“Isn’t it Freaky When Your Life Becomes History?”

The Paris Review published a response to an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York entitled, ‘The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951’, by photographer and writer Lucy McKeon. You can read it here. It’s a lively and provocative piece, observing her own responses to the images, as well as those of others around her.

Before street photography had become accepted as an art form, the Photo League wanted to merge socially motivated documentary with formal artistic sensibility and were ‘alive to the reciprocity of politics and aesthetics, life and art.’ For me this recalls, among other projects, the work of The Free Cinema group in Britain in the 1950s that had been inspired by the work of Humphrey Jennings and the Mass Observation Project, which demonstrated a heightened awareness of aesthetic devices for political persuasion.

In her piece for the Paris Review McKeon makes a provocative statement that, ‘this historical meeting of social justice and aesthetic value seems today both canonical and impossible.’ Her argument is informed in part by present political realities (‘The financial crisis of the 1930s helped provoke the hard-nosed solidarity of the Photo League, both its politics and its aesthetics, whereas our own crisis is shadowed by skepticism on both fronts.’) and in part by the present social status of photography and spectatorship.

Jerome Liebling, Butterfly Boy, 1949

Faced with Rebecca Lepkoff’s Early Morning Rush Hour (1947), McKeon touches upon photography’s relation to the supernatural – to an in-between space – by way of its relationship to light and time, and the aesthetic effect this provokes.

She demonstrates the formative role of the imagination in the way we engage with photographs when two different pictures from the show become connected in her imagination, due simply to their proximity in the exhibition. A boy from one particularly compelling picture becomes the subject of another in her mind, with no bearing on reality: ‘I imagine that Butterfly Boy is the child in the left-hand corner, off school for a day, his schoolboy attire hastily discarded, rumpled in a pile left for his mother to wash.’

Referencing Susan Sontag, McKeon also remarks on something else that complicates a spectator’s relationship with photographs today: ‘an acute sensitivity to photographer-subject relationships has bred within the medium an identity politics that’s not easily negotiated’, she writes. Photographic criticism that is too concerned with identity politics can compromise the radical aims of these social documentary projects. Combined with expanding technologies, the uneasy connection between spectatorship and consumerism, and the financial motivations of the modern business of photojournalism, there are very real reasons for being cynical of documentary photography today.

She poses another provocative question: given the prevalence of identity politics in representation and spectatorship theory, ‘Is there an equivalent of the Photo League today? Or would today’s Photo League be something like class tourism, even if backed by a Marxist middle-class ethos?’ McKeon’s consideration here to me recalls the perpetual debate over the ‘value’ of photography today; a somewhat hyperbolic legacy of most postmodern engagements with photography.

In 2010, the San Francisco Museum for Modern Art hosted a symposium aptly titled, ‘Is Photography Over’ that was designed to address such concerns. An archive of contributions to the event are kept here. The artist and writer Walead Beshty argued that these debates represent a crisis, not for the medium, but ‘a crisis of the institutionalization of art itself. . . academia or museums. . .of paying the bills, of funding lines, departmental autonomy, curriculum, intellectual fiefdoms, library tabs, allotted real estate, and canons wrapped in the guise of a broad philosophical conundrum.’

There is an imperative to consider these conditions for photographic production in the midst of socio-economic flux. But what is at stake if an awareness of these debates become a preoccupation for photographers working in a documentary capacity today? In addition to this we need ways of understanding the role and affects of the medium upon spectators. There is a subtle irony that the question of whether or not socially motivated documentary can exist today (or ‘is photography over?’) compromises the possibility of its actual existence. Is it best to get out there and find out? Whether or not we can ‘trust’ the politics of a photographer, can we afford some certainty, or at least integrity, in our own, as photographers ourselves, or as spectators?

Elsewhere 2013 has been declared “a triumphant year for the art of documentary” by Sight and Sound magazine. Amongst the recommendations listed, writer Robert Greene extolls the documentary filmmaker’s ability to exploit the “mysteries of observational cinema and the power of restraint.” Photography is perhaps not over at all but experiencing a change in method. Whilst putting an end to notions of “objective” representation, there is a clear support for “a clear-eyed observational look.” Greene also celebrates this elevation of documentary and a break from its “subservience to journalism.”

The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

Back at the Photo League retrospective, looking at pictures of protest marches from the 1940s, the present moment may not seem so radically different from the past, where political turmoil still runs like wildfire around the world. The events in our own life can often become clarified through photography by allowing other isolated events to be seen from some historical precedent; perhaps one that is still in formation. Any perceived differences between ‘then’ and ‘now’ are as significant as the similarities, and photography can facilitate the understanding of both, even if it is tinged with the perpetually tragic necessity of retrospect.


Utopia London and the Waiting Room of History

Tom Cordells’ film from 2011, Utopia London, opens with an evolutionary tale of London’s cityscape, from its early days of domination by religion to that of finance today. Such stories are often recalled with an air of inevitability to them, and are dependent upon a conception of time as something homogeneous; like a dark empty tunnel with the light of progress perpetually up ahead in the distance. The writer Amit Chaudhauri, remembering a poster that hung on the classroom wall of his private school in Bombay that depicted the evolution of man from homosapien to European man, remarks that the poster gave an impression of history as if could be captured in one sweeping movement, leading to an inevitable conclusion.

What about everything else? Caught in between these points are the trappings of stories and lives that remain untold, or yet to be told. Official historical narratives rub away at these other narratives, removing their tracing marks; yet they remain, as Chaudhauri describes them, in ‘the waiting room of history.’ Time is not indeed a dark, empty tunnel and neither is history, as he writes in his essay for the London Review of Books,

‘Homogeneous’ and ’empty’ are curious adjectives for ‘time’: they are more readily associated with space and spatial configuration. Certain landscapes glimpsed from a motorway, or the look of a motorway itself, might be described as dull and ‘homogeneous’; streets and rooms might be ’empty’.”

What does it mean to conceive of a a landscape as empty? It is surely these seemingly “empty”, negative non-spaces that are in fact Chaudhuri’s waiting rooms of history; and they are certainly not empty.

History,” writes Arundhati Roy in her novel The God of Small Things, “was like an old house at night. With all the lamps lit. And ancestors whispering inside. To understand history… we need to go inside and listen to what they’re saying…”

Cordell’s film is an attempt to explore London’s ‘waiting rooms’; the old houses of history (with all the lamps lit, as illustrated by his use of nighttime photography) and examine the time/space that exists between London’s official architectural history—the evolution from religion to capitalist finance.What else happened here?

Like a flâneur, who views the history of the city subversively, deliberately relocating its various meanings and hierarchies, Cordell aims to seek out and ‘decode’ these buildings from the city’s recent past; products of Modernist, utopian ideas that still stand (for now at least) as exceptions to the official evolutionary narrative. This task sounds simple at first, but it is not. The official history of these Modern projects is that they were a failure, doomed somewhat from the start. This history is followed by the desire of some to wipe them off the map, and out of history, completely. The facts of the matter are of course much more complicated, but the task of opposing such existing, dominant assumptions about these projects is challenging.

Upon entering the old house of history, Arundhati Roy warns:

we look in through the windows, all we see are shadows. And when we try and listen, all we hear is a whispering. And we can’t understand the whispering, because our minds have been invaded by a war. A war that we have won and lost … A war that captures dreams and then re-dreams them. A war that has made us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves.”

War was in fact a key aspect of Britain’s Modernist project. The buildings reviewed in Utopia London were a proposed response to a national disaster, a reaction to a social imperative that absconded, by absolute necessity, from what was considered to be the needless artifice of precious decades. “Back when Modern still meant new, context was everything,” explains Cordell and his enigmatic use of archive footage points to various origins of modernity around the world.

The Russian architect Berthold Lubetkin witnessed the revolution that was happening in his own country and the architecture it was inspiring from London, where he was living, but his own ambitions to bring such architectural projects to the UK were strictly limited to a ‘penguin utopia.’ In contrast to Russia, from Britain at that time the modern was considered to be a concept for dictating a decorative fashion for the elites rather than a radical template for a new society. However, Finsbury Borough Council, faced with a population dominated by squalid living conditions, later commissioned Lubetkin to devise a plan for their new health centre as part of an ever-pressing problem of how to tackle a desperate social situation of poverty and squalor. The aftermath of the Second World War would further this imperative in Britain’s cities, and Britain’s Modern project gained momentum.

The archive footage from Utopia London appropriately and evocatively contrasts an effervescent energy of bodies literally revolving and twisting around the streets of Moscow in a revolutionary fervour, with glimpses of rubble, devastation and squalor in London. These clips are followed by colourful, friendly and optimistic government archive animations promising a better, nicer life in the British city. This sequence effectively demonstrates the idiosyncrasy of Britain’s Modern movement, which T.J .Clark has referred to as one that preferred a method of brokering with gentility, keeping on favourable terms with the status quo, rather than steaming ahead with a bold new one.

Winston Churchill suppressed the possibility for a revolutionary London like Lubetkin’s once the war was over. This culture of compromise that defines British Modernism is apparent from its buildings, along with the nuances of Britain’s shifting political landscape. These nuances are what form the code of each building, which Cordell engagingly deciphers, as Utopia London‘s narrative unfolds across the decades following the Second World War.

The film contains significant interview footage with seminal architects and follows them back to their buildings as they stand today. Despite meeting the odd resident along the way, very little of the film is in fact reserved for residents. One standout interview with two young men in their rented council flat in Brixton demonstrates the kind of stigma that predominates public opinion of council properties today (‘It’s really nice, once you’re inside, you wouldn’t know it was a council flat’). This stigma might go some way towards an explanation for why there are a limited amount of interviews with residents in Utopia London, but it is still unfortunate that the lives of people living on these estates today is still rather under represented. Then again, this is a film about architecture—about grand ideas and master plans—and a great deal of the original footage shot for the film is dedicated to slick portraits of the buildings themselves at night, city lights reeling around them, emphasizing their certain resilience in face of time’s passing.

Cordells research is impressive. Is he an effective critic as well as an archivist of the British Modernist architectural movement? The narrative and filmic techniques in Utopia London compose a unique space, a filmic non-place, as a site for the re-vision and re-telling of past events and lost ideas in London’s architectural history. It is perhaps only marginally more than a nostalgic or mournful lament for what was, or what might have been. Narratives such as this one that resist dominant political and social ideologies can still maintain a sort of myth of ‘the establishment’ as something wholly determined and unquestionable when they pit master narratives against other master narratives.

Rather like Geoff Dyer’s recent analogy of the squash player that repeatedly insists on slamming the ball against the wall without thinking to question the existence of the wall in the first place, in seeking to replace one grand narrative with another, Cordell perhaps does not get to grips adequately enough with the complex realities of the lives entwined within these super structures. In seeking to establish counter-narratives to the status quo of history, what if we were to resist slamming things against that wall as if it were unshakable and try to do something else? What would that something else be?

Last year I enjoyed Jonathan Coe’s spoken word drama, Say Hi to the Rivers and the Mountains, with its narrative that revolved around a brutalist 1960s housing estate. A boy who lives there develops a relationship and falls in love with the daughter of the architect who designed the estate and enjoys returning to the place she conceived. This established entwining of lives, between grand designers and tenants, does become gradually loosened over time, as the architect’s daughter goes on to university and meets an up-and-coming architect, a new breed, whom she travels the world and falls in love with. The boy grows up to be a writer and, a romantic at heart, never really forgets his love for the girl. At the end of the story when the estate is slated for demolition, he questions the notion of ownership and the whereabouts of lost ideals. The story was inspired by the Robin Hood Gardens estate in East London, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson. Say Hi to the Rivers and the Mountains is a combination of allegorical lament for the failed idealism of Britain’s Modern project, and a scathing critique of the ensuing cynical consumerism that followed it in the name of progress.

Whilse seeking to decipher ‘hidden’ messages from history, it is worth remembering that all codes are essentially comprised of many complicated fictions; dreamed up dreams, re-dreamt, dreams that we own and are owned by. The young characters from Roy’s The God of Small Things come to learn how “history negotiates its terms and collects its dues from those who break its laws,” and also that it “lurk[s] forever in ordinary things.”

Chaudhauri also describes historicism as something that at once liberates, defines and shackles us in its discriminatory universalism, “the blessed and the excluded are real people, real communities. The insight waiting for elaboration… must find the best and, in the positive sense of the word, most opportunistic expositor… that is potentially vast, important and problematic.”

In Utopia London, the process of exposing and decoding the histories that lurk in these neglected, overlooked buildings, exposing them as products of developing political ideologies and social inventions does not reduce the role they have played in the drama of London’s 20th century cultural history so much as it problematises it. Utopia London as a film is a witness to the ideological denigration of these buildings, followed by a rejection of government responsibility for them (there is no money, government-run schemes are insufficient, etc) and the apparently inevitable solution of private investment to fulfill public needs.

Thomas Paine’s famous lines from his pamphlet, Common Sense are poignant here: “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.” Today we are faced with a contemporary British culture that has gradually, since Thatcher, seen the ‘right to buy’ normalised in such a way that they appear equal to the rights to safe, clean housing and adequate healthcare. “But,” Paine continues, “the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason,” and Utopia London could not be timelier. Through an his engaging utilisation of the remnants of time passed, Cordell is a worthy and “opportunistic expositor” for the waiting room of London’s socialist architectural history that has been too patient for too long.

Lines of Indistinction: Kafou at Nottingham Contemporary

(The following is a review I wrote for Nottingham Visual Arts in December 2012.)

Hector Hippolyte, Papa Zaca Papa Ogoun, c.1947

Hector Hippolyte, Papa Zaca Papa Ogoun, c.1947

Kafou is the Creole word for “crossroads”, explains Alex Farquharson in his video tour to Kafou: Haiti, Art & Vodou. It is an important term in African and Haitian belief systems, symbolizing a meeting place between the vertical realm of the spirits and the horizontal realm of humans. It is at this threshold that the boundaries of life and death, visible and invisible become hazy.

“Kafou” in the context of the exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary has another meaning. The story begins, as we are told, in 1940, with the establishment of the Centre’ D’art in Port-au-Prince: the meeting of modern art with Haitian art practice. Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou documents the mutual influence of modern art from Europe and Haitian culture. It also marks the moment Haitian culture met the modern art gallery. The nature of this particular crossroads, and what happened there, is what comes into focus in this exhibition.

In 1976 Brian O’Doherty presented an essay, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, that was the first known attempt to verbalize the developing affects of the modern art gallery space on the production and reception of art. While this endows the object with a sense of worth or value, the art “exists in a kind of eternity of display, and though there is lots of ‘period’ (late modern) there is no time. This eternity gives the gallery a limbolike status; one has to have died already to be there.” This is true, he said, both for the art and the spectators.

A house of the living dead is something you might rather relate to vodou temples than the modern art gallery. The two may be more similar than previously considered. O’Doherty was possibly the first to trace the modern method of display back to ancient histories of religion and the establishment of ritual “ultra-spaces” that facilitated a symbolic connection between heaven and earth through an engagement with objects. Speaking earlier this year, Marina Warner recalled this connection. “Tempus and temple,” she explained, share the same root …They function socially in comparable ways (‘temples for atheists’), providing an occasion for assembly, for communal experiences, for finding meanings.”

In the modern art gallery, as in a church or temple, the space itself is primary in the process of establishing meaning. O’Doherty believed that the insistent construction of an apparently unchangeable space was an attempt to impose meaning and identity, both in terms of social values and aesthetic. In its over-definition of itself, and resistance to change, modernism purposefully neglects difference. Its rigorous laws separate inside from outside, the eye from the body. With this, “Modernism’s transposition of perception from life to formal values is complete.”

As the years have progressed since the 1970s, the certain distinctions between subject and object have become less tenable. Postmodern criticism was among other interested parties to compromise hierarchies of space/ power/ knowledge. “It would appear”, wrote Harry Garuba in a recent article for E-Flux, that the boundary between Nature and Society, the world of objects and subjects, the material world and that of agency and symbolic meanings, is less certain than the modernist project had decreed.” However these challenges to modernism, in opposing its formalist ideologies, still assumed its knowledge systems to be somewhat unmovable. O’Doherty’s essay was a significant attempt to reflect critically on art-making at the time that manipulated the picture plane and the white cube to varying degrees. But postmodernism’s reactionary tactics tended to assume a dominance in modernism’s strategies. “Contesting its authority is a fine thing,” writes Garuba, in his assay “On Animism, Modernity/ Colonialism and the African Order of Knowledge: Provisional Refelctions,” “but it is much more difficult to overturn its legacies.”

What these commentaries also rather problematically assume is that those who are colonized by modernity are then drawn wholly and inevitably into its regime of knowledge/power. What if the lines are less distinct? Garuba supposes another angle of enquiry: “What are the epistemic legacies of this regime of knowledge, especially in areas of the world … seen as outside of the modern? Have they been largely untouched by the dualist episteme of modernity or have they been captured by it?” This historic survey of visual art from modern Haiti may be an opportunity to consider such negotiations with modernity. Haiti is, after all, the only independent republic to have been formed by a successful slave revolt.

Préfète Duffaut Maitre Carrefour 1951. From the collection of Dr Robert C Bricston, San-Diego.

Préfète Duffaut Maitre Carrefour 1951. From the collection of Dr Robert C Bricston, San-Diego.

Much of the text that accompanies the art works in the exhibition is from essays written by modern or contemporary American or European commentators, all of which express a great admiration for both the art and the artists. Two great quotes appear together next to one painting, Les Generaux (1988) by Madsen Monpriemier. The first from Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 reads, “Rid me of those gilded Africans, and we shall have nothing more to wish.” The second, from André Breton, written in the visitor’s book of Centre D’Art in 1948, reads, “Haitian painting will drink the blood of the phoenix. And, with the epaulets of Dessalines, it will ventilate the world.” Placed side by side like this, these quotes represent the kind of mutual fear and awe felt by foreign observers of Haiti’s vodou culture. Vodou had a defining role in Napoleon’s defeat, the independence of slaves and the establishment of Haiti. For Breton, as a founding member of the surrealist movement, Haitian art quite possibly represented radical forms of artistic expression.

Truman Capote found the work of Haitian painter and vodou priest Hector Hippolyte admirable for its unwillingness to compromise, “there is nothing in his art that had been slyly transposed, he is using what lives within himself, and that is his country’s spiritual history”. It would seem that the transposing quality of Modernism described by O’Doherty was not a complete process when crossed with Haitian art, but its influence is still felt, albeit very selectively. As I walked around this show I could not fully distinguish what might have been a surrealist influence on the Haitian artist, or the signs of an influence upon surrealism. Farquharson himself also makes reference to Matisse in describing one of Hippolyte’s paintings, and the comparison is very clear. Hippolyte painted on pieces of board with enamel paint. His paintings, along with the others that are on display in this room, combine a kind of narrative history painting with the presence of vodou mysticism, in what appears to be a unique collection of spiritual history painting.

The paintings of Préfète Duffaut in Gallery 2 adopt a curious negotiation with another modernist pictorial technique. He brings a unique geometric form and symmetry to his symbolic depictions of vodou lwa, with bright colours. I am left thinking that, in response to Harry Garuba’s enquiry—whether cultures considered non-modern have been untouched by modernity or captured by it—when it comes to Haitian art there is no straight answer either way.

O’Doherty identified an established tendency in the modern art of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to isolate works, excising them from their context, the living world and beyond. Reality, however, does not always conform to rules of etiquette. Meanwhile, the vernacular art practices of the time were surpassing themselves and transgressing their established habitats. Memento mori photographs incorporating symbolic gestures of hair or jewels, predated Symbolism and Surrealism, and ultimately caught the eye of these movements. Similar magical, symbolic gestures in Haitian art similarly inspired them.

While many scholars have considered art as a matter of representation and communication, the anthropologist Alfred Gell saw visual art as a form of instrumental action: the making of things as a means of influencing the thoughts and actions of others, intended to make an impact upon social life. Artworks are social agents that perform a social role. Gell also recommended that anthropological understandings of art from countries other than their own should be applied to the contemporary art of anthropologists’ home countries

In an essay for the London Review of Books Marina Warner considered the work of Damien Hirst in this manner. Concerning his most recent piece “For the Love of God”—a diamond-encrusted skull—, Hirst declared “I just want to celebrate life by saying to hell with death.” Warner concedes that Hirst’s “limitations as an artist are bound up with the transparency – you could say the obviousness – of his symbolism.” Apart from this obviousness, she also attributes this short-falling to Hirst’s individualism as an artist, the influences of the modern gallery space and the financial markets on his production.

For effective communication and personal expression though symbols, Warner argues, there is a need for mutual exchange between the art and its community. A mutual exchange is necessarily a dialogue. The agency enacted by an artist is rarely self-sufficient; it is not simply a ‘product’ or end-point of an action, but rather an extension of the artist received by others. Rather than being too literal, anticipating their own redundancy in the process, artworks should tantalize, even frustrate the viewer for dialogue to occur. The most oblique, perhaps most exciting, paintings in this regard are those made by the Sans Soleil artists, an isolated community living in the mountains of Port-au-Prince, who were both guided by avant garde principles and yet protected from the market value buzzing around the modern art gallery. In their work contorted and obscure figures swirl around in abstract space. They are somehow neither directly representative nor symbolic of anything in particular.

In his books Art and Agency, Gell argued that aesthetic appreciation alone is insufficient for understanding art, as he believed it failed to engage with the specificity of art objects themselves. But you don’t have to become an anthropologist in order to engage with art in this way. Kafou’s co-curator Leah Gordon was quick to explain in a recent gallery talk that she is not an anthropologist, that she offers no definitive explanations to the practices of Haitian vodou, and that her engagement with the vodou art of Haiti comes from her point of view as an artist. Yet her excellent film in the final gallery space of this exhibition adopts an anthropological approach that follows Haitian art practice to its place of production, predominantly the ghettoes in the cities of Haiti. The sculptures seen in this context seem to possess a liveliness and vitality that is somehow missing here in the gallery. Here again we see the lines of distinction between disciplines productively blurred.

In her film, Gordon visits an art gallery in the heart of one of Haiti’s ghettoes. The man who owns this gallery remarks on the importance of this space to his community. Spaces for art, after all, are still desirable, but what defines them is more open to question; who uses them and how is crucial. Garuba observes Marx’s idea of the commodity as both a material object and a “mysterious thing” simultaneously. He then remarks that, instead of opposing one, or defending one against the other, this co-presence must be recognized for the possibility of a genuinely alternative order of knowledge to emerge; understanding the world not as if it were already a dead object for analysis, but as something vital and alive.

There is one particular painting in this exhibition by Wilson Bigaud from 1952 that depicts a beach scene. The vodou lwa Larisen is advancing from the sea towards the beach. The intensity of this presence is causing bathers to flee in panic. One figure remains kneeling on the sand, facing the lwa, with an easel in his lap and a brush in hand. Not only does this seem to suggest how difficult the task of pictorially representing vodou is, but also how brave and bold an effort it is to attempt to do so. It is this painting that therefore seems paradigmatic of this exhibition as a whole. There is a risk at the crossroads: you cannot know for sure whether the kafou will let through good or bad spirits. Even if it inevitably upholds certain epistemic structures of modern knowledge production (in the white cube), this exhibition is a bold move, and very compelling.

Vodou is “the one thing foreigners don’t know about,” proclaims the Haitian artist in his interview for Gordon’s film. If they did then Haiti would have fallen long ago. While this may well be the case, Kafou: Haiti, Art & Vodou is testament to a moment when foreign artists came to Haiti and were enchanted.