Heavenly innocence: Ruud Van Empel and the portraits from the other world.

Heavenly innocence: Ruud Van Empel and the portraits from the other world.

by Martha Pulina

Their eyes appear almost veiled, hiding behind a mask of innocence which conceals them almost too well. They’re the protagonists of the works of Ruud Van Empel, visual artist and photographer of Dutch origin. Brought up during the sixties, when photography experimentation went along with the questioning of the social status-quo, Van Empel found in photography a tool useful to investigate and express the vivid reality. From the psychedelic geometries of The Office (1995-2001) to the innocent faces of World-Moon-Venus (2006) which look into the viewer’s soul. Candidness is a defining feature of his portraits which is captured on the film while the subjects stare at the lens of the camera without hiding anything. The collection World-Moon-Venus is what gave Van Empel a place among the most recognized portraitists of the real world. The images are hyperbolic but at the same time in the look of the protagonists one can see a profound message which goes beyond the environment in which they’re photographed. Among the luxurious, almost heavenly, vegetation, children pose laying like sculptures recalling the mannerisms of the classic art.

In the meantime their gaze is so direct and sincere that is able to show through their eyes every aspect of their humanity. Another way of representing reality, through the use of a metaphor, is creating a new tailored world on canvas. This is how Van Empel decided to create, between 1999 and 2002, a new controversial collection, Study for Women, depicting a “constructed” portrayal of women where defects are softened or even removed in order to show what’s the perceived ideal imagery of society. Looking at this forged hyper-reality in which the women, subjects of the works, are placed, and thinking about the mere brutality with which they want to portray the present, one cannot help feeling fascinated by the technique used by the artist in every single piece. The women’s eyes seem to tell countless stories and the environment surrounding them adds a great deal of tension. “This generates discomfort” Van Empel says, “it’s a sense of embarrassment which comes from what people used to find shocking at the beginning of the twentieth century”. And that’s what Van Empel wants to tell with his works, seeking for moral, ethic and aesthetic truth, investigating the predicaments in society and in the art of our time. Suffering, pride and curiosity appear among the details of his films, the protagonists enter a visual imagery which stays stuck in the observer’s mind. The research for the true expression of reality is incessant and once again the artist, with the Solo Work collection (2011), puts children at the centre of his artistic investigation. Once more the lush wilderness dominates the background but the attention is immediately caught by the look of the children which become the focus of the work. The collection will be completed in 2019 when new pieces by the artist will be released. For now one can wait and feel overwhelmed by the abundance of the nature and the penetrating but innocent stare of the subjects portrayed, as if one is kept in between the dreamlike reality which is everyday among us.

Currently Hangar in Brussels displays twenty-five years of creation through the most striking and beautiful images of Ruud van Empel’s career.

25 years of photo works / Ruud van Empel

19 May – 18 July 2020

Tseng Kwong Chi: East Meets West

Tseng Kwong Chi: East Meets West

Yancey Richardson Gallery, NYC

Until 12 June, 2020

East Meets West, a selection of photographic self-portraits made between 1979 and 1989 by Tseng Kwong Chi (1950 – 1990). Combining performance and photography, political satire and personal identity, Tseng’s pioneering series exemplifies the art of the eighties while anticipating the social, political and philosophical themes of the present day.

Disneyland, California, 1979. Gelatin silver print, 16 x 16 inches.

Born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver by exiled Chinese nationalists, Tseng studied photography at L’Académie Julian in Paris. In 1978, Tseng moved to Manhattan, becoming a fixture of New York’s downtown art scene and a close friend of Keith Haring whose work and activities he documented. Soon after arriving, Tseng began the series East Meets West, photographing himself at iconic tourist locales throughout America, wearing a “Mao suit”, dark sunglasses and an enigmatic expression. Pictured at the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty, and other monumental sites, Tseng’s persona suggests that of an austere, visiting dignitary, paying homage to sites signifying American greatness.

Grand Canyon, Arizona, 1987. Gelatin silver print, 16 x 16 inches.
New York, New York, 1979. Gelatin silver print, 16 x 16 inches.

The series was partly inspired by Richard Nixon’s diplomatic trip to the People’s Republic of China in 1972, where the visit consisted largely of a series of carefully staged appearances meant to generate the greatest possible visual impact, including the infamous Nixon-Mao handshake. In spite of the immutability of his Mao ensemble, Tseng responds distinctly to each locale, gazing contemplatively at the Grand Canyon, leaping raucously into the air at the Brooklyn Bridge or assuming a stiff, patriotic stance next to a rocket at Cape Canaveral. Describing himself as both an “ambiguous ambassador” and an “inquisitive traveler”, Tseng mischievously and subtly investigated core issues of outsider and identity politics.

Cape Canaveral, Florida, 1985. Gelatin silver print, 16 x 16 inches

Deceased in 1990 at age thirty-nine from AIDS-related illness, Tseng’s work has been widely exhibited and published. His work is in numerous public collections, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco; Tate Britain; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., and many others. In 2015, a retrospective Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing For the Camera was held at the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, and the Grey Art Gallery at New York University.

New York, New York, 1979. Gelatin silver print, 16 x 16 inches.

Wolfgang Tillmans / Today is the first day

Wolfgang Tillmans / Today is the first day at WIELS, Brussels

by Alice Zucca

What strikes the most in the work of the visionary German artist Wolfgang Tillmans is certainly the non-continuity in its stylistic path, however it is still capable of giving back the consequentiality of an image of the world around us that evolves in a chronological manner and of a universally recognizable and generational reality. This distinctive feature is the key of the uniqueness that allows him to give back to the world a vision of what stimulates him in everyday life, that is as coherent and realistic as it is hyperbolic, using a variety of media formats and elements, from two-dimensional to audiovisual, that reinvent new methods of production and fruition of the image, whether it is to be intended for what it is intrinsically or to be understood as “imaginary”, and therefore freed from an attached visual concept but always allowing the presence of observable element. After all, making something “visible” – whether it is the processes of everyday life, the change of the social structures and the technological progress, the invisible or the evolution of what is in existance – is the ultimate goal of Tillmans’ art, who seems to place the emphasis on the element of transition, the moment in which change becomes perceptible, the relationship between our knowledge and what is perceived in the surrounding world.

Wolfgang Tillmans, 6407-35, 2007, © the artist, courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London, David Zwirner, New York, Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris

A new world can seem awkward because the interpretation schemes that we have painstakingly developed in the old world are no longer suitable for interpreting the changed reality, and if it is true that we can no longer count on our reassuring routines stabilized during the span of a lifetime, it is even more real the impossibility of functionally interfacing with a new world without the availability of new ideas on which to found it. Tillmans does not want to give us an idea but he seems to provide us with a starting point for analysis. In this regard, he invites us, starting from the setting of the installation, to a personal reflection, made of personal connections and experiences through the fruition of the work in space and the work in itself. 

Wolfgang Tillmans, Today Is The First Day, WIELS, Brussels, 2020, installation view, Photo Philippe De Gobert

The two floors of the WIELS in Brussels, which host the first large-scale exhibition of Tillmans in Belgium, are a worthy extension of the imagery of the German photographer who always expands his artistic creation to the entire setting of the exhibition, integrating the architectural space, the light, the sound, in order to serve as presentation for the “image” as an integral element in its production. The intimate room which is set up for the audio “I want to make a film” (2018) is a real meta-image in a fundamentally non-visual work in which this element of transition and perceptibility resounds strongly, in my opinion, as an example of that change mentioned before,  and also as a declaration of intent of Tillmans’ poetics, “wanting to make this film” fictitious, as the ultimate desire to visualize the change, to understand its power and how things could continue to change, and so they do, changing our existence. Tillmans talks about his desire to make a hypothetical film that puts the technological process in perspective that has led us to rely on the computing power of the machines, by analyzing the first computers and devices up to the smartphone, an emblem of technology such as an integral part of our daily life, of our way of living. Tillmans wants to make a film “to help imagine what goes on in this powerful machine that is in your palm” and in achieving this concept, he wonders incredulously how this happened, so quickly, and how much the change has been perceived, by himself and by others “I certainly know: in my flat in London nothing was exchanged from 2000 until 2011 – and the internet got faster and faster, while the telephone cable was still just hanging outside and down the building. I want this film to try to allow myself to understand what goes on in this cable under the Atlantic. – This film should be about: Let us put into perspective, what a powerful instrument you have got in your hands”.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Argonaut, 2017. © Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin, and Maureen Paley, London.

Always detached from the conventional, far from what is traditionally shared and without sequential succession, Tillmans’ work expands and covers the entire surface of the rooms, in an experiential path that also includes more unusual locations, resulting in a real site specific installation in the making that, here in Brussels, in “Today is the first day” involves three decades of production including the latest developments of his research in the photographic, audio and video fields, in a spatial constellation specifically conceived for the spaces of the WIELS. 

Wolfgang Tillmans, Today Is The First Day, WIELS, Brussels, 2020, installation view, Photo Philippe De Gobert
Wolfgang Tillmans, Today Is The First Day, WIELS, Brussels, 2020, installation view, Photo Philippe De Gobert

In the name of a conscious political conscience, which has always been one of his peculiar characteristics, Tillmans has lavished his creative commitment in various areas: from the artistic production to social commitment, from safeguarding democracy to defending the rights of minorities. As an artist, he has set himself the goal of grabbing the essence of the everyday world, and this is what he intends to “reproduce” in his works, assigning a primary role both to insignificant details, normally disregarded, and to majestic phenomena – of a concrete nature or tending to the sublime or the abstract – which in an upward motion extend vertically.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Freischwimmer 231, 2012, © the artist, courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London, David Zwirner, New York, Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris
Wolfgang Tillmans, Today Is The First Day, WIELS, Brussels, 2020, installation view, Photo Alice Zucca

Part of his production is done without the use of cameras, negatives or films. The artist creates abstract works by manipulating the light on paper while working inside his dark room. And light and sound are essentially the cornerstones of the visitor’s experiential journey at WIELS. Tillmans uses various media like photography, video, sound, music, thus creating elaborate artistic concepts designed to be installations, which avoid any attempt at categorization and homologation and induce the observer to carefully scrutinize the whole and also every single element, to then elaborate his personal connection with the artistic output.

Wolfgang Tillmans, CLC 014, 2017, © the artist, courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London, David Zwirner, New York, Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris

Coming from the rational foundations that belong to German culture, Tillmans, since the end of the 80s, unties that element of rationality that’s inherent in its background by pushing the concept of photography beyond the limits of the existing definition, moving between the immaterial and the concrete and what governs rhythms and changes – the passage of time – and the political and social implications that mark its variations. By deepening the analysis of what exists, in all its real or apparent forms, Tillmans digs a gap in the internalization of the concept of change, and repeats it in forms that are always new. His works, might appear without a logical or guiding thread, but they reveal themselves, starting from the images of the early 90s, as a cross-section of society in the process of entering a new era.  A real, subjective reportage of the European underground. Tillmans immortalizes his generation, that of homosexual emancipation, of subcultures, clubs, electronic music and so on, through its daily life, defining and affirming a new way of conceiving documentary photography.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Chloe, 1995, © the artist, courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London, David Zwirner, New York, Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris
Wolfgang Tillmans, Lutz & Alex sitting in the trees, 1992, © the artist, courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London, David Zwirner, New York, Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris

For Tillmans the change from analog to digital opened up new cognitive horizons, applicable both to his perception of reality and to its transposition in digital format. But the actual manipulation is one of the distinctive elements of most of the production of the German photographer, already at the end of the 90s, in fact, Tillmans starts experimenting with what we could rightly define the creation of photographs without the use of the camera, images produced directly in the darkroom, like the ones from the series “Silver”, are now visible as part of the exhibition “Today is the first day”.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Today Is The First Day, WIELS, Brussels, 2020, installation view, Photo Alice Zucca

The artist achieves the result by passing photographic paper through a processing machine without having it cleaned from chemical residues, dust and dirt, basically left over products from previous prints. At the WIELS, in the room where this series is exhibited, Tillmans works directly on the museum walls – sandblasting the exhibition walls until they reveal the concrete hidden under the layers of paint – a very interesting dialogue with the space that puts the emphasis on the materiality of the support, its change and its history and finally, more in depht, the non-neutrality of the white cube as an exhibition space. 

Wolfgang Tillmans, Today Is The First Day, WIELS, Brussels, 2020, installation view, Photo Philippe De Gobert
Wolfgang Tillmans, Today Is The First Day, WIELS, Brussels, 2020, installation view, Photo Alice Zucca

The discourse about abstract imagery continues among Tillmans’ most recent works, showing an abstract subject with text that poses a first-person question “How likely is it that only I am right in this matter?” Once again, through this sentence the point regarding the perception of the surrounding world, the relationship between us as alike and between us and our knowledge returns. It is a question that the artist asks himself but  he also asks the viewer of the work, it is evident here the importance that the artist gives to the viewer’s point of view that sets in motion his own reflection on the “new world”, which therefore changes, with the new ideas that we need to have formed, that we need to be able to think and understand and that define the relationship with the means which serve us to produce the formation of these new ideas themselves. It is a matter of individual perception on issues that concern our universal history and vice versa. This work is part of a series created using scans of already existing images and texts, which are in fact largely derived from the world of neuroscience. During the process, the light scans the original document several times and in this process Tillmans moves the document so as to create a distortion in its reproduction, movements that deeply alter the final result. Divergences that indicate here how in our era of fake news and post truth our perception is widely distorted.

Photo: Alice Zucca

Few contemporary artists have succeeded in placing the emphasis on the resonance of contemporary art as a “vehicle”, managing to capture and influence a generation as Wolfgang Tillmans did and continues to do, and more than ever in an era like ours in which the production of the image now seems obvious, when we rely on that powerful machine that is in our palm (the smartphone). Tillmans presents us with an imagery that he is able to put always under a different light, asking himself what creating images means in a world increasingly saturated with images, highlighting the singularity of the image through peculiar ways of producing it and amplifying it. Each of the works, in this highly successful exhibition at WIELS, engages in an intricate system of relationships – between space and work, time, installation setup and its subjects – to involve the viewer, as we have seen, as an active part of the dialogue in an experience of connection that is rooted in the perceptive process of “looking”, of “seeing”, which not only expands the conventional ways of approaching photography and its practice but addresses the fundamental question of the visible world and the limits of what can – when, how and why – be seen.

Due to the Covid-19 emergency WIELS might be closed until further notice. We invite you to check their website to find the latest updates.

An unsettling but captivating ambiguity. The intermediate reality of Hugo Alonso

An unsettling but captivating ambiguity. The intermediate reality of Hugo Alonso

by Ludovica Cadario

White and black, and shades of gray. Evanescent images that are desolate landscapes, or female figures as the only protagonists of indefinite places. The scenes seem out of focus, stills taken from the American horror movies of the sixties and seventies, one of the main sources of inspiration for the artist. The viewer in front of the works of Hugo Alonso can only be caught by a sense of insecurity, generated by the ambiguity of their form, aesthetics and content.

Hugo Alonso BOOK HOUSE 170x130cm

Hugo Alonso, through the wise use of the airbrush on paper, freezes moments and creates images that at first glance look like black and white photographs. The form is therefore deceptive, but also the beauty portrayed is only apparent. The harmony of the posing women – which never show their face – is erotic and seducing, but it is also confusing. Where are these figures? Who am I? Are they from this world or are they otherworldly? That’s something that can be said also for the manner in which Hugo Alonso depicts his landscapes. They may seem like the places mentioned by nineteenth-century romantics, but they have nothing to do with them: they are images extracted from the initial or final scenes of horror films, digitally reworked and then transposed in figures. As the artist says, his subjects are “in an indefinite place between the fiction of cinema and reality”. Hugo Alonso captures frames and takes them to other contexts. This allows him to concentrate his artistic research in exploring those intermediate spaces that are halfway between reality and dream, between fiction and truth, bringing anonymous identities between real and imaginary places: “I explore recurring motifs in the history of painting such as the landscape, the house, the room or the figure, they tend to play a leading role, as if my work were a cinematographic plan that goes from the general to the particular”.

Hugo Alonso NOVEMBER 07 acryonpaper 170x130cm

Each apparently normal image contains some enigmas, some unstable elements, they are images similar to what is conventional, apparently familiar but unknown. This is how the ambiguous becomes protagonist. As in a dream everything seems to be possible and therefore restless. The artist shows a calm and a beauty that is however different as if something is about to happen. Hugo Alonso says: “I make cinema by painting”. This sentence perfectly defines how he manages to generate in his works that sense of suspended reality. He occupies interstitial spaces that open up new semantic scenarios. The artist leaves the field open to the viewer, who, for example, can identify himself or be estranged by them. The observer can imagine what is going to happen by making that moment his own, or he can shy away from it.

Hugo Alonso studio sept 2017

To achieve this, Hugo Alonso feeds on various sources. The use of the light as in the black and white cinema of the sixties, the aesthetic decadence of that of the seventies, but also the atmospheres evoked by electronic music or images, places and people that belong to his everyday life. Speaking of the work he has been carrying out in recent years, Hugo Alonso says: “I explore the relationship between cinematographic reality and everyday reality, but also the possible analogies between the history of painting and cinema”. And he adds: “Cinema is my source of visual and conceptual resources”. Given its fictitious nature, cinema opens up possibilities for the artist that would otherwise be unreachable: “The content of cinema allows me to face issues that are not possible within the social codes that order reality”.

Hugo Alonso UNTITLED 27 acryliconpaper 170x130cm 2019

In recent years Hugo Alonso has started experimenting with other media outside of painting and develops heterogeneous exhibition projects by exploring other fields such as video, sound or installation. This allows him to go further, and to capture the viewer in a more direct way, exploiting the power of sound and moving images, time and space. Precisely following this direction, the artist is preparing his next individual exhibition Undone which will open this spring at the Da2 in Salamanca. The exhibition space will be converted into an indefinite place, made of audiovisual stimuli, in which the spectator will be able to decide what are the physical limits of the exhibition, which is characterized by an ambiguous semantic and an aesthetic element with reverberations from dreamlike films, with an atmosphere between an amusement park and a classic gallery.

Hugo Alonso UNTITLED 28 acryliconpaper 152x120cm 2019

Hugo Alonso was born in Soria, a city between Madrid and Zaragoza in 1981, he studied at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Salamanca and Rome. He has exhibited in Barcelona, Salamanca, Madrid, Montreal, Istanbul, Berlin and Dresden. His work was presented in international contemporary art fairs such as Arco (Spain), Zona Maco (Mexico), Volta (Switzerland), Seattle Art Fair (United States), Art Toronto (Canada), Art Paris (France), Papier (Canada), Art Miami (United States), Art MAdrid (Spain), Circa (Puerto Rico), Art Fair (Germany), Art Elysees (France), For Real (Holland), Context (United States), Arte Santander (Spain), Texas Contemporary (United States), Art on Paper (United States) or Crossroasds (United Kingdom). His works are included in important public and private collections such as: MUSAC (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León), DA2 (Domus Artium 2002), Colección Pilar Citoler, Colección Rucandio, Colección Bassat, CAB (Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Burgos), Fundación BMW, Diputación de Salamanca, CEART (Centro de Arte Tomás y Valiente), Fundación Gaceta or Obra Social Caja España. He created the cover of the New York Times Magazine as an invited artist (October 2017).

Ludovica Cadario

Awol Erizku / Vernacular Crossing

Awol Erizku / Vernacular Crossing

by Dolores Pulella

Born in 1988, Awol Erizku is an American transmedia artist of Ethiopian descent who grew up in the Bronx in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. In recent years he gained notoriety especially in relation to his photographs that were published on Instagram in 2017 by the singer Beyoncé (reaching 8 million likes), but his work should be investigated far beyond this episode.

Erizku first studied at the Cooper Union University in New York until 2010 when he continued his education studying Visual Arts at the Yale University (2014). Since his time in New York City he has collaborated with artists such as Lorna Simpson, Margaret Morton, Christine Osinski, and David LaChapelle, whose influence can be seen in the much-talked-about photos of the famous American pop star.

Since 2009 Erizku started, through photography, an operation of iconographic reappropriation of the masterpieces of the great masters of the history of art between Renaissance and Baroque, with an eye for a strictly personal relationship with his own African heritage. With his historical rewriting Erizku does not want to limit the expression of a specific ethnic group to nor he wants to become its spokesperson, but rather he wants to document the culture to which he feels he belongs. The series of photographs in which the artist is insipred by the great masterpieces of art begins with “Girl with a bamboo earring”, which recalls “The girl with a Pearl Earring” (1665-1666) by Jan Vermeer, a painting also known by the title of “Girl with a turban”. The subject of Erizku’s photograph is a contemporary black woman who instead of the pearl wears a bamboo earring. The same concept is performed with Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” (1483-1485). Leonardo’s “Lady with an Ermine” (1488-1490) becomes a woman who holds a pit bull terrier in her arms. The series continues with the “sick Bacchus” (1593-1594) by Caravaggio, and a progression of historical and artistic topoi such as “the Madonna and Child” and the lying Venuses, including one with Beyoncé herself, the singer being the subject of several of the artist’s shots.

Some of these works were presented to the public in Erizku’s first solo show called “Black and Gold” held at the Hasted-Kraeutler Gallery in New York in 2012. From this moment on, he was on the rise and the second solo show arrived in 2014, a year in which the artist affirms his ability to work with different expressive media as well as photography, putting together different techniques and materials in order to reduce the distance between “High Art” and “Street Art”. The title of the exhibition “The only way is up”, is taken from a Quincy Jones album that Erizku’s parents used to listen to, but which gives the audience different levels of interpretation, like the exhibition itself, which presents a mix of various references to Hip-Hop culture, as well as Duchamp, Donald Judd and David Hammons.

On the 17th of May 2015, Erizku’s works are the protagonists of the exhibition-event “Serendipity” at the MoMA PS1 in collaboration with PopRally, where videos and photographs are shown. The photographs in particular represent a sort of still life, composed of contemporary objects and flowers, in which there are allusions to the Egyptian iconographic culture and especially to the sculptural busts of Queen Nefertiti. In an interview, to explain this predominant presence, the artist recalled an episode occurred over the course of his trip to Ethiopia: during a stop in Egypt, when he entered a pyramid he felt a visceral feeling and he understood that that land was really important for him.

In order to explain the process that saw the birth of another personal exhibition, his first in Europe, Erizku again recalled a feeling he had during a specific moment, that is when he heard Trump speak for the first time about the need to build a border, a wall to avoid Mexicans entering in the United States. It was at that point, he says, that he felt the need to do something, to express his disappointment as an American citizen who lives in California and has Mexican friends. From this idea he conceived the project “Make America Great Again”, the exhibition was held during the spring of 2017 at the Ben Brown Gallery in London, which, following the motto of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, could not fail to arouse a certain uproar, which today Erizku tends to play down, as he did for Beyoncé’s maternity photographs. He does not want to be remembered in relation to these two episodes that have attracted media attention, this is not the purpose of his work, which instead aims to give voice to his cultural background.

In 2018 Forbes magazine included Awol Erizku in the “30 Under 30” list as one of the most influential artists, and in 2020 his photographs will be exhibited as part of the first New York edition of the famous international photographic art fair Paris Photo.

Dolores Pulella

All images Awol Erizku studio © Courtesy of the artist

Sally Mann: The Treachery of Memory

Sally Mann: The Treachery of Memory

by Alexandra Gilliams

There are aspects of memories that we choose to remember, imagining small details that weren’t actually there, or bits that never really occurred, and perhaps now we rely too much on photography to help us make these moments more clear. Sally Mann (American, b. 1951) has expressed how looking at her photographs has not helped her to remember moments in her life, but how photography instead “impoverishes” the memory. She described this as the treachery of memory, and she has captured it notably through the inevitability of growth and mortality. She began shooting her life at home in Lexington, Virginia in the 1980s and was among the first photographers to uphold domestic life as a subject matter worthy to be seen from a critical point of view. She began her career taking portraits of her children, Jessie, Virginia, and Emmett, in their home as well as in the vast landscapes that surround it. Her children appear unabashed with black eyes, bruises, and bites received from playing together, swimming in lakes, blowing bubbles, playing dress-up… In the photograph “Jessie Bites,” a complacently guilty Jessie hangs comfortably onto an arm imprinted deeply with a perfectly round bite-mark. This haunting series unravels the idleness, pain, and pleasure of familial relationships and the communication that occurs between children.

Bean’s Bottom c. 1991 Sally Mann Private collection. © Sally Mann

The damp, lingering air of endless summers spent in the American South saturates her images with softness. Southern light carefully disperses over her subjects’ serene faces and through the lush forests that pervade the backdrops. Though delicate in some of her imagery, others are lit sharply from the scorching sun with contrasts so heavy that they cause each element of the photograph to appear deeply set in, almost as though they are engraved. She has captured life through childhood – the treachery of memory – moments that her children may never recall again, mainly through the sharp lens and large chamber of an 8 x 10 camera. Fleeting moments burned onto negatives in crisp detail.

Bloody Nose 1991 Sally Mann Silver dye bleach print. Private collection. © Sally Mann

She had a distant relationship with her own parents growing up, but grew attached to her caretaker, an African American woman named Virginia Carter, or “Gee-Gee” as she fondly refers to her. She created a series entitled “The Two Virginias”, where she captured the loving affection Virginia had for Mann’s child, who is named after Carter. The connection between the two is marked by an ephemeral juxtaposition of her child at the beginning of her life and Carter approaching the end of hers. The idea of death, of being reminded of our mortality, was awakened in Mann from a near-fatal horseback riding accident and a moment she recalled when she saw an escape convict shoot himself out her kitchen window…  and this awakening coincided with some relics of a forgotten time: the photographs she had taken of her children who were growing up. She knew it was time to move on to different subject matter.

Ponder Heart 2009 Sally Mann Gelatin silver print. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund. © Sally Mann
The Turn 2005 Sally Mann Gelatin silver print. Private collection. © Sally Mann
Was Ever Love 2009 Sally Mann Gelatin silver print. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by the S.I. Morris Photography Endowment, 2010. © Sally Mann

Apart from the affection that Carter showed for both Mann and her children, Mann was also introduced to the reality of racism in the United States from an early age. Influenced by her relationship with Carter and her upbringing in the South, she began taking intimate portraits of African American men in order to speak with them about their life experiences. From these encounters as well as her life in Lexington, she began to create photographic studies delving into the dark history of the American Civil War. It was a moment in United States history that is rarely remembered or recognized for what it was, apart from being tucked away in school textbooks and at places in the South where they put on unrealistic reenactments.

Trumpet Flowers 1991 Sally Mann Silver dye bleach print. Private Collection. © Sally Mann

Mann began experimenting with old photographic techniques, in particular with the collodion process, which was invented just before the Civil War and was used primarily during the period to document it. Once she would set up her vintage, large format camera, she would carefully prepare her negative: a large sheet of perfectly clear framing glass that she would pour over meticulously with a collodion mixture. Once it sets onto the glass, she would have fifteen minutes to load the camera, expose the plate, and develop it – a brief, fast-moving technique that eventually results in very physical objects: a large glass negative and the resulting prints. In an interview, she recalled the moment when she had seen glass negatives for the first time. She climbed into an attic in the South in the 1970s and found some that were taken around Lexington just after the Civil War of landscapes that were identical to those she had seen in her backyard. These negatives possessed a passage of time, images of serene Southern landscapes that were loaded with an invisible history.

Battlefields, Antietam (Starry Night) 2001 Sally Mann Gelatin silver print. Alan Kirshner and Deborah Mihaloff Art Collection. © Sally Mann

She used this process in addition to others to document her surroundings: swamps and rivers that at first appear tranquil, yet were once used as escape routes for slaves. She continued this series by taking photographs of churches in the South that served as a place of peace and faith for African Americans for generations. From these series and by using the same process, she eventually began taking very tightly composed portraits of her children who were now adults, delving further into the idea of the inevitability of aging and the loss of certain memories.

Gorjus 1989 Sally Mann Gelatin Silver print. Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff. © Sally Mann

Mann’s experiments with old methods of photography speak to her subject matter. Both are ephemeral yet physical, taking careful stock of time, moments passing and becoming memories – abstractions in the mind that could be physically represented in photographs – stolen from time that can never be experienced in the same way. Memories are long, changing, complex… one picture in reality is insufficient to recall, either imaginatively or realistically, what really occurred.

A travelling retrospective as well as a book of Sally Mann’s work entitled “A Thousand Crossings” were recently featured at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, France, as well as at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, California.

Alexandra Gilliams

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

Jason Shulman: PHOTOGRAPHS OF FILMS

Jason Shulman: PHOTOGRAPHS OF FILMS

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


PUBLICATION LISTED IN THE ITALIAN PRESS REGISTER BY THE SASSARI COURT OF LAW WITH REGISTRATION NUMBER 447/2017.
EDITOR IN CHIEF: ALICE ZUCCA

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