Workwear between functionality and simbolic value / UNIFORM into the work / Out of the work

Workwear between functionality and simbolic value / UNIFORM into the work / Out of the work


Until 03.05.2020

Curated by Urs Stahel

by Alice Zucca

I wore a uniform for 8 years of my life, when I attended school at an institute of Dominican nuns. I was 4 years old when I entered and I left when I was 11. In that context it was all a matter of uniforms, from the various ones of the religious environment to the one that was intended for us students. And for the students there wasn’t just the classic uniform that was used to identify us, but more different ones of different colors, at times aimed to indicate specific varieties of possible behaviors – positive and negative – to identify us not only in our social framework among other students but even as a type of person. I haven’t had to wait a long time to understand that uniforms are a matter of identity. It is certainly peculiar in this context to notice that in Italian, to indicate the uniform, there are two words “uniforme” (from the Latin uniformis meaning to have one form) and “divisa” (from the Latin dividere, to divide, to separate). The first highlights the unifying aspect, the second a dividing element: terms that reveal inclusion and exclusion as two connected actions, and indeed, in this sense, they are.

Marianne Mueller
Untitled, from the series “M-Portraits” 1998
C-print, 45 × 30 cm
Collezione MAST / MAST Collection

The concept of identity concerns, on one hand, the way in which the individual considers himself as a member of certain groups and, on the other hand, the way in which the codes of those groups allow each individual to think, move, place oneself and relate to oneself in relation to others, to the group itself to which they belong and to other groups, intended, perceived and classified as external. The process of the formation of the identity can therefore certainly be distinguished in these two components of identification, recognition and exclusion.

Untitled, from the series “Dalliendorf”
© Albrecht Tübke
Series “Miners”
© Song Chao | Courtesy of Photography of

From homogenization to individual identity, uniforms communicate information and levels of belonging, of importance and credibility, they orchestrate social relations becoming over time a reference for fashion and mass production in the clothing industry. The uniform speaks to the others, the other and the individual self and has such an intrinsic quantity of encoded information that makes it able to develop an identity. I remember myself, being eleven years old, resting in the courtyard of that school, waiting for Christ to walk on the water of the fountain of the institute, while my shadow and my gaze, among the buildings, climbed up into the sky. But, as to Aleksandr Blok in Majakovsky’s A Cloud in Trousers, Christ decided not to appear to me. And from there, I am what I am now.

Roland Fischer
#1 from the series “Nuns and Monks” 1986
#2 from the series “Nuns and Monks” 1984
C-print, 170 × 120 cm
Courtesy of the artist

Olivier Silva is a young French boy who is followed by Rineke Dijkstra when he decides to enlist in the Foreign Legion and then during his 36-month training. The result is the impressive photographs, on display in the new exhibition at MAST, which show us in a brutal way how the time spent in the army, wearing the uniform, has changed the character of the young man.

#1 Rineke Dijkstra
Olivier, Quartier Vienot, Marseille, France, July 21, 2000 2000
C-print, 126,5 × 108,5 cm
Courtesy of the artist

#2 Rineke Dijkstra
Olivier, Camp Rafalli, Calvi, Corsica, June 18, 2001 2001
C-print, 126,5 × 108,5 cm
Courtesy of the artist

The event is actually the union of two exhibitions, both investigating the aspects of being and appearing through “the uniform”, whether it is an official one or otherwise, UNIFORM INTO THE WORK / OUT OF THE WORK includes WORKWEAR IN THE IMAGES OF 44 PHOTOGRAPHERS an artistic itinerary that presents 44 shots by famous protagonists of the history of photography and a monograph of WALEAD BESHTY “INDUSTRIAL PORTRAITS”, which is a collection of hundreds of portraits of professionals in the Art industry, who he met during his career and for whom clothing is a silent code, an anti-uniform, but also, professionally, a personal distinctive trait.

Collector, Los Angeles, California, October 8, 2013
courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles © Walead Beshty


The group exhibition “Workwear in the images of 44 photographers” staged in the PhotoGallery brings together photographs by 44 artists, including Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Walker Evans, Arno Fischer, Irving Penn, Herb Ritts, August Sander and contemporary photographers like Paola Agosti, Sonja Braas, Song Chao, Clegg & Guttmann, Hans Danuser, Barbara Davatz, Roland Fischer, André Gelpke, Helga Paris, Tobias Kaspar, Herlinde Koelbl, Paolo Pellegrin, Timm Rautert, Oliver Sieber, Sebastião Salgado, images from albums of unknown collectors and eight videos by Marianne Mueller. Today we still distinguish between “blue collar” and “white collar” workers, two expressions that have become established in many languages of industrialised society. Inspired by workwear, a distinction is made between different forms and professional and social categories: on one hand the blue tunic or coverall of factory workers, on the other the white collar as a symbol of the suit jacket, white shirt and tie of those who perform administrative and managerial functions.

Forlì, 1978
Young iron worker © Paola Agosti

The exhibition is an excursion through uniforms, calling for a reflection on being and appearing: the work tunics photographed by Graciela Iturbide, the aprons worn in the “small trades” – as Irving Penn calls them – of the fishmonger and the butcher, the coveralls of the coal dock workers in the port of Havana portrayed by Walker Evans, the clothes of the farmers in Albrecht Tübke‘s colour shots, the workers’ coveralls in Fiat’s assembly plants in Turin in the photographs of Paola Agosti.

Fishmonger, London
Irving Penn | Fishmonger, London, 1950 | © Condé Nast

In Barbara Davatz‘s pictures, the work clothes of the employees of a small factory in Switzerland are compared with the uniforms of the apprentices of the largest food retailer “Migros” photographed by Marianne Mueller, while the white collars photographed by Florian Van Roekel are a counterpoint to the black coveralls of the miners in the photos of the Chinese Song Chao and the workers of a clothing factory photographed by Helga Paris. Workwear also includes protective clothing, which is the central point of the images of the Mexican Manuel Álvarez BravoHitoshi Tsukiji who focuses on Toshiba’s safety gloves, and Sonja BraasHans Danuser and Doug Menuez who concentrate on coveralls.

The Fire Workers, Mexico 1935
© Archivo Manuel Álvarez Bravo, S.C

Clothing doesn’t just reflect the different occupations, nor does it exclusively obey the function of the work, but it also indicates a distinction of class and status as shown in the great group portrait of the multinational Clegg & Guttmann‘s company executives, where the light illuminates only the faces, the hands and the dazzling triangles formed by the lapels, white shirts and ties. In the nine portraits by August Sander, considered one of the most famous portrait photographers of the 20th century, the symbiosis between person, profession and social role emerges more than the essence of the individuals themselves. In fact, the photographer’s focus is on the social function rather than the aesthetics of photography, with the intention of building a faithful image of the era.

Chapter Three, V
from the series “How Terry likes his Coffee”, 2010
© Florian Van Roekel

The exhibition takes us from work clothes to uniforms with the seven imposing portraits of the soldier “Olivier” by Rineke Dijkstra, the civilian uniforms from the series by Timm Rautert, the clothes of the monk and the nun photographed by Roland Fischer, and the portraits of Angela Merkel in the nine photographs by Herlinde Koelbl, the famous German artist who dedicated a multi-year project called “Traces of Power” to year-by-year portray some of Germany’s leading political leaders, starting in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell.

Kuwait after the end of the Gulf War – The oil fields continue to burn, causing a massive ecological disaster and large loss of money. Oil-well fire fighters from around the globe at work to put out the burning oil wells. Worker of the Safety Boss Company during a rest, 1991
© Salgado/AmazonasImages/Contrasto

Sebastião Salgado immortalises the moment of rest of an employee of the Safety Boss Company in Kuwait who was engaged in the operations of extinguishing oil wells set on fire by Iraqis in 1991 during the Gulf War.
The works of Olivier SieberAndré GelpkeAndri PolPaolo PellegrinHerb Ritts and Weronika Gęsicka describe the progressive transformation of workwear and uniforms into style and fashion together with Barbara Davatz‘s “Beauty lies within” series, which depicts some of H&M’s shop assistants outside the workplace.

Tobias Kaspar‘s photographs of embroideries taken from the archives of a Swiss textile manufacturer close the exhibition.
On large monitors eight security staff in service uniforms, the protagonists of eight videos by Marianne Mueller, “watch” the visitors.


The monographic exhibition of the American photographer WALEAD BESHTY “INDUSTRIAL PORTRAITS” staged in the Gallery/Foyer brings together 364 portraits divided into seven groups of 52 photographs each: artists, collectors, curators, gallery owners, technicians, other professionals, directors and operators of museums. The photographs portray people the artist came into contact with in his working environment, while making his art or preparing exhibitions. Over the past 12 years Walead Beshty has photographed around 1,400 people with a small camera and 36 mm analogue film, mostly in black and white. From all the pictures taken the photographer selected one portrait for each subject, and 364 were selected for the exhibition at MAST.

Nonprofit Founder/Artist, Oak Park, Illinois, September 19, 2008
courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles
© Walead Beshty

Inspired by the early 20th century work of portrait artist August Sander, Walead Beshsty’s goal is not to express the appearance, character or nature of the person being photographed – objectives that studio portraiture has pursued since the dawn of photography – but rather to represent people in their working environment (which is also his own), their function and the professional role they play in the art world and market. Hence the title of his work “Industrial Portraits”. “On the one hand in this title we can see the reflection of a technique that is in some ways standardised, on the other hand we can say that the portraits in the exhibition and the series as a whole (1400-1500 elements that continue to increase) are in turn a sort of ‘portrait’ of a specific industrial reality, i.e. the art industry as a whole. In this sense, the ‘Industrial Portraits’ make visible and shine a spotlight on the actors who move in this sector, which tends to be free of hierarchical structures”, explains the exhibition’s curator Urs Stahel.

Gallery President, Los Angeles, California, December 7, 2010
courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles © Walead Beshty

Beshty’s 364 portraits highlight the protagonists’ resistance to the uniformity of professional clothing. They don’t want to look like the others, standardised, mass produced. However, there is a risk that this negative definition will once again prove to be a uniform and standardised attitude for all the actors operating in that environment. Despite the effort made by each individual portrayed to show a unique, personal and original presence and image, the protagonists seem to remain dependent on the context, prisoners of their individualistic attitude.

Digital Print Technician, Beijing, China, September 24, 2011
courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles
© Walead Beshty

Anthropic landscapes of urban environments / Sohei Nishino

Anthropic landscapes of urban environments / Sohei Nishino

by Alice Zucca

“Cities amplify themselves, repeatedly. They emerge and disappear while they continue to integrate themselves”. It’s this consideration that motivated Japanese photographer Sohei Nishino to start his journeys from place to place and create his impressive panoramic series, made of thousands of photographs combined, half way between a map and a diorama. Sohei’s experience is not just a mere transposition of topography into collage, Nishino exacerbates the concept of topographic mapping, extending it to different aspects of the existent, to the experience of men in space and in time, integrating his personal point of view. 

Sohei Nishino, Shangai, 2004

In making his urban panoramas he doesn’t differ much from the modus operandi of ancient cartography – Sohei himself admits being influenced by the observations made at the beginning of the 19th century by Japanese cartographer Inō Tadataka and considers them the frame of reference for the beginning of his artistic research. The rigorous precision of satellite photography was not available to ancient cartographers. Therefore the distorted perception of spaces, derived from an exploration of the territory where the perspective of the observer was inevitably limited at ground level, led to an aleatory reconstruction during the mapping process. The final representation wasn’t truthful to the real proportions of the space analyzed but gave more importance to what was useful for the exploitation of natural resources or for commercial exchanges, more in general, to what served men for their understanding and experiencing of the world around them, consequently enhancing social activity.

Sohei Nishino, Rio de Janeiro, 2011

In the work of Sohei Nishino the planimetric view comes from his interpretation and aims to give an overall view of different levels (geographic, social, and emotional), of what’s visible and not visible that shape, model and animate our cities. The artist elaborates his concepts adding up details constituting a transgression from the exact planimetric rules which need to be scrupulously followed in order to analyze the spaces realistically and transpose them into the language of cartography: it is a conscious disobedience which overturns the functional role of the map.

Sohei Nishino, The Po, 2017 Courtesy MAST Foundation, Bologna

While working on his recent piece The Po”, Sohei claims to have found in the element of water the driving force of the world, something inextricably connected to the human existence. Nishino “flies” over the longest river in Italy, the Po, which being 650 km long, runs through 4 regions of northern Italy, providing water to those lands which helped the industrial fabric of the country to thrive. Sohei’s artistic research is not limited to the mere transposition of geography in the form of collage, it’s much more than that. He started his journey on the mount Monviso, at the border between France and Italy, and travelled for 45 days, from Turin he followed the river towards the Adriatic sea. During his itinerary he was able to experience the cultural and political environment of these places, meeting the locals who live in the area, fishermen, children, woodsmen, mixing with them and creating a portrait of the human presence near the bed of the river in an image which is able to picture the land, time and memories. A combination of 30 thousand photographs reproduces the essence of the river, a result Nishino was able to achieve after a meticulous and very long process.

Sohei Nishino, The Po, 2017 Courtesy MAST Foundation, Bologna

He works alone, in a sort of solitary ritual he develops the films in a darkroom, hundreds and hundreds of rolls which he then places onto contact sheets and subsequently cuts to shape, one by one. It’s an infinite and repetitive action which makes him recall his personal experience through the memory of the places he visited, their history, society, buildings, and the people he met who resurface united in their own uniqueness in the general view of the whole picture. The photographic process for Nishino is the unit of measurement between himself and the world – in the same manner a map fulfills its  purpose – and his practice of reconstruction of reality and memory means that every physical movement – both during the production and the elaboration of the project – is strictly connected to the micro and macro perspectives in the depiction of the existent. The different perceptive qualities of the space in our environment don’t alter the space itself, but they intrude our way of experiencing it, making us feel it, from time to time, as a familiar or an alien place. 

Sohei Nishino, San Francisco, 2016

It seems clear that the geographic transposition, which is the product of the emotive reconstruction of the places analyzed, in the end is realistic in its essence, even with its surreal quality that enables us to have a broader view of the spaces during their transformations, enhancing the connections between the human activity and its surroundings, relations that inevitably get lost in the turmoil of the different points of view which are the cause of individual and deceptive perceptions. We could take as an example the points of reference of a child, forced to experience reality from below, determining a peculiar viewpoint that is incompatible with the angle of view of an adult who observes the same reality from above. This is a very interesting aspect if we consider that our perception is therefore always fundamentally illusory and that photography in itself, as a tool, questions our knowledge of reality.

Sohei Nishino, NYC

Misleading perspectives then, where everything is hiding behind something else, in a stratification of visible and invisible levels of the urban landscape and of the assumptions of the people populating it. The map of a city which exists but it’s invisible, where the speculative imagination has to alleviate the lack of descriptive intents of the conventional means of representation of reality. The I-Land and Yama series well represent this shift of reality to the mnemonic imaginative. 

Sohei Nishino, YAMA

Working on Yama, Sohei climbs a certain mountain for a period of time, studying it and photographing fixed points documenting the change of vegetation over time. The result is the collage of an ideal mountain which exists but at the same time doesn’t exist in reality. Nishino with his shots captures its transformation and eventually its perception during the different time periods, it is always the same mountain but it’s depicted in its life cycle.

Sohei Nishino, YAMA

In I-Land, an evolution of Nishino’s diorama maps, the Japanese artist recreates an ideal city from scratch, using photographic fragments from various urban spaces, it is, in fact, a reconstruction of a particular city of personal memory, obtained through the interaction and the relationship between memory and reality, a series of past experiences that recall sensations which come from experiencing certain places that are still alive in our thoughts and in our memories.

Sohei Nishino, I-LAND

Furthermore every imaginary place on one hand echoes and sublimates our perception of everyday life, on the other hand highlights and keeps track of the multifaceted and varied reality that we pretend to understand and rule but incontrovertibly transcends our comprehension, leaving us often stunned and disoriented. Sohei’s maps, like every map, document information about space, but he travels mainly “through time” in search for an unknown past or a possible future transfigured into somebody else’s present. Moreover every thing that exists intersects the imaginative, influencing the intertwined relationship between reality and subjective perceptions, always misleading and intrinsically unreliable. 

Alice Zucca

Martine Gutierrez: Fashion indigeneity.

Martine Gutierrez: Fashion indigeneity.

Gender sensitive, Latino, Queer, Martine Gutierrez’s work is all of this. Born in 1989 in Berkeley, California and raised in Vermont, she is of Guatemalan origin, those same origins that characterize and influence a large part of her work. After studying at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Gutierrez begins to examine through the use of various media the relationship between being indigenous and her own image, and she does it through the tracks of gender and ethnicity. As she herself said in an interview,“being black and transsexual is very cool today”; Aware ofthis aspect, Gutierrez takes advantage of it to extend her controversy against the prevaricator, that western world that superficially misappropriates the expressions of Latin culture, almost as if they were an exotic fashion.

Martine Gutierrez, Masking, Plantain Mask, p52 from Indigenous Woman, 2018. © Martine Gutierrez; Courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York.

To carry out this type of criticism, the artist uses her own personal mythology, appropriating the language and means of the fashion system. In autum 2018 Gutierrez presented atthe Ryan Lee Gallery Indigenous Women, a project which had kept her busy for four years. The work is presented as a glossy magazine entirely conceived and created by her, for this endeavour the artist has taken on the role of editor, photographer, stylist, model and director, carefully studying the language of advertising. The world of fashion and pop culture have always had a certain charm on Gutierrez, and in fact for Indigenous Women she makes extensive use of the aesthetics of fashion magazines to communicate her artistic research. The cover is a not so subtle tribute to AndyWarhol’s Interview Magazine, and in the 146 pages various photoshoots are featured in which the artist’s image is always protagonist together with her “dolls”, always displayed and positioned carefully in the shots.

Martine Gutierrez, Demons, Queer Rage, Growing Up Bites, p64 from Indigenous Woman, 2018. © Martine Gutierrez; Courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York.

The criticism of the western “white” world is eloquent in photographs such as White wash Ad, where at the center of the composition there is a white bar of soap and on its packaging the inscription saying: “100% purebleach… because sometimes white is right”, or in Queer Rage, P.S. Your parents are nuts in which a Barbie and a rag doll, typical of Latino cultures, appear as if they are in a comparison. In the photographs dedicated to beauty face masks, another Western beauty obsession, Gutierrez pays tribute to Irving Penn and Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s paintings, covering the features of the faces with plants and food elements.

Martine Gutierrez, Demons, Yemaya ‘Goddess of the Living Ocean,’ p94 from Indigenous Woman, 2018. © Martine Gutierrez; Courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York.

In the artist’s work there is also a reference to the Latina muse par excellence, Frida Kahlo, who immediately comes to mind by looking at the photographic self-portraits. Furthermore in a series of Indigenous Women, Demons, Gutierrez personifies several pre-colonial Aztec deities, such as Tlazolteotl (goddess of lust), Xochiquetzal(goddess of beauty), Chin (divinity associated with homosexuality), whose iconographies are well suited to communicate the opposing concepts of duality and gender fluidity; that same fluidity that is emanated by the photograpic advertisement for the perfumeDel’Estrogen, which recalls Greed by Francesco Vezzoliand, if we want to go back even further, Duchamp’s Belle Haleine. Gutierrez took part in the Venice Biennale 2019, exhibiting in the Central Pavilion and in the Giardini with her work Body en thrall, a series of photos mainly in black and white taken from Indigenous Women, in which the male element is complementary and placed in the shadow enhancing the image of the artist. Martine Gutierrez currently lives and works in Brooklyn and is represented by Ryan Lee Gallery in NewYork.

Dolores Pulella



The research of the London based sculptor and photographer Jason Shulman reflects around the categories of space and time by exploiting the mechanisms of vision, obtained through expedients of distortion, superposition or cancellation of perception.

Jason Shulman, The Great Beauty (2013)

Through simple optical procedures or the manipulation of the function of the media that he uses, Shulman’s work focuses on the reception of reality mediated by devices, as is the case in his cycle of works Photographs of Films, a collection of long exposure digital photographs that portrays the integral projection of some masterpieces of cinematography. From the reproduction of films such as A fistful of dollars (1964, directed by Sergio Leone), TheGreat Beauty (2013, directed by Paolo Sorrentino), Suspiria (1977, directed by Dario Argento), The Gospel according to Matthew(1964, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini), or La Dolce Vita (1960, directed by Federico Fellini), the artist captures shots that are able to give back the feeling of the duration and the dynamic sense of the film through extending the shutter speed and through the visual effect of motion blur, a particular blurring obtained by applying specific filters. The artist had already experimented with this technique, characterized by the impersonality of the execution, in 2014 for the winter Olympics in Sochi.

Jason Shulman, Rear Window (1954)

Shulman borrows the underlying assumption of his language from cinema, reproposing the idea of temporal compression of the long sequence shots: as in a cinematographic long take, real time overlaps with the narrative of the film, in Schulman’s work the synchronic flow of the projection of the film overlaps first of all with the timeframe of the plot, with the execution through the photographic medium and finally with the instant vision captured by the viewer’s eye, which is the point of arrival in a pyramid of temporal rays arising from the image matrix of the film. But the temporal level is not the only layer to be affected by Shulman’s actions: from the medium of film to its reproduction on a device, from the lens of the camera up to its transposition on canvas, the artistic result is developed as a hybrid work that also embodies a transmedia quality.

Jason Shulman, Inferno (1980)

Some scenographic and photographic choices also significantly affect the final aesthetics of each work: Salò or the 120 days of Sodom is for example a film mainly characterized by scenes shot indoors, as suggested by the architectural setting of the final work. For A fistful of dollars or The Great Beauty favor instead a greater chromatic specificity and focus less on architectural incisiveness, probably influenced by the prevalence of ocher in the colour tone of the large desert areas of the west or the green of the Roman landscapes.

Jason Shulman, Mean Streets (1973)

This concept ultimately requires an overall complete fruition from the viewer, which has a structural attitude or a gestalt approach – as Shulman himself likes to define it. It is the mechanism of interactions that stimulates a mnemonic and synthetic vision of the artist’s work, so the viewer is forced from time to time to project his memory on the mechanical memory of the work itself. In this sense, Shulman’s intention is to focus his attention more on how than on why, introducing a reflection on the mechanisms of perception and the consequent repercussions they have on experience and memory.

Jimmy DeSana and the Sex Appeal of the Inorganic

Jimmy DeSana and the Sex Appeal of the Inorganic

The bodies in Jimmy DeSana’s photographs are posed with objects. These objects are not simply props for human eroticism: rather, it seems as if the object is using the body for its own satisfaction, as if the bodies are not there for the sake of our enjoyment as viewers but rather for the things that are the agents of their poses.

Jimmy DeSana, Extension Cord, 1979

Sometimes the poses suggest the arched body of the hysteric in the photographs that were taken at the hospital of La Salpêtrière in Paris towards the end of the 19th century. What is uncertain and perhaps unknowable is the extent to which the supposed hysterics who were the subjects of these photographs staged their attacks for an audience, a master, or the camera. Who exactly is manipulating whom? DeSana’s photographs don’t quite equate to pornography or glamour shoots, nor to Warhol’s passive-aggressive manipulation of his subjects. It feels more as if the photographer has been invited in to commemorate some phantasy of the one who is posing or is working with a friend to do something a bit bad together. Rather than publicity or glamour, there is a sense of collusion in the privacy of the home or the apartment, with the effect that an imagined domestic ideal is disrupted.

Jimmy DeSana Gauze, 1979

In the classic Freudian account, the fetish is supposed to put a stop to the anxiety of castration, the eye halts on something adjacent to the lack, like hair or a shoe. This is to inscribe fetishism within a gender binary on the basis of having or not having. But what of a fetishism that doesn’t fit this model? A fetishism not predicated on lack but on the production of enjoyment in sameness? The objects in DeSana’s photographs are not occlusions of lack, not metaphorical but rather metonymic, together with bodies one thing beside another, one thing touching another. Caught, by the photograph, ​in flagrante​.

Jimmy DeSana Lipstick, 1985

DeSana’s photographs have tended to be seen in relation to the American archive of low grade 70s pornography, suburban self-portrayals, punk imagery and so on. But we could also place his work in the context of European surrealism, the tableau drawings of Pierre Klossowski, and above all the photographic scenes of Hans Bellmer’s doll. A moment involving some kind of perverse pleasure is frozen. What is the significance of this ‘freeze’? It is, surely, the moment of fascination when time becomes timeless. In traditional art the transformation of the temporal into the timeless is achieved through form. This idea is sometimes applied to sanctify the pornographic as art. However, this does not seem to be DeSana’s way. Rather, what we see is a frozen moment in a performance shared between bodies, clothes, prosthetics and objects.

Jimmy DeSana Purse, 1979

What justifies halting that moment rather than any other? It is, surely, fascination. It is the viewer who is bewitched and brought to a standstill ​by ​what is given to be seen. We realise that in such moments it is not so much information or knowledge that we want of the image, but that moment of fascination that interrupts the flow of the performance and rivets us. Think of the body of the sexually ambivalent young male florist in Rachilde’s novel ​Monsieur Venus (1884) that is initially draped with artificial flowers that he has made so skilfully. The eroticism is displaced to the inorganic object that mimics the organic. So when Raoule de Venerande touches the ‘golden floss’ of the ‘real’ hair on Jacques’ chest, it excites her just as if it were artificial.

installation view at Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, London

Some of DeSana’s photographs show scenarios with connotations of masochism. For Mario Perniola, writing on the novels of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch in his book ​The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic (2000, trans. 2004), ‘What masochism and neutral sexuality have in common is the will to give oneself absolutely as a thing that feels, the irresistible drive to establish a relation in which it is always possible to arouse and maintain sexual excitement.’ (p. 41) ‘Organic’ sex comes to an end, whereas ‘inorganic’ sex goes on forever. This is why DeSana’s photographs are not strictly speaking pornographic: they are not means to a masturbatory end. Their ‘timelessness’ is the forever of inorganic sex. This is the basis of the relation of bodies to things in the photographs. Perniola goes on: ‘In the look, in fact, the experience of clothing as body is prolonged, extended and radicalized in that of the body as clothing.’ (p. 46) Rather than the body coming to life in sex, it is sentient clothing that feels; rather than the things attached being extensions of the body, it is the body that is their extension, and that does their bidding — further, the body becomes thing in its desire to transcend the momentary in the very moment that is the photograph.

Michael Newman

Jimmy DeSana and the Sex Appeal of the Inorganic will be on view at Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, London from 31 October 2019 until 1 February 2020

Paris seen by Eugene Atget and the pioneers of Street Photography

Paris seen by Eugene Atget and the pioneers of Street Photography

H. Cartier-Bresson

The period of the affirmation of photography coincides with that in which the French capital was the center of world artistic culture, that is the 1800s and the first half of the 1900s. During this time photographers focus at first on commissioned portraits, very popular and a reliable source of income, then they opened themselves to broader interpretations and expressiveness, looking for other subjects and starting to draw attention to the urban space and, in particular, that of Paris, a city that welcomed photographers from all over the world. The true pioneer of what we now call Street Photography, however, was a Frenchman, Eugene Atget, operating between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, he was rediscovered during the 1920s by the Surrealists, when he was at the end of his life and when American photographer Berenice Abbott was so influenced by his works that she became a postmortem spokeswoman for Atget’s aesthetics.

Eugene Atget, Bon Marche, Paris, 1927

He sets his camera on the Parisian urban scene, on architecture and monuments, deserted or populated streets, shop windows, workers, parks, rides, and everything the city offers to his insatiable eye; considering the time in which he worked, his shots really constituted an exception and a novelty that wasn’t received positively among contemporaries, but only a few decades later was highly regarded by avant-garde artists and seen as an inexhaustible source of inspiration Therefore it doesn’t seem unlikely that Atget’s photography could have influenced also Brassaï, who in 1933 published a collection of photographs titled “Paris de nuit”, in which the subjects are the same as Atget’s, but taken at night; many shots portray scenes of Parisian cafés teeming with artists and prostitutes, others depict silhouettes of lovers as ghosts that come to linger in the misty streets of the ville lumière.

Brassaï, Une Fille, Rue Quincampoix, Paris

Brassaï, 1931-32

Another protagonist of Street Photography, who dedicated his whole life to capturing the “fleeting moment”, was the French H. Cartier-Bresson; his stage was the street life, which made him one of the most celebrated photographers in the world. He also immortalized the Parisian life in all its facets, giving impetus and inspiration to the work of many colleagues that revolved around artistic circles between the 1930s and 1940s.

H. Cartier – Bresson Le Pont Neuf Paris

If we want to evoke the scenario that inspired the work of these great artists in a poetic summary of images and words, we can quote what Giorgio de Chirico wrote on his return to Paris in 1924: “So this is Paris. Every wall is covered with advertisements is a metaphysical surprise; and the giant cherub of the Cadum soap, and the red foal of chocolate Poulain arise with the disturbing solemnity of gods of ancient myths. At night the mystery does not die. The shops close their doors but the shop windows, like theaters during gala evenings, remain illuminated. Walking late at night in the Boulevards you see the romanticism of modern life slip by… “.

Dolores Pulella

Francesca Woodman / Fragments in Italy

Francesca Woodman Fragments in Italy

by Elena Lago

«In 1865, young Lewis Payne tried to assassinate Secretary of State W. H. SewardAlexander Gardner photographed him in his cell, where he was waiting to be hanged. The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. […] I shudder over a catastrophe which has already occurred». With these words, in 1979, Roland Barthes illustrates how a photograph contains in itself the essence of a compressed time: the photographed subjects affirm to have been and at the same time not to be anymore.

Francesca Woodman, On being an Angel, 1977

This complexity that embodies life and at the same time death is constant in Francesca Woodman’s photographs: a long series of self-portraits that show a sort of predicted catastrophe (the death of the author), but at the same time attract us because they are extremely vital. Francesca Woodman was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1958. Daughter of artists, since her adolescence she came into contact with the world of photography and enrolled, in 1975, at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence. Here, the first contact with Rome, thanks to the European studies program, based in Palazzo Cenci. Woodman is in Rome between May ‘77 and August ‘78 and immediately spends time at the Maldoror Bookshop in Via del Parione, a magical place that animates her stay. She finds, thanks to the owners Missigoi and Casetti, that cultural climate that allows her to establish a relation with the texts and with the works of Bragaglia, Marinetti, Boccioni, Klinger and, above all, with Dadaism and Surrealism. The very name of the library refers to Les Chants de Maldoror, a 1868 poem by Isidore Ducasse, count of Lautréamont, a fundamental inspiration for the surrealists and in particular for Breton. The famous passage “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!” represents the very kind of “convulsive beauty” that Breton describes in the article La beauté sera convulsive ou ne sera pas, in the fifth issue of Minotaures in 1934. Woodman, in her photos, begins to put together very different fragments of everyday life. And often, even her body appears to our eyes as if it was a fragment. In Providence, through the use of the mirror, she had already showed us a fragmented world, for example in the photo “A woman, a mirror: a woman is a mirror for a man”, kneeling in front of a mirror resting on the ground, touching it, it seems almost as she is wanting to physically enter inside it.

Francesca Woodman,A Woman. A Mirror. A Woman is a Mirror for a Man, 1975

In the embrace of the reflection we can almost see the figure of the Ovidian Narcissus who embraces the pool of water and recognizes his beloved, even though – once he discovers he has been deceived by a reflection of himself – with his desperate tears falling into the water, he shatters his image. In the same manner the figure of Francesca almost always appears broken. However, hers is not a narcissistic use of the mirror, and the same can be said for her self-portrait, so much so that the artist states, in a note reported by R. Krauss in Celibi, “Boys, I am as tired as you are of continuing to look at myself”. Surrealist artist Claude Cahun portrays herself in the mirror in a photo taken in 1928 looking towards the viewer, as if to highlight her way of being, her determination in affirming her own subjectivity.  Her open homosexuality goes towards a strong suspension of identity between male and female and the mirror helps to show this sort of doppelgänger.

Claude Cahun / Francesca Woodman

Francesca Woodman is certainly influenced by the surrealist poetics and the works of Claude Cahun. The mind immediately goes to a photo that she takes in Providence in ‘75, lying inside a cupboard, inspired by Cahun’s photo where she is sleeping in the same position, inside a dresser. With Claude Cahun, the photographer shares not only the use of the self-portrait as a tool to acquire the knowledge of her personality, but also the use of the mask to disguise herself. If Cahun shows her alter-ego disguising herself as a man and changing her name from feminine to masculine, in the wake of Duchamp with his Rose Sélavy, Woodman does not disguise herself nor does she change her identity, but we can certainly say she uses masques.

Claude Cahun

Lorenzo Fusi, in the essay The mask in the work of Francesca Woodman states: «The artist uses a series of instrumental topoi such as the mirror, the gloves, the mask or the negation of her own face, artifices that enable her to look at herself from a greater distance”. But also, we could add, to take the appearance of the space that surrounds her, as the nature or a bare room of an abandoned factory. For example in photos in which the artist disappears behind a fireplace or in others where she seems to magically disappear behind the wallpaper, camouflaging herself with the wall behind her. 

Mimicry is the subject of a study by Roger Caillois published in 1958 and dedicated to the game as a natural human attitude. Among the various categories, Caillois talks about mimicry (about what he had already written in an article on Minotaure, in 1935) describing it as, for us, the pleasure of becoming someone else or something else. In the case of Woodman, hers are attempts of “mimicry” made in front of a camera, in a sort of metamorphosis, of “extension” of her body towards the world that surrounds her. In this sense, the long-exposure photos highlight the trajectory of a movement or the dissolution of a figure in space. Time, therefore, is a fundamental principle for Woodman and also it is explicitly represented in the series Fish Calendar – 6 days (Rome, 1977). 

1. Francesca Woodman. Self-portrait, Easter, Rome, 1978 
© Charles Woodman. 
Courtesy Charles Woodman, and Victoria Miro, London/Venice. / 2. Francesca Woodman, From Eel Series, Venice, Italy, 1978. 
© Charles Woodman. Courtesy Victoria Miro London/Venice.
Francesca Woodman. Untitled, Rome, 1977 – 1978
 © Charles Woodman. 
Courtesy Charles Woodman, and Victoria Miro, London/Venice. 

It is a photographic six day calendar that must be read in a specific order. The protagonists are: Francesca, some lemons, some eels and her camera. In the calendar  the three lemons represent the third month, March, the eels instead the progressive passing of the days, from day one to day six; the body that is undressed following the same pattern of the lemon that is “stripped” of its peel, represents the passage of time. This sequence also tells us about the artist’s daily life in Rome. The eels come from the market in Piazza Vittorio, where Francesca went with her American friend Sloan Rankin, and the place where the photos are taken is her apartment in Via dei Coronari. The fact that the photographer bought the eels at the market brings to mind Breton and Giacometti’s walks at the Paris flea market. Francesca’s eels have the same “sentimental” value that the slipper-spoon had for Breton that gave birth to the search for the Amour fou. Furthermore, the influence of Man Ray emerges in the shapeless and never clear treatment of the human figure.

Francesca Woodman, Rome, 1978

The limbs, especially in this series, are always shot separately from the rest of the body, the camera is not positioned frontally or in a linear manner, but in distorted angles in order to photograph half the body or from above. Again, the juxtaposition with the eels wants to produce a parallelism between their sinuosity and the sinuosity of her body. And it is not by chance that the artist chooses to relate herself to animals like the surrealists: “since they had made the discovery of Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror, the exploration of the idea of man’s animality had become one of the clichés of the Surrealism”. It is the “base materialism” of Bataille that perhaps inspired the artist to take some horizontal photographs linked to the American context. She photographs herself lying on the ground naked and covered in soil, as if she was an animal that, as soon as it was born, came out of its shell slowly emerging from the underground. There is the idea of shapelessness that seeks contact with the ground, with the terrain, with the horizontal, but that, as Isabella Pedicini points out, doesn’t have the perverse or dirty features that belong to the conception of Bataille. The body, although treated in its merely material aspect, always maintains a certain purity. The dichotomy between order and primordial chaos is the subject of one of the last works linked to Rome, even if it was revised and printed in Philadelphia in 1981. Some disordered interior geometries is a work born from several school notebooks of geometric exercises that was found in the Maldoror library.

Francesca Woodman. Untitled, Rome, Italy, 1978 
© Charles Woodman. 
Courtesy Charles Woodman, and Victoria Miro, London/Venice

They are yellowed pages probably from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th  on which she printed or glued 15 of her photos, next to or above the exercises, generating a parallelism between her concept of space and the one of the geometry explained and illustrated in the booklet. It combines her “orderly disorder” with the order of the figures and of the geometric theorems. Giuseppe Casetti, one of the two owners of the Library to which the artist dedicated this splendid notebook, highlighted how Woodman used this opportunity to leave us “traces and evidence of her research”. Francesca, when she arrived in Rome, was a 19-year-old student. It was during the seventies. Perhaps in her photos, thanks to the black and white of her Rollei camera, to her freedom of expression, a part of the feel of those years is preserved and perhaps this is precisely the punctum of her photos: they are an emanation of that time, a time that for us still lasts, while for her it voluntarily ended in 1981. As Casetti writes, “Francesca reached her era, translating its beautiful and damned image, when it was easy to die twenty years old”.

Joseph Koudelka and photography as a testimony

Joseph Koudelka and photography as a testimony

Josef Koudelka © Bohemia, negative, 1966; print, 1967
Engineer of sensitivity: from training to realization

The roads that lead to one’s vocation are many.  In the case of Josef Koudelka, they manifested themselves at a young age when, with his 6×6 Bakelite he began to photograph what surrounded him, including his family. Although his studies allowed him to graduate in Engineering in 1961, Koudelka’s attitude was directed in a completely different direction. This was confirmed by his first photo exhibition held just after he reached his academic goal. The completion of his studies brought with it the awareness that sooner or later a drastic decision would be inevitable. Thus, although he still delayed that moment by continuing to work as an aeronautical engineer in Prague and Bratislava, in 1967 he decided to be done permanently with that world to devote himself full time to photography. And he was very close to complete his first work of art.

Josef Koudelka, Magnum Photos, CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Straznice. 1966. Festival of gypsy music
1967-68: the Photo report in Romania, the anonymous films in Prague

He didn’t even have time to finish his experience with the gypsy communities in Romania, just two days before the Soviet invasion, when Koudelka left immediately for Prague. In August 1968 he was able to testify with his own eyes, and even more with his camera, the other side of Socialism, the one that is anything but human. The side that followed the Warsaw Pact that ended the autonomy of Czechoslovakia. The tanks entered the Czechoslovak capital while the population opposed them with all their might, to the point of confusing the troops by reversing or removing road signs. And all this did not escape the lens of the photographer, who with his photographic report marked a turning point in the history of his nation. Among the most significant images there is the one of the arm with the watch that overlooks a street in the city, marking the time when the invasion took place. A way to make this social defeat eternal and to give a time, of contrast, to the emptiness that the invasion created in common memory. Given the extraordinary circumstances, Koudelka had to secretly send his films across the border to be able to publish them in the London Sunday Times under the pseudonym of “Prague Photographer” in order not to suffer subsequent persecutions.

Josef Koudelka, A brown coal mine, The Black Triangle, Czech Republic, 1991
Josef Koudelka, Invasion 68: Prague Prague, Czechoslovakia. August, 1968. © Josef Koudelka, Magnum Photos
Contemporary traveller: the political asylum and the discovery of Europe

“I was afraid to go back to CzechoslovakiaKoudelka said later “because I knew that if they wanted to find out the identity of the unknown photographer, they could do it”. For this reason, Koudelka joined Magnum Photos in 1970, and applied for political asylum in the UK, remaining there for over a decade. Being a photographer of “travellers” he himself became a nomad without a destination. With his camera and little else, Koudelka travelled throughout Europe to witness the social and sociological diversity that each nation manifests in its own way.

Josef Koudelka © France, 1979    
Koudelka: legacy and immortality in the film

Human relations, isolation and even death are the subjects that the Czech photographer is most passionate about and that are still protagonists of his photographic exhibitions around the world. “Gypsies” (1975-77), first as a book and then as a traveling exhibition, and “Exiles” (1988), a book-collection of his photographic works exhibited at different times and exhibitions, remain among the masterpieces of contemporary photography. The intermittency of the human element in the fullness of the landscapes and in all its contradictions is best represented here not just with photographs of emotional impact, but with visual stories that go beyond reality because of their brutal truth. And the photographic dialogue opened over forty years ago remains unfinished to this day, although Koudelka was able to return home in the 1990s and despite the notoriety that allowed him to exhibit his works in major international museums. “I never stay in one country more than three months. Why? Because I was interested in seeing, and if I stay longer I become blind”.

Martha Pulina

REN HANG / The art of the past comes to life on film

REN HANG / The art of the past comes to life on film

by Alexandra Gilliams

On the internet and elsewhere in recent years, the late Ren Hang has been on the rise as a photographer blurring the lines of what is acceptable art practice in a conservative China. His photographs evoke a surreal reality in a vein similar to that of Ryan McGinley’s – a sweeping landscape of youth, bodies, and humanity. Even his most unapologetically explicit photographs can be read as a straightforward portrayal of the physical because according to Hang, sex and sexuality are a “part of a normal, healthy life, just like eating and sleeping.”. Vibrant colors seep from images of men and women who have been caught and illuminated by his sharp flash. When Hang allows us to see the faces of his subjects, their gaze locks tightly onto yours, leaving you with hardly any will to look away. 

ren hang

China, 2015
© Courtesy of Estate of Ren Hang and OstLicht Gallery

Bodies lie limp and are piled on top of one another. The models are at ease despite their contorted, often awkward positions. They are frozen but not cold; you can see how they have performed for Hang. He who sculpted them, twisting their limbs and carefully placing each element of the body until the composition revealed itself. Natural elements coalesce: snakes have been wrapped around women’s faces and the reflective patterns of dark water engulf ghostly bodies. In another image, a woman’s turned, elongated back sprouts out of a bed of leaves. 

China, 2015
© Courtesy of Estate of Ren Hang and OstLicht Gallery

Part of Hang’s influence clearly lies in the works of the Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. Araki’s models often appear to be as absorbed in being photographed by Araki as he is absorbed in being in control of them. His work exudes a sort of calm violence, and Hang’s photographs contain a similar quality. Looking closely at the tangled bodies and heads that are illusively decapitated may make viewers anxious while the models appear entirely unaffected.

China, 2015
© Courtesy of Estate of Ren Hang and OstLicht Gallery

His use of a bright flash and point-and-shoot camera give the impression that his images are personal snapshots. Hang would not take the time meddling with aperture sizes and shutter speeds; the moment, though generally posed, is fleeting. The subjects remain anonymous; they are simply an aspect of the overall image. Their personalities do not show through, apart from playful portraits of his mother. 

40 x 26 cm
© Courtesy of Estate of Ren Hang and Blindspot Gallery

Hang tragically committed suicide in February 2017 at age 29. He wrote numerous journal entries and poems chronicling his experience living with depression. They were available to read under a tab on his website which accompanied his photography. His photographs may emanate youth and even a light humor, but when you look on longer, an underlying tension begins permeating through the surface. From his writing, it could be understood that he hid his turmoil under a lighter exterior. Despite the ease of looking at his images online, it is imperative to see Hang’s photographs in-person. 

Untitled 2016 100 x 67 cm © Courtesy of Estate of Ren Hang and stieglitz19

It is an entirely different experience, as it is in most cases, to see them as large prints, coupled with other images of similar subject matter. It gives us the opportunity to take a step back and draw connections between the themes of his images, his manipulations of the body and repetition of patterns and colors, and his link between nature and eroticism. Reds and greens are reoccurring tones in Hang’s work, colors in Chinese culture representing good luck, health, and prosperity. Colors, as well, representing nature and life, blood and sexuality. 

© Courtesy of Estate of Ren Hang and OstLicht Gallery

© Courtesy of Estate of Ren Hang and OstLicht Gallery

Despite his troubled thoughts, he still wished to capture an essence of humanity in a pure way. His images break us away from societal taboos about the body, they make us uncomfortable, excited, disturbed – they make us feel something. Even if in Western society we are more accustomed to these taboos, the taboos surrounding the body – bodies of which we all inhabit – exist and are felt in different ways around the world. Hang mentioned in an interview with Purple Magazine that “The way I see it, bodies are pre-existing regardless of whether I photograph them or not. They’re also part of the natural world.” His photographs evoke oppositions, a push and pull between personal and anonymous, lightness and tension, boldness and nonchalance. The photographs induce feelings which fluctuate and are fleeting, reactions that are a part of everyday life. It is true that Hang has successfully captured a beautiful fragment of humanity.

Alexandra Gilliams

Jo Ann Callis / Domestic Imagery – Domestic space

Jo Ann Callis / Domestic Imagery – Domestic space

by Dolores Pulella

When Jo Ann Callis chose to enroll the course of graphic design at the University of California (UCLA) she was a young 30 year old woman that had never handled a camera before. Born in 1940 in Cincinnati (Ohio), young wife and mother of two children, she settles in a California that is turned upside down by the pacifist movements and the sexual revolution. Interested in sculpture and collage, thanks to Robert Heinecken’s classes Callis starts being fascinated by photography that up until then she considered “too technical” for her nature. 

jo ann callis

Black Table Cloth, 1979 Vintage Dye Transfer Print 20 x 24 inches

Encouraged by her teacher she discovers artistic photography and starts experimenting following her own taste and her competence in other fields in order to construct and calibrate her compositions. The artist immediately shows a strong attraction for the mis en scène and the beauty of formal ideas, drawing on the themes of her personal universe comprised by the domestic space, the same space where her marriage was failing and her children were growing up. 

jo ann callis

Untitled, (Woman with Black Line), from Early Color Portfolio, circa 1976 16 x 20 inches:9.75 x 12 inches Archival Pigment Print

Callis says that in almost fifty years of career her ideas remained unchanged an the topics she feels close to herself are still gender identity, sexuality, beauty, power and subjugation, as well as all the feelings related to what’s “home”, including the constant tension that lives in the domestic space; what changed during the years is just the ways of expressing them. 

jo ann callis

Man and Plant, 1985 Vintage Cibachrome Print 24 x 30 inches

Jo Ann Callis, even though she always distanced herself from politics and has always declared that her works is detached from the simplistic interpretation of feminists, has stated that she is aware she is a “product of her time”; it’s not coincidental that the beginning of her involvement in photography corresponded to the rise of the sexual revolution although she always tried to convey a world that belonged to her exclusively.

jo ann callis

Woman Juggling, 1985 Vintage Cibachrome Print 30 x 24 inches

It was by chance that her first exhibition was held at the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles, since an artist friend had lent her the space. Nowadays Callis is most known for her color series but at the beginning of her career she worked extensively in black and white until she fortuitously stumbled across the works of Paul Outerbridge, that was rediscovered in the second half of the seventies, and was captivated by the emotion that his shots were able to instill. And it’s no accident that in 1981 in Los Angeles an exhibition featured both works by Callis and Outerbridge together, by paying tribute to the figure that the artists herself had always recognized as a model of inspiration. 

jo ann callis

Untitled, (Nude with String), from Early Color Portfolio, circa 1976 16 x 20 inches:9.75 x 12 inches Archival Pigment Print

jo ann callis

Untitled, (Hand Grabbing Ankles) from Early Color Portfolio, circa 1976 16 x 20 inches Archival Pigment Print

Regarding the models she always chose for her shots we can say she had a preference for androgyny and was always fascinated by sexual ambiguity, a subject that was taboo up until a few decades ago. Looking at her photographic production in its entirety, it is evident that the matrix of her war is surrealist, considering the themes analyzed and the aesthetic choices she made that recall the surrealist photography that inspired her, such as the one of Hans Bellmer and Pierre Molinier.

jo ann callis

Performance, 1985 Vintage Cibachrome Print 40 x 30 inches

Man in Tie, 1976 Vintage Dye Transfer print 24 x 20 inches

jo ann callis

Untitled (from Ballast), 1984 Vintage Cibachrome Print 24 x 30 inches

The domestic drama that is described by her photography is always hovering between different interpretations that intrigue the artist and make her work a catalyst of sociological and cultural discourse of exceptional contemporary value even though five decades have already passed.

jo ann callis

Untitled, (Hand and Honey) from Early Color Portfolio, circa 1976

Dolores Pulella





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