Sunday, 4 July 2010

Ode to Grain

"The first 'photograph'. Using a pewter plate coated with light sensitive salts inside a little box with a lens attached, Niepce made the first photograph, from an upstairs window at his country estate near Chalon-sur-Saone. The exposure was eight hours." - Gerry Badger.

When something exists in deplorable quantities, one should return to the point at which that something came into existence in order to understand the true consequence of its unrestrained production. Today, the sheer quantity of images being taken by camera-wielding blind-bargainers is the abhorrent consequence of the gross misunderstanding of the eight-hour importance of the photographic image: for Niepce's sake, please, please stop taking so many photographs...

Sweet jesus... Despite this guys idiocy, some of his asinine statements point in the right direction:

Monday, 14 June 2010

Confessions/Form: The Photography of David Birkin

Diptych from the series 'Form', 2008

David Birkin’s work sits somewhere between the three paradigms of conceptual art, performance art and a tradition of abstract representations of the human subject paramount in portraiture from a number of art-historical periods. One can positively attribute Birkin’s work to a number of sources from the simply visually referential to the conceptually relevant. For example, Francis Bacon’s Figure in Movement (1985) might spring to mind when viewing Birkin’s Diptych from the series 'Form' (2009), or perhaps thematically comparable is a selection of works by the symbolist painter Franz Stuck, specifically The Sin (1893) and Sisyphus (1920) – both of which show clouded human figures contorted out of natural perspective; reclined into dark, psychological spaces not dissimilar to the human subjects in Birkin’s photographs shown here.

Diptych from the series 'Form', 2008

This work has a consistent stamina to it, both in terms of its conceptual content (statements prevalent in the work which seek to comment upon the politics of torture and confession), and on the purely visual level (his constant rendering of cold, beautiful, grain- laden portraits which are well suited to their aluminium mounts and the panels of rich colour they are often presented on in the gallery space).

Diptych from the series 'Confessions', 2009

The series Confessions began with a 2007 self-portrait of the artist sitting in a chair, one cowboy-booted leg swung over the other in a casual pose seemingly not afraid of divulging information to the camera and an empty room. This is the basis of this body of work: to allow a human subject to have the space to confess to the camera, the exposure time of the film running out the course of the subject’s affirmation. ‘Sacrament of Penance’ as it is officially called in the Catholic tradition, allows the penitent to be forgiven of his or her sins. This sublimates or purifies the confessor, allowing for a distillation of guilt or a relinquishing of sin, as one might put it. As the room is empty and divulgence only witnessed by an open camera shutter, there is no priest to pass word to god, freeing the penitent of his sins. The taking of the photograph becomes the process of absolution here; as if to announce catharsis at the close of the shutter whilst simultaneously begging the question: where is God exactly? The nature of the confession cannot be known in this situation; instead the camera captures a silent bout of time that unfolds only to be compressed again into the confines of a single image – the entire and unpredictable duration of the penance reduced to a single photographic representation.

The act of confessing is a performance of sorts. One reference the concept behind Confessions can be seen to make is to catharsis in the dramaturgical sense. The term, supposedly first used by Aristotle in his Poetics, refers to the feeling the audience of a tragedy should sense on completion of the drama; despairing emotion is pent-up throughout, only to be released at the end of the performance. Much like the shutter closing after an unspecified duration in Birkin’s Confessions, as the tragedy reaches its conclusion the audience are purified of negative emotions associated with the inherent pessimism of the play itself. What is striking about Birkin’s series, both with regard to notions of conceptuality and performativity, is how these themes appear inscribed on the surface of the image.

Diptych from the series 'Confessions', 2009

This manifests in the contradiction between the unfocused, obscured grain of the photograph at its surface and the supposed process of purification that should take place during confession. The act of cleansing (the confession) is in actual fact shown to be tainted by inexplicability at its visual conclusion (the photograph) – the viewer is proffered the opposite of clarity at the surface of the image itself. “What makes an action political is not its object or the place where it is carried out, but solely its form, the form in which the confirmation of equality is inscribed in the setting up of a dispute, of a community existing solely through being divided.” [1]

The series Form, like Confessions, shows a penitent figure. However, in contrast to Confessions, the depicted subject is not allowed the freedom of confession in his own time, but instead is tortured into disclosing information. The figures in these images hold stress positions, mimicking the discomfort a prisoner might experience whilst awaiting interrogation. The body is forced into a position that puts great quantities of pressure on its muscles, leading to severe pain and eventual muscle failure. Form represents Birkin’s nod to the relationship between politics and aesthetics, one of his specific interests being the events at Abu Ghraib, Iraq, which came to prominence in the media in 2004, and which were compared (visually) by art historian Steven F. Eisenman in his 2007 book The Abu Ghraib Effect to the following:

Prisoners at Abu Ghraib were shown in the subservient position of defeated warriors from Hellenistic Greek sculptures; naked detainees from the global ‘war on terror’ were posed (as in a tableau vivant) like the bound slaves of Michelangelo; anguished bodies evoked martyred saints in Baroque churches. In short, modern Muslims appeared to have been transported – hooded and shackled – to the marble altar of Pergamon in Berlin, the collections of the Louvre in Paris, and the crossing of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome." [2]

'Confessions', 2009

The representation of torture in Birkin’s images does not depict sublimation or confession in the sense that we understand it in Confessions; there is no act of purification here, or even the basic premise that a sin has been committed. In this sense Form subverts the principles of confession further, begging questions about how information of any kind can and should be sought from human subjects, and under what conditions they arise, be they voluntarily or forced. Increasing secularity might be decreasing the quantity of confessions being undertaken in catholic religious practices in the West, but alongside this subsidence in religious activity is a demand on behalf of the West for confession to mandatorily take place to aid war and its illegitimate politics. This is not in order for sinners to be offered relief, but instead for the giving-over of information that might benefit a misguided and destructive politics; a discourse far from rarefied in the context of the US military and their occupation of Iraq.

Birkin’s photographs contribute to what Jaques Ranciere calls ‘the ethical regime of images’. This regime begins with the platonic idea that there is a difference between art (true art; forms of (in)valuable knowledge manifested as art objects), and the arts (that spectrum of creative practices that do nothing other than to represent appearances - “artistic simulacra” [3] - as Ranciere calls them). The artist’s titling of the Form series is an unconscious metaphorising of Ranciere’s position. The aesthetic and the political work together in a cycle of interdependence; they are not conflated however, but instead exist as a result of the form they comprise in collaboration with one-another. They are perhaps in a state where they consistently dispute the legitimacy of one-another’s position yet are somewhat reliant upon their engagement to function in the first place (art comments on flawed politics and politics comments on ‘unimportant art’ (by pulling its funding)). This interdependence can also be seen by the recent trend that along with the disappearance of any morally intact political discourse in the West, we are also witnessing a decline in the quality of cultural produce in the form of aesthetic statements (art-making, building design etc.). These two co-incidences seem to link to the same thing; the majoritative attitude from both politicians and the public that the only politics we can achieve at present is a politics of “It’s not ideal, but it will do” The same could be argued about art-making and cultural production too...

In the case of art-photography there is a further addition to this cycle; the notion of the mechanical arts (Walter Benjamin), of which photography is one. In this relationship, which has been essentially prevalent in discussions since the industrial revolution, technology joins the collaboration creating a cyclical movement where aesthetics, politics and technology revolve together. David Birkin’s work makes an important contribution to this cycle by retaining enough integrity that if two of the three elements were removed the remaining one could still stand up. It, importantly, is able to progress further than contemporary photography’s often tiresome hang-up - one of the constantly regurgitated central theses of modernism with regard to the arts - that the variance between the arts, and therefore photography’s novelty, is understood by the difference in its technological conditions when compared to other art-forms. David Birkin avoids relying on the novelty of the medium’s technology to justify his practice as many photographers do, and indeed on any single one of the three components of this cycle, understanding that they co-exist. Instead, he considers them all equally, acknowledging their form; drawing them together whilst necessarily leaving their discordances and contradictions intact.

David Birkin is completing an MA at Slade School of Art and Design, London. He has received a 2009 bursary from the National Media Museum to extend his series Confessions and is the 2010 winner of the the Sovereign European Art Prize, currently showing at the Barbican.

1 Jacques Ranciere, Disagreement, 1995, p.30.
2 Steven F. Eisenman, The Abu Ghraib Effect, 2007, p.11.
3 Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics, 2004, p.21.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Die Nacht Verschleiert den Geist des Ortes [1] The Photography of Rut Blees Luxemburg

The Pattern of the Plans, 2004

We need a sign,

Nothing more, something plain and simple,

To remind us of sun and moon, so inseparable,

Which go away — day and night also —

And warm each other in heaven...[2]

In The Fragment – Jumièges, Rut Blees Luxemburg frames a section of a ruined building - Jumièges Abbey - a Benedictine monastery in Normandy, France. The background of the image is black, reducing the subject’s context to a vacant hole. The stone ruin is lit with clouded blues, whites and greys; like the cold hand of an aged woman, its colour paled, its former strength relinquished; a fading symbol of experience - life given over to death.

The Fragment, Jumieges, 2008

The Idol – Portal to the Abattoir presents the entrance to an abattoir as a totemic symbol, an iconographic capturing of morbid, barbed-wire space that evokes both a sense of mild macabre and a strange aura of spirituality. This image makes clear the intense stature and materiality of concrete, whilst simultaneously using luminous colourings to ‘disclose’ the transcendental, one might say. Luxemburg embellishes her images’ colours and forms, creating a beautifully romantic vision of a decrepit nighttime world in burnt saffron, ambers, greys and blues…

The Idol, Portal to the Abbatoir, 2008

There is a grainy, other-worldly quality present in these images that surpasses the material subject of the photograph and instead meditates upon something altogether stranger. As Ludwig Tieck set out in his 1798 novel Franz Sternbalds Wanderungen (The Wanderings of Franz Sternbald) the artist must depict the appearance of God in nature; the ‘geheime ziffer’ (‘secret cypher’) concealed in every object. This so-called ‘secret cypher’, prevalent in idealist artistic and literary work from the period of Romanticism, is the artists attempt to fathom what is beyond the human world; what is beyond the possibility of empirical and material knowledge.

Like Tieck’s impression of the romantic artist, Luxemburg’s works beautifully allude to more than what they merely show; they perfectly combine the unexplainable beauty of the transcendental with the fervent romance of obscurity and decay; a kind of ‘verfallenden geheimnis’ (‘decaying secret’) – a subversive nod towards the spirit of the almighty that secretly reveals his inevitable decay (the growth of Atheism in the West).

The term ‘Transzendentalpoesie’ (transcendental poetry) was used to describe the work of, as exampled by the hymn introducing this text, such romantic German writers as Friedrich Hölderlin. Briefly, the term can be described as being a form of poetry that seeks to both ‘create poetry’, as well as reflecting on what poetry is, fundamentally speaking; it is both poetry and a ‘poetry of poetry’ (a never-ending reproductive cycle of poeticism where one can poeticise a poetry that poeticises a poetry and so on…) This of course begs the question: What is poetic? For the Romantics, specifically Schlegel, it was regarded as “A self-creation, an aesthetic invention that transforms everything it touches”. This implies a reflexivity on behalf of the writer; a way of analysing the very form of one’s written production whilst simultaneously writing it (a kind of inbuilt critique to an artist’s own practice perhaps; a way of acknowledging and justifying one’s own movements towards the act of creating).

This idea of self-reflexivity is important in Rut Blees Luxemburg’s work, and represents a self-consciousness that she displays that isn’t apparent in all contemporary art photography. Again referring back to the hymn that introduces this text: good photography should arguably have at its surface, at its first impression, the ability to give a simple ‘sign’ to something; an immediate beauty which is so striking that it could only beg questions about the underlying content of a work from a point of interest (“This is beautiful, does this image represent an idea or experience the artist had?”), not a question about form or composition from a point of criticism (“What is the relationship there between the red and the orange? They seem to fight each other somewhat, and certainly don’t do that section of the composition any favours”). It is essentially the artist’s ability to self-reflexively cover his or her back when it comes to the process or ‘craft’ of art-making; the ‘fine art’ of reasonable aesthetic judgements, if you like: the Romantic notion that an artist should posses the ability to create something undeniably and consensually beautiful based on considered and experienced decision making (whilst in the case of German Romanticism it was an attempt to relinquish the notion of mere human experience and instead give over your body and let the spiritual take hold in the act of creating: “Schließe dein leibliches Auge, damit du mit dem geistigen Auge zuerst siehst dein Bild!” (“Close your bodily eye so that you may see your picture first with the spiritual eye!”))[3]

Orificity 1, 2006

This is of course an obviously conservative opinion in many regards, one that reduces aesthetic judgements to, in the case of the Romantics, the existence of god or, in the absence of any god nowadays, to the level of correct or incorrect. It is, however, an idea I believe current art-photography could do with returning to, especially within its academies, which have a tendency to complicate notions of beauty and perception in art by bombarding their students with an unnecessary onslaught of theory in accompaniment to them. The result is that there is a lot of anaesthetic work prevalent that’s existence is justified by pseudo-theory, or a weak, default position of logic that states “If I oppose a norm I’ll create something new and original, and if it ends up looking shit I’ll just quote Deleuze and hope for the best”.

Caspar David Friedrich and Phillip Otto Runge produced works that, in Richard Littlejohn’s terms, “manifest tensions between empirical reality and spiritual vision”. Art of the Romantic period was not concerned with notions of what did or did not constitute ‘good taste’; instead it was made to put forward insights into the transcendental. It was, in other words, concerned with a project beyond human fathomability, and instead sought to communicate the almighty through his painterly representation (“We will never understand the power of the lord, but we may begin to visually represent it” etc etc). As a result of this representation, this period of art production developed a recognisable aesthetic. It is not this aesthetic that lies in Luxemburg’s work exactly, but more an interesting appropriation of it. Her work can be summed up perfectly by appropriating what Littlejohn states with regard to Wackenroder and Tieck’s 1797 comparison of great art to hieroglyphic scripts. From a truly romantic perspective, which is one I will generally condone, great art (including the photography in question here) contains: “A medium of communication which employs recognisable characters whilst remaining only partially comprehensible and thus offering tantalising but incomplete glimpses into ancient and arcane wisdom.”

There is something beautiful in art of the romantic period that allows for something sickly and overbearingly aesthetic to come to the fore; where as one can’t imagine that occurring nowadays other than in a stupidly ironic ‘Jeff Koons’ kind of way. I appreciate this in Rut Blees Luxemburg’s photographs, albeit in a much more nuanced form. She unashamedly takes beautiful pictures: she is willing to open her shutter and let all of that glorious, saturated, sodium quality light pour in and not have any reservations about whether it might be too aesthetic or ‘obviously beautiful’. There are of course subtleties to her photographing that extend beyond the simple representative ‘snapshotting’ of a Benedictine monastery for example, and as a friend of mine pointed out after hearing her talk at the a recent conference on ‘photography as alternative urbanism’, “in comparison to the pretentious waffling of the other panellists she was perfectly lucid and intelligent”. This work is historically relevant, intellectually engaged, and clearly signposts a beauty that is confident and unafraid.

Faith in Infrastructure, 2008

[1] ‘The Night Hides the Place’s Spirit’

[2] Two excerpts from Friedrich Hölderlin’s hymn Der Ister (The Ister), translated from German by Maxine Chernoff and Paul Hoover.

[3] Caspar David Friedrich

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Some very brief background on the new exhibition at HotShoe:

Video art came to prominence in the 1960s, first developed by artists such as Nam June Paik and Steina and Woody Vasulka in New York, and Stephen Dwoskin and Malcolm Le Grice in the UK (to name a few of the key players, as it were). Two parallel scenes emerged in these cities which have since paved the way for a vibrant and exciting form of art practice.

"Romanian Pavilion brings together five Romanian video artists whose works address the former communist president Nicolae Ceausescu’s failed utopian social experiments and subsequent dehumanising conditions, with an emphasis on the reality of the built environment and private life in Romania.

Any utopia is obsessed with the rehabilitation of man and the condemnation of our happiness; to make a tabula rasa of the past, to install the reign of the new self; the perfect polis of human beings. The totalitarian regime in Eastern and Central Europe did precisely this: for almost half a century, it built new cities for the ‘new man’- displaced in flats that look like prison blocks. Drawing its inspiration from Corbusier’ and Gropius’ rational architecture, modernist social housing was applied widely in Eastern Europe in the 1960s, but its profoundly alienating consequences have become evident after the 1990s, alongside the emergence of capitalism.

In Romania, the tensions between past and present are everywhere: ‘anything goes’ architecture mushrooms next to Stalinist substantial buildings, lavish casinos and ridiculous kiosks are built one over another, fast food restaurants and supermarkets replace old shops throughout urban areas. Ideas of territory and identity are continuously shifting, altering perceptions of space, human relationships and social and individual life.

The works in the exhibition examine how video art reflects, extends and manipulates private and historic remembrance associated with the period of transition. The exhibition aims to illustrate not only how the medium is used to portray the post-communist Romanian reality, but also how this reality, in its varying states of political, economic and cultural development, portrays facets of the medium."

- Simona Nastac

Curated by Marcin Dudek and Simona Nastac. Exhibition design by Ioana Iliesiu and Marcin Dudek.

Artist’s talk, Friday 4 June, 7pm: Dan Acostioaei in conversation with Vlad Morariu and curators Marcin Dudek and Simona Nastac.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Upcoming Abstractions

"Hotshoe Gallery supports experimentation within photographic art, film, video and installation. This exhibition will pay particular attention to the concept of ‘exposure’, introducing new work by Torsten Lauschmann, David Birkin and Benjamin de Burca. Exposure refers both to the photographic technique of exposing light and to the idea of exposing the mind of the photographer and his subject.

In his new series, ‘The Darker Ages’, Torsten Lauschmann employs image-making techniques from the past and the present, in order to explore the tensions in the relationships between old and new technology. In ‘Contemporary Gear Box’, a slide projector is used to present a computer-generated image of a system of cogs. In this image Lauschmann uses 20th-century digital technology to re-create one of the oldest forms of labour-saving technology known to mankind. In his experimentations, with these technologies, he exposes “invisible” aspects of image making; framing, perspective, depth of space, perceivable illusions and narratives.

David Birkin’s work is informed by the history of photography and its relationship to performance in contemporary art. For the series ‘Confessions’, Birkin invited members of his family to confess a secret they had never previously revealed. When they felt ready, they opened the shutter and when finished they closed it again, so that each photograph’s exposure was determined by the duration of its subject’s confession. For the series ‘Form’, the exposures corresponded to the length of time the artist could maintain a ‘stress position’: an interrogatory technique employed by military personnel to forcibly extract a confession or other information. The works relate to certain aestheticised images of suffering in the Christian art historical tradition and Modernist preoccupations with objectifying the body.

Benjamin de Burca uses light in more than one way in the creation of his work. He has taken photographs of fire, at night, in the dark. The prints of these images are then sliced into using a laser cutter – the light of the laser literally burns the print apart – and the pieces are re-arranged into new configurations. The resulting collages oscillate between representation and abstraction; and the means by which the images are produced evoke the fundamental properties of fire: destruction and creation."

Louisa Adam, Curator, HotShoe Gallery