The following notes are from a recent visit to the Photographer’s Gallery in London to see the finalists for this year’s DBPF prize: Sophie Calle, Dana Lixenberg, Awoiska van der Molen, and Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs
French conceptual artist Sophie Calle has been nominated for her publication My All (Actes Sud, 2016), which uses postcards to summarize all the projects she has been involved to date. In the gallery, the curator focused on a montage about the death of Calle’s mother, cat and father, in that order. This was perhaps the most popular part of the exhibition, full of people most of the time. I venture to say that part of the reason for this is Calle’s personal approach in the presentation of the material, which includes stories from her parents, an extract from her mother’s diary. People seem to be able to connect at an easier level with this.
While I found the story engaging, the pictures were another story. Images from Calle are almost as if they were taken from a stock site. They are unspecific and symbolic, some times quite graphic, but almost always impersonal, which creates a startling contrast with the accompanying text, which is revealing and intimate. I wonder if she just takes the pictures for no particular reason and then reuses them for her projects. For example, there is this end of the road sign and ram head that she uses when discussing her father’s passing away, that could have been used in many other occasions to illustrate other points. In one of the stories, Calle tells about her mother’s last activities and accompanies the text with a picture of a woman having a pedicure which looks so generic (see here) that is hard to conclude this is a picture of her mother.
Next to Sophie Calle’s space, the curator presented the work of Dutch photographer Awoiska van der Molen, which has been nominated for her exhibition Blanco at Foam Fotografie Museum, Amsterdam (22 Jan – 3 Apr 2016). This consists of a series of landscapes printed in black and white in large format. If Calle’s work is not particularly focused on photography as such, van der Molen’s approach is all about the images. These were taken on large and medium format film cameras and printed very large, sometimes perhaps too large, with the grain structure being quite prominent event from afar. These were all silver gelatine prints, hand retouched. A significant effort given the scale of the photographs on display, some of which were over 2 meters tall. According to the curator, van der Molen picture-taking process involves her being isolated in remote areas for days, something even weeks, and taking a picture when she feels attuned with the environment. In that respect, the work is very contemplative and reflective and many of the pictures have a soothing, relaxing effect that almost push the viewer into meditation. Of the pictures on display, the following were my favourites:
# 212-7 (link) van der Molen plays a lot with the idea of printing photographs darkly, which I something I have been trying to experiment with recently. Her long exposure picture of the mountain in silhouette with just light coming from the cars going up to the top is quite startling, particularly when seeing it in a full size print. I particularly enjoyed the contrast of the lights with the serenity of the mountain’s shape. It is an unbalanced picture, with all the action happening on the top third, and a large amount of negative space in the bottom two-thirds, but I somehow enjoyed that part as well, as it works as a sort of preamble to the rest, with the eyes slowly going up to where the action is. I had the opportunity of speaking to the curator of the show (Anna Dannemann) about this picture and she mentioned that because it was a long shot, the negative was full of star trails which the artist has carefully removed by retouching. The picture is not just attractive on its own, but the silver gelatin print itself is also a work of supreme craftmanship and dedication.
Continuing with the theme of printing darkly, the seascape in # 422-7 (link) is a very strange picture in as much as many people would normally conclude that it was just underexposed, as there are almost no highlights and the shadows have been rendered in a very dark grey. There is something in this picture that reminded me of Sugimoto’s work and I immediately felt very calm in front of it.
Picture # 380-14 (link) has a more abstract quality to it and is significantly more contrasty, but like the seascape before, it has a relaxing effect. These are pictures which are conductive of introspection and self-thought. In the case of Calle’s montage, the text which accompanied the pictures had a similar impact, but the pictures themselves were bland when compared with van der Molen’s.
On the floor below was room dedicated to Dana Lixenberg a Dutch photographer nominated for her publication Imperial Courts (Roma, 2015). Imperial Courts is a housing state in California, USA and Lixemberg has spent several years photographing the place as well as the people who live in it. Some of the pictures with no people are quite interesting. Tony’s Memorial (link) and Tish Baby Shower (link) have a surreal, dehumanized quality to them. The housing state looks like a prison, with bars on windows and flat numbers stencilled with paint. I find most of the portraits a bit unremarkable, except perhaps the one of Shawna with her son Kashmir (link), which captures quite well the hopelessness of living in that place. Shawna is possible a young teenager, her hands so large compared with the body of her small, crying son. She is not crying herself, but her expression somewhat manages to convey a sadness that goes within.
The final part of the show includes a room with the work of Swiss artists Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs who have been nominated for their exhibition EURASIA at Fotomuseum Winterthur (24 Oct 15 – 14 Mar 16). The installation includes a mixture of film and slide shows depicting life in various central Asian countries. An interesting part of their work had to do with contextualization. They visited museums and looked for artefacts that had been removed from places they have visited and photographed such artefacts in front of pictures of the place or region where the object came from, with some interesting results, some of which are less obviously a montage (link) than others (link)