Artist: Joan Jonas, Tate Modern, Talk/Presentation with Jason Moran

Joan Jonas is described on the Tate Website as follows:

“Hero to a generation of younger artists, Joan Jonas is a pioneer of performance and video who has pushed the boundaries of art for the last five decades.” (Tate, 2018)

I went along to see her speak as she shared excerpts from recent pieces alongside jazz musician, Jason Moran, who she has worked with since 2005. The event was a mix between a performance and a talk and it was a little unclear which at times. The presentation style was very loose which was fine as both were amusing, charming and fascinating, but it was sadly ruined towards the end by a technical glitch which no one seemed able to recover from. I felt desperately sorry for Jonas having to manage up there in front of everyone while a technician, who I have to say I also felt very sorry for, struggled to find the relevant working clips on a laptop. I guess if it was a lecture rather than a performance the resulting awkwardness might have been less difficult to sit through. (However, one of the things about live performance is that things can go wrong which is where much of the tension arises from.) If Jonas had been a comedian and able to carry us through the gap it might have been less difficult but that’s a very tall order indeed, especially for a woman, amazing as she is, in her 80s. Nevertheless, it was still incredibly interesting and a joy to learn about this artist as well as hearing ideas which echoed and reflected many of the things I’ve been exploring recently in my own work, and while studying Maya Deren.

I will write more about Jonas’ work after I’ve been back to the Tate to see the exhibition currently on display there.

In the meantime a few notes from the talk:

  • Jonas discussed layering and it was exactly the same thinking described in a short clip about Deren by Barabara Hammer mentioned in a previous post – vertical editing
  • I had been thinking about the presence of mirrors in art and its significance to us humans – a technological invention which altered our psyche over centuries as they became more ubiquitous.  Self-awareness and identity are very much connected to these objects (and so much more besides). It was interesting to see Jonas’ mirror work here  
  • Moran played an audio of an artist (I can’t remember who frustratingly) who said artists must write about their work as much as they can – which was great to hear
  • He also demonstrated how he works with the rhythm of language, improvising on his piano to the cadence of a woman’s speech
  • Spaces play a significant part in Jonas’ work – I would so love to have seen some of these performances live in the place they originally took place especially The Shape, The Scent, The Feel of Things (2005)
  • Like Deren, Jonas is interested in mythology, ritual, anthropology, dreams, memory, and the feminine. These are all subjects close to my own heart and I ended my first degree by writing about ritual and communal worship evolving into the theatre we know today
  • Jonas talked about her dislike of the term performance artists (me too!) and that she is, in fact, an artist who works across a variety of mediums. I think I have said more or less the same thing earlier in this blog
  • Jonas creates work which often has live performance layered against, behind and in front of projections

More to come after gallery visit to see the work there in more detail



Artist: Tacita Dean

There is a really interesting article in today’s Guardian about Tacita Dean and I hope to go along to see this work in the next few days.

I had been thinking about filming portraits of people doing nothing after reading Laia Abrill’s comments about how shocking it was to watch people doing nothing as opposed to their more explicit activities. I’m also interested in the process of reusing the film as described below.

“The three were never together, never exchanged a look, yet they occupy the same frame, coexisting on the same bit of celluloid, the 35mm film masked with stencils. Dean shot them on the same strip of film, in different cities and countries, using a technique she developed for Film, her Turbine Hall commission in 2011. Like the painted portraits hanging in the room, she brings her subjects together in a way they never were in life. This is no CGI montage or ghastly holographic illusion. Dean calls this a “blind cohabitation” of the film frame, not only by her subjects, but of different times and spaces. And so it goes on, in the companionable silence for the film’s quarter-hour, the actors on their side of the screen, we on ours, crowding together and leaning in to get a better look. Like the painted miniatures nearby, His Picture in Little is magical and compelling.”

Study Visit: Andreas Gursky, Hayward Gallery, 10th March 2018

In preparation for this show, the OCA, as usual, sent us a list of links to look up beforehand. One of them was a Guardian review by Laura Cummings who suggests Gursky plays, “wonderfully with reality and artifice – though at the expense of human individuality”. I suspected Cummings had missed the point and felt this more strongly afterwards. The morning of the visit I also read another article which discussed how psychologists were at long last realising that culture had an enourmous impact on everything from cognition to memory, attention, perception and even the notion of self, and that people from various parts of the world do not necessarily all operate in the same way. (Geeaert, 2018) Why psychologists are apparently only just getting to grips with this, I am not entirely sure – in fact, I’m certain it been evident for some time. Anthropologists have been saying it for many decades. (It’s why we should always question blanket statements made by imperious, self-satisfied people online who enjoy shaming others for failing to exist within their own narrow framework). In fact I read about such studies in a book released in 2011. Yet still, western logocentric psychologists (not to mention the arm-chair experts) continue to project their Freudian based and somewhat imperialist-flavoured interpretations and moral judgments all over the planet. It seems that Laura Cummings was unable to see beyond our European and very individualistic mentality when viewing Gursky’s work, which almost provides an aliens-eye view of humanity. Alien to us westerners as he so often (although not always) rejects the more typical and historical practice of slicing an image into thirds with an off-centre focal point, framed within a Renaissance-influenced perspective, the view we have come to expect from western art; and also literally an alien view because if someone from very high above the Earth looked down and zoomed in on parts of this planet, then Gursky’s pictures might be exactly what ‘it’ sees.

I was really interested in two images, one of flowers growing in the Netherlands (2016) taken from very high up and another in a different room which was simply of a grey carpet. (1993) The flowers actually look like an old rug from Ikea, complete with missing or damaged thread in places, just like the actual carpet when looked at closely. The fractal patterns which emerge out of our existence and out of our activities are a reminder that we are organisms (quite clever ones, although reading through Twitter one might for forgiven for thinking otherwise) which function in the same way as many others on our planet do. Gursky simultaneously explores the wonder and ingenuity of human activity as well as reducing it, making us look no more or less important than eusocial insects, such as swarming bees, building termites or shepherd ants. This view is difficult for our culture to accept after centuries where Father, Son and Holy Spirit defined who we were – non-animals at the top of creation (except that we weren’t at the top – only a few godlike men were). And more so following the previous century, where a culture of meritocracy promotes the myth that the individual is now king; and a dogged belief that hard work and diligence will lift us out of the group and place us somewhere special.

I very much enjoyed the visit and will be returning to it if possible. There was a lot to take in.–Carpet-/C9EB296D6528C5FE

Artist: Edmund Clark, In Place of Hate, Symposium, Ikon Gallery, 12/2/2018

Huge thanks to fellow OCA student, Allen O’Neil, for letting me know about Ikon’s Gallery symposium surrounding Edmund Clark’s In Place of Hate and related issues. A copy of the programme is available here and the exhibition notes are here.

Edmund Clarke’s In Place of Hate is a result of his time as artist in residence at Grendon Prison in Buckinghamshire. Described in a recent article in The Guardian (January 2018) as remarkable, the prison is a small (238 inmates) therapeutic institution. Art, art-therapy, and psychodrama are integral. Terry Ellis, a serial offender prior to his stay in Grendon, was interviewed for the Guardian article, and despite challenges since leaving is described now as reformed and running his own business as well as workshops with young men about the realities of prison life. Grendon, however, is expensive to run and apparently has a ‘dodgy’ reputation in the prison system, no doubt, amongst other factors as mentioned below, because there is something inherently terrifying about therapy, perhaps made more so the darker the therapeutic need.

The results are remarkable. Rates of recidivism for those who stay longer than 18 months are significantly lower. Grendon inmates self-harm less than other prisoners, and both offenders and staff report higher levels of wellbeing. By every measure, Grendon is a success story. And yet, in the rest of the prison system it has a reputation for being, as Ellis puts it, “full of rapists, paedophiles, nonces”. When he requested a transfer to Grendon, “Everyone thought I was crazy”. (Munro, 2018)

The day at Ikon Gallery was packed and so I will focus here only on the most relevant aspects in terms of my own work and development.

Oresteia, 2017, 74 minutes

This work is a recording of a psychodrama session in which staff and inmates act scenes from the Oresteia and improvisations where perpetrator speaks with their victims. Everyone is masked – this fits with Greek theatre and also protects against identification. Included in the same room are two charts one of which is a Personality Development Pathways schematic map designed by Dr. Rex Haigh (2011) (incidentally, not attributed in the gallery)

The map is a visual representation of how being born under certain conditions gives an individual chances or not through life, and how events can lead to predictable outcomes. It is a shame this chart is not more well-known.

Personality development pathways 2011 by Dr Rex Haigh, UK Medical Director who was a consultant psychiatrist and member of the guideline development group for NICE CG78on Borderline Personality Disorder. This is intended as a diagrammatic representation of theory, policy and thinking about personality disorder in 2011. It is not intended as a statement of fact. (Biskin 2015)

The video of the performance was filmed from three positions – echoing the way we are watched in society by security cameras.

There are areas of the screen which are pixellated and although we are told in a talk by Clark referring to work in another room that the pixelation is about protecting identify of people and spaces, the pixels also signify digital culture and are a magnified representation of the flickering signifier.

Greek theatre is very much linked to the notion of catharsis. This installation provoked a cathartic reaction in me as soon as I walked in the room when a prisoner discussed his feelings of shame with his masked ‘victim’ and is also enables some form of catharsis in the prisoners.

The room is furnished with the same chairs from the prison as are used in therapy sessions at the prison.

This work is powerful but when I thought through the whole day afterwards it was the one I remembered least. I think this is because it is the least aesthetically impactful, requires more critical thought than the other visual work, i.e. requires more energy to engage with, and is therefore perhaps one of the most challenging in the series. (Think of Brecht and his views on cathartis, emotive work vs. challnenging thoughtful angry-making work)


(c)Edmund Clark

Vanishing Point, 2017, Longest video, 18 minutes 53 seconds

This was interesting for me to see as it is video, which I have been working with and also because like the work above it contains pixelated areas therefore highlighting the notion of the flickering signifier. It consists of five videos, POVs of routes through the prison, some of which prisoners will not have seen at all.

1.98m2, 2017

The title is the amount of space to each cell. Surrounding the space is a waist-high wall topped with a lit glass top counter with dried flowers (see images below (c)Edmund Clark). The light enables viewers to see the cracks, frailty, delicate flaws in the flowers which according to Clark were dried inexpertly due to his lack of experience in this area. The flowers are a mix of wild and planted, and Clark’s work alone  i.e. not a collaborative exercise. Helps to further situate how artists work in terms of collaboratio and self.

My Shadow’s Reflection

Images of people were taken with a pinhole camera, perhaps the most collaborative of all the work as Clark worked with prisoners and staff, engaged with their views in the making, their subsequent decisions, and their responses, some of which are included in written accounts, including the title – a quote from a prisoner’s response. There are also black and white images of the prison walls and buildings. And further images of the flowers. All of these are rotated as slides and projected onto the green prison sheets. The use of light is integral to the installation as are viewers’ shadows, a result of how the work is presented – and which works as an analogy for one of the central themes – blurring the lines between so-called good and bad people, questioning social responsibility as I discussed in A4. “…a growing concern for artists working today; where are the boundaries between selves and others, between objects, ideas, places, and around words? Where do “I” start and end, and where do “you” begin? Who is ultimately responsible – is individual responsibility even possible to identify? Boundaries are being questioned and re-evaluated, acknowledged as arbitrary, as science and technology communicate to us, indirectly, new ways of understanding reality” (2018)

Symposium  –  bullet point notes re. some of the most relevant and critical thoughts in relation to my own work

  • A quote – “evidence suggests the role of the image becomes a vessel” Exteriority see Derrida, page 38 Grammatology
  • Psychodrama  – Moreno 1940
  • Inner models of self – processes of reconfiguring these, where do they come from in the first place, see tube map above, (also see Pat Craven’s work – Living with the Dominator)
  • We were not able to photograph the examples of prisoner’s work – this chimed with me re-faces of refugees, the complex issues between ensuring people are seen and protecting them, and when we are hiding them, as discussed before when we add filters to obscure the view of someone on TV in an interview and change their voices, we often turn people (sometimes victims) into monsters. But we must respect and protect vulnerable people – violent prisoner’s embarking on a programme which exposes their deepest and darkest flaws need to be protected to enable it to take place, but of course one is also mindful of their victims who were not afforded the same… (I always hold in mind my experience of photographing a book launch written by a family member of someone (a child) who was violently – horrifically – raped and murdered)
  • Representation of prisons and prisoners – Daily Mail view = simplistic and unhelpful but so is an overly empathetic view, perhaps just as guilty of oversimplifying? David Wilson, chair of the symposium, from Birmingham City University (BCU), former governor, professor of criminology questioned some of the more liberal assumptions – reminding us to look at things critically.  But the current dominant system is not working. (VAlues and reposnes deeply embedded within the structure of our society)
  • What is prison for? Punitive or rehabilitation?
  • As Elizabeth Yardley (BCU) spoke I wondered about the impact of flickering signifiers – blurring of the sign’s boundaries and populism, extreme views, the polarisation of thought.
  • Matthew McLean form Frieze was so good to listen to. He came across as scathing and utterly intolerant of work which favours artistic embellishment over subject especially when the subject is sensitive and/or vulnerable – especially complex. discussed risks of romanticising prison. Gave examples of work which was guilty of this and sung praises of Clark’s ‘remarkable work’ which avoided it but still manages to be visually engaging and at times very beautiful. Mentions Oscar Wilde, Van Gough March of Prisoners, Bruce NalmanHarun Farocki‘ I thought I Saw Convicts 
  • Representation of violence – Oresteia (High Culture) same stories as we see in The Sun/The Daily Mail etc but from parts of society looked down upon, undervalued and held in contempt by upper echelons of society. (See demonisation of poor and related behaviours) . Compare to recent article by Sonia Boyce Sonia Boyce  (2018)

Finally,  someone asked the panel why prisoners are rendered “isolated and silent” and Jinnie Jefferies, Head of Psychodrama at Grendon, eloquently answered that society has no desire (or perhaps ability) to face the darkness. It is too terrifying. But this is what I am most interested in – facing and accepting it, as discussed in several places elsewhere on this blog, but specifically in my slightly too long intro to the blog –  “I am far more interested in exploring the darker aspects of self, especially in contrast to the way in which we curate such positive online personas” (2017) It’s good to remind myself of this very specific aim from time to time.




Artist talk: Mario Klingemann

Last night I went along to the Photographers’ Gallery to see an artist who is working with neural network models to create images: the work Mario Klingemann was discussing is available most comprehensively on his Tumblr account.

The talk was extremely relevant to everything I have been thinking about recently, also to many of the themes I touched on in the A4 Critical Essay (especially in relation to flickering signifiers and digital culture) and some of the collaborative ideas I have for A5.


When I first read about it, I must admit I misunderstood – I thought he was taking data extracted from human neural networks and asking a programme to make images with them. What that might achieve I do not know…Not sure it is even possible. Photographer, Chris Friel, was mixing audio data with images a while ago, somehow, so perhaps I thought Klingemann was doing something along those lines. But I very much doubt that data would lead to actual pictures of faces, no matter how grotesque but maybe they would – maybe I should try it!

In fact, he takes the sort of computer models which learns to recognise objects and faces, trains them and then gets them to produce images with the knowledge they have acquired. His powerful computer can generate in the region of 5000 images a night and then he sifts through them. This type of tech is the sort you can find at Open Source – a community of developers who make their software available to anyone can use or better it.  Notably, when I searched for more information, the first article I noticed from Open Source pointed out that empathy was one of the key concerns for software developers at the moment, along with how these developers can earn a living (same issue everywhere – things in the information economy cost very little to make and are easy to copy and reproduce.) Concern about the erasure of empathy is everywhere too at the moment. This week’s New Scientist mag has a big article in which they refer to ‘techlash’ – backing away from technology and understanding that something needs to be done to address some of its less positive outcomes.

“IT IS a bit too early to start taking bets on 2018’s word of the year, but “techlash” is surely worth a punt. In recent weeks, growing disgruntlement with giant technology companies has hardened into a full-blown backlash. The prevailing mood is that Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google have grown too big for their boots (see “How Google and Facebook hooked us – and how to break the habit“).

The complaints against the big four are many and varied, from enabling the dissemination of fake news to monopolistic behaviour and rampant hawking of user-generated data. These are genuine concerns that need to be addressed. But, as yet, they do not add up to much more than an incoherent howl of frustration.” (Lead article, 2018)

Several things emerged for me in terms of what I have been thinking about throughout this module.


This work is not about the aesthetic quality of someone’s work. Yes, he chooses the images that he likes, which express something of his subjective taste, and I will discuss more this further along. He does, however, discuss the ersatz quality in them. But the aesthetics seem like a side to the main course, which is his process – and the questions of collaboration as Klingemann allows his technology to do its thing.

I have been thinking about aesthetics in art a lot lately. To put it bluntly, aesthetics alone can at times be desperately boring. That’s not to say I don’t see things which are sublime, astonishingly beautiful, awe-inspiring.  I recall reading about a photographer who said photography is boring – and I’m afraid agreed with him. I wish I could recall who it was. He wasn’t saying all photographic projects were boring. But he was saying photography itself can be. I think perhaps one reason (there are others) for this is aesthetics have been completely and utterly taken over by advertisers and mass production. Roy Ascott eloquently sums up how art has changed and is continuing to change, “The emphasis by the artist moves from content to context, from object to process, from representation of the world as a given, to the construction of worlds in emergence, from certainty to contingency, from composition and resolution to complexity and emergence. In short our focus has shifted from the behaviour of forms to forms of behaviour.” (2002:p2) (my italics) Advertisers and production methods combine to make representation a given – or at any rate, representation is incredibly easy to achieve with a click of a few buttons or a swipe of a thumb over a screen. Aura is perhaps achieved now more through context rather than content. Stan Dickenson’s work for BoW was a process and the striking patterns that emerged from it were almost ‘by the by’ – any computer can generate such patterns and print them in high quantity within moments on an IKEA or Habitat picnic set. It was his extraordinarily clever context which contributed to the work being so effective and successful. 

Klingemann’s work and his ambition to create a model which no longer needs his input at all makes us question our relationship with technology. What emerges is important and whether or not we ‘like’ the results matters too – but not in the same way we as it might if we were looking at a highly accomplished or expressive pencil drawing. Just as Bryan Eccleshall’s Digital Rain seems more about quantity, digital distribution and the merging of signifiers from different parts of the digital spectacle; news, social media, history and art – modern and not so modern, copied digitally but originally from different mediums and production methods etc…

The discussion about aesthetics in art has been going for some decades but at a time when it is possible to create an image in moments on our phone and upload it seconds later to a platform drowning in images this conversation seems more important than ever.

Psychopath effect

What does emerge from Klingemann’s models is strange, and in his words ‘creepy’. It’s not for nothing he calls himself Quasimodo on his Instagram feed. Catherine Banks and I chatted about this creepy aspect of some digital entities and images recently. We humans recognise when something isn’t right. A genuine psychopath can trigger nausea in a relatively healthy person (I have experienced this and it’s a very unpleasant feeling). The video of Snapchat combinations I made as an A3 experiment had the same effect. Quite a lot of Klingemann’s work is on the edge of that feeling. He suggests the models ‘aren’t there yet’ – they don’t quite know how to create something real enough to be thought of as beautiful although some of the artifacts they generate may appeal to certain tastes. And so his work is a clear example of a form of behaviour and the results make us feel uncomfortable in the same way as a psychopath might. Klingemann is working without the primary objective of creating something beautiful or even striking to look at – although he does choose images which must pass a certain subjective taste test. (But it is not usual documentary where the application of ‘beauty and artistic taste’ is at times morally and ethically questionable.) Even so, his images might nevertheless be described as an analogy for the times we live in. Afterall, the internet is described as a monster in the latest edition of New Scientist;

““We’re no longer talking about harmless search algorithms. These companies permeate fundamental aspects of our lives,” says Olaf Groth of Hult International Business School in San Francisco. “These companies often don’t really know what they’ve built,” says internet policy adviser Anri van der Spuy at Research ICT Africa in South Africa. “It’s sort of a Frankenstein problem.”

And the monster looks unstoppable” (Heaven, 2018) So although


All the way through the talk I was wondering, is this work Klingemann’s exteriority or the models’? I came away being fairly certain it was his own and an expression which also represents our society at the moment just as Giacometti’s tall thin twisted sculptures represented the one he lived through. So although the work might be described as primarily concerned with process, the balance between content and context is more tricky to ascertain. Advertising is the place where content seems to dominate, where accepted norms in relation to aesthetics are easily recognised. Advertising extends into most people’s minds and communicates ‘art’, ‘pretty photograph’ ‘beautiful’. And this work is far removed from all of that. I also found it helpful to think about analogy and will discuss this in relation to my own plans for A5 elsewhere, no doubt. I’m incredibly glad I went along.


Refs: (paywall)

Ascott, R, 2002. The Grand Convergence: art, technology, consciousness in a planetary perspective, Ecole normale supérieure, Paris (paywall)

OCA Gallery Visit: Thomas Ruff Whitechapel 13th January 2018

Yesterday I went with an OCA group to see Thomas Ruff’s exhibition at the Whitechapel. Beforehand, we were sent some links to study up on his work. One takes us to David Campany who begins his essay with the following:

“Indeed what is particular about Ruff’s work is its potent ability to solicit individual and global responses that cannot be entirely reconciled. It seems to belong to everybody and nobody and as a result, we are neither free to look just as individuals nor to respond ‘collectively’ either. For obvious reasons I will try to leave aside your personal response and concentrate on what we might call the public or collective context.” (Campany, 2008)

I do not know what Campany means by ‘for obvious reasons’, however, I note he wrote this in 2008. In 2016, I felt entirely free to look as an individual and to respond collectively, perhaps especially so due to the political climate we are living through. Perhaps my personal reaction would have been very different in 2008. Campany has concentrated in his essay on the medium of photography and its developments and coded signs, and we are directed by OCA resources to see Ruff’s work as being very much ‘about’ photography’. (I feel uncertain regarding the word ‘about’. Identifying what work is ‘about’ perhaps helps us to pin down meaning, which comforts us, but at the same time also narrows it down – which might prevent us from appreciating the indexical nature of an image or body of work).

On the tube over to the Whitechapel, I read something on Twitter which expressed an idea I had been thinking about for a few years, even before 2016 (and that dreaded referendum).

“In the 90s, having lived in Germany for a few years, I was still unable to understand what had happened in WW2. Ironically, it was a 1/4 century later in Britain that my eyes were opened to what had happened to the Germans in the 1930s. ” (Twitter user, 2018). It may seem really unfair to bring this up (unfair to Ruff and indeed the German people whose leaders, some may argue, are being rather grown up compared to our own at the moment – subjective in the extreme, I know.) Nevertheless, the comment was at the back of my mind as I entered the gallery. The first series’ as you enter are from 1982 and then 2013 and 2017, and I thought little of them other than the later works reminded me of Hamilton’s Lobby which I saw at the Tate retrospective. (Similar colour schemes and aesthetic). Then, very early on in the overall space, you are met by the famous large identity-passport-like, except for their size, images, (some of which I had seen 7 or so years, ago, again at the Tate just as I was beginning to take a real interest in photography). Here, we see a sequence of white-skinned faces looking directly out of the frame, in the middle of which is a larger image of a brown-skinned person looking away. The way these blown up images, so powerfully signed as identifiers (also rather reminiscent of identikits), are arranged immediately signify something about group difference and perhaps about European history. Or at any rate, about the common perception of our history. Strangely, on my tube journey, I had also read about philosophers from Ethiopia and Ghana who had predated Kant and Locke and Hume, but who nevertheless wrote similar and even more enlightened texts than their European future counterparts. I mention this as Ruff’s sequencing signifies commonly held ideas about the history of people and ‘types’. Perhaps he aims to make us question deeply held preconceptions – held consciously to greater or lesser degrees within European culture.

These images are followed by large pictures of the night sky where which we might like to be reminded we are rather small and insignificant; more large pictures that explore ‘seeing’ and the tricks of seeing, i.e. 3D glasses are required for one image, and images of war or destruction where seeing is obviously affected by the digital nature of them (as discussed in Campany’s essay).  Excuse the rushed synopsis here, but I am getting to my point… Interiors are images of Ruff’s friends’ and families’ houses. We are directed by the writing beside them which says, …” the absence of people or of any mess generates a melancholic atmosphere of restraint and even repression.” (Whitechapel, 2017/18) Fellow OCA students and our tutor, Jayne, wondered if this written direction was too heavy-handed. Regardless, obviously, the word interior can or perhaps should be read as literal and metaphoric. At which point one might feel obliged to consider identity again, what is being connoted (consciously or not within the overall body of work, and paradigmatically as the work is presented here) about our perceptions of groups within groups, and of the commonly held assumptions, clichés, stereotypes held in our language/culture.

Upstairs there are more series’ of images that have been made using various photography techniques that make the work seemingly about photography, and the exhibition ends with old images sent to newspapers, Press (2016) which Russ has overlayed with the instructions, stamps and copyright notes from the back of the pictures. He has blown these up to cover whole walls. Aesthetically speaking, these and the ones rendered negatives and called as much (2014) appeal in the most superficial way to my tastes. However, Nachte (1992 – 1996) placed beside andere Portrats (1994-95), for me at any rate, underpin the defining concern of this well-known German photographer who we are repeatedly told comes from the famous German school/movement of photography, because of what they signify within the body of work, within the overall sequence of the show, and together, separated out from the rest of the show in a room of their own alongside Hauser (1987 -91) which, we are told, recalls Bauhass, another famous German school (1919 – 1933).

Nachte is a series of images of Dusseldorf taken at night with similar technology, albeit adapted to a 35 mm camera rather than a bomber, used by surveillance teams, taken “shortly after the end of the First Gulf War (1990-91)” (Whitechapel, 2017/18) where we saw very similar images on TV.  While I looked at these I was reminded that many German cities had indeed also been bombed during WWII and Dusseldorf suffered extensive damage. I was also minded to think about the semiotic significance of the word  ‘nachte’ – how the sound of it to my English ear combined with the words on the gallery wall such as ‘target and threat’ (Whitechapel, 2017/18) recalls Kristalnaght, a night of violence and carnage just before WWII began. The large andere Portrats (1994-95) are similar to the portraits downstairs (one is of the same woman at the start of that sequence) except they have been screen printed and are black and white, making them look rather like old photographs, and consequently one cannot help but be transported back to another time in our history where black and white photos were the norm. Films, history books, textbooks at school are filled with such images of people who died or people who committed atrocities during WWII, and so is our collective consciousness. Perhaps Mariane’s Hirsh’s point is illustrated in the way the following example image is rendered a stock image for sale online. (The link takes you to a stock image of concentration camp victims). “As postmodern subjects is our generation not constructed, collectively, in relation to these ghosts and shadows, are we not shaped by their loss and by our own ambivalence about mourning them?” (1997; 266) Perhaps Campany’s expression of difficulty is related to our history when he states “It seems to belong to everybody and nobody and as a result we are neither free to look just as individuals nor to respond ‘collectively’ either”. I am not sure what he means by ‘obvious reasons’ when he decides to leave his and my personal response aside. In any event, despite what we are told by academics, it is simply not possible to be entirely objective. We are not aliens from out of space having just landed on this planet without history or the epigenetic traces of trauma. A personal response rather than an academic one seems entirely valuable and even crucial, especially within the current political and social climate, with the nightmarish rise of fascism and all that leads to it once again.

If it seems unfair to make these connections and discuss them, one might take comfort in the fact Ruff himself has shown us with unflinching honesty his ‘soul’, his interests, his concerns and asked us to think about them. Although the exploration of the medium of photography in this lifelong body of work is without a doubt critical, what I receive as I stand in front of those large portraits for the second time at the end of the visit, is an immensely strong sense that I am in the company of someone contemplating what it is to be one of a group of people who have had to spend decades coming to terms with their place in the universe, and comparing his history to what is going on elsewhere. The work is concerned with the progression of modernity set against a backdrop of what it is to be human, to be human in a certain group with a deeply troubled but also highly accomplished history; it communicates reflection, self-awareness, self-examination – and of an acknowledgment that we human animals, seemingly forever, no matter how ‘advanced’ we become, wage war, experience groupishness, destruction, as well as desire. Desire for each other at times, but without a doubt the desire to keep advancing, as we have done for the relatively short time we conscious beings who look at each other, and recognise selves and others, tribes or outsiders have existed.


Hirsh, M. 1997 Family Frames: Photography Narrative and Post Memory, Harvard, Boston, p226



Gallery Visit: Zanele Muholi, Autograph APB, Rivington Place 29/08/2017 & Stedelijk 05/09/2017

It was a lesson to see the same body of work (more or less) in two separate places within such a short space of time. The way each gallery lent itself to the images affected it differently. Rivington Place appears less state-sponsored than the Stedelijk Museum (although both receive funding). As is usual in a high-profile gallery, a hushed and reverential atmosphere prevailed in Amsterdam, despite there being a number people in the building at the time. Rivington Place was empty on weekday lunchtime, but felt less staid, less stark, more contemporary; a beautiful, enticing space. For the duration of the exhibition this is Muholi’s gallery, given over to her entirley. The fact it’s on ground level means you walk straight off the street and into a room filled with her extremely dynamic, floor to ceiling photographs. In Amsterdam you must find your way to her, as she is one of a number of artists being celebrated. Neither situation is better or worse than the other. Each approach has something to be said for it. We observe a powerful statement being made when a woman with Muholi’s background, whose mother was a domestic servant in South-Africa, shares a space with other highly revered, European artists; and when we see her face looking out over a park in Amsterdam, which is surrounded by prestigious art institutions. However, the dedicated and immediate space in London made one feel as it we were being invited to exist with, and perhaps even inside, Muholi’s cast of psychological characters. In Amsterdam Muholi’s face is plastered on a high wall outside the museum, and looks down on all the visitors. In London, her large-scale images look directly back at you on the same level. You are intimately surrounded by 12 or 20 foot photographs. You walk in and are faced with an environment that is every inch about her. If you have any experience of South African history, you cannot fail to appreciate the significance.

Zanele Muholi is black, part of the LGTBQI community, and from South Africa. In an informative and beautiful accompanying newspaper produced by Autograph APB, she says, “My practise as a visual activist looks mainly at resistance, existence as well as insistence. Most of the work I have done over the years focuses exclusively on black LGTBQI people making sure we exist in the visual archive. The key question that I take to bed with me is: What is my responsibility as a living being, as a South African citizen reading continually about hate crimes in the mainstream media?” (Muholi, 2017)

Muholi’s images in London are all self portraits, which she makes with the help of her travelling entourage. In Amsterdam we see images of her companions too but I will concentrate on the London exhibition. She dresses up in whatever material and objects are to hand such as bin liners, pegs or wool, although there also are some ready-made objects used for the purpose they were designed, like hats and goggles. She creates improvised ‘costumes’, often consisting of elaborate head dresses, and when you hear she was a hairdresser at the start of her adult life, you can further appreciate the ‘fun’ she is having with these portraits. But it is also a reminder to confront the significance of black hair and how it is a political signifier, rejected and appropriated in various measures by social groups. The images are processed to look extremely contrasty and we are told in the blurb this is deliberate, ‘unashamed’ artistry which enhances the blackness of her skin. In nearly all the images Muholi stares out of the frame, directly at the viewer. I’m not sure the look she has in her images is defiant as such (although we are told it is in the Autograph website). Instead, I wonder if she is merely present, forcefully so perhaps, due to the number and size of images, which in relation to the history of black women in South-Africa (not to mention the rest of the western world) might be read as a defiance. Perhaps it is not her defiance we are seeing since she unapologetically shows us her presence  – although, and this is the point, if  you were born with a concentration of melanin in your skin, which history has stipulated marks you as an ‘other’, being present has proven and continues to be challenging. Is the defiance instead something we project? Because as Munroe Bergdorf recently tried to explain, a structural reality exists (2017) (one which needs to be owned and addressed by society.) In other words, we see defiance if we on some level, no matter how unconscious, regardless of who we are, believe that a black women with this level of presence is strange, alien, unusual. Indeed, any woman with this level of self possession is potentially immensely challenging within the paradigm in which we exist. In relation to race, lawyer, Catherine Craig explains it in a Guardian Opinion column; “… if you grow up in a racist society, through no fault of your own, some of that racism is bound to stick subconsciously. It’s an unconscious conspiracy in which we are all complicit, unless we fight it.” (2017) For many white people in society, this is an uncomfortable idea to take on board. Therefore the very powerful presence so evident in Muholi’s images are read as defiant only because the society in which they are made makes them so. Take away the imaginary, and what you have is a woman dressed up in a series of photographs just being.

What makes the work so especially profound is that many black women, have been and continue to be, in South Africa and around the world, forced into a paradigm where there is only a type of absence (i.e.not a man) on offer as a space within which to ‘be’ . And this is the same for people whose sexuality veers away from what society continues to insist, despite social advances, is the ‘norm’. Even recently on so-called mainstream TV, in a supposed liberal country, someone was invited to discuss a ‘cure’. However, it is harder for me to talk about the LGTBQI aspect, simply due to experience. I grew up in South-Africa in the 70s, and like Areilla Azoulay explains in The Civil Contract of Photography, I ‘belonged’ to the group of dominators through birth, and ‘enjoy[e]d its relative privileges and against my will [am taking part] and took part in dominating and oppressing” people who were not born to that group. (2014, p37) Hence, Muholi’s images are painful to view even though, at the risk of sounding like I’m saying, “I’m not like that!”, (I am part of this society and well aware of moments when unconscious bias surfaces) I am and have always tried to be more than aware. I was fortunate enough to be born to parents who questioned the South African regime’s worldview, unlike a neighbour’s child who had been brought up to believe the nationalist, Kerk-led reasoning for shocking injustices and violence. My father, a white Jewish comedian, used his act throughout the 70s and early 80s to criticise the National Party in South Africa, although in everyday life he shied away from anything deemed less than liberal. A friend and colleague of my mothers, Roy Christie, editor of a Jo’burg based newspaper wrote of him, “…Alan Field[‘s…] acerbic comments were so blunt and divisive […] I was amazed he was never locked up.” (Kindle 40%, 2017) He was white – is a big part of the reason. I live with the guilt and always have done. Consequently, in both Amsterdam and London I felt deeply affected by Muholi’s images, because I saw how subservient black men and women were forced to be when I was there. To see Muholi’s beautiful images, a testament to her existence, her presence, so lacking in excuses is such a powerful contrast to those memories, and takes me to a place that is difficult to describe using words. It feels extremely relevant nowadays to add a brief description of what I recall about returning to the UK in 1986. I naively thought we were leaving racism and bigotry behind. But some of the things people said to me when I was here during those early years were extraordinary. Agreement and praise for the South-African government from a white London taxi driver. Anti-Semitism over the years from people who didn’t know of my Jewish grandparents. Open homophobia normalised and accepted. And even relatively recently, bare-faced racism from a local osteopath who told me as he treated my pain, I shouldn’t send my children to a highly regarded secondary school since it was a bit ‘dark’ down there.  (There was no reason for him to say this. It’s a girls school and we’d established my children are all boys – he just wanted to express his racist views about the school.) Racism like that is easy to see and to condemn. It is the stuff that until recently was hidden which is harder to address. And most difficult is the unconscious racism described by Craig in her column because we white people find it so uncomfortable to own up to.

I would tell anyone and everyone to go and see Muholi’s work. It is extraordinary and profound. She is quoted in the accompanying newspaper, “I’m recalling my blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other. Just like our ancestors, we live as black people 365 days a year, and we should speak without fear.” (2017)


Ref: (all accessed 13/09/2017)

Azoulay, A. (2014). The civil contract of photography. 1st ed. New York: Zone Books, p.37.

Christie, R. (2012). The Mocking of Apart-Hate ‘Loving and Laughing in the Shadow of Injustice’. Amazon Services, London, p.40%.(Kindle Edition)