conversation in slow time

mireille juchau engages with british photography at ACP and MCA

Wiebke Leister, from the series Ticklish Relations (2004-2005)

Wiebke Leister, from the series Ticklish Relations (2004-2005)


Aiming to undercut the touristic nature of photographing the institutionalised, Broomberg and Chanarin hand the camera’s long release cable to their subjects. By giving patients in a Cuban psychiatric hospital the right to determine when their image is captured they reveal starkly different attitudes to the camera. Maria reclines on a cold floor against a wall painted ubiquitous ‘hospital green.’ She’s wearing a shapeless blue gown; her plastic thongs are logo-ed with a leaping big cat, a tiny emblem of freedom. Her expression is poignant and fragile, whereas Mario, an elderly man, turns his back to the camera and young Oreste, in striped pyjamas looks wired and exuberant as he takes his shot. It’s unclear whether this spontaneous method completely overturns the exploitative qualities of photographing the vulnerable, but the resulting portraits highlight the complexities of representing any essential or stable ‘self’, whether the subjects are grappling with this or not.

Anthony Luvera also delegates his photography, giving cameras to the homeless who document a very particular mise en scène. Their rough colour images convey the transience and movement that characterises straitened lives in London—a small, dull room with a single bed, an alley lit by a shaft of meagre light, a graveyard, a covered body on a footpath (asleep or dead?), roadside memorial flowers, the empty cardboard insides of a street ‘home’ and a structure hidden among wildflowers and weeds. These frank and distinctive prints show streets and landmarks as a kind of interior, an exiled space, a home where the human subject is, for the most part, missing.

Wiebke Leister’s tableau of c-type prints, Ticklish Relations (2005-6), provokes us to consider our complicity in watching young children writhe in the tortuous pleasure of being tickled. “Exploring the gap between expression and emotion”, Liebke’s five colour portraits show writhing naked torsos and ambiguous grimaces of pain or delight. The viewer is immediately drawn into this “collaborative triangle” because of the sensual qualities of toddlers’ flesh and their subjection to the tickler’s physical power. We can’t help wondering: who’s getting the most pleasure from this game?

In Groups and Locations, Melanie Manchot’s arresting large-scale colour shots, Russians face the camera with cool, assessing gazes. At Manchot’s iconic Moscow landmarks the ground is eerily clean-swept, so the sites resemble studio lots and the staring crowd evokes the dazed advancing zombies of horror films. In Aeroflot (2004), citizens are arrayed on a Soviet era tarmac around a plane. A vapour trail seams the sky and a decommissioned rocket looms up from the stark white terminal behind. The estranged quality of this street photography suggests the otherworldliness of modern Russia, whose cultural and social life still seems, to the Westerner, shrouded in Cold War mystique.

“I have a sneaking suspicion that all work is really collaborative but one person really takes the credit…,” says Paul Jeff whose DVD, More Beautiful Than God (2004), exposes his collaborators in a drink-fuelled game of self-conscious strip poker to an urgent orchestral score. Jeff concisely sums up the nature of each photographer’s interrogations in the ACP’s sharp and thought-provoking show.

Given the collaborative nature of the ACP exhibition, I imagine its photographers would concur with fellow British artist Craigie Horsfield’s claim, “All art is, in some sense, conversation.” Horsfield’s show Relation, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, covers 35 years of photography, film and sound work. His oeuvre is broad and impressive—from small, oil-painterly still lives of dried and decaying vegetables, flowers and fish to a nine and a half hour meditative colour video, El Hierro Conversation (2002), featuring mist-veiled, dripping pine forests and an artisan hand-making fresh cheese. Yet each work shares a contemplative, atmospheric quality, a compelling moodiness apparent in content and production technique. Preoccupied with “slow time”, Horsfield develops some of his photographs years after they were taken. David Ebony writes, “Alluding to the nearly imperceptible evolutions in everyday life, slow history and slow time lie beneath the surface of culture and contrast with the high-paced changes dominating the surface…” (Slow Time and the Limits of Modernity: Craigie Horsfield and Fredric Jameson, Lacanian Ink 22).
<img src="http://www.realtime.org.au/wp-content/uploads/art/12/1238_juchau_horsfield_install.jpg" alt="Craigie Horsfield, installation, left image – Rynek Glówny, Kraków, March 1977, 1991,
right image – Susan Smith, Ashbridge Road, East London, September 1969, 1994″>

Craigie Horsfield, installation, left image – Rynek Glówny, Kraków, March 1977, 1991,
right image – Susan Smith, Ashbridge Road, East London, September 1969, 1994

Craigie Horsfield, installation, left image – Rynek Glówny, Kraków, March 1977, 1991,
right image – Susan Smith, Ashbridge Road, East London, September 1969, 1994

Horsfield’s large-scale black and white print, Rynek Glowny, Krakow, was shot in 1977 but not developed till 1991 and shows an old building in the city’s central Grand Square. Its façade is partly obscured with scaffolding and the dark boughs of leafless trees. While the scaffold suggests decay and reconstruction (the square dates from the 13th century), two large portraits on the building conjure up a more human history. These 1930s faces—a dark-haired woman and man—remind me of the ‘found photographs’ from the Holocaust that Christian Boltanski uses in his many installations highlighting the lost, the nameless and the disappeared. Horsfield’s Rynek Glowny suggestively captures all the haunting, layered qualities of those old European towns where reconstructions uncover as much as they repair.

I discover later that the portraits are of Janek Krasicki and Hanka Sawicka, aged 25 and 27 years. They founded the communist League of Young Fighters in 1942 and were subsequently murdered by the Gestapo in Pawiak prison in Warsaw.

In an adjoining room a series of huge gelatin silver prints portraits line the walls. They have a deceptively timeless quality—though calm Isabel Sametier of Barcelona (1996) with her dark, Modigliani eyes looks slightly more contemporary than Bartomeu Mari of Rotterdam (1998) with his 60s, heavy-framed glass-bottle lenses, a slightly startled expression on his half-turned face. It’s this very floating, a-historical quality of human emotion and composure that seems to preoccupy Horsfield.

This quality is also evident in the more obviously contemporary colour series, Broadway-muted stills from a film at Ground Zero, New York in 2001. Shot in dusky light, these close-ups of faces staring, presumably at the scarred remains of the World Trade Center, turn us from the literal traces of the catastrophe to peer instead at its human impact. Horsfield’s use of colour and tone—dense, grainy, muted, framed in darkness—gives his work a stately gravitas. A group of men gaze in different directions, one with his head slightly bowed, another has lowered his camera to stare instead through his glasses. In making the viewer a spectator twice removed, the Broadway series powerfully conveys what the repeated motif of the falling towers cannot: the emotional aftermath, the struggle to comprehend. And yet, the voyeur in us also can’t help pondering, what exactly are they looking at?

As I move through Horsfield’s exhibition I stumble across schoolkids lying on the gallery floor ready to sketch a majestic rhino (Zoo, Oxford, 1990) with its beautifully lit, warty hide and shadowed ribs. “Imagine you’re a scientist and you need to describe the skin, the horn, the ears…”, their teacher exhorts. But there’s so much more than this in Horsfield’s attentive studies of animals and humans, because even here, the rhino, head bent toward the straw covered floor of its enclosure seems somehow doleful, defeated. Perhaps that’s because I know it’s captured, or because, wrinkled and worn, it looks slightly done in. The rhino is poignant, like the man in Estery Krakow (1979), sitting pigeon-toed on a wooden bench, cigarette in one hand, spent butts at his feet, who seems to be taking a puff from a giant inhaler. The smoking asthmatic in the inky night.

One of my favourites in the exhibition is the beautifully rendered, circular composition of a bullfight at Placa de Toros La Monumental, Barcelona (1995). Four toreros surround a bull, their capes outstretched, the braiding glinting dully on their costumes. So soft and imprecise are the lines in this image, so dark the outline of the cornered bull, that it looks like a sketch in charcoal. Shot from above, this work has an alluring flatness and its decorative quality seems to comment on a 300-year-old tradition whose enthusiasts must presumably ignore or abstract the suffering to appreciate the grace and machismo of the display. In Spain animal rights concerns mean the bullfight’s days are numbered. So Horsfield has (perhaps inadvertently) captured another historically dense and layered moment, by depicting a dying ritual with suffering at its heart. And in this image full of movement, as in many others, time seems somehow slowed, and not just for the cornered bull.

1+1=3 Collaboration in Recent British Portraiture, curator Susan Bright, Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, April 20-May 26; Craigie Horsfield, Relation, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Mar 16-June 3.

RealTime issue #79 June-July 2007 pg. 42-

© Mireille Juchau; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2007