Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Exposure

Exhibition review by Taous R. Dahmani

A journey to Nottingham Contemporary prompts reflection on Tina M. Campt’s method of “writing to art” in Taous R. Dahmani’s review of Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s Exposure. Dahmani writes to Sepuya’s introspective world, where intricate dialogues between mirrors, photography and identity unfold, challenging traditional spectatorship dynamics. Through a lens of queer and black representation, Sepuya’s work invites viewers to confront societal norms, embrace complexity, and navigate the fluid boundaries of self-presentation.


Taous R. Dahmani | Exhibition review | 14 May 2024

On a morning train to Nottingham, I decided to revisit a passage from Tina M. Campt’s A Black Gaze (2021). When the book came out, I had highlighted this sentence: ‘Seated cross-legged on the floor is my go-to position for writing to art.’ The statement struck a chord with me, prompting a personal vow to try Campt’s method. This visit seemed the perfect chance, but once there, I feared the invigilators might find it unconventional. Would I be allowed to sit on the floor of Nottingham Contemporary, ‘sliding down a wall and claiming the undervalued real estate of a gallery floor,’ as Campt wrote? The reason why I wanted to attempt that strategy in order to “write toPaul Mpagi Sepuya’s exhibition was because Campt claimed it ‘minimis[ed] you as a viewer and maximis[ed] the work itself,’ adding: ‘Looking up at [the artwork] both breaks up and breaks down some of the traditional dynamics of spectatorship and visual mastery. And when the subject of that art is Black folks, challenging the dynamics of spectatorship and visual mastery is an extremely important intervention.’

I first encountered Sepuya’s work in 2020 at his solo show in London’s Modern Art, where black figuration and constructed stills through layered acts of looking were key. Four years later, upon entering Exposure at Nottingham Contemporary, I was greeted by a camera on a tripod before a black curtain held by a disembodied brown hand and bulldog clips. Facing this first photograph, I noticed my reflection in the protective glass, positioning my head’s shadow where the operator would be. At that moment, I realised that directly facing Sepuya’s work, rather than ‘looking up’ at it, might be beneficial. This exhibition wasn’t the place for Campt’s method of claiming gallery floors; Sepuya’s large-scale pieces demand that we meet them eye-to-eye.

As I approached Mirror Study (_Q5A2059) (2016), I understood that I was looking at Sepuya’s camera – meaning a mirror must have been placed between the lens and me. This apparatus, and placement of the mirror, suggests the artist is more concerned with what surrounds his camera – objects, people, himself – than with the eventual viewers. The mirror acts as a barrier, its thin reflective metal layer atop glass designed to bounce light back, prompting rumination on the idea of reflection, the image created by light and about photography. In The Mirror and the Palette (2021), Jennifer Higgie elucidated that Johannes Gutenberg opened a mirror-making business in 1438, and within just six years, he pioneered the invention of the printing press. This progression connects the concept of reflection to the notion of infinite reproduction, which ultimately lays the groundwork for photographic theory. Indeed, the coexistence of photography and mirrors has become paradigmatic. In his seminal 1978 essay, which serves as the introduction to the catalogue for his exhibition Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960, John Szarkowski leveraged the metaphor of the mirror to explore the introspective and personal approaches photographers bring to their medium. Similarly, the mirror is an integral part of Sepuya’s artistic process, acting as a catalyst that facilitates layers of analysis of his surroundings. Since 2010, the artist has focused on the artist’s studio as a subject, employing a self-imposed limitation akin to the protocols of a conceptual artist. He describes this approach as a strategy to ‘limit the number of variables as the clearest way to pose a question.’

As I progressed to the next set of images, the initially elusive figure of the photographer gradually emerged. Sepuya skilfully navigates the frame, either concealing or unveiling fragments of his undressed body, and thus, his identity. He delicately reveals details of his anatomy, including the hairs on his neck and arms, and close-ups of his back and torso. Photograph after photograph, his progressive apparition transforms the studio into a stage. We are witnessing the documentation of a performance, a play with characters and, of course, a message. The photographs or the mirror – in Sepuya’s world they are in constant dialogue – predominantly depict self-portraits or portraits of close friends and lovers. Beyond mere self-recognition through self-representation, there is a definitive act of self-presentation; a celebration of the artist’s freedom and agency. The performed gestures subvert gender binaries and reclaim their fluidities, so much so that Sepuya quite literally blurs surfaces and thus boundaries. We observe the movement of bodies on a stage, enacting intimacy and at the same time rendering a political identity that is both queer and black. Sepuya’s photographs recall the words of Judith Butler, who noted in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (1993) that the performative aspect of gender enables subversive actions capable of challenging and destabilising conventional norms. By inviting his friends to act for the mirror-camera in his studio-stage, Sepuya creates an experimental sanctuary for the development of a queer visual language. Engaging with Sepuya’s photographs is not straightforward; they challenge us to interpret and decode, but, at the same time, the repeated frameworks facilitate a steady understanding of his visual strategy. If, indeed, the mirror is not just a reflection but a boundary, then viewers are mere welcomed spectators. The exhibition feels like an invitation to partake in the acknowledgment of too often marginalised queer black and brown individuals. Viewers are brought into their proximity, invited to stand alongside them, yet rightfully kept at bay.

Sepuya’s work draws from a rich history of queer imagery, from the kouros figures of Ancient Greece to Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s Snap Shot (1987) and Caravaggio’s ephebes. These motifs have come to symbolise queer identity, thus raising the question: how can we interpret the revival of these motifs in today’s photographic production? As Sepuya bestowed, as an invitation to think complexly, ‘representation is not an agenda,’ and indeed his visual language strives for something more, something that revived, for me, José Esteban Muñoz’s Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (1999), Here, Muñoz discusses a process in which individuals tactically interact with societal norms to forge a self that critically diverges from mainstream culture. He emphasises behaviours and gestures as crucial to the identity formation of queers of colour, beginning his book with the statement: ‘There is a certain lure to the spectacle of one queer standing onstage alone, with or without props, bent on the project of opening up a world of queer language, lyricism, perceptions, dreams, visions, aesthetics and politics.” It leads one to question whether Muñoz is actually describing Sepuya’s own photographs some 20-odd-years before their creations.

The studio and its “inhabitants” are constants in Sepuya’s work, existing in a fluid space where time seems relative and ideas and iterations evolve and transform. In the second gallery, elements such as mobile mirror flats from the studio transition into exhibition structures showcasing his latest photographs. Unlike the first room where close examination was encouraged, here Sepuya invites viewers to navigate the photographs, guided by their spatial arrangement. He transforms the space by bridging the private theatricality of the studio with the shared communality of the gallery. Leaving the exhibition, and tucking away my copy with Campt’s book, I was reassured that sitting wasn’t necessary, as Sepuya himself ‘maximises’ his work. He shifts spectator dynamics, elevating and redefining engagement by challenging traditional approaches. On the train back to London, I was left with the feeling that visitors ought to stand in the gallery, embracing homoerotic pleasure, whilst also striving to become accustomed to nuanced discomfort and grappling with complex ideas about image-making. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann Zurich/Paris © Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Paul Mpagi Sepuya: Exposure ran at Nottingham Contemporary until 5 May 2024.


Taous R. Dahmani is a London-based French, British and Algerian art historian, writer and curator. Her expertise centres around the intricate relationship between photography and politics, a theme that permeates her various projects. Since 2019, she has been the editorial director of 
The Eyes, an annual publication that explores the links between photography and societal issues. She is an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. Dahmani’s curatorial work was showcased at Les Rencontres d’Arles, France, where she curated the Louis Roederer Discovery Award (2022). Dahmani is set to curate two exhibitions at Jaou Tunis, Tunisia (2024).

Images:

1-Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Twilight Studio (0X5A4176), 2022.

2-Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Model Study (0X5A7126), 2021.

3-Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Daylight Studio Camera Lesson (0X5A2613), 2022.

4-Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Pedestal (0X5A8997), 2022.

5-Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Studio Mirror (_DSF6207), 2023.

After the End of History

British Working Class Photography 1989–2024

Exhibition review by Lillian Wilkie

Debuting its tour at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry, After the End of History: British Working Class Photography 1989–2024, has been curated by writer and photographer Johny Pitts, with the exhibition’s title wittily alluding to Francis Fukuyama’s famed essay The End of History, citing an unfulfilled anticipation of global stability. As Lillian Wilkie examines, Pitts navigates the sociocultural turn of neoliberalism and creates a space for multiple, even conflicting truths of working-class life, challenging the dominance of singular historical narratives and entrenched social hierarchies. 


Lillian Wilkie | Exhibition review | 30 Apr 2024

‘The end of history will be a very sad time,’ writes Francis Fukuyama in the final paragraph of “The End of History?”, an essay published in The National Interest in the summer of 1989, which was later expanded into the 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man. ‘In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.’ He concludes: ‘Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.’

“It’s a bit tongue in cheek, the title,” Johny Pitts tells me on the opening day of After the End of History: British Working Class Photography 1989–2024, an exhibition that surveys photographic representations of working-class life in Britain since the collapse of European communism, and the cultural and creative forces emergent under neoliberalism. The photographer and writer has curated the exhibition for Hayward Gallery Touring, a programme of exhibitions that tour galleries, museums and other publicly funded venues throughout Britain; After the End of History debuts at Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry before touring to Focal Point Gallery, Southend and Bonnington Gallery, Nottingham. Fukuyama’s thesis – that the triumph of liberal democracy as the dominant political and economic ideology after the fall of communism marked the end of humanity’s sociocultural and ideological evolution and a new era of geopolitical stability – has been much maligned, especially since 9/11, the rise of autocracies in China and Russia, and, notably, the crisis in living standards brought about by neoliberal capitalism. But through the lens of cultural theorists such as Mark Fisher and Natalie Olah, Pitts recognises the significance of this moment at the end of the 1980s: an optimistic, postmodern Britain on the cusp of the digital era. The title, tongue in cheek as it is, sets up the spirit of contradiction – that of a time after the “end of history” – which is one of two pillars defining the exhibition’s curatorial approach.

“I kept saying to the Hayward team that I want the show to be this big mess,” continues Pitts. “I think what I really meant was that I wanted it to be full of contradictions, like working-class life is. I didn’t want to reduce working-class people to avatars for some kind of moral or political point, which they so often are – sometimes for good reasons. I wanted to move beyond this tradition of middle-class people documenting working-class life, showing how tough it is. The reality of working-class life is way more ambivalent than that.” Starting from 1989, Pitts’ approach consciously departs from the socially-engaged, humanist documentary practices and worker photography collectives of the 1960s and 70s, and indeed the archetypal, paternalistic image of working-class people as largely white, male and soot-smeared. This, he believes, has shaped our expectations of what an exhibition of working-class photography might look like, something he seeks to upend. “I love that you’re going in and you think you’re going to see workers in pits and protests and stuff. And you don’t. You see Prince Naseem, and the glitches of the jungle scene.” Pitts is gesturing to two bodies of work just inside the entrance to the show. On the left, he has hung Trevor Smith’s kitschy studio portrait of the British-Yemeni boxer Naseem Hamed three times in a row (“I couldn’t decide which of the paper stocks I liked best, so in the end I chose all three. It gives it a Warhol element.”) On the opposite wall, Eddie Otchere’s saturated C-type prints of performers and ravers at jungle nights in mid-nineties London, with their sloppy borders and light leaks, are each a small essay in the sensorial correspondences between the darkroom and the nightclub. Pitts refers to these works as his “statement pieces”, setting the tone and intention for what is to come.

The exhibition features a diverse cohort of photographers, from art world approved names such as Hannah Starkey, Richard Billingham and Ewen Spencer, to new voices like Rene Matić, Serena Brown and Kavi Pujara. There are also what Pitts refers to as “jobbing” photographers: those working commercially, within communities, or outside of the gallery system, notably Trevor Smith and Josh Cole. Colour work abounds, leaping from deep brown walls featuring accents of day-glo yellow and typography referencing club flyer graphics. Music and clubbing emerge as crucial spaces for both the production of images and the construction of identities. Elaine Constantine’s pictures of dancers at Northern Soul nights at the 100 Club bear the energy, aggression and ecstasy of the dancefloor, depicting a tight-knit, highly coded scene forced further underground, united by a passion for rare cuts and all-nighters. The dancing bodies in Spencer’s photographs from Aya Napa in the glory days of UK garage are more self-conscious and aspirational, but no less libidinal. This was an unapologetically working-class subculture that sought the glamour of brand names and expensive liquor. “Spencer is not interested in what people want the working-class to look like, but what actually goes on,” Pitts explains. The histories of the Northern Soul, two-tone and ska scenes inform the work of Matić, whose practice navigates the complex intersections between West Indian and white working-class culture in Britain through photography and moving image: a self-defined genre they have coined “rudeness”, that promotes pleasure as a “mode of survival”.

From the dancefloor, the exhibition moves through contexts as diverse as the hotel, the hill farm, the council estate and the corner shop. The variety of photographic subjects and styles on display unavoidably raises the question of exactly what, at least within this exhibition’s rhetoric, makes a “working-class photographer”? A focus on “working-class” cultural expression after 1990 seems initially curious considering the end of the Cold War consolidated a new phase of neoliberalism that would ultimately leave workers further behind whilst simultaneously empowering them as consumers, reshaping the class structure entirely. Traditional taxonomies of upper, middle and working-class culture are now much more fragmentary and slippery, defined as much by social and cultural factors as well as occupation and education. A 2003 study on class by the BBC and six British universities found that the established three-tier model had disaggregated into seven class categories ranging from the “elite” to the “precariat”. Nonetheless, a key theme running through the selection is an interest in the circumstances and conditions in which photographic work is produced, and under what financial pressures. A number of the projects were produced within the context of the photographer’s day job, underscoring Pitts’ preoccupation with “art against-the-odds”. A vitrine, shaped to reference a bar or a DJ booth, houses photographs, ephemera and notes scribbled on napkins from Anna Magnowska’s bilateral working life as a café waitress and sexual health nurse, shapeshifting across social roles in Soho’s underbelly.

JA Mortram’s Small Town Inertia draws a sensitive portrait of marginalised lives in the Norfolk town of Dereham, shot whilst Mortram worked as a carer for his mother, experiencing the isolation and alienation of austerity Britain. Like Mortram, the works of the Merseyside-born photographer Chris Shaw force a lens on those who are largely rendered low-status or invisible. His Life as a Night Porter series presents the “social fantastic” of a London hotel’s twilight hours, confronting the often-unseen labours of those who live, work and play by night. These are just some of the projects in the exhibition that attempt to correct what Mortram identifies as an “imbalance of truth”, a contemporary response to the socially-engaged practices of the 1970s that argued for a “history from below”. Pitts is content for the working-class label to be contested. “I didn’t worry about it too much,” he says. “It’s a term that just really resonates with my own experience. It’s hard to say exactly what it is, but if you know it, you know,” suggesting a methodology based more on instinct than fixed criteria, in defiance of the hypotheses of sociologists and academics; more felt than understood. This attitude speaks to the second pillar structuring the exhibition: that of autobiography.

‘I found Josh Cole’s work after I was sacked from Debenhams, Meadowhall,’ recalls Pitts in one of the exhibition’s wall texts. Elsewhere: ‘When I think of Sam Blackwood’s photographs without looking at them, they are populated by people I know. It’s always a surprise, then, to look at them and remember that the images are unpopulated, such is the subtle, sculptural composition of ingredients and spaces many of us recognise.’ The wall texts that accompany each body of work contrast institutional authority with personal testimony, divided as they are into more conventional museological descriptions, followed by poignant reflections from Pitts (in a way that feels novel and, in the context of the museum, excitingly disruptive) that elucidate on connections between the images and formative moments from his own life. He grew up in between two Yemeni families who were related to Prince Naseem, and the boxer was idolised. “These photographs remind me of staying up way past my bedtime, eating my neighbour’s khubz and lahmeh, to watch our hero beat someone in America, and then thank Allah for the win before bragging in the mixture of broad Yorkshire and African-American ebonics that so represented our culture.” In this way, the curatorial methodology emerges as less socioeconomic or even art historical, but autobiographical. A boombox by the entrance plays his sister’s cassette tapes, recorded from 1990s pirate radio in Sheffield – something he resolves to feature at every exhibition he does, “to soften the gallery space a little”.

One is left with the sense that the end of history for Fukuyama was the beginning of a new history for Pitts, who returned in 1990 from a period of living in Japan as a child to his home in working-class Sheffield, to find that most of his family were no longer working in factories and steelworks, but now had retail jobs in the new Meadowhall Shopping Centre, itself built on the site of a former steelworks. Through the images selected, Pitts navigates the material legacies and spectres of this sociocultural turn, and create space for multiple, even conflicting truths. In this way, the exhibition materialises as a counter-institutional gesture; a potential corrective to the complicity of the museum and institution – and indeed photography – in the enshrining of social hierarchies and the privileging of history in the singular. As he writes in his 2020 book Afropean, on the convolutions of Black experience in Europe, it serves as “[an] effort to begin with the personal in order to arrive at the universal”. After the End of History shows us the ways that photography has complicated traditional understandings of working-class identity and experience, and presents a vision of working-class life that, like (for the most part) art itself, resists taxonomy, transcends whiteness and promotes contradiction. If you know, you know. ♦

All images courtesy the artists, Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry, and Hayward Gallery Touring.

After the End of History: British Working Class Photography 1989–2024 begins its tour at Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry and runs until 16 June 2024. 


Lillian Wilkie is a writer, editor, publisher and lecturer based in London and East Sussex. Her practice and research focus on arts publishing and its communities, photography and contexts, and marginal fashion media. She is the Director of Chateau International, an imprint producing books, zines, editions and programming, and Co-Director of Bound Art Book Fair at Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester and INVENTORY Book Fair at Cromwell Place, London. She works in the book programme at Aperture. Her writing on photography, arts and publishing has appeared in titles including Modern Matter, Elephant, 1000 Words and C4 Journal. She lectures on photography and fashion media programmes at London College of Fashion and Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London.

Images:

1-Serena Brown, Bollo Bridge, 2018.

2-Ewen Spencer, Necking, Twice as Nice, Ayia Napa, 2001.

3-Serena Brown, Clayponds, 2018.

4-Kavi Pujara, Maharana Pratap & PC Ravat, Marjorie Street, 2021.

5-Richard Billingham, Untitled, 1993.

6-Anna Magnowska, Eros, 2019.

7-Rob Clayton, Early “Bush” Transistor Radio, 1990-91.

8-Rob Clayton, Lin, Careers Advisor and Mother, Wilson House, 1990-91.

9>10-Sam Blackwood, Rat Palace, 2013-ongoing.

11-J A Mortram, Small Town Inertia.

 

Rahim Fortune

Hardtack

Book review by Taous R. Dahmani

In his new book, Hardtack, Rahim Fortune compiles nearly a decade of work, blending documentary with personal history within the context of post-emancipation America. Through coming-of-age portraits that traverse survivalism and land migration, Fortune illustrates African American and Chickasaw Nation communities. As Taous R. Dahmani observes, the iconography of the American South is drawn between Fortune’s Hardtack and Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter, released only a few days after — both of which raise questions that serve to redefine ‘Americana’. 


Taous R. Dahmani | Book review | 17 Apr 2024

At the end of March, something very odd happened: Loose Joints dropped Rahim Fortune’s second photobook Hardtack, and, a few days later, Beyoncé released her eighth album Cowboy Carter. I can almost hear you – yes, you, reader – wondering, what’s the connection? Well, there are several. Firstly, it serves as the perfect soundtrack to look at Fortune’s photographs. As if sound was taking form. Beyoncé’s extensive 27-track list echoes Fortune’s 72 photographs; her lyrics resonating with his visual language. Both artists delve into the iconography and sound of cowboys, churches, southern mothers and daughters, rodeo, sashes and Fortune even closes his book with a “Queen Coronation”. Besides this serendipitous overlap, both artists also actively reclaim, redefine and adjust the notion of “Americana”. Wrapped in a denim-like cover, Hardtack speaks of a specific geography and moment: Texas today, the USA in the 2020s.

Beyond the anecdote of their shared Texas origins, both explore the history of the American South – one through music, the other through photography – connecting its past with its present. 2024 is a pivotal election year, with the southern states bearing a significant responsibility in shaping the country’s future (and, arguably, the world’s). Therefore, there is an urgent need to disseminate an alternative understanding or narrative of what the US might be. After all, the title of Fortune’s book, Hardtack, refers to an emergency survival food, made from flour, water and salt, signalling that we are in the midst of a critical juncture. At a time when states are banning books to erase chapters of US history, Hardtack feels like a welcomed defiance.

In her proudly made-in-America “country” album, Beyoncé embraces the soundscape of the southern states and her Black musical heritage, blending blues, soul, rock ‘n’ roll and gospel. Similarly, an incredible living encyclopaedia of American photography, Fortune quotes – or samples – his ancestors, from Walker Evans’s depictions of southern architecture to Roy DeCarava’s intimate portraits of Black life. Just as Beyoncé pays homage to Linda Martell, the first commercially successful Black female artist in country music, Fortune channels the social documentary style of Milton Rogovin, his portrayal of African-American communities akin to Earlie Hudnall Jr, and mirrors the political consciousness embodied by Consuelo Kanaga. Furthermore, Fortune examines Arthur Rothstein’s documentation of African-American families in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, originally captured for the Farm Security Administration and later featured in Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices (1941). With Hardtack, Fortune engages in a self-conscious dialogue with photography’s history.

The parallel between music and photography transcends mere coincidence; its potency lies in their shared democratic practice and dissemination, but it also resonates with what Tina M. Campt described in A Black Gaze (2021) as a ‘broader commitment to understanding visual culture through its entanglement with sound, and highlighting the centrality of sonic and visual frequency to the work of Black contemporary artists.’ Already, in 2017, Campt beckoned us to listen to images, and more recently, she revisited the idea employing the concept of frequency to challenge ‘how we see’, adding that ‘the physical and emotional labour required to see these images gives us profound insights into the everyday experiences of Black folks as racialised subjects.’ Listening to Fortune’s Hardtack is to pick up on various stories and histories such as the legacy of Gee’s Bend quilts, crafted by descendants of enslaved individuals who toiled on cotton plantations. These local women united to establish the Freedom Quilting Bee, a worker’s cooperative that enabled crucial economic opportunities and offered political empowerment. As Imani Perry eloquently states in the book’s concluding essay: ‘What we know as Black Texas was birthed through captivity. This land has been a bounty; and also a burden.’ Fortune captures the architecture of past power and oppression – the grand plantation houses alongside the slaves’ huts –and the remnants of this legacy, showcasing what barely survives in the wake of US history. Beyoncé’ sings in “YA YA” (2024): “My family lived and died in America, hm / Whole lotta red in that white and blue, huh / History can’t be erased, oh-oh / Are you lookin’ for a new America? (America).” In “Night Ride Tracks, Archer, Florida” (2020), Fortune kneels down to capture the sunlight beaming on the old train tracks, which bear witness to the 1928 Rosewood massacre during the era of Jim Crow laws. In “AMEN” (2024), Beyoncé’s reminds her listener: “This house was built with blood and bone / And it crumbled, yes, it crumbled.

On the following page, Fortune presents a captivating portrait of his partner, Miranda, underscoring that his documentation of the American South is as personal as it is political. With roots in both the African-American and Chickasaw Nation communities, Fortune traverses rural towns that are close to his heart, pausing to engage in conversations with friends. Fortune embraces the formal conventions of documentary traditions whilst ushering us into novel sensations and uncharted emotional territories. Opening the book, we can almost grasp the wind, and, as we delve deeper, we feel the humidity of the Mississippi enveloping us, the scorching sun on the road casting its light upon each image. His photographs record what stands proud, what is forced to break, what disappeared but can still be traced. In Fortune’s photographs, people are praying, watching, playing, waiting, celebrating, caring and driving; leading an unremarkable life because ‘attending to the infraordinary and the quotidian reveals why the trivial, the mundane, or the banal are in fact essential to the lives of the dispossessed and the possibility of black futurity.”’ Texas also serves as the backdrop for Fortune’s personal grief – as depicted in his first book I can’t stand to see you Cry (2021) – and serves as a place where remembrance holds paramount importance, as evidenced by the tattooed dates of key life moments on his friend’s skin. Fortune’s Hardtack is a poignant tribute, both a requiem for those lost and a homage to those whose actions altered the course of history. Yet, it is also a celebration, capturing the essence of joy found in everyday moments and special occasions alike. It is this unique and delicate coexistence of remembrance and revelry that imbues Hardtack with its profound resonance, showcasing the depth of Fortune’s artistic maturity.♦

All images courtesy the artist and Loose Joints. © Rahim Fortune

Hardtack is published by Loose Joints.


Taous R. Dahmani is a London-based French, British and Algerian art historian, writer and curator. Her expertise centres around the intricate relationship between photography and politics, a theme that permeates her various projects. Since 2019, she has been the editorial director of
The Eyes, an annual publication that explores the links between photography and societal issues. She is an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. Dahmani’s curatorial work was showcased at Les Rencontres d’Arles, France, where she curated the Louis Roederer Discovery Award (2022). Dahmani is set to curate two exhibitions at Jaou Tunis, Tunisia (2024).

Images:

1-Rahim Fortune, Windmill House, Hutto, Texas, 2022.

2-Rahim Fortune, Praise Dancers, Edna, Texas, 2022.

3-Rahim Fortune, Willies Chapel, Austin, Texas, 2021.

4-Rahim Fortune, Hardware, Granger, Texas, 2018.

5-Rahim Fortune, Highway I-244 (Greenwood), Tulsa, Oklahoma, 2021.

6-Rahim Fortune, Gas Pump, Selma, Alabama, 2023.

7-Rahim Fortune, Deonte, New Sweden, Texas, 2022.

8-Rahim Fortune, Ace (Miss Juneteenth), Galveston, Texas, 2022.

9-Rahim Fortune, Night Ride Tracks, Archer, Florida, 2020.

10-Rahim Fortune, Tinnie Pettway, Gee’s Bend, Alabama, 2023.

11-Rahim Fortune, VHS Television, Dallas, Texas, 2021.

12-Rahim Fortune, Abandoned Church, Otter Creek, Florida, 2020.

Craig Atkinson

Café Royal Books

Exhibition review by David Moore

Currently exhibited at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, Craig Atkinson’s Café Royal Books presents an eclectic collection of social relics where regional pasts intermingle, and previously unseen or half-remembered social histories are vividly recalled. With a sense of relative authenticity, the exhibition invites viewers to delve through a collection of three hundred books that capture past lives through the lens of another. David Moore reflects on the display and the project’s position among the ongoing reassessment of documentary photography.


David Moore | Exhibition review | 11 Apr 2024

As documentary photography finds new form amidst recurring questions of its legitimacy and purpose, Craig Atkinson’s monumental publishing project, Café Royal Books, presents a crowd-pleasing repository of the photographic distant, that in its entirety could be understood as a document itself of a particular photographic age.

A relatively small display of CRB’s output is currently installed at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, giving a glimpse of its residual value. The project presents an eclectic collection portraying mainly British, but also international, work of previously unseen or half-remembered social histories. Without acknowledging it, CRB shows “documentary photography”. Atkinson says: ‘Documentary is just a term like any other, and really I use it to help define what I don’t publish, rather than exactly what I do.’ The project presents works, loosely spanning 40 years. Browsing the catalogue online, I found content from the late 1940s (Dorothy Bohm’s pictures of Paris) to the 2010s (Thabo Jaiyesimi’s Nation of Islam UK 1989–2018, published last year). In-between is a diverse collection of the eccentric, mundane, the archetypal and unexpected; everything really.

CRB is driven by “functional” and environmentally light economy to allow all of this. Atkinson describes his project as being ‘somewhere between craft and punk,’ which is an apt description of his stripped down, DIY, home-made ethos. Production is cheap, retail price kept to affordable rates, ‘based around the price of a London pint.’ Pre-production, the photographer is asked to provide scans, a sequence and title, then is offered a design that is tweaked, over email. The book’s release is scheduled, and that’s it. Occasionally, special editions are offered, or second editions published.

CRB shares characteristics with the larger publishing houses. The model excludes any monetary payment to the photographer, an arrangement that has become routine for the publishing of books in recent years (only a handful of very well-known artists make any profit from direct book sales). With CRB, the photographers are offered a portion of books for themselves as “payment”. The “industry” has seemingly acquiesced to such arrangements in the knowledge that publications can be seen as promotion for print sales, exhibitions and finding audiences for works that otherwise may have been left in a proverbial box at the back of the studio.

Much of the CRB project reflects a popular interest in realist photography that is not necessarily associated within the academy or related photographic learning. Nostalgia and localism play a huge part; the value of seeing the fabric of one’s past life through the eyes of another extends access to a wide audience. Although most content is from professional or “trained” photographers, we might understand that a portion of the work relies upon a relaying of the “everyday”, a photo-journalistic or “newsy” approach. There are also the more authored documents drawing upon the aesthetic legacies and concerns of the documentary genre. It is this crossover that presents a fascinating blend suggesting that content leads the way rather than any emphasis on particular sub-genres.

What is evident, looking through the display at The Photographers’ Gallery and the online shop, is that the project occasionally reads as both a celebration and a salvage ethnography of the near. London Street Markets 1960s–1970s (2020), Old Ladies of Whitechapel (2013), Sheffield Tinsley Viaduct (2013), Glasgow Steamies (2014) and so on; lives captured and presented joyously. Such works and others represent an enthusiasm for social realism that preceded (or ignored) any de-constructivist critique of documentary and held photography up as an uncomplicated social tool.

In this sense, nostalgia for the genre itself also plays a part in the appeal of CRB’s output, further defining the project, reconsidering the documentary medium itself as a particular movement at a particular time in history, alongside questions of the conditions that created such mass activity that largely involved photographing the lives of others. In this sense, one might squint and find a mass participation project by proxy, a culturally assimilated ethnography by many like-minded people who have shared similar photographic educations and happen to be born in the early to mid-20th century, figuring out their place in the world through the observations of others.

The legacies of this contribute to the enormous reach of CRB’s output, that could be easily edited and curated into larger narratives and publications of documentary approaches, based around geographical location, social thematics and so on. And with scale in mind, there are inevitable analogies and shared interests to be made with the Mass Observation Project or even the much-overlooked German and Russian located Worker Photography Movement, with, of course, significant differences regarding their origins, social histories and political contexts.

On the night of the private view, the exhibition space was continually busy, as the audience were involved in a brisk and satisfying material engagement with the works on show, handling, looking and putting back. Whilst the installation at the gallery will clearly be enjoyed, for logistical reasons it shows only 300 books whereas the upcoming show at Impressions Gallery, Bradford, will reveal 700. To see CRB’s output in its entirety would be an ideal (and conceptual) installation offering a monumental showcase to what is a monumental project.

One of documentary photography’s strengths is its ability to project social history. Arguably, a distrust of photography’s intersection with AI, for example, may embolden this, having a refreshed relative authenticity on a popular level at least (and, whatever happens, an interesting dialogue is about to ensue). The analogy with the Mass Observation Project, and its relatively low-key activities contemporarily, brings forward questions around the supply of work that CRB publishes and whether it might dry-up. I have a friend who mudlarks in the Thames, finding ancient artefacts, some of which are now in the Museum of London. We marvel at how, at each turn of the tide, new riches are given up, seemingly inexhaustibly. Photography, too, just keeps coming, but how does the production of modern social narratives, which most of us participate in with our regular uploads, fit into the documentary paradigm that is presented by CRB? The relocation of such vernacular work made continually on camera phones has similar but differing values. Enabling such egalitarianism would be a natural fit with the politics of this amazing project.♦

All images courtesy of Café Royal Books

Café Royale Books runs at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, until 2 June 2024.


David Moore is a photographic artist and Principal Lecturer at the University of Westminster, London, where he teaches on the Expanded Photography MA programme.

Images:

1-Amelia Troubridge, Motörhead, from Motorhead UK, 1997 

2-Amelia Troubridge, Urban Cowboys, from Urban Cowboys Dublin, 1996

3-From Being British 1975-2005 © Barry Lewis

4-Cover of Being British 1975-2005 © Barry Lewis

5-Chris Miles, Musical Float. From Notting Hill Carnival, 1974

6-Cover of Parfett St Evictions, 1973 © David Hoffman

7-From Burnley 1970s © Dragan Novakovic

8-Cover of Black Power Black Panthers, 1969 © Janine Wiedel

9-Cover of Football Fans, 1991 © Richard Davis

10-Cover of Early Colour, Hulme Manchester, 1985 © Shirley Baker

11-Cover of Northern Soul, 1993-96 © Elaine Constantine

12-Cover of Rock Against Racism Live: 1977-1981 © Syd Shelton

Acts of Resistance

Photography, Feminism and the Art of Protest

Exhibition review by Max Houghton

Acts of Resistance, a collaborative exhibition by the South London Gallery and V&A Parasol Foundation for Women in Photography, confronts the systemic brutalisation and circumscription of women’s bodies worldwide — from persecution in Bangladesh, oppression in India to solidarity with Palestinian freedom. As Max Houghton writes, this is not a show for performative activists; it’s really doing the work — the exhibition fosters a reparative gaze, challenging historical narratives of control and subjugation, and calling for greater community involvement and institutional accountability. 


Max Houghton | Exhibition review | 4 Apr 2024

Even before entering Acts of Resistance: Photography, Feminism and the Art of Protest, a curatorial collaboration between South London Gallery and V&A Parasol Foundation for Women in Photography, the content guidance reveals the show’s necessity: ‘Artwork in this exhibition includes references to […] sexual violence, femicide, female genital mutilation, gender and sexuality-based discrimination, genocide and racism.’ This short institutional statement tells us precisely how the world is structured and how the bodies of women+ are circumscribed and brutalised, deliberately and systematically. Stepping in, the first visible work, suspended from the ceiling, takes gentle possession of the viewer, who is immediately enfolded into the plaited hair of young Iranian women. Three larger-than-life prints by Hoda Afshar are responding to Iran’s Women Life Freedom movement with the symbolism of unveiled hair, of the plait’s own revolutionary turn, or pichesh-e-moo, and of the dove’s flight between peace and martyrdom. The death of Mahasa Amini at the hands of Iran’s morality police weighs heavily, as does the courage of the women who protest, risking their own lives. My thoughts turn too to the immorality and illegality of the Metropolitan Police on this city’s streets; to the lives and legacies of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, of Sarah Everard, of Chris Kaba; and to what kind of imaging or imagining might bring justice to them.

The first message, then, of the show’s images is that they open a space within which such global ultraviolence can be considered, resisted and perhaps – rarely – extinguished. Two artists whose works are curated close by, Poulomi Basu and Sofia Karim, are committed activists, whose work has given rise to legal change. Basu’s multimedia work and its dissemination contributed to the banning of Chapaudi in Nepal, a practice which sees girls and women banished from society during menstruation; left to inhabit unlit, unsanitary temporary huts, at risk of assault in remote fields.

Karim’s activism was ignited by the political imprisonment and subsequent torture of her uncle, the renowned photojournalist Shahidul Alam, in Bangladesh. Like human rights activist G. N. Saibaba, for whom she has also campaigned through her exquisite drawings and letter exchange, Alam was eventually released. Karim’s work, Turbine Bagh (2020–ongoing), resonates in any setting, though in a night at the museum, it would surely leap off its designated shelf and populate a central artery through the space. Significantly, it is the only work in the show that foregrounds the art of other activists, which Karim has transferred onto samosa packets, conferring an increased sense of sociality and hospitality within these acts of resistance. For this show, whilst works centring women’s experience have been selected, in terms of anti-rape protests in Bangladesh or Muslim girls’ right to wear a hijab in Karnataka, India, Karim’s feminism also insists upon exposing the cruelties of the caste system via a Dalit protest in Una, and the Kerala Sisterhood’s support for Palestinian freedom. From her series Sisters of the Moon (2022), Basu’s futuristic self-portraits pool, siren-like, across the gallery walls, seducing the viewer into uncertain territory, incanting through their worldly knowledge the names of pain. The spectral image of Basu on a bed, uncannily placed at the shore’s edge, alongside water urns, invites questions of refuge, of sanctuary, of survival, and helped raise £5million for WaterAid.

This is not a show for performative activists; it’s really doing the work. Three major London institutions have curated feminist/activist shows in the past year; a welcome and vital taking up of art space by, for and with women+. This outpouring of activist-propelled art, in terms, for example, of the vast scale of Re/Sisters (2023) at the Barbican and Tate’s Women in Revolt! (2024), or the geographical breadth of Acts of Resistance, is indicative of the fact that such shows are long overdue, and we have so much to say. I say this in the year the Royal Academy offered its first ever solo show to a female artist, Marina Abramovic, in its 250-year history.[i]

This show has taken the idea of the “fourth wave” feminism of the last decade as its timeframe, which is at once necessary to fit the available space, ensures intersectional and expansive feminisms – a plurality noted in the show’s subtitle – and yet misses the chance to visually connect these present concerns through time. Such legacies are not, however, absent. The show’s first section, “Body as Battleground”, is essentially a dedication to Barbara Kruger, whose own solo show at the Serpentine took place earlier this year. The legacy of the Saint of Christopher Street gay liberation campaigner and trans activist Marsha P. Johnson is enshrined in Happy Birthday Marsha! (2018) by Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel, which reimagines the night of the 1969 Stonewall uprising, when, yet again, the role of the police as guardians of the most vulnerable is found entirely wanting. The way Johnson inhabited her personal freedom was revolutionary; achingly beautifully rendered in this short film, in what Saidiya Hartman might call a ‘critical fabulation’, in which historical or archival omissions of a life are reconstructed. This work occupies the emotional heart of the show, along with that of Aida Silvestri’s Unsterile Clinic (2015). By any measure, this is an astonishingly visceral work, on a subject no one but no one wants to talk about, yet is transformed by the artist’s loving hands into artworks of such grace, they turn silence into speech. Drawing on her own experience of female genital mutilation, she has been able to work collaboratively with other similarly-affected women to visualise the different forms the procedure has taken, creating models, on display here in a vitrine, which are now used for identification – over 200 million women and girls are affected globally – by the NHS in the UK. The work also takes the form of a single, non-identifying self-portrait, in which the artist wears a wedding dress, embellished with razor blades in place of pearls, and embroidered red thread, flowing beyond the frame. The image pulsates with the injustice of the religious and social construct of virginity and every act of violence it has engendered.

I unite these two specific works in the strongest spirit of the right to self-determination – and its frequent absence – which courses throughout the exhibition. Of the two vital works on the subject of abortion, in this instance, I would have selected Winant’s The Last Safe Abortion (2023) for the light it sheds on the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US, and invited Laia Abril to show her work On Rape (2020–ongoing), or Femicides (2019–ongoing), as another bloody framing for the show as a whole. Yet, as always with her meticulously researched work, Abril’s situating of abortion as a global institutional failure bristles with eloquent rage. The last time I wrote about Nan Goldin’s Memory Lost, the V&A was still funded by Sackler, a position it reversed in 2022; the result of a sustained campaign by Goldin and PAIN, which included a die-in at the museum, indicting the creators of Oxycontin, the highly addictive opioid, for their life-destroying crimes. Goldin’s way of being in the (art) world – she has been called a “harm reductionist”, surely an aspirational epithet – is propelled by honesty, and, I can’t say it too often, by love. The wrong things, she says, are kept secret. They still are, and the shame that encircles such secrecy kills with the same violence as a blade or a gun.

Much of the work in this ground-breaking show pierces such shame with love, and Raphaela Rosella’s work HOMEtruths (2022) explodes with love and care for and with a First Nations community in New South Wales, Australia. This entirely unsentimental, joyful, heart-breaking, polyvocal three-screen film shows the effects of the incarceration of women on them and their families. Part of a wider work, You’ll Know It When You Feel It (2012–ongoing), Rosella’s co-creational approach resists, intervenes in and often completely overturns juridical and bureaucratic representation and replaces it with rich familial bonds in a form of justice, both aesthetic and restorative, which is exceptionally deeply felt.

In terms of the photographic image, these artists are pushing the discipline forward, far from its histories of control and subjugation. In their hands, we encounter sculptural, filmic, archival, collaged and embroidered forms, which make for multi-sensory ways of seeing, decentring the camera’s power; a reparative gaze. Questions for the next shows foregrounding women+, no doubt already in production, include how to understand the gallery as even more of a forum, involving more community groups and building on existing links with brilliant but underfunded and therefore precarious local resources. How can the institutions that fail us, that maim, that kill, be further held publicly accountable via image-led or art-based discussion? How can artists whose practice isn’t defined within the confines of socially engaged practice in and of itself expand the social purpose of their work in a gallery space? And how can the white Western female curatorial approach, expansive and assiduous as it surely is, in terms of Sarah Allen and Fiona Rogers, as well as Alona Pardo and Linsey Young – brava to all – continue to find ways to share its considerable power ever more effectively? Not because it isn’t showing us the most pertinent, mind-expanding, courageous work, not because it isn’t taking great care of the people who make it, but because of what it – and I – just can’t see.♦

All images courtesy South London Gallery

Acts of Resistance: Photography, Feminism and the Art of Protest, with a public programme curated by Lola Olufemi, runs at South London Gallery until 9 June 2024.


Max Houghton is a writer, curator and editor working with the photographic image as it intersects with politics and law. She runs the MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London, where she is also co-founder of the research hub Visible Justice. Her writing appears in publications by The Photographers’ Gallery and Barbican Centre, as well press such as Granta, The Eyes, Foam, 1000 Words, British Journal of Photography and Photoworks. She is co-author, with Fiona Rogers, of Firecrackers: Female Photographers Now (Thames and Hudson, 2017) and her latest monograph essay appears in Mary Ellen Mark: Ward 81 Voices (Steidl, 2023). She is undertaking doctoral research into the image and law at University College London and is the 2023 recipient of the Royal Photographic Society award for education. 

References:

[i] I say this in a year when the police force with responsibility for London remains institutionally sexist, racist and homophobic. I say this when two women this week, as every week, will be killed in the UK by the hands of their partner or former partner. I say this on a day when the US abstained from the UN vote for a ceasefire in Gaza, where sexual violence is being frequently reported as a weapon of war.

Images:

1-Hoda Afshar, Untitled #14 from the series In Turn, 2023. © Hoda Afshar. Image courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Meeanjin / Brisbane.

2-Sethembile Msezane, Chapungu – The Day Rhodes Fell, 2015. Photo: Courtesy the artist

3-Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel, Happy Birthday Marsha!, 2018. Courtesy the artists and Chapter NY, New York.

4-Poulomi Basu, from the series Sisters of the Moon, 2022. Courtesy the artist, TJ Boulting and JAPC.

5-Guerrilla Girls, History of Wealth & Power, 2016. © Guerrilla Girls, courtesy guerrillagirls.com

6-Mari Katayama, just one of those things #002, 2021. © Mari Katayama

7-Zanele Muholi, Bester, New York, 2019. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy Yancey Richardson, New York.

8-Sheida Soleimani, Delara, 2015. © Sheida Soleimani. Courtesy Edel Assanti.

Rut Blees Luxemburg

The Essence of Architecture

Interview by Michael Grieve

Rut Blees Luxemburg’s exhibition at Hamburg Werkstatt Fotografie, Germany, brings together large-scale photographic work concerning the representation of the city and the phenomenon of the urban. Here the artist discusses the selection and configuration of images in the exhibition, foregrounding liquid elements in the photographs that refer less to bodily failure and human fallibility than that which is unruly and essentially turbulent, thereby threatening the established dry and dusty order of power and control, she explains to Michael Grieve.


Michael Grieve | Interview | 2 Apr 2024

Michael Grieve: The Essence of Architecture is the curious title of your exhibition. Why did you choose this title? Indeed, is it possible that architecture can possess an intrinsic value or does it need a representation to convey this quality?

Rut Blees Luxemburg: The title of the exhibition comes from a short text by the philosopher Alexander García Düttmann, who wrote in response to my photographs on the work of the architect Nicolas Ledoux: ‘The essence of architecture is the sphincter.’ The philosopher gives a provocative meaning to the term ‘essence’. Yet it is not disagreeable, and alerts us to the body in relation to architecture, how we construct space to present and be private. If the camera becomes receptive, an un-burdened eye even, it might be able to capture an allusion of that essence. The eye, revered by Claude Nicolas Ledoux, became the focus of his architectural thinking and design, the eye as the organ of control and surveillance, but equally the eye as the organ of visual pleasure and delight. Ledoux presaged photography and its hold on our visual imaginary. In these photographic works and configurations in the exhibition, I wanted to emphasise the essentials: the sewer, the spills, the leaks, the ground.

MG: What exactly do you mean by “the essentials”? Are these leaks, spills, the sewer and the ground representative of some kind of anthropomorphic relation to the body? In this doomed utopian vision, in the Foucauldian sense, are we not always subject to return to the fallibility and limitations of our very human condition: the body that leaks, decays and ultimately fails us?

RBL: If we look at a work like The Font, we see a large basin with an obscure function in the harbour of Le Havre, in which discarded wine bottles, empty beer flasks and various other remnants of what looks like the accumulated aftermath of a continuous party swim. This “primordial soup” can be read as a hellish vision of disorderly nocturnal excess or it can serve as a tableau that recalls the joys of commingling, night-time debaucheries and carnivalesque, Brueghelian pleasures. The emphasis on the liquid elements in the photographs does not refer to bodily failure and human fallibility but is a sideways turn to that which is unruly and essentially turbulent, thereby threatening the established dry and dusty order of power and control.

MG: In your artistic practice, from very early on during the 1990s, you have been preoccupied with photographing the urban terrain at night. As a painter may use a particular palette of colours to convey a particular scene, you have used the given artificial light of the city, emphasing the peculiarity of this light and how it registers on film. And in your later work, there seems to be a sense in which your photographs are not recording the surface, but actually extracting something visceral from it. Although the opposite of extraction, this reminds me of Vladimir Nabokov when he says in the book, Transparent Things (1972), that when you observe an object long enough, you begin to sink into it. Can you explain your choice and fascination with the light of the urban terrain?

RBL: Some of my 90s work has an excessive palette, particularly intense greens and lurid yellows. These colours were exciting and wrong, certainly not calibrated, an hallucinatory offering into an experience of the city. Long exposures during the night with the 5×4 camera stretched and distorted the diapositive films colour capabilities while providing depth of field and accuracy of detail. The specific London sodium lighting of the time added a warm glow. The notion of sinking or falling into appears in many of the works of that time. From the Vertiginous Exhilaration (1995) from the top of the East End high-rise to the liquid entry points, be they reflective puddles, or the river, all inviting an immersion, a letting-go and falling into. My interest in the city was two-fold: to visually express what feeling at home in the public sphere is for me, or, in other words, how to dwell on a site, and to challenge the representation of the urban as a foreboding, dangerous, impoverished place. The urban light at night sets the scene, and it is immediately clear that we are finding ourselves in a constructed space, a human-made fiction, hence, a space that can also be de-constructed or re-imagined.

MG: You gave me a copy of a recently published book with a yellowish green cover, entitled Pissing Women (Climax Books, 2023) by the English artist, Sophy Rickett. I remember this work from the 90s when it was made and published in Creative Camera. It features three female artists as the performers, or should I say, activists, engaged in the act of pissing in the “male” stance of standing up, set within the context of the City of London, the financial “square mile”. It is a wonderfully provocative and satirical performance, featuring Sophy Rickett and yourself. Although Sophy Rickett is the author of the work, it was obviously a collaborative process and given the urban terrain, fits well with your own urban aesthetic concerns. Can you elaborate on this work and your own experiences of it at that time?

RBL: I got to know Sophy when we studied together on a BA Photography at LCP in the early 90s. We bonded and have bounced off each other, stimulating ideas, photo-theoretical arguments and various side-hustles ever since. Not long ago, we conceptualised Hi-Noon together, an innovative proto-type to support photographic artists. Back in the 90s, in addition to being students, we had various part-time jobs as temps in the city to fund our London lives. The experience of being present in the city, the financial dynamo of the UK, during the time of the yuppies, de-regulation and the occasional bomb from the Northern Ireland conflict, was certainly formative. I developed a series of works titled Chance Encounters which saw Sophy and I being present in the public sphere of the city, after dark, cos-playing so to speak, as city execs and engaging with strangers we met. These works asserted our right to be confidently present in the city, a playful pretence inserted into the hub of power. Parallel, Sophy developed the Pissing Women series, which emphasised our presence in a bodily way, marking the urban territory with our urine, a masculine technique we learned to perfect. Photography was the perfect conduit to capture these interferences and actions.

MG: The uncanny aspect of your photography is made apparent by the seeming lack of arbitrary decisions of the visual fragments you decide to frame, accentuated by your relatively limited productive output. And yet conversely it appears that you have a knowingness that what the photograph captures far exceeds the intention, therefore what you photograph allows unconscious meanings and associations to transpire. 

RBL: Limited productive output?! I might make under 10 photographic works a year, but those are in the context of all my other artistic projects such as public art works, art books, curating as well as the teaching and researching. All of those creative endeavours nourish and enrich the photographic works, which can be seen as a distillation. A high-percentage spirit, that contains those unconscious meanings and stimulating associations you refer to. I aim for my photographic works to be condensed but expressive, with a hint of the flamboyant.

MG: The Essence of Architecture features a faux peruke, reminiscent of powdered wigs worn by men during the 18th century. Of course, this archaic object is there to evoke the essence of Ledoux, who designed and built the Saline Royale between 1775–78. A photograph of a common metal watering can, illuminated in sodium light, situated in what looks like a communal garden of a council estate in London, is adorned with the title, Latent Babylon. Humour is a major component of your work, with elaborate, satirical and absurd titles to each individual print carefully positioned often as textual destabilisers to the images, and sometimes vice versa. In some manner, it feels that your work is performative, theatrical even. 

RBL: The wig Libertine is woven by the artist Jasmine Padjak from fresh yucca fibres. I was attracted by the verdant-green of the wig, an organic fragment of historical representation. I asked the artist if I could host this work in my exhibition to be the absent protagonist, the revolutionary architect, who might connect all the elements. The titles to the works can be a detour via the non-scenic route, or a literary denouement to challenge a purely visual response to the image, a device to keep the image unfixed and open for myriad readings and interpretations. The intrinsic irony of the world is there for the photographer to capture and stage. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and Hamburg Werkstatt Fotografie © Rut Blees Luxemburg

The Essence of Architecture runs at Hamburg Werkstatt Fotografie until 11 April 2024.


Rut Blees Luxemburg is an artist who explores the city and the phenomenon of the luminous. Her solo exhibitions include Phantom (Tate Liverpool, 2003) and London Dust (Museum of London, 2015), and her photographs have been shown in elles @ centrepompidou, Paris. Her work has been the subject of the opera Liebeslied/My Suicides, and her large-scale public work Silver Forest (2016) is installed as a permanent part of the façade of Westminster City Hall, London. Blees Luxemburg is also a Reader in urban aesthetics at the Royal College of Art, London, where she teaches on the MA Photography and Co-Leads the Spatial Value research catalyst. She created the album cover for Original Pirate Material (2002) by The Streets. She is a Director of FILET, London, and Co-Founder of HI-NOON. Her publications include London – A Modern Project (1997), Commonsensual (2009) and The Lesson of the Vine (2019).

Michael Grieve is a photographer, Director of ArtFotoMode, Hamburg Werkstatt Fotografie (HWF) and lecturer at Ostkreuzschule in Berlin. In 1997 he graduated from the MA Photographic Studies from the University of Westminster and then proceeded to work as a photojournalist and portrait photographer for publications internationally. He was Deputy Editor of 1000 Words and a writer for the British Journal of Photography. Since 2011 he has been Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, Akademia Fotografie Warsaw and the University of Art and Design, Berlin, and currently teaches at Ostkreuzschule für Fotografie, Berlin. He is currently working on Procession, a project documenting the peripheral space between Athens and Elifsina, Greece.

Images:

1-Rut Blees Luxemburg, Icarus Project, 2016.

2-Rut Blees Luxemburg, London Dust, 2013.

3-Rut Blees Luxemburg, Piccadilly’s Peccadilloes, 2007.

4-Rut Blees Luxemburg, The Font, 2008.

5-Rut Blees Luxemburg, Factory Utopia, 2021.

6-Rut Blees Luxemburg, Saline Dream, 2019.

7-Rut Blees Luxemburg, Die Hütte, 2023.

8-Rut Blees Luxemburg, The Dark Intestine of Nicolas Ledoux, 2019.

9-Rut Blees Luxemburg, The Security Guard, 2019.

10-Installation view of Rut Blees Luxemburg: The Essence of Architecture at Hamburg Werkstatt Fotografie.

Exteriors – Annie Ernaux and Photography

Lou Stoppard (ed.)

Book review by Peter Watkins

Curator and writer Lou Stoppard adds visual repertoire to Annie Ernaux’s iconic Exteriors, originally published in 1993, through a new publication and exhibition titled Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography — co-published by MACK and Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP), Paris. Recognising Ernaux’s iconic literary style – unapologetic, brave, and tender, inherently political and dedicated to amplifying marginalised voices – Stoppard sifted through 24,000 photographs, resulting in a photo-book that captures the rituals of everyday life, in a way not so mundane, as Peter Watkins writes.


Peter Watkins | Book review | 21 Mar 2024 

Annie Ernaux’s intimately autobiographical writing is much like the dull ache of an old injury, reminding the body, through its persistence, of its entanglement in the world over time. She writes for the sake of memory and forgetting, and has been prolific in her output since the mid-1970s, earning a Nobel Prize for Literature along the way. Her writing is unapologetic, unembarrassed and tender in its bravery. She has spoken of her work as being inherently political, driven by a genuine desire to give voice to the underrepresented, namely the working class, in acutely observed reflections from her everyday encounters. Her work is paired back, unadorned, with no room for hyperbole. A pioneer of autofiction, she doesn’t seem to suffer from the indulgences and excesses that sometimes accompany the genre. 

Ernaux has spoken of photography as acting as a catalyst for her writing, but it’s ordinary, as opposed to extraordinary, photographs of people that are meaningful to her. She uses photographs as an aide de memoire, and has suggested that: ‘The photograph is nothing other than stopped time. But the photograph does not save. Because it is mute. I believe on the contrary that photography increases the pain of passing time. Writing saves, and cinema.’ In her book The Years (2008), the opening passages come to us like abrupt flashes of memory; fragmentary, and incomplete, but bright and image-like. These lines reveal perhaps most clearly, both her directness and the umbilical bond between photography, memory and language, as well as the existential fear of forgetting and being forgotten: ‘All the images will disappear. […] Everything will be erased in a second. […] We will be nothing but a first name, increasingly faceless, until we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation.’

Upon reading Exteriors (1996), Lou Stoppard contacted Simon Baker, Director of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris, surprised that there hadn’t previously been a major institutional collaboration between Ernaux’s writing and photography, particularly given the building attention around her life’s work, not to mention the photographic claims her writing has made, as so explicit in Exteriors. Stoppard was promptly invited to spend a month going through some 24,000 photographs and 36,000 photobooks that make up the MEP’s collection. Her selections represent some of major names in documentary photography such as William Klein, Luighi Ghirri, Ursula Schulz-Dornberg, Claude Dityvon and Daido Moriyama. The photographs were made in the mid-20th century onwards and depict almost always people, built-up environments and ephemeral encounters in the city. 

Post-war photography of this kind moved us away from a prescribed reading of the image to a multi-layered, subjective and ultimately equivocal vision of the world – uncertain images for uncertain times – and, in that sense, the pairings seem apt, if sometimes a little on the nose. Stoppard herself concedes these ‘moments of visual coincidence’ of course occur, a near-impossibility to avoid perhaps, given the familiarity of the imagery evoked in Ernaux’s writing. She also didn’t want to focus on the grand boulevards of Paris, on Eugène Atget, or the traditional idea of the flâneur, but, rather, on a more universal vision of the everyday, the language of advertising and the rituals of life. Indeed, to do otherwise wouldn’t have made sense, given Ernaux’s politics and focus. As Stoppard points out: ‘To compare Ernaux’s writing to photography is a project that is impossible to divorce from questions of class. Seeing is a privilege. Photographing is even more of a privilege.’

The inference of pairing Ernaux’s originally slim 74-page Exteriors with this curated selection of photographs from the MEP’s collection is to cement some of the photographic associations we already hold dear to her work, but perhaps also to examine this lesser-known publication in photographic terms – extending readings, teasing out connections and re-examining the question of how literature and photography can coexist, and to what end. Stoppard makes headway in this regard in her accompanying essay “Writing Images”, found at the end of Exteriors – Annie Ernaux and Photography, jointly published by MACK. Here, she attempts to contextualise Ernaux’s photographic intentions not only by examining Exteriors, but also by reaching back within the wider context of her work. 

Over the decades, Ernaux’s writing has fearlessly examined, amongst others, themes such as the interior life, identity, women and the body, shame, nascent sexuality, illegal abortion, female sexuality, relationships, grief and the perception of time. Unwavering in her pursuit, these themes have played out somewhere between Ernaux’s subjective personal experiences, read within the wider societal and political movements of the times. 

If Ernaux’s work often leans towards the exploration of interiority, a pursuit nearing claustrophobia in its intensity, then Exteriors, in some respects, represents a literal break, turning itself outwards to the surface of things. The book, in its original form, is made up of journal entries written over the course of seven years, between 1985 and 1992, and mostly in-and-around Cergy-Pontoise, one of five suburban “new towns” surrounding Paris built up in the 1960s, a place she has vehemently rejected as being simply categorised as a non-lieux or non-place. This is where she has written much of her work, a place that is integral to her writing, a place she calls home: ‘A place suddenly sprung up from nowhere, a place bereft of memories […] A place with undefined boundaries.’

These are observations from Ernaux’s adopted home, the neighbourhoods she moves through, from the dentist’s waiting room to the RER suburban train or visits to the Hypermarket. These are the banal spaces of the everyday, observed matter-of-factly, sharply. This is a real, visceral vision of the periphery, away from the charm and clichés of Paris. For Ernaux, these everyday spaces are imbued with sociological and psychological substance, with ‘as much meaning and human truth as the concert hall.’

The images serve to punctuate what is about a third of Ernaux’s book, which is broken up chronologically, and slipped formally between the photographs, inevitably encouraging associations through juxtaposition. The text and images evoke one another, but are not intended as captions or illustrations. Rather, they are offered equal weighting on the page. The images weave between eras and geographies, almost all depicting people, or signs of humanity, pointing towards the universal experience of the city, where, for the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population currently dwells. The photographs, as well as the text, attest to the observational faculties of their authors, captivating and complicating our attention, without ever really being too prescriptive or dogmatic in their associations.

In her interview with the Louisiana Channel, Ernaux describes her work as factual, and restrained of feeling. She writes in Exteriors: ‘I have sought to describe reality as though through the eyes of a photographer… To preserve the mystery and opacity of the lives I encountered.’ But with that comes a tireless curiosity, presented to us by an omnipresent Ernaux, who has the imagination to transform these all too familiar encounters from daily life into something of real vibrancy and fortitude, and, of course, there’s plenty of feeling built into that act. The same could be said of many of the photographers whose work make up the pages of this book. The people encountered come to us as protagonists of their own stories which we glimpse, move through and then beyond, perhaps inviting us to consider the increasingly unequal social hierarchies pronounced and laid bare in the shared urban environments that we presently occupy, in turn allowing us to reflect on how they might be reimagined. ♦

All images courtesy the artists, MACK and MEP.

Exteriors – Annie Ernaux and Photography runs at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, France, until 26 May 2024. The accompanying book is published by MACK.


Peter Watkins is an artist and educator based in Prague, Czech Republic. Watkins received his MA in Photography at the Royal College of Art in 2014, and has since exhibited his work internationally, receiving several awards for his ongoing practice. His work is held in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland. His book
The Unforgetting was published by Skinnerboox in 2020. He is currently Associate Lecturer at Prague City University.

Images:

1-Claude Dityvon, 18 hears, Post de Bercy, Paris (18 hours, Bridge of Bercy, Paris), 1979. Gelatin silver print, MEP Collection, Paris. Acquired in 1979. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy the artist, MACK and MEP.

2-Dolorès Marat, La femme aux Gants (Woman with gloves), 1987. Fresson four-colour pigment print, MEP Collection, Paris. Acquired in 2006. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy the artist, MACK and MEP.

3-Dolorès Marat, Neige à Paris (Snow in Paris), 1997. Fresson four-colour pigment print, MEP Collection, Paris. Acquired in 2001. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy of the artist, MACK and MEP.

4-Hiro, Shinjuku Station, Tokyo, 1962. Gelatin silverprints, MEP Collection, Paris. Gift of the Elsa Peretti Foundation in 2008. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy The Estate of Y. Hiro Wakabayashi, MACK and MEP.

5-Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, Ploshchad Vosstaniya – Uprising Square, 2005. Photogravure, MEP Collection, Paris. Gift of the artist in 2020. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy the artist, MACK and MEP.

6-Janine Niepce, H.L.M. à Vitry. Une mère et son enfant (Council estate in Vitry. A mother and her child), 1965. Gelatin silver prints. MEP Collection, Paris. Acquired in 1983. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy the artist, MACK and MEP.

7-Marie-Paule Nègre, Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris (Luxembourg Garden, Paris), 1979. Pigment inkjet print, MEP Collection, Paris. Gift of the artist in 2014. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy the artist, MACK and MEP.

8-William Klein, Finale de l’élection de Miss France, entourée de Jean-Pierre Foucault et Mme de Fontenay (Final of Miss France contest, surrounded by Jean-Pierre Foucault and Mrs de Fontenay), 2001, from the series PARIS + KLEIN. C-type prints, MEP Collection, Paris. Acquired in 2002. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy William Klein Estate, MACK and MEP.

9-Bernard Pierre Wolff, Shinjuku, Tokyo, 1981. Gelatin silver print, MEP Collection, Paris. Bequest from the artist in 1985. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy the artist, MACK and MEP.

10-Daido Moriyama, Untitled, 1969. Gelatin silver print, MEP Collection, Paris. Gift of Dai Nippon Printing Co., Ltd. in 1995. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation, Akio Nagasawa Gallery, MACK and MEP.

Teju Cole

Pharmakon

Book review by Anneka French

In his third MACK title, Pharmakon — meaning poison, remedy, or scapegoat, Teju Cole explores the material of absence through images woven together with 12 short stories of post-apocalyptic or crisis scenarios, where displaced individuals, mortality, environmental threats, and bureaucratic challenges loom. An apt title, as Anneka French writes, for a book carrying significant political weight, Pharmakon indicating something that might cure, kill, or displace blame – feasibly all of these things simultaneously.


Anneka French | Book review | 14 Mar 2024

‘Time with a photobook is a wander off the beaten path…’ wrote Teju Cole in an article for The Guardian in 2020. ‘Sitting with it, you have to sit with yourself: this is a private experience in a time when those are becoming alarmingly rare, an act of analogue rebellion in an obnoxiously digital world.’

Materiality is prominent in Cole’s new title, Pharmakon, his third with MACK following Golden Apple of the Sun (2021) and Fernweh (2020). Pharmakon features a suite of highly enigmatic photographs that place emphasis on materials to signify absence. The images, taken over a four-year period, are frequently bleak, occasionally humorous, sometimes sensual. Traces of human-life are evoked, for instance, through peeling layers of paint or marks squeaked across dusty glass, through textures of weathered marble or worn concrete, sand, reflections and gentle ripples in water. Such tactile surfaces begin with Pharmakon’s cover, a thin, navy-blue leather-like buckram that lends the volume gravitas from the off. Cole, a novelist, essayist as well as a prolific photographer, has written 12 short stories that intersperse the images inside. These texts, from a few pages to a few paragraphs in length, which are complete pieces in and of themselves rather than fragments per se, open the images up to meanings beyond the initial impressions of the viewer, offering interpretations and parallel trains of thought that range from the ethereally abstract to the unequivocally political. All are unsettling to some extent, shaping the photographs that precede and follow them. There is equal weight between text and image.

The early pages of the book include pale blue skies carved up by overhead wiring and interrupted by the tops of two stone buildings – open and enigmatic but with a sense of curtailed possibility. These are followed by wooden fence panels that afford a glimpse of industrial hoardings beyond the slats. A narrow strip of sky is visible across the top and tarmac painted with yellow markings appears along the bottom section. Next comes a view of water from the window of a vehicle that overlays two pages, followed by a board printed with photographic images of the sea and sky, punctured by screws, and papers removed from a wall. Landscapes, buildings and objects are here offered just out of reach, our views of them altered or denied.

Cole’s first story comes like a punch in the gut. Visceral and shocking, it unfolds from a circular forest clearing into a scene of gunshots and attempted escape, sharp in its clarity, scale and impact. Two photographs of woodland or parkland, a public statue wrapped in brown fabric, an abundant apple tree and two views of a further tree against a building with large windows follow this, not the setting of the story exactly but something comparable, maybe even places that are closer to home. The photographs carry echoes of the story, their locations specific but non-identifiable. The last image in this sequence is a blurred view of open grass and trees, as if the photographer is moving very quickly through the landscape, running like the protagonists in the story.

Many of Cole’s photographs point towards the passage of time. Two facing plates show similar views of a high-rise building at night and in daylight. Our eyes are drawn to different areas of the two images as elements recede into darkness or slip into focus. The grid formation of the building’s windows is recalled in the braille panels that feature elsewhere in the publication and in ceramic tiles, bricks and blocks of stone that appear in several of the photographs. The tower formations are mimicked through trees and architectural structures scattered throughout – including one grand column behind which a piece of litter has been tucked – a stack of books with their spines turned away from the camera, and more loosely, in the rougher surfaces of multiple large rocks. Whole mountains, boulders, smaller rocks and sand chart an ever-diminishing sense of scale that is grounding and humbling.

Cole’s stories carry significant political weight. Post-apocalyptic or crisis scenarios are either foregrounded in the action or hover more insidiously in the background. There are multiple displaced people, dead people, people threatened by the landscape, weather, ill-health, violence and bureaucracy. There are repressed histories and memories that resurface. These themes are supported and extended by the photographs, so that even a quiet, apparently innocuous image – a brick wall, boulder or spillage – becomes highly charged. A piece of paper torn from a lamppost becomes an action of resistance or suppression, fences and walls become borders of exclusion, a mound of earth becomes a grave, a dead bird becomes a dead human. Specific formal arrangements and motifs – particularly water, rock and shadow – repeat, disappearing for a while and then bobbing back up like a float pushed beneath waves.

The complexity inherent in the word pharmakon, an Ancient Greek term meaning poison, remedy or scapegoat, makes it an apt title for the book. The word is semi-familiar and multi-faceted, indicating something that might cure, kill or displace blame – feasibly all of these things simultaneously. It is political. The closing pages of the book assemble images of grids and holes, curved pipes and shadows. The last story is titledCircle”, which returns us to Cole’s initial metaphor of the woodland clearing. In this story, Cole writes: ‘You cannot write about the circle from inside the circle. To write about the circle, you have to be outside it. No, he thinks, that’s not quite right: you could write about the circle from inside the circle. It would have to be possible, and perhaps necessary.’ This riddling is undercut with deep violence in the text’s final paragraph. The book concludes with a vapour trail in the sky, two facing plates of lilac-pink sky and an off-centre double page spread of the sea and another lilac-pink sky, calming, open and hopeful, even while this scene and all the others before it are affected, carefully and incisively, by the force of Cole’s words. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and MACK © Teju Cole

Pharmakon is published by MACK.


Anneka French is a Curator at Coventry Biennial and Project Editor for Anomie, an international publishing house for the arts. She contributes to Art QuarterlyBurlington Contemporary and Photomonitor, and has had written and editorial commissions from Turner Prize, Fire Station Artists’ Studios, TACO!, Grain Projects and Photoworks+. French served as Co-ordinator and then Director at New Art West Midlands, Editorial Manager at this is tomorrow and has worked at Tate Modern, London, Ikon, Birmingham and The New Art Gallery Walsall. 

Images:

1>6-Teju Cole, from Pharmakon (MACK, 2024). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Aladin Borioli

Bannkörbe

Book review by Rica Cerbarano

Swiss artist Aladin Borioli advances his decade-long research project, Apian, with the latest work, Bannkörbe, now published by Spector Books. In his distinctive field, Borioli navigates a diverse landscape that blends anthropology, graphic design, and photography to illustrate a past beekeeping technology found in northern Germany. As Rica Cerbarano writes, this investigation into the relationship between humans and bees, delineates a symbiotic relationship that has sustained humankind for centuries – one that might offer critical explanations of our contemporary society.


Rica Cerbarano | Book review | 7 Mar 2024

In the field of visual studies, sequencing pre-existing images through the practice of montage is widely recognised as a means of knowledge production. Georges Didi-Huberman, speaking of Bertolt Brecht’s “Work Journal” in the essay The Eye of History – When Images Take Positions (2018), wrote that the writer and playwright ‘renounces the discursive, deductive and demonstrative value of exposition – where exposition means explaining, elucidating, telling in a sequential manner – in order to unfold more freely the iconic, tabular and displaying value.’ It’s precisely from this kind of neutral approach that Aladin Borioli’s Bannkörbe comes to life, resulting in a publication with Spector Books that is dedicated to the unusual artefacts of the Bannkörbe, a distinctive type of beekeeping technology prevalent in northern Germany during the period spanning the 16th and 19th centuries.

Here we have one of the many different shapes taken by the anthropological research carried out by the Swiss artist over the last 10 years. In fact, since 2014, Borioli has been working on a larger project called Apian, in which he explores – together with collaborators – the centuries-old relationship between bees and humans and how this interconnection can evolve and develop culturally. Communicated under the statement of a “self-proclaimed Ministry of Bees”, the idea behind the project is to create a political lab that investigates the role of bees in our society, confronting the failure of the political institutions in recognising the impact of bees on human beings. Harnessing his background in graphic design and photography with his studies in visual and media anthropology, Borioli devises a fluid, multimodal research method that gives him the freedom to experiment in the form of final outputs – be they a scientific article, book, video or sound piece.

Unlike some previous artists working on the same theme (think Mark Thompson’s video performances in the 1970s and 80s), Borioli immerses himself into the background of the project, hiding his actions behind a collective and impartial conception of the study and disclosure of this subject. His imprint is visible in the theme and in the Warburg-like approach, however nothing about him transpires through from the 176 pages of the book, which is just in a larger format than his previous Hives, 2400 B.C.E. – 1852 C.E. (RVB Books and Images Vevey, 2020). This time, however, the subject narrows sharply to devote itself entirely to the human artefact of the Bannkörbe. These hives, a peculiar aspect of skep beekeeping, stand out due to their unique visual features – grotesque-looking wooden masks that ward off the evil eye. Today, in light of modern technologies and contemporary beekeeping practices, and given our ambivalent relationship with the animal species (oscillating between love and exploitation), the Bannkörbe have a symbolic presence: they represent a trace from the past of a technology that on the one hand was extremely anthropomorphic and anthropocentric, but on the other hand was constructed as a functional artefact to defend the bees, acting like scarecrows. By bringing together text, new images and archival material, Borioli builds a journey back in time in search of the visual connections that led to the spread, though exclusive, of this mysterious object that retains an apotropaic feeling.

The investigation is developed in two parts: firstly, through archive images sifted through mostly books, and the other with new photographs taken by Borioli in local museums and private collections across Lower Saxony, Germany. The archival material gives us back a fragment of the extensive iconographic research that Borioli, intrigued by the grotesque forms of Bannkörbe, exercised. In search of a rather unknown history, Borioli started looking into its depth in order to make sense of what seemed to be an ancient tradition, whose design most likely dates back to c. 1540, with little historical documentation behind it. In fact, due to the use of delicate materials in hive construction, the scarcity of tangible historical evidence in the realm of beehive history is a real issue. Hence the whole practice of Borioli constitutes a way to, in art historian Hal Foster’s words from his essay, “An Archival Impulse”, ‘make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present.’

The distinctive aspect of Bannkörbe lies in the visual manifestation of masks, which was precisely what led Borioli to trace the cultural origins beyond the realm of beekeeping. Moving between the domains of magic, beekeeping and grotesque aesthetics, he freely collected and composed a stream of images that shape, what Aby Warburg referred to as, the ‘paths taken by the mind’. In particular, the influence of these hives – at least in a visual sense – appear to originate from a specific type of eerie architecture known as mascarons. This form of stone face-shaped structure embellishes non-anthropomorphic architecture, with the idea that their magical qualities can repel malevolent spirits. While predominantly ornamental, some mascarons take on functional roles, like fountain forms whose mouths expel water, reminiscent of the most recognised feature of unsightly architecture: gargoyles. Bannkörbe beehives possess functionality too; their mouths serve as flight holes through which the bees come and go. Synonymously, they also serve as instruments of control and can pose a threat to bees, or being associated with brutal practices, where beekeepers resort to harmful methods that exterminate bees towards the end of the summer – a process aimed at easing harvest. This innate ambiguity leaves room for personal interpretation, or the simple realisation that there is no single point of view and that the relationships between species is first and foremost told from our partial perspectives as human beings.

In the middle of the book, 59 images printed on a different paper give us a glimpse of nearly all of the Bannkörbe left nowadays. While the archival research conveys the dynamic and fluid nature of Borioli’s inebriated and playful exploration, the serial aesthetic of these newly produced photographs leans towards a more “orthodox” scientific approach. Such a method adds a precious layer to the whole project as it brings the entire study back to the tangibility of the present as well as its ethnographic character.

What is staged by Borioli through the various channels in which this research takes shape (including the primary source of the project – the website) is a feedback loop approach that continues to generate visual associations and thematic links, guiding the unfamiliar reader to delve into the enduring relationship between humankind and bees, a very ancient phenomenon that lacks a comprehensive visual archive or the widespread representation it truly deserves. With this new book, Borioli continues his endeavour of combining multidisciplinary pieces of knowledge with the aim of generating other worlds, other connections, other stories. Conceiving his work as a trigger of ideas and artistic, scientific and philosophical interactions that transcend his presence, the artist aims at a horizontal broadening of engagement. Bannkörbe proves Borioli’s full and genuine dedication to a wider understanding of these interspecific relationships between humans and bees, once again shedding light on the intricate networks that have allowed humankind to exist for centuries.♦

All images courtesy the artist and Spector Books, Leipzig © Aladin Borioli

Aladin Borioli: Bannkörbe runs at C|O Berlin until 21 May 2024.
 

Rica Cerbarano is a curator, writer, editor and project coordinator specialising in photography. She writes regularly for
Vogue Italia and Il Giornale dell’Arte, where she is the Co-Editor of the Photography section. She has also contributed to Camera Austria, Over Journal, Hapax Magazine and Sali & Tabacchi, amongst others. In 2017, Cerbarano co-founded Kublaiklan, a collective that has curated exhibitions at Images Vevey (Switzerland), Gibellina PhotoRoad (Sicily, Italy), Cortona On The Move (Italy) and Photoszene Festival (Cologne, Germany), amongst others. In 2022, she was a member of the Artistic Direction Committee at Photolux Festival (Lucca, Italy), where she curated Seiichi Furuya: Face to Face, 1978 – 1985 and Robin Schwartz: Amelia & the Animals.

Images:

1>4-Aladin Borioli, Bannkörbe book cover and page excerpts (Spector Books, 2024).

5-Aladin Borioli, Bannkörbe, 2023. Provenance: Bomann-Museum Celle, Germany.

6>9-Aladin Borioli, Bannkörbe, 2023. Provenance: Collection Hans-Günther Brockmann, Germany.

10-Aladin Borioli, Bannkörbe, 2023. Provenance: Institut für Bienenkunde Celle, Germany.

11-Aladin Borioli, Bannkörbe, 2023. Provenance: Museum Nienburg, Germany.

12-Aladin Borioli, Bannkörbe, 2023. Provenance: Heimatbund Museum Soltau, Germany

Catherine Opie

harmony is fraught

Exhibition review by Zachary Korol Gold

Comprising constellations of never-before-exhibited photographs, Catherine Opie’s latest exhibition with Regen Projects raids the artist’s archive and offers windows into her community, city and social life, burrowing into the surface of Los Angeles like the famous cuts on the artist’s back, writes Zachary Korol Gold. Our must-see show during Frieze Los Angeles 2024.


Zachary Korol Gold | Exhibition review | 26 Feb 2024

Entering Regen Projects here in Los Angeles, the sounds of a group of friends hanging out at the back of the gallery greeted me. Making my way through the gallery’s rooms, divided in four equal quadrants with one long hallway, one voice became distinct: that of Catherine Opie, whose exhibition harmony is fraught, the artist’s eleventh with Regen, surrounded me. Curious to see whether Opie was leading a tour or catching up with the gallery’s proprietor and namesake Shaun, her long-time friend, I made my way to the back of the space.

The artist, however, was not present. Instead, I discovered Making of Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993), a half-hour-long behind-the-scenes video of Opie’s Self-Portrait/Cutting, 1993 (1993). In this seminal colour photograph, not on show, a childlike cartoon of two stick figures, both in triangular dresses, holding hands, adjacent to a house, cloud and cresting sun, has been cut into the artist’s bare back, beginning to ooze blood. Making of presents the moments preparing, cutting and capturing this well-known picture. Whereas the photograph depicts a solitary Opie, appearing serious, heavy and verging on the grotesque, the film depicts a group coming together to realise an artwork, their chatting and joking overlaid with a buzz of energy foreshadowing the gravitas of the still.

In an adjacent room, another work draws from this same moment: Self-Portrait/Cutting contact sheet, 1993 (1993/2024). Here, four shots of Opie’s back come together in a “contact sheet”, photo-sensitive paper directly exposed to a group of negatives pressed against it – contacting it – used to catalogue pictures for an artist’s archive, and a source from which one can be selected for enlargement into a final print. This image, whose four quadrants mirror the gallery’s four symmetrical spaces, repeats the photographic processes of exposure, printing, scanning; its negatives captured and the contact sheet exposed in 1993, then digitally scanned and finally printed in 2024. Such re-photography recalls the postmodernist experiments of Sherrie Levine, who presented her own photographs of photographs directly appropriating the iconic works of Walker Evans, Eliot Porter and Edward Weston. The so-called “straightness” of Levine’s appropriations is here displaced, both by its picturing of an image carved into Opie’s body rather than one from the photographic canon, and in the present exhibition’s context of Opie’s social life which bleeds in from the sounds of Making of around the corner, as well as the artist’s community and city on display in other pictures.

Like Self-Portrait/Cutting contact sheet, the exhibition raids the icebox of Opie’s own archive; the artist invites us to look with her through her personal contact sheets. And many of the pictures are of her contacts. Studio mates, artists, friends, Opie’s son Oliver and others gather among scenes of domestic life, parties and the urban spaces of Los Angeles.

Along the longest corridor-like gallery, Opie plastered a wall with a monumental vinyl of her 1993 night-time picture of the exterior of The Palms, the last remaining lesbian bar in West Hollywood that shuttered in 2013 after nearly half a century in operation. A group of pictures of party-goers in various states of undress cluster atop the nearly life-sized wallpapered image of the bar. Here, Club Fuck #1 (1992/2024) and Club Fuck #2 (1992/2024) both depict scenes of debauchery at the infamous party Club Fuck!, hosting performances and dancing at Basgo’s Disco and Dragonfly Bar between 1989 and 1993 until it was shut down by police. Conflating these parties with The Palms, Opie threads together the overlapping lesbian queer, and arts communities – her communities – of 1990s Los Angeles.

The exhibition at large hinges on this same operation, bringing together portraits of the artist’s people, scenes of her city and windows into her life. The artworks resurrect images from the artist’s archive which had remained private, never shown before, now loosely arranged in an eye-level succession spread across the gallery. This structure invites us to flip back and forth through Opie’s pictures as if we were sitting down with her and cracking open a photo album. Whereas the family photo album upholds the family unit as a source of chronological collective memory – as theorised by Pierre Bourdieu – here, pictures are associated but not ordered. The openness of the selection at Regen Projects does not pretend to aim for comprehension. Opie holds no secrets, and the show’s very exposure of her life centres its incompleteness with no pretence of achieving objectivity.

This comes to the fore in the many pictures of domestic and urban life and space, that the portraits punctuate. The city records its inhabitants’ layered interventions, the coverings, paintings, marks and erasures that occur through its ongoing occupation. Graffiti covers the edges and road barriers of an ominously-empty interchange in 105 Freeway, 1994 (1994/2024), a mural decrying gangs adorns a building standing behind an empty lot in End Thee Insanity, 1989 (1989/2024), plywood covers a store’s windows during the 1992 uprising in Mariella’s Tacos/Uprising, 1992 (1992/2024) while a fire burns another building during the same moment of unrest in L.A. Uprising, Catalina Rooftop, 1992 (1992/2024). Surfaces are constructed and built up, both in private in the mood board of printouts tacked to the wall in Tony Greene’s Studio, September 12, 1990 (1990/2024) and connecting the city in the replacement sixth street viaduct to downtown in 6th St. Bridge Construction, 2022 (2022/2024). Violence erupts, both threatening, like the armed police in AB101 Demonstration, 1991 (1991/2024) and camouflaged guards in Mariella’s Tacos/Uprising, 1992 (1992/2024), and pleasurable, in the BDSM practices of needle play in Ian needles and flowers, 1993 (1993/2024) and the kneeling exchange of Yes Ma’am, 1990 (1990/2024). Intimacy, here, can be the peaceful hammocked nap of Catherine and Millie, 1994 (1994/2024), the raucous lust of the Club Fuck! pictures and the vulnerability of the dildo, lubricant and hemorrhoidal suppositories on display in Medicine Cabinet, 1992 (1992/2024).

Like a series of long exposures, public and private surfaces record the history of Opie’s city’s community. As she and we make our lives here, we burrow into its surface like the famous cuts on the artist’s back. We meet each other, we touch the city, making contacts. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles © Catherine Opie

harmony is fraught runs at Regen Projects, Los Angeles, until 3 March 2024.


Zachary Korol Gold is a curator and writer living in Los Angeles researching ecological aesthetics in contemporary art. He is a PhD Candidate in Visual Studies at the University of California, Irvine and works in the curatorial department of UCI Langson Institute and Museum of California Art.

Images:

1-Catherine Opie, 6th St. Bridge Construction, 2022 (2022/2024). Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

2-Catherine Opie, AB101 Demonstration, 1991 (1991/2024). Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

3-Catherine Opie, Catherine and Millie, 1994 (1994/2024). Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

4-Catherine Opie, Club Fuck #1, 1992 (1992/2024). Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

5-Catherine Opie, Club Fuck #2, 1992 (1992/2024). Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

6-Catherine Opie, Christian, 1990 (1990/2024). Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

7-Catherine Opie, Gauntlet Group, 1995 (1995/2024). Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

8-Catherine Opie, Hollywood, 1990 (1990/2024). Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

9-Catherine Opie, Ian needles and flowers, 1993 (1993/2024). Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

10-Catherine Opie, Mariella’s Tacos/Uprising, 1992 (1992/2024). Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

11-Catherine Opie, Medicine Cabinet, 1992 (1992/2024). Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

12-Catherine Opie, Sunday morning, 1989 (1989/2024). Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

13-Catherine Opie, Surfer Landscape, 2003 (2003/2024). Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

14-Catherine Opie, Yes Ma’am, 1990 (1990/2024). Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

15-Catherine Opie, Langer’s, 1989 (1989/2024). Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.