Posts Tagged ‘remembrance

15
Nov
13

Text: “The Book of Memory” extract from Paul Auster’s ‘The Invention of Solitude’ 1982

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“The Book of Memory. Book Four.

Several blank pages. To be followed by profuse illustrations. Old family photographs, for each person his own family, going back as many generations as possible. To look at these with utmost care.

Afterwards, several sequences of reproductions, beginning with the portraits Rembrandt painted of his son, Titus. To include all of them: from the view of the little boy in 1650 (golden hair, red feathered cap) to the 1655 portrait of Titus ‘puzzling over his lessons’ (pensive, at his desk, compass dangling from his left hand, right thumb pressed against his chin) to Titus in 1658 (seventeen years old, the extraordinary red hat, and, as one commentator has written, ‘The artist has painted his son with the same sense of penetration usually reserved for his own features’) to the last surviving canvas of Titus, from the early 1660s: ‘the face seems that of a weak old man ravaged with disease. Of course, we look at it with hindsight – we know that Titus will predecease his father…’

To be followed by the 1602 portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh and his eight-year-old-son Wat (artist unknown) that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. To note: the uncanny similarity of their poses. Both father and son facing forward, left hands on hips, right feet pointing forward, and the somber determination on the boy’s face to imitate the self-confident, imperious stare of the father. To remember: that when Raleigh was released after a thirteen-year incarceration in the Tower of London (1618) and launched out on a doomed voyage to Guiana to clear his name, Wat was with him. To remember that Wat, leading a reckless military charge against the Spanish, lost his life in the jungle. Raleigh to his wife: ‘I have never known what sorrow meant until now.’ And so went he went back to England, and allowed the King to chop of his head.

To be followed by more photographs, perhaps several dozen: Mallarmé’s son, Anatole; Anne Frank (‘This is a photo that shows me as I should always like to look. Then I would surely have a chance to go to Hollywood. but now, unfortunately, I usually look different’); Mur; the children of Cambodia; the children of Atlanta. The dead children. The children who will vanish, the children who are dead. Himmler: ‘I have made the decision to annihilate every Jewish child from the face of the earth.’ Nothing but pictures. Because, at a certain point, the words lead one to conclude that it is no longer possible to speak. Because these pictures are the unspeakable.”

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Paul Auster. “The Book of Memory,” from The Invention of Solitude. Faber and Faber, 1982, pp. 102-103.

Please click on the images for a larger version.

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pmmsm_h-WEB

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Marcus Bunyan
Untitled (family)
2005
From the series Photos my mother sent me, 2005

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1641-1668) 'Portrait of a Boy in Fancy Dress (Titus)' c. 1655

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1641-1668)
Portrait of a Boy in Fancy Dress (Titus)
c. 1655
Oil on canvas

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1641-1668) 'Portrait of Titus' 1655

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1641-1668)
Portrait of Titus
1655
Oil on canvas

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1641-1668) 'The Artists Son Titus' 1657

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1641-1668)
The Artists Son Titus
1657
Oil on canvas

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1641-1668) 'Portrait of Titus' 1663

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1641-1668)
Portrait of Titus
1663
Oil on canvas

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Unknown artist. 'Sir Walter Ralegh and son' 1602

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Unknown artist
Sir Walter Ralegh and son
1602
Oil on canvas
78 1/2 in. x 50 1/8 in. (1994 mm x 1273 mm)
Given by Lennard family, 1954
National Portrait Gallery, London

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Anonymous. 'Portrait of Anatole Mallarmé' c. 1874

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Anonymous
Portrait of Anatole Mallarmé
c. 1874
Photograph

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Unknown photographer. 'Anne Frank' 10th October 1942

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Unknown photographer
Anne Frank
10th October 1942
Hand written note from The Diary of a Young Girl

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Photos of child victims on display at the Toul Sleng Genocide museum in Cambodia

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Photos of child victims on display at the Toul Sleng Genocide museum in Cambodia

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Unknown photographer. 'Executions of Kiev Jews by German army mobile killing units (Einsatzgruppen) near Ivangorod Ukraine' 1942

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Unknown photographer
Executions of Kiev Jews by German army mobile killing units (Einsatzgruppen) near Ivangorod Ukraine. A woman protects a child with her body as Einsatzgruppen soldiers aim their rifles
1942

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Executions of Kiev Jews by German army mobile killing units (Einsatzgruppen) near Ivangorod Ukraine. The photo was mailed from the Eastern Front to Germany and intercepted at a Warsaw post office by a member of the Polish resistance collecting documentation on Nazi war crimes. The original print was owned by Tadeusz Mazur and Jerzy Tomaszewski and now resides in Historical Archives in Warsaw. The original German inscription on the back of the photograph reads, “Ukraine 1942, Jewish Action [operation], Ivangorod.”

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17
Aug
13

Catalogue essay by Dr Marcus Bunyan / Exhibition: ‘Sudarios (Shrouds)’ by Erika Diettes at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale

Exhibition dates: 17th August – 15th September 2013

Entry free, open daily 10 am – 5pm

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This exhibition is one of the core programs for this year’s Ballarat International Foto Biennale and I had the privilege of writing the catalogue essay for the Colombian artist Erika Diettes. I met the delightful Erika and her husband today at the opening of BiFB on their first trip to Australia and I must say the art hangs very well in the Mining Exchange building.

This was one of the most difficult but rewarding pieces that I have ever had to write.
In reading, I hope you gather the full import of the text.

Text © Marcus Bunyan. All images © Marcus Bunyan, Erika Diettes and Ballarat International Foto Biennale.

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Intimations of Mor(t)ality: Sudarios (Shrouds) by Erika Diettes

by Dr Marcus Bunyan

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“There is now a vast repository of images that make it harder to maintain [a] kind of moral defectiveness. Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing – may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget.”

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Susan Sontag Regarding the Pain of Others 2003 1

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When I was asked to write the catalogue essay on Colombian artist Erika Diettes’ work Sudarios (Shrouds) by editor Esther Gyorki for the Ballarat International Foto Biennale the work gave me pause. What could I say about it that was relevant, insightful and spoke from the heart? I wrote back to Esther saying I needed to do some background research: “This is difficult subject matter and I want to make sure I can do it justice before I commit to writing about it.”2 In a synchronous way that often happens in the world, that is ultimately what this text is about – justice.

The basics are easily told. Artist and anthropologist Erika Diettes travelled to different cities in the department of Antioquia to interview women who had been present at the torture and murder of their loved ones.3 Diettes photographed the women, closely cropped in black and white, at a moment of great vulnerability – all but one with their eyes closed. The resultant twenty photographs were printed on seven feet tall silk panels and form the work Sudarios (shrouds are a burial cloak, a cloth that shrouds the body of the deceased). The artist always intended for these images to be printed on silk and had the installation in mind before she took the photographs: in other words previsualisation was strong. The work is usually displayed in sacred spaces such as churches and convents with a sound track of a barely audible, sighing female voice; here in Ballarat the work is hung in the former Mining Exchange building, a seat of colonial power and wealth which can be read as appropriate for the presentation of this work, for torture is always about the power of one person over another. The viewer can walk through these floating realities and be enfolded in the aggrieved women’s sorrow as if part of a ceremonial procession, perhaps a funeral cortege.

In her creation of an allegorical space for mourning, Diettes work acts as a funeral rite for both living and dead, acts of mourning placed in a context of splendour. The images evoke the representation of the death of Saint Sebastian, the faces recalling “the exquisite suffering of the Catholic saints and martyrs, but also of refugees and victims of contemporary traumas,”4 while the atrocities perpetrated on the body are hidden by the close cropping of the images. As Diettes observes, “You can’t help being a little pierced by their exhalations,”5 an indirect reference by Diettes to the arrows that pierce Saint Sebastian’s body. Diettes opens a space before the camera for the human ‘being’ in context, a terrain (of) or becoming, where the terrors are written on the countenance of the women, their mouths silently singing their song of mourning. Look at their mouths, each one contorted in agony, each one giving voice to the memory of terror.

These are confronting images about trauma and grief, documenting the ongoing effects of atrocity on the mind of the observer for they are portrayals of the effect of intim(id)ation, where intimations of mortality are evidenced by the removal of an identity, the beloved id, which reveals the intimate – expressed in the adoration/adornment of the women with jewellery which signifies the women’s dignity, comfort, and continuing engagement with the world as an extension of personal self/belief.

The signs of erasure of these murders are rearticulated through Diettes work. The bodies are held in suspended animation, in endless agony, through an act of re-terror-itorialization. Through the evacuation of loved ones, their discontinuity and deterritorialization, and the reterritorialization / re-terroring of that space through memory – portrayed on the faces of the women – the images recast and represent issues of power, domination and abuse. Through suspended sorrow, suspended mourning, the disappearance of some bodies and the speaking of others, the images become a representation of a doubled absence, a doubled momenti mori – for the photographs picture the women (making them dead) as they themselves remember the violence perpetrated before them from behind closed eyes (as the dead have their eyes closed), remembering in their mind’s eye the death of the beloved. The image of the victim has become a ghost, a trace etched upon the face of the relative, a trace of that which “persists and gives testimony of a vanished state” in art, for if art is linked to memory and to what survives, it is from the perspective of its own corpse-oreality, its own ghostly and fragile materiality that these images emerge: the hanged man, the hung woman. Remaking but always recording the past through interaction with the present, the shrouds are a palimpsest in which “personal memories are always interwoven with historical consciousness”6 and are constantly being rewritten.

Of course the photographs elicit our empathy but more than that they make us feel their terrible vulnerability while drawing us into uncomfortable complicity as subsidiary witnesses to the event.7 Normally when looking at a photograph the viewer is a secondary witness but here the viewer becomes a tertiary witness – the actual event, the memory of that event etched on the face of the women captured by the camera and now observed by the viewer. There is an osmotic effect taking place as one as one image is super imposed on another. Even after an event is over, “there’s an after image or an echo that exists… a spirit or a residue, a trace.”8 These visions are like images of the Holocaust. As soon as we see them we are implicated in a narrative – and we are helpless in this process – which is an essential part of history.

Diettes work reframes the subject because there is no traditional frame of reference for the viewer, only a memory of that reference in the form of a ghost-like shroud. The normal definition of a shroud no longer pertains to these images for the cloth is no longer around a dead body but represents / holds a trace of what was once dead.

As spirit photographs in the Victorian era solidified a fractured, unknown reality, so these apparitions of the departed are brought forth and solidified, just for a moment, in the faces of the suffering women. The viewer of these images does not see the (dead) carrier of messages, but only their shadows carried by the grief of their loved ones, shrouded as they are in remembrances of the past. We feel that the women are not looking at us but that the aura of their invisible seeing is directed toward us from outside of its normative context – from behind their eyes. It is this imprint on the Shrouds; the imprint of their memories that travels great distances towards us, that enfolds us in sorrow and shadow.

“It is the special feeling of the ‘presence’ of a work produced not by its remaining where it is but by its moving across boundaries where it reaches us from a distance, looking at us even when it appears not to. It is where the work seems peculiarly meant for us even in its indifference to or difference from us.”9

If photographs really are “experience captured” then Diettes explores this arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood,10 probing the limitation of the medium, shaping the space within the available conditions. Her images become images of sentience that enable the viewer to live in the world with open eyes (while the victims eyes are closed) – to be made aware of the injustices of this world and not remain silent. Diettes work is not about remembering, it’s about an answerable “not forgetting” for hers… is to remind us of the responsibility to make art in response to mor(t)ality.

As human beings, we must fight for the right to be heard and use art as a visual language to textualise our experience and thereby make it available for interpretation and closure. Powerful, simple questions (and I believe) undeniable questions have to be asked; and in response to those questions (power: it will corrupt you, but if you don’t want it, it will be used against you), intelligence, justice and integrity must be used in the service of art. While human truth may be ephemeral qualities like justice are not; the struggle is to define justice and to live it. And for artists to display it.

You place innocence at the heart of human depravity – and hope it survives.

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Melbourne 2013

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Endnotes

1. Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2003, p.102.

2. Email to Esther Gyorki. Tue, March 26, 2013

3. The capital of the department of Antioquia is Medellin. The city is a 35-minute flight from the Colombian capital Bogota and has one of the highest rates of violence concerning drugs in Colombia. Most of the crimes were committed between 2001 and 2008.

4. Anon. “Berlinde De Bruyckere Into One-Another To P.P.P.” on the Hauser and Wirth website [Online] Cited May 5, 2013.
www.hauserwirth.com/exhibitions/899/berlinde-de-bruyckere-into-one-another-to-p-p-p/view/

5. Diettes, Erika quoted in Tobón, Paola Cardona. “The exhalation of sorrow,” in  El Colombiano, November 4, 2012 [Online] Cited Cited May 5, 2013.
erikadiettes.com/links/prensa/houston/02_ExhalationOfSorrow_ElColombiano_v2.pdf

6. Garb, Tamar. “A Land of Signs,” in Journal of Contemporary African Art 26, Spring 2010, p.11.

7. Op. cit. “Berlinde De Bruyckere Into One-Another To P.P.P.”

8. Rakes, Rachael and Goldsmith, Leo. “Pasolini’s Body: Cathy Lee Crane with Leo Goldsmith and Rachael Rakes,” on The Brooklyn Rail website. January 13, 2013 [Online] Cited May 5, 2013.
www.brooklynrail.org/2013/02/film/pasolinis-body-cathy-lee-crane-with-leo-goldsmith-rachael-rakes

9. Butler, Rex. “”Lines”, Leading Out of Sight?: Is Aboriginal Art Losing its Aura?” in Australian Art Collector No. 13, July-September 2000, p.87.

10. Campany, David. “Photography and Photographs,” on the Still Searching blog. April 14, 2013 [Online] Cited May 11, 2013.
blog.fotomuseum.ch/2013/04/1-photography-and-photographs/#more-1282

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Installation photographs of 'Sudarios (Shrouds)' by Erika Diettes at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat. Photographs by Marcus Bunyan

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Installation photographs of 'Sudarios (Shrouds)' by Erika Diettes at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat. Photographs by Marcus Bunyan

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Installation photographs of 'Sudarios (Shrouds)' by Erika Diettes at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat. Photographs by Marcus Bunyan

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Installation photographs of 'Sudarios (Shrouds)' by Erika Diettes at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat. Photographs by Marcus Bunyan

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Installation photographs of 'Sudarios (Shrouds)' by Erika Diettes at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat. Photographs by Marcus Bunyan

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Installation photographs of 'Sudarios (Shrouds)' by Erika Diettes at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat. Photographs by Marcus Bunyan

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Installation photographs of 'Sudarios (Shrouds)' by Erika Diettes at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat. Photographs by Marcus Bunyan

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Installation photographs of 'Sudarios (Shrouds)' by Erika Diettes at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat. Photographs by Marcus Bunyan

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Installation photographs of 'Sudarios (Shrouds)' by Erika Diettes at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat. Photographs by Marcus Bunyan

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Installation photographs of 'Sudarios (Shrouds)' by Erika Diettes at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat. Photographs by Marcus Bunyan

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Installation photographs of 'Sudarios (Shrouds)' by Erika Diettes at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat. Photographs by Marcus Bunyan

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Installation photographs of 'Sudarios (Shrouds)' by Erika Diettes at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat. Photographs by Marcus Bunyan

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Installation photographs of 'Sudarios (Shrouds)' by Erika Diettes at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat. Photographs by Marcus Bunyan

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Installation photographs of Sudarios (Shrouds) by Erika Diettes at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat
Photographs by Marcus Bunyan
© Marcus Bunyan, Erika Diettes and Ballarat International Foto Biennale

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Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Ballarat International Foto Biennale
Mining Exchange building
8 Lydiard St N
Ballarat VIC 3350
T: (03) 5333 4242

Ballarat International Foto Biennale website

Erika Diettes website

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24
Jan
13

Exhibition: ‘WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath’ at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston – Posting Part 4

Exhibition dates: 11th November 2012 – 3rd February 2013

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Part 4 of the biggest posting on one exhibition that I have ever undertaken on Art Blart!

As befits the gravity of the subject matter this posting is so humongous that I have had to split it into 4 separate postings. This is how to research and stage a contemporary photography exhibition that fully explores its theme. The curators reviewed more than one million photographs in 17 countries, locating pictures in archives, military libraries, museums, private collections, historical societies and news agencies; in the personal files of photographers and service personnel; and at two annual photojournalism festivals producing an exhibition that features 26 sections (an inspired and thoughtful selection) that includes nearly 500 objects that illuminate all aspects of WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY.

I have spent hours researching and finding photographs on the Internet to support the posting. It has been a great learning experience and my admiration for photographers of all types has increased. I have discovered the photographs and stories of new image makers that I did not know and some enlightenment along the way. I despise war, I detest the state and the military that propagate it and I surely hate the power, the money and the ethics of big business that support such a disciplinarian structure for their own ends. I hope you meditate on the images in this monster posting, an exhibition on a subject matter that should be consigned to the history books of human evolution.

**Please be aware that there are graphic photographs in all of these postings.** Part 1Part 2Part 3

Marcus

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Many thankx to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston for allowing me to publish some of the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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25. Photographs in the “Memorials” section range from the tomb of an unknown World War I soldier in England, by Horace Nicholls; and a landscape of black German crosses throughout a World War II burial site, by Bertrand Carrière; to an anonymous photograph of a reunion scene in Gettysburg of the opposing sides in the Civil War; and Joel Sternfeld’s picture of a woman and her daughter at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, in 1986. (8 images)

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Horace Nicholls. 'The Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey, London, November 1920' 1920

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Horace Nicholls
The Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey, London, November 1920
1920
Silver gelatin print
© IWM (Q 31514)

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In order to commemorate the many soldiers with no known grave, it was decided to bury an ‘Unknown Warrior’ with all due ceremony in Westminster Abbey on Armistice Day in 1920. The photograph shows the coffin resting on a cloth in the nave of Westminster Abbey before the ceremony at the Cenotaph and its final burial.

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Anon. 'Under blue & gray - Gettysburg' July 1913

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Anon
Under blue & gray – Gettysburg
July 1913
Photo shows the Gettysburg Reunion (the Great Reunion) of July 1913, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

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Bertrand Carrière. 'Untitled' 2005-2009

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Bertrand Carrière
Untitled
2005-2009
from the series Lieux Mêmes [Same Places]

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Joel Sternfeld American (born 1944) 'Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C.,' May 1986

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Joel Sternfeld American (born 1944)
Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C.,
May 1986
Chromogenic print, ed. #1/25 (printed October 1986)
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Target Collection of American Photography, gift of the artist
© 1986 Joel Sternfeld

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26. The last gallery in the exhibition is “Remembrance.” Most of these images were taken by artists seeking to come to terms with a conflict after fighting had ceased. Included are Richard Avedon’s picture of a Vietnamese napalm victim; a survivor of a machete attack in a Rwandan death camp, by James Nachtwey; a 1986 portrait of a hero who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, by Houston native Gay Block; and Suzanne Opton’s 2004 portrait of a soldier who survived the Iraq War and returned to the United States to work as a police officer, only to be murdered on duty by a fellow veteran. The final wall features photographs by Simon Norfolk of sunrises at the five D-Day beaches in 2004. The only reference to war is the title of the series: The Normandy Beaches: We Are Making a New World(33 images)

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Richard Avedon. 'Napalm Victim #1, Saigon, South Vietnam, April 29, 1971' 1971

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Richard Avedon
Napalm Victim #1, Saigon, South Vietnam, April 29, 1971
1971
Silver gelatin print
© Richard Avedon

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Gay Block American, b.1942 'Zofia Baniecka, Poland' 1986

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Gay Block American, b.1942
Zofia Baniecka, Poland
1986
From the series Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust, a record of non-Jewish citizens from European countries who risked their lives helping to hide Jews from the Nazis
Chromogenic print, printed 1994
Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Clinton T. Wilour in honour of Eve France

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Zofia Baniecka (born 1917 in Warsaw – 1993) was a Polish member of the Resistance during World War II. In addition to relaying guns and other materials to resistance fighters, Baniecka and her mother rescued over 50 Jews in their home between 1941 and 1944.

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James Nachtwey. 'A Hutu man who did not support the genocide had been imprisoned in the concentration camp, was starved and attacked with machetes.  He managed to survive after he was freed and was placed in the care of the Red Cross, Rwanda, 1994' 1994

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James Nachtwey
A Hutu man who did not support the genocide had been imprisoned in the concentration camp, was starved and attacked with machetes. He managed to survive after he was freed and was placed in the care of the Red Cross, Rwanda, 1994
1994
Silver gelatin print
© James Nachtwey / TIME

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Simon Norfolk British (born Nigeria, 1963) 'Sword Beach' 2004

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Simon Norfolk British (born Nigeria, 1963)
Sword Beach
2004
from the series The Normandy Beaches: We Are Making a New World
Chromogenic print, ed. #1/10 (printed 2006)
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Bari and David Fishel, Brooke and Dan Feather and Hayley Herzstein in honor of Max Herzstein and a partial gift of the artist and Gallery Luisotti, Santa Monica
© Simon Norfolk / Gallery Luisotti

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Other photographs from the exhibition

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Matsumoto Eiichi Japanese, 1915-2004 'Shadow of a soldier remaining on the wooden wall of the Nagasaki military headquarters (Minami-Yamate machi, 4.5km from Ground Zero)' 1945

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Matsumoto Eiichi Japanese, 1915-2004
Shadow of a soldier remaining on the wooden wall of the Nagasaki military headquarters (Minami-Yamate machi, 4.5km from Ground Zero)
1945
Gelatin silver print
Collection of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography
© Matsumoto Eiichi

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Gilles Caron French, 1939-1970 'Young Catholic demonstrator on Londonderry Wall, Northern Ireland' 1969

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Gilles Caron French, 1939-1970
Young Catholic demonstrator on Londonderry Wall, Northern Ireland
1969
Gelatin silver print
Courtesy of Foundation Gilles Caron and Contact Press Images
© Gilles Caron

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Alexander Gardner, American, 1821-1882- ‘The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania’. Albumen paper print

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Alexander Gardner American, 1821-1882
The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter / Dead Confederate soldier in the devil’s den, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
July 1863
Albumen paper print copied from glass, wet collodion negative
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

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Ziv Koren Israeli, b.1970 'A sniper’s-eye view of Rafah, in the Southern Gaza strip, during an Israeli military sweep' 2006

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Ziv Koren Israeli, b.1970
A sniper’s-eye view of Rafah, in the Southern Gaza strip, during an Israeli military sweep
2006
Inkjet print, printed 2012
© Ziv Koren/Polaris Images

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David Leeson American, b.1957 'Death of a Soldier, Iraq' March 24, 2003

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David Leeson American, b.1957
Death of a Soldier, Iraq
March 24, 2003
Inkjet print, printed 2012
Courtesy of the artist

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August Sander German, 1876-1964 'Soldier' c. 1940

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August Sander German, 1876-1964
Soldier
c. 1940
Gelatin silver print, printed by Gunther Sander, 1960s
The MFAH, gift of John S. and Nancy Nolan Parsley in honour of the 65th birthday of Anne Wilkes Tucker
© Die Photographische Sammlung/SK StiftungKultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne; DACS, London 2012

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Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
1001 Bissonnet Street
Houston, TX 77005

Opening hours:
Tuesday, Wednesday 10.00 am – 5.00 pm
Thursday 10.00 am – 9.00 pm
Friday, Saturday 10.00 am – 7.00 pm
Sunday 12.15 pm – 7.00 pm
Closed Monday, except Monday holidays
Closed Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston website

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12
Dec
08

Review: ‘The Art of Existence’ exhibition by Les Kossatz at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

Heide Museum of Modern Art has brought together nearly 100 pieces of work by the Australian artist Les Kossatz in an eclectic survey show, appropriately titled ‘The Art of Existence’. Featuring sculpture, painting and mixed media from the 1960s to the present the exhibition is appropriately titled because Kossatz’s work addresses certain archetypal themes that affect human existence: “His life-long fascination with the natural world and desire to understand both its human and animal inhabitants; exploration of the systems of knowledge and codes of behavior that structure individual and communal life; and his critical and playful reflections on contemporary behaviour and the mysteries of existence.”1

 

Les Kossatz. "Digger's glory box" 1965

 

Les Kossatz.
‘Digger’s glory box’
1965
silk, felt, canvas, cardboard, wood, brass, ink, fibre-tipped pen and synthetic polymer paint 
106.0 x 76.0 x 7.0 cm 

 

Strong symbolic paintings are the focus of the work in the 1960s, paintings that address the shocking brutality of war and its aftermath, when soldiers return home. To the observation that these are of the ‘pop-style’ school of painting suggested by the Heide website I feel these works are also influenced by the collage of Cubism, the boxes of Joseph Cornell and the dismembered bodies of Francis Bacon. They engage with the symbolism of war and remembrance: memory, myth, and the banality of heroism and sacrifice.

The key work in this series is the painting ‘Diggers throne’ (1966). This is a powerful disturbing image, effervescent and unnerving at the same time. It features a disembodied arm on the hand of a throne, surrounded by a wonderful kaleidoscopic assemblage of pictorial planes, artefacts and memories – an English flag, the flag of St George, a crown, medals and the words RSL. The arm reminds me of the Francis Bacon painting ‘Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953)’ as it rests, roughly drawn in pencil on the arm of the throne, drawing the eye back up into nothingness.

 

Francis Bacon. "Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953)"

 

Francis Bacon.
‘Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953)’

 

The ‘Diggers throne’ painting also features these prophetic words:

“throne slow to rot
and twisted the memory
becomes sacred.
Bloody was the truth
And this a chair.”

 

All other work in this period seems to flow through this painting – the other large paintings, the small canvases featuring individual medals and the less successful hanging banners. But it is to this work we return again and again as a viewer, trying to decipher and reconcile our inner conflicts about the painting.

 

Les Kossatz. "Ram in sling" 1973

 

Les Kossatz.
‘Ram in sling’
1973
cast and fabricated stainless steel and sheepskin
29.3 x 126.5 x 66.0 cm  

 

As we move into the 1970s the work changes focus and direction. There emerges a concern with the desecration of the Australian landscape investigated in a series of large paintings and sculptures. In ‘Packaged landscape 1’ (1976) a steel suitcase with leather straps, slightly ajar, fulminates with artificial gum leaves trying to escape the strictures of the trap. In ‘Caged landscape’ (1972) nature is again trapped behind steel wire, weighed in the balance on a set of miniature scales. The paintings feature trees that are surrounded by concrete and the rabbit becomes a powerful symbol for Kossatz – a suffering beast, strung up on fences, a plague in a pitted landscape of chopped down trees, erosion and empty holes.

Into this vernacular emerges the key symbol of the artist’s oeuvre – the sheep. In 1972 Kossatz began a series of sculptures of sheep, “initially inspired by the experience of nursing an injured ram.” For Kossatz “the sheep represent the hardship of pioneer existence, the grazing industries prosperity, environmental concerns and the sheep act as narrative devices, potent metaphors for human behaviour.”2

The first sheep presented ‘in show’ is ‘Ram in Sling’ (1973). In this sculpture a metal bar is suspended in mid-air and from this bar heavy wire mesh drops to support the fleecy stomach and neck of the ram almost seeming to strangle it in the process, it’s metal feet just touching the ground. Again the scales of justice seem to weigh nature in the balance.

The themes life and death, order and chaos are further developed in the work ‘Hard slide’ (1980) where a sheep emerges mid-air from a trapdoor, two more tumble down a wooden slide end over end and another disappears into the ground through a wooden trapdoor opening. Sacrifice seems to be a consistent theme with both the earlier paintings and the metallised sheep:

 

“The completed life cycle, down the trapdoor, down the chute, after sacrifice by shearing.”

Daniel Thomas 1994

 

Les Kossatz. "Hard slide" 1980

 

Les Kossatz 
‘Hard slide’
1980
sheepskins, aluminium, Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga sp.), leather, steel
372.0 x 100.0 x 304.0 cm (installation)

 

Further sculptures of sheep, both small maquettes and large sculptures follow in the next room of the exhibition. This is the artist is full flow, featuring the inventive taking of 2D things into the round, investigating the key themes of his work: the contrast between nature and artifice, or humanity.

The small maquettes of sheep feature races, gantries, sluices, pens, trapdoors and paddocks. Sheep tumble in a cataclysmic maelstrom, falling with flailing legs into the darkness of the holding pen below. These are my favourite works – small, intimate, detailed, dark bronzes of serious intensity – the sheep becoming a theatre of the absurd, suspended, weighed and balancing in the performance of ritualised acts, a cacophony of flesh at once both intricate and unsettling. Their skins lay flayed and lifeless disappearing into the ‘unearth’ of the slated wooden floor of the shearing shed. The sheep “can be viewed metaphorically as a commentary of the existential situation of the individual and collective behaviour.”3 As Kossatz himself has noted, “It is hard to bring a piece of landscape inside and give it a living animated form. The sheep somehow gives me this quality of landscape.”

But we must also remember that this strictly a white man’s view of the Australian landscape. Nowhere does this work comment on the disenfranchisement of the native people’s of this land – the destruction of native habitats that the sheep brought about, the starvation that they caused to Aboriginal people just as they bought riches to the pastoralists and the country that mined the land with this amorphous mass of flesh.

 

Les Kossatz. "Guggenheim spiral" 1983

 

Les Kossatz.
‘Guggenheim spiral’
1983

 

Recent work in the exhibition returns to the earlier social themes of memory, war, remembrance, religion, shrines, atomic clouds and temples but it is the work of the late 1970s – 1980s that is the most cogent. As Kossatz ponders the nature of existence on this planet he does not see a definitive answer but emphasizes the journey we take, not the arrival. Here is something that we should all ponder, giving time to the nature of our personal journey in this life, on this earth.

Here also is an exhibition worthy our time and attention as part of that journey. Go visit!

 

 

 

Exhibition dates: 22nd November – 8th March 2009

Heide Museum of Modern Art
7 Templestowe Road
Bulleen Victoria 3105 Australia
T +61 3 9850 1500
F +61 3 9852 0154
info@heide.com.au

Website:  www.heide.com.au

 

1.  From the Heide website at www.heide.com.au
 2. From wall notes to the exhbition
3. From wall notes to the exhbition 




Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Études’ 1994

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

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

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