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.