. The door was nailed closed. When I first visited Coober Pedy, it was the farthest into the desert that I had ever ventured. Beyond it stretched the expanse of the Great Victoria Desert, Simpson Desert, Strzelecki Desert, Pedirka Desert, Tirari Desert, and Sturt Stony Desert. I was at the start of a journey that would follow Stuart Highway into nothingness and emerge in the huge Tanami Desert of the Northern Territory and Western Australia. Leaving the dugout, I stopped to photograph the words painted on its roof: “Welcome to Nowhere.” (pp. 22-23)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Karlu Karlu I' 2014

 

Judith Crispin
Karlu Karlu I
Near Ayleparrarntenhe NT, November 2014

 

 

Karlu Karlu, nicknamed “The Devil’s Marbles” by white people, was long considered too spiritually dangerous for anyone but Warumungu elders conducting ceremony. Between these giant stones, on a 48-degree day, the radiant heat is almost unimaginable. Near the skeleton of a burned office chair, I found patches of black glass. A Warumungu friend explained that the heat has, in recent years, become so intense at Karlu Karlu that the air itself ignites, fusing desert sand to glass. In Australia’s deserts the evidence of climate change is irrefutable. (p. 24)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Eemie at the UFO Roadhouse' 2015

 

Judith Crispin
Eemie at the UFO Roadhouse
Wycliffe Well Roadhouse and Van-park NT, December 2015

 

 

UFO enthusiast Arc Vanderzalm moved to the desert in 2004 to establish a UFO-themed van park. In the van park’s early years, Arc rescued an abandoned emu chick and raised him by hand. He named him Eemie. Travellers stopping for fuel at Wycliffe Well roadhouse are sometimes surprised by an adult emu staring in at them through the window. While a guest of the van park, I once startled Eemie by walking into the ladies’ shower block. He peered out at me through the shower curtain with an air of embarrassment, as though I’d intruded at a delicate moment. Later, as I drove toward Tennant Creek, I spotted Eemie chasing a farm dog down the highway, legs akimbo. (p. 29)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Sexy John' 2014

 

Judith Crispin
Sexy John
Alice Springs NT, November 2014

 

 

Sexy John was rescued as a small calf after his mother was culled as part of a government program to reduce feral camels. He was raised by artists in a collective on the outskirts of Alice Springs and befriended a wild blond-haired boy. More than 160 thousand camels were culled between 2009 and 2013, approximately one-fifth of the camel population of the central deserts. (p. 35)

 

Extract from Five Threnodies for Maralinga

V

At Woomera,
seventy-five identical graves
remember babies lost to the predation
of atomic clouds.

.
Their epitaphs are brief-

Michael Clarke Jones
died 24 August 1952,
aged eight and a half hours.

.
No one has been here for a long time.

.
Weeds struggle.
A military vehicle passes,
heading east toward the rocket range.

.
In the west, Woomera township
is a grid of air force housing.
Land Cruisers fill neat driveways,
lawns are trimmed,
blinds closed.

.
And no one ever steps out for milk,
no one walks a dog.

.
I photograph each headstone,
stooping sometimes to straighten a plastic posy,
a tilted ceramic bear.

.
Wind presses a faded greeting card
to the metal fence.
A matchbox car beside a small boy’s grave
is blue.

.
There are nineteen stones without toys or flowers,
for stillborns named only “baby”-

Baby Spencer,
Baby Dowling,
Baby Stone.

.
Don’t look at me

Baby Gower
Baby Roads

from a soldier’s gunny bag
with your eyes too white, too open
like the eyes of poisoned fish
tumbling
in the Pilbara’s poisoned surf.

 

Judith Crispin. 'Warlpiri Family' 2015

 

Judith Crispin
Warlpiri Family
Lajamanu Community NT, December 2015

 

 

In 1948, Warlpiri people were forcibly relocated almost 600 kilometers from their spiritual homeland to Hooker Creek, now Lajamanu, in Gurindji country. Old people, afraid to live among Gurindji ancestors and spirits, tried to walk back to Yuendumu but were rounded up and returned. In the 1970s, Gurindji people held a series of unique ceremonies to hand over the area and its Wampana and Spectacled Hare Wallaby Dreaming stories to the residents of Lajamanu. While this gesture brought some relief to Warlpiri people, who viewed their involuntary occupation of Gurindji land as a breach of traditional Law, they continue to struggle with their relationship to the country. (p. 45)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Four Kurdu-kurdu [Kids] with Trampoline' 2015

 

Judith Crispin
Four Kurdu-kurdu [Kids] with Trampoline
Lajamanu Community NT, December 2015

 

 

Country [Gurindji country], hills… well, I put country first… hills, tree, don’t like you – even that water – and that is true. If you drink water from that, or if you not talking to that country because you don’t know, you got no songs with that area… and in the night, or during the day too, you got no language for to try to talk to that country.

When God bin put you there, in your country, that’s it. You got a right to live on there. You can get sick alright, but not too much. Yuwayi [yes], you know God? He say, “Yeah you get sick but you’ll be alright,” you know? “I’m with you there,” that God talking. And same thing for our ceremony too. You’re right to use your ceremony. You’re right to sing your own Dreaming song and talking to your country . . . and tell it true – real true.

Jerry Jangala (pp. 50-51)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Emu Roadkill and Portrait by Shemaiah Matthews' 2015

 

Judith Crispin
Emu Roadkill and Portrait by Shemaiah Matthews
Lajamanu Community NT, December 2015

 

Judith Crispin. 'Lily Nungarrayi Yirringali Jurrah-Hargraves Painting' 2015

 

Judith Crispin
Lily Nungarrayi Yirringali Jurrah-Hargraves Painting
Warnayaka Arts Centre, Lajamanu Community NT, December 2015

 

 

Without the connection between the land and the person, the individual is lost, empty inside, not connected to anyone or anything or the land. If the connection is lost, they won’t survive and their identity no longer exists. Jukurrpa is our life first. Jukurrpa connects us to our country. It is Law that makes it our right to our country. We can’t be sent away.

This art center [Warnayaka Arts Center] is for the young people to learn their culture and Law. It is important for our youth to learn the knowledge held by the Ngaliya and Warnayaka peoples. The art center is for the survival of culture from the grandfathers’ and grandmothers’ country. The children are getting lost, and there are not many old men left, some women but few men. Some of our important Dreaming sites are hundreds of kilometers from Lajamanu. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren who live in Lajamanu need to know their Jukurrpa; otherwise they will lose their inheritance to this really important country. They need to know the Warlpiri Ngalia Laws so they can go onto their great-grandfathers’ and ancestors’ land, especially where these important Dreaming sites are, like at Mina Mina, belonging to the Kana-kurlangu clan. This is why the art center is so important to the people of Lajamanu. At any time, children can see the works of the elders telling them the Kurdiji, the Law, and all that is tied into the Jukurrpa paintings.

Warnayaka Art elders, recorded by Arts Center manager Louisa Erglis (p. 55)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Sacred Object #1' Nd

 

Judith Crispin
Sacred Object #1
Nd
Muffler painted by Warlpiri artists

 

Judith Crispin. 'Sacred Object #2' Nd

 

Judith Crispin
Sacred Object #2
Nd
Abandoned doll found in Lajamanu Park

 

Judith Crispin. 'Beth Nungarrayi at Jdbrille Waterhole' 2015

 

Judith Crispin
Beth Nungarrayi at Jdbrille Waterhole
Jdbrille Waterhole, Tanami Desert NT, June 2015

 

 

This area here, no river. It’s the same deal in this country, and so – what do you call it? Soak? [A soakage, or soak, also called a native well, is a source of water in the Australian desert.] You know . . . I’m trying to get that word there. Soak, yeah, you take all right down to find that water, that water make. Sometimes no water, like this time when it’s dry. Look for the water tree. That’s what my father, my grandpa, my great-grandpa, grandmother, they all look for that water tree. Rock holes down. That’s in our country. We can say it today in a Kardiya way, you know? We can say “Lajamanu is my country.” But that not true. It’s not true . . . yuwayi, Nangala. My country is back there . . . my area is back there.

Jerry Jangala (pp. 68-69)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Wirntali-Jarra [Friends]' 2015

 

Judith Crispin
Wirntali-Jarra [Friends]
near Emu waterhole, Tanami Desert NT, December 2015

 

Henry Jackamarra and Jerry Jangala have known each other since they were small children. More than a decade his senior, Henry treats Jerry like a little brother – still lecturing him on what he eats and wears, although both men are now respected elders. (p. 72)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Jerry Jangala Oversees Kangaroo Ceremony' 2014

 

Judith Crispin
Jerry Jangala Oversees Kangaroo Ceremony
Tanami Desert Outpost NT, November 2014

 

 

The animal is honoured by sprinkling handfuls of dirt over its fur before it is prepared for cooking in the traditional way. Jerry explains that in the old days the punishment for getting this ceremony wrong was death. In modern times, the penalty for making mistakes in this ceremony is exile. Wanta Jampijinpa, Jerry’s son, reassured me that exile did not necessarily mean death in the Tanami desert. A person could earn his or her place back in the community by accomplishing a special task. The exile must find the way to catch a wedge-tailed eagle and bring its soft underbelly feathers back to Lajamanu as proof. Wanta explained to me how such a seemingly impossible task could be accomplished, but I do not have permission to reproduce that here. (p. 78)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Henry Jackamarra Cook, Last Kangaroo Dancer' 2015

 

Judith Crispin
Henry Jackamarra Cook, Last Kangaroo Dancer
Lajamanu Community NT, December 2015

 

 

Light Trails of Henry Jackamarra Cook

Law is a gray kangaroo dancing
the thin landscape of Henry Cook into being,
somewhere in the Tanami,
where knucklebone winds scrape bare rock
and Henry stands marsupial
in firelight’s weird.

In Lajamanu, tin houses edge the street.
No one is outside,
no one.

In the arts center, old ladies paint seed-dreaming.
Breeze lifts the hem of a curtain,
then stillness.
It is still.

Henry doesn’t paint anymore. He sits alone,
watching ceremony from the 1970s.
Everyone in the videos is dead now, except him.
And the dead are in the desert,
faceless as the desert is,
and as remote.

Ten years ago it seemed nothing to walk
three days to his sacred country,
granite country,
where great salt lakes exhale their thirst
over spinifex and sand,
the rattling sun.

But arthritis and cataracts have caged him.
Inside the arts center,
the lights are switched off.

We drag chairs across a concrete porch
to watch the Tanami darken, shelf clouds
seal the crater at Wolfe Creek.

Rain wakens on his tongue
the angular syllables of displacement.

And home is the desert breathing over itself by night,
erasing tracks of all who walk there –
night’s emu rising savage in the Milky Way,
and eyes, eyes in the granite mines.

One day, he tells me, I’ll walk out
to my country and never come back.

At town’s edge, a kangaroo left by poachers.
Red dust thickens its pelt, as the red dust lies thick
on Henry’s Ray-Bans, stiffening his white hair to wires.

I photograph him disemboweling the buck,
its intestines knotted to ritual marks –
Henry and his flayed brother, backlit
against chained ridges,
and the last sun rearing.

Law is an old man dancing
the gray kangaroo into being,
sewing him back into the desert’s body,
into his own body, ochre and growl,
a hunting boomerang beaten on the ground.

Night erases this landscape –
slow trees, sand,
the saltbush has gone.

Just Henry’s heels rising and falling
along a wind-scored track,
utterances of a language which belongs to him
and to which he belongs.

Tomorrow, the Catfish Waterhole
will stretch his white hair out elastic,
as telephone wires vanishing into the Tanami.

Mud returns to him,
the cool slow memories of country
before the missions, before diabetes and grog
shrank his ancestors down so small
he holds them in a single cupped hand
like fireflies, tiny comets
crossing in the black.

Tomorrow he’ll thread gumleaves
through the hole in his nose,
and say, photo me like this Nangala
I am a beautiful man.

.
Judith Crispin (pp. 81-83)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Lily Nungarrayi Yirringali' 2014

 

Judith Crispin
Lily Nungarrayi Yirringali
Tanami Desert NT, November 2014

 

 

I was told Lily, when she was young, was in love with a Karadji man but couldn’t be with him because she didn’t want to leave her community. Her arms reveal the parallel ritual marks of someone on a “sacred path.” Now, despite caring relationships with her family, friends, and fourteen adopted dogs, somehow Lily is always alone. When, together with Molly and Rosie, Lily took me to see Catfish Waterhole, she explained that we were going to see her “mother.” I carried Lily, too frail to descend the bank, to the edge of the water. There she turned water over her palms, the traditional way of greeting the waterhole and avoiding surprising any Warnayarra who might be there. The deep love that Warlpiri people have for the landscape, its mountains and waterholes, is almost incomprehensible for white people. Here Lily sings quietly to Catfish Waterhole – not for any ceremonial or traditional reason, I’m told, but just because it makes the waterhole feel loved. (p. 95)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Molly's Flame-Tree Seed-pods' 2014

 

Judith Crispin
Molly’s Flame-Tree Seed-pods
Tanami Desert NT, November 2014

 

Judith Crispin. 'Molly Napurrula Sifts Wattleseed' 2014

 

Judith Crispin
Molly Napurrula Sifts Wattleseed
Tanami Desert NT, November 2014

 

 

Warlpiri people still supplement their diet with bush food. Ground wattleseed is mixed with oil and baked into a kind of flat bread. The older ladies took me out “hunting” for wattleseed and kurrajong seedpods. In a township with only one shop, where a head of broccoli costs more than a takeaway meal for a family, it is vitally important to supplement the community’s diet with “bush food.” White Australians have almost no idea of the variety of native fruits and vegetables that grow in the apparent desert – bush potatoes, bush tomatoes, bush bananas, honey ants, land crabs, wattleseeds, etc., can be gathered throughout the Tanami. (p. 104)

 

 

Buy Judith Crispin’s The Lumen Seed on the Daylight Books website

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08
Sep
17

Exhibition: ‘Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW’ at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York

Exhibition dates: 30th April – 30th July 2017

The Joan and Preston Robert Tisch Exhibition Gallery, sixth floor

 

 

Louise Lawler. 'Pollyanna (adjusted to fit) distorted for the times' 2007/2008/2012

 

Louise Lawler
Pollyanna (adjusted to fit) distorted for the times
2007/2008/2012
As adjusted for the MoMA exhibition WHY PICTURES NOW, 2017
Dimensions variable
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures
© 2017 Louise Lawler

 

Louise Lawler. 'Pollyanna (adjusted to fit)' 2007/2008/2012

 

Louise Lawler
Pollyanna (adjusted to fit)
2007/2008/2012
As adjusted for the MoMA exhibition WHY PICTURES NOW, 2017
Dimensions variable
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures
© 2017 Louise Lawler

 

Louise Lawler. 'Produced in 1988, Purchased in 1989; Produced in 1989, Purchased in 1993 (adjusted to fit), distorted for the times' 1995/2010

 

Louise Lawler
Produced in 1988, Purchased in 1989; Produced in 1989, Purchased in 1993 (adjusted to fit), distorted for the times
1995/2010
Dimensions variable
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures
© 2017 Louise Lawler

 

(Note on reproducing Lawler’s Adjusted to Fit works: Each time these images are reproduced, they should be stretched to the space given to the reproduction. The original file (un-stretched) is the origin point for anything that is then adjusted by the photo editor.)

 

Louise Lawler. 'Produced in 1988, Purchased in 1989; Produced in 1989, Purchased in 1993 (adjusted to fit)' 1995/2010

 

Louise Lawler
Produced in 1988, Purchased in 1989; Produced in 1989, Purchased in 1993 (adjusted to fit), distorted for the times
1995/2010
Dimensions variable
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures
© 2017 Louise Lawler

 

 

I missed the closing date for this exhibition due to the ongoing problems with my hand. However, I believe it is valuable to post these images because Louise Lawler is an always provocative, thoughtful and interesting artist. She shines a light or, more possibly, pokes a big stick at patriarchal systems of value in art – turning perceived points of view, ways of seeing, and “the cultural circumstances that support art’s production, circulation, and presentation” on their head.

“… behind Ms. Lawler’s shape-shifting works lies a poetic intelligence, a political sharpness and an understanding of the artwork as a form of value, but also as a source and an object of love.” Well said.

Lawler possesses a unique understanding of the forms of culture embodied within images and also an intimate knowledge of the archetypal forms buried deep within their bones. Is the pattern immanent in the paper (the cosmos), or is the paper a blank slate to be written on by the creator?

Distorted, restaged, reframed and re-presented for the times…

Marcus

.
Many thankx to MoMA for allowing me to publish the photographs in posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

#art #moma #museumofmodernart #museum #modernart #nyc #education #artist #photography #womenartists #femaleartists #louiselawler #whypicturesnow

 

Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW is the first major survey in New York of the artist Louise Lawler (American, b. 1947), spanning the 40-year creative output of one of the most influential artists working in the fields of image production and institutional critique. The exhibition takes its title from one of Lawler’s most iconic works, Why Pictures Now (1982), a black-and-white photograph showing a matchbook propped up in an ashtray. Reminiscent of an advertising photograph or a film noir still, it asks the viewer to consider why the work takes the form of a picture, and why the artist is making pictures now. Lawler came of age as part of the Pictures Generation, a loosely knit, highly independent group of artists named for an influential exhibition, Pictures, organised in 1977 by art historian Douglas Crimp at Artists Space in New York. These artists used photography and appropriation-driven strategies to examine the functions and codes of representation. Lawler’s signature style was established in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when she began taking pictures of other artists’ works displayed in collectors’ homes, museums, storage spaces, and auction houses to question the value, meaning, and use of art.

WHY PICTURES NOW is organised by Roxana Marcoci, Senior Curator, with Kelly Sidley, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography.

 

 

“Ms. Lawler and Roxana Marcoci, the exhibition’s curator, have devised something quite different: an open, airy survey with lots of room for roaming, some chairs for sitting and two conjoined, markedly different halves focusing on Ms. Lawler’s activities with pictures and then words. The first half is dominated by photographs in various shapes and guises, including mural-size images. The second, which seems almost empty at first, contains two large vitrines of ephemera that show off Ms. Lawler’s gifts for graphic design and for language, with displays of everything from matchbook covers and napkins to exhibition announcements and art books that she photo-edited. …

Ms. Lawler’s images have multiple lives, exposing the ceaseless flexibility of photographs. Constantly recycled, they go from framed and portable to paperweights to the wall-covering murals of her “adjusted to fit” series. In the show’s first half, four “adjusted” photos cover immense, staggered walls, looming like ocean liners sliding out of their docks. Their monumentality thrills but also chides the art world for its embrace of spectacle and the overblown. …

It is hard to know if these words [“Why Pictures Now”] proclaim the power, or the worthlessness, of pictures. Probably both. Either way, behind Ms. Lawler’s shape-shifting works lies a poetic intelligence, a political sharpness and an understanding of the artwork as a form of value, but also as a source and an object of love.”

.
Roberta Smith. “Louise Lawler’s Stealth Aesthetic (and Muted Aura),” on the New York Times website

 

 

 

Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW | MoMA LIVE

Join us for a conversation with MoMA director Glenn Lowry and curator Roxana Marcoci on the opening of the exhibition, Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW. The first New York museum survey of the work of American artist Louise Lawler, this exhibition is an exploration of her creative output, which has inspired fellow artists and cultural thinkers alike for the past four decades.

Among the most intriguing aspects of Lawler’s working process is her continuous re-presentation, reframing, or restaging in the present, a strategy through which she revisits her own images by transferring them to different formats – from photographs to paperweights, tracings, and works she calls “adjusted to fit” (images stretched or expanded to fit the location of their display). Lawler’s critical strategies of reformatting existing content not only suggest the idea that pictures can have more than one life, but underpin the intentional, relational character of her farsighted art.

 

 

Louise Lawler | HOW TO SEE the artist with MoMA curator Roxana Marcoci

Can the exact same image have a completely different meaning if its title or medium is changed? Explore the work of one of today’s most influential female artists, Louise Lawler, in the new exhibition Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW.

MoMA curator Roxana Marcoci gives us a tour of the exhibition that charts Lawler’s continuous re-presentation, reframing, or restaging of the present, a strategy through which Lawler revisits her own images by transferring them to different formats – from photographs to paperweights, tracings, and works she calls “adjusted to fit” (images stretched or expanded to fit the location of their display).

 

 

Louise Lawler’s Birdcalls at MoMA

You’re not hearing things. For the duration of the Louise Lawler exhibition, a stroll through our Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden places you squarely in the middle of Birdcalls, the artist’s defiant, humorous critique of the art world’s captivation with male artists. Find out what exhibition inspired Lawler’s sole sound piece with MoMA curator Roxana Marcoci.

 

Installation view of 'Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW' at The Museum of Modern Art

Installation view of 'Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW' at The Museum of Modern Art

Installation view of 'Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW' at The Museum of Modern Art

Installation view of 'Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW' at The Museum of Modern Art

Installation view of 'Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW' at The Museum of Modern Art

Installation view of 'Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW' at The Museum of Modern Art

Installation view of 'Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW' at The Museum of Modern Art

Installation view of 'Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW' at The Museum of Modern Art

Installation view of 'Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW' at The Museum of Modern Art

 

Installation views of Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW
© 2017 The Museum of Modern Art
Photo: Martin Seck

 

 

Lawler’s study of art in its commercial context will be complemented by the display of a work by a younger artist that highlights a different kind of economy. The sculpture New York State Unified Court System (top photo), by artist Cameron Rowland, included in the artist’s knockout exhibition at Artists Space this winter, takes the form of four oak benches used in courtrooms and built using prison labour. (Text from the Artnet website)

 

Louise Lawler. 'Why Pictures Now' 1981

 

Louise Lawler
Why Pictures Now
1981
Gelatin silver print
3 x 6” (7.6 x 15.2 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Acquired with support from Nathalie and Jean-Daniel Cohen in honour of Roxana Marcoci
© 2016 Louise Lawler

 

Louise Lawler. 'Why Pictures Now (traced)' 1981/2013

 

Louise Lawler
Why Pictures Now (traced)
1981/2013
Dimensions variable
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures
© 2016 Louise Lawler

 

Louise Lawler. '(Roy Lichtenstein and Other Artists) Black' 1982

 

Louise Lawler
(Roy Lichtenstein and Other Artists) Black
1982
Silver dye bleach print
28 ½ x 37 ¼” (72.4 x 94.6 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures
© 2016 Louise Lawler

 

Louise Lawler. '(Andy Warhol and Other Artists) Tulip' 1982

 

Louise Lawler
(Andy Warhol and Other Artists) Tulip
1982
Silver dye bleach print
38 ½ x 60 ½” (97.8 x 153.7 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures
© 2016 Louise Lawler

 

Louise Lawler. 'Monogram' 1984

 

Louise Lawler
Monogram
1984
Silver dye bleach print
39 1/2 × 28″ (100.3 × 71.1 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York
© 2017 Louise Lawler

 

 

“Swimming among the show’s images are words and wordplay that can have a few layers. One of Ms. Lawler’s better-known photographs shows Jasper Johns’s creamy “White Flag” (1955) hanging above a bed with an equally creamy monogrammed satin spread. The image is sensibly titled “Monogram,” all the more fittingly since “Monogram” is also the title of one of Robert Rauschenberg’s combines from the 1950s, when he and Mr. Johns were lovers.

Roberta Smith. “Louise Lawler’s Stealth Aesthetic (and Muted Aura),” on the New York Times website

 

Louise Lawler. 'Untitled, 1950-51' 1987

 

Louise Lawler
Untitled, 1950-51
1987
Silver dye bleach print
29 3/8 × 39 1/4″ (74.6 × 99.7 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York
© 2017 Louise Lawler

 

Louise Lawler. 'Does Andy Warhol Make You Cry?' 1988

 

Louise Lawler
Does Andy Warhol Make You Cry?
1988
Silver dye bleach print with text on Plexiglass wall label
Image (shown): 27 ¼ x 39” (69.2 x 99.1 cm); Label: 4 3/8 x 6 3/8 in. (11.1 x 16.2 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Gift of Gabriella de Ferrari in honour of Karen Davidson
© 2016 Louise Lawler

 

 

“Lawler’s suspicion of the image is nothing new. In WHY PICTURES NOW, her career survey currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, the Pictures Generation artist is again and again engaged in taking the familiar – a famous work of art, different forms of banal ephemera – and making it abnormal through clever subversion. There is a timid jostling of her male peers, a slight nudge off the pedestal of reverence, which is evident in much of her work and makes it eminently appealing – even if some of its institutional critique is diminished under the museum’s glow of prestige. But what is often obscured in Lawler’s work is the way that it’s not only questioning the apparatus of making and displaying art, but also its reception – the formalised way that we, the spectators, are looking.”

.
Craig Hulbert on the Hyperallergic website

 

 

The Museum of Modern Art announces Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW, the first major survey in New York of the artist Louise Lawler (American, b. 1947). Spanning the 40-year creative output of one of the most influential artists working in the fields of image production and institutional critique, the exhibition will be on view from April 30 to July 30, 2017, in The Joan and Preston Robert Tisch Exhibition Gallery, sixth floor, along with one sound work, Birdcalls (1972-81), which will be installed in The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. The exhibition takes its title from one of Lawler’s most iconic works, Why Pictures Now (1982), a black-and-white photograph showing a matchbook propped up in an ashtray. Reminiscent of an advertising photograph or a film noir still, it asks the viewer to consider why the work takes the form of a picture, and why the artist is making pictures at this moment. Lawler came of age as part of the Pictures Generation, a loosely knit, highly independent group of artists named for an influential exhibition, Pictures, organised in 1977 by art historian Douglas Crimp at Artists Space in New York. These artists used photography and appropriation-driven strategies to examine the functions and codes of representation. Lawler’s signature style was established in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when she began taking pictures of other artists’ works displayed in collectors’ homes, museums, storage spaces, and auction houses to question the value, meaning, and use of art. WHY PICTURES NOW is organised by Roxana Marcoci, Senior Curator, with Kelly Sidley, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography.

Lawler’s work offers a defiant, witty, and sustained feminist analysis of the strategies that inform art’s production and reception. In 1971, she was invited to assist several artists for independent curator Willoughby Sharp’s Pier 18, an exhibition that featured 27 male artists on an abandoned pier on the Hudson River. While walking home after leaving the pier one evening, Lawler began to mimic birdlike sounds in order to ward off any unwanted interactions, chanting “Willoughby! Willoughby!” This parody evolved into Birdcalls, a seven-minute audio piece in which Lawler squawks, chirps, and twitters the names of famous male artists, from Vito Acconci to Lawrence Weiner – an astute critique of the name recognition enjoyed by her male contemporaries. Birdcalls thematises Lawler’s strategy of resistance to the authoritative and the patronymic proper name. This work will be played throughout the course of the exhibition, in MoMA’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden.

An intriguing aspect of Lawler’s practice is her process of continuous re-presentation, reframing, or restaging in the present: she revisits her own work by transferring her images to different formats, from a photograph to a tracing, and to works that she calls “adjusted to fit.” The “tracings” are large-format black-and-white line versions of her photographs that eliminate colour and detail, functioning instead as “ghosts” of the originals. “Adjusted to fit” images are stretched or expanded to fit the location of their display, not only suggesting the idea that pictures can have more than one life, but also underpinning the intentional, relational character of Lawler’s farsighted art.

The exhibition consists of a sequence of mural-scale, “adjusted to fit” images set in dynamic relation to non-linear groupings of photographs – of collectors’ homes, auction houses, and museum installations – distinctive of Lawler’s conceptual exercises. Additionally, a deceptively empty gallery presents black-and-white tracings of Lawler’s photographs that have been printed on vinyl and mounted directly on the wall. A display of the artist’s ephemera from the 1970s to today highlights the feminist and performative undercurrents of her art. Lawler’s long history of artistic collaborations, with Sherrie Levine, Allan McCollum, Andrea Fraser, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Christopher d’Arcangelo, Peter Nadin, and Lawrence Weiner, among others, come full circle in the ephemera on display. Furthermore, on the platform outside the gallery space, two “adjusted to fit” images are shown together with Cameron Rowland’s work New York State Unified Court System. Comprised of four oak courtroom benches, it was included in Rowland’s exhibition 91020000, presented at Artists Space in 2016. Lawler and Rowland share an interest in examining the imbalances of exploitative economies, the use value and exchange value of art, the politics of space, and the interplay of power between human relations and larger institutional structures, including markets, museums, prisons, and governments. Additionally, Andrea Fraser will perform her work May I Help You? in the exhibition space. In foregrounding her work’s relationship to the economies of collaboration and exchange, Lawler shifts focus from the individual picture to the broader history of art. Her careful attention to artistic contexts, modes of presentation, and viewers’ receptions generates witty, affective situations that contribute to institutional transformation.

Press release from MoMA

 

Louise Lawler. 'Untitled (Salon Hodler)' 1992

 

Louise Lawler
Untitled (Salon Hodler)
1992
Paperweight (silver dye bleach print, crystal, felt) with text on wall
Paperweight: 2″ (5.1 cm) high, 3 1/2″ (8.9 cm) diam.
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York
© 2017 Louise Lawler

 

Louise Lawler. 'Salon Hodler (traced)' 1992/1993/2013

 

Louise Lawler
Salon Hodler (traced)
1992/1993/2013
Dimensions variable
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures
© 2016 Louise Lawler

 

Louise Lawler. 'Sentimental' 1999/2000

 

Louise Lawler
Sentimental
1999/2000
Silver dye bleach print
40 ¾ x 46 ¾” (103.5 x 118.7 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Promised gift of Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman
© 2016 Louise Lawler

 

Louise Lawler. 'WAR IS TERROR' 2001/2003

 

Louise Lawler
WAR IS TERROR
2001/2003
Silver dye bleach print
30 × 25 3/4″ (76.2 × 65.4 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York
© 2017 Louise Lawler

 

Louise Lawler. 'Nude' 2002/2003

 

Louise Lawler
Nude
2002/2003
Silver dye bleach print
59 1/2 × 47 1/2″ (151.1 × 120.7 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York
© 2017 Louise Lawler

 

Louise Lawler. 'White Gloves' 2002/2004

 

Louise Lawler
White Gloves
2002/2004
Silver dye bleach print
29 × 27 1/2″ (73.7 × 69.9 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York
© 2017 Louise Lawler

 

Louise Lawler. 'Life After 1945 (Faces)' 2006/2007

 

Louise Lawler
Life After 1945 (Faces)
2006/2007
Silver dye bleach print
40 x 33 ¼” (101.6 x 84.5 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Promised gift of Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman
© 2016 Louise Lawler

 

Louise Lawler. 'Triangle (adjusted to fit)' 2008/2009/2011

 

Louise Lawler
Triangle (adjusted to fit)
2008/2009/2011
Dimensions variable
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures
© 2016 Louise Lawler

 

Louise Lawler. 'No Drones' 2010/2011

 

Louise Lawler
No Drones
2010/2011
Chromogenic colour print
29 ¼ x 19 ¾” (74.3 x 50.2 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures
© 2016 Louise Lawler

 

Louise Lawler. 'Marie +270' 2010/2012

 

Louise Lawler
Marie +270
2010/2012
Chromogenic colour print
59 x 45 ½” (149.9 x 115.6 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Promised gift of Ricki Gail Conway
© 2016 Louise Lawler

 

Louise Lawler. 'Pollock and Tureen (traced)' 1984/2013

 

Louise Lawler
Pollock and Tureen (traced)
1984/2013
Dimensions variable
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Endowment
© 2016 Louise Lawler

 

 

One of her most famous images, “Pollock and Tureen” (1984), shows a fragment of a painting by Jackson Pollock above an antique soup tureen. In the photograph, the colour relationships are clear, offering insight into the choices of the collectors who “arranged” (a favourite word of Lawler’s) the scene. The work is about class, capitalism, and domesticity, not to mention reality and fiction. But when all the site-specific context is removed [in the tracing] … all we’re left with is contemplating the original Lawler artwork’s role in art history and the market.

In Benjamin Buchloh’s essay for Lawler’s retrospective last year at the Museum Ludwig, one of his most cogent points is about the nature of melancholy in her original photographs. “[H]er images,” he writes, “leave equally little doubt that there is hardly a more melancholic space than that of a fulfilled and seemingly satisfied utopian aspiration, one that has, however, not quite lived up to the originary promises … ”

Hrag Vartanian on the Hypoallergic website

 

Louise Lawler. 'Hand on Her Back (traced)' 1997/1998/2013

 

Louise Lawler
Hand on Her Back (traced)
1997/1998/2013
Dimensions variable
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures
© 2016 Louise Lawler

 

Louise Lawler. 'Evening Sale' 2010/2015

 

Louise Lawler
Evening Sale
2010/2015
Silver dye bleach print
50 x 36 5/8” (127 x 93 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures
© 2016 Louise Lawler

 

Louise Lawler. 'Big (adjusted to fit)' 2002/2003/2016

 

Louise Lawler
Big (adjusted to fit)
2002/2003/2016
Dimensions variable
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Acquired through the generosity of The Modern Women’s Fund and The Contemporary Arts Council
© 2016 Louise Lawler

 

Louise Lawler. 'Still Life (Candle) (adjusted to fit)' 2003/2016

 

Louise Lawler
Still Life (Candle) (adjusted to fit)
2003/2016
Dimensions variable
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures
© 2016 Louise Lawler

 

Louise Lawler. 'Arranged by Donald Marron, Susan Brundage, Cheryl Bishop at Paine Webber Inc. (adjusted to fit)' 1982/2016

 

Louise Lawler
Arranged by Donald Marron, Susan Brundage, Cheryl Bishop at Paine Webber Inc. (adjusted to fit)
1982/2016
Dimensions variable
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures
© 2016 Louise Lawler

 

 

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T: (212) 708-9400

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08
Aug
17

Exhibition: ‘Walker Evans’ at the Centre Pompidou, Paris

Exhibition dates: 26th April 2017 – 14th August 2017

Curator: Mnam/Cci, Clément Cheroux

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Stamped Tin Relic' 1929

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Stamped Tin Relic
1929
Gelatin silver print
23.3 x 28 cm
Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris Achat en 1996
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © Centre Pompidou / Dist.RMN-GP

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Coney Island Beach' c. 1929

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Coney Island Beach
c. 1929
Gelatin silver print
22.5 x 31 cm
The J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Los Angeles
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

 

 

The un/ordinariness of ordinariness

What a pleasure.

I’ve never liked the term ‘”vernacular” photography’ because, for me, every time someone presses the shutter of the camera they have a purpose: to capture a scene, however accidental or incidental. That context may lie outside recognised networks of production and legitimation but it does not lie outside performance and ritual. As Catherine Lumby observes, what the promiscuous flow of the contemporary image culture opens up, “is an expanded and abstracted terrain of becoming…. whereby images exceed, incorporate or reverse the values that are presumed to reside within them in a patriarchal social order.”1 Pace Evans.

His art of an alternate order, his vision of a terrain of becoming is so particular, so different it has entered the lexicon of America culture.

Marcus

Walker Evans: “The passionate quest to identify the fundamental features of American vernacular culture… the term “vernacular” designates those popular or informal forms of expression used by ordinary people for everyday purposes – essentially meaning all that falls outside art, outside the recognised networks of production and legitimation, and which in the US thus serves to define a specifically American culture. It is all the little details of the everyday environment that make for “Americanness”: wooden roadside shacks, the way a shopkeeper lays out his wares in the window, the silhouette of the Ford Model T, the pseudo-cursive typography of Coca-Cola signs. It is a crucial notion for the understanding of American culture.” (Text from press release)

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Many thankx to the Centre Pompidou for allowing me to publish the artwork in the posting. Please click on the art work for a larger version of the image.

1. Lumby, Catharine. “Nothing Personal: Sex, Gender and Identity in The Media Age,” in Matthews, Jill (ed.,). Sex in Public: Australian Sexual Cultures. St. Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1997, pp. 14-15.

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Truck and Sign' 1928-1930

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Truck and Sign
1928-1930
Gelatin silver print
16.5 x 22.2 cm
Collection particulière, San Francisco
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © Fernando Maquieira, Cromotex

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'New York City Street Corner' 1929

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
New York City Street Corner
1929
Gelatin silver print
18.4 x 12.7 cm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Self-Portrait in Automated Photobooth' 1930

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Self-Portrait in Automated Photobooth
1930
Gelatin silver print
18.3 x 3.8 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dist-RMN-GP/Image of the MMA

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Self-Portrait in Automated Photobooth' 1930 (detail)

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Self-Portrait in Automated Photobooth' 1930 (detail)

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Self-Portrait in Automated Photobooth (details)
1930
Gelatin silver print
18.3 x 3.8 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dist-RMN-GP/Image of the MMA

 

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) was one of the most important of twentieth-century American photographers. His photographs of the Depression years of the 1930s, his assignments for Fortune magazine in the 1940s and 1950s, and his “documentary style” influenced generations of photographers and artists. His attention to everyday details and the commonplace urban scene did much to define the visual image of 20th-century American culture. Some of his photographs have become iconic.

Conceived as a retrospective of Evans’s work as a whole, the Centre Pompidou exhibition presents three hundred vintage prints in a novel and revelatory thematic organisation. It highlights the photographer’s recurrent concern with roadside buildings, window displays, signs, typography and faces, offering an opportunity to grasp what no doubt lies at the heart of Walker Evans’ work: the passionate quest to identify the fundamental features of American vernacular culture. In an interview of 1971, he explained the attraction as follows: “You don’t want your work to spring from art; you want it to commence from life, and that’s in the street now. I’m no longer comfortable in a museum. I don’t want to go to them, don’t want to be ‘taught’ anything, don’t want to see ‘accomplished’ art. I’m interested in what’s called vernacular. For example, finished, I mean educated, architecture doesn’t interest me, but I love to find American vernacular”.

In the English-speaking countries, and in America more notably, the term “vernacular” designates those popular or informal forms of expression used by ordinary people for everyday purposes – essentially meaning all that falls outside art, outside the recognised networks of production and legitimation, and which in the US thus serves to define a specifically American culture. It is all the little details of the everyday environment that make for “Americanness”: wooden roadside shacks, the way a shopkeeper lays out his wares in the window, the silhouette of the Ford Model T, the pseudo-cursive typography of Coca-Cola signs. It is a crucial notion for the understanding of American culture. It is to be found in the literature as early as the 19th century, but it is only in the late 1920s that it is first deployed in a systematic study of architecture. Its importance in American art would be theorised in the 1940s, by John Atlee Kouwenhoven, a professor of English with a particular interest in American studies who was close to Walker Evans himself.

After an introductory section that looks at Evans’s modernist beginnings, the exhibition introduces the subjects that would fascinate him throughout his career: the typography of signs, the composition of window displays, the frontages of little roadside businesses, and so on. It then goes on to show how Evans himself adopted the methods or visual forms of vernacular photography in becoming, for the time of an assignment, an architectural photographer, a catalogue photographer, an ambulant portrait photographer, while all the time explicitly maintaining the standpoint of an artist.

This exhibition is the first major museum retrospective of Evans’s work in France. Unprecedented in its ambition, it retraces the whole of his career, from his earliest photographs in the 1920s to the Polaroids of the 1970s, through more than 300 vintage prints drawn from the most important American institutions (among them the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.) and also more than a dozen private collections. It also features a hundred or so other exhibits drawn from the post cards, enamel signs, print images and other graphic ephemera that Evans collected his whole life long.

Press release from the Centre Pompidou

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Westchester, New York, farmhouse' 1931

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Westchester, New York, farmhouse
1931
Gelatin silver print pasted on cardboard
18 x 22.1 cm
Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris
© W. Evans Arch., The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © Centre Pompidou / Dist. RMN-GP

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Main Street, Saratoga Springs, New York' 1931

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Main Street, Saratoga Springs, New York
1931
Gelatin silver print
18.73 x 16.19 cm
Collection particulière, San Francisco
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © Fernando Maquieira, Cromotex

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'License Photo Studio, New York' 1934

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
License Photo Studio, New York
1934
Gelatin silver print
27.9 x 21.6 cm (image: 18.3 x 14.4 cm)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Penny Picture Display, Savannah' 1936

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Penny Picture Display, Savannah
1936
Gelatin silver print
21,9 x 17,6 cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York Gift of Willard Van Dyke
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © 2016. Digital Image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala, Florence

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Joe's Auto Graveyard' 1936

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Joe’s Auto Graveyard
1936
Gelatin silver print
11.43 x 18.73 cm
Collection particulière, San Francisco
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © Ian Reeves

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Houses and Billboards in Atlanta' 1936

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Houses and Billboards in Atlanta
1936
Gelatin silver print
16.5 x 23.2 cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © 2016. Digital Image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala, Florence

 

 

Curator’s point of view

“You don’t want your work to spring from art; you want it to commence from life, and that’s in the street now. I’m no longer comfortable in a museum. I don’t want to go to them, don’t want to be ‘taught’ anything, don’t want to see ‘accomplished’ art. I’m interested in what’s called vernacular.”

.
Walker Evans, interviewed by Leslie Katz (1971)

 

 

Through more than 400 photographs and documents, this retrospective of the work of Walker Evans (1903-1975) explores the American photographer’s fascination with his country’s vernacular culture. Evans was one of the most important of twentieth-century American photographers. His photographs of the Depression years of the 1930s, his “documentary style” and his interest in American popular culture influenced generations of photographers and artists. Bringing together the best examples of his work, drawn from the most important private and public collections, the exhibition also accords a large place to the artefacts that Evans himself collected throughout his life, to offer a fresh approach to the work of one of the most significant figures in the history of photography.

Study of his images – from the very first photographs of the 1920s to the Polaroids of his last years – reveals a fascination with the utilitarian, the domestic and the local. This interest in popular forms and practices emerged very early, when he started to collect postcards as a teenager. More than ten thousand items he had gathered by the time of his death are now held by the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Other everyday objects from his personal collection – enamel signs, handbills and adverts – are exhibited here.

Walker Evans’s attraction to the vernacular finds expression, above all, in his choice of subjects: Victorian architecture, roadside buildings, shopfronts, cinema posters, placards, signs, etc. His pictures also feature the faces and bodies of ordinary people, whether victims of the Depression or anonymous passers-by. Something else “typically American” was the underside of progress. During the 1930s in particular, the American landscape was strewn with ruin and waste. Evans kept an eye on them ever after. Industrial waste, building debris, automobile carcases, wooden houses in ruins, Louisiana mansions fallen in the world, antiques, garbage, faded interiors, bare patches in exterior render: these were the other face of America. Just as much as the towering skyscraper or the gleaming motor car, all this was an element of the modern. This concern with decline and obsolescence gave the photographer a critical edge and reveals a profound fascination with the mechanisms of overproduction and consumption characteristic of the age.

Evans didn’t just collect the forms of the vernacular, he also borrowed its methods. In many of his images, he adopts the codes of applied photography: the shots in series, the frontality, the apparent objectivity. Waiting, camera in hand on the corner of the street or in the subway, he accumulated portraits of city-dwellers by the dozen, releasing his shutter with the mechanical regularity of a photo booth. Working like a post-card photographer or architectural photographer, Evans built up, in surprisingly systematic fashion, a catalogue of churches, doors, monuments and small-town main streets. Sculptures, wrought-iron chairs, household tools: all seem to have been selected for their unique qualities as objects. The repetitivity, the apparent objectivity and the absence of emphasis in these images are typical of commercial photographs produced to order. In 1935, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, asked Evans to photograph the six hundred sculptures of the exhibition of “African Negro Art”. The method he adopted was that of the catalogue photographer, rigorously avoiding dramatic effects by eliminating shadow; tightly framed and set against a neutral background, the pieces find a new elegance. The photographer would often have recourse to this regime in the years that followed, notably for a portfolio entitled “Beauties of the Common Tool”, published in Fortune magazine in July 1955. This adoption of the forms and procedures of non-artistic photography even as Evans laid claim to art prefigures –  some decades in advance! – the practices of the conceptual artists of the 1960s.

Clément Chéroux
Julie Jones
in Code Couleur, No. 28, May – August 2017, pp. 14-17

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Shoeshine Stand Detail in Southern Town' 1936

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Shoeshine Stand Detail in Southern Town
1936
Gelatin silver print
14.5 x 17cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Anonymous Gift
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dist-RMN-GP/Image of the MMA

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Negroes' Church, South Carolina' March 1936

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Negroes’ Church, South Carolina
March 1936, circulation April 1969
Gelatin silver print
25.2 x 20.2 cm
Musée des beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa Acheté en 1969
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © Musée des Beaux-Arts du Canada, Ottawa

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Alabama Tenant Farmer Floyd Bourroughs' 1936

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Alabama Tenant Farmer Floyd Bourroughs
1936
Gelatin silver print
22.9 x 18.4 cm
Collection particulière, San Francisco
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © Fernando Maquieira, Cromotex

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Allie Mae Burroughs, Wife of a Cotton Sharecropper, Hale Country, Alabama' 1936

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Allie Mae Burroughs, Wife of a Cotton Sharecropper, Hale Country, Alabama
1936
Gelatin silver print
22.3 x 17.3 cm
Collection particulière
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © Collection particulière

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Subway Portrait' January 1941

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Subway Portrait
January 1941
Gelatin silver print
20.9 x 19.1 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington Gift of Kent and Marcia Minichiello, in Honour of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © National Gallery of Art, Washington

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Resort Photographer at Work' 1941

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Resort Photographer at Work
1941
Gelatin silver print, later print
15.9 x 22.4 cm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Anna Maria, Florida' October 1958

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Anna Maria, Florida
October 1958
Oil on fiberboard
40 × 50.2 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Walker Evans Archive, 1994
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image of the MMA

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Untitled, Detroit' 1946

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Untitled, Detroit
1946
Gelatin silver print
16 x 11.4 cm
Fondation A.Stichting, Bruxelles
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © Fondation A.Stichting, Bruxelles

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Tin Snips by J. Wiss and Sons Co., $1.85' 1955

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Tin Snips by J. Wiss and Sons Co., $1.85
1955
Gelatin silver print
25.2 x 20.3 cm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

 

 

Centre Pompidou 
75191 Paris cedex 04
Tel: 00 33 (0)1 44 78 12 33

Opening hours:
Exhibition open every day from 11 am – 9 pm except on Tuesday
Closed on May 1st

Centre Pompidou website

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01
Jul
17

Review: ‘Christian Thompson: Ritual Intimacy’ at Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA), Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 27th April – 8th July 2017

This project has been supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria

 

PLEASE NOTE: I am still recovering from my hand operation which is going to take longer than expected. All of the text has been constructed using a dictation programme and corrected using only my right hand – a tedious process. I have to keep my mental faculties together, otherwise this hand will drive me to distraction… Marcus

 

Christian Thompson. 'Black gum 1-3' 2007

 

Christian Thompson
Black gum 1-3
2007
From the series Australian graffiti
C-type prints
Collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Photo: Andrew Curtis

 

Christian Thompson. 'Black gum 1' 2007

 

Christian Thompson
Black gum 1
2007
From the series Australian graffiti
C-type print
Collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Christian Thompson. 'Black gum 2' 2007

 

Christian Thompson
Black gum 2
C-type print
2007
From the series Australian graffiti
Collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

 

“While I’m interested in portraiture – I don’t consider my work as portraiture because that suggests that I’m trying to portray myself, my own visage, my own image. I employ images, icons, materials, metaphors to capture and idea and moment in time. There are many different things at play; taking a picture of myself is really the last thing that’s on my mind.”

.
Christian Thompson in conversation with Hetti Perkins, catalogue extract

 

“I’m interested in simple aesthetic gestures that can say something … something quite profound about the world that we live in. I tend to build images how I create a sculpture. I borrow from the world around me.”

On being away from home: “You’re able to remove yourself from the local discourse, and romanticise home. When you’re displaced you tend to gravitate towards certain memories … But this is who I am. It would be weird not to express that somehow. I combine memories of my past with my lived experience and an idea of where I’d like to be … it’s all montaged into one.”

.
Christian Thompson

 

“But Thompson makes things up. His ‘We bury our own’ does not let us see the early daguerreotype but improvises a series of fugues on its spiritual essence. This is the crucial step that Thompson has taken: if you repeat the spectacle you cannot escape the past. But if you, a spiritual descendant, transmogrify yourself in keeping with the aura of the image’s subject, during the prolonged period of encounter and immersion, you can ‘repatriate’ that forebear. Or so he desires.”

“Through these conjurings of the language his people spoke before colonisation set out to strip them of their culture as well as their land, Christian Thompson performs private ceremonies – to reach beyond visual statements of personal presence and reawaken the knowledge of his forebears, and allow us, his listeners and viewers, into their living story.”

.
Marina Warner. “Magical Aesthetics,” extracts from the catalogue essay

 

 

Still singing, still Dreaming,
still loving… not dying.

This is a strong survey exhibition of the work of contemporary Australian Indigenous artist and Bidjara man exploring the world, Christian Thompson. As with any survey exhibition, it can only give us a glimpse into the long standing development of the artist’s work, inviting the viewer to then research more fully the themes, conceptual acts and bodies (of work) that have led the artist to this point in his artistic development. Having said that the exhibition, together with its insightful catalogue essays and additional images that do not appear in the exhibition, allow the viewer to be challenged intellectually, aesthetically and most importantly … spiritually. And to be somewhat conflicted by the art as well, it has to be said.

Thompson’s “multidisciplinary practice explores notions of cultural hybridity, along with identity and history, creating works that transcend cultural boundaries.” His self-reflexive and self-referential bodies of work, often with the artist using his body as an “armature for his characters, costumes and various props,” are intuitive and imaginative in how they relate Aboriginal and Australian/European history, taking past time into present time which influences future time. Time, memory, history, space, landscape are conflated into one point, enunciated through acts of ritual intimacy. These ritual intimacies, these performative acts, are enabled through an understanding of a regularised and constrained repetition of norms (in this case, the declarative power of colonialism), where the taking of a photograph of an Aboriginal person (for example), is “a ritual reiterated under and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death controlling and compelling the shape of the production…” (Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter. New York: Routledge, 1993, p. 95).

What is so heartening to see in this exhibition is a contemporary Indigenous artist not relying on re-animating colonial images of past injustices, but re-imagining these images to produce a spiritual connection to Country, to place, to people in the present moment. As Charlotte Day, Director, MUMA and Hetti Perkins, guest curator observe in the wall text at the beginning of the exhibition, “Rather than appropriating or restaging problematic ethnographic images of indigenous ancestors held in the Museum’s photographic collection, Thompson has chosen to spend significant periods of time with these images, absorbing their ‘aura’ and developing a personal artistic and deferential response that is decisively empowered.” As Marina Warner states in her excellent catalogue essay “Magical Aesthetics”, these ritual intimacies are a “magical re-animation and adopt time-honoured processes of making holy – of hallowing. Adornment is central to ritual and a prime way of glorifying and consecration.” What Thompson is doing is not quoting but translating the source-text into new material. As Mary Jacobus notes of the work of the painter Cy Twombly, “Quotation involves the repurposing of an existing text: translation requires a swerve from the source-text as it finds new directions and enters unknown terrain.” (Mary Jacobus. Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint.  Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016, p. 7).

This auto-ethnographic exploration and adornment leads to a deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation of time in a heterotopic space, juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites of contestation – Thompson’s travels and research from around the world, the embodiment in his own culture and that of contemporary Australia, pop culture, fashion, music and language – where, as Hetti Perkins says, “the unknowable is a lovely thing” and where Thompson can affect and influence “the Zeitgeist through more subversive means.” These spaces of ritualised production overlaid with memory, imagination, desire, and nostalgia, these fragmented images, become a process and a performance in which Thompson seeks to ameliorate the objects aura through a process of ‘spiritual repatriation’. Thompson’s performativity is where the ritual of production and meaning is never fully predetermined at any stage of production and reception.

Here, in terms of ‘aura’ and ‘spirit’, I am interested in the word “repatriation”. Repatriation means to send (someone) back to their own country – from the verb repatriare, from re- ‘back’ + Latin patria ‘native land’. It has an etymological link to the word “patriot” – from late Latin patriota ‘fellow countryman’, from Greek patriōtēs, from patrios ‘of one’s fathers’, from patris ‘fatherland’ – and all the imperial connotations that are associated with the word. So, to send someone back (against their own will? by force?) or to be patriotic, as belonging to or coming from, the fatherland. A land that is father, farther away. Therefore, it is with regard to a centralised, monolithic body and its materialities (for the body is usually centrally placed in Thompson’s work) in Thompson’s instinctive works, that relations of discourse and power will always produce hierarchies and overlappings which are going to be contested. As Judith Butler notes,

“That each of those categories [body and materiality] have a history and a historicity, that each of them is constituted through the boundary lines that distinguish them and, hence, by what they exclude, that relations of discourse and power produce hierarchies and overlappings among them and challenge those boundaries, implies that these are both persistent and contested regions.” (Judith Butler. Bodies That Matter. New York: Routledge, 1993, pp. 66-67)

.
Thus performativity is the power of discourse, the politicisation of abjection, and the ritual of being.

This is where I become conflicted by much of this work. Intellectually and conceptually I fully understand the instinctive, intuitive elements behind the work (crystals, flowers, maps, butterflies, dreams) but aesthetically I feel little ‘aura’ emanating from the photographs. Thompson’s “peripatetic life and your bowerbird, magpie-like fascination” (p. 107) lead to all sorts of influences emerging in the work – orange from The Netherlands, Morris dancers from England, Jewish heritage, Aboriginal and Australian heritage, fashion, pop culture, music, language – all evidenced through “acts of concealment in his self-portraits.” (p. 75). Now there’s the rub!

In Thompson’s ritual intimacies the intimacy is performed only once, for the camera. It is not didactic, but it is interior and hidden, leaving much to the feelings of the viewer, looking. The re-presentation of that intimacy is performed by the viewer every time they look at the art. I think of the work of one of my favourite performance artists, Claude Cahun, where the artist inhabits her personas, adorning her androgynous face with costume after costume to become something that she wants to become – a buddha, a double, a harpy, a lunatic or a doll with equal ease. Cahun is always and emphatically herself, undermining a certain authority… and she produces indelible images that sear the mind.

I don’t get that from Thompson. I don’t know who he really is. Does it matter? Yes it does. In supposedly his most autobiographic work (according to Hetti Perkins), the video Heat (2010, below) the work emerges out of Thompson’s memories of growing up in the desert surrounding Barcaldine in central west Queensland where “heat captures the sensation that he associates with being on his country: the dry wind blowing through his hair.” Perhaps for him or someone from the desert country like Hetti Perkins (as she states in the catalogue), but not for me. I feel no ‘heat’ from these three beautiful woman standing in a contextless background with a wind machine blowing their hair. The only ‘heat’ I felt was perhaps the metaphoric heat of colonisation, violence and abuse thrust on a vulnerable culture.

Talking of vulnerable cultures, in the work Polari (2014, below) Thompson invokes the history of languages in an intimate ritual “as he seeks to reanimate and repossess vanishing knowledge. Polari is a private language … a kind of code used by sailors, circus and fairground folk, and in gay circles. … Thompson’s Polari series warns us that the artist has a language of his own, which we can overhear but not fully understand: something is withheld, in contrast to the imposed and implacable exposure which the subjects of scientific collections were made to suffer in the past.” (Warner, p. 74) But why is he using Polari specifically, a language that is strongly associated with the libertine gay culture of the 1950s-70s? Does he have a right to use this word and its linguistic heritage because he is gay? It is never stated, again another thing left hidden, concealed and unresolved.

Although no culture can ever fully own its language (language is a construct after all) … if Thompson is not gay, then I would take exception to his invoking the Polari language, just as an Indigenous artist would take exception to me using Bidjara language in an art work of my own. I remember coming out in London in 1975 and speaking Polari myself when it was still being used in pubs and clubs such as the A + B club in Soho. It was not being used as a language of resistance, far from it, but as a language of desire. It was a language used to inculcate that desire. As a video on YouTube observes of speaking Polari, “you didn’t think, oh God I’m so oppressed I can never speak about myself, you just did it, you just slipped into it without thinking.” It was your own language, like a comfortable pair of slippers. Does Thompson understand how using that word to title a body of work could be as offensive to some people as he finds the denaturing of his own culture? For me this is where the work really becomes problematic, when an artist does not enunciate these connections, where things, like sexuality, remain hidden. Similarly, with historical photographs of Indigenous people taken for ethnographic study, Thompson fails to acknowledge the work of academics such as Jane Lydon and her important books Eye Contact: Photographing Indigenous Australians (2005) and Photography, Humanitarianism, Empire (2016) where she unpacks the historical baggage of the images and notes that the photographs were not solely a tool of colonial exploitation. Lydon articulates an understanding in Eye Contact that the residents of Coranderrk, an Aboriginal settlement near Healsville, Melbourne, “had a sophisticated understanding of how they were portrayed, and they became adept at manipulating their representations.” Again, there is more than meets the eye, more than just ‘spiritual repatriation’ of aura.

For me, the magic of this exhibition arrives when Thompson lets go all obfuscation, let’s go all actions that make something obscure, unclear, or unintelligible. Where his ritual intimacies become grounded in language, earth and spirit. This happens in the video works, Desert slippers (2006, below), Refuge (2014, below), Gamu Mambu (Blood Song) (2011) and Dhagunyilangu (Brother) (2011, below). In these videos, the Other’s gaze disintegrates and we are left with poignant, heart felt words and actions that engage history, emotion, family and Country.

The video Desert slippers “features a Bidjara ritual in which a father and son transfer sweat. The desert slipper is a native cactus that symbolises the transferal of the spirit back to earth as the plant grows.” It is simple, eloquent, powerful, present. The other videos feature two baroque singers from Europe and Thompson singing in his native tongue Bidjara (Bidyara, Pitjara), a language that Wikipedia states “is an extinct Australian Aboriginal language. In 1980 it was spoken by twenty elders in Queensland, between Tambo and Augathella, Warrego and Langlo rivers.” Spelt out in black and white. Extinct. To hear Thompson sing a berceuse (French, from bercer ‘to rock’), or lullaby in his native language, a language taught to him by his father, is the most emotional of experiences. The work “combines evocative chanting and electronic elements to invoke the cultural experiences and narratives of his Bidjara culture,” and “is premised on the notion that if one word of Bidjara is spoken, or sung in this case, it remains a living language.” Amen to that.

This is the real hallowing, not the dress ups or the concealments. It is in these videos that the raw material of his and his cultures experience is transmuted into living, breathing stories, in an alchemical transmutation, a magical re-animation of past time into present and future time. My transfiguration into a more spiritual state was complete when listening in quiet contemplation. For I was given, if only for a very brief moment, access to the pain of our first peoples and a vision of hope for their future healing.

Still singing, still Dreaming,
still loving… and certainly not dying.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for Art Blart

Word count: 2,053

.
Many thankx to MUMA for allowing me to publish the photographs and videos in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

“At the heart of my practice is a concern with aura: what it is, how it can be photographed and how it can be repatriated.”

.
Christian Thompson

 

 

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view

 

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017
Photo: Andrew Curtis

 

Christian Thompson. 'Untitled #6' 2010

 

Christian Thompson
Untitled #6
2010
From the series King Billy
C-type print
Image courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin

 

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

 

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017 featuring stills from the video Berceuse (2017)

 

 

Christian Thompson
Berceuse (extract installation view)
2017
Three-channel digital colour video, sound
5.47 minutes
Sound design: Duane Morrison

 

 

Christian Thompson
Berceuse
2017
Three-channel digital colour video, sound
5.47 minutes
Sound design: Duane Morrison

 

 

In this newly commissioned work, Thompson sings a berceuse – a cradle song or lullaby – that combines evocative chanting and electronic elements to invoke the cultural experiences and narratives of his Bidjara culture. Intended as a gesture of re-imagining his traditional Bidjara language, which is been categorised as extinct, the work is premised on the notion that if one word of Bidjara is spoken, or sung in this case, it remains a living language.

Thompson makes subtle reference to his maternal Sephardic Jewish roots by ruminating in this work on the lullaby Nani Nani:

 

Lullaby, lullaby
The boy wants a lullaby,
The mother’s son,
Who although small will grow.

Oh, oh my lady open,
Open the door,
I come home tired,
From ploughing the fields.

Oh, I won’t open them,
You don’t come home tired,
You’ve just come back,
From seeing your new lover.

 

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

 

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017 featuring the series Museum of Others (2016)

 

Installation view of 'Museum of Others (Othering the Ethnologist, Augustus Pitt Rivers)' 2016

 

Installation view of Museum of Others (Othering the Ethnologist, Augustus Pitt Rivers) 2016

 

Christian Thompson. 'Museum of Others (Othering the Anthropologist, Walter Baldwin Spencer)' 2016

 

Christian Thompson
Museum of Others (Othering the Anthropologist, Walter Baldwin Spencer)
2016
From the series Museum of Others
C-type print

 

Installation view of 'Museum of Others (Othering the Explorer, James Cook)' 2016

 

Installation view of Museum of Others (Othering the Explorer, James Cook) 2016

 

Christian Thompson. 'Othering the Explorer, James Cook' 2016

 

Christian Thompson
Museum of Others (Othering the Explorer, James Cook)
2016
From the series Museum of Others
C-type print

 

Christian Thompson. 'Equilibrium' 2016

 

Christian Thompson
Equilibrium
2016
From the series Museum of Others
C-type print

 

 

Museum of others is Thompson’s most recent photographic series and continues to reflect on his time at the University of Oxford. It features several ‘dead white males’ from the pantheon of British and Australian culture. The explorer, the ethnologist and the anthropologist all had roles in the process of colonisation in Australia but the art critic is particular to Thompson; Ruskin was the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at University of Oxford, just as Thompson was one of its first Australian Aboriginal students. Thompson explains his motivation for the series:

“Historically, it was the western gaze that was projected onto the ethnic other and I thought I’ll create a ‘museum of others’ and I’ll be the one othering, so to speak. ‘Equilibrium’ is based around the idea that the vessel is the equaliser. The vessel is the cradle of all civilisations. We all have that in common.”

Wall text from the exhibition

 

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

 

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017 featuring photographs from the series We bury our own 2010 (C-type prints)
Photo: Andrew Curtis

 

 

We bury our own is a body of work that was developed in response to the historic collection of photography, featuring Aboriginal people from the late nineteenth century, at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Thompson noted in 2012 that these early images “have permeated my work over the last year. They have remained at the forefront of every artistic experiment and they have pushed me into new territory, they have travelled with me… I was drawn to elements of opulence, ritual, homage, fragility, melancholy, strength and even a sense of play operating in the photographs…”

Each of Thompson’s lyrical photographic images from We bury our own and Pagan sun feature himself partially disguised with props and costumes. The works are virtually monochromatic with elements highlighted in full colour, and his eyes, or face, are partially concealed or painted. The use of votive objects is explained in his equally lyrical 2012 statement: “I lamented the passing of the flowers at the meadow, I lit candles and offered blood to the ancestral beings, looked into the black sparkling sea, donned the Oxford garb, visited the water by fire light and bowed at the knees of the old father ghost gum.”

Text from the Turner Galleries website

 

Christian Thompson. 'Energy Matter' 2010

 

Christian Thompson
Energy Matter
2010
From the series We bury our own
C-type print

 

Christian Thompson. 'Lamenting the flowers' 2010

 

Christian Thompson
Lamenting the flowers
2010
From the series We bury our own
C-type print

 

Christian Thompson. 'Forgiveness of Land' 2010

 

Christian Thompson
Forgiveness of Land
2010
From the series We bury our own
C-type print

 

Christian Thompson. 'Down Under World' 2010

 

Christian Thompson
Down Under World
2010
From the series We bury our own
C-type print

 

 

“I conceived the We Bury Our Own series in 2010 after curator Christopher Morton invited me to develop a body of work that would be inspired by and in dialogue with the Australian photographic collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum…

The archival images have permeated my work over the last year. They have remained at the forefront of every artistic experiment and pushed me into new territory; they have travelled with me to residencies at the Fonderie Darling in Montreal and Greene Street Studio, New York. I was drawn to elements of opulence, ritual, homage, fragility, melancholy, strength and even a sense of play operating in the photographs. The simplicity of a monochrome and sepia palette, the frayed delicate edges and the cracks on the surface like a dry desert floor that reminded me of the salt plains of my own traditional lands.

I wanted to generate an aura around this series, a meditative space that was focused on freeing oneself of hurt, employing crystals and other votive objects that emit frequencies that can heal, ward off negative energies, psychic attack, geopathic stress and electro magnetic fields, and, importantly, transmit ideas.

I lamented the passing of the flowers at the meadow, I lit candles and offered blood to the ancestral beings, looked into the black sparkling sea, donned the Oxford garb, visited the water by fire light and bowed at the knees of the old father ghost gum. I asked the photographs in the Pitt Rivers Museum to be catalysts and waited patiently to see what ideas and images would surface in the work, I think with surprising results. Perhaps this is what art is able to do, perform a ‘spiritual repatriation’ rather than a physical one, fragment the historical narrative and traverse time and place to establish a new realm in the cosmos, set something free, allow it to embody the past and be intrinsically connected to the present?

I heard a story many years ago from some old men, they told me about a ceremony where young warriors would make incisions through the flesh exposing the joints, they would insert gems between the bones to emulate the creator spirits, often enduring infection and agonizing pain or resulting in death. The story has stuck with me for many years, one that suggests immense pain fused with intoxicating beauty. The idea of aspiring to embody the creators, to transgress the physical body by offering to our gods our spiritual heart, freeing ourselves of suffering by inducing a kind of excruciating decadent torture. This was something that played on my mind during the production of this series of photos and video work. The deliverance of the spirit back to land – the notion that art could be the vehicle for such a passage, the aspiration to occupy a space that belongs to something higher than one’s physical self.”

Christian Thompson

 

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

 

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017 featuring Ship of dreams, Ancient bloom, Death’s second self, and Gods and kings from the series Imperial relic 2015 (C-type prints) and a still from the video dead tongue 2015
Photo: Andrew Curtis

 

 

In Dead tongue Thompson continues to interrogate the implications of England’s empirical quest on the former colonies of the British Empire through the threat to or loss of Indigenous languages. In works such as this, Thompson actively challenges the perception that Aboriginal culture has become reduced to a captured trophy of Empire.

Wall text from the exhibition

 

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

 

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017 featuring Ship of dreams, Ancient bloom, Death’s second self, and Gods and kings from the series Imperial relic 2015 (C-type prints)
Photo: Andrew Curtis

 

 

In … Imperial relic, he continues to use himself as the ‘armature for his characters, costumes and various props’. Drawing on his background in sculpture, he has created ‘wearable sculptures’ including a trumpet shaped shirt collar, an eruption of white flowers from a union jack hoodie, and an armature of maps. In each his face is partially or fully obscured again. “I’m interested in ideas of submission and domination,” he says. “So the trumpet headpiece is beautiful, but it also potentially muffles or silences the voice. The same thing with maps: they are purporting different kinds of historical narrative, depending who is telling the story. One is about the history of Indigenous people, one is about the history of white colonisers and then one is about the idea of charting the land and of discovery. I’m wearing it as an armature over my own body: that’s part of my own history but also of Australian history.”

Text from the Turner Galleries website

 

Christian Thompson. 'Ancient bloom' 2015

 

Christian Thompson
Ancient bloom
2015
From the series Imperial relic
C-type print on fuji pearl metallic paper
100 x 100 cm
Image courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin

 

Christian Thompson. 'Ship of dreams' 2015

 

Christian Thompson
Ship of dreams
2015
From the series Imperial relic
C-type print on fuji pearl metallic paper
100 x 100 cm
Image courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin

 

 

The series title Imperial relic, summarises the fundamental philosophy underpinning the colonial occupation of Australia. Like the nearby series We bury our own, it is closely connected to Thompson’s studies in the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum and shares with the Australian graffiti series Thomson’s physical presence is standing in for the Australian landscape.

The work Ancient bloom alludes to the phonograph horn out which might be heard the voice of Fanny Cochran Smith, who’s wax cylinder recordings of songs are the only historical audio recordings of any of the Tasmanian Aboriginal languages. Is also represents a Victorian-era shirt collar – a motif that has appeared in Thompson’s work since his Emotional striptease series of 2003 – but here is exaggerated into a soft-sculptural form that both projects and stifles the voice.

In Death’s second self the artist’s face is uncovered but distorted by make up and digital postproduction effects.The title quotes William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73:

As after sunset fadeth in the west, 
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In God and Kings Thompson is cloaked with a map of Aboriginal language groups like a coat of armour. In the Ship of dreams he reprises the motif of Australian flora obscuring his face but here his hoodie is stitched together from several flags: the red ensign (flown by British registered ships), the RAAF flag and the Australian flag.

 

“I’m interested in ideas of submission and domination … So the trumpet headpiece is beautiful, but it also potentially muffles or silences the voice. The same thing with maps: they are purporting different kinds of historical narrative, depending who is telling the story. One is about the history of Indigenous people, one is about the history of white colonisers and then one is about the idea of charting the land and of discovery. I’m wearing it as an armature over my own body: that’s part of my own history but also of Australian history.”

.
Christian Thompson

 

 

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

 

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017 featuring Isabella kept her dignity, I’m not going anywhere without you, Dead as a door nail and Hannah’s diary from the series Lost together 2009 (C-type prints)
Photo: Andrew Curtis

 

 

On 13 February 2008 then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made an official apology to Aboriginal Australians for the Stolen Generations – the children of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were removed from their families between 1910 and 1970 under the respective Federal and State government policies of assimilation. At the time, Thompson was preparing to leave Australia for further studies aboard and felt this historic gesture allowed him to proudly take his culture and history with him as he ventured into the world.

Thompson photographed the series Lost together in the Netherlands while studying at the DasArts Academy of Theatre and Dance at Amsterdam University. The theme of the orange throughout the series is a reference to the national colour of the Netherlands, while the tartan patterning refers to early clan societies in the United Kingdom. The combination of these different styles is based on counter-cultural aesthetics – particularly punk collage of 1970s London.

 

Christian Thompson. 'Hannah's Diary' 2009

 

Christian Thompson
Hannah’s Diary
2009
From the series Lost Together
C-type print
Image courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin

 

 

MUMA | Monash University Museum of Art is proud to announce the first major survey exhibition of the work of Bidjara artist, Christian Thompson, one of Australia’s leading and most intriguing contemporary artists.

Thompson works across photography, video, sculpture, performance and sound, interweaving themes of identity, race and history with his lived experience. His work is held in the collections of major state and national art museums in Australia and internationally.

Thompson made history as one of the first two Aboriginal Australians to be accepted into the University of Oxford as a Charlie Perkins Scholar, where he completed his Doctorate of Philosophy (Fine Art) in 2016. Christian Thompson: Ritual Intimacy opens as the artist looks forward to the graduation ceremony in July, when he will be conferred his degree.

Featuring a major new commission created for this exhibition, Christian Thompson: Ritual Intimacy will survey Thompson’s diverse practice, spanning fifteen years, and will also be accompanied by the publication of the first monograph on the artist’s career and work, including essays by Brian Catling RA and Professor Dame Marina Warner DBE, CBE, FBA, FRSL.

The specially commissioned installation will be an ambitious multichannel composition, developing the sonic experimentation that is a signature of Thompson’s work. Incorporating Bidjara language, it will invite viewers into an immersive space of wall-to-wall imagery and sound:

“Bidjara is officially an endangered language but my work is motivated by the simple yet profound idea that if even one word of an endangered language is spoken it continues to be a living language,” Thompson says.

Christian Thompson: Ritual Intimacy explores the unique perspective and breadth of Thompson’s practice from the fashioning of identity through to his ongoing interest in Indigenous language as the expression of cultural survival. The new multichannel work will develop musical ideas Thompson has previously explored.

“It will be a much more ambitious iteration of a song in Bidjara. At one stage I’m singing on one screen and then other versions of me appear singing the melodies. I really see it as an opportunity to do something that’s more complex musically, more textured sonically – I also want it to be more intricate with my use of language,” the artist says.

Ritual Intimacy is curated by MUMA director Charlotte Day and guest curator Hetti Perkins. Day explains that the exhibition is part of MUMA’s Australian artist series, which affords the opportunity to look at each artist’s practice in depth. “Christian’s exhibition traces a particularly productive period of research and development, from early well-known works such as the Australian Graffiti series to more recent experiments with language in sound and song works,” Day says.

A long-time curatorial collaborator with Thompson, Perkins is the writer and presenter of art + soul, the ABC’s acclaimed television series about contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. Thompson was accepted to Oxford University on an inaugural Charlie Perkins Scholarship, set up to honour Hetti Perkins’s famous father – a leader, activist and the first Aboriginal Australian to graduate from university. Perkins says the MUMA exhibition is well-earned recognition for Thompson’s work, which she featured in the second series of art + soul.

“Christian has spent periods of his adult life, as a practicing artist, away from home, but there is a common thread in his work, and it’s this connection to home or Country,” Perkins says. “In terms of the rituals or rites of the exhibition title, he is constantly reiterating that connection to home – through words, through performance, through his art, through ideas and writing,” she says.

Alongside performance and ritual, Thompson’s concept of “spiritual repatriation” is central to his work. Working with the Australian collection at famed ethnographic storehouse the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, the artist was offered copies of colonial photographs of Aboriginal people but preferred not to work this way. Instead, he chose to spend significant periods of time with these ancestral images, absorbing their “aura” in order to then make his own artistic response that did not reproduce those original problematic images.

Dr Christian Thompson is a Bidjara contemporary artist whose work explores notions of identity, cultural hybridity, and history; often referring to the relationships between these concepts and the environment. Formally trained as a sculptor, Thompson’s multidisciplinary practice engages mediums such as photography, video, sculpture, performance, and sound. His work focuses on the exploration of identity, sexuality, gender, race, and memory. In his live performances and conceptual anti-portraits he inhabits a range of personas achieved through handcrafted sculptures and carefully orchestrated poses and backdrops.

Press release from MUMA

 

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

 

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017 featuring the series Polari (2014)

 

 

‘Polari’ is a form of cant or cryptic slang that evolved over several centuries from the various languages that converged in London’s theatres, circuses and fairgrounds, the merchant navy and criminal circles. It came to be associated with gay subculture, as many gay men worked in theatrical entertainment or joined ocean liners as waiters, stewards and entertainers at a time when homosexual activity was illegal. This slang rendered the speaker unintelligible to hostile outsiders, such as policeman, but fell out of use after the Sexual Offences Act (1967) effectively decriminalised homosexuality in the United Kingdom. Attracted to the theatricality and defiant nature of Polari (which he likens to the situation of Australian Indigenous languages under assimilationist policies), Thompson borrowed its name for the series which examines how subcultures express themselves.

 

Christian Thompson. 'Siren' 2014

 

Christian Thompson
Siren
2014
From the series Polari
C-type print
Image courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin

 

Christian Thompson. 'Trinity II' 2014

 

Christian Thompson
Trinity II
2014
From the series Polari
C-type print
Image courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin

 

Christian Thompson. 'Trinity III' 2014

 

Christian Thompson
Trinity III
2014
From the series Polari
C-type print
Image courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin

 

Christian Thompson. 'Ariel' 2014

 

Christian Thompson
Ariel
2014
From the series Polari
C-type print
Image courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin

 

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017 featuring

 

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

 

Christian Thompson. 'Ellipse' 2014

 

Christian Thompson
Ellipse
2014
From the series Polari
C-type print
Image courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin

 

 

Polari was a form of slang used by gay men in Britain prior to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, used primarily as a coded way for them to discuss their experiences. It quickly fell out of use in the 70s, although several words entered mainstream English and are still used today. For more about Polari see Wikipedia.

 

 

Author and academic Paul Baker of Lancaster University discusses a form of gay slang known as Polari that was spoken in Britain. It was a secret type of language used mainly by gay men and some lesbians and members of the trans, drag and other communities in the United Kingdom in the 20th century until it largely died out by the early 1970s.

 

 

Christian Thompson
Refuge
2014
Video and sound
4 mins 18 secs

 

Refuge is a video work by contemporary Australian artist Christian Thompson. Thompson sings in the endangered Bidjara language of his heritage. A collaboration with James Young formerly of ‘Nico’ and recorded the original track in Oxford, United Kingdom.

 

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

 

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017 featuring stills from the video Heat (2010)

 

 

Christian Thompson
Heat (extract)
2010
Three-channel digital colour video, sound
5.52 minutes

 

 

Like the Australian graffiti photographs [see photographs below], Heat come out of Thompson’s memories of growing up in the desert surrounding Barcaldine in central west Queensland. Barcaldine is famous for its role in the foundation organised labor in Queensland and ultimately the formation of the Australian Labor Party. It also holds historical significance for Thompson’s family as it is where his great-great-grandfather, Charlie Thompson, surreptitiously bought a block of land before Aboriginal people could legally buy land, creating a safe haven for his family and other Aboriginal families at the time when Aboriginal people had few legal rights. For Thompson, heat captures the sensation that he associates with being on his country: the dry wind blowing through his hair. It features the three granddaughters of Aboriginal rights pioneer Charlie Perkins, who are the daughters of Thompson’s Long time collaborator Hetti Perkins.

 

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

 

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017 featuring photographs from the series Australian graffiti (2007)

 

Christian Thompson. 'Untitled (Blue Gum)' 2007

 

Christian Thompson
Untitled (blue gum)
2007
From the series Australian graffiti
C-type print
Image courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin

 

Christian Thompson. 'Untitled (banksia)' 2007

 

Christian Thompson
Untitled (banksia)
2007
From the series Australian graffiti
C-type print
Monash University Collection

 

 

Australian graffiti was the last work that Thompson made before leaving Australia for Europe. It connects with his memories of growing up in the outback and its desert flowers, which he perceives to be both fragile and immensely powerful. I adorning himself with garlands of these flowers and flamboyant garments of the 1980s and 1990s – the period in which he grew up – Thompson juxtaposes these elements against his own Bidjara masculinity. By wearing native flora he also stands in for the landscape, invoking an Indigenous understanding of the landscape as a corporeal, living ancestral being.

 

 

Christian Thompson
Desert slippers
2006
Single-channel digital colour video, sound
34 seconds

 

 

Desert slippers was made at the time the Northern Territory government commissioned research into allegations of the abuse of children in Aboriginal communities. When the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report was tabled the following year, the federal government under John Howard staged the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), which quickly became known as ‘the intervention’. This action was enacted without consultation with Indigenous people and ignored the substantive recommendations of the report to which it was allegedly responding.

Thompson made this video, involving his father, and the ceremonial aspects of their daily lives, during this period. Desert slippers features a Bidjara ritual in which a father and son transfer sweat. The desert slipper is a native cactus that symbolises the transferal of the spirit back to earth as the plant grows.

 

 

Christian Thompson
Dhagunyilangu (Brother) 
(extract installation view)
2011
Single-channel digital colour video, sound, subtitled
2.19 minutes

 

 

Christian Thompson
Dhagunyilangu (Brother)

2011
Single-channel digital colour video, sound, subtitled
2.19 minutes

 

 

Gamu Mambu (Blood Song) and Dhagunyilangu (Brother) were made in England and in the Netherlands respectively. While studying at the DasArts Academy of Theatre and Dance in Amsterdam, a centre for the study of early musical styles such as the baroque, Thompson realised that his own Bidjara language could be interpreted through the matrix of another cultural context and sphere. He undertook operatic training with this in mind, choosing in the end to work with specialist singers Sonja Gruys and Jeremy Vinogradov to realise the two works.

 

 

Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA)
Ground Floor, Building F,
Monash University Caulfield campus,
900 Dandenong Road,
Caulfield East, VIC 3145
T: 61 3 9905 4217

Opening hours:
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Saturday 12 – 5pm

Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) website

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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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