Robert Knafo on Fri, 20 Sep 2002 23:04:03 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> PhotoEspana review

Look At Her: A Report from the International Photography Festival

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Posted by Robert Knafo on September 19, 19102 at 15:53:34:

Look At Her: A Report from the International Photography Festival

By Robert Knafo

Encountering Francesca Woodman’s photographs at this summer’s PhotoEspana
2002 festival in Madrid, it was hard not to be aware of certain crucial
autobiographical details: that the artist made most of her astonishing
photographs while she was still a teenager, and that, appallingly, she
took her own life at the age of 22. Woodman constructed and shot
surrealist black-and-white tableaux that featured her and other young
women, usually nude, and subjected (often through a virtuoso deployment of
mirrors) to symbolic erasure, fragmentation, objectification,
dismemberment, disappearance, and mortification. Woodman’s images stand as
so many exquisitely contained explosions of psychic unease—specifically
what, for Woodman, appears to have been the deep ambivalence of being
newly possessed of sexual identity and desire. If, in Woodman’s work,
photography has located its distaff Rimbaud—if her work reads like the
particularly sublime product of a brilliant but tortured adolescent’s
self-regard—it also speaks more generally of its time, of the Sixties and
Seventies, as a watershed period, when women, and some men too, departing
from the intersection of Conceptual art and feminism, took up photography
(among other media) to take us on a grand and still-resonating critique of
conventions of sexuality, identity and gender. In fact, work from that
period stood as a kind of grand fulcrum at this year ’s PhotoEspana,
organized under the artistic direction of Oliva Maria Rubio, and in which
no less than sixty exhibitions of photography were presented under the
theme of "Femeninos: Identity From the Perspective of Gender." The
festival was distributed across various venues in the city, featured work
that spanned virtually the entire 20th century, including fashion
photography (notably a Helmut Newton survey, and an overview of the
little-known but important Vogue photographer Lillian Bassman) and
documentary and journalistic portfolios (the American Elliott Erwitt, the
Italian Federico Patellani, the Iranian-born French photographer Abbas).
But the beating heart of the event could be located in the artwork made by
(mostly) women artists in the ideological and aesthetic ferment of the
Sixties and Seventies. Just as a fresh new spirit of self-awareness and
definition can be sensed in Woodman’s images, so too can it be picked up
in Nan Goldin’s contemporaneous "Nan as a dominatrix" (1978), a
full-length shot of the artist standing in a kitchen, her full-frontal
confrontation of the camera and the black leather S&M dress she wears
speaking of a kind of defiance and assertiveness at the level of personal
style and lifestyle. (Goldin, represented in a survey that featured her
magnum opus, "Ballad of Sexual Dependency" (1981-1996), her cataloguing of
the sub-cultural waterfronts, won the PhotoEspana 2002 Grand Prize). You
sense the dissolution of unitary conceptions of sexual identity in the
early Seventies gender-bending self-masquerading of German artist Jurgen
Klauke, who was grouped with three other generally similar-minded younger
artists, Vlasidlav Mamyshev, Yurie Yagashima, and Tomoko Sawada, in a
group show titled "Self". And you found yourself in the presence of a trio
of ground-breakers in a group show titled "Corporeal/Cuerpo Real," which
brought together the body-centric photography and video work of Marina
Abramovic, Adrian Piper and Carolee Schnemann. Already by the early
Sixties Schneemann, in various iterations of a series titled "Eye Body,"
was employing photography to record stage-set interiors whose walls are
painted in an aggressive gesturalism (one could indeed construe these
photos, on a formal level, as a novel co-optation of the macho Abstract
Expressionism of the preceding couple of decades), and whose spaces are
charged with accumulations of subliminally threatening elements (glass,
snakes, wiring, piping, window frames). Schneemann appears invariably nude
in these dream interiors, locating herself within an interiority furnished
along converging axes of mythology and sexuality, theatricality and
metaphor, vulnerability and power. In the video "Relation in Time"
(1976-88) and related photo stills, Marina Abramovic and her then-husband
Ulay stand face to face and howl at each other for minutes on end, to the
point of abject exhaustion—a work fully emblematic of the artist’s
particularly visceral and ritualistic brand of the personal-as-political.
Adrian Piper, who has addressed both sexual and racial identity over her
career, was represented by photographs of herself standing in an
indeterminate and enveloping gloom, features and contours on the verge of
disappearing--imagery that readily, and poetically, evoke the relative
invisibility of women of color in…well, choose your cultural arena.
(Conspicuous by her absence in this company was Cindy Sherman—perhaps
understandably so, given her already wide and regular exposure on the
international art circuit, and the Festival’s emphasis on
under-appreciated and new talents.) This generation of artists had
spiritual grandmothers and fathers of course, many of which were given
pride of place at PhotoEspana. Among the highlights of the festival were a
group show of twenty women photographers from the Twenties to the Fifties
who, largely under the influence of Dada and Surrealism, did much to
rewrite the rules of female representation and self-representation.
(Notable among them: Berenice Abbott, Claude Cahun, Hannah Hoch, and Grete
Stern). Also remarkable was a survey of some 180 portraits by August
Sander, in whose depiction of the Weimar-era avant-garde one repeatedly
encounters depictions of women in various states of androgynous and
gender-ambiguous dress, like so many precocious harbingers of the wider
sexual revolution to come a half-century later. It was a no less
fascinating aspect of the festival to see how, given the younger
generation of photographers has taken on similar themes and subject
matter. Common to many younger women artists who have taken up the camera
as a principal artistic tool is a certain deadpan and virtually
documentarian confrontation of their subject, an approach in decided
contrast to the often poetic, metaphorical styles of their immediate
predecessors—for example, Corinne Noordenbos’s series "The Modern
Madonna," consisting of single and group portraits of new mothers holding
their babies, Manabu Yamanaki’s full-length, wrinkled-as-prunes black and
white nudes of super-annuated Japanese women, or Nobuyoshi Araki’s
black-and-white "Girls’ Story series from the lte Eighties, of Japanese
adolescents, all seemingly lost in the gravities of their awkward age.
Another tendency to be noted among younger women photographers is the way
in which they seem attracted to narrowly focused aspects of women’s
experiences and life passages. Yamanaki, Araki and Noordenbos respectively
make old age, adolescence, and motherhood their principal concern; while
Daniella Rossell dwells on social status and its expression (perhaps the
right word is flaunting) as personal style and hyper-conspicuous
consumption, in her pictures of super-rich socialites of Mexico in their
homes. But represented too were newer talents who took us into
quasi-narrative, metaphorical territory. Perhaps the most remarkable among
these was the young Finnish artist Elina Brotherus (b. 1972), who uses
photography to show herself seemingly occupied in the events of daily
domesticity, daydreaming in a bedroom, standing at her bathroom sink,
etc.—mundane activities and settings, but through which the
artist/protagonist nonetheless manages to co nvey a haunting emotional and
existential gravity. With these exhibitions, and many more too numerous to
mention here, PhotoEspana 2002 more than made good on its mandate to show
how women have been represented in and through photography over the last
century, and the ever-developing story of what happened when they took
hold of the camera to do the representing themselves.


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