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Urbanautica

your daily source of images

PHOTOTALK WITH MIRCEA NICOLAE

BY STEVE BISSON

1. Let’s start from the beginning. How did you come to the visual arts? Where have you completed your studies? How did your educational path affect your research?

In 2002, I wrote my BA thesis at the Faculty of Letters at the University of Bucharest. The subject was the House of the People, the second biggest building in the world after the Pentagon. Then, in 2004 I wrote an MA thesis at the Ion Mincu University of Architecture about the transformation of the public space in nineteenth century. To be more precise, the subject was the transition from a religious state to a secular state, in the case of Romania, and the effects that this transition had on the architecture of the local public space. To my surprise, I found out that the change was very literal, meaning that some churches in the center of the city were demolished and then, on the same location, public statues were erected. In 2006 I started research on my PHD. This time, the title was ‘Demolition as a cultural pattern in the case of Bucharest, Romania’. I was trying to argue that in the case of my city, demolition is used in a brutal and exhaustive manner each time the city needs to be modernized, as seen during the demolition campaigns of the 1850s, the 1980s and of the year 2000. At the same time, I was working for an NGO called the International Center for Contemporary Art. This was part of the Soros network of contemporary art centers in Eastern Europe. During doctoral school, I was also exposed to a very interesting class by a visiting professor from Belgium. His name was Hermann Parret. The class was on contemporary art. This mixture of academic information and research about Bucharest, the direct contact with the artworld I had within the NGO I was working for, as well as some of the classes I was being taught during my PHD created a deeper understanding of contemporary art as an interdisciplinary field. In the summer of 2006, when I lost my job at the NGO, I thought I might give it a try.

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© Mircea Nicolae from the series ‘Blocks of Flats’

2. You live and work in Bucharest. Your personal works critically engage the city. What struck you the most of your town, for better or for worse?

One of the first things that struck me was the fact that in 1998 when I started my university studies, Bucharest as a city still presented itself as an enigma, even on the academic level. Whether it was the vast demolition and reconstruction of the city in a matter of six years (1983 - 1989) during Communism, or the evolution of the city afterwards, one was left with very scarce academic data to explain the vast, and often mysterious processes that were shaping the city.
Later on I would come to know that this vacuum of information was intentional. The demolition of the city in the 1980s, the Revolution of 1989 and the subsequent capitalist development of the country were all under military control, either directly through state institutions, or informally, through corruption networks.  This might seem an overgeneralization and a bit of a conspiracy theory, but one can give some tangible arguments in defense of this view.

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© Mircea Nicolae from the series ‘Metal Doors’

To start with, in the 1980, the former demolition sites where the new city was being built were off-limits for the citizens of Bucharest. They were guarded by Secret Police patrols who made sure noone would get in. The plans of the works were secret as well, and they were drawn under the direct supervision and guidance by the leader himself, rather than by architects alone. The largest building site in Eastern Europe in the 80s was in fact a state secret, and it continued to remain so, even if it was placed in the middle of the city. Then, during the Revolution of 1989, the local Communist Party shot the leader and continued to rule the country afterwards. Very little changes in the structure of power occurred. Most of them were due to the change in generations and also due to the makeover from Communist politician to capitalist / democratic party member.  As a last example, most of the richest men in Romania are former Secret Police officers. (A good documentary about this is ‘Kapitalism, our Secret Formula’, by director Alexandru Solomon.)
So I would say that it is the enigmatic aspect of the city which was in fact most striking for me. This secrecy, and the constant perception of reality as misunderstood, inaccessible and mysterious, in its most mundane aspects. In time I tried to unravel this sort of collective mental haze. Maybe that was my main interest during academic study, and when I was producing art projects, afterwards. However, it took a very long time until I accepted the fact that many of the collective dysfunctions, whether social, psychological or architectural, were in fact a product of conscious will.

3. In the series ‘Playground’ you introduce the theme of modernization and the confrontation with the Communist past. I have recently been to a town in Serbia where I could appreciate this layering of architecture and social histories. How do you feel about this process and how is it changing the face of the city?

To begin with, this process of modernisation is not collective, and it is not democratic. We are in a very peculiar position, because the Communist past was not fully confronted publicly. As a consequence, any Communist remider is being treated with a painful ambivalence. Whether it be a factory, an urban or rural landscape, or even a public swimming pool, these locations are at the same time places of memory, of national pride, and also of deep, painful shame. 
The resulting behavior always tends to be very emotional. Most of the time the older looking buildings are removed, along with their surrounding landscaping solutions as well as their public furniture.
People want the past gone. But then they end up having no past, good or bad. In fact, this interpretation of history is mandated by the state and by its representatives. Because local history would open up a lot of discussion over the economic wealth of the political establishment, the past is devalued in official discourse, and it is also presented as something that is completely over. 

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© Mircea Nicolae from the series ‘Playgrounds’

However, in real life, the past continues to coexist with the present. Because it was not closed as a chapter in collective memory, it tends to come back as either a nuisance, or under the form of nostalgia.

When modernization takes place, it takes place in this vacuum of rational thought, in this vacuum of will to accept and confront the past, and as this turbulent emotional state of both nostalgia and grief.
So at the level of the citizens, things look quite arbitrary. They are not the ones taking the decisions anyway. At the level of the local administration cynicism is high. At the same time, interest is very low with regard to the delicate problems of collective memory and built heritage.
Their main interest is to generate a new image of the city and to spend and earn money while doing it. This is not inherently something bad, but it becomes debatable when modernization is chosen by default and refurbishment is refused by default. A post-Communist city needs to confront its local history, to preserve as much as possible from its own past successes of development (I am thinking here of Socialist Modernist architecture and urban environments of moderate to high quality) and to make room for the future within it. 

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© Mircea Nicolae from the series ‘Playgrounds’

What happens in Bucharest is mostly arbitrary from the point of view of continuity. At the same time, it is very logical from the point of view of short-term gain for the administration, as they gain money and votes. 

However, the change happens without any public discussion on the shape of the city. The citizens, the architects and the urban planners not affiliated with the institutions of state never take part in the decisions.
Most of this is quite invisible in the photos. Or maybe it surfaces a little bit when there are block of flats in the background, and a contrast is created between the old and the new.

4. What is your favorite project? I really like ‘The Bus Stop’. I find it rich in meaning and reading levels.

I also like it a lot. Compared with the other projects on my website it is also a bit different from a technical point of view. For this one, I was able to use a better scanner because I had a production budget, so this adds up to the pre-existing content of the images. At times, it’s also quite funny to take those pictures. Buses come at regular intervals, and even if you are in the same place after ten minutes, the image is completely different because of the way people move, or how they wait.

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© Mircea Nicolae from the series ‘The Bus Stop’

However, there is a level where I am less interested in the aesthetics of the image, and more in the bare recording of urban landscapes. Often, as a more or less informed viewer, it is less the composition or the visual interest that matters. Sometimes I do feel that the surrounding reality of my city is a very well-thought artefact. Because I have been living and observing it for some time, there are either private pleasures, or anthropologic observations that come up while taking photos.
I am not sure I am able to communicate many of these insights. This is where I feel that photography fails me sometimes, as compared with either performance or installation. If I take the ‘Façade’ project for example, I would agree with anyone who would tell me it is boring. At the same time I would remain convinced of its importance.
The temptation of making the photo more charming is very powerful in moments like these. Using either visual violence, nostalgia, or grief, one could easily come up with some short-term solution.
However, I am quite attached to the idea of the banal as banal, not as spectacular.

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© Mircea Nicolae from the series ‘The Bus Stop’

Also, I am just as attached to a type of photography that does not try to prove something if the subject matter does not really sustain that sort of effort. At the same time, I really dread any sort of expressionism and exaggeration for the sake of artistic effect. In a way, I have consciously chosen a very modest and unappealing type of photography. This is most evident in the ‘Facades’ and in the ‘Zebra Crossing’ series. I find this to be a very ambiguous, self-effacing and difficult approach. One could get a lot more with other means. Like shooting landscapes from the top of the hill with a very wide lens. That works too, and it’s beautiful, but it is not what I want to do. So I could say that from the point of view of what I have chosen in terms of visual aspect, and from the point of view of my previous interest in the city, it is more the city itself that I find interesting, and in this case, the photos are more like a result of that. It might also be that I have not given this a thoroughly photographic solution. However, I feel at times, when I do not hear the nagging of my own critical faculty, nor that of others, that it is this very quiet and unassuming type of image that interests me. The idea for the future would be not to give it up, but to become better at it, and open up the insights that I get from the object into a more visual realm that can be communicated more thoroughly.

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© Mircea Nicolae from the series ‘Zebra Crossing’

With this in mind, I like any of these projects as long as they help me see the city better, in a more detailed manner, and as long as they further my understanding of Bucharest. There is always a sense of beauty in this, but it is the beauty of the city that you discover through research, the beauty of the thing that fascinates and opens itself for understanding.
Maybe photography is only instrumental in this process, although it seems to have some finality in itself at first.

5. You have recently been invited to introduce your works on Filmessay's 'special guest' programme. I am very impressed by your videos as recordings of performances. I see them conceptually close to the avant-garde of the sixties and seventies that see art as a real practice. Compared to your photography series we find the same critical attention and willingness to discuss social or environmental issues yet the artist becomes part of the scene. Could you introduce us to your latest video works?

In the story that I told at the beginning of the interview there is a missing part. When I started to do art projects I engaged in a two-year attempt at doing one hundred interventions in public and deserted places.
By their definition, interventions are a mixture of conceptual art, site-specific sculpture and performance. So formally and conceptually, I think most of these videos come from that context.  Indeed, there is also a wish to attain that level of art as real practice. However, lately I have become aware of the inherent limitations of this very position. One of them is the fact that you can more easily change a mentality, rather than a given reality. Nevertheless, the action is still liberating, as long as it is aware of the modest scale of its impact.

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© Mircea Nicolae, still from the video ‘Minimum Wage’

The first video is called ‘Minimum Wage’. In short, I threw away the minimum wage, while walking on a given boulevard in the city. Some people noticed and started to pick up the bills. I was trying to make an symbolic gesture about the contrast between the high budget for the modernisation of a given area of the city and the very low income the inhabitants had.

The second video is called ‘Feces and Urine’. Here, I collected my feces and urine in jars, for a week. I then presented them as an installation and a performance at the Centre for Contemporary Dance in Bucharest.
Up until recently, Bucharest had no functional water treatment plant, even if it had absorbed the EU money to build one. Three milion people live in Bucharest, and all their feces and urine ends up directly in the Danube river, and then into the Black Sea.

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© Mircea Nicolae, still from the video ‘Feces and Urine’

The third video is called ‘How Bread is Made’. It deals with advertising leaflets that invade the mailboxes on a regular basis. I had noticed the people in my building made a special box for throwing the leaflets away as soon as they were received. Because advertisements are some sort of food for the imagination of the consumer, I made four loaves of bread out of a month’s worth of leaflets from the advertising thrash bin. Then I threw them away.

6. More generally I see your research as very versatile and experimental. Also it does not become an end in itself but it is open to dialogue and reflection on everyday ways of life in the contemporary world. What lead you to this and what are your plans for the future?

As I said above, I began producing art projects in 2006. That year I lost my job. Also, my lover left me and went to the US. In a way, I mention this moment in my life because I ended up in this position both as a result of my interest in a variety of topics, but also because of chance.
At a given moment I was forced to get out of the house. I ended up in the public space, and then in the art system. In time, most of my projects were shaped by an enthusiasm for the city I live in, and by a deep admiration for the artists I was discovering. I have many plans for the future, but they change rapidly, as with anyone else. Most of them depend on good health. To give a very dry answer, the most persistent of them is to finish the projects I have already begun and then gather strength, and move on.

© Mircea Nicolae | urbanautica

PETROCHEMICAL AMERICA: PROJECT ROOM

RICHARD MISRACH AND KATE ORFF

The Pomona College Museum of Art presents the traveling exhibition Petrochemical America on view from September 2 to December 19, 2014. Organized by Aperture Foundation, Petrochemical America represents a unique collaboration between photographer Richard Misrach and landscape architect Kate Orff. The exhibition brings into focus the industrialized landscape of the Mississippi River Corridor that stretches from Baton Rouge to New Orleans—a place that first garnered attention as “Cancer Alley” because of unusually high reports of cancer and other diseases in the area. The exhibition reveals traces of their collaborative process and features Misrach’s haunting photographs of the region and Orff’s Ecological Atlas, a series of visual narratives, or “throughlines.”

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The dialogue between photograph and drawing begins to unpack complex economic and ecological forces that have shaped this landscape, mapping cycles of extraction and transformation from the scale of the neighborhood, to the region, to the globe. Ultimately, this joint enterprise offers an expansion of both disciplines and a richly researched and concretely visualized study of the petrochemical industry and American culture, which has become intricately intertwined with its output.

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Born in Los Angeles, Richard Misrach has been widely exhibited and collected by major institutions worldwide. He is the recipient of numerous awards for his photography, including the Guggenheim Fellowship and four fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. Richard Misrach has a longstanding association with the American south. His previous monograph, Destroy This Memory, offered a record of hurricane-inspired graffiti left on houses and cars in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. On the Beach and Violent Legacies addressed contamination of desert and beach areas.

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Kate Orff is an associate professor at Columbia University and founder of SCAPE, a landscape architecture studio in Manhattan. Her work weaves together sustainable development, design for biodiversity, and community-based change. Orff’s recent exhibition at MoMA, Oyster-tecture, imagined the future of the polluted Gowanus Canal as part of a ground-up community process and an ecologically revitalized New York harbor.

A publication of Petrochemical America, with photographs by Richard Misrach and Ecological Atlas by Kate Orff, was released by Aperture in September 2012.

© Richard Misrach

PHOTOTALK WITH RACHELE MAISTRELLO

BY LUCIA PEDRANA

1. Tell us about your background: training, projects, your own way to approach photography.
I got BFA at IUAV in Venice and I spent time in Annette Messager’s studio in Paris before moving to Zurich where I specialized myself on Photography at ZHDK. This is my official education, my real training started in the little town in the North-Eastern Italy where I was born and raised. I grew up thinking that this place was the center of the world, even if this center wasn’t compliant with the reality I was picturing in my mind. For this reason - as a teenager - I started investigating the surroundings looking for hidden traces, invisible realities much closer to who I was. It’s been these archeology and sensitivity practices which combined built the basis to enlarge my imagination and the images I would create in the near future. I trust images since they saved me many times, I believe in their power. I’m much more interested in images connected to the reality and I’m completely fascinated by those which could be considered as evidences. Following those feelings I created my own way to use photography – not just for catching instants – to record present actions, the making of mechanisms of overturning the reality I usually create and document.

© Rachele Maistrello from the series ‘A Hero’s Life’

2. How has photography been used as media for public art projects?
Photography has a great power: it is strictly connected to a certain time and space. This makes photography a real media for interaction since the contingency can often free itself from the monumental attitude of public art. There’s not the moment in which a person decides just to pose; there’s the precise instant when this person recognizes himself or herself: in this performing phase we get to the real arrival. In a public art project linked to a recording device there’s usually a hierarchy between the artists and the participants, but if the same people represented in the photos are involved into the creation of its own presentation, there’s a real chance to build a relationship of mutual respect and independence in which the artist is like a guide, much closer to a biographer than a storyteller. This is what I’ve done during the project “a hero’s life”.

© Rachele Maistrello from the series ‘Beyond Reasonable Evidence’ 

3. “The History Within” is your last project, what is that about?

On April this year, I’ve been invited to propose a project for the square facing the Contemporary Art Museum of Ljubljana. Two strict guidelines to be followed: it had to be a public art work investigating the role of the artist in a determined community, and it had to respect the outdoor given space. The project had to be designed for a neutral space and for standing the weather.
I decided to leave my role and my context, to go and search for material inside the houses (and the life) of potential visitors unaware of my work. I tried to create an atlas of the images in each house I’ve been, in order to reverse the existing hierarchy of the Art-attached spaces where it is usual to exhibit a selection of the most important images intended to last and reach posterity. After taking photos inside the houses I printed them on ceramic on special tiles for outdoor spaces able to last for a long time: the images changed their own status, from vernacular ones to record of the present. It’s been very important not having a real selection standard, in this way all images have the same right to exist based on fortuity able to catch apparently meaningless elements in the present, getting emblematic in the future.

© Rachele Maistrello from the series ‘The History Within’

4. How was the interaction with people involved in the project work, and how was the reaction to the final result?
I think that if we behave in a sincere way, people can feel it. It’s probably this approach which made possible to me being invited inside people’s houses; after few lucky meetings people starting proposing themselves as active part of the project through internet of word of mouth. The interaction is been facilitated by this “request-reply” modality guiding the communication in between individuals. I’ve been thinking about all those cultural mechanisms (as buying and selling process) based on established codes of social interaction: the presupposition is to avoid embarrassment and get to the point; this allows to divert the usual rules. If you ask for something very specific people won’t face the awkwardness of the unknown, they’ll be much more open to help and understand what you want from them: this made me more comfortable in people’s houses and paradoxically able to create real exchanges. This happened during the final phase as well, while I was giving them something back revealing the results of our work. Many participants to the opening event shared with me that they’ve been very proud of showing something so personal yet being able to keep an anonymous status at the same time. A little secret it’s been created between the participants and their own city and this is been pretty rewarding for most of them.

© Rachele Maistrello from the series ‘The History Within’

5. “The History Within” has a blog and a very active Facebook page. What’s the role of Social Media platforms in a public art project like this?
I wanted to make sharable a process usually unrevealed, the making of a work of art. I tried to use Facebook in the best way you can do it nowadays, sharing something that happened for real, nothing replacing the reality in order to share the experience. I got both positive and negative comments, a lot of sharing … this supported me in opening the process to people involved. Many times after getting in a new houses, their inhabitants asked me info about people already involved, about the faces already seen on the blog until asking themselves what I would show of their life; we often decided together. At the same time – on Facebook and Tumblr – I did not share the images of the final series I’d print on tiles, I decided to show the leftover material as evidence of my experience inside strangers’ houses. It’s been my personal way to add value to something was not thought to be part of the final work, my way to make all the process much more popular.

6. Tell us about your future projects, where we can find you on next months?
I have some exhibitions already scheduled for the next months in Italy which will bring me to different areas in the center and the north of the country. You’ll can also find me in Zurich or Berlin where I often spend my time. For sure you’ll find me at least once a month at Alberoni (a beautiful beach of the Venetian island of Lido) taking a walk on the shore searching for traces of the Summer getting ready for Winter.

© Rachele Maistrello | urbanautica

NATURAE HUMANAE. THE NEW BOOK BY GIANLUCA GAMBERINI

BY STEVE BISSON

«What should I use my eyes for? To look at what?» This is the question Monica Vitti asks herself in Antonioni’s movie Red Desert, in her role as the neglected wife of an industrial manager, as she becomes alienated from the world around her, which gets increasingly dehumanized. She walks unsteadily, as if on the verge of suicide, almost as if she wanted to burden herself with the destiny of a whole country, an Italy that has chosen to leave behind war and defeat, and join the race for industrial development, which is going to change the face of the country. 

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Half a century later, Gianluca Gamberini seems to echo her thoughts in his photographs. ‘Naturae Humanae’ is a project about the landscape, the nature in particular, produced by the kind of industrial modernism that Antonioni, as a director, already seemed to expose very early on, at the beginning of the 1960s. The photographer looks at traces and signs left on the ground, like scars on a huge patch of skin. It is almost as if, in order to forget a war, Italians chose to fight another one, against themselves and their past guilt feelings. Gamberini reflects on the results of this. There is no annoyed reaction on his part, only detachment. And not everything seems to be lost. There is still room for something.

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«You wonder what to look at. I wonder how to live.» This is Richard Harris’s answer to the protagonist, who is suffering under an increasing desertification of meaning. The real question is whether we know ourselves enough to know what we want. So Gamberini, in deliberately taking a stance towards what he sees – a consumed society, more than a consumer society, seems to call into question the values of a useless life, spent in looking without seeing. 

© Gianluca Gamberini | Urbanautica

HOME IN THE BLOCKS. A HONG KONG STORY

BY DUSTIN SHUM

Walking by a newly built public housing estate one day, I saw families happily moving into their new flats. The smiles on their faces were a stark contrast to how I felt thirty years ago when my parents brought me to the housing estate that was soon to be our home. It was located on top of a remote and desolate hill, with few people or cars around. Even birds did not seem to want to visit. Looking at the bus stop that served only one bus line, I felt abandoned, exiled, and almost broke into tears. This painful first impression remains in my heart and I have always wanted to, one day, break free from this cage. The fact is, however, that my home is still in a block of that public housing estate. 

Hong Kong’s real estate prices are among the highest in the world. Public housing thus becomes the shelter for many who cannot afford to own property. According to the 2010 statistics of the Hong Kong Housing Society, thirty percent of the territory’s population lives in public housing. When I realized I was still one of the 30%, I did not feel discouraged. Rather, public housing has come to represent typical living spaces in Hong Kong. Since we moved into this block, I have been trying to put feelings into this place, trying to treat her as ‘home’. And I know ‘home’, besides its ethical definition, is certainly not just a 30 square-meter box, but where an entire community lives.

Thirty years have passed, during which the design of public housing in Hong Kong has undergone many transformations. One of the major changes is that the government has been trying to erase the image of public housing as ‘cheap rental’ or ‘housing for the poor’ by emulating the facilities and designs of private residential developments. To show the progress of our society, some old, dilapidated housing estates have been renovated, but this cannot cover up the dark reality: low-income, unemployment, disabilities, family problems, new immigrants, and the ageing population of the residents. An eerie melancholia permeates these blocks, in sharp contrast with their bright facades. At the same time, a wave of nostalgia marks society. A few years ago, when the demolishment of Lower Ngau Tau Kok, a public housing estate built in 1967, began, the site quickly became a destination for sightseeing as well as photography. The less-than-humane design of early public housing suddenly became the catalyst for community bonding. The harsh living conditions in the old estate were romanticized, becoming a platform for collective nostalgia, making everyone feel good about life in it. 

The tragic 1953 fire in Shek Kip Mei prompted the development of public housing. Although public housing has existed for more than half a century, many still regard it as a kind of ‘temporary housing’ that few would consider it as permanent home. The lack of coordination and facilities for public housing tenants can be found in many government policies’ small details. For instance, using shortage of land as an excuse, the government has recently proposed to squeeze every inch of public space in existing housing estates to build more public housing. As another example, the Hong Kong Housing Authority endowed “The Link Real Estate Investment Trust” to operate and manage shopping malls in most public estates. Although these shopping malls were minimally managed in the past, they were at least serving the needs of the residents. The Link REIT, however, as a listed company, naturally works for the profit of its shareholders. It has introduced large chain stores into the shopping malls, increased the rent to market price, and consequently pushed out many small shops, wet market vendors and eateries. These small businesses used to provide services and products at lower-than-market prices, so the relatively low-income residential population of the housing estates could still enjoy reasonable quality of life. Now they have to shoulder the burden of expensive commodities. The shiny interior of the malls after renovation misled people into believing in the Link REIT’s advertising slogan — “Enhancing people’s lives”. In fact, such monopolized business environment actually limit people’s choices. After all, luxuriously decorated living space is far from the reflection of the true quality of life. 

The rough appearance of old public housing blocks, made of plain grey cement, was a fitting metaphor of the low-key, practical mindset of their residents. When I woke up one morning and noticed that the opposite block had been painted in shades of pink as if it were a kindergarten or amusement park, these visual noises disturbed my otherwise quiet life. As Alain de Botton writes in The Architecture of Happiness, the way we look at architecture is not any different from the way we look at a person: To feel that a building is unappealing may simply be to dislike the temperament of the creature or human we dimly recognise in its elevation - just as to call another edifice beautiful is to sense the presence of a character we would like if it took on a living form” I am now looking at an unstable bloke, his decrepit face covered up in heavy make-up, flashing an ignorant smile. 

These experiences have shocked me but also motivated me to carry out this shooting project. I do not aim to do research into the function or design of public housing, nor do I want to engage theories of urban space or conduct visual research. I only hope to create a dialogue with these buildings through photography, a dialogue with space. My photographs cannot possibly capture everything I wanted to express, but they projection my psychological landscape as a resident. Wandering through the spaces of various public housing estates, I saw a wide variety of old and new architecture and felt no complacency. Observing the life and death of these blocks reminds me of an analogy of Ancient Rome that Freud makes in the introduction of Civilization and Its Discontents. In the “Eternal City”, he notes, buildings from different historical periods co-exist and overlap in disharmony. The ruins of damaged or burnt architecture accumulate traces of culture, time, and people. They are the visual manifestations of the mental lives and habits of human beings, informing us that we will always be surrounded by our own past: “nothing once formed in the mind could ever perish, that everything survives in some way or other, and is capable under certain conditions of being brought to light again, as, for instance, when regression extends back far enough.”

Blocks is perhaps my Ancient Rome, through which I look back at my past and watch, rather helplessly, people being forced to invest feelings of “home” in these buildings. In addition to exploring the bizarre living conditions inside these artificially engineered residences of happiness, this series is also a memorabilia of the thirty years of my life in public housing. 

The Salt Yard, an independent art space, will exhibit BLOCKS Phase II by Hong Kong photographer Dustin Shum between October 17 and December 14.

© Dustin Shum

PHOTOTALK WITH MARTIN CREGG

BY STEVE BISSON

1. Can you briefly describe your career - how did you get to St Kevin’s College of Further Education, Dublin? What directed you towards a teaching career?

My teaching career began in 2006. I never really gave it serious thought until the opportunity arose by chance. At the time I was working in a Dublin photo shop and continued to do so two years into my teaching role. So, a double life of sorts to begin - switching from delivering lectures, tutoring in the morning, to being subservient in the afternoon. Making ends meet. I was fortunate enough to have licence to do whatever I wanted within a three hour teaching remit. A lot of hit and miss material and modes of delivery at first, but I learned the craft of teaching and found my identity as an educator, by just being thrown into it - without prior experience or formal training. It was supposed to be a short-term arrangement. But, once students started to respond, I suppose, to what I could offer, things began to change. Certainly the course began to change, from 10-12 students in 2007 to becoming one which is quiet recognized within the hierarchy of photographic education in Ireland. Currently we have close to 70 students on our books, many of whom progress directly to 2nd year of degree programmes, many strait into the world of work – a high standard and a high expectation for a course at our modest level.

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© Martin Cregg from the series ‘Suspended State’

2. Could you introduce us to photography and educational activities/programme at St Kevin’s College? What are the main challenges you face in teaching?

We are part of a community college, of course, not a University or Technical College. We deliver a Level 6 Diploma as our highest award (Level 8 is equivalent to a degree) within a very tight budget and a lot of resource limitations. However, it’s the only course of its kind in this country and we pride ourselves on its uniqueness. Certainly I have grown to love and respect the characteristics and the ethos of this level of education. It’s cheap, democratic, inclusive and there is real sense of honesty and integrity in what we try to achieve. We educate a very broad demographic of student, at a very diverse level of skill and educational background. The staff are generous, passionate, approachable and very hard working professionals, who genuinely, by and large, put the interests of the course and the students first. We have built this photography course together, from very small beginnings, and work beyond vocation to keep it alive, to keep it running - day after day, year after year. It’s a big wrestle. Generally, our level of education (in Ireland we call it PLC - Post Leaving Certificate), gets the widest social profiles of all adult education or third level institutions in the country. We link with young adult education centres, unemployment centres, outreach programmes and high schools as well as, in our context, camera clubs and existing colleges that teach photographic modules. We draw a lot of retirees and, recently, a lot of people who are hit by the circumstances of the recession in Ireland. Essentially, we facilitate people from all walks of life, of all ages – 17 to 70 and beyond. With such a broad demographic, we are always conscious of each individual’s background and the welfare of our students is paramount for us.

© Martin Cregg from the series ‘Fading Landscape’

To maintain the course is one challenge, but to create an atmosphere of trust and compassion where education is a condition of growing, maturing, at times personal rebuilding, is another. Teaching photography, consequently, is only half the job. At our level of education, we need to be conscious of responsibilities that are beyond delivering information or simply instructing. As a teacher, you are expected to act as a constructive guide for people, to offer a map through the wilderness if necessary - not just professionally or creatively, but personally. The pastoral care element to our work can be all-encompassing. In art education, in any form of education, however, it can prove to be indispensable. Our obligation to get to know our students, to offer ongoing counsel and pastoral support has, without question, contributed significantly to the strength and character of work produced at St Kevin’s College over the last number of years. Much of our graduate work has explored issues of identity, gender, family and home, for example. Bringing intimate worlds, personal stories, real life experiences into the public realm has become a feature of our end of year shows. The work has, at times, been a visual expression of some very sensitive personal experiences or internal conditions. The personality of the end of year shows are perhaps a consequence of the environment we establish, coupled with the teaching formula we set in place, from the beginning of the course itself - the little building bricks embedded on the first days or weeks or months of the term.

© Martin Cregg from the series ‘Fading Landscape’

It may be an unusual strategy for what might be termed a “beginners” course, and certainly we are a beginner’s course, but in my own role over the last number of years, I have prioritized what could be called ‘meaningful’ imagery over any technical or skills aspects from the very start. I believe that students need to begin their journey by viewing photography as a way of exploring and expressing important issues relating to their own life - to see photography as a way to connect with social life, the immediate world and with the self. Photography is, of course, also as a way to question all of these things. The issue of technique and skill will always follow. But better to explore what is really worth looking at than executing perfectly yet another image of a bridge, or a plant or a pet as the only intention. Granted, when presented with images with these or similar characteristics, I would never allow my opinions to get in the way of a students development at such an early stage. I am conscious of the sensitivities of people and the necessity to be appropriately constructive and encouraging - especially at the foundation level.

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© Martin Cregg from the series ‘Suspended State’

The fundamental approach of my own area of the course is, however, first and foremost about shaking off preconceptions people have about photography, its role, its uses, its purpose. Regardless of the fact that we are under the remit of a foundation skill-based level course, in my experience, people who are introduced to the photography programme at St Kevin’s almost immediately begin to see a new value for photography - as something that can alter the way they see and feel and experience the world. So our exploration of the image world demands a level of critical thinking and discussion surrounding a broad spectrum of issues that are social, cultural, historical, psychological, emotional meanings. Sometimes the use of imagery and the conversations that they encourage, can also open up a pathway to other issues which some people may never get the opportunity to discuss or disclose in any other situation or environment. With the development of the students own work, I employ several photo-elicitation techniques, encourage text and prompt students to discuss their lives, their perceptions and the human condition in general. They are encouraged to not be afraid or ashamed about discussing anything openly within the environment of the classroom. Students own images become almost like stimulus cards in this process. My role is often to facilitate discussions and mediate the conversations. The teaching techniques of Wendy Ewald and Nathan Lyons, for example, have been very influential in how I approach the profession. The photography class can and has become a platform for students to share and understand broad experiences of social and mental life. In the end isn’t that a key component of what makes education so important.

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© Martin Cregg from the series ‘The Photo Course’

Consequently, the craft of balancing the teaching of a visual art with what you could call a support group sensibility can absolutely offer a secure grounding for students to explore and navigate the world of photography. My suspicion is that this balancing act is necessary sometimes, in order to pull strong meaningful work out of insecure self-doubting people. As an educator, I have seen transformations that have astonished me. Many of my students over the last number of years have been so brave in what they create and what they disclose through their work – about who they are, about what they have experienced, about the conditions of life. Not that every student is provoked into exploring their emotional side of course. Far from it. Students always have licence to develop whatever type of practice suits their personality - be it commercial, documentary, fashion, etc. But, my experience of working in St Kevin’s has reinforced my own conviction about how art or expression, in any form, can be a cathartic and a life-affirming process. Certainly, confronting any issue face-on with a camera can be a very therapeutic and empowering practice. Time after time, with many of the successes of our course, I have found this to be the case. My experience has also reinforced my own personal faith in the principals of education, this level of education, and what it can offer people - regardless of background or age or personal limitations. I am very proud of who we are and what we do.

3. In 2011 yours ‘Photo Course’ project was short-listed for the FOAM Talent Call. Tell us about it.

 Photo Course is really about two things - the building itself and about my own peculiar sensibilities.  At first it was a May project - I only took photos on the last day of college, when I was little more sensitive to aspects of the building that, in the normal daily grind of working life, would be overlooked, or seem insignificant. It’s at those moments in our final days, when the sound of the clock seems amplified, that I found I could focus and disappear into the fabric of the building. In a tactile way, I looked for some energetic imprints from teaching and learning photography against the ‘dead wood’ of the empty institutional environment. I set out to explore how the educating space is shaped through our mental and physical interactions - how we develop and perform ideas, day upon day, year upon year and to amplify the relationships between photographic discourse, practice and it’s environment.

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© Martin Cregg from the series ‘The Photo Course’

The work is also about loss, I think. I began doing this project out of an emotional impulse. Teaching can be all-consuming if you allow it to be. One can get devoured by the workload and the stress, the impatience and ambition, the uncertainties and emotions of others. In the end, I think there must be an acceptance that there is and should be nothing in return. Perhaps this is where the sense of emptiness comes from throughout the work. Certainly, I find that at times my job pushes me into a very lonely place. It is part of the cyclical and transitional condition of the job.The work represents some aspect of these feelings, these cycles and transitions, from one year to the next - a certain reality of transient, ephemeral relationships which are built year upon year after year between myself and my students in this building that has become such an important part of my own life.

4. Landscape is a central topic of the work ‘Midlands’. Many recognize in photography a documentary ambition as happened before with social issues. However, often there is an attempt to record the presence of the photographer. The photographer somehow feels the need to build his/her landscape. You wrote that Midlands are ‘under constant construction and re-definition’. So is there something utopian in all this? A humanist, and perhaps functional distortion of reality.

Utopian, of course. The concept of the ‘midlands’ project was prompted by a map drawn up by the National Spatial Strategy in 2002 – a grand plan for Ireland, which, on paper, sought to reshape and reconstruct a number of key regions on the island of Ireland as a whole. I was immediately drawn to it. The ‘Midlands’ – a disputed region, in many ways, was allocated a number of major strategic infrastructural projects designed to transform the region. The initiative centred on a massive plan to introduce an inter-triangulation of “gateways” and “Hubs” in the central part of the Country and was designed to kick-start an economic revival and encourage a dynamic regeneration and re-population of what was seen as a potential core area of the country. Over a ten year period my ‘Midlands’ project explored and mapped the physical transitions which are as a direct consequence of the promise of the National Spatial Strategy, and the physical effects of the failures of this plan - from 2004, until it was finally abandoned in 2013. Throughout the cycles of economic and cultural change, I set out to represent the changes in and on the landscape - from the promise of progress, through the frustrations of stagnation and subsequently to the anguish of collapse. So, cyclical processes of erasure, construction, abandonment and decay became my main focus. While the work represents topographic alterations which were both subtle and monumental, minute and large scale over this period of time, it also represents the porous nature of the imagined borders of the region itself, questioning the very concept of what the ‘Midlands’ is – an undetermined geographical entity, under constant construction and re-definition.

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© Martin Cregg from the series ‘Midlands’

‘Midlands’ is taking the form of a publication, due for release in early 2015. It will mark 10 years of work. In terms of photography, I am always drawn to projects which, hopefully, have an enduring value – address something of my time, consider a historical aspect, challenge me to explore the medium itself. But, with midlands, I feel I have offered a little contribution to the social and cultural reality of contemporary Ireland and am happy that the work can be considered and appreciated in a wide variety of contexts from the world of sociology and History to the world of Art.

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© Martin Cregg from the series ‘Midlands’

In terms of your question/comment about the ‘presence of the photographer’. One of the key features of this work is the relationship between the grand plans and maps which appear on paper and the notion of being a microscopic observer in the real world. Strangely, I was always conscious of this as I photographed. On a personal note, this on-going ritual of photographing these transforming landscapes has become an important feature of my life really. The project started when I was a student in 2002 and has taken me right up to my late 30s. It has always offered me a sense of purpose and vocation. I have always carried with me a strong sense of mission and a determined commitment to documenting some aspect of my time. It also charts my own personal development as a photographer. There is a naivety at the start, references to some practices I was interested in and applied to my practice as I moved forward - such as Land Art, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, etc. Further, towards the middle of the work there is perhaps a more mature grasp of the practice and of representation. For me, I can even identify some turning points in my practice. The work was and is my education – a self directed commission, a personal journey, a growth of ideas and approaches which helped me to form my own identity as a photographer. But, it is an ongoing process. In a way one never stops being a student of the medium.

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© Martin Cregg from the series ‘Midlands’

5. You have recently started an interesting series ‘re.call’. It reminds us of the meaning of imperfections. Kind of warning to the hyperreal age, such as the digital and technological one…

Not a warning. I hope the work doesn’t come across as a pathos piece about the loss of analogue photography. It’s anything but. I think it’s just another little contribution to the memory of a particular popular use or mode of photographic practice. Its something that has disappeared from the landscape of photography – it’s the loss of a ‘failure’, maybe (of analog), a loss of a technical frustration of the practice. I worked for many years in photo labs. All of which are now closed, as far as I know. In one place, we worked the late shift where bags and bags of disposable cameras from the pharmacies around Dublin would flood in to us during the evening hours. Quality control was a necessary role then. It was exhausting trying to spot and recognize the gathering imperfections that became visible on each film reel only after they were printed. Re-call has a nice double meaning. On the one hand to recall is part of the act of memory, on the other it is a term used regularly in the line of production for faulty products. I gathered and collected all sorts of weird and wonderful artefacts from those days. Finally, I feel I may have some ideas about how to give all this material some shape and some form. I’m considering a book at the moment.

6. Is there any show you’ve seen recently that you find inspiring? Why?

I don’t get to travel much these days, so have limited first hand experience of exhibition work. But the Sochi Project in Dublin this summer was lovely. Great to see such incredible work utilizing such a wonderful new venue. The work itself is superb and the PhotoIreland Festival which brought the work here, has made a good contribution to Irish life. I also got to see the installation of Lorenzo Vitturi's work at the photographers gallery in London this summer. It was very exciting!

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© Martin Cregg from the series ‘Suspended State’

7. Three books of photography that you recommend? Why?

Tough. Well, ‘The Pond’ by John Gossage is one I recommend in regards to editing, and flow of imagery. It’s size. It’s pretty much a perfect book of photography. Its joyful to navigate and engrossing work. Everything is so well considered, really ahead of its time in terms of how photography can effectively translate into a book form. A lot of crafty self made publications irritate me, I must confess - especially ones which champion the quirkier design aspects over the maturity of subject. I tend to gravitate towards works which have, maybe, modest and enduring qualities. I’m drawn to something where I can feel the labour and struggle of the author to explore and produce the work. I am quiet stubborn in many ways when it comes to what I really value in photography. Recently ‘The Canaries’ by Thilde Jensen caught my attention. Mikael Subotzy in Collaboration with Patrick Waterhouse have an incredible exploration of ‘Ponte City’, Jonannesburg. Both have a lot to look at, a lot of information. Both feel really complete. The form they have taken is also appropriate to the work. I admire both works as I admire anybody who puts their heart and soul into producing and contributing something to the photographic world. However, just some additional mentions, books such as Mark Cohen’s ‘Dark Knees’, or Robyn Maddock ‘3’ and anything by Daido Moriyama always make me want to take pictures. They have an effect. It’s what I look for - something that inspires and motivates me to make work.

© Martin Cregg | Urbanautica

HIDDEN ISLAM BY NICOLO’ DEGIORGIS

BY COLIN PANTALL

There are millions of Hindus, Christians and Buddhists working in Saudi Arabia, but not one recognised church, temple or chapel to accommodate their beliefs. You can’t send a card at Christmas, or light a candle at Diwali in public. You’re allowed to have your beliefs, under sufferance, but in no way are you allowed to express them.

It’s simply terrible and it’s all enshrined in repressive laws that Saudi largesse has spread around the Muslim world with very visible effects. How different that is to the situation in Western Europe (where I live). Here we are free to believe whatever we wish. We are free in how, why and where we worship.

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© Hidden Islam. By Nicolò Degiorgis. Rorhof, 2014

Or are we? This is from the introduction to Nicolò DeGiorgis’ new book, Hidden Islam: “In Italy, the right to worship, without discrimination, is enshrined within the constitution,” reads the text (by Martin Parr). But then it continues; “There are 1.35 million Muslims in Italy and yet only eight official mosques in the whole country. Despite being the second largest religion after Catholicism, Islam is still not formally recognised by the state.”

There may only be eight official mosques (including one in Rome built with Saudi money) but there are hundreds of unofficial mosques, mosques that are hidden away behind anonymous facades, that have no domes or minarets to offend Catholic sensibilities and are to all intents and purposes invisible. That’s why the book is called Hidden Islam.

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© Hidden Islam. By Nicolò Degiorgis. Rorhof, 2014

It took Degiorgis five years to make the pictures in the book, negotiating access to these unofficial mosques and photographing them during Friday prayers. He photographed them both from the inside and the outside and then integrated these elements into the page design.

It’s a beautiful design. It starts on the outside with the dust jacket; it’s decorated with a map of North East Italy that shows the region Degiorgis photographed and connects to Degiorgis’s background and sense of being an outsider. “I live in South Tyrol,” he says, “a German speaking province in Italy. Since I was born I was confronted with minority and identity issues. I grew up bilingual, speaking Italian at home and German outside so my family has an immigrant background. So that connection to minorities and immigrants comes probably from there.”

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© Hidden Islam. By Nicolò Degiorgis. Rorhof, 2014

So you open the book and it is divided into 8 categories; Warehouse, Shop, Supermarket, Apartment, Stadium, Gym, Garage and Disco. And then you get the pictures of exteriors of these places. They are small, inconsequential pictures that join up to give a sense of places of worship that are both hidden and temporary. They are black and white and have strong diagonal dynamics; despite their anonymity, on one day of the week at least, everything converges here.

These exteriors are visible when you flip through the book. If you want to see the second half of the book, the colour pictures of people at prayer, you have to turn the pages to open the gatefold. This makes you work to see the pictures and gives the sense of opening those exterior doors, of peeking in to see this Hidden Islam. The sequencing is such that the narrative of these roughly follows the sequencing of the rituals of prayer, starting with the washing of feet and ending with an empty corridor.

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© Hidden Islam. By Nicolò Degiorgis. Rorhof, 2014

Most of the pictures are of people at prayer in interiors and exteriors of every shape and form. Some are stadiums that are hired by the hour; you can feel that the next day a basketball game will be played there, some are of apartments that are filled to all four walls. Sometimes people are praying outside in car parks, in back yards; wherever there is space they have not been moved on from.

The dynamic is such that you end up flicking from the inside picture to the outside trying to match up the locations. However, not all the interior shots do match up with the exterior; an anomaly that goes against the tight typological format of the book. But in some ways, that anomaly fits with the overall theme of the book; which is how people, beliefs and lifestyles are forced to squeeze into places where they are not entirely welcome. As with everything in Hidden Islam, there is a rationale for even the anomalies.

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© Hidden Islam. By Nicolò Degiorgis. Rorhof, 2014

Hidden Islam was self-published and is being marketed directly by Degiorgis’s own publishing company, Rorhof Books. It was the hit of the recent Photobook Bristol in June and is continuing to get attention at the European summer festivals. And for good reason. Hidden Islam is a beautifully realised book that deals with a sensitive topic in a sensitive manner. It’s multi-layered (even the title has multiple interpretations) but with a humanist element; Degiorgis believes that it is necessary for migrant communities to be visible, that nations need to recognise that their identity is tied in to a migration and change. With Hidden Islam he is making a hidden world visible and revealing something about both these immigrants’ world and his own Italian community. It might not always be comfortable, but it is essential. 

Book details
Publisher: Rorhof
Author: Nicoló Degiorgis
Introduction: Martin Parr
Format: 90 pages / 45 gate folds, hardcover, 16x24cm
First edition of 1000 
Publication date: May 2014
Photographer’s website

© Colin Pantall | PhotoEye

PHOTOTALK WITH JIEHAO SU

BY STEVE BISSON

1. Tell us about your approach to photography. How it all started and memories of your first shots?

Photography to me initially was a way to escape from reality, or more precisely, to reconnect with memory in a different way. My mother passed away unexpectedly when I was 18. For the first time I began to reflect on life itself and think about what “life” meant. That year I got my first camera, a TLR, from a friend. I fell in love with it the moment I saw those color slide films on the lightbox. I began to photograph everything in my daily life and the neighborhood, including the campus where I lived which was on the Pearl River in Southern China, a small fishing village near the harbour. I was always lured by the serenity and beauty in ordinary scenes.

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© Jiehao Su from the series ‘Borderland’

2. How did your research evolve with respect to those early days?

In those early days, photography to me was mainly a way to connect to memory. In 2009, I became a photojournalist for a newspaper after school, shooting one breaking news story after another in China’s third largest city. However, like the Bible says, “there is no new thing under the sun.” After reporting repetitive events everyday for a period of time, I decided to leave the newspaper. Next, my attention in photography shifted from the outer world to my inner self. This is the time when I started the series Summer is Almost Gone. In recent years, my perspective has shifted back to the outer world. This time it is with a different perspective. After a few years traveling, I saw myself gradually calming down to the point where I could perceive the world, with a more balanced and reflective standpoint, a more macroscopic and objective view and a more genuine and serious interest. One characteristic that has remained constant throughout my work is the projection of personal memories. In my recent work, although the distance between me and the subject is maintained, an observant viewer will still detect intimacy in these photographs. When I am portraying people, I feel like I am taking self-portraits.

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© Jiehao Su from the series ‘Summer’s Almost Gone’

3. Tell us about your educational path and how it affected your relationship with photography?

By the time I got hooked on photography I was already studying other subjects in college. My strong curiosity in photography later led me to pursue training in photography at Beijing Film Academy. Although the study there was more technologically oriented, I nevertheless had a good opportunity to learn about photographic history and other art related subjects which further expanded my knowledge of the field and reinforced my interest to pursue a career in photography. I believe in the ability to learn and grow constantly. At the early stage of my career, I attended several workshops such as the Angkor Photo Workshop, from which I learned how to work as a professional photographer and how to develop my own visual language. I was once supervised by the Magnum photographer Antoine D’Agata. He is really a talented artist with a unique vision. I think these workshops are a good opportunity for young photographers to closely interact with mentors and learn from them.

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© Jiehao Su from the series ‘Borderland’

4. You have participated to several group exhibitions in China.From your perspective, how would you describe Chinese contemporary photographic scenario?

Although Chinese contemporary photography is a relatively new enterprise, recent years have witnessed rapid developments especially with the rise of some talented and diligent young photographers. In general, Chinese photography still has a long way to go. I think at the current stage it is important for the Chinese photography community to keep an open mind and participate and communicate at the global level.

5. Could you introduce us to the project ‘Borderland’?

After wandering for a long time in China, I grew increasingly curious about issues of family, homeland, identity and existence. This has led to the initiation of the project Borderland in 2012, an ongoing project deeply rooted in my personal history. I travel across Eastern and Southern China, and seek the borders of urban and rural areas. I use both fiction and nonfiction as themes in my work to rebuild my self-awareness. With these tools I am seeking to represent a version of home, as well as find comfort in reconnecting with the past. On one hand, Borderland is a personal work of remembrance, tenderness and self-consolation. On the other hand, it also provides my perspective of a contemporary China in its process of urbanization.

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© Jiehao Su from the series ‘Borderland’

6. Your work reflects the desire to tell stories, with strong personal notes. A strong narrative ability that takes us back almost to cinema. What about ‘Summer is Almost Gone’ series?
The series Summer is Almost Gone was made at the turning point when I was leaving my homeland of Southern China and moving to Beijing in 2011. It was the second time I separated from my family after my mother passed away. I traveled in Southern China and Southeast Asia during that summer and autumn. Summer is Almost Gone is an intimate inquiry into my personal memory, imagination, emotion and longing. The sorrow, though diluted by metaphors, hints, and meditation, is still rendered visibly in this project. 

7. In recent years, China has been photographed , often by foreign authors, in a repetitive way. Highlighting the most impetuous transformations of cities and infrastructures. Your works instead gives space to people, to special moments and details of everyday life as in the series ‘Homecoming’. What do you think of all this?

The theme of Homecoming is “Gu Xiang,” which means “Hometown” in Chinese. I was born in Southern China and left my hometown for university. During these homecoming visits in 2012, for the first time I began to look at my hometown from an observer’s perspective, pondering over people’s daily lives and reflecting upon the connections of past, memory and identity. My aim was to search for beauty and poetic grace in domestic life.
In my work, China is explored from the perspective of “homeland.” This may be one of the fundamental differences between my approach and those of foreign authors. What is home? This is a question I as a Chinese person cannot help but ask. It is also a question that a whole generation in China who have left the homeland they have lived in for centuries would ask. Each era has its own limitations. I think for me it is important to understand and accept what reality is in the first place. This is the reality of our current stage of evolution. Instead of accusing or criticizing, I look for beauty and grace in conflicts.

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© Jiehao Su from the series ‘Homecoming’

8. Do you have any preferences in terms of cameras and format?
I feel that it is more and more difficult to work with the analog camera nowadays, though I still enjoy working with them. I am open to using digital media as well. I choose different cameras for different projects, from 135 DSLR to 6x7 Medium Format Camera and 4x5 View Camera.

9. Is there any contemporary Chinese artist or photographer that influenced you? Other authors that interest you now?
As someone who was born and raised in China, someone who is strongly influenced by the Chinese culture, I naturally find my spiritual home in the Chinese traditional philosophy. My photography is therefore deeply rooted in my Chinese cultural background. Having said that, my artistic creation is mainly influenced by Western artists. Many Western artists have directly influenced my work, such as Gerhard Richter, Thomas Struth, Robert Adams, Joel Sternfeld, Paul Graham, Rineke Dijkstra, Elina Brotherus and many more. And I really love the music of J.S. Bach. I feel like there are connections between music and visual arts.

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© Jiehao Su from the series ‘Borderland’

10. Three books of photography that you recommend?
It is really difficult to choose among the many great books of photography I have read. In terms of general books, I would recommend The Nature of Photography by Stephen Shore, among many others. As for readers who would like to share my personal interest, I
would recommend Still by Thomas Struth and Portraits: Retrospective by Rineke Dijkstra, among many others.

11. Is there any show you’ve seen recently that you find inspiring?
There are many recent shows that I found interesting and inspiring. To name a few, the California based artist Jo Ann Callis’ solo exhibition: Honey at Rose Gallery in Los Angeles; The Nightingale, an interesting video work I saw at Metropolitan Museum, New York by British artist Grace Ndiritu as part of the exhibition Now You See It: Photography and Concealment; and Carrie Mae Weems’ retrospective at Guggenheim Museum, New York, etc.

12. Projects that you are working on now and plans for the future?
I am still working on the project Borderland. This is my main project now and I plan to finish it next year and make a photobook of it. As for future plans, I think I will pursue a MFA program in the United States in the near future.

© Jiehao Su

IGOR OMULECKI AND THE FAMILY TRIPTYCH

BY JAKUB ŚWIRCZ

Family Triptych is a one-of-a-kind work, its constituent parts revealing only now, when arranged next to each other, the laborious process of change that has been taking place in Igor Omulecki’s life and work over the last five years. With the pregnancy of his wife, Daria, comes a discovery which at first the artist is unable to say much about; he tries rendering it visually instead. In the opening series, Lucy (2007-2009), the wife’s changing body is in the foreground, but it is in the background that true revelations occur. The couple stand at the entry to a new space that is opened up by the child they are expecting. This does not mean that the Triptych becomes, with the very first image, a parenthood narrative or a paean to a new life. Rather, the images should be treated as an impulse for the change at hand, the beginning of new vision. Hinting at where the artist looks is the dominant green colour, the nature surrounding Daria, as did Venus before. In the whole Triptych, fauna and flora are given space in the images as a rule. Thus Lucy gives rise to a process of confronting and relating to a rediscovered world of nature. We are reminded of this by one of the photographs, with traces of chemical processes corroding the image, which imitates organic tissue. Not out of perversity, though – that is missing from the Triptych – but in an attempt to overcome the contemporary distinction between the manufactured and the natural.

The arrival at the garden’s edge is underscored by the title of the first series. Lucy is a special name in the history (and ‘herstory’) of mankind: the name given to a 3.2-million-year-old hominid skeleton discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, known as the ‘mother of man’. A reference to an ancestor so distant defines the time of this new space. It is not rationalistically divided into the past, present and future, but into remaining, lasting and passing down. As the folk wisdom goes: nothing gets lost in nature. Lucy remains present in our instincts, dreams and anxieties. Omulecki explores also such areas: our fears are hidden in thickets, flashes and masks. By evoking Lucy, we can return to our animal nature. And so Daria flexes her muscles for the camera, emanating a primeval power, embodying an active attitude.

Coming to the fore in the new territory, the subconscious causes the Triptych to assume a form much different from Sally Mann-style representations of family life. Rather, it is closer, through the gestures or disguises, to the work of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, which was also familial, for pursued within the context of a close-knit community and constituted by it. The American experimental photographer used masks and roles for his protagonists in order to free himself from the rationalising formulas of everyday life and their constraints. The transgression the Omulecki family performs has a lot in common with Meatyard’s experiments. Here, too, boundaries are delineated according to artificial criteria. In the work both of the author of The Family Album of Lucybell Crater and the author of the Triptych, that which is usually outside of social norm finds a perfect complement in folkish colours. The primitivistic feel of some of these images is no longer surprising; they are slightly naive, vital like folk rituals which one needs to believe. Both authors also share an interest in Eastern spiritual teachings.

If Lucy is the beginning of the journey into the new, It (2009-2010) marks its further direction. Nature, which the artist strives forward with his family, appears in new guises. This is still a garden inhabited by various creatures and endowed with a memory much longer than the human one. We also get to see the artist’s father with his grandson, the figures rendered naturalistically again, in symbiosis with the environment, though it needs to be said that the symbiosis is achieved by courtesy of materials very much human. Black plastic foil, draped like cloth, veils a plinth on which sits an elderly man. Somewhere else appears another costume, like a repetition of Lucy, indicating continuity of material. But we are most intrigued by a peculiar work, all in drawings made by a children’s hand, sketching, stroke after stroke, the portrait of the artist’s deceased friend. This is the climax of the middle part of the Triptych. In this odd, intergenerational collage, It – the unnamed – assumes the form of a dialogue. The experience of a new life can be bound up with notions of loss. Sons resemble their fathers and grandfathers; the ancestors are present in them. In this part of the triptych, the artist explores the fear of potential loss, visiting the darker recesses of the garden.

The odyssey through the garden is circular, starting from the centre of the first parental impulse. The initial phase will be connected with enthusiasm and vitality, remaining focused around the mother and child. The second one introduces shadows, dangers, as atavistic instincts emerge; following their trail, the artist broadens the category of the family. It now includes all those that the herd trusts, those who share its experiences, including the painful ones. Those who are similar to it. This is evidenced by the third part of the Triptych, called Waveherd (2010-2013). Here change is ultimately manifested. The sole ‘family picture’, representing the artist’s family as an archetypal herd, follows a different paradigm than the tender, casual portraits of Lucy. There is more humbleness here, more sense of distance of someone who stops at the edge to preserve the harmony unfolding before him. The transformation is complete, the artist and his family regaining their place in the natural world. Integration occurs. Hence also a change of scale. Abstract images dominate, intentionally repeated, lending rhythm to the process. This applies, in particular, to the moon, which regulates the cycles of waves. But the artist only seemingly departs from the origins of his journey around the garden of nature; cosmos, shown here, contains the beginning too. Now it becomes complete, and the family becomes identical with the world.

Put together, Igor Omulecki’s Family Triptych resembles the multilayered images viewed through a kaleidoscope. Here, too, the successive stages of returning to a balance with nature overlap on each other, blurring the lines where one part ends and the other begins. The triad’s eclectic form enhances this sense. Although in most cases the artist uses the photographic medium, this is a photography that is hard to classify. He often avails himself of ephemeral installations, simple sculptural forms or kinetic actions, all of which he captures in still images as for-camera events. In the finale, the Triptych’s formal breadth allows us to see how freely associations run, how the cross-references accumulate, arranging themselves in the shape of a genealogical tree. They are footnotes to the story of Lucy, an auctorial treatise on natural history. It needs to be said that Omulecki keeps a careful hold of the narrative, maintaining a legible stream of consciousness. The legibility is helped by the distance we gain with each circle completed around the garden. As a result, like the artist himself, the viewer is able to see more of the space they are discovering, explore the background.

The work of regaining the natural, that which stretches beyond the threshold of the contemporary home, would not be possible without including one’s family. Also in this respect the Triptych is a unique project. Rather than being solely the artist’s realisation, it involves his loved ones, who become part of the herd, adopting the rituals and searching together through the garden of nature. The work bears their imprint, and they themselves are reflected in its different fragments like in a mirror, be it in drawings, archival childhood photos, or a piece of wood pinched from the artist’s mother, which assumes the proportions of an artefact here. Participation, an important element of the whole project, means that the space of discovery becomes real.

This flow of experience, indispensable for the Family Triptych, is something that draws a parallel between Omulecki and an artist from outside the field of photography, David Medella. Both weave their works by tuning into experiences and maintaining an open attitude, building on their web of relationships. Both work in constant movement. Listening to Medella speak about his foamy fountains, one can easily think of Omulecki’s clouds. Both forms imitate nature in order to better express feelings and hard-to-verbalise ideas, to maintain their dynamics.

Imperceptibly, as the journey unfolds, Omulecki’s garden smoothly turns into cosmos. Clouds appear, the moon, and finally a nebula of stars. We see the broadest panorama, the oldest of a family’s relationships, its historical studies begun at the garden’s edge.

© Igor Omulecki

KEMPENAERS: ENJOY THE PROCESS

Breese Little, Londono
19.09.2014 - 25.10.2014

Jan Kempenaers: Enjoy the Process is a substantial mid‐career survey of Jan Kempenaers’ new and recent work. BREESE LITTLE will present a focus on the Antwerp‐based artist’s output across the ground floor gallery, introducing the breadth of Kempenaers’ work beyond his most renowned images. This will include a number of photographic series and individual images largely unseen in this country, accompanied by Kempenaers’ recent experiments with screen‐printing and a full display of the artist’s books.

Kempenaers’ photographic body of work is highly considered and meticulously compiled. Most series are restricted to a few carefully chosen shots of striking compositions. A glimpse of the artist’s website shows this archiving procedure, which shaves down any surplus imagery in favour of crucially representative images. The photographer presents a spectacle of cities and nature linked by understatement. Unusual vantage points and vistas are achieved without the crutch of Photoshop, resulting in a characteristic purism. S.F. – L.A. (2010), on display for the first time in the UK at BREESE LITTLE, documents a road trip down the West Coast of America, privileging plants, trees and cacti along the route, whether in the desert or the central reservation of a highway.

© Jan Kempenaers, Spomenik #17 (Kolašin), 2009

Kempenaers is best known for the stark photographs of his Spomenik series, iconic images charting World War Two memorials commissioned by General Tito in the 1960s and ‘70s in the former Yugoslavia. Crucial to his career and recent development, a number of Spomeniks will feature in the exhibition, focusing on those that are not much exhibited in this country. The Spomeniks will be exhibited alongside new works entitled Ghost Spomeniks, monochrome re‐workings of Kempenaers’ original views of the monuments.

© Jan Kempenaers, Spomenik #4 (Tjentište), 2007

Screen‐printing was likewise the focus of a 2014 residency at Frans Masereel Centrum, Belgium, a departure from Kempenaers’ signature approach of rigorous structure into unusually free form images, initially inspired by a similar foray into abstract photography by Lázló Moholy‐Nagy (1895 ‐ 1946). Alongside his affiliation with KASK/School of Arts Ghent, Kempenaers collaborates on site‐specific social art integration projects and artist workshops. A recent initiative resulted in the artist book Satellite Building: Kasper Andreasen & Jan Kempenaers, which will be on display during Enjoy the Process, alongside Kempenaers’ photographic books with Roma Publications. 

© Breese Little | Jan Kempenaers

WAWRZYNIEC KOLBUSZ

SACRED DEFENSE

Sacred Defense is a story of producing artificial war images, from raw materials used in their making to their social reception. It not only traces the existing modes of construction of fake war narrations and images. It mainly creates new war-related simulacra in digitally amended satellite images of Iranian nuclear installations.

imageSacred Defense is a tantalizing game, in which alluring images make us believe we see the war. We are looking at illusions, however. We follow how the war simulacra of social and political importance are being constructed within different spaces and narrations. A cinema city, constructed only for the purpose of shooting war movies, is a self-referencing space, created not to be experienced itself, but to become an image of war. Museums mimic the wartime reality in the smallest detail; with wax figures of fallen martyrs allowing to meet dead heroes again; and plastic replicas of antipersonnel mines sold as souvenirs. A nation is curing its trauma by enhancing its own image - by beating the world record in the number of aesthetic nose surgery; yet this means wearing new bandages.

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From a play between the real and the unreal, a copy and the original, the author leads us to the point where he creates his own, new simulation. He amends satellite images of the Iranian nuclear installations with mutually exclusive versions of destruction, which may be caused by the US/Israeli strike. Buildings destroyed in some images stand intact in others, and all parallel versions of the same event are presented on a single satellite map.

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On the one hand, we have alternative versions of destruction, but at the same time we see a multiplication of the same strike, a repetition required, to use Milan Kundera”s view, to create real meaning in historical events. Yet in his self-referencing simulations, the author does not use past events as a basis, but instead is plotting alternatives of an event that never happened despite being widely discussed in the media.

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Sacred Defense is embedded in the post-war reality of the Iraq-Iran war (1980 - 1988), an internationally forgotten conflict which cost nearly a million lives and caused a deep national trauma with consequences comparable to the impact of the Second World War on Western societies. In the Iranian historiography, this war is called the Sacred Defense War; a very particular concoction of religion and war.

© Wawrzyniec Kolbusz

RUSSIAN SELF-PUBLISHED BOOKS

UNSEEN PHOTO FAIR

18th September – 21th Semptember 2014 will take place Third International Unseen Photo Fair in Amsterdam, which is focused on undiscovered photography talent and unseen work by established photographers. Organizers traditionally pay much attention to the photobooks. The Unseen Book Market is an integral part of Unseen’s festivities. It celebrates the independent publisher, beautiful books and their creators, and provides a meeting place for book makers and book lovers. It is the place to meet the artists and will provide a stage to present new publications.

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FotoDepartment’s stand with Russian self-published books will be presented at UNSEEN - Photography Fair Amsterdam Book Market for the first time. Here will be presented about 20 newest editions of Russian authors from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan and Chelyabinsk including several mentioned books of young Russian photographers: 

- Kirill Savchenkov. Iceberg / Short list MACK First book award 2014;
- Elena Kholkina. Did we ever meet? / Winner of the Rock Your Dummy Prize at a fringe event Le Photobookfest 2013 in Paris;
- Jana Romanova. Shvilishvili / Selected for the shortlist of the 50 books in the International Photobook Festival 2014, Kassel, Germany;
- Julia Borissova. The Farther Shore / Selected for the shortlist of the 50 books in the International Photobook Festival 2013, Kassel, Germany

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Some books will launched for the first time: 

- Sergey Artemyev / St-Petersburg. “Olympia” - on example of Sochi Olympic games aggressivly media translation artist noticed the loss of influence of media;
- Irina Zadorozhnaia / St-Petersburg. “The drill charted a point…” - abstract-philosophic photobook, attempt to catch a thinking process through image;
- Katya Yushkevich / St-Petersburg. “Four letters. First - L.” - project in which the  artist makes experiments on himself, reflect on our society and on the surrounding reality;
- Anna Vahitova / Kazan. “Marker” - examining the notion of trace in literal and metaphorical sense through the features of photographic medium;
- Fedor Shklyaruk / Moscow. “On Aether” - how intangible appears through the photography;

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© Fotodepartment

NG SAI KIT: AN EXPANDED DEFINITION

BY STEVE BISSON

Some say that if art could be explained in words it would have no reason to exist. Whether we like it or not, I believe that an art work cannot be read without taking into account the evolution of the artist. A path which insists in the ongoing process of art history. 

Speaking of Ng Sai Kit’s visual research we cannot but recognize that the definition of landscape, rather than the landscape itself, is a key aspect of investigation or a necessary pretext. The artist proves to be willing to challenge the ‘seeing’, and thus the mind, before any description of others.

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© Installation view ‘dis/close’ at Osage Gallery, Hong Kong by Ng Sai Kit

In this sense, Ng Sai Kit does not try to please the human eye imitating reality, or trying to represent possible impressions; he strives to build a new reality, that must feel true in all respects. Rather than describe faithfully the surrounding world, he breaks down - with a ‘cubist’ attitude - the reality in levels, shapes, spots and synthesizes in a single series different points of view, which in reality could not be adopted simultaneously. Of this principle of attention we can find numerous references in his earlier works, and particularly in the Meta Landscape series where he seems to experience a deconstructive strategy. 

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© Installation view ‘dis/close’ at Osage Gallery, Hong Kong by Ng Sai Kit

Of this lack of interest in the realistic rendering of the landscape and hence of human figures, we find an almost final statement in the most recent series based on Instagram solutions. This particular technique led him to obtain images of an apparent incomprehensibility, as they are completely different from what our experience is accustomed to when seeing things.

The landscape is split in a multiplicity of points of view to get an almost “total” view of the landscape. In the transition from the vertical grey sections of Meta Landscape to the explosion in multiple colored faces of Instagrams [Sai Kit has no work titled “Instagrams”. Should it be “the Instagram pictures” ? Or “The Faces of the Other” ?] we recognize the gradual breakdown of the uniqueness point of view, and in fact the introduction into the photographic representation of the element time. The frequent presence of diorama - whether as vernacular fragments of nature or of human bodies - demonstrates even more a need to perceive different moments of the same scene. Ng Sai Kit suggests that reality cannot be read and understood at a glance instant. It must be perceived with a precise time of reading, which allows to analyze the individual parts, and re-build them mentally, to come gradually from the image to its meaning. 

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© Installation view ‘dis/close’ at Osage Gallery, Hong Kong by Ng Sai Kit

The simultaneous viewing of different points of view of figure applies in particular to the series Faces of the Other that deliberately deceives the observer. In the reproduction of Botticelli’s Venus - crumpled in the ground - I see the female faceted appearance of Picasso’s Femme nue dans un fauteuil but above all the inexorable decay of the image itself.  

Almost as in Mimmo Rotella’s torn iconic posters, Ng Sai Kit’s faces establish an ambivalent relationship with reality. Photography goes beyond the reality, but cannot ignore it. The artist works a renewal movement tended to get out of the picture, to get hold of a new physical size of the existing. 

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© Catalog ‘dis/close’ of Ng Sai Kit by Osage Gallery, Hong Kong, 2014

I hear therefore an echo of the critic Pierre Restany. The tearing anonymous, the sudden outbreak of a face, the appearance of a body, take on unexpected importance since they are equipped with a demystifying overexposure. The images have become more real than the myth that they claim to embody, more real than the reality they represent. A doubt may cross our mind when we look at Ng Sai Kit’s photograph depicting a picture of Jimi Hendrix printed on someone’s tshirt.

The work of Ng Sai Kit, and its orientation to new perceptual approaches to reality, follows in the footsteps of the new conceptual realism, and in the wake of those artists that in the context of 20th-century consumer society and industrial expansion sought to reaffirm a humanistic ideal. The more we observe the same thing, the more we empty it of meaning, and this is why the artist must act in the opposite way, uploading new meanings to reality in a final attempt to come to a new awareness.

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© Catalog ‘dis/close’ of Ng Sai Kit by Osage Gallery, Hong Kong, 2014

It should also be noticed in this body of work a significant experimental aftertaste, that is expressed by a tendency to abstraction, into something purely mental, without any relationship with the concreteness of reality. Furthermore, I see Ng Sai Kit’s interest for a sculptural translation of objects. The artist seems to seek the essential aspect of the objects beyond the outward appearance, made of colors and volumes, which may change over time. There is confidence and creativity in the images created by the Hong Kong-based photographer, yet I see also the ability to cut out significant moments from reality, as well as a desire to translate the pictures into pieces of simplicity that joined together may constitute a new poetics of being in a place. 

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© Catalog ‘dis/close’ of Ng Sai Kit by Osage Gallery, Hong Kong, 2014

In all this we can not but recognize in Ng Sai Kits’ latest research a willingness to question the role of photography, and to respond to the growing demand on its future. “Is photography over?” was the provocation launched by the curators Sandra S. Phillips and Dominic Willsdon at the symposium held by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in April 2010. Certainly we know that the digital revolution has transformed the landscape of photography. As Trevor Paglen put it «Photography theory and criticism has less and less to do with the way photography is actually practiced by most people (and as we will see, most machines) most of the time».[Trevor Paglen ‘Is Photography Over?, Still Searching Blog, FotoMuseum Winterthur] In this sense, the attempt to embrace, almost evocatively if not provocatively, a new technological means as Instagram, demonstrates the author’s desire to get away from anachronistic contentions, to focus once again on the content of the photograph, and to explore the implications of an increasingly expanded definition of photography.

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© Installation view ‘dis/close’ at Osage Gallery, Hong Kong by Ng Sai Kit

We are left with a question: what is happening to the landscape of Ng Sai Kit? Is it fading? Was the philosopher Jean Baudrillard right when he wrote that «Every photographed object is merely the trace left behind by the disappearance of all the rest»?  [“Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact”, edited by Nicholas Zurbrugg, Sage Pubblications Ltd, 1997]

::dis/close: A Solo Exhibition by Ng Sai Kit
Osage Gallery, Hong Kong
05.09.2014 - 30.09.2014
Curated by Chloe Chu, Yohsuke Ishizuka

If Instagram killed photography, what is Ng Sai Kit doing on it? For the last two years, the established Hong Kong photographer has been an active Instagrammer. Rather than your usual selfies, food-porn, and travel diary however, Ng’s Instagrams of abject spaces and imageries probe the found physical and cultural frames that are enclosed within his own. Through Ng’s series of Instagram works, dis/close aims to investigate how social dynamics are embedded within our information networks, and technological hardware, determining what and how we see, as well as the frictions and synergies between social media platforms and photographic languages.

© Ng Sai Kit | Osage Gallery

JONI STERNBACH AND THE DISCOVERY OF THE NEW YORK SUBWAY 1975-1980

THE PASSENGERS

Rick Wester Fine Art, New York
06.09.2014 - 25.10.2014

Joni Sternbach, known internationally for her extensive documentation of surfers and surf culture using the archaic wet-plate collodion tintype process, had 25 years of experience photographing before delving into her 19th century process revival. In what may seem to be a huge surprise to all who know her solely for the unique images on metal plates, Rick Wester FIne Art is very pleased to present ‘Joni Sternbach: The Passengers’, an exhibition of photographs dating from the mid-1970s to 1980 when she was extensively photographing underground in the New York City subway.

© Joni Sternbach, The Passengers (Father and Daughter), ca. 1975

This recently rediscovered body of work establishes her as a humanist photographer capable of great empathy and sensitivity at a time when “street photography” invariably reflected the formal and disassociated conditions of the era. In The Passengers, Sternbach posits herself as an intimate observer, a passenger herself but one capable of objective distance. Invariably, any photographer working in the New York City subway draws comparisons to Walker Evans’ Many Are Called. Unlike Evans however, Sternbach does not rely upon a hidden camera to capture the alienated and self absorbed state of many riders. She has an eye for the dispossessed, whether it be an older gentleman seated by himself, lost in thought, or a father, the lone occupant of a subway car, his attention poured into the baby carriage before him. Children are a central theme to the work, in retrospect acting metaphorically for the photographer’s own nascent talent just beginning to find its way in the world.

© Joni Sternbach, The Passengers (Woman from Clarck Street Station), ca. 1975

Sternbach received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts, New York in 1977, followed by a Master of Arts from New York University and the International Center of Photography in 1987. From 1976 to 1983 she worked as a professional black and white printer for various clients including Magnum Photos, New York; Danny Lyon, Dennis Stock and Horst P. Horst. The rare vintage prints on view attest to her talent. Most of the images exist in a limited number of copies and many are unique. To more fully represent the work, recent prints of certain images have been produced in small editions.

© Joni Sternbach, The Passengers (Corner Seat), ca. 1975

Joni Sternbach is a New York based photographic artist specializing in the tintype, a wet-plate collodion process invented in the 1850s. Her first monograph, Surfland (Photolucida, 2009) is illustrated with 52 images of tintypes of surfers. Her first exhibition at RWFA, Surfland Revisited 2006-2011 was held in May 2012. She was also featured in the exhibition Not Long Hidden from January - March 2014. Another monograph, Promise Land was published by the UK-based boutique publisher Café Royal Books in 2013. Earlier this year, The Passengers was also published by CRB and quickly sold out of its edition of 150. Next spring Damiani Editore, the Italian book publisher, will release Surf Site Tin Type, a retrospective catalogue of images produced since Sternbach’s first monograph Surfland was released in 2006.

© Rick Wester Fine Art | Joni Sternbach

PURE PHOTOGRAPHY AT THE SOUTHEAST MUSEUM

PICTORIAL AND MODERN PHOTOGRAPHS FROM THE SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY ART COLLECTION

Southeast Museum,
12.09.2014 - 14.12.2014

The evolution of photography as an art form has been influenced by countless individuals, thematic styles, and chemical processes. At its earliest, photography was largely utilized to document images of what surrounded or intrigued the public eye. Daguerreotypes captured portraits of military and presidential figures. Large format cameras were brought onto the battlefield to portray the true nature of war. Carte de visites revealed foreign lands and served as souvenirs of a journey. As more individuals gravitated towards the new process, the idea that photography could be a form of art rather than a form of documentation captured the attention of many artists, most notably Alfred Stieglitz. The result was the formation of the Photo Secession and the establishment of Pictorialism.

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© Alfred Steiglitz, The Steerage, 1907

"There were men, women and children on the lower level of the steerage….The scene fascinated me: A round straw hat; the funnel leaning left, the stairway leaning right; the white drawbridge, its railings made of chain; white suspenders crossed on the back of a man below; circular iron machinery; a mast that cut into the sky, completing a triangle. I stood spellbound for a while. I saw shapes related to one another-a picture of shapes, and underlying it, a new vision that held me…" - Alfred Stieglitz

© Adolf Fassbender, The Sailors Menace, 1930

Pictorial Photography emerged from the shadows of a “point and shoot” craft into an aesthetic where artists strived to create painterly, romantic images. Through the use of soft focus lenses, photographers believed they had found a unique outlet for artistic expression. More importantly, the utilization of labor intensive printing processes such as the Photogravure and Chloride Print allowed the artist an opportunity to mimic brush strokes, eliminate the sharpness of a photographic image, and create rich tones in printed images. This stylistic choice is evident in Adolf Fassbender’s The Sailors Menace. The photograph’s soft, undefined lines could easily allow the image to be mistaken by the naked eye for a painting, etching, or drawing.

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© Berenice Abbott, Fulton Fish Market, c1949, from the series, Changing New York 

However, as the processes associated with the medium evolved so did the concept of photography as an art form. What was considered the preeminent method to express artistic vision through the camera soon fell out of fashion as a more modern concept of photography emerged. The artists who once embraced the illusion of manipulated photographs, such as Paul Strand, began to favor a straighter version of photography. This form of photography, termed Pure or Straight, focused on recreating a scene as truthfully as possible without any manipulation. It was the opposite of its pictorial ancestor of the early 1900s. As such, Modern Photography was born.

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© Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Retrato de lo eterno [Portrait of the Eternal], 1935

There was no longer the need for direct manipulation in photography in order to justify it as art. The pure beauty of a photograph was beginning to shine through as Modern photographers learned how to capture images that had always surrounded us, yet were seldom seen. As a result, images emerged that portrayed men at work, angles of light highlighting a woman’s profile, and the inner beauty of a Calla Lily. Unseen by many on a daily basis, these subjects were now captured and intensified by the wonder of photography. The modern ideal was to make these unique perspectives seen and in doing so create an aesthetically pleasing, pure photograph.

© Southeast Museum