Wolfgang Tillmans’ EU posters

Essay by Daniel C Blight

The modern poster, like photography, was a product of the age of mechanical reproduction. Alois Senefelder’s invention of lithography in 1798 instigated the almost one-hundred-year development of the poster printing press, up to a crucial stage in the 1880s when the ‘three stone’ lithographic process developed by Jules Chéret allowed for quicker and more colourful printing. From this point forward, the photographic image and the poster simultaneously became a ubiquitous method for precise communication – at once the mouthpiece of the state, a means for commercial advertisements, public events promotion and political propaganda. The form is pervasive and persuasive in equal measure.

The poster is also a medium that demonstrates consistent artistic ingenuity. From Toulouse-Lautrec’s Belle Epoque period design for Joseph Oller’s cabaret Moulin Rouge in 1891, to turn of the century German Plakatstil – ‘poster style’ – which saw poster design reject unnecessary embellishment in favour of flat shapes, simplified colourings and increasingly abstract forms. After the First World War the ornamental stylings perpetuated by Art Noveau in Europe would continue to be replaced by progressively geometric and streamlined forms, as seen diversely in familiar art movements including Cubism, Futurism and Surrealism. Importantly, after the Second World War, the prominence of the poster would diminish as people turned to television and magazines for entertainment. It was the Swiss Style of graphic design that made significant contributions to the identity of the poster in the period from the late 1940s leading up to the advent of postmodernism. Designers such as Armin Hofmann, Hans Neuberg and Jorg Hamburger developed mid-century designs for commercial contexts, characterised by grids for the precise layout of typographic and photographic elements, as visual fastidiousness and order prevailed.

Alongside the history of poster design’s visual developments, politics also played an integral role, perhaps most famously articulated by Russian Constructivist design in the 1920s, but also later in the work of the French group Atelier Populaire during the 1960s. It is in the political context that the social importance of the poster is key.

The poster preceded the arrival of the newspaper, as Josef and Shizuko Müller-Brockmann tell us in their 1971 study History of the Poster. Historically, the poster and the newspaper were for a time the same thing. Acta Durna, or ‘daily act’, the earliest form of stone tablet posted around the streets of Ancient Rome publicised official state news. A Roman expression accompanied these posters – “make public and propagate” – an apt description of the act of posting sustained right up to the present day. In this sense, the three ideas of ‘the public’, ‘postering’ and ‘propagation’ could be seen as correlative. Posters are messages to be widely communicated in public space. Public space, as Henri Lefebvre has it, “upholds a measure of democracy”. In its most hopeful state, then, the poster could be seen as functioning in relationship to democracy, as a declaration of the possibility for all voices to be equally heard. This is the political potential of the poster, and we need it most in times of uncertainty – when democracy is on the wane. In these times, posters must attempt to communicate to as many people as possible.

The very identity of democracy is under prominent discussion with regard to the United Kingdom’s relationship to the European Union following the British public’s vote to Leave, and the poster has returned full force. Nigel Farage’s anti-immigrant abhorrence – reported to the police for its fascist overtones – puts politics front and center in a parallel, crass and violent history of the poster. Be it tethered to terra firma, or meme-like on an Instagram account, the poster remains inextricably linked to democracy, either by way of standing for it, against it, or by trying and failing to stand for anything at all.

In support of democracy and EU membership, Wolfgang Tillmans’ posters strangely reflect Pan Am airways’ Helvetica poster campaign of 1971 (evocatively referred to as Dreamtime in 2009 by writer Frederico Duarte), designed at the studio of Chermayeff & Geismar (C&G) and produced the same year that Müller-Brockmann’s The History of the Poster hit the press. Pan Am’s posters made the MoMA New York’s collection the following year – purportedly acquired by curator Mildred Constantine – but it seems unlikely the same fate will befall Tillmans’ effort. Like Pan Am’s then expensive and exclusive planes intercontinentally travelled, Tillmans’ posters made movements all around the moderate arty Left’s niche corner of the internet – on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – proclaiming the visual identity of some vague ‘art world solidarity movement’ by reducing it to the irriguous trend of the colour gradient, or a sense of empty poetry rendered in the visual platitudes of the sea, the horizon and the coastline. Similar to Pan Am’s corporate Dreamtime, the imagery of infinite beauty and romantic extrication is evoked by Tillmans in the name of democracy, and in relation to the dreamlike allure of the natural landscape. The poster images derive from the artist’s own work, which too often finds itself in that vague expanse between the percipient and the uninspired. This is Tillmans’ attempt to do everything, as Michael Bracewell states in the title of his 2010 essay on the artist, ‘everywhere, all the time and at once’. Photography, in the most democratic sense, can do everything, but it rarely succeeds to do anything when it does.

If both air travel and EU membership are about freedom of movement, we have to ask who gets to travel where and how? In the same way that Pan Am’s Dreamtime spoke to those that can afford the freedom of air travel, Tillmans’ EU poster campaign communicates to those in the networked art world who possess the education, social standing and cultural capital to buy in to the vision the designs promote – simply because hardly anyone else gets to see them. Where it was taken up elsewhere, as was the case on Richard Branson’s social media, it was too easily appropriated by the friendly face of consumer capitalism. This is the political failure of Tillmans’ posters. This is where, to refer again to the historical identity of the poster, aesthetics overshadows real and effective political intervention – a somewhat vacant promise of hope to come, then. Posters always sell something, be it air travel or EU membership, but what do posters do, when they do nothing at all? When they preach to the converted? In such circumstances, political struggle becomes static, defunct.

The European Union is rotten from the inside out. A general observation of its turn from undemocratic to distinctly antidemocratic tells us this: the unelected and unaccountable members of the European Commission; the public-corporate sector nepotism in respect to the disproportionate promotion of big business over small; the centrally encouraged privatisation of state-run services to “develop growth and competition” which has resulted in austerity and a decrease in wages and living standards Europe-wide. Not to overlook the pecuniary authoritarianism – deflation, stagnation, lack of market competitiveness and the rise of fascism and bigotry. Indeed, the policies of the EU render it “imperialism without empires” – to cite Hugo Radice – and have effects that stretch far beyond the bounds of Europe itself. The current migration crisis and the manner in which it has revealed racist and close-minded attitudes across the continent towards people of colour in desperate need, is just one example.

I voted Remain not because I like the EU, but because the best thing to do in the build up to the referendum was to promote the Remain campaign and vote accordingly for there is no doubt that the Leave campaign was characterised by xenophobia and racism. This time, one should clearly have voted to stay in, but if the Left were stronger in the UK – if for example there was a socialist government in power – I would have likely voted Leave in order to encourage a certain political distancing from neoliberal policy-making. Now the highly-controversial decision to leave has been made, perhaps there can be a more open conversation about the vast problems with the EU itself, which are explicit, and indeed some of the shortfalls of Tillmans’ campaign which was, frankly, starry-eyed bourgeois propaganda at its best.

There are perhaps three ways to consider Tillmans’ EU poster campaign, both positively but also necessarily from a critical perspective. The social sentiment is there in Tillmans’ accompanying text on his website. This is the pro-democracy nuts and bolts of the campaign. The sort of articulation for solidarity and democracy we can all support, led by an artist willing to use his profile to try and make an impact. This is what renders the endeavour a good idea at first glance. Second, there is the sense of the project appealing to artists and creative types through its visual identity, however typically superficial it may be. Yet, this is where the project comes unstuck, both in terms of to whom it attempts to speak, and the manner in which it uncritically selects its visual metaphors. Third, there is the political meaning of the project and the way in which it seems to visually and textually camouflage the lamentable nature of the EU, in favour of some distracting statements regarding the cultural and political successes of the union. One poster declares, “We are the European family”, while another states “What is lost is lost forever”. Some of the more successful catchlines are overshadowed by these overly trustful messages. If Germany is dad and France mum, why has the last year – to continue the familiar analogy – seen Greece grounded and offered no pudding? Perhaps the Greek child would have been better off in the long-term running away from home? Or perhaps more importantly the metaphor doesn’t work in the slightest? The idea that the EU is united in some unbreakable union of sibling or parental love is naive, and in fact betrays its own original sense of genuine humanitarian togetherness promoted at the time of its formation.

Whatever one thinks of the EU, Tillmans’ campaign failed to speak widely enough – its largely internet or gallery-based sites of display communicating only to those already convinced of the necessity to Remain. As Susan Sontag says of the afterlife of posters that were produced in Cuba during the political struggles of the 1960s, Tillmans’ designs too seem to be “one more item in the cultural smorgasbord provided in affluent bourgeois society.” Furthermore, as the famed Atelier Populaire group reminded us in their Posters of the Revolution (1969) with regard to their own experiences in 1960s Paris: “To use them [posters] for decorative purposes, to display them in bourgeois places of culture or consider them as objects of aesthetic interest is to impair both their function and their effect.” This is disappointingly the case where the posters have been displayed at Maureen Paley, the established East London commercial art gallery that represents Tillmans.

Why stand in support of the EU as a neoliberal project if, as Alfredo Saad-Filho and Deborah Johnston put it in their edited volume Neoliberalism (2005), it “imposes a specific form of social and economic regulation based on the prominence of finance, international elite integration, subordination of the poor in every country and universal compliance with US interests.”? The EU went the wrong way a long time ago, and it will most probably continue to disgustingly contort from the inside out post Brexit. Now that the UK is set to no longer be a member, other EU nations will likely want their own referendums, and as we clearly saw from the example that has been made of Greece in the last year with regard to their bailout negotiations, the EU powers-that-be – the Troika, a dogmatic triumvirate comprised of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – are not prepared to make concessions or act with any dignity towards those with lesser means. To put it simply, they promote the interests of business and attack the poor.

With these broader considerations in mind, what might Tillmans’ brand of art world propaganda mean in the context of today’s discussions of the European Union, and in turn how do the posters themselves sit within the historical context of art-photography-cum-poster-design as a form of political ‘activism’?

Despite Tillmans’ agreeable sentiment, it seems clear that the campaign – in political terms, which is crucial to the social importance of the poster – found itself mostly resigned to the limited social media circles and private spaces of contemporary art. The three key aspects of the Acta Durna, relating to the aforementioned Roman expression “make public and propagate”, fail to live on in the artist’s work, instead manifesting as a form of socially-exclusive communication where the veracity of the daily act is reduced to the non-committal share or retweet in the bourgeois spaces of network culture.

All images courtesy of the artist and Maureen Paley Gallery. © Wolfgang Tillmans

Daniel C. Blight is a writer based in London. He is co-editor of Loose Associations, a periodical on image culture published by The Photographers’ Gallery; visiting tutor in the department of Critical & Historical Studies, Royal College of Art and lecturer in photography at the University of Brighton. 

Federico Ciamei

Travel Without Moving

Book review by Duncan Wooldridge

It has always been photography’s prerogative to show worlds just out of reach. Even though it seems unusual today, we might remember that, in their heyday, picture magazines commissioned photographers and writers on long-term projects, embedded in far flung countries and cultures that were unfamiliar to occidental eyes. Written accounts were sent back, describing the world without images, and written in a prose that was necessarily descriptive and evocative. The very subjects were cultures and peoples – a picture of the world was to be formed through those images and descriptions.

As much as many of those projects were humanist in intent, today they understood in part as a colonial project. But in the globalised and networked present, they also appear as the beginnings of networks and assemblages. Edward Steichen’s Family of Man brought together images from around the world to show mankind’s similarities by placing hundreds of images in one exhibition and publication. In its grand tour as an exhibition, however, and its multiple printings as a catalogue, Family of Man showed not only a specific view of the world, but also, just as importantly, how photographs continued to move, after Benjamin’s description of mechanical reproducibility, away from the subject and towards the recipient. The Family of Man described – enacted even – a passage of information. It was, in its own way, an illustration that complemented André Malraux’s conception of an Imaginary Museum, or Museum without Walls, in which the artworks of the world could be collected as an institution on the printed page. The world exists in the home of the reader-viewer – it is compressed in each of our own museums.

Photography’s recent use of the satellite and networked image, as a material for visual and critical practice, corroborates this early movement of the image. From the comfort of the home, images of the world can be presented to us. But more than this: progressively, the very collections of major museums – the preserved holdings of institutionalised knowledge as the projects of generations of curators, collecting policies and ideologies – have become available through great projects of scanning and digital reproduction. Their images enter the algorithmic soup of user-generated photographs and selfies present online.

Federico Ciamei’s book Travel Without Moving published by Skinnerboox presents the pre-photographic representations of the once-exotic landscapes of distant lands, to meet the now-familiar templates and formats of the digital image file and the screen of the computer. The book begins with extracts from traveller’s diaries, in a small selection of texts affixed neatly to the cover. Each fragment recounts the approach to or departure towards a new place. The expeditions diaries suggest the many social interactions that formed the body of the explorations themselves – gossip about what was to come, and tales of what had occurred. Each undoes the scientific distance at which new cultures were often measured and described formally. Inside the book, images sourced from the digitised archives of travellers and explorations make up the majority of Ciamei’s material: maps, drawings, and written indices, combine with photographs to produce a hybrid reality.

Present in many of Ciamei’s images are the coloured flickers of the digital screen as it continually updates – many images are re-photographed in this way, and reflexively bounce the reader back from the image’s representational content. At the same time, wild landscapes and images of distant civilisations emerge as backgrounds upon which the multiple windows of image files are easily overlaid. Ciamei suggests that the image is one that underwrites what we know about the world, and is at the same time subject to being altered as it is displayed. He often makes subtle alterations to the image as a window on the world, bring two images into conversation (an image of a bird finds a home on the branch in the background of an image showing a pair of monkeys), whilst at other times, he overlays satellite images of the river over its hand-drawn analogue. Images are continuously in play with each other, making sometimes clear and at other times elusive correspondences.

Ciamei’s book presents the work of explorers and collectors, but presents it in a manner that destabilises the facts of exploration and geographical specificity. The reader is left with no clear sense of what is accurate or inaccurate, plausible or implausible. If the originary function of the museum was to collect the world’s knowledge, such resources are now available to users everywhere, but emerge as fragments organised by the logics of digitisation and the search. As such, their coherent narratives and threads are undone. As David Joselit has written in his book After Art, new forms of image and object production emerge from this “epistemology of search” – the knowledge available according to the algorithms of databases, which maintain what is knowable and unknowable, visible and invisible. It seems no coincidence that Ciamei provides a spread of links and references to many of the files, showing that he has mined many university and museum databases and public records. This parsing of digital information is the very practice that progresses from an archival impulse to the digital subjectivities that make us all knowledge-workers.

In Travel Without Moving, Ciamei folds space and time upon themselves, in an acknowledgement that such images are not only subjective, but are also subject to continual change. Opening multiple windows, of the same file, repeatedly, so that they cascade densely upon the screen, we see the expansion of the image file. Existing no longer in one moment or in one place, they multiply. Such plays reveal the power of images, and their abilities to transport the distant and make it proximate. Today, we not only produce images of ourselves, but share sights and texts that are not even part of our own, lived experience. In a large part, we experience the world vicariously, and the image-world meets the world that was once the subject for the nomad-photographer. But it also seems fitting that Ciamei takes the extraction of digital information to its logical extremes and reveals their subjectivities also. More than re-representing, he composes a world and its new culture from the images he finds. This seems to have always been a potential of both image and text, but one that is rarely deployed. It has textual origins in Raymond Roussel’s 1910 Impressions of Africa written from Roussel’s room, as a work of imagination, and Italo Calvino’s 1972 Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo describes an infinite variety of cities, drawn from the microcosm of just one place, that being Venice. Ciamei’s Travel Without Moving finds a photographic analogon for this very possibility, drawn from the archives of our image-world digitised online.

All images courtesy of Skinnerboox. © Federico Ciamei

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also Course Director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

Edmund Clark and Crofton Black

Negative Publicity

Book review by Gerry Badger

British artist Edmund Clark is known for his work which draws aside the veil of secrecy that deliberately obfuscates the West’s ‘War on Terror’, the programme of both open and covert warfare initiated by President George W. Bush following 9/11. It might be argued that Clark is a sociologist and political activist rather than a photographic artist, but the question is moot. He certainly uses the photographic image – both taken and found – with great effect, to investigate what is being done in our name to safeguard our ‘freedom and security’, but which is kept hidden from us, the citizens of the ‘democracies’, to ensure that, to give the official explanation, the operation’s own security is not ‘compromised.’

The question is, not that such covert operations are ether necessary or unnecessary, but that, in the course of and as a result of the West’s recent adventures in the Middle East, some of those activities – carried out, as I said in our name and beyond the ordinary, due process of law – are in fact illegal.

The governmental riposte to such a question is, of course, that they are not illegal, and have the imprimatur of certain extraordinary processes of law – an extraordinary situation requiring extraordinary measures. To which one might respond that such activities certainly stretch the bounds of legality, always elastic, at the very least, and that we are morally stooping to the level of the so-called enemy while our politicians take the moral high ground in this vicious war. And the problem is that this is not quite a war per se, where different ‘rules’ apply, but a de facto war, a war which has not been declared as such and has not been fully defined in internationally recognised legal terms.

This virtual rather than real war, often carried out ‘virtually’ on a computer screen, has given rise to a number of contemporary phrases, most of them innocuous sounding euphemisms for violence and mayhem. ‘Boots on the ground’, and the despicable ‘collateral damage’, have become depressingly familiar, as has the topic that concerns much of Edmund Clark’s work – ‘rendition.’ It was the subject of such earlier books as Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out (2010), and Control Order House (2012), and now actually features in the new volume’s title, Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition, published by Aperture/the Magnum Foundation on the occasion of his forthcoming exhibition, War of Terror at the Imperial War Museum, London.

Essentially, ‘rendition’ means the secret detention of persons deemed to be involved in inciting, plotting, or perpetrating terrorist acts against the United States and the West. These individuals are snatched from their homes or hideouts in Afghanistan, Iraq, or wherever and ‘rendered’, that is, secretly transported – and the watchword is ‘secretly’ – all over the globe, eventually disappearing into a network of prisons in America organised by the CIA, the best-known of which is the facility at Guantanamo Bay, the US navy base in Cuba. Since George W. Bush’s declaration of the ‘War on Terror’, an unknown number of people have been subject to rendition, without due legal process. Some have been released, some have been tried by a military commission and convicted, while the fate of others remains in the balance.

Negative Publicity, by Edmund Clark and Crofton Black – a journalist who works for, among others, the human rights group, Reprieve, and The Bureau of investigative Journalism – tells the story of this activity with photographs and documents. For four years, Clark photographed the nondescript buildings that always figure in a story of this kind, while Black researched and tracked down the relevant documents.

The book begins with one of Clark’s photographs, of a forest just north of Vilnius, in Lithuania, where the CIA built a detention centre in a quiet hamlet. This is followed by a key document, a CIA Special Review, which details the quasi-legal procedures involved in the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ – or torture albeit perhaps not on a Gestapo level, but torture nevertheless. Extraordinary rendition, rather than common or garden ordinary rendition involves enhanced interrogation techniques. Amazingly, although it has been ‘redacted’ (another of those words), the document is in the public realm, and enough of it remains to prove that enhanced interrogation techniques were normal policy in this sector of the terror war, which, for the most part was against civilians in other countries, not combatants in the strict sense.

Thereafter, Clark’s unrhetorical, large-format photographs of the ‘landscape of rendition’ and Black’s compilation of documents, tell the story of this shadowy operation. It should be pointed out that this material did not come from the Edward Snowden leak, which was somewhat different in content. The human rights and intelligence agency reports, letters, invoices, airline manifests, and other documents dug up by Clark and Black are all declassified.

There are two things of note in this story. Firstly, the houses and buildings photographed by Clark are irredeemably ordinary and inconspicuous. Of course that is the point, inconspicuous is the watchword. And that applies also to the ‘contractors’ who aid the rendition process, small businesses from Middle America, like the aircraft charter firms who are in it to do their patriotic bit, but chiefly to make a buck. Of course, they would claim they are devout patriots, but the invoices and lists tell a tale of small-time capitalism, where only the bottom line matters.

The other main point made by the book is that, like the Nazi’s ‘final solution’, there has to be a paper trail, or probably a encrypted file trail. America, it should not be forgotten, has a Freedom of Information Act, and while ‘redacting’ can hinder that – sometimes ludicrously – that act reminds us, despite our misgivings, what we are fighting for. It also enabled Clark and Black to tell their story with vivid immediacy.

This is an important book, beautifully designed in presented in the ‘collage’ style of so many contemporary photobooks. Aperture must be congratulated for taking on such a potentially sensitive subject. Is it a protest book? I suppose so, at one level, although Edmund Clark calls them “archaeological” and “forensic” rather then a file for the prosecution. He has stated that he hopes this work “may form part of a future discourse and future history.” As so much of the story is carried by the documents, some may argue this is not quite a photobook, but does that matter? As a sober photo-text piece, with wide and serious implications, that seems good enough for me.

All images courtesy of Flowers Gallery © Edmund Clark

Gerry Badger is a photographer, architect and photography critic of more than 30 years. His published books include Collecting Photography (2003) and monographs on John Gossage and Stephen Shore, as well as Phaidon’s 55s on Chris Killip (2001) and Eugene Atget (2001). In 2007 he published The Genius of Photography, the book of the BBC television series of the same name, and in 2010 The Pleasures of Good Photographs, an anthology of essays that was awarded the 2011 Infinity Writers’ Award from the International Center of Photography, New York. He also co-authored The Photobook: A History, Vol I, II and III with Martin Parr.

Sara Davidmann

Ken. To be destroyed

Book review by Greg Hobson

The series Ken. To be destroyed is the extraordinary story of Ken and Hazel Houston, retold by their niece, artist Sara Davidmann. Published by Schilt Publishing, the book is edited by Val Williams to accompany the current exhibition at the Schwules Museum Berlin, co-curated by Val Williams and Robin Silas Christian – yet another exciting project to emerge from Photography and the Archive Research Centre (PARC) based at the London College of Communication (LCC). The work weaves together Sara Davidmann’s contemporary responses to a collection of letters unearthed after Ken, Hazel and Davidmann’s mother, Audrey’s deaths, copies of which are included in the book along with various transcripts. Williams and Davidmann have also contributed writing to the publication.

Following Ken and Hazel’s marriage in 1954, it transpired that Ken was transgender. Set against the socially and culturally restrictive 1950s and 60s, this was a traumatic revelation for the pair, in particular as transsexuality was, at the time, largely misunderstood. Gender identity and sexual orientation were conflated and associated with homosexuality. Homosexual acts between men were against the law and men of this orientation were legally persecuted. Ken’s desire to be a woman therefore became a fiercely protected family secret, but one that Ken and Hazel were prepared to live with throughout their lives together.

The couple first corresponded in November 1953 and Hazel had accepted Ken’s proposal of marriage by February 1954. They married later that same year but it wasn’t until 1958 that Ken confided to Hazel that he was transgender.

His early letters to his love were overbearingly affectionate, constantly affirming the strength of his feelings. One from 3 May 1954 attests:

“That’s you my wonderful, darling. I love you, I love you, I love you. How much can I tell you beloved, but just to be with you is to know happiness and contentment I have never known before. How breathtakingly lovely you looked on Tuesday night lovely, dearest, you were the most beautiful female there. I can hardly realise my good fortune in winning your love even now.”

The two of them clearly built up a very strong bond from the outset of their relationship, marrying and settling together quickly, so it was a terrible shock for Hazel when Ken revealed he was transgender four years after their marriage. Despite her difficulty in dealing with this revelation Hazel continued in the relationship, largely through her love for and loyalty to her husband –notwithstanding what she described as intolerable strain. Hazel shared her distress through letters to her sister Audrey. In them she talks at length about her situation, while imploring her sister to keep the her circumstances and the content of the letters secret from everyone – including Ken – except Audrey’s husband, Manfred. There exists a desperate, tangible sadness that emerges from the letters. They articulate the incongruent and conflicted nature of Hazel’s situation, one that Val Williams describes as “asserting the power of love and respect while at the same time exposing the harm done by secrecy and dissimulation.”

The story unfolds through an archive of correspondence and photographs kept by Davidmann’s mother, Audrey and inherited by Sara Davidmann after Audrey’s death in 2013. The collection consists of letters between Hazel and Audrey, various notes and ephemera relating to Ken and Hazel’s life together and material from the 60s and 70s relating to Ken’s investigations into the possibility of treatment to become a woman.

Ken. To be destroyed is not simply the telling of a story through an extant archive however. In this book Davidmann has combined the legacy of letters and photographs with her own practice to explore personal histories and transgender issues. She has responded to the archive by reworking the photographic material, adding paint, developing fluid and marks to radically reinterpret apparently innocuous family photographs. Fascinated by the qualities of surfaces of the photographs; the various handling marks including the tactile engagement of both Ken and Hazel, as well as accretions of dust and grime accumulated over the years, Davidmann bears witness to the history of these remarkable lives.

Sara Davidmann’s work is an on-going investigation into the meanings of the archive and Ken’s condition as well as her own family history. A hybrid of history, archive material, literature, photography and painting, Ken is a complex and challenging project that sits between fact and fiction. The book is organised into a series of chapters or series that specifically delineate the history of Ken and Hazel’s responses to his transgenderism. There is nothing that alludes to their life beyond this, or to Hazel’s life in the considerable years she survived Ken (Ken died in 1979, Hazel in 2003). However, the unusual nature of the story, and Davidmann’s remarkable responses to it are dramatic and compelling.

In each series of new works, Davidmann has taken photographs from what appears to be a scant collection of those featuring Ken and/or Hazel and reworked them into a collection that reflects her personal response to the photographs and her familial connection to them. Davidmann’s explorations are often related to photographic process and the surfaces of the photographs, yet at the same time these new works speak for their subjects. In The Dress, Davidmann investigates the power of an elegant dress that Hazel wears in some of the photographs. In the original image Hazel looks poised and feminine and fashionable, her smile belying the turmoil that will become part of her everyday life. Scored, scratched and dripped on with paint and correction fluid by Davidmann, they take on an unnerving air of violence. Hazel’s face is obliterated and in one particularly powerful and moving image The Dress IV, her face appears to explode from the page. It is as if Davidmann is emancipating Hazel, expressing ire on her behalf, while also reflecting the utter hopelessness of her situation. Davidmann asserts that this was not her intention. However these works are extremely powerful, in particular in the aggressive treatment of the paper surfaces and the destruction of any of Hazel’s recognisable features.

In another series, Looking for K/Finding K, Davidmann has attempted to visualise how Ken might look as a woman, by digitally combining photographs of Hazel with photographs of Ken. These new photographs have then been hand-tinted in a manner that is typical of nineteenth century hand-colouring. These could well be some of the most uncomfortable images in the series. Replacing Hazel’s face with Ken’s in many respects strips away Hazel’s identity as a woman and furthermore, in replacing Hazel’s with Ken as a man (rather than made up as a woman), the photographs become a grotesque caricature of femininity.

Referring back to Hazel’s correspondence with Audrey, it is clear that Ken’s wish to be the woman in their house and his envy of Hazel’s womanliness is a troubling force for Hazel, as evinced in this letter from 10 September, 1959:

“’E’ knew I was beginning to resent this woman who was taking my place as mistress of my own home.
In the role of a woman, his personality changes quite a lot. Enjoys doing housework, washing and ironing, fussy about clothes. I have noticed even as the man he has been jealous of me as a woman.”

The final photographic work in the book is a document of the packages of letters, papers and photograph albums made by Davidmann in collaboration with Graham Goldwater. Stacked and tied with string, they give no indication of the dramas that they contain. The instruction ‘To be destroyed’ crops up more than once. Why they weren’t destroyed by Hazel or Audrey we will never know. That they have now formed the basis of this moving and important work by Davidmann, allows at least a partial understanding of the complex emotional and physical implications of living with transgenderism in the 1950s and 60s. To be a witness to this archive and Davidmann’s considered and intelligent response to it is a privilege.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Sara Davidmann

Greg Hobson is the former Curator of Photographs at the National Media Museum, Bradford. Recent exhibition projects include William Henry Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph (2016), Revelations: Experiments in Photography (2015), and Joan Fontcuberta: Stranger than Fiction (2014), all of which showed at Media Space, London and the National Media Museum in Bradford.

Dragana Jurišić

My Own Unknown (2014-)

Essay by Natasha Christia

In 1954 a farm girl disappeared from a village in rural Yugoslavia. She supposedly popped out for a doctor’s appointment but never came back. Rumour has it that she fled to Paris where she led a double life as a spy and a prostitute up until her death in the 1980s. Recovered from her few personal belongings, was a colour photograph in which she is seen striking a curiously unsettling pose – one that exhibits a hypnotising yet ambiguous charm. Heavy-lid and with her lips on the verge of pronouncing an inner score, she looks dotingly at the rose in her hand. In front of her a taxidermy of a bear’s head – its gleaming eyes and jagged teeth – destabilises the apparent harmony of the composition.

Almost a century earlier, in Paris of the late 1880s, the body of a young woman was allegedly recovered from the River Seine. Memorialised by means of death mask as a bid to identify her – a popular morbid fixture in the years to come – her breath-taking beauty was celebrated by artists and writers alike, including Man Ray, Rainer Maria Rilke and Albert Camus to name a few. Maurice Blanchot’s account perhaps describes the tragic figure best: “A young girl with closed eyes, enlivened by a smile so relaxed and at ease… that one could have believed that she drowned in an instant of extreme happiness.”

These two female characters serve as the protagonists of My Own Unknown, the latest body of work by Dublin-based photographer Dragana Jurišić, an on-going series comprising five fascinating chapters due to culminate into a fictionalised biography. Combining text and photography, appropriated imagery also intermingles ruthlessly with notebook texts, video and performance, across diverse creative processes and narrated through differing voices. Hybrid and complex, My Own Unknown defies classification – its overlapping of languages, registers and motifs reflect the eclectic and expansive aesthetic and intellectual world of its author, Dragana Jurišić.

Jurišić is a photographer, writer and video artist who came to international attention in 2014 with YU: The Lost Country, an emotive, first person account of her return ‘home’ to former Yugoslavia, which broke up in 1991, after a decade of living abroad. Presented as an installation and a book, the work draws upon the memories and aftermath of war. My Own Unknown, currently on show at Oliver Sears Gallery in Dublin as part of Photo Ireland 2016, quickly reveals itself as Jurišić’s most intimate autobiographical confession to date. Here the journey is accentuated. Taking the tainted life of her long-lost aunt Gordana Čavić and the symbolic connotations of L’Inconnue de la Seine as a point of departure, it sets forth a highly personal tale that explores the turbulent perceptions of femininity and its ricochet through art and family history.

While Čavić and L’Inconnue de la Seine are ostensibly the subject of the first two chapters of My Own Unknown, their presence and actions determine much of the rest of the story. They function as two mirrors for Jurisic’s own re-enactment of self in a triangle of female identity. Both are imagined rather than experienced – in a manner similar to André Breton’s 1928 autobiographical novel Nadja that chronicles his brief ten-day affair with an unknown woman. Nadja, the protaginist in this seminal surrealist work, gains validity the moment she becomes approved by the author’s colleagues. As soon as Breton fixes her within his consciousness, he abandons her. Romance fades and Nadja is ultimately committed to a sanatorium where she sadly belongs.

Jurišić’s female protagonists seem to fall in the same category. Both haunt the fantasies of others – Gordana is a sexual muse whereas L’Inconnue is the new Mona Lisa for artists. Like Nadja, they are not entirely real but worshipped “souls in limbo”, grounded in absence as opposed to historicity. Unlike Breton’s treatment, however, Jurišić’s fable soon reveals with bitter melancholy and resignation that the essence of the story is violence, cruelty and oppression. Moreover, it goes further to negate the ideal of female beauty, suggesting the possibility of a quieter historical reading of femininity.

In the project’s subsequent chapters, Gordana and L’Inconnue become the starting point of something more subversive, something by and for women. The passive muse is resurrected as an active agent, unleashing a visual narrative of a different kind – the romantic fable rolls over to a political impulse.

Chapter 3: 100 Muses sees 100 women from Dublin, aged between eighteen and eighty-five, respond to an open call to be photographed nude. Jurišić invited them to pose as one of the nine Muses of Antiquity, holding a replica of L’Inconnue death mask and two props: an old, throne-like chair and a cheap curtain that could be used as a drape to cover their naked bodies should the subjects wish to use it. Upon finishing the shoot, Jurišić asked them to select the portrait that best represented with the intention to empower her sitters and reflect openly on their relationship with their bodies. The final portraits of these Deities of Fertility looking back at the camera possess a primitive, earthly beauty. Free from eroticism, their exposed bodies create a ritualistic typology that challenges iconographical clichés – physical manifestations and reinventions of the romantic ideal of the muse and by-products of the complicity between the author and her sitters.

In chapter 4, Her Mother and Her Daughters, Jurišić proceeds to digitally overlay the portraits of women who identified with the same muse, generating nine collective portraits in total. A stratigraphy of these layered portraits results in Mnemosyne, the daughter of Gaia and mother of the Nine Muses. What emerges is synthesised phantasmal taxidermy of skin and visages, the image of “The Mother” is the overlap of all. It condenses the maturity of different lives and skins, against the weight of immortality and idealisation.

Don’t be afraid to look into a shadow, the fifth chapter of My Own Unknown, plunges the viewer further into its remixing of female identity as a renewed collective meta-fiction. A video puts in motion the stories of all these women, with Jurisic placing herself in front of the camera. Here, her identification with her aunt Gordana Čavić is crystallised. They share, in her words, the same taste for adventure and braveness. They also share the awareness of an innocence lost in the depths of a river.

Jurišić used the Super-8 camera her aunt left behind to re-enact a life that was censored. The viewer is asked to access these short films through the holes of a series of black boxes. It is hard not to detect parallels between this diorama-like assemblage and Marcel Duchamp’s major artwork Étant Données. An unexpected and unimaginable landscape, visible only through the peepholes, communicates an intense experience of accessing a life shrouded in mystery, but imagined this time by women. In these rolls of film, women emerge as the ‘other’ – that which cannot be grasped, comprehended or penetrated, but only felt and sensed, the same way as war, displacement and tragedy. If male identity by normative modes operates as a solid narrative object (an object that “is what it is”, according to Jean-Paul Sartre’s definition), My Own Unknown resets femininity as a restless imaginative space for to open up thinking on micro-histories of women that were either mythologised or buried in the tomb of history.

My Own Unknown is existential attempt at self-knowledge, where female muses emerge and vanish like shadows against a veiled backdrop. Pulled ashore from a river of mystery, they partially regain life. When not covered by a mask, their gazes are firmly addressed towards the camera. And yet, despite their urge to overcome vulnerability, they slip once more into a tranquil death in the area of meaning. There is much sadness and latent resignation infusing these bodies. There is an awareness of futility amidst our turbulent, disappearing times. There is the acknowledgment that recession into absence is the final redemption. Bodies are deemed to vanish, to fade.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Dragana Jurišić

Natasha Christia is an independent writer, curator and educator based in Barcelona. She was recently the Guest Editor at the Read or Die publishing fair in Barcelona during November 2015 and Curator of DocField Documentary Photography Festival, taking place during May and July 2016, entitled, Europe: Lost in Translation.

Marton Perlaki

Bird, Bald, Book, Bubble, Brick, Potato

Interview by Tim Clark

A picture has the ability to mislead the mind, opening a door to alternative narratives that exist within the viewer’s subconscious. I wish to access these moments of subjectivity and navigate the viewer towards a game of associations.” So says Marton Perlaki, a Hungarian artist whose ongoing series Bird, Bald, Book, Bubble, Brick, Potato has now made the journey into book form entitled Elemer, published by Loose Joints.

His intriguing publication presents a rich array of seductive and sardonic imagery, drawing principally on two main photographic genres – still life and portraiture. Perlaki’s process involves carefully planning and creating unique arrangements, wherein he makes everyday objects and scenarios undergo an absurdist upheaval. Some images show a pale, macabre-looking man – Elemer – as he strikes equally unusual poses or exhibits various states of uneasiness. Some show stuffed birds wrapped in string, their eyes pierced with needles while others reveal constellations of bubbles delicately emerging from laboratory apparatus – these are but a few examples of the jarring mix of views and subjects that chafe on our mind. His work summons the idea that discontinuity and dislocation can be powerful strategies to defy viewer expectations and thus force a reflection on photography’s randomness and incessancy, as well as its ability to control the disorder of the natural world through repetition, juxtaposition and artifice.

“I was always drawn towards variety in a series and never really interested in linear story telling,” Perlaki says. “I find it important to make the viewer participate and invite him/her to make connections between seemingly unrelated images. Everyone can create their own personal narrative which seems like a fun process to me.”

Interspersed with his own photographs are a handful of pictograms of mundane items, both natural and man-made, including a balloon, a lock and key, a vice, a bucket, a garden hose, a potato, a worm and a brush. Deadpan yet also playful in tone, these functional illustrations serve as visual and symbolic equivalents to his imagery, often precipitating the appearance of certain motifs and manifold shapes that give rise to meaning – or at least short-lived thematic runs.

“The whole project started as a stream of ideas,” Perlaki explains. “The trigger was a series of cards that companies used to include in packs of cigarettes. They were actually called ‘cigarette cards’, in the first half of the century. The cards would display useful household tips. On first glance the images look silly and nonsensical but when you flip them over and read the corresponding text the pictograms suddenly make sense.”

Providing both senseless and factual situations, Perlaki conjures up visual poems or private performances, yet records only one remote moment, such is the nature of photographic capture. On the surface of things, his photographs are relatively simple and innocent – childish even. Perhaps photography, given that it is relatively naïve and young compared to the other visual arts, is really a childish medium after all. At least this is what Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa posits in his afterword to the book. The writer goes on to encourage us to consider photography as childish in its dogged determination to record nothing more than the instant on which its attentions are focused. Childish in its disgust and delight, clarity and uncertainty, or for swaying from the fleeting to the ineffable. He surmises: “Photography’s capacity to register anything to which it can be exposed is similar to a child’s capacity to treat dog shit and diamonds with an equal measure of fascination.”

Indeed, Perlaki’s results are equal parts capricious and witty, menacing and hallucinatory. But, above all, it is the human element that finds its way into the imagery via the portraits that is key to both heightening and further complicating the sense of disquiet. This obviously relates to Perlaki’s specific choice of model, who, despite his outward impression, is in fact a happy family man and a teacher living and working in Szolnok, Hungary. What is evinced here is the notion that the reflection of reality reveals nothing about reality. The photograph is at once a portrait of Elemer and not Elemer. It does not disclose anything about the individual. He is a person with an entire life, with dreams, desires, worries and fears – complexities that we will never know from the photograph.

If, as Bertolt Brecht famously remarked, “photography is the possibility of a reproduction that masks the context……So something must be built up, something artificial, something posed,” then Perlaki’s work shares a kinship with this sense of photography setting out to experiment and instruct, exemplified by his photographic constructions and flagrant theatricality. “My idea was to use one character throughout the series and I was struggling to find the right fit when I accidentally came across a photograph of him while I was browsing on Facebook,” he explains. “Elemer’s peculiar appearance in these staged moments adds a mystical quality to the series. He is simultaneously sculptural and enigmatic, which for me was a perfect combination for the series.”

As he moves and appears before the camera, Elemer’s gestures reveal nothing of his essence, but reveal to us the charm of a gesture – the type Milan Kundera obsessed over in his seven-part novel from 1968, Immortality. Establishing his characters, the writer states that a gesture cannot be regarded as the expression of an individual, as his creation (because no individual is capable of creating a fully original gesture, belonging to nobody else), nor can it be considered as that person’s instrument. On the contrary, it is “gestures that use us as their instruments, as their bearers and incarnations.”

Ultimately, Elemer and his gestures become just another one of the photographer’s props. He is part of Perlaki’s inventory of objects, collected and composed through photographic form – their particular sequencing and repetition across the series offering a focus that is restless and multiple. In accumulative effect, arrays of images either contradict or compliment one another in a critical or reflexive way – similar to Brecht’s insistence on the built up – all the while embodying a nominal relationship to the world. After all, a bird is to bald, as book is to bubble, as brick is to potato, is what Perlaki’s art suggests and provokes.

All images courtesy of the artist and Webber Represents. © Marton Perlaki
Excerpts of this interview were originally published in the FOAM Talent issue 2015 and have been reproduced with kind permission.

Tim Clark is a curator, writer and editor. Since 2008 he has been Editor in Chief and Director at 1000 Words Photography Magazine. Previously Associate Curator at Media Space, The Science Museum in London, exhibitions he worked on included Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy (2015) and Gathered Leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth (2015-2018), a major, mid-career touring retrospective. He has also organised many exhibitions independently, most recently Peter Watkins: The Unforgetting at Webber Gallery (2017) and Rebecoming: The Other European Travellers at Flowers Gallery (2014), featuring works he commissioned by Tereza Zelenkova, Virgilio Ferreira, Lucy Levene and Henrik Malmstrom. Together with Greg Hobson he has curated Photo Oxford 2017, which featured numerous solo presentations by artists such as Edgar Martins, Mariken Wessels, Martin Parr and Sergei Vasiliev and Arkady Bronnikov from The Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive among others. His writing has appeared in FOAMTIME LightboxThe TelegraphThe Sunday TimesPhotoworks and The British Journal of Photography, as well as in exhibition catalogues and photobooks. He is also a visiting lecturer on the MA in Photography at NABA Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti Milano.