The Cruel and Unusual exhibition that opens at the Noorderlicht Gallery in Groningen tomorrow is a rare breed. This is a project that started out (and still lives) on the internet, became a road trip across America, and is now both a newspaper and an exhibition. With work by eleven different artists, Araminta de Clermont, Amy Elkins, Alyse Emdur, Christiane Feser, Jane Lindsay, Deborah Luster, Nathalie Mohadjer, Yana Payusova, Lizzie Sadin and Lori Waselchuk, the exhibition focuses on prison photography, a subject that receives very little exposure. The show is co-curated by fellow photo-bloggers Hester Keijser (Mrs Deane) and Pete Brook (Prison Photography) who write two of the most dynamic and esoteric blogs that you will find on the web (aside from their dozens of other writing, curating and photographic projects). To state the obvious, prisons are not exactly a sexy subject and the fact that they have managed to put this show together is very impressive. Instead of a 'traditional' exhibition catalogue, the curators have put together a newspaper (print run of 4,000 / 1.50 € per copy) in an attempt to reach more readers than an expensive photobook could (they lay out their reasons for this choice in detail here). The world of photography online can be an exasperating, sprawling mess, but the fact that it can lead to projects such as this one makes it genuinely worthwhile. I'm providing a few visuals of the work on show with this post, but if you can make it to Noorderlicht before the exhibition closes on 1 April, don't miss this.
Le Bal's latest exhibition, Foto/Gráfica: Une nouvelle histoire des livres de photographie latino-américains (A New History of Latin-American Photobooks) opened last week. The show is based on a selection of 40 books taken from Horacio Fernandez's recently published book on books, The Latin-American Photobook (Aperture, 2011). This is not Le Bal's first photobook exhibition—they presented Japanese Photobooks Now in the summer of 2011—but it is the first time that they have devoted their entire space to an exhibition of books. Following this show they will be hosting the 5th International Fotobook Festival, which is traditionally held in Kassel, so it seems that photobooks are becoming one of the major areas of focus of their programme.
According to Martin Parr, Latin-American photobooks "are the best kept secret in the history of photography"... one of the many secrets that are being steadily revealed by Parr and/or Aperture through The Photobook: A History series, Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and '70s and a forthcoming book on Chinese photobooks that Parr is doing with WassinkLundgren chez Aperture. The 'books on books' phenomenon is gaining so much traction that Andreas Schmidt, a pleasingly disruptive photobook maker, is already looking forward to the book on books on books which surely can't be too far away. As for Parr's quote, I am willing to take his word for it, knowing absolutely nothing about Latin-Amercian photobooks (with a few Mexican exceptions) and having had very few opportunities to see any.
I was particularly interested to see how Le Bal would take on this subject. Although there appears to be a growing trend for exhibiting books, the ones I have seen so far have generally been disappointing. Books are not an easy thing to exhibit, in fact they are exhibition-resistant in my view. Most people's preferred position for reading or looking at books is sitting down and they are generally consumed by one person at a time, things that are difficult to replicate in an exhibition context. Exhibitions do not encourage visitors to touch the works on display, making it difficult to display more than one spread, something which is painfully reductive unless multiple copies of each book displayed can be tracked down. I think the key in exhibiting books is in overcoming these obstacles by recreating the immersive experience of a book in a way that goes beyond the experience of going into a very good bookstore.
In addition to the basic difficulties of exhibiting books, Le Bal's space is far from huge whereas Latin America is on the large side and presumably has produced a decent number of interesting photobooks over the years. This poses the additional challenge of avoiding the exhibition equivalent of a 'best of' compilation album. To borrow the strapline from a random 'Best of Latin America' compilation, this could have been "a lively exhibition filled with hot and spicy Latin American photoboks!" which would probably have given me a severe case of indigestion.
Thankfully the exhibition successfully avoids most of these pitfalls. Rather than structuring the exhibition around individual countries, it is broken up into a series of sections: history and propaganda, urban photography, photographic essays, artist books, literature and photography, and contemporary books. These categories go beyond the traditional bounds of the photobook, expanding its definition to something like 'books that contain photography,' which makes the terrain far more diverse and interesting, bringing in books such as the revolutionary propaganda tome, Sartre Visite a Cuba (1960) or Auto-photos (1978) an artist book documenting a performance. There is enough material in each of the sections to whet the appetite, but without requiring you to spend several hours in the exhibition space just to cover all the material on display.
The scénographie of Foto/Gráfica is particularly good, the best I have seen for a photobook exhibition. Firstly, in order to tackle the issue of displaying more than one spread from each book, the organizers have decided to go down the road of sacrifice and cut the books up so that a series of spreads can be displayed (there are clearly enough copies of these books to spare, as book-surgery is not the kind of thing that could be done with an exhibition of rare Japanese photobooks for example). The books are displayed in a variety of different ways, from 'classic' glass display cases, to superimposed custom shelving units hanging on the walls. The exhibition also makes good use of prints, which are exhibited alongside the books and are a useful reminder of how different these media are. In the downstairs space, the central wall has been covered with scans of the spreads from a single book with a handful of prints displayed in mounts floating on the surface, a very impressive display. I'm posting a few of the official installation views with this post, as my crappy iPhone shots would not do the exhibition justice. By deconstructing the books in these different ways, it makes the viewer think about the form of the book and its specific qualities.
The success of Foto/Gráfica is that it opens itself out beyond Latin American photography to engage with Latin American artistic culture more broadly. By giving politics, literature and other art forms center stage, the exhibition not only provides some much-needed context, but opens up a number of interesting paths of inquiry. Photobook lovers won't need my encouragement to go and see this, but this is one for those that are not book geeks as well. After Paris, the exhibition is travelling to Ivory Press in Madrid, Aperture in New York and to the Museo del Libro y de la Lengua in Buenos-Aires.
Foto/Gráfica, Une nouvelle histoire des livres de photographie latino-américains, Le Bal, 20 January – 8 April 2012.
My most recent trip to Japan in October happily coincided with Naoya Hatakeyama's first retrospective at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of his work – and there is quite a lot of it – so I was curious to see how this exhibition, entitled Natural Stories, would be put together. The exhibition has now closed in Tokyo but opens at the Huis Marseille in Amsterdam today until the end of February 2012. To coincide with Natural Stories, Hatakeyama also released his latest book, Ciel Tombé, which I included on my best books of 2011 list, so I thought I would discuss them together here.
I will admit to being a little surprised at the selection of work in Natural Stories. Although there are ten different bodies of work in the exhibition, none of Hatakeyama's work on Tokyo (Underground, River, Maquettes/Light...) was included. However, in the curator's text on the exhibition she is quick to explain that this was a conscious decision given that Hatakeyama already had several solo exhibitions in Japan including a 2007 show at the Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura & Hayama which took the city as its theme. With that in mind the exhibition's focus on the natural landscape makes sense.
The title Natural Stories is an intriguing one. I think it works best in french (Histoires naturelles), which I believe is the language in which the title was originally given. In french 'histoire' can mean both history or a story. The title evokes Natural History, stories about nature, and perhaps even a history of nature itself. The essay by the French writer Philippe Forest in the exhibition catalogue explores these notions in detail so I won't dwell on them any further, but the title evokes the very different considerations that inform Hatakeyama's photographic approach to the landscape. His landscapes are never 'just' landscapes: they are always the reflection or the echo of something else. For instance, although it depicts the limestone mines, the series Lime Hills deals with the transformation of the natural landscape to feed the insatiable growth of the city of Tokyo.
Although it is almost never directly present in this exhibition, the city is never very far away. In the series Ciel Tombé Hatakeyama explored the Parisian catacombs and their underground 'fallen skies' (ciel tombé). This series is the subject of Hatakeyama's latest book, Ciel Tombé (Super Labo, 2011). For this book Hatakeyama has deviated from the standard photobook formula and asked the French author Sylvie Germain to contribute a short story based on his photographs . I won't go into detail about this book as this post is already overly long, but I will say this: I first saw the work from Ciel Tombé a few years ago at a gallery in Tokyo. Several months later I had the opportunity to read Sylvie Germain's deliciously strange and unsettling text. I had not seen any of the images since that first viewing, but as I read through the story the images appeared in my mind as if I had only just seen them. For the moment the book only exists in a deluxe edition of 200 which includes a print, a book of Hatakeyama's photographs and another book containing Sylvie Germain's text in French, English and Japanese, but there is word of a second edition in the making.
Returning to Natural Stories, for me the final two rooms of the exhibition were the highlight. The first of these rooms (pictured at the top of this post) contained Hatakeyama's most recent work on his hometown of Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture, one of the many towns destroyed in the tsunami of 11 March 2011. Although very little time has passed, Hatakeyama decided to include a series of photographs in the exhibition that he took in the wake of the disaster. Many images have been produced of the aftermath of the tsunami, but most of these fail to connect beyond conveying the scale of the physical destruction. What stands out about Hatakeyama's images is how matter of fact they feel. He has photographed these landscapes with the same unflinching precision, intelligence and quietness tinged with nostalgia as any other landscape. His photographs strike me as the most natural possible response to the disaster, but they must have been incredibly difficult to make given the deeply personal and tragic nature of the subject. These images are presented on three adjacent walls in the space, while on the fourth a slideshow of images taken between 2008-2010 in his native region is presented in the guise of a framed photograph.
The final room contains the companion series Blast and A Bird. Both series have been exhibited and published in the past, but for this exhibition Hatakeyama also chose to present Blast as a stop-motion video projected on a huge wall in the space. These photographs have a potent mix of beauty and brutal force which is heightened even further when animated in this way. It is an overwhelming end to the exhibition and one which resonates long after you leave the space.
As a blogger I get sent several press releases a day for upcoming exhibitions, from the weird to the wonderful and everything in between. Although 95% of it doesn't hold my interest, once in a while something stands out. The press release for the upcoming exhibition at Gallery 138 in New York of photographs and videos by Clark Winter entitled The Wonder of it All stopped me dead in my tracks.
I knew nothing about Clark Winter, but discovered that he is a global investment advisor, a TV pundit, an art world mover and shaker (he serves on the Committee on Photography at the Museum of Modern Art), as well as a photographer and an "artist". The release tells us that "in his photographs and videos (...) patterns appear, information is collected, everything is experienced; nothing is explained (...) Something's coming, and you don't know what it is." It would seem that Winter leaves the explaining to his day job and let's the invisible hand of chance govern his artistic endeavours. From the visuals I got my hands on, his photographs seem to be as random as the above press statement: snapshots taken in hotel lobbies, airports and assorted 'exotic' locations. Winter travels a lot and rubs shoulders with the powerful and famous, but is also capable of photographing the totally banal... a toaster, some flowers, a field. All of this is then thrown together in 3x3 grids where the mundane rubs shoulders with the "extraordinary things he has seen while travelling as a global financial advisor" and where the former comes out comfortably on top. In one self-portrait, Winter appears with electrodes attached to his head, suggesting his deep connection to these many complex layers of our planet, or perhaps simply to suggest the powerful brain that lies within it.
Of course I haven't seen and won't be able to see The Wonder of it All and this may simply be a case of overblown PR, but to me this feels incredibly misguided. Could there be a worse time to put together an exhibition that reveals "the private world of high finance" by giving us "access to things that are unavailable to ordinary travlers (sic)"? The idea that a man who certainly has a deeper understanding than most of global economics, finance and the powers that be and is clearly very successful in his field, could somehow translate this into a visual form with a series of off-the-cuff photographs, strikes me as a little overambitious, if not downright pretentious.
The exhibition is part of a series exploring the relationship between art and finance, something that is extremely pertinent at this moment in time. There is a lot that is wrong with both worlds and an exploration of how they influence and affect each other could make an interesting exhibition. But surely this is something that requires more than the contents of a powerful man's iPhone camera roll. I don't write blogposts that frequently and writing a critique of this exhibition may have been unnecessary, a waste of your and my time. However, I can't help feeling that in a way this exhibition is insulting to people who are actually devoting themselves to making art. The idea that it is this easy suggests that the relationship between art and finance is a lot more twisted than I thought.
If anyone does actually manage to see The Wonder of it All I would be fascinated to hear your thoughts. However, I am concerned that for someone who cites Picasso and Piero della Francesca as influences, it may be difficult to live up to such lofty expectations.
Le Bal's Japanese summer season continues this week with the opening of the exhibition Tokyo-e, which brings together work by Yutaka Takanashi and Keizo Kitajima with a series by an almost complete unknown photographer, Yukichi Watabe, a photojournalist who worked in Tokyo. The three groups of work on show are very different, related only through their strong connection to the Japanese capital. Although this selection seems a little arbitrary (as is almost inevitably the case with city-based shows), Tokyo-e is a rare opportunity to see an exhibition that goes beyond the ever-popular Moriyama, Araki or anything-from-Provoke choices. Tokyo-e only opens officially tomorrow, but here's a little sneak preview to whet the appetite.
Kitajima gets the lion's share of the exhibition space with the entire downstairs floor including work spanning 15 years of his career, from his 1970s series in Tokyo and Okinawa to his work from the 1980s taken in New York, Eastern Europe, Berlin, Seoul and Beijing. The most striking feature of the Kitajima room has to be the Photo Express Tokyo grid, a band of photographs covering an entire wall. The installation is a nod to the 1970s Camp gallery where Kitajima covered the walls, floor and ceiling of this tiny Shinjuku space with his prints. In conjunction with this show, Le Bal and Steidl are releasing a facsimile of the full set of 12 Photo Express Tokyo booklets that Kitajima made in 1979 at the rate of one issue per week throughout the 12-week run of the exhibition.
Although Kitajima's work features most prominently, I found the upstairs room to be the more successful half of the show. The combination of Takanashi's Machi, a series of opulent, colour-drenched shopfronts and interiors from Tokyo's Shitamachi district, with a clever installation of Watabe's small 'film noir' vignettes creates the sense of wandering through the streets of a city from the past. The Watabe criminal investigation series is a wonderful anomaly. Shot in 1958, these photographs document a criminal investigation by the Tokyo police of a horrific murder by a suspected serial killer. In a radical departure from the straightforward 'objective' documentation that was so prevalent at the time, Watabe's photographs could be a set of film stills given how heavily they seem to be influenced by film noir, an effect which is compounded by the charismatic lead investigator, a kind of Japanese Humphrey Bogart figure. While they are different in every aspect, the installation of the two series ties them together nicely: the size of the Takanashi prints almost make it possible to walk into these city spaces, which have now all but faded away, while the labyrinthine installation of Watabe's small prints, which visitors look down on from above, echoes the detective's experience of searching for clues.
With an artist talk by Kitajima tomorrow (Friday 20 May) evening, one by Takanashi on Sunday (22 May), a film programme and a bunch of other events to come, Tokyo-e comes complete with some terrific bonus features and is definitely worth the visit.
Tokyo-e (Yutaka Takanashi, Keizo Kitajima & Yukichi Watabe), Le Bal 20 May - 21 August 2011