Luigi Ghirri

Puglia. Tra Albe e Tramonti

Book review by Luce Lebart

Luce Lebart extols the virtues of the latest monograph dedicated to Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri, Puglia. Tra albe e tramonti, published by MACK, a dazzling testament to the singular vision of the maestro of colour and light as well as his relationship with Puglia — the distinctive region at the heel of Italy.


Puglia, between sunrises and sunsets… The title of Puglia. Tra albe e tramonti, published by MACK at the beginning of 2022, announces its colours. From dawn to dusk, the hues here are slightly faded, as if they were swept by the wind and salted by the sea. The palette is sensitive and, above all, recognisable. It is that of the Italian photographer, maestro of colour, Luigi Ghirri.

Thick but supple in the hand, this beautiful book brings together more than 200 of the photographs that Ghirri, a native of northern Italy, took in the south of the country during his stays there from the beginning of the 1980s until his death in 1992, at the age of 49. There is no doubt that the photographer was marked by the light so different from that of his province of Reggio Emilia in Emilia-Romagna where he took most of his photographs. This light certainly contributed much to shaping his geometric apprehension of the landscape, as explained by those close to him.

Throughout the pages, the photographs follow one another with regularity, a parade reminiscent of cinematographic travelling: of wandering and strolling with family, friends or simply alone. At times, white pages offer occasions for breathing, punctuating the photographer’s views. The sudden whiteness of the paper echoes the dazzling whiteness of Puglia’s light. Each photograph is surrounded by white margins and seems to emerge into the light. The photographs are silent, as their captions are only run at the end of the book. The book, however, is far from silent. Three beautiful texts follow the picture album and recount it warmly, all written by relatives who are attuned to his work and sensibility.

Snapshots of strong moments give way to more banal ones. The little stories rub shoulders with the big stories. Ghirri’s method, as he himself wrote, is ‘very close to literature, but also to cinema…’ He said: ‘Cinema has moments of greater overall intensity with more narrative moments or with pauses which are nevertheless necessary for the comprehension of the film.’

The photographs published during Ghirri’s lifetime have been included alongside new unpublished photographs taken from his archives and chosen by his family. This book was produced by several hands and brings together different temporalities. It is the tangible reactivation of a project of the same name which, formerly, remained in the state of a maquette.

The first version of Puglia had indeed been designed by those who worked on the concept with his wife Paola Borgonzoni Ghirri, accompanying an exhibition devoted to Puglia which had opened its doors in 1982 in Bari on the initiative of Gianni Leone. Passionate about photography and an adorer of Ghirri’s singular gaze, Leone – then head of Spazio Immagine in Bari, dreamed of exhibiting the works of the native of Scandiano. It was in this context that Leone invited Ghirri to discover his region. Ghirri had started photographing 10 years earlier, in the early 1970s, and became known in particular for his major exhibition organised in 1979 at the Galeria Nazionale in Palazzo Pilotta in Parma, as well as for the monographic book that accompanied it, published by Quintavalle, with an introduction by Arturo Carolo. 40 years after the Bari exhibition, it is again Leone who suggests that the Ghirri family take over this unpublished dummy to tell its story.

“Nothing new under the sun,” Ghirri liked to say. This expression sticks to his vision, a vision that has accompanied the contemporary work made from his archive. For his daughter Adèle Ghirri, who is in charge of the huge collection now kept at the Luigi Ghirri Foundation, the archive is a “living space” that is in no way immutable or fixed. On the contrary, it is “a reservoir from which to extract and reveal new images”. It is with this approach that this beautiful book was designed at the crossroads of different views: that of the photographer, the gallery owner and the photographer’s friends and family. The past works on the present, bringing to life, in a different way, memory and recollections. This approach is actually familiar to the rights-holders of the photographer: also published by MACK was Colazione sull’Erba (2019) made with previous unseen archival images from Ghirri.

The form of Puglia speaks to its content and materialises its concept. The volume is surrounded by a recycled paper jacket, the centre of which displays the image of a deserted square in Bitonto. This image was not part of the original selection of the 1982 model, itself reproduced at the end of the book. On the front cover, we find this same place of Bitonto but with a tiny time lag: a boy with a bicycle has burst into the image here. The human figure was absent from the 1982 version. The Puglia of 2022 incorporates it: we meet the gaze of young communicants on their way to the church; men chatting in the piazza; children passing by; fleeting shadows, like memories brought back to life. These guests are added to the facades of whitewashed houses, to the images of green and white cabbages placed on a makeshift table, to the deserted alleyways, to the closed doors transformed into flat areas of colour with blinding luminosity… And then, an omnipresent coastline. As Arturo Carlo Quintavalle explains in his text: the journey in Puglia is a ‘story not about Puglia but of Puglia.’

For the photographer’s daughter, the form of the book is a privileged way to share the breadth and depth of Ghirri’s work. The collaboration with MACK has now lasted more than 10 years and has been rather productive, from Kodachrome (2012) to The Map and the Territory (2019), and The Complete Essays 1973-1991 (2016) to Colazione sull’Erba. This collaboration has also helped to disseminate the work of the photographer adored by Italians. “Nothing new under the sun.” The links between the man and his work created during his lifetime are still there. Life goes on, and, over time, the immense work of Ghirri extends and branches out. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and MACK © Luigi Ghirri

Luce Lebart is a historian of photography, curator and researcher for the Archive of Modern Conflict.

Images:

1>7-Luigi Ghirri, “Bitonto, 1990”, from Puglia. Tra albe e tramonti (MACK, 2022). Courtesy the estate of the artist and MACK.

8-Luigi Ghirri, “Polignano a Mare, 1986”, from Puglia. Tra albe e tramonti (MACK, 2022). Courtesy the estate of the artist and MACK.

9-Luigi Ghirri, “Grotta Zinzulusa, n.d.”, from Puglia. Tra albe e tramonti (MACK, 2022). Courtesy the estate of the artist and MACK.

10-Luigi Ghirri, “53 Bitonto, 1990”, from Puglia. Tra albe e tramonti (MACK, 2022). Courtesy the estate of the artist and MACK.

Max Ferguson

Whistling for Owls

Book review by Anneka French

Max Ferguson’s debut publication, a contemplative study on paper, nature and the passage of time, transcends the physical limitations of its form to connect readers to their senses and memories, writes Anneka French.


Glassine, a smooth, distinctively rustling, semi-translucent paper, is a material I remember from childhood. My father, a teacher with a weekend philatelic side-hustle, displayed stamps in albums on pages separated by glassine leaves, stamps tweezed into tiny glassine envelopes when he made a sale. I remember scrambling on my knees under tables collecting sequins shed from the hall’s ballroom competitions the night before. Multiple memories surface as I open Whistling for Owls, the debut photobook by Max Ferguson and the first from his Oval Press imprint. Memory and the passing of time are two of the subjects at the heart of the publication, which contains within it a hand-folded triangle of glassine bound into its spine. The triangle is sandwiched between a photograph of three dead butterflies with their own glassine slips on the left-hand page and two transparent glass vases of dried flowers on the right, fitting because glassine is also used in entomological field specimen storage. Here, then, you might insert your own moth or marvel.

Whistling for Owls is filled with small, daily records, although to describe them as simply quotidian would be reductive. Photographs of objects ranging from the domestic to the industrial feature in a mixture of colour and black-and-white. They are undeniably romantic and many objects are gently decaying or have stalled. We find photographs of daisies, foxgloves and tangled weeds; concrete slabs and chunks of stone; a cutlery drawer; rusty oil drums; a broken intercom and an assortment of portraits. There are pairs of objects – two towers of stacked tyres repeated twice in subtle variation; two tomatoes balanced on a checked cloth; two teacups cradled in newspaper as if they have just been unpacked – all rendered symbolic, even if their precise meaning is unclear. Pairings are noteworthy since Ferguson himself places emphasis on the book being formed from two parts. He describes it as “image and text; France and London; memoir and fiction; truth and lies,” telling us everything and nothing. Indeed, much of the book’s impact is derived from its ambiguity, as well as its striking beauty.

Some of the strongest and most curious photographs are the portraits and other depictions of the human body that pepper the book, elevating the quieter still-life studies and cutting through some of the romanticism. These include an older man with grey hair caught out of focus in a hunched, turning movement; a sculptural-looking hand holding a cigarette; the lit underside of two inviting thighs; feet in plastic sliders. Again, we find photographs that echo one another in the close-up of a woman turned towards the right with eyes closed to the sun, followed a few pages later by another turned towards the left reclining on a sun lounger with her eyes closed too. Nearing the end of the book are more doubled images of bodies in repose, this time a woman in striped shirt with soft curls and bare legs preceded by a lumpy body in baggy clothing and boots with a dismembered hand – probably a scarecrow – though clever cropping initially disguises this. There is bliss, intimacy, violence.

A loose, non-linear narrative unfolds through eighty-four pages, revealing photographs in ones, twos and threes which are at times accompanied by fragments of text. Ferguson controls the viewing experience by giving images space to breathe, slowing the reading of the work and enabling connections to be traced through its entirety. Photographs are printed full bleed or on differing parts of the page and the effect is as though the images within Whistling for Owls flicker in and out as beats with a sinuous rhythm. In one photograph, worn render on a wall exposes stones like teeth in a grimace; in others we find a verdant green cricket and a discarded apple core. We are presented with the flavour of fresh, plump tomatoes, placed pleasingly amid pages of hot, dry grass, stone, plastic and skin. The photographs operate on frequencies that overlap with tangible experiences of small pleasures while attention is drawn to the heavy weight of emotion in Ferguson’s pages.

The text within Whistling for Owls is largely similar to the content of the photographs: paper, the weather, the passage of time. There are texts that introduce characters into the mix by way of the printer, the birdwatcher and the poet, giving rise to speculation about which portrait we might attach each of these labels too. The text is, in many instances, abstract and seemingly personal, with one page showing a sequence of apparently randomly spaced numbers, though pages are also given over to occasional descriptive lists. Narrative fragments are brief and yet full of possibility, as is the book’s title. The text is overtly poetic, dealing with feelings of desire and yearning. ‘The proximity of what you love makes you so lonely,’ reads the last line of a short passage set on the deck of a ferry. The feeling of loneliness connects with an earlier section describing coping with long months through therapeutic, repeated morning rituals. While most likely symptomatic of enforced periods of lockdown during the past two years, this sentiment remains implicit.

Whistling for Owls is bound in bright orange cloth with dark green endpapers and a lime green ribbon. These choices serve to highlight Ferguson’s precise and minimal use of colour within the photographs, particularly in leaves, grasses, berries and warm, glowing light. A reader can follow their own path here, from the front to the back of the book or leaf through pages more casually, and all these journeys into the book are fruitful. Images and lines of text touch one another physically and metaphorically, lying stacked on top of each other when the book’s pages are closed or pulling apart as the book is opened. The photographs of Whistling for Owls are lifted by the insertion of the audible and textural, glassine fragment folded into three-dimensions, but the photographs are evocative and emotive in and of themselves. In the end, what is significant is the way that Ferguson offers images that frequently move beyond their own physical limitations as flat images by extending out to our senses and our memories. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and Oval Press © Max Ferguson

Anneka French is a writer, artist and independent curator currently working with Coventry Biennial. She regularly contributes to Art Quarterly and Photomonitor, and has had writing and editorial commissions for Turner Prize 2021; Fire Station Artists’ Studios; TACO!; Photoworks+ and Grain Projects. She previously worked as Co-ordinator and then Director at New Art West Midlands, as Editorial Manager of this is tomorrow and has worked at Tate Modern, London; Ikon Gallery, Birmingham; The New Art Gallery Walsall, and Wolverhampton Art Gallery.

Les Rencontres d’Arles 2022

Top three festival highlights

Selected by Tim Clark

1000 Words Editor in Chief, Tim Clark, reports back from the opening of Les Rencontres d’Arles 2022, the 53rd edition of the bright, bushy-tailed festival set across the evocative Roman town in the south of France. Among the many exhibitions to salute are Norwegian-Nigerian artist Frida Orapabo’s How Fast Shall We Sing at Mécanique Générale in the dazzling new Parc des Ateliers at LUMA Arles, Rahim Fortune’s I can’t stand to see you cry as part of the Louis Roederer Discovery Award curated by Taous R. Dahmani and Sathish Kumar’s Town Boy, resulting from the first Serendipity Arles Grant in 2020. However, three particularly ambitious thematic exhibitions stand out for their complex visual dialogues and multiple vantage points onto the world and world of images.


1. But Still, It Turns
Musée départemental Arles antique 

The wall text that introduces But Still, It Turns, the exhibition Paul Graham has curated at Musée départemental Arles antique – which, among many notable bodies of work, features Emanuele Brutti and Piergiorgio Casotti’s Index-G, Vanessa Winship’s she dances on Jackson and Curran Hatleberg’s Lost Coast – states, brazenly: ‘there is no didactic story here, no theme or artifice. None is asked, none is given.’ Isn’t no story, like when artists claim their work as ‘apolitical’, a story in itself? In this case, the ‘story’ – or rather, quasi-framework or exhibitionary complex – is that of a statement of positions on a mode of photography identified as so-called ‘post-documentary’. Its meta-narrative draws from a shared approach, or attitude, propagated by this judiciously selected group of photographers who, in one way or another, turn their lens on intimacies and small episodes of contemporary social realities in the US. Specifically, working in the observational mode, they opt to summon quiet or unremarkable moments as a means of possessing the weight of the world: a town and its inhabitants gripped by industrial decline, sounds and situations at the fault lines of race, environment and economy and so on. Yet there are no easy narratives – all is posed as fleeting and messy but also empathetic and genuine; what Graham refers to as ‘a consciousness of life, and its song’.

Originally staged at ICP, New York, But Still, It Turns in the context of Les Rencontres d’Arles is ultimately a hymn to traditional yet enduring forms of photography, its serious artistic application allowing ‘a kind of pathway through the cacophony – a way to see and embrace the storm.’ Graham writes: ‘It could guide you through the randomness and grant the simple mercy of recognising life in all its prismatic wonder’. That such complex dialogues emerge across these meaningful articulations from life, demonstrates the artists’ deep levels of understanding of the bonds between looking and caring, perceiving and visualising. And, unsurprisingly, there are echoes of Graham’s own work at every turn, redolent of a mountain towering over a landscape, whose image can only be glimpsed through its reflection in a lake below.

2. Songs of the Sky. Photography & The Cloud
Monoprix

More curatorial (in the sense of thematising a group exhibition around a singular subject) is Songs of the Sky. Photography & The Cloud at Monoprix, the vast and industrial first-floor area above the French supermarket of the same name. As its title suggests, the show takes the motif of the cloud in photography as a starting point as well as the metaphor of ‘the cloud’ as a technological network that enables remote data storage and computing power commonly associated with the Internet. Of course, the empirical mass of photographs, i.e. those that exist on our smartphones and laptops – baby and cat photographs, holiday snaps, selfies, sunsets and pictures of food – or, by a similar token, those which have been generated by surveillance cameras and satellites, exist ‘up there’ in the cloud, finding in cables, screens and hard drives material form as part of the techno-capitalist system. Artists, on the other hand, have attempted to subvert and critique its principles, infrastructure and structures, ergo this exhibition.

Upon entering, one’s eyes don’t know where exactly to look; there are multiple sightlines onto numerous works from different artists but that’s certainly not a bad thing. As such, striking juxtapositions between historical material from the 19th century, such as Charles Nègre or Louis Vignes’ photographs, and contemporary works by Lisa Oppenheim, Trevor Paglen, Andy Sewell and Simon Roberts come to bear. What emerges is a tension between the sky as something sublime, as something which, for centuries, represented a way of ‘divining the future’ as James Bridle has put it, versus the far-from-romantic means we conceive of it today: a digital phenomenon that transfers and commodifies our data, with dramatic consequences for climate emergency and geo-politics. ‘Will the immense carbon footprint of the technical cloud accelerate global warming to such an extent that in the future it will be rare to see many faced cloud creatures floating by in the sky?’, is just one of the powerful research questions driving the exhibition. Organised with skill and clear focus, Songs of the Sky. Photography & The Cloud has been curated by Kathrin Schönegg of C/O Berlin, who was also the recipient of the 2019 Rencontres d’Arles Curatorial Research Fellowship.

3. Ritual Inhabitual, Geometric Forests: Struggles on Mapuche Land
Chapelle Saint-martin Du Méjan

Native to the temperate rainforests in southern Chile are medicinal plants and a rich biodiversity that have bore witness to endless cycles of construction and destruction. Monocultures of pine and eucalyptus have now come to dominate in service to the hugely lucrative paper pulp industry in the region, Chile being the world’s fourth largest producer from its 2.87 million hectares of plantations after all. The Mapuche (“people of the earth”), meanwhile, have lived on this land long before the country was founded and now find themselves at the heart of an ongoing battle: their spiritual relationship with the environment is at odds with an aggressive, global economy based on the exploitation of natural resources, leading to violence between nationalist organisations, industrialists’ private militia and the army’s specialist anti-terror squad. In response to this conflict, Chilean collective Ritual Inhabitual, created by Florencia Grisanti and Tito Gonzalez García, embarked on a five year photographic and ethnobotanical investigation that encompasses delectable Wet Collodian plates as well as large and medium format colour photographs of members of the Mapuche community, plants, trees and cloning laboratories of a forestry company. That this project encompasses a broad range of cohorts is one of its strongest features, for it offers a multi-vantage point perspective onto the subject at hand. Deftly translated by the exhibition’s curator, Sergio Valenzuela-Escobedo, whose careful choreography of the space highlights these competing factions, Geometric Forests: Struggles on Mapuche Land mediates the political desire to open up a debate on the nature of consumption at large.

While aesthetics may write the script in other environmentally-concerned exhibitions, here a form of infrastructural activism that reflects on the actual conditions and implications of its own making is evident. The exhibition is therefore highly commendable for harnessing the possibility of thinking and talking otherwise about making art in a less extractive fashion, allied with the admission that an entirely eco-friendly exhibition of images is an impossibility. One obvious example of mitigating impact has been to reuse existing frames from previous exhibitions. Similarly, printing directly onto material surfaces bypassing the need for paper or gluing the print onto an archival cardboard as opposed to an aluminium substrate in the event the former cannot be achieved. Even some of the temporary exhibition structures are stripped back to show the bare bones utilisation of wood, itself dismountable and reusable. There is also a kind of in-built critique present in the blurb of the accompanying book, published with Actes Sud, with a particularly striking section revealing a consciousness and self-awareness. It reads: ‘3029 kilos of Munken Kristall paper and 814 kilos of Soposeet paper were used for the book, as well as 220 kilos of Munken Kristall paper for the cover. Based on 24 trees for one tonne of paper, 96 trees were needed to transform those 4,063 kg of paper into 2,200 copies of this book.’ Clearly, in Geometric Forests, its participants take up the responsibility to call for new socio-environmental-political forms of collaboration. Maybe, via the propositions and practices contained in this exhibition, there is a way forward together, a sustainable means of co-existence.♦

Les Rencontres d’Arles 2022 runs until 25 September 2022.



Tim Clark is Editor in Chief of 1000 Words and Artistic Director for Fotografia Europea in Reggio Emilia, Italy, together with Walter Guadagnini. He also currently serves as a curatorial advisor for Photo London Discovery 2022 and 2023 and teaches at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University.

Images:

1-Vanessa Winship, from the series She dances on Jackson, 2013, part of But Still, It Turns. Courtesy the artist and MACK.

2-Curran Hatleberg, from the series Lost Coast, 2016, part of But Still, It Turns. Courtesy the artist and MACK.

3-Kristine Potter, Drying Out, from the series Manifest, 2018, part of But Still, it Turns. Courtesy the artist and MACK.

4-Trevor Paglen, CLOUD #865 Hough Circle Transform, 2019, part of Songs of the Sky. Photography & The Cloud. Courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery 

5-Andy Sewell, Known and Strange Things Pass, 2020, part of Songs of the Sky. Photography & The Cloud. Courtesy the artist and Robert Morat Gallery.

6-Noa Jansma, Buycloud, 2020-21, part of Songs of the Sky. Photography & The Cloud. Courtesy the artist.

7-Ritual Inhabitual, Paul Filutraru, Rapper in the group Wechekeche ñi Trawün, Santiago de Chile, 2016, part of Geometric Forests: Struggles on Mapuche Land. Courtesy the artists.

8-Ritual Inhabitual, Biotechnology series, Chile, 2019, part of Geometric Forests: Struggles on Mapuche Land. Courtesy the artists.

9-Ritual Inhabitual, Geometric Forests series, Chile, 2018, part of Geometric Forests: Struggles on Mapuche Land. Courtesy the artists.

Seiichi Furuya

First Trip to Bologna 1978 / Last Trip to Venice 1985

Book review by Alex Merola

A poetic chronicle of the first and last trips with his late wife, Seiichi Furuya’s latest synthesis of photography and narrative probes the photobook’s potential to reimagine the archive ad infinitum, writes Alex Merola.


Invoking Sigmund Freud’s idea of melancholia as unresolvable mourning, Susan Sontag, in On Photography (1977), describes photographs as melancholy objects that express the ‘vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction’. Yet, in the partaking of nostalgia, the fascination with death that photographs exercise is, as Sontag warns, ‘also an invitation to sentimentality’.[i] Few knew this better than Roland Barthes, who found a premonitory suggestion of an open wound in every indexical mechanical trace. His own Camera Lucida (1980) is of course a meditation on absence, compounded by his decision to withhold publication of the very photograph at the core of his musings: his deceased mother as a child in a winter garden.

Sentimentality might be too cloying a word to use in relation to Seiichi Furuya’s Mémoires, but it isn’t too wide off the mark either. Haunted by guilt ever since that catastrophic Sunday of 1985 – the “dull thud”, the strewn sandals by the open window – Furuya has revisited, over and over again, the vast archive of photographs made during the life he shared with his late wife, Christine Gössler. The resulting synthesises of photography and narrative are amongst the most powerful reflections on love, death and memory we have seen, and, indeed, few artists of our time have booked as faithfully as Furuya has. The Mémoires series was actually said to have been laid to rest on two occasions: the respective publications of the 2010 and 2020 editions. The fact that Furuya has returned with another book, however, should be unsurprising considering the sentiments he expressed at the end of Christine Furuya-Gössler: Mémoires, 1978–1985 (1997): ‘The more one blows on a fire trying to put it out, the larger the flame becomes. One stops blowing. The cold blue of the flame changes to a soft red. Why is that I tried to extinguish that warm, gentle fire?’[ii]

A beautiful volume containing a gorgeously varied narrative fabric, First Trip to Bologna 1978 / Last Trip to Venice 1985 is Furuya’s second collaboration with Chose Commune, and arguably his most experimental yet. It is divided into two chapters which literally bookend his and Christine’s seven-year-long relationship. The first, entitled First Trip to Bologna 1978, is comprised of stills extracted from rolls of Super 8 film which Furuya shot during his and Christine’s trip less than one month after they met. (The films were subsequently forgotten in Furuya’s attic, lost within the depths of memory.) Across black-paged spreads which open completely flat courtesy of the otabinding, the stills are laid out in spontaneous grid and linear arrangements, expanding upon the cinematic sequencing sporadically at work in Mémoires 1983 (2006). Furuya does not so much record a blossoming romance as remake it, the presence of Christine, ever insouciant in her grace, fluttering in and out of view like a soft red flame.

If the stills – which have been extracted with extreme precision, often to the extent that their lapses in time are almost imperceptible – represent the artist’s attempt to integrate moments both registered in the imagination and archived in memory, the black spaces that border them represent the abyss against which they compete. Measured irregularly in width and scale, they unravel like the fragmented rhythms of (mis)remembrance. ‘Despite this more than sufficient evidence, I cannot remember a single moment of the events’, Furuya’s words conclude the chapter’s climactic episode: Christine getting out of bed, in reverse. With the vertical strips resulting in lovely, undulating flickering effects, the filmic debt is strong. However, where, in cinema, the succession of frames is jointed by the vision and continuity provided by spectator’s nervous system in order to attain the flow of time, here, the stills are indefatigable in their stasis. Whilst one is reminded that these are indeed images, bearing, as Barthes articulated, a ‘lacerating emphasis’ on the that-has-been,[iii] the reversal speaks to something even more profound altogether: that they conform to what we think we remember, or want to.

At the book’s mid-way point, one realises that the strategy of reversal is essential to the book’s formal manifestation, too. The “second” chapter reads back-to-front, requiring the reader to flip the book in order to view the photographs their right way up. There’s a sparser, celestial quality here, the result, perhaps, of the shift to white paper (then again, the end is always in mind). The couple appear in a photobooth portrait: the intensity of Christine’s gaze – the evidence of her advanced schizophrenia – is more pointed. What follows is a revised sequencing of Last Trip to Venice (2002), a small, modest book chronicling the couple’s time in Venice, one week after Christine was discharged from hospital in 1985. ‘The destination did not matter’, Furuya wrote in a text in the original, recalling the wishes of Christine: “Somewhere far away… Just the two of us.”

The imagery of Venice derives from two rolls of accidentally re-exposed film overlapping photographs from that trip and Furuya’s subsequent shots of East Berlin. Whilst some of these “accidents” bear a surreal aesthetic charge – the light flares scattered across the canal bridge, the luminous starfish drifting into a dissolving sky – most are at odds with the technical and compositional sharpness of Furuya’s previously published photographs. That said, the artist’s motivation has never been to show great photographs – though there have been many – but to probe or renew their effects under the accumulative weight of time and human destiny. Following the arc of Mémoires, one can observe the ways in which Furuya has gradually relinquished his authorial command. Where Face to Face (2020), his previous book, credits Christine as a co-author, this book has been independently (re)edited by Chose Commune’s director, Cécile Poimboeuf-Koizumi, whose soft, considered hand can be felt throughout. Furuya’s next book, he has said, will go one step further and compose, in some 650 pages, photographs made by Christine: a total fulfilment of the aspiring actress’ ambitions.

Although Furuya has always considered Mémoires a collaboration with Christine, its tragic motif is that they can never coexist; she is here because he has turned to her. And because Furuya’s troubled wife, in 1985, chose not to be, the risk has always been that she might serve as a tragic heroine. Some readers have, for example, conflated personal loss with collective loss, made all the more convenient by way of the fact that it was during the television broadcast of the parade celebrating the 36th anniversary of the soon-to-collapse German Democratic Republic that Christine threw herself from the apartment window. Indeed, the spatiotemporal paradoxes – the ‘anterior futures’[iv] – invariably feel like poetic fate: Christine, in Venice, superimposed by the bleak cityscapes of East Berlin, an environment yet to be experienced; a catastrophe that has already occurred.

However, Mémoires, in its entirety, is less a premonition of loss than it is an exercise in how Furuya actively remembers – or (re)constructs – the world. After all, Christine was not the always the centre of the photographer’s eye, even if she was his “I”. Take, for instance, Mémoires 1995 (1995), which laces alternate impressions of the couple’s stays in East Berlin and Dresden with views of flowers, plants and portraits of Bosnian war refugees, or indeed the inaugural Mémoires (1989), which moves through displays of architecture, animals, streets, ephemera, landscapes and portraits. Likewise, his latest book finds Christine floating within a sea of disparate images: of East German architecture; Venetian church façades; political demonstrations; city squares; mountains; shop interiors. Despite Furuya’s photographic compulsions, there is no sense of possession here – as there is, for example, in Masahisa Fukase’s photographs of his wife Yoko – but, rather, of being possessed. The arbitrary superimpositions of Venice embody Christine’s literal entanglement within the author’s perception of his past, further materialised in the book’s vulnerably-thin, translucent jacket, on which montaged frames overlap with alternating degrees of opacity: the stuff dreams are made of.

Resisting the sentimental even as he invokes it is Furuya’s quiet triumph, for the books of Mémoires are ultimately meditations not in the past tense but the eternal present. In response to Furuya’s Last Trip to Venice, Sally Stein suggested that Furuya’s compilation of “accidents” – supposedly salvaged from the ‘bottom of the archival barrel’ – indicated that he may have reached the end of his ‘archival possibility’.[v] Yet, this book, with its innovative visual strategies and anti-chronologies, attests, perhaps even more eloquently than its precursors, to the ways in which the archive can be reimagined to infinity. The destination did not matter… To my mind, a subtle metaphor for Furuya’s life’s work – his ultimate journey – for mourning can never know closure. Christine was, and will never cease being, the start of everything. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and Chose Commune © Seiichi Furuya

Alex Merola is Assistant Editor at 1000 Words.

References:

[i] Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Dell Publishing, 1977), pp. 70–71.

[ii] Seiichi Furuya, “Adieu Wiedersehen” in Christine Furuya-Gössler: Mémoires, 1978–1985 (Kyoto: Korinsha Press, 1997).

[iii] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 96.

[iv] Ibid., Barthes, p. 96.

[v] Sally Stein, “Seiichi Furuya: Last Trip to Venice” in Camera Austria #81 (2003), p. 14.

Images:

1>5-Seiichi Furuya, Bologna, 1979

6>9-Seiichi Furuya, Venice, 1985

10-Christine Furuya-Gössler, Venice, 1985

Gloria Oyarzabal

Usus Fructus Abusus

Exhibition review by Sergio Valenzuela Escobedo

Sergio Valenzuela Escobedo examines images from Gloria Oyarzabal’s new work in progress, to interrogate the idea of the museum as a mere neutral or beneficial protector of the objects and artefacts it owns, currently on display as part of Fotografia Europea in Reggio Emilia, Italy, and Romo Kultur Etxea during GETXOPHOTO in the Basque Country.


Usus Fructus Abusus is an exhibition by Gloria Oyarzabal, selected as part of the Open Call for Fotografia Europea 2022 in Reggio Emilia, Italy. It draws attention to some complex issues considering the relationship between aesthetics, institution and race, doing so in the guise of what the artist calls “a reflection that starts out from a critique of the museum, viewed as an act of historical prevarication on the part of the winners over the vanquished”. Analysing the idea of the museum means rethinking the provenance of the collections, but also understanding the idea and consequences of collecting, conserving and protecting from a Western, white perspective. Criticising the “museum mission” in one of the countries in which the concept of the museum was born is a worthy mission, even more so when the artist admits to being a white privileged woman on the side of the “winners”.

As a starting point, we find the painting La Blanche et la Noire (1913) by Félix Vallotton. We know that it is a mise-en-scène because it is possible to recognise the original printed in a small postcard and glued in the sceneography. It is inspired by Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), which, at the same time, takes its cue from Titian’s Venus of Urban (1538). The idea here is not to make an umpteenth commentary on Manet’s painting, but to understand the consequences of using a Western painting as a model for a photographic project. Oyarzabal appears to delve into the “nude” as one of the official genres of works kept in museums. However, the omission of naked male bodies specifies the framework: the use and abuse of the nude female body in Western representation in 19th century. It is also worth mentioning that the omission of Black bodies in the history of Western art serves to underline the fact that many of the Black models are unnamed, exoticised and forgotten.

When using a painting as a model, its whole history inevitably comes with it. As we know, history has not always been told accurately, with minority perspectives on nation-building typically underrepresented. How fraught and crucial is the role of the museum then in sharing histories and providing context and meaning? For example, the exhibition Le Modèle Noir de Géricault à Matisse (2019) at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, allowed the audience to discover the name of Laure, the Black model who appears in Manet’s painting. The exhibition demonstrated that the African, Caribbean and Afro-American diaspora is an indisputable fact of an institution devoted to culture and, in particular, to ‘Paris, Capital of the 19th century’ to quote Walter Benjamin.

Whilst, in the Musée d’Orsay exhibition, annotations detailed all the changes in the titles of the original paintings by the Black model’s name, Oyarzabal uses national flag installations: six banners introduce the audience to an artform that deals with the display and regulation of hereditary symbols employed to distinguish individuals, armies, institutions and corporations without any information. Oyarzabal’s omission of the names of the models raises a question: who are these unknown, naked women who adopt the staging in a photograph that copies a Western painting?

Here, the mise-en-scène becomes dangerous: it is difficult to know if we have to consider this series of photographs as fragments of a fiction, or representations of a constructed documentary. Regardless, perhaps Oyarzabal should show the ideological construction that most ethnological photographs contain. This is an interesting affair when it comes to analysing the collection of plates brought back by scientific missions. They become clear examples of a colonially organised system of representation, showing scenes that correspond more to the images colonisers wanted to see than to reality. They are themselves the image of the aesthetic scaffolding that the white man designs to represent the people from beyond, by doing so the ethnographical collections allow us to talk about scenes, sets, actors, directors, as well as the backstage, which could also give to this series a better understanding using the re-enactment as an artistic tool.

It’s well known that during the Renaissance, the concept of the museum appeared and marked a step towards a more scientific understanding of the world. The “Cabinet de Curiosité” was created by objects that were brought from all over the world. This is directly related, not only to the technical and economic capacities of the richest kingdoms to travel and come back from “exotic” places, but also to assume the philosophy that the scientific mind is destined, by an inexorable law of the progress of the human spirit, to replace theological beliefs and metaphysical explanations. But science has always been at the service of politics. The artefacts found in European museums are not only proof that cultures existed in remote places, but they are faithful witnesses to the fact that these places were now named and conquerable.

Consider how Oyarzabal shows an interesting set of images of empty museum cabinets. Whilst Oyarzabal’s purpose is somewhat unclear, the aim seems to be to shed light on the issue of the museum’s restitutions of what the European colonialists plundered and ransacked, pondering who might now judge and repair the fractures of history – a brave task when the same institutions that Oyarzabal criticises are the ones that have written the norms and rules on how to promote decolonisation via such means. Let’s also not forget that states do not orchestrate such returns without diplomatic exchange; action of this kind continues to serve heavy financial, industrial and military interests. The actual question is not if white empires should or shouldn’t give back the artefacts with the risk of leaving European museums empty, but about the real exchanges that the cultural industry will generate in their restitution practice. Are they really working for a common future?

On the other hand, it is interesting to study how African museums will exhibit these objects. Whilst museums with ethnographic collections are aware that they have to change, new African museums largely look identical to their European counterparts. Since the 1990s, many across Europe have closed, been defunded or packed up their inventories. Others have become museums that embrace other cultures by acknowledging their colonial histories to varying extents, the most critical example being Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa (where Oyarzabal’s images have been taken). Reopening in 2018, the museum has chosen to retain the original presentation of exhibits with explanations as to their historical contexts. So, instead of giving the art back, they inform visitors that all of their objects are stolen. And by providing this interpretation, the scars of the terrible past of Belgians in Congo should become visible, as well as their responsibility or disavowal of their guilt by replacing the void with new artefacts hiding the history, again under the light of the glass vitrines. This how the void should be read in Oyarzabal’s images. But let us not be naïve, the latest trend is making ethnology a thing of the past by opting for highly beautiful display presentations. This is a key moment for the future of Oyarzabal’s ongoing project (it is noted that it is ‘work in progress’): the Dogon join the ranks of the Mona Lisa. So, what happens with the art market then? We know that some museums today buy from auctions, so what will happen if they have to return items because of their problematic provenance? Will this market lose its appeal?

Perhaps this commercial aspect is of no interest to Oyarzabal who addresses the myriad ways in which museums have been and often remain the beneficiaries of Europe’s violent expansion and exploitation, as well as the purveyors of the stereotypical imaginary. However, this seems to be one of the problems facing museums today. Certainly, the concept of the museum, dating back more than 100 years, has created ideas of identity and preserved the most precious treasures of the most powerful nations, but there is something else we tend to forget; it is not common knowledge that the beginning of collecting by European powers in Africa is strictly related to a small cultural clause born after the Berlin Conference that protects anyone – missionaries, scientists and explorers alike – who all collect objects. This is why, from the 1880s, springing up all across Europe were either huge departments of ethnology in existing museums like in the British Museum, whose collections mushroomed, or the remarkable new buildings specifically built for these new collections, like the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadero, Paris. Between European powers meeting in Berlin to decide how they would divide Africa and the construction of empty museums helps give a new understanding to the symbol that evokes the void of the empty museum cabinets in Oyarzabal’s work. The purpose of Oyarzabal’s research is to review the relationship between ethnology and museum collections from a largely plundering colonial present, to contrast the idea of museums as creators of imaginaries and to show them as a form of institution that is not, nor has it ever been, a mere neutral or beneficial protector of the objects and artefacts it owns.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, two women find themselves dancing by way of staged photographic scenes. Their body-image reminds us of the work of Faith Ringgold, who balanced stories of harsh realities with hopeful visions; her Dancing in the Louvre (1991), preconfigured Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s takeover of the museum decades later, straddling R&B and rap in the great galleries where the Victory of Samothrace, the Venus de Milo and the Great Sphinx of Tanis are located. The assault on, and appropriation of, the museum world by popular culture makes it a flagship of Western society that must be seized in the reversal of symbols. At the same time, the clip makes the museum the last bastion of the inequality of wealth distribution. The Carters do not in any way overturn the established order and the Louvre can surely only benefit from this global spotlight.

Certainly, many of the interventions based on artistic reappropriation emanate from a Black culture that enters the conflicting time and paradoxical space of the museum institution. But under a “time of transfer”, what institutions are doing to rethink the monumental history of its collections is not interesting anymore, because the loss of animism is not going to be cured with the devolutions of objects from the past. It is the side of history that we see all the time, but which does not show itself: after all, the architecture of power has no image. But if the counter perspective would no longer focus on the victims but on the perpetrators, presenting the troubling history of whiteness, describing its lies, paradoxes and oppressive nature, maybe it will take shape. Because if we follow the same direction, the risk is to reinforce and recentre white anger. Oyarzabal presents us with the relationship between white and Black bodies but it is only the beginning of the performance that she allows us to see. We will be watching to see how she finishes this dance.

Western magic presents an unjustified omission: European science, so to speak, already installs a primitive animism. Only it is Greek and is read as a literary effect. The myth of the Platonic cave installed in history the role of the simulacrum, on the one hand, and on the other, the story of the potter’s daughter of Corinth enabled representations of our desire for that very representation. Let it be clear that the aim is not to critique the scientific research that speculates on the mathematical nature of phenomena. I am suggesting that it is the children of those early consumers of myths, who have travelled the seas in their ships, to have at their disposal the objects and images of other bodies in spite of themselves. Then there would be no such European science, but a mythology of progress accompanied by mathematics dictating the fate of the mechanical images attached to the epic navigations essential to every nation with colonial pretensions at the end of the 19th century. Oyarzabal’s ambition is to make a work that exposes all the nostalgia of the mythical, the epic and the sacred. Borrowing the words from a particular high school student once residing Reggio Emilia, who insisted so much on nostalgia for the sacred and how it remains attached to ancient values, Pier Paulo Passolini said: ‘I sometimes have the feeling that they are victims of an artificial acceleration, of an unjustified, premature oblivion…’ [i]

Albert Camus wrote: ‘We live in a desacralised history.’ [ii] The relationship between Black bodies and white bodies that pull forcefully from one side to the other in Oyarzabal’s photographs represent the spirit of change; it is the character of modernity in rupture with the whole ancient world. White Western thought often arrives to desacralise. This dance can be approached as a reliquary in which Europe appeases the anguish that has haunted it for centuries: animism. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and Fotografia Europea © Gloria Oyarzabal

Usus Fructus Abusus is on display at Galleria Santa Maria, as part of the Open Call for Fotografia Europea 2022, Reggio Emilia, Italy, from 29 April to 12 June 2022, and at Romo Kultur Etxea during GETXOPHOTO 2022 until 26 June 2022.

Sergio Valenzuela Escobedo is an artist and curator with a PhD from the École nationale supérieure de la photographie (ENSP), Arles. After one year at the National School of the Arts (NSA), Johannesburg, he graduated in Photography in Chile and completed his Masters of Fine Arts at the Villa Arson, Nice, in 2014. He has curated exhibitions including Mapuche at the Musée de l’Homme, Paris, and Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation at the Rencontres d’Arles, which has been on tour for five years under his permanent supervision, and the forthcoming exhibition Geometric Forests at Les Rencontres d’Arles 2022. Valenzuela Escobedo is a guest tutor at international art schools and institutions, most recently at the Institut d’études supérieures des arts and Parsons, Paris, International Summer School of Photography, Latvia, and Atelier NOUA, Bodø. He is co-founder of doubledummy studio, a platform that creates a space for producing and showcasing critical reflections on documentary photography.

References: 

[i] Jean Duflot, Entretiens avec Pier Paolo Pasolini (Éditions Pierre Belfond, Paris, 1970), p. 51. 

[ii] Albert Camus, Homme révolté (Éditions Gallimard, Paris, 1951), p. 35. 

Photo London 2022

Top five fair highlights

Selected by Alex Merola

Bringing together over 100 exhibitors from around the globe, Photo London has returned to Somerset House for its seventh edition. Brimming with bold impressions on the medium from early trailblazers through to today’s most exceptional talents, it has something for all tastes. Here are five standout displays from the capital’s premier photography fair – selected by 1000 Words Assistant Editor, Alex Merola.


1. Once Upon the War in Kharkiv
Alexandra de Viveiros

Maintaining a robust commitment to the dissident photographers of Ukraine’s Kharkiv School of Photography – borne in the early 1970s out of a city now besieged by Russian troops – Alexandra de Viveiros’ presentation prompts a particularly urgent viewing. Of marked significance here are the pieces by Evgeniy Pavlov, one of the co-founders of the Vremia Group, which set out to create a visual opposition to dominant Soviet narratives and the aesthetic canon of Social Realism. Pavlov’s Archive Series (1965–88) italicises scenes of everyday life with a quiet, personal lyricism through colour retouching, whilst his ragged photo-collage, dated 1985, keeps the mind busy and ambiguity open. Sharing these walls with Pavlov are father and son Victor and Sergey Kochetov, whose wonderfully expressive hand-tinted prints – referencing Boris Mikhailov’s art of luriki – communicate both the backwardness of Soviet technology as well as a nostalgic attachment towards it. With the inclusion of the School’s newest wave of activities – Vladyslav Krasnoshchok’s harrowing hallucinations of the medical emergencies at a Kharkiv hospital, for instance – de Viveiros has staged a small but powerful constellation bringing together three generations of Ukrainian photographers, all united in their upholding of the right to independence and the freedom of artistic gesture.

2. Anastasia Samoylova, Floridas
Galerie—Peter—Sillem 

Concurrent with showing at The Photographers’ Gallery as part of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2022, Anastasia Samoylova’s solo booth with Frankfurt’s Galerie—Peter—Sillem is an unmissable affair. Hung in handsome, white-wooden frames, the artist’s prints prevail for their technical brio: sleek, delectable renderings of colour which magically transcribe that distinctly brilliant Floridian light. However, what’s alluring is also alarming, for they convey the contradictory lives of a state totally distracted by its own self-image whilst in the throes of ecological implosion. Though these layered photographs contain subtle references to Walker Evans’ extensive but oft-overlooked body of work made in “Sunshine State” – a kinship teased out in Floridas (2022), her exceptional new book which is available to peruse here – Samoyolova is very much her own artist. Her merging of meticulous observation, deceptive aesthetic and sharp socio-environmental concern marks her out as one of the most intelligent and sophisticated photographers working today – and, indeed, one of the most important to reckon with the fallacies of Florida.

3. Christine Elfman, All solid shapes dissolve in light
EUQINOM Gallery

With an eye for experimental and rigorous photo-based practice, San Francisco-based EUQINOM Gallery has delivered a dynamic display as part of this year’s Discovery section – dedicated to emerging galleries and overseen by 1000 Words Editor-in-Chief, Tim Clark. Commanding a particularly slow and conscious appreciation here are the variously violet-hued anthotypes of Christine Elfman, who, with her series All solid shapes dissolve in light (2019–22), has developed an exquisite technique involving light-sensitive dyes harvested from lichen and month-long solar exposures to produce photographs whose chemical properties mean they are constantly fading. Boasting breathtaking degrees of detail, these capricious pieces reveal those infinitesimal shifts in colour, contrast or density to only the most patient and attentive observers. That these studies are at once disappearing and also becoming is perhaps their most confounding and, ultimately, magical quality. Elfman is evidently as curious about philosophical questions as by photographic ones, and how thrilling it is to find an artist employing such an early analogue process whilst, in turn, upending that dusty, medium-old fantasy of ‘fixity’.

4. The Gallery of Everything

Few in the UK have done more to further the integration and celebration of so-called “outsider artists” – historically sideswiped by the mainstream – than James Brett has, and the fine line he has drawn between the professional and the vernacular at The Gallery of Everything’s (debut) outing makes it one of the most stimulating of this year’s fair. There’s a charming amateurism in the air, with some of the superstars of self-taught image-making packing these walls. Miroslav Tichý’s small, weathered objects – stolen glimpses of female forms through cameras constructed from cans and junk – wind up with a melancholic resonance, as do the mise-en-scène of Morton Bartlett, a fascinating figure who, in the 1940s and ’50s, built and photographed a cast of life-sized dolls that sublimated his lack of “real” relatives (there’s a unique opportunity to see one in the flesh, too). In the company of William Mortensen’s beguiling studio shot of a witch flying a broom, Bartlett’s works surprise for their uncanny awareness of the power of light, shadow and composition. Turning it up a notch are Pierre Molinier’s silver gelatin prints: formally-classic yet thoroughly transgressive propositions on gender, fetishism and narcissism. Flailing an impossible number of limbs encased in stockings, he’s seen through a peep hole, like this booth in general.

5. The Countess of Castiglione
James Hyman Gallery

For their rarity alone, the private, performative self-portraits of the Countess of Castiglione are a must-see. Yet, what is most successful about James Hyman Gallery’s tightly-curated booth, comprised of over 50 prints from three periods (1856–57, 1861–67 and 1893–95), is the way in which it offers a complex narrative arc charting the seductress’ mutating identities and inner-realities. However compliant in the eye of the camera the Countess might appear – self-masqueraded with masks, ballgowns and crowns which, as Abigail Solomon-Godeau argued, saw her act as a ‘scribe’ of predetermined and delimited feminine tropes – she is a rare example of a 19th century woman constructing images for her own gaze: a subject tricking us into thinking she is an object. Whilst the cynosure here is a pair of gold-framed, elaborately-painted photographs which have been unveiled for the first time ever, the most poignant pictures are the final ones through which the aristocrat confronts the impermanence of her beauty. This is a very special tribute to a practitioner whose place within the canon, one feels, should be radically reconsidered. After all, before Cindy Sherman and indeed Claude Cahun, there was the Countess, delving into the work images do and the lives they somehow lead us, or free us, to live.♦

Photo London runs at Somerset House until 15 May 2022.

Alex Merola is Assistant Editor at 1000 Words. 

Images:

1-Evgeniy Pavlov, ‘Untitled’ from Archive Series (1965–88). Courtesy the artist and Alexandra de Viveiros.

2-Viktor and Sergiy Kochetov, ‘Untitled’ (1990). Courtesy the artist and Alexandra de Viveiros.

3-Vladyslav Krasnoshchok, ‘Untitled’ from Bolnichka (2010–18). Courtesy the artist and Alexandra de Viveiros.

4-Anastasia Samoylova, Venus Mirror (2020). Courtesy the artist and Galerie—Peter—Sillem.

5-Anastasia Samoylova, Rust, Hollywood (2019). Courtesy the artist and Galerie—Peter—Sillem.

6-Anastasia Samoylova, Chain Link Fence, Miami (2018). Courtesy the artist and Galerie—Peter—Sillem.

7-Christine Elfman, Cloth Water Stone II (2021) (Variation II). Courtesy the artist and EUQINOM Gallery.

8-Christine Elfman, Reproduction I (2020) (Variation II). Courtesy the artist and EUQINOM Gallery.

9-Christine Elfman, Reproduction III (2021) (Variation III). Courtesy the artist and EUQINOM Gallery.

10-Miroslav Tichý, ‘Untitled’. Courtesy The Gallery of Everything.

11-Morton Bartlett, ‘Untitled’ (c.1950). Courtesy The Gallery of Everything.

12-William Mortensen, Myrdith on Broom (c.1930). Courtesy The Gallery of Everything.

13-Pierre Molinier, ‘Untitled’ (1966). Courtesy The Gallery of Everything.

14-The Countess of Castiglione in collaboration with Pierre-Louis Pierson, L’innocence, variation sur La Reine D’Etrurie (1863). Courtesy James Hyman Gallery.

15-The Countess of Castiglione in collaboration with Pierre-Louis Pierson, La toilette (1861–67). Courtesy James Hyman Gallery.

16-The Countess of Castiglione in collaboration with Pierre-Louis Pierson, La Comtesse de Castiglione (1894). Courtesy James Hyman Gallery.

David Claerbout and Gábor Ösz

ANTICAMERA

Exhibition review by Duncan Wooldridge

Duncan Wooldridge on an exhibition at the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center, Budapest, that unites works by two artists exploring different realities involved in image production: one as captured by the camera and another comprised of all that falls outside of that which is documented.


For the camera and its program, which sets out to record the world, there exists only the visible and the invisible: that which presents itself readily to be seen, and those things which become visible under the specific modes of observation that the photographic apparatus brings forth; at the other pole, there is that which escapes vision, either because they are difficult to observe as they are, or because their specific mode of appearance goes against the camera and its programming. What can be seen and what falls out of view has a strange relationship to what we believe is possible: it may be of surprise to note, as Kaja Silverman has revealed in her research on Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in The Miracle of Analogy (2015), that the elusive human figure in early photography led to proposals that the camera should be directed only towards those things which do not move. If humans could not be recorded, it was suggested, photographs should be directed only towards the inanimate. Nature and architecture were cited without irony as examples of good subjects for photography to pursue.

Such proposals, absurd as they might now appear, reveal that we are quick to accept and work within the limits of our devices, and this is as true today as it was at photography’s outset. Technology is configured towards enabling an ever-greater visibility and mapping, but is shaped by automation and presets that conceal as much as they reveal. Take, for example, the dialectic between the still and the moving, where the majority of images are both fixed and moving at one and the same time, mechanical and chemical realities being equal to the appearance of stasis. Complexity here is discouraged, and a discourse of arrestedness prevails.

In our culture of automated black box computation, the quantity of images dominates, but we are scarcely cognisant of this turn: on the one hand, we continue to feel bombarded, or overwhelmed – we see a lot of images every day: we have little time for videos of more than a few seconds. But contemporary photographic technology also uses this quantity in another way, stacking and amalgamating multiple images to produce sharp, stable and impossibly balanced exposures, at the same time as producing banks of data for the analysis of machine learning and its development. The sharpening of images, the three-dimensional and four-dimensional mapping of the world and programming of machine learning are interconnected, and deviating from this automation is increasingly complicated. Yet if we query the horizons of appearance and disappearance that take place in our technological processes, we quickly encounter complex realities: an amalgam of movements and a multiplicity of positions which offer compelling possibilities for thinking and acting through images.

In 1981, for a Hungarian exhibition Dokumentum, the painter Ákos Birkás wrote a text Anticamera, stating that two realities were possible: the first was one as captured by the camera, whilst the other would be comprised of all that falls outside of that which is documented. Birkás might have wished to critique the dominance of photographic depiction and leave a space for painting attached to the imagination and the possible, but his proposition – to examine that which falls outside of the camera’s view – drew attention to a logic continuous in the age of technical images: a choice between what László Moholy-Nagy would call production and reproduction, or continuation and invention. Photography presents this to us as in the starkest of possible terms: how would you like your reality: as we show it to you, or as a process of your own action and discovery?

David Claerbout and Gábor Ösz’s ANTICAMERA, at the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center, Budapest, places these questions and divergent strategies of image production into a dynamic view. Claerbout’s slow-moving, frame-by-frame assemblies of complex spatial environments, built in the black box of editing and rendering softwares, are brought into dialogue with Ösz’s structural examinations of light and projection, where motorised structures for film projection, and an inversion of the camera obscura, give the photographic apparatus a reflexive centrality. In ANTICAMERA, a tension between the technological and material encounter with the image takes place – ‘is our future mineral or computational?’, we might ask in another dialectical framing – but central to the exhibition becomes the role of image in not only representing but giving form to thought.

Claerbout’s poetic interest in the encounter that the slow-moving image retains a virtuosic assembly. He stretches the capability of the lens as a seeing device. The Quiet Shore (2011) collects images across what seems to be a single moment on the beach in Dinard, Brittany, where figures assemble on the beach and at the threshold of land and water. Viewed from multiple positions and weaved together in a splicing of positions possessing a stillness, the work moves between frames in a slow cinematic pacing that Erika Balsom has remarked is reminiscent of Chris Marker whilst focusing solely upon a single moment against the passing of narrative time. Wildfire (A Meditation on Fire) (2019­­–20) seeks a similarly impossible recording, representing the transformation of a forest, engulfed over time by smoke and flames, as the view traces the circumference of a spreading fire. Clearly not a document in any conventional sense, the work hovers between constructedness and its recorded materials which cannot be staged. Whilst The Quiet Shore subtly disrupts with bleached spaces, almost imperceptible movement and the layering of figures who interact across the montage, Wildfire replaces the intensity of the blaze with the movements of a rendered scene, tracing an accumulation of static images into a four-dimensional encounter. The virtual camera circles and pans, revealing momentary concretions of the fast-moving fire, with subtle ripples and motions amongst the arrest of the images’ terror.

With the complexity of its computational composition, the extended durations of Claerbout’s installations allow the viewer to consider the space of the filmic encounter, and to note that Claerbout’s elaborate construction is contained, made into a single screen projection with a singular source, its labour placed largely out of view. This is a sharp, animating contrast in the work of Ösz, whose works foreground the devices of camera and projector in order to construct a reflexive and site-sensitive meditation on time and place. Drawing one of the exhibition’s fault lines, the foregrounding or negation of the apparatus describes subtly the agencies of image-maker and image-viewer. Whilst Claerbout is interested in the black box and its vampiric capacity to construct a world without shadows, Ösz shows we are bound to complex physical phenomena of which we are rarely fully conscious.

Ösz’s Passive Movements (2021) are works in which a free-standing, motorised projector displays its own image and space onto a parallel wall. The projectors – here there are three in the room – are moving: one rotates in a continuous 360-degree clockwise motion, whilst two are fixed together, moving back and forth on a small dolly along a short track. In this second configuration, the projectors are directed towards different walls, so that one is panning whilst projecting across a parallel wall, and the other projects onto a wall whilst the dolly moves towards it before retreating to its other limit. In each projected image, the position of the projector stays exactly where it is: in the work moving side to side, edges of the frame appear to move left and right until they bump up against the end of the projector in view. Moving back and forth towards the wall, the projector scales big and small, and autofocuses, whilst the projector stays squarely in its original position.

Passive Movements constructs the appearance of stasis in a reflection on the condition of images ongoing movement and transformation, its active and consequential capacities. Although Ösz works regularly with the moving image, the photograph is invoked and examined (here perhaps is another contrast with Claerbout, who uses still images as material to construct sequences of time-based works). We desire stillness and the arrested image, just as we seek the passivity and objective condition of the lens for our understanding and claims to truth. Ösz shows this to be an inversion: we construct elaborate fictions, placing ourselves at the centre of an imagined oasis, with our stasis in the midst of continuous motion. The 360-degree rotating image is especially potent here, enabling not only a visceral mixture of stillness and movement, but also the possibility of thinking, something as large as planetary motion and the horizons of our conscious experience of the world. Drawing us towards physical phenomena at the same time as revealing reflexive conditions of the image places the technological image in its proper context of constructing and maintaining worlds.

This pivoting of position is something that is explored also in the last work in the exhibition, Image of Light (2022), in which Ösz inverts the model of the camera obscura so that light emerges and constructs an image from the inside, towards a room in a state of darkness. Several small box chambers in the space emit this light and the lightbulb contained within, which is caught on a sheet of translucent paper, receiving its focused image on the outside through the aperture. A shift in our physical position, and a switch in perception constructs a radical inversion of our capacity to think from the particular towards the planetary or what Édouard Glissant would call mondialité or worldliness, a being in and with the world.

ANTICAMERA, curated by Zsolt Petrányi and Emese Mucsi, suggests with a precision and economy that we find ourselves drawn between complex trajectories, in which the computational and physical (or mineral) experience of the world needs urgently to be apprehended to encounter the world in its full detail. Beyond polarities, there are competing directions and passages, emphases and urgencies. What is at stake is not only what is shown, but what is made visible or placed out of view: this is the condition of the struggle of images, which Ösz’s rotating projection encapsulates in its prompt to think not only of the image, but of its making and its consequent position in and with the world.♦

All images courtesy the artists and the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center, Budapest © David Claerbout and Gábor Ösz

Installation views of ANTICAMERA – An exhibition of David Claerbout and Gábor Ösz at the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center, Budapest from 16 February – 3 April 2022.

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist and writer. He is Course Leader for the MA in Fine Art Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London, and is the author of To Be Determined: Photography and the Future, published by SPBH Editions. 

Noémie Goudal

Post Atlantica

Exhibition review by Fergus Heron

Visiting Noémie Goudal’s new exhibition at Edel Assanti, Fergus Heron considers the artist’s polymath approach to photography and moving image, understanding nature as a set of processes comprised of different ecologies, geographies and temporalities.


Noémie Goudal’s Post Atlantica is the first exhibition in Edel Assanti’s new gallery on London’s Little Titchfield Street. In this solo show, the artist’s recent works in various material forms and photographic realisation methods are presented with remarkable aesthetic and conceptual coherence. The gallery is arranged into spaces with distinct atmospheres, clearly produced with, and complementary of, each work. Together, the works essentially explore ecological and temporal concerns. At the same time, they complicate how the living natural world can be depicted by photography and moving image.

The gallery space upon entry is low-lit and features three long, rectangular large-scale paper works situated closely together. Untitled (Waves) (2022) contains print and high-definition projection moving image montages of sections of a single view of coastal rock formation surrounded by swirling seawater. The scene is composed from an elevated viewpoint without foreground or horizon. We are presented with an image of wild nature from a place between distance and proximity, the spectacle of the natural world and the artifice of its picturing in balance.

Central to the exhibition is Untitled (Giant Phoenix) (2022), a piece comprised of elongated rectangular photographs of palm tree fragments seen at night, illuminated frontally with the effect of revealing a high degree of surface detail. The flatness and rectangularity of each photograph is heightened by printing on matt paper and mounting on aluminium panels fixed to a steel frame that positions each photograph to form a single composite image when viewed from a central position. As the viewer moves left to right and returns to centre, the image fragments and recomposes alternately. This experience draws attention to spectatorship as a process raising essential questions of the basis of photography in perspective. Once a fixed viewing position is given up, it is as if the image falls apart and its fragments look back at us.

A low frequency rumbling soundtrack with crashing eruptive bursts draws the viewer into the gallery’s lower ground floor towards Inhale, Exhale (2021). This piece comprises a single screen projection onto a freestanding wall positioned at a slight angle, thereby unsettling the usual centrality of the screen. The moving image, projected floor to ceiling, depicts a section of woodland with a body of water in the foreground. The camera occupies a low viewpoint close to the surface. Correspondingly, a stationary viewing position from the gallery floor level is invited. From this point of view, framed by a fixed camera, a still, almost stage-like scene is set. Within the scene, diorama-like pieces featuring images of vegetation that complement and contrast with the woodland flora slowly rise from beneath the surface of the water, hoisted into position by a partly visible mechanism. Different ecologies and distant temporalities coexist for a short time in the image. Then, the set pieces are re-immersed, disappearing from view, remaining as memory. There is an uneasy sense of witnessing a distant event occurring unobserved in some remote place, and, at the very same time, knowingly orchestrated as spectacle.

Emerging from the lower gallery into a brightly lit space, evenly illuminating the works displayed, we are presented with a collection of porcelain, brass, bronze and wood pieces, Terrella (2021) and three colour photographs mounted in chrome frames, Untitled (Mountain) (2021), each situated in isolation on one of the three gallery walls.

The Untitled (Mountain) pictures combine photographs of partly snow-covered peaks and sections of mountain range with what appear at first to be seemingly impossible cut sections through the mountain, or walls in front of them in a ruinous state. Upon closer inspection, these elements are revealed as cardboard fabrications coated in variously textured paint, altering in scale and putting viewers in a position of close proximity and vast distance at once. In these photographs, we can see features of the natural world as we might just actually encounter them, and, at the same time, as models that not only constitute artifice, but show themselves as such. These works concentrate a central paradox of the photograph as both a record of observation of the world as it might appear, commonly understood as a document, and a constructed image, closer to our dreams and imaginings, a fiction. The installation of each photograph on its own wall positions them confidently as pictures that explore a single idea across subtle iterations. The exposed white borders of each print draw attention to the significance of materials in the production of the photograph as an application of ink to paper. Framed in polished chrome complementing the brass and bronze elements of Terrella establishes a dialogue between image and object, materials and abstract modelling in two and three dimensions.

Terrellas are small models of the earth that have been used in scientific research since the late sixteenth century as part of experimental processes that included the study of solar activity and related effects of light on how the earth can be seen under particular conditions. The six pieces that make up Terrella are situated in close proximity, five placed on column plinths, all clustered at varying heights, and one suspended above, suggesting worlds to be understood as multiple and in reciprocal relation with each other. The materials used in this piece have historical associations with the early development of photography in correspondences between astronomical observation and the desire to fix camera images. There is a polymath approach in these works, understanding art and science in dialogue, as different ways of making sense of the world with a shared spirit of enquiry.

Goudal’s work shows nature as a set of processes comprised of different ecologies, geographies and temporalities. Additionally, something of the illusion of the earth as eternal and the fragile instability of the world humans seek to know through seeing is revealed in the works presented in this exhibition. By looking at these works that show their own making in still and moving images, we make up and implicate ourselves with the living natural world.♦

All images courtesy the artist and Edel Assanti, London © Noémie Goudal

Installation views of Post Atlantica at Edel Assanti, London from 27 January – 12 March 2022. © Will Amlot



Fergus Heron is an artist and university lecturer currently living and working in Brighton, England and Nairn, Scotland. He studied at the Royal College of Art, London and the University for the Creative Arts, Farnham, UK. Exhibitions featuring his work have taken place at venues including Tate Britain, London; Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World, Exeter, UK; Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, UK; Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, UK; Museum for Contemporary Art, Roskilde, Denmark; K3 Project Space, Zurich, Switzerland. He is Course Leader for MA Photography and a research supervisor in the School of Art and Media at the University of Brighton, UK.

Sayuri Ichida

Absentee

Book review by Callum Beaney

Callum Beaney argues that Sayuri Ichida’s medium-centric presentation of negative inversions, repetition and silver ink return readers not to photography as the main subject, but towards a physical body amidst the distress of its representation.


Sayuri Ichida’s Absentee is a book that feels. It functions as the sum of its parts, building a tense atmosphere as it goes. In many ways, it is a collection of separate photoshoots and experiments with different ways of approaching the ideas Ichida is trying to express, brought together through a binding reminiscent of Kikuji Kawada’s The Map (1965), with multiple gatefold spreads that house their own four-image sequences. Whilst the metallic ink and black-and-white inversion gives her work an aesthetic consistency, and whilst comparisons to contemporaries can be drawn, the variety of approaches produces arresting images, both alone and in sets. The result, for me, is a book that respects images for what they are, rather than for what they can be used to signify or gesture toward.

Looking through the book, an overarching feeling that many of Ichida’s groupings of images impart is that of the body being abstracted; more thing than person. Rather than a given pose or closeup of a body part being gestural and working as an expression of the artist’s self – as is typical of many such bodies of work – parts of this book instead affect a powerful sense that, just as the body dies and becomes lifeless, so too is the flesh made flat and empty when captured in an image. The feeling of detachment from the being one sees in a portrait of oneself, running parallel with an apprehension towards one’s forthcoming end.

The gatefold presentation adds significant weight to this book. The outside pair of photographs – those we see before the gatefold is opened up – are typically duplicates or very similar in form; the image on the right page is often merely a reprint of the left, but copied, flipped or rotated. Elsewhere, especially within the four images constituting the inside of these foldout pages, such portraiture is set among highly sculptural images of cracked concrete, anonymous buildings, clouds and drawn curtains. The body seems here to be reduced to shapes and forms, lumps of flesh raw and exposed (we see no clothes; if ever the body were to be described as “vulnerable”, it would be here, where every instance of it is either hiding or obscured). The scenes of the external world, broken, decrepit and lifeless as they are, feel to me like a mirror to the internal world of Absentee’s faceless models.

What are evidently inverted studio shots of a model standing on tiptoes and with dangled arms begin to feel more convincing as some kind of corpse in a body of water, an empty vessel afloat in a great nothingness. Moreover, these close-ups of limbs being shot with flash prompt just enough of an association with that of the mortician’s documentation to carry the feeling of anticipation, the feeling of dread that spans throughout Absentee. After all, an absentee is one who should be present, but who is not.

As a whole, Ichida’s foldouts can be enjoyed as sequences as much as patterns or ‘rhythms’ of photographs. Roughly halfway through the book, the arch of a leg is printed to the right of the peaked roof of a building. Proximate images such as these can be taken on a symbolic or comparative level, so as to say: “this is like this”, owing to the inverted V-shape of both the building and the leg, but they carry this intuitively, and in a more image-dense context than a typical two-page book. Rather than being reduced to pairs and propositions, Ichida’s gatefolds can be opened and closed in a few different ways, allowing the inside/outside to work in more ways than one.

Whilst Ichida’s work can be given attention for its use of medium-centric presentation, from the negative inversions and silver ink reminiscent of old film negatives, to the aforementioned repetition and flipping, on its own this is really the least interesting and least affecting part of the work. Those aspects contribute positively to the way this book feels as a whole, but not because, as meta-photographic elements, they are technically or conceptually clever. The images don’t work as references that point me to photography as the main subject, but ultimately point me back to a physical body – in this case presumably the artist’s – and a distress towards representation. This overwhelming feeling of anxiety about the body slowly becoming something flat, something still and unmoving, a corpse-like thing remains the central feeling conveyed.

Student work exploring questions of identity, expression of the self and of the body typically draws on a relatively consistent set of gestures and visual codes, often carried out more with reference to how such themes have been articulated by historical photographers – such as Francesca Woodman or Anne Brigman, or more broadly those images seen in mass circulation at the time – than to the ideas and experiences the photographer actually wishes to convey. Many bodies of work engaging with the male gaze, for example, seem too often to reinforce its visual logics in spite of the artist’s statement’s claims to the contrary. Self-imposed standards of beauty and the domination of certain visual tropes can sometimes influence work to the point that, in both cases, it engages in dialogue with other images more than with those who view them – and even those who make them. In such a case, the artist’s conception of their “self” merely constitutes a programmatic series of references.

Some of the gestures in Absentee do look familiar, and a reader might be forgiven for thinking that elements of the work feel slightly ‘derived’ from others, or even that it is a very ‘studied’ work; certainly, Ichida could be taken as wearing her influences on her sleeve. The difference for me, however, is that Ichida’s work embraces the discomfort and apprehension described above, as well as enjoying visual ambiguity rather than aiming for hard-coded messages. The figures in this book could even be ourselves: Ichida embraces anonymity, to the point that “the self” feels deliberately excluded by these gatefolds that cut into the models’ faces – we can see that these figures are a person, but as an image, they feel alienated and distant.

What is so often lost by work with conceptual aspirations is a love of looking at images. Taken as a whole, however, Ichida clearly understands that the viewer is the one taking these images in, and because of that focus on images and their affective strength, Absentee gives me moments both profound and often visually powerful.♦

Images courtesy the artist © Sayuri Ichida

Absentee is a self-published artist book handmade by Sayuri Ichida, in an edition of 50 copies. It was designed by Tomasz Laczny and launched in November 2021.

Callum Beaney is a photographer and writer based in the UK. He is co-editor of C4 Journal, a platform focused on photobooks.

Lebohang Kganye

Dipina tsa Kganya

Interview with Sarah Allen

Lebohang Kganye speaks with Sarah Allen about investigating her own family history, merging photography and theatre as a means to perform the constructed nature of memory and siting new work in the context of a Bristol sugar plantation and slave owner’s home from the 18th century.


Sarah Allen: Much of your photography deals with investigating your own family history. Was there a spark that lit this particular interest?

Lebohang Kganye: My mother’s passing ten years ago initiated the need to trace my ancestral roots. She was my main link to our extended family and past since we all now live in separate homes. I had to locate myself in the wider family on some level and perhaps also explore the possibility of keeping a connection with her. Two years after my mother’s passing, I was looking at a lot of her photographs and the more I kept looking, I realised that a lot of the locations these photographs were taken in – the ones I could recognise – were mostly at my grandmother’s yard or somewhere I knew. I went on this journey in search of her. I also realised that a lot of the clothes she was wearing in these photographs of her as young woman were in the house. I then put on her clothes and started going to the locations where my mother had been photographed to restage her photographs and mimicking the same poses to visually emulate my adoption of the role of the mother to my sister after our mother’s death.

In Jacques Derrida’s The Work of Mourning (2001), he discusses the loss of self that takes place when you lose someone you love: a double loss. My reconnection with my mother became a substitute for the paucity of memory through a visual manipulation of ‘her-our’ histories by inserting myself into her pictorial narrative and emulating the snaps of her from my family album. Ke Lefa Laka: Her-story (2013) are digital photomontages in which I juxtaposed old photographs retrieved from the family archives of my mother in her twenties and early-thirties with photographs of a ‘present version of her-me’ to reconstruct a new story and a commonality: she is me, I am her. My mother was my main link to my extended family and history, so her death sparked the need to trace my ancestral roots and locate myself in the wider family to explore the possibility of keeping a connection with her through photography.

SA: It’s a very personal history, but it’s also one that many people can relate to: the loss of one’s mother. This dual sense of both personal and shared histories is also present in the series Ke Lefa Laka: Heir-story (2013). Could you speak a little more about this body of work, and in particular, its focus on histories of naming in South Africa?

LK: My work explores themes of personal history and ancestry whilst resonating with the history of South Africa and apartheid. Ke Lefa Laka: Heir-story documents my personal history and straddles generations of my mother’s family, resonating with the history of South African displacement, in that my family was uprooted and resettled because of apartheid laws and the amendment of land acts. The narrative, as chronicled by my grandmother, of my family moving and creating temporary homes in different locations during the apartheid era as a result of dislocation and land dispossession of Black South Africans had a direct impact on the identity of my family and on the family name. Our family name shifted in an attempt to identify with the different social and physical spaces in which my family lived, or because of negligence in the recording of names by the civil registrar at the South African Department of Home Affairs. Fragments of the name are embodied in the multiple versions of the name, starting with how it is said, how it is pronounced and finally how it is spelled: Khanye, Khanyi, Kganye and Khanyile. People often couldn’t record their own names (or dates of birth) and, sometimes, the official modes of documenting were recorded incorrectly on documents such as birth certificates, identity cards and passports: documents that attest to identities and histories, and thus resulting in an alteration of oral histories and names. Names as a historical, social product highlight the history of naming as a device against illiteracy and the lack of birth records in South Africa through names associated with historical events, which served as a register to estimate the ages of the name bearers. Names can also be chosen at random and evolve, and, indeed, the tracing of the name of ‘Khanye’ demonstrates how this surname changed over time, responding to a family’s history and migration, as they are influenced by the socio-political and economic impacts of colonialism and, then, apartheid South Africa. The work speaks to the process of migration and touches on the subject of genealogy, which transformed family structures and networks in and around Southern Africa.

SA: Did the process of working on this series teach you anything about identity in general? Did you find any form of resolution?

LK: I was thinking about the notion of ‘Identity’ within the South African context and one embraces individual identities independent of collective identities. Identity remains a space of extreme contradictions – in a way an experiment; it is a mixture of truth and fiction; a blending and clashing of gathered histories and stories, a malleable entity with the pretence of being fixed. However, it presents an interesting challenge in the way that complicates individual agency. Identity cannot be made fully tangible just like the products of a camera; it is a site for the performance of dreams and the staging of narratives of contradiction and half-truths as well as those of erasure, denial and hidden truths. Identity, therefore, becomes an orchestrated fiction and a collective invention. Achille Mbembe makes a profound statement on our perception of the world in his introduction to the Africa Remix (2007) catalogue: ‘Our way of belonging to the world, of being in the world and inhabiting it, has always been marked by, if not cultural mixing, then at least the interweaving of worlds, in a slow and sometimes incoherent dance with forms and signs which we have not been able to choose freely, but which we have succeeded, as best we can in, in domesticating and putting at our disposal.’

People have different reasons for trying to know their family histories or past. I chronicle my family name using various modes of presentation and archival materials in the form of family albums, interviews with individuals involved to weave family narratives that would otherwise not have a platform or form beyond the experiential. Both methods of data collection often lead one to an approximate truth. An individual’s memory about a particular event may include political and personal bias. On the other hand, raw artefacts such as photographs have the inherent limitation of speaking to context. Both these flaws open up an opportunity to generate my mythology and fluid story telling.

SA: Is that sense of photography’s inherent limitations one of the reasons why you work across media, for example with film and sculpture?

LK: My practice has always tried to counter this idea that the photograph is instantaneous. Revealing the different elements of the construction of a photograph as an authoring of my own history is an important part of my practice. For the animation film Pied Piper’s Voyage (2014), I worked with a studio set, with life-sized cardboard cut-out images which look like flat-mannequins. I inserted myself to construct a visual narrative in which I meet my late grandfather, who passed away before I was born. In these fictive narratives, I am the only ‘real’ person, taking on the persona of my grandfather, dressed in a suit, a typical garment that he often donned in family photographs. These different modes speak to how memory and history intersect and what their role is within a photograph. Over the last seven years, my practice has been investigating memory as material. My recent works implement the act of cutting, folding, pasting and assembling medium or life-sized elements to construct each scene. These moveable paper elements of cardboard cut-outs create the illusion of a theatre set and proposes photography both as practice and object. In a similar way to figures and objects in a dollhouse, each cut-out creates the illusion of an entire world. They look like they could be moved, changed or shifted. I wish to emphasise the fabricated nature of history and memory in this work: how the visualisation of an event always induces an element of creation, experimentation and error; an on-going construction.

SA: I am also really interested in the performative aspect of your work – the reference to set design and theatre but also the idea of performing the self and one’s own history. Could you speak a little more about that?

LK: In the process of recreating the family photographs, particularly my mother’s, I began to consider the ways in which these photographs were a performance, allowing the subjects to inhabit a range of personas. Most of the snapshots were made before I was born in 1990, at my grandmother’s house. My mother had such limited access to cameras at that time. (There was one photographer in each neighbourhood in the township. He’d be cycling by and you’d set a date for him to come and take a photo of you dressed in your Sunday best.) With the opportunity to make photographs so limited, every picture became more powerful, giving them the opportunity to plan their outfit, pose and location. In my creative practice, photography is used as a way to recreate moments that I have never myself experienced. I have begun working with theatre scripts such as in my body of work Tell Tale (2018), which is mainly inspired by Athol Fugard’s play Train Driver (2010), set in Port Elizabeth, and a chapter in Lauren Beukes’ Maverick (2004) about a character named Helen Martins, which Athol Fugard writes about in his play Road to Mecca (1985), set in Nieu Bethesda, in the Karoo, Eastern Cape.

My new project titled In Search for Memory is indicative of both my primary use of photography as a malleable medium ongoing interest in the very construct of memory. Initially developed in 2020 as a set of collage prints on inkjet paper, In Search for Memory makes use of literature as primary source material. The images produced are inspired by Malawian writer Muthi Nhlema’s science fiction novella TA O’REVA (2015). The first iteration of this project includes six ‘scenes’ assembled with inkjet print cut-outs staged as dioramas and will later extend in the form of a large-scale mechanised pop-up book installation titled Staging Memories. I will produce a large-scale book installation exploring the materiality of photography in dialogue with the disciplines of theatre and literature and to position the ‘non-fictional’ assumption of photography in conversation with the ‘fictional’ world-building capacity of theatre and literature. This interdisciplinary modality introduces a fluidity of disparate temporalities and imaginaries to the storytelling and performative gestures that continue to inform my practice. I will create an installation that visually references a set of mise-en-scène.

SA: I’m also interested in how you engage with sound – the oral and the aural – in your work. That is, both the importance of oral histories, but equally thinking about the use of sound in your video work. For example, I know your latest commission deals with the tradition of praise-singing.

LK: My latest commission by Bristol Photo Festival 2021 is a black-and-white, three-channel video installation titled Dipina tsa Kganya (2021). It features two performances informed by the notion of healing, enacted through acts of naming and cleansing. The word dipina means ‘songs’ in my mother language of Sesotho. The song referred to is that of my family clan names, traditionally passed down through oral tradition. Additionally, the Sesotho word for ‘light’, kganya, is in the etymology of my last name: Kganye. A central visual component is the lighthouse featured in the middle channel of the video work. A light beam, in perpetual motion, casts light onto the surrounding ocean scene and in turn creates shadows in the two peripheral channels of the work. In the first or left video channel, a lighthouse keeper appears as a custodian of this light, tending to it by continually cleaning the bulb: a light source that symbolically guides those lost at sea. The song featured in the work (composed by musician Thandi Ntuli) plays from a large, custom-built Polyphon music box, which is hand cranked in the third or right video channel. These performative gestures are in conversation with the southern African practice of the ‘praise-singing’ of clan names as a way of passing down the origins of the family story as an act of resistance to historical erasure, to ensure its unwritten continuity. My research inquiry began with investigating the origins of my family name ‘Khanye’ and the history of naming. This led me to exploring my family’s Direto, a Sesotho term for clan names or praise poetry of allegorical stories passed down orally from generation to generation, which a clan of people defines themselves by. In the South African context, every Black surname has its own clan poetic praises; this self-praise poem is an identification with one’s family and lineage group. These anecdotes of praise are of heroism and often expressed at important social groupings. This oral tradition of recitation gives a stage to introduce oneself to the gathering and assert oneself through an embodiment of historical events, social experiences and family lineage. It is an evolving vernacular culture of Southern Sotho oral histories embedded in the performance of naming and self-narration, as a testament of family identity in the Basotho culture. Others are derived from the names of our grandfathers and siblings from the father’s side of the family but as my father was not part of my life, I inherited my mother’s surname.

SA: As part of this commission, your work will be displayed at the Georgian House Museum. What is at stake for you when engaging with a British institution such as this?

LK: My initial reservations with the commission were deeply tied to the Georgian House Museum’s own histories. A historical museum speaks to a very specific history and context that has been identified as worthy to conserve. The museum provides visitors with the opportunity to discover what a Bristol sugar plantation and slave owner’s home might have looked like around 1790. Its 11 rooms, spread over four floors, are used to reveal what life was like above and below stairs, from the kitchen in the basement where servants prepared meals to the elegant formal rooms above. Using themes of people, home, family, ancestry, slave-trade and social hierarchy that are particular to this historically rich structure, we draw closer to the inhabitants, their stories and the social complexities of the house.

SA: What has been the greatest challenge of the commission?

LK: The exhibition was meant to open to the public in Bristol at the Georgian House Museum in April 2021, but will only be opening in April 2022 due to the pandemic.

SA: What has the past year of pandemic meant for your practice and what is the most important lesson you learned during this time?

LK: The anxiety that came with being an artist during a pandemic forced a shift in my perspective with regards to my practice. The work I have birthed during this time is so deeply spiritual.

SA: Thank you, Lebohang. It has been a pleasure to speak with you. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and the Georgian House Museum, Bristol © Lebohang Kganye

Dipina tsa Kganya will be held at the Georgian House Museum in April 2022.

Lebohang Kganye incorporates the archival and performative into a practice that centres storytelling and memory within a familial context. In 2022, a solo exhibition of Kganye’s newly commissioned works will be presented by the Georgian House Museum as part of Bristol Photo Festival 2021. Her solo exhibition The Stories We Tell: Memory as Material (2020) was staged at George Bizos Gallery at the Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg, South Africa. Notable awards include the Grand Prix Images Vevey (2021–22), Paulo Cunha e Silva Art Prize (2020) and Camera Austria Award (2019). She was also selected as the finalist of the Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative (2019).

Sarah Allen is Head of Programme at South London Gallery. She was previously a curator at Tate Modern, London where she curated or co-curated Zanele Muholi (2020); Sophie Taeuber-Arp (2021); Nan Goldin (2019); The Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art (2018), as well as collection displays including Mark Ruwedel (2018); Irving Penn (2019) and David Goldblatt (2019). Outside her role at South London Gallery, she sits on the Board of Directors of Belfast Photography Festival.

Images:

1-‘Ka 2-phisi yaka e pinky II’, from Her-story (2013).

2-‘Ke le motle ka bulumase le bodisi II’, from Her-story (2013).

3-‘Moketeng wa letsatsi la tswalo la ho qala la moradi waka II’, from Her-story (2013).

4-‘Ngwana o tshwana le dinaledi II’, from Her-story (2013).

5-‘Re intshitse mosebetsing II’, from Her-story (2013).

6-‘Re tantshetsa phaposing ya sekolo II’, from Her-story (2013).

7-‘You couldn’t stop the train in time’, from Tell Tale (2018).

8-‘The nameless ones in the graves’, from Tell Tale (2018).

9-‘Helen’s father grazing his goats’, from Tell Tale (2018).

10-‘Farmer selling Sneeuberg potatoes’, from Tell Tale (2018).

11-‘Johannes Hattingh struck by the bolts from above’, from Tell Tale (2018).

12-‘Never light a candle carelessly’, from Tell Tale (2018).

13>15-Still from Dipina tsa Kganya (2021).