June 22, 2011 § Leave a comment
Extracts from A Personal Essay on ‘Locating Photography: Space & Situation’:
There is no longer the need to linger in time and space to remember a moment…Aim, look, shoot, FLASH, and the memory is stored.Proof of existence is now concentrated in the careless, casual click of a button.
When I think back to my travels around Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, there is one distinct memory inseparable from the entire experience. Unsure whether this memory is so poignant because it was profusely photographed or whether the proliferation of images is what pins it to my mind; I ponder the difference of a camera-less retrospect. Either way, the photographs of this experience cause an internal agitation as I gaze upon them. The images are ‘memory traces’ which provide an inventory of information, but there is also a moving mystery within the memory. Barthes would call this the punctum or “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (ibid: 27). He believes that this personal sensation in relation to the photograph is the essence of the medium. He disregards a cultural participation in images which would value what he calls their studium; “the very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste” (ibid: 26). The photograph animates each spectator differently through the most insignificant or unassuming details of distraction. My punctum is not a detail like strapped pumps, bad teeth or a finger bandage. My punctum is an insight into a life with no images.
The photographs I want to discuss are of children who have never seen photographs themselves, children who do not exist to end in an image; the Hill Tribe Village Children of Northern Laos. The trek to the village began at the break of dawn a few hours north from Laos’ ancient capital city of Luang Prabang. There were only four of us and a generous family from a small hill tribe village far off the beaten track had offered us a bamboo shack and a blanket for the night. The trek was one of the toughest tests of strength I have ever endured and every step along the way the importance of my camera increased. Despite trekking through mosquito-infested jungles, wading knee-deep through rivers and stumbling up vast mountain ranges, I was sure that my camera was safely clenched at my side the whole time. Hervé Guibert describes the device as “a mutilated being that we have to carry around with us like an infant” (Hervé, 1996: 77). My camera felt more essential than the bottle of water. What would be the point of such endurance to see sublime landscapes, colourful crop fields and rare wild animals if I didn’t have the photographs to prove it? American photographer Walker Evans, a master of the medium, once stated that photography is driven by “a simple desire to recognise and to boast” (Badger, 2007: 8). I photographed at every opportunity along the way, rewarding my endeavour with the beauty of each new shot.
In the village I was fascinated by the lifestyle of this ethnic group and they were equally amazed at me with my big black machine. The village has no electricity and one water pump for all the families. The houses are hand-built from woven bamboo strips, as were the baskets used to collect corn and rice from the fields. Grazing water buffalo, pigs and chickens roam the premises. On rare occasion or celebration the village may save some meat for themselves, but usually these animals are sold as their main source of income. Most families can only afford to send one or two of their average twelve children to school and the lucky ones will trek for three hours to get there. While the fathers are out farming and the mothers travel to collect water, the children are left to look after themselves. The young girls were already mini mothers far beyond their years; their eyes were so wise from all they had already seen in their short lives.
As I look at the images of these children, what pierces and wounds me is the memory of their energetic spirit and liveliness. I recall their happiness, excitement and adventurous nature despite the little they have. It was unnerving and disconcerting to see children with so little bouncing around, clinging to my legs in excitement and jumping in the river so full of life. I look at the photographs and these same children are suddenly shot dead in an instant, they have been killed by the camera. This is the punctum which stings my conscience.
Sontag recognises the predatory nature of the camera as it turns living people into frozen objects. She wrote; “just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder – a soft murder” (Sontag, 1979: 15). Similarly, Barthes believes the photograph “produces Death while trying to preserve life” (Barthes, 1981: 92). In Part Two of his ontological desire to discover the very nature of photography, Barthes finds the perfect photograph of his late mother. She is aged 5 in the ‘Winter Garden Photograph’ which cannot be revealed. For him, there is a punctum in the photographic representation of time. The photograph of his mother as a child confirms that she did once stand at the end of that little wooden bridge in a Winter Garden. The fact that she is no longer there emphasises the transience of our existence, it induces death even if she were still alive;
“In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott’s psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe” (ibid: 96).
Hervé Guibert believes the ephemerality of his mother’s existence can be saved by the photograph. He wants to construct the perfect photograph of his mother before her appearance collapses with age. As he describes the intimate photo-taking process, we learn that the film was unexposed and tragically, “the essential moment lost, sacrificed” (Hervé, 1996: 15). Perhaps what makes the story of his mother’s un-captured image so faultless is the very fact that it doesn’t exist. Guibert’s image remains animated through memory and mystery like Barthes’ ‘Winter Garden Photograph’ which would lose its powerful punctum if displayed for all to see.
The hill tribe village children in my photographs are ghost-like traces of what they once were in the moment. All I can think as they gaze back at the lens is the average life expectancy of the village which is merely 56 years old due to poor water and bad hygiene. If these children were to fall ill, they would probably die before they had time to reach the nearest hospital. The photographs are screaming with the inevitability of their death despite their animated existence in that instant. Frozen in time, they resemble a token of both presence and absence in “an illogical conjunction between the here-now and the there-then” (Barthes, 2003: 120). It seems they would be so much more alive in the mind’s eye of memory than stuck in the frame, immobilised from their energy.
When I remember my time with the hill tribe children in Laos, I recall a distinctive purity to their existence. They live in a place which isn’t ruled by images. Their self-perception comes from real feeling and living in the moment rather than reflecting back upon photographs. Many people these days align photographs of themselves with their entire existence during a certain time. They will look at an image of themselves as a child and proclaim: ‘this is me as a child’. These children are not under such repression, they are liberated from the photographic control and restriction of identity. At first I thought I wanted to return to the tribe and reveal their two-dimensional effigies. I wondered if they would recognise themselves from the few times they’ve caught their own reflection in the river. It is a frightening prospect that with my collection of images I’ve seen their faces probably more than they’ve seen their own. Barthes believes there is violence within the photograph “because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it nothing can be refused or transformed” (Barthes, 1981: 91). The ruthless violence of the photograph has corrupted the purity of the children’s sole being. Because of the camera they have been sliced up, fragmented and reproduced.
There is one image amongst the collection which supplies a particularly poignant punctum. Figure 1 displays a young girl by the river who appeared to be the leader of the group, when she jumped in the water the others followed. Her wise eyes dominate the frame as they lock the spectator’s gaze from every angle. The girl in the photograph is forever haunting me and I can’t escape it. With my big camera I must have been like a futuristic alien from another planet, yet she is not in awe. She emits a sense of bravery and seems to understand our world without envy. The thing which pricks me most in this photograph is the second child moving towards the lens from the bottom left corner of the frame. As she emerges from the river, this girl resembles a ghost-like embodiment of the indexical “has-been” which no longer exists.This same girl can be seen again in Figure 7, she falls backwards into the water, she’s been shot dead by the camera. In Figure 1 Both Laotian girls stare back at me in the camera’s decisive moment and they will forever; I feel haunted by this photograph.
Like Barthes’ ‘Winter Garden Photograph’, the photographs from Laos animate me, create an adventure and supply a punctum. What pricks me the most is the camera’s destruction of this liberated life without images. These children are happy with their life in the mountains. A magic surrounds their natural liveliness in the present moment, a pure existence which is not dominated by references to a pictorial past. I hope they never see their own photographs.
- Badger, Gerry (2007) The Genius of Photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing Ltd.
- Barthes, Roland (1981)  Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, [Translated by Richard Howard]. New York: Hill and Wang.
- Barthes, Roland (2003) ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ in Wells, Liz. (ed) the Photography Reader. Oxon: Routledge.
- Guibert, Hervé (1996)  Ghost Image [Translated by Robert Bononno]. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press.
- Sontag, Susan (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
All images copyright Melissa Darby.
June 12, 2011 § 3 Comments
“I understand that an artist is someone who, in the midst of others’ silence, uses his own voice to say something and who makes sure what he says is not useless, but something that is useful to mankind.” – Miró
Organic form, Enchanting colours, Poetic shape: Miró’s exhibition at Tate Modern amounts to an imaginative expression of spirit and vigour during an era of dictatorship and repression in Spain. The artist’s work is organised through 12 rooms into politically poignant periods of his life. Aside from being an enlightening insight into Miró’s artistic escape from fear and exile during the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship, it is the poetical expression of this political context which pricked my senses and cleared my mind. The beauty of his work is that you don’t have to understand it to understand it. Miró’s images will automatically trigger you into the dream-like state which is so central to all Surrealist art, just by getting lost within it.
The first room of the exhibition takes us back to Miró’s Catalan roots and imaginative influence from the countryside, particularly his parent’s farm at Mont-roig. In The Tilled Field animals take on gigantic proportions, the tree has an ear and a soul and together all elements create a fairy-tale universe only accessible through the mind’s eye. The capacity of Miró’s paintings often comes from their inability to be articulated. His work emphasises the fact that the imagination can create a thousand possibilities out of no certainty. All of the objects and animals which seem so bizarrely out of place are scrupulously positioned to make perfect sense within the nonsense. A carefully considered randomness orchestrated by welcoming pastel colours.
In room 2 I had the pleasure of meeting the wise and sombre, dreamy and dismal, unassuming but all-empowering Catalan Peasant, locked in expression. The head of the peasant is reduced to a calculated alignment of signs; a red cap, two glaringly round eyes and strands of beard, set against the vivid blue sky background. The Catalan Peasant floats in uncertainty and boundlessness, like the imagination. Difficult to interpret and less definable than Miró’s expressive characters of the Barcelona series, the Peasant signifies a suppression of Catalan freedom and identity as Spain was under siege. The fictitious character changes slightly in his variations throughout the series and some images require a rather trained imagination to render him into existence.
One thing I did notice so far was the elaborate and detailed frames which tend to enhance the nobility and independence of each painting. With a unique hand-picked frame, each image stands sovereign within its sequence.
Swanning through animated landscapes, collages and pastels of distorted figures I stumbled upon the image Still life with Old Shoe, one of my favourites from the exhibition. Maybe it’s my fetish for all things psychedelic, kaleidoscopic and hypnotic that drew me to the Old Shoe – a sentence I never thought I’d hear myself say! Miró produced the image in response to the Civil War as events unfolded around him. Illuminating everyday objects to become wildly disconcerting, he depicts a disjuncture even in the most mundane. As anarchist and communist militias took command in Barcelona, Miró chose to find artistic inspiration in the banality of everyday objects. Miró believed that an ant and mountain deserve equal importance… imaginative interpretation can elevate anything into significance.
The next room displays the Barcelona series – 50 lithographs spread along a wall linking the adjacent galleries. I could have stared at these all day long in an endless visual discovery! The works were made while Miró was in exile during Franco’s control of Spain. The creatures are abnormal but relatable; it’s as if you can hear their voices and read their traumatic expressions as you walk along the sequence. Like aliens from another planet I was intrigued and wanted to enter their world! New faces form within the nose and ears of others, yet they all seem locked within their frames. Trapped and going crazy, perhaps like Miró while in exile, I wanted to set them all free and watch them tear up the streets of London…wreak havoc crazy creatures!
I continued around the small-scale and densely packed Constellations onto increasingly Surrealist visualisations. His small array of sculptures failed to arrest my attention like his paintings…I suppose it’s difficult to elevate imagination using materials so earthly and grounded. His Self-Portrait was impressive, focussing on regions of his face with immense detail. Within the bold abstract outline of bodily matter it’s as if there is a deeply layered, faded soul pushing at the boundaries.
A small room behind this portrait contains the big blue saturated Triptych. Sat on a bench in the middle of the enclosed space I was surrounded by pools of blue, blue, blue. Being an insomniac, I sometimes gaze at the inside of my eyelids when I can’t sleep…Blackness. But then dots appear, you follow them in random directions and they form a hazy line. This reminds me of Miró’s canvases. If I close my eyes up at the sky this blackness is blueness. I’m sat in the middle of the room and I don’t know whether my eyes are open or closed, I need to wake up! For me, the triptych shows an empty thoughtlessness… until shapes and forms distract the mind off in a direction.
Miró’s burnt canvases emphasise his anger and protest towards the repressive government. Suspended in space, I’m given the chance to see through and around the images, a new perspective, a backstage pass. Each room has an aura of the artist’s emotion and there is no doubt that by room 11 Miró is burning with resentment… we can see right through him. Even by the artists 75th birthday, this emotion manages to fuel a powerful creative energy.
There is finally a sense of optimism in the ultimate room where the Fireworks Triptych hangs. This work coincides with the eventual collapse of the Franco regime, capturing the tireless energy of creativity as it remains unassumingly black and white. As the paint which has been thrown onto the canvas is pulled down by gravity, Miró’s powerful resilience dissolves into liberation.
A deeply moving exhibition both educationally and imaginatively, Miró puts politics into poetry and lives up to Breton’s description as “the most Surrealist of us all”.
The exhibition at Tate Modern runs until September 11th 2011 and costs £15.50 (adult), £13.50 (student).
May 24, 2011 § 3 Comments
People often read works of art these days as an accumulation of the artist’s vision or an insight into the mind which created the work. Tracey Emin’s confrontational openness takes this common form of analysis quite literally. There’s no need to question or consider life-style influences in this exhibition as Emin’s own life memories, traumas and tests are aggressively pasted all over it. Entering the exhibition is like walking into a live soap-opera…
The ‘Tracey Emin Show’ [under 16’s MUST be accompanied by an adult!].
Tracey Emin, once known as ‘Mad Tracey fromMargate’ (a small-town slag), has developed into a media celebrity and Turner Prize nomination. Her creative success derives from a history of confusion, suffering and damage… with liberation through this illustration.
‘Love is what you want’ shows a selection of her work through a broad range of materials (painting, drawing, photography, film, textile and sculpture) which unite to fabricate a provocative collage of her life. Many works are created from a compulsive hoarding of personal things, investing the materials themselves with meaning.
Her big hanging blankets are recycled from family clothes or ‘sacred fabrics’ to form a measured collage of her chaotic life. Their pastel colours and patchwork patterns have innocent connotations, until you read them…Every time I see my shit…A carefully considered shock with more layers of detail the deeper you look.
Whilst the exhibition was thought-provoking in its unity, many of her individual works appear so abject that they seem to rather resent reflection. Take the corner of blood-stained tampons for example. Sooner than encourage aesthetic stimulation, a selection of blood-stained tampons delicately assembled in a glass case hurried me around the room in humiliation. How awkward to stand and contemplate a used tampon! Imagine if the aristocracy of the Victorian era stumbled across that amidst Pre-Raphaelite portraits of innocent and dreaming women… “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty… wwaaahhh dear lord forgive me!”
I guess the art is in this unease and agitation…the raw reality of ‘LOOK this is what goes on’. In Emin’s work, our 21st century infatuation with the abject and gruesome realities of humanity overrides traditional ideals of beauty in art. It seems her detailed drawings of women masturbating become resentfully compelling. Ideas and questions which commonly remain private can be broadcast in a gallery. You’re there to look… GAZE…the small scale of the masturbating works insist you look closely.
My personal favourite was the ‘Neon room’ inspired by the conceptual work of Bruce Nauman. Emin uses Neon signs to illuminate graphic messages and emotions which she believes should not be brushed under the carpet. Although I’d usually imagine neon lights on the side of a strip club in Blackpool, hanging across a dark blue velvet corridor, the florescent colours and free-flowing shapes had a beautiful allure. Emin believes that only certain sayings warrant being made in neon. Neon is light, living chemicals, moving all the time.
Is anal sex legal? Is legal sex anal? One which lingered in my mind for a while…
You really get a sense of how various events in Emin’s life spiralled her into different mental states as they seep through her artwork. The films vary from a heartfelt monologue addressing the most painful details of her abortion to a her liberating drive away from Margate and crazy dance moves to Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel. It’s like the artwork found her and her entire life is a rollercoaster performance.
All in all, a glaringly honest representation of a real woman with real questions…
(if you can take her seriously)
Exhibition runs until the 29th August at the Hayward Gallery, £12 adult, £9 student.
May 21, 2011 § 1 Comment
I was recently lucky enough to receive an invitation to the launch of Moby’s new photographic exhibition and tenth studio album, ‘Destroyed’ at Proud Gallery, Camden. I wouldn’t say I’m a fanatic Moby fan, I’m actually not sure any Moby fans would say that about themselves, but my previous knowledge of Moby’s music has accompanied some of the most magical moments of my life. Before delving into ‘Destroyed’ my familiarity with Moby went as far as one or two songs. Everyone says that with music we remember. One of Moby’s older, well-recognised songs, ‘Porcelain’ (commonly associated with Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach) isolates two distinct moments in my life.
The atmospheric aura of this song firstly takes me back to the Thai islands where I spent my time floating in PhiPhi Sea pretending I’d been washed up on a tropical paradise. Secondly I return to the centre of a crowd, in a tent, at Global Gathering festival, with rave paint on my face, hands in the air, head in the sky and sweat dripping from my chin. How can the sensation of one song take me back to two clearly juxtaposed memories of feeling utterly tranquil and bursting with energy? This is the beauty of his music’s ambient aura, a juxtaposition of states of mind which seems exclusively suited to the ambiguity of the photographic medium.
Throughout ‘Destroyed’, Moby takes the seemingly glamorous experience of touring the world and transforms it into a collection of disconcerting moments which encompass an isolated immersion in weird and wonderful spaces. These spaces include the odd environment of airports, waiting rooms, aeroplanes flying over awe-inspiring landscapes and onstage in front of screaming crowds of people. His album cover captures a sign in a bright white futuristic airport corridor. It read ‘unattended luggage will be destroyed’… one word at a time.
His photographs juxtapose an accidental beauty in mundane moments such as sitting in an airport waiting room, with the sublime spectacle of being on stage facing a sea of bouncing bodies and crazy faces. The images all have a quasi-random approach which makes the odd appear normal and the normal, odd. This explains his influence from the unorthodox camera angles of Andre Kertesz.
Kertesz’s Martinique at first appears simple and frank in subject and form until the eyes move away from the horizon and the distance, into the reality of the balcony to notice a moving human shadow, a mystery, uncertainty, doubt.
Many of Moby’s images contrast bleak and lifeless landscapes with the intrusion of mankind, encouraging us to look again and question the location of the photographer himself. His image of people casually waiting at an airport is seen from a shallow perspective which questions his anonymity. Or perhaps the people were just too busy waiting to notice that someone was fascinated by their waiting.
Moving around the exhibition, the eyes travel over aerial views of the earth as seen from an aeroplane such as the California desert and the Sumatra sunset. These images emphasize the primitive power of nature and its sublime scale. Contrast this with a scrupulous study of humanity; bodies stretching in exhilaration, faces full of animation… The peaceful serenity of the planet from above transforms into a wavering seascape of bodies and the Sumatra sunset is replaced with a beaming festival light, illuminating chaotic crowds.
I have two favourite images from the exhibition. Two juxtaposed moments which both brilliantly accompany my favourite song on the album, ‘Rockets’. The first one is the LA crowd at the top of this post (the central image of the exhibition). Humans, ligaments, lights, confetti, individuals: There’s too much going on in this photograph to know how to start and where to look. With his music you really can get lost in the detail. The second image I like is the clouds over Brazil, as seen from the oval shaped aeroplane window. Clouds are strange things, they barely exist at all; frozen water droplets or ice crystals in the atmosphere, forever moving and changing, making new shapes, reflections, suggestions. Moby demonstrates how strange it is to be flying through the clouds and simultaneously take a photograph of the clouds.
If you’re in the mood to escape fast-paced city life in London, I would really recommend you download the album on you’re I-pod and head to Camden for the exhibition which runs until the 19th June. They work really well together in a surreal meditative state of mind.
May 18, 2011 § 1 Comment
In our age of visual culture, I’ve decided that before thinking and blinking our lives away, it’s important to stop for a second and just look. Hopefully by looking at something interesting or different, I may open people’s eyes and imaginations to all kinds of possibilities in their own lives. That is the magic of an image, it speaks a thousand words without picking one and it can be doing absolutely anything, everything or nothing at the same time. Therefore, as an art-history graduate (yeah “one of thooose degrees”) I want to make a blog which encourages people to appreciate how our world is shaped by images, images which can be stored as ‘re’-presentations of reality. Whether in the media, in a gallery, on a poster, in this blog or in reality… the way the world is represented can become far more interesting through exercising our own imaginative interpretation.
Whilst living in London I hope my reflections upon photography and exhibitions in and around the city will help encourage the world to slow down and embrace or reflect the world around us. Tom Leighton‘s chaotic spectacle of the modern city seems like the perfect space to start the search…