In: activist art

Jane Evelyn Atwood | TOO MUCH TIME: WOMEN IN PRISON, 2000
November 25, 2022

Jane Evelyn Atwood, TROP DE PEINES: FEMMES EN PRISON, 2000, Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, France. (OUT OF PRINT)
Jane Evelyn Atwood, TOO MUCH TIME: WOMEN IN PRISON, 2000, Phaidon Press Ltd., London, England. (OUT OF PRINT)

“Curiosity was the initial spur. Surprise, shock and bewilderment soon took over. Rage propelled me along to the end.”

Too many times – and I’m sure I’m not alone in this – I have heard some well meaning dilettante assert that ‘art should be about beauty’ or ‘should only uplift us.’ In terms of that space where photography intersects with ideas of art and documentary – and not to mention history – something that comforts you is most likely wrong, if not simply pablum. When I’m sharing images on social media, there are some photographers I hesitate to post works from (as photography still carries the weight of being more ‘real’, thus can ‘offend’ as well as see yourself banned from those platforms): Gilles Peress is one of those, for his unflinching lens in places from Rwanda to the former Yugoslavia (“I don’t trust words. I trust pictures”), Gordon W. Gahan (specifically his images of the Vietnam War), Donna Ferrato (I was lucky enough to experience her groundbreaking series Living with the Enemy decades ago, in Windsor) or Martha Rosler (her House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home works that had their genesis in response to the Vietnam War (c.1967–72) but that she ‘revisited’ in 2004 and 2008, ‘updating’ them to Iraq and Afghanistan).

But the text I’ve selected for a Library Pick is something that is not ‘there’ but ‘here’, and in that respect is often – easily, repeatedly – ignored.

Jane Evelyn Atwood’s “monumental work on female incarceration, published in both French and English, took Atwood to forty prisons in nine different countries in Europe, Eastern Europe, and the United States. The access she managed to obtain inside some of the world’s worst penitentiaries and jails, including death row, make this ten-year undertaking the definitive photographic work on women in prison to date. Extensive texts include interviews with inmates and prison staff as well as Atwood’s own reminiscences and observations. The prize-winning photos in this book, including the story of an incarcerated woman giving birth while handcuffed, established Jane Evelyn Atwood as one of today’s leading documentary photographers.” (from her site)

Atwood has always used her camera as a means to tell stories too often not even dismissed but denied, and she has granted a level of dignity and consideration to those whom are too often not considered human but detritus.

A good friend is a theologian, but of the liberation theology vein: I enjoy talking with them, as their righteous anger is only matched by their ability to quote that repeatedly translated and edited text with a sense of the public good. I mention them as they once pointed out that in the New Testament, only one person was promised a place in the ‘kingdom of heaven’, and that was one of the criminals being crucified at the same time as Jesus.

In a more modern sense, I might cite Lutheran Minister (and ‘public theologian’) Nadia Bolz-Weber‘s contemporary addendum to the beatitudes, which include ‘Blessed are those who have nothing to offer. Blessed are they for whom nothing seems to be working.’

Atwood published ten books of her work and been awarded the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography, the Grand Prix Paris Match for Photojournalism, the Oskar Barnack Award, the Alfred Eisenstadt Award and the Hasselblad Foundation Grant twice.

More of Atwood’s work can be seen here.

Like several of the books I’ve recommended, this is one I came across in my local library.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Eleanor Antin | 100 Boots, 1971-73
October 28, 2022

Eleanor Antin | 100 Boots, 1971-73 

“For month after month after month, her five-score empty rubber boots had to be carted across the country, set up in various evocative spots, and then photographed before someone could come along and chase Antin away…at the time, the empty boots would have had immediate resonance as a reference to the Vietnam War, and to the boot-wearers who would never come home.” (Blake Gopnik)

Eleanor Antin is an artist who has not, in my opinion, received the credit she merits for her performative installations and photographs that have a cinematic quality. At the risk of being flippant, if Gopnik, Camille Paglia and I myself all agree as to her importance, we surely can’t be wrong. Antin has been making work since the 1960s, and her art often intersects with politics in both overt and covert ways. 

From Paglia’s Glittering Images: A Journey through Art from Egypt to Star Wars: ‘As a work of Conceptual art, 100 Boots consisted of temporary on-site sculptural installations documented by photographs (taken by Philip Steinmetz), which were sent uninvited to a distant, dispersed audience. The formal, squadron-like patterns assumed by the boots parody the frigid geometries then being made by male Minimalist sculptors. In their outdoor placement, the boots evoke traditional landscape painting as well as the new genre of land art, which was just emerging from Minimalism. Antin strategically varied the look of the cards so that “seductively beautiful” images were not the rule. Most of them have a bleak desolation reminiscent of existential European art films. Indeed, Antin saw the work as “a movie composed of still photos”.’

Over her career, Antin ‘has utilized a staggering range of styles, media, and materials, and her work has combined theater, dance, literature, drawing, painting, sculpture, crafts, photography, video, and architecture. “All artworks are conceptual machines,” she said. And again: “All art exists in the mind.” Antin deeply influenced the emergence of both performance art and Conceptual photography.’

For myself, these images are about the insidious nature of loss, especially as it pertains to those who have died during the pandemic. Empty boots that take on the nature of ghosts that appear in any place at any time, a simple – almost banal, like a rubber boot – fact of absence that hits you like a hammer to the chest and requires you to sit down to consider it….

Eleanor Antin was a previously featured Artist You Need To Know, in AIH Studios’ continuing series. That can be enjoyed here.

More works from this series can be seen here.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Julianna D’Intino | Connecting Rods: A Survey of Industry in the Niagara Region, 2015 – 2022
September 22, 2022

Julianna D’Intino | Connecting Rods: A Survey of Industry in the Niagara Region, 2015 – 2022

To talk of the legacy of GM when you live in the city of St. Catharines is akin to how your tongue will always go to the gap in your teeth, seeking something that was there and now is not, leaving nothing behind but a perceptible absence you are unable to ignore.

Julianna D’Intino’s images, both moving and still – and I’ve been lucky enough to see several bodies of work she’s produced – often have a local focus, and in some ways she steps into that role of photographer as social historian. Often this involves her adjacent community in Niagara, exploring her own immediate heritage and circle. One such series can be seen here.

Connecting Rods: A Survey of Industry in the Niagara Region is a family story, as well as a local one. The ‘connection’ in the title of this series is not just a nod to an industrial interpretation, but also the families, communities and city that is part of a network that once had its epicenter in the abandoned wastelands D’Intino presents us with….and in her fine words about this series, D’Intino also draws connections to other areas with similar experience, such as with Atlas Steels or John Deere in Welland.

That potential for ‘nostalgia’ doesn’t mean what D’Intino is telling us is through rose – coloured glasses, nor does it gloss over the reality: her words about this work are as unflinching and honest – and engaging – as her photographs.

“This is but one personal case study in the myriad of lost industry of the Niagara Region. Would the return of the Niagara Region as a manufacturing hub provide a sustainable solution to the region’s economic woes? No, it would not. What is missing in the region is sufficient work at wages high enough to sustain a well-balanced life at the Niagara Region’s new inflated cost of living. The last time that such security was widespread was when manufacturing was a leading industry.”

The legacy of GM in St. Catharines is surely a contested narrative, with ground fertile for those from here – like D’Intino, or myself – to mine. It’s as rife as the industrial damage left behind at the site (an ongoing issue in civic politics here which has led to some grotesque and unsettling bedfellows), and there are differing opinions in play. Anna Szaflarski, for example, offers another perspective on this history here.

D’Intino’s site is here, and more images and D’Intino’s considered words about Connecting Rods can be found here.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Jerusalem floor, 2012 | Larissa Sansour
March 22, 2022

Jerusalem floor, 2012 | Larissa Sansour

Jerusalem floor, 2012 | Larissa Sansour, C-print (23 3/5 × 47 1/5 in / 60 × 120 cm)

On the flight from London I sit opposite a rumble seat where the stewardess places herself during takeoff. The stewardess is an Asian woman with a faraway look. I ask how often she makes this flight. Once or twice a month. Does she enjoy Israel? Not much. She stays in a hotel in Tel Aviv. She goes to the beach. She flies back. What about Jerusalem? She has not been there. What is in Jerusalem?

The illustrated guidebook shows a medieval map of the world.  The map is round.  The sun has a beard of fire.  All the rivers of the world spew from the mouth of the moon.  At the center of the world is Jerusalem. (Robert Rodriguez, The God of the Desert, Harper’s Magazine) 

One can’t help but be thinking of the displaced, of refugees fleeing strife, with the situation in Eastern Europe right now; and let’s be frank – not all refugees are ‘equal’ with race and geopolitics rearing their ugly heads, as we see in both the history and present of Canada, and the wider world. I’m not often a fan of Ai Weiwei, but his work about Alan Kurdi touched a nerve that many of us may not have known – or my still deny – was exposed. 

In light of that unpleasant reality, the works of Larissa Sansour, a Palestinian born artist were on my mind this week, especially her series Nation Estate. Jerusalem is not a neutral place, or an unloaded term. It may be the best example in ‘Western’ nation states – though in the Middle East – of a place that is intensely contested, an apex of Salman Rushdie’s notion of an ‘imaginary homeland.’ 

Even that tepid taupe of Wikipedia offers this: Given the city’s central position in both Israeli nationalism and Palestinian nationalism, the selectivity required to summarize more than 6,000 years of inhabited history is often influenced by ideological bias or background (please see Historiography and nationalism).

“In her Nation Estate (2012) series, Sansour conceptualizes an immense high-rise as a new home for her people. In each digitally manipulated photograph in this series, she places herself on a different floor of the edifice. We see her travel from the main lobby, to the Dead Sea, to Gaza, all in the space of a single building.”

“….Nation Estate takes place…in a mammoth high-rise that houses the entirety of the Palestinian people in one easy-to-navigate complex. Blurring the lines between utopian and dystopian realities, she paints a seemingly peaceful, albeit unfathomably sterile future where walls cease to function as barriers to human interaction.

“In a way there’s something positive about ‘Nation Estate.’ There are no check points and people can visit one city from another just by the use of the elevators. It’s an easy life that questions progress in general. Certain things are becoming easier, yet this skyscraper environment is completely inorganic,” Sansour stated. “It’s actually really a mockery when you think about it — living in a skyscraper. So it’s completely dystopian in the end.” (from here)

Who is a ‘real’ refugee? Who has a ‘right’ to live in a space, and to claim that they ‘own’ the land? Sansour’s works have often addressed this; we live in a world where to be Palestinian is often dismissed as illegitimate, if even ‘legal’, whatever that might even mean. Perhaps, as alluded to in Sansour’s work, the idea of ownership and wealth not only preclude but define / deform what it means to be a citizen, or even to be human. 

In looking at this work, I also cannot help but consider the lament of Psalm 137: For how are we to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? 

You can see more of her work at her site, and her Instagram is @larissasansour.

~ Bart Gazzola

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