New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 33 September 1 to 10, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Pictures Pictures Everywhere!

A Different Kind of Order: The ICP Triennial

Photo by Mikhael Subotzky / Patrick Waterhouse  . Source: Courtesy the artists and the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg.
Mikhael Subotzky / Patrick Waterhouse , "Windows, Ponte City(detail) Courtesy the artists and the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg." 2008-2010.

The fourth ICP triennial is an intriguing show of contemporary photographers and video artists, many of whom have not received wide-spread attention in New York, but are all producing interesting work pressing the boundaries of traditional photographic styles. Although there are a few silver gelatin prints still scattered about the show, all the artists, to one degree or another, are dealing with the digital, screen-based, 24/7, all the images you could possibly imagine, world of today.

The four curators, Kristen Lubben, Christopher Phillips, Carol Squiers, and Joanna Lehan, have continued the ICP focus on documentary photography, and some of the more traditional work on display is in the war/disaster reportage style. But most of the work deals with individual perspectives on the world, and is as concerned with the photograph as object as with visual content.

There is very little of what could be called personal photography here. There are no new Nan Goldins on display, and certainly there are no Cartier-Bressons. Even the committed viewpoints of a Robert Frank, or a Gary Winogrand are mostly missing. (The notable exception is the work of veteran Magnum documentarian Jim Goldberg.) Sex, that perennial photographic topic, is brought up only occasionally, and then mostly in a political context. Violence on the other hand is well represented.

Photo by Miska Henner . Source: Courtesy the artist.
Miska Henner, "Unknown Site, Noordwijk aan Zee, South Holland" 2011.

The overall style is generally cool and detached, a viewpoint evident with the first work encountered as you enter the show. Three medium sized prints show Google Earth satellite imagery of the Dutch landscape, each one dominated by a large camouflage splotch obscuring areas of the image. The blotches have an attractive, abstract quality to them with colors that are resonant with the surrounding regions, but rather than being artistic interventions, they are areas selected by the Dutch government as being too sensitive to be seen on the internet, and were obscured by Google at the governments request. The name Miscka Henner is attached to the work, but there would seem to be dozens of contributors to the images – the Dutch bureaucrat who selected the areas, the Google cubicle drone who decided on the algorithm that made the pattern and selected the colors, the engineer who selected the lens and aperture used by the camera, and the astrophysicist who determined just where and how far away from the scene the camera would be placed. Stripped of most of the traditional photographic prerogatives, Henner retains just one option, selecting the images to show. This role of the artist as curator is a recurring theme in the show.

Photo by Elliott Hundley . Source: Elliott Hundley, Pentheus, 2010<p>Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; purchase
Elliott Hundley, "Pentheus" 2010.

Perhaps the polar opposite of Henner’s approach is the large multi-dimensional, quite obviously hand-made, photo collage, ‘Pentheus’, by Elliot Hundley, based on the Euripides tragedy. (Here’s the Wikipedia link: in case you were napping.)

Images of bodies and objects are cut out and suspended on pins, various images are repeated and placed in different contexts, there is text cut out and pasted down like a ransom note, all at a scale that makes the numerous attached magnifying glasses welcome. Like a Breugal hellscape it is totally immersive, and one can easily spend a good bit of time decoding and interpreting the images. It is that rare photographic work that probably requires hours of engagement before it can be fully understood.

Photo by Mikhael Subotzky / Patrick Waterhouse  . Source: From artist’s website
Mikhael Subotzky / Patrick Waterhouse , "Doors, Ponte City" 2012.

The multiplicity of images is an important component of a third standout work in the show, Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s, “Ponte City, Windows, Doors, Televisions” —three 10-foot-high lightboxes that include more than 600 individual photographs. Ponte City is a 54 story, circular apartment building in the center of Johannesburg, South Africa. Started during the apartheid era for white South Africans, it has had a rocky history of building, integration, and renovation, and is a continuing symbol of the changing cultures of South Africa.

The big lightboxes appear almost like stained glass windows. One has a repeated pattern formed from views of the large windows looking out, one box has layers of pictures of doors, arranged in a colorful pattern, and the third has what seems to be random scenes from movies or television shows. The key to the images is that the pictures are all mapped. Starting at the first floor the artists knocked on doors and asked to take a picture from the apartment’s windows. The resulting images were then arranged as as panoramas circling the building, in 54 stacked rows. The view of Johannesburg constantly changing as the rows get higher. The photographers included curtains and clutter as well as some of the silhouetted residents themselves, offering both a view of the city and the less grandiose reality of apartment living. In the second light box the images are also mapped by floor, but here Subotzky and Waterhouse photographed the apartment doors as seen from a central hallway. Usually the doors are closed, but in some we see the occupants standing in the doorway and the camera gets a peek back into the apartments themselves. This set offers a bit more of the archaeology of the building, with some floors having been renovated with weird blue neon lighting, while others have elaborate iron grills installed. From the ground floor parking area there were still doors identifying the “European” restrooms. The third light box is mapped just as the other two, but in this group are images of the ubiquitous television screens that the photographers encountered as they moved through the building — very few of the sets are off — and this set of images is the most confused, with no overall pattern emerging at all, each apartment seemingly with it’s own eccentric electronic view of the world.

The light boxes are attractive multicolored beehives, but because they have their internal logic to them, they convey both of the information seen in each frame as well as a wider, more all-encompassing view of the life of the residents and the building.

Photo by Sohei Nishino . Source: Collection of Javier Macaya, Courtesy the Michael Hoppen Gallery, London.
Sohei Nishino, "New York, from the series Diorama Maps" 2006.
The merging of multiple images into a larger meta-image, and indeed into a map, is the strategy of Japanese artist Sohei Nishino. Walking about in major cities of the world for months at a time, he takes thousands of pictures of streets and scenes, both mundane and iconic. He then cuts up thousands of these images and pieces them together into idiosyncratic, ‘bird’s-eye views’ that roughly represent maps of the cities. The experience is again (as in the work of Hundley and Subotzky & Waterhouse above) deeply immersive. The eye traverses the avenues, spotting landmarks both large and small, like walking the streets with a well-traveled flaneur.

Photo by Thomas Hirschhorn . Source:  Courtesy the artist; Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris; and Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York
Thomas Hirschhorn, "Touching Reality (video still)" 2012.

Video plays a prominent role in this Triennial, but this being a review for the New York Photo Review, and also because of this reviewer’s impatience, if not just outright antagonism towards the medium, I will mention just one, Thomas Hirschhorn’s ‘Touching Reality’. It is a video that is about still photographs and their ubiquity on the internet, particularly cell phone images from troubled areas in the middle east, and especially images of wounded, maimed, disemboweled and shattered men and women lying on the street. It is a simple video of an iPad, taken from above, with a hand that flips from one terrible image to the next, occasionally zooming in on some unusually gruesome area or the other. The fingerer lingers only a few seconds on each image before flipping to the next, the video loops around every 8 minutes or so, and this reviewer left after about two, with several horrible images seared into the brain. (The image above supplied by ICP is one of the mildest in the set.)

The responses of a mild-mannered photo reviewer in mid-town Manhattan to the images would seem not to matter much. The images were probably taken because of the need to document what happened, but their wide spread dispersal was more to enrage and provoke revenge. One does wonder a bit why Hirschhorn would choose to spend so much time with them, but the video does illustrate both their visceral power, and at the same time highlights the increasing desensitization that repeated exposure to them has. For better or worse this is a video that will stay with you.

The show does have some disappointing segments, several sets fall short with images that look like they would be more interesting seen on a brightly lit computer screen rather than as the rather flat prints on display. The inclusion of 100 self-published photo books, on racks that allow visitors to leaf through them, is applauded, but their installation on a rickety scaffolding with dim lighting is a rather bizarre mistake. (An electrician was adding lighting fixtures when I visited, so maybe things are a bit better now.) But on the whole this is an invigorating show of (mostly) younger photographers, and is a welcome tonic for those who have grown weary of the Academic-Gallery-MoMAfication of the New York photo world.

A Different Kind of Order: The ICP Triennial

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Friday, May 17 to
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Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat