by Sue Hubbard
It is said that the camera never lies – but that was before things went digital. At the Victoria Miro Gallery, Stan Douglas has created a number of disturbingly hyperreal images with the use of digital technology that give the illusion of documentary accuracy. These theatrical black and white mise en scènes explore the seedy underbelly of post-war North America before what the artist describes “as the sudden call to order and morality” that was achieved by peacetime prosperity. Based on archival photographs a hotel used to house World War II veterans has been transformed into The Second Hotel Vancouver, 2014, an uncanny image where Piranesi seems to meet Edward Hopper.
Small areas of cold white light glow against the foreboding brick walls of this looming Victorian Gothic façade with its dark stairwells and fire escapes. In the empty street below beams from a wrought-iron lamp post flood the crepuscular corners. Like a Christmas advent calendar there's the sense that behind every window of this building is a secret. If we look hard we can catch a tantalising glimpse of a coat hanging on a rack – who does it belong to? – an empty brass bed or a woman at an office desk, who might well be awaiting the arrival of a character from a Raymond Carver novel. Like some 50s film noir these lit windows draw us into the possibilities of the building's many hidden and possible stories.
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by Sue Hubbard
How do we remember? Before the invention of the camera most people never possessed a likeness of themselves or those they loved – a lock of hair, a letter, were the heart’s most treasured possessions, the artefacts that conjured the past. Photography democratised the ownership of images. A portrait need no longer be in watercolour or oils, it could be an informal snap taken on a box Brownie: a casual moment sealed in the proverbial amber of memory. With the technological advances of the 20thand 21st centuries, with film, video and digital technology and the predominance of surveillance equipment it might, theoretically, be possible to record a whole life from the moment of birth till the second of death. It was only a decade or so ago that the French Postmodernist social theorist Jean Baudrillard argued that the images which assault us – on our TVs, in film and advertising – are not copies of the real, but become truth in their own right: the hyperral. Where Plato had spoken of two kinds of image-making: the first a faithful reproduction of reality, the second intentionally distorted in order to make a copy appear correct to viewers (such as a in a painting) Baudrillard saw four: the basic reflection of reality; the perversion of reality; the pretence of reality, and the simulacrum, which “bears no relation to any reality whatsoever”. Baudrillard's simulacra were, basically, perceived as negative, but another modern French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, has described simulacra as the vehicle by which accepted ideals or a “privileged position” can be “challenged and overturned”. Reality has become a complex issue.
Jonas Mekas was 90 on Christmas Eve, which means that the film-maker, artist and poet, often referred to as the godfather of avant garde cinema, has lived through a lot of history. Born in Lithuania he spent part of the war in a forced labour camp, then after the hostilities ended, another four years in various displaced person’s camps such as Flensburg, Hamburg, Wiesbaden, Kassel – first in the British Zone, then in the American. With nothing much to do and a lot of time he read, he wrote and went to the movies, which were shown free in the camps by the Americans. So began his long relationship with film. Later, when he commuted to the French Zone to study at the University of Mainz, he met André Gide who told him to “work only for yourself,” and watched a lot of French cinema. After arriving in America he bought his first Bolex camera in 1950, which he used to film everyday scenes in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the Lithuanian immigrants who lived there. Describing himself and his brother as “two shabby, naïve Lithuanian boys, just out of forced labour camp”, it was not until some 10 years later that he decided to assemble the footage into a film.
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by Sue Hubbard
When is a painting not a painting? When it’s a photograph. Many of Thomas Ruff’s images might, at first glance, be paintings by an American abstract expressionist. There is an irony that while so much contemporary painting aims to look hyperreal much current photography has the gestural appearance of painting. The old chestnut that the camera never lies is stood on its head by Ruff’s work. “A photo journalist has to be really honest. The artist does not”, he says. “The difference between my predecessors and me is that they believed to have captured reality and I believe to have created a picture.”
Ruff has been taking photographs for more than thirty years and is one of those responsible for photography’s enhanced status; its shift from the twilight zone of the art world to high priced commodity. His studies at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie in the 1970s coincided with the political terrorism waged by the anarchic Red Army Faction and his ensuing Portraits made during this period reflect a preoccupation with surveillance. It is as if his subjects had been shot by Big Brother’s camera. No emotion is shown, no flicker of a thought is revealed.
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By Maniza Naqvi
“I’ve lived all my life in my old neighborhood of Lyari. My father was a mason and he died of lung-cancer when I was six years old. I still feel his presence and remember his gestures and his appearance with his beard and a black and white checkered scarf on his head— you know like a Palestinian- scarf on his head.” Akhtar Soomro narrates himself.
And through his photo journalism Akhtar Soomro challenges us to enter on journeys that make us confront the geography and calculus of our own reality and recognize and imagine other stories. Stories of people, who have been systematically humiliated and diminished: people, who have been marginalized; and criminalized by those who have amassed power by grabbing every resource and facility and service in Pakistan. These photographs, as stark evidence, let us enter their world of survival, of how despite it all, people cope, triumph, flourish, create and celebrate, kick and punch back. Occasionally he gives us glimpses into the pathology of those grabbers of power: glimpses of the glint in their eyes, of the cynical grin on their faces and of the instruments and weapons that they wield to maintain their supremacy.
Akhtar Soomro tells us:
“I want to document a world that is in danger of disappearing. I have in the course of my own interest in these communities, photographed people at their festivals and in the streets. I remember the daily ordinariness of the Leva dances at weddings and other festive occasions in our streets. This dance is meant to induce a spiritual trance of joy. And how that is not a common place event any longer but still can be found. I want to show this world to the world and to these people themselves as something of value, of cherishing and for safekeeping.
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