In: black and white
Sibylle Bergemann | The Monument | 1975 – 1986November 6, 2023
Sibylle Bergemann | The Monument | 1975 – 1986
Nothing seems more improbable than what people believed when this belief has gone with the wind. (Doris Lessing)
I am old enough to remember when the Berlin Wall fell and the end of the Cold War. In a fine inversion – and something that speaks to how history is often a collaborative delusion and how, at its best, art history can be the most direct and yet most subversive form of history – I would be teaching a decade or so later and have to explain to students what both of those events were, and why they still mattered. That was also a time when I reread Doris Lessing (I recommend her award winning – and divisive, to many readers and critics – book The Good Terrorist) : I had disdain for her books when I read them in my early twenties, and was surprised at how much more sense they made to me, as I had matured and gained experiences that resonated with her words, when I was older. At that time, I was able to appreciate her words – and especially the sentiment behind them – that I quote at the start of this essay a little better….
Critic Jane Rogers (in The Guardian) described The Good Terrorist as “witty and … angry at human stupidity and destructiveness.” I must inject (as one can’t look at these images by Sibylle Bergemann and not consider the contested legacy of Marx and Engels, communism and the GDR) how I like to antagonize my christian and communist friends (not the same people, to be clear) by citing Mordecai Richler from his seminal book Solomon Gursky Was Here. In the voice of the aforementioned Gurksy, Richler avers that the system (whether the Sermon on the Mount or the Communist Manifesto) is inspired but it is humanity that is vile…
Enough tangential commentary, let’s have some facts : “From 1975 until 1986 Sibylle Bergemann accompanied the making of the huge bronze of Marx and Engels in Gummlin / Usedom from the first sketches to the installation. The work, which was created by the sculptor Ludwig Engelhardt, is still located near the Alexanderplatz in Berlin-Mitte.” There has been controversy about this monument, as Germany struggles with its past as defined in the present, whether it be the theoretical space of Marxism or that the GDR was one of the most repressive states in the 20th century. Monuments, after all, occupy both physical space and conceptual ground in any national imaginary.
In tandem with this, I’d suggest watching the ‘tragicomedy’ film Goodbye, Lenin : “the story follows a family in East Germany (GDR); the mother is dedicated to the socialist cause and falls into a coma in October 1989, shortly before the November revolution. When she awakens eight months later in June 1990, her son attempts to protect her from a fatal shock by concealing the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in East Germany.” A majority of that film was shot where this sculpture is located, at the Marx – Engels Forum.
First as tragedy, then as farce, ahem, someone (okay, Engels, ahem) said….
Bergemann’s words about her art and aesthetic : “I am interested in the edges of the world, not the center. The incompatible is crucial material for me. When something isn’t right about faces or landscapes that doesn’t quite fit…”
As of this writing, I am also working on an Artist You Need To Know post about the Mexican photographer Lola Álvarez Bravo (1903 – 1993). Bravo’s words also apply to Bergemann’s Monument series : “If anything is useful about my photography, it will be the sense of being a chronicle of my country.”
But I don’t approach this without bias : my stance can be seen in the primary image I’ve chosen, where the figures are ‘missing’ their heads, like a reversal of Shelley’s Ozymandius, where only the legs remain of his forgotten ‘king’….
~ Bart GazzolaRead More
Chris Alic | Transience & MemorySeptember 16, 2023
Chris Alic | Transience & Memory
One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted –
One need not be a House –
The Brain has Corridors – surpassing
Material Place –
The history of one who came too late
To the rooms of broken babies and their toys
Is all they talk about around here
And rebuke, did you think you’d be left out?
(Peter Straub, from Houses without Doors)
Like Mark Walton – and it’s a defining tenet of curated, I think – I also have a strong presence in my immediate and local visual arts community, with mine being Niagara : several of the artists I’ve featured here (Juliana D’Intino, for example, or Sandy Fairbairn) are ones that I’ve been lucky enough to include in a continuing curatorial project in downtown St. Catharines that began in Fall of 2022 and that is continuing indefinitely, with artists slated into late 2024.
Chris Alic is one of those artists, as her exhibition with Amber Lee Williams is currently on view at Mahtay Café & Lounge. That grew out of a 5 x 2 Visual Conversations evening (a relaxed sharing of art and ideas that I’ve facilitated for over five years, in St. Catharines and Welland). Like any good curator, I offered support to the two artists but primarily stayed out of the way, with some appropriate gentle nagging.
From that immediacy, let’s indulge some of my subjectivity that sparked my interest to consider these two pieces by Alic.
As the artist said when she spoke about the work, these are images from time she spent in Missouri in the United States – and, of late, I’ve fallen down another rabbit hole that centres upon the idea of the aesthetic of the Southern Gothic, whether that be in terms of crime or horror, but usually (and I own this) on the darker side. In light of this, the abandoned and lonely toys of Alic’s images take on a more ominous tone. Further clarification : I’ve been eschewing the ‘standard’ Southern Gothic horror of New Orleans, in my reading and research, but instead have been looking at other sites in the American South – like Charleston, or Alic’s Missouri – as these oft ignored sites have an unexplored richness in their stories that is more diverse than you might think. I also mention this – not just as another subjective indulgence – but because many of the stories I’m encountering in this enjoyable research are defined – or deformed – by the history of those sites (the institutional racism flows into the occult or supernatural horrors of the stories. There’s a story by Alan Moore about a television show that is shot on an old abandoned plantation where the filming somehow invokes the ghosts of the enslaved, and the actors ‘become’ their characters, with new manifestations of hate and racism being merged with old…all horror, they say, comes out of reality….or perhaps even the superficially banal, like Alic’s empty playground and abandoned tricycle….)
The words of the artist :
Memory is a huge part of what makes us human. Every interaction, every step, sight, sound, touch, smell – all these things create memory. But they are fragile. They are guided by perception, they are malleable, layered, are influenced by who we become, and who we become is in part made up of what we remember. Our memories continue to create us, and we create our memories. And we lose them. They fade, disintegrate, become suspect. They are subject to context, transformation and decay, and temporality, just like the spaces we inhabit and the things we use. They become the liminal space between an event and a feeling. Does emotion exist without memory?
I have been using a camera to secure my memories since I was a single-digit kid. I don’t remember ever not having a camera, or access to a camera. It was a part of my childhood, and everyone around me took photos and 8mm film of everyday life. My immediate and extended family were avid documentarians. I am continuing that tradition, but somewhere along the way I made the decision to “crop” those memories – to capture only small portions of context, little bits of an event, inexplicable to anyone but myself because each image is connected to an important moment, an emotion, a piece of who I became because of it. And then I edit. Adjust. Refine. Sometimes intentionally erase, fade, and transform them.
These seven images were made during a two-year period living in Columbia, Missouri. All were taken on a Yashica FX-70 Super 2000 film camera. I learned to use a darkroom and print my own photos with this film, and two of the images were only recently developed using caffenol-c. I had forgotten that I had taken the photos, I had forgotten the existence of the places until I saw them again.
The two person exhibition CHRIS ALIC & AMBER LEE WILLIAMS | TRANSIENCE OF MEMORY is on display at Mahtay Café & Lounge in downtown St. Catharines for the month of September, 2023.
~ Bart GazzolaRead More
Mimi Plumb | The Golden City, 1984 – 2020February 2, 2023
Mimi Plumb | The Golden City, 1984 – 2020
So this is where the Renaissance has led to | And we will be the only ones to know
So take a drive and breathe the air of ashes | That is, if you need a place to go
If you have to beg or steal or borrow | Welcome to Los Angeles, City of Tomorrow
(Phil Ochs, The World Began In Eden And Ended In Los Angeles)
When I first encountered Plumb’s images, that song from the late Phil Ochs came to mind: it seems upbeat and pleasant but is, in fact, nuanced with a despair that is subtle but builds (and I will admit my interpretation may be coloured by his suicide. But the rendition of that song I am familiar with is a live version, and Ochs talks at the beginning of his fascination with Los Angeles “which intrigues me like a sensual morgue.” Plumb’s works have a certain sterility, to them, as well, that intersects with this consideration).
As with Plumb’s scenes, there’s more at play than the obvious. Considering that California exists in imaginations just as vividly – if not always accurately – as any seminal ‘place’ like ‘Siberia’, Plumb’s photographs invite us to construct narratives around them, that build, converge or perhaps complete what she intends, with her own personal stories….
I will admit that when looking at Mimi Plumb’s photography, that The Golden City often blended with another body of work of hers, titled The White Sky. I doubt that the artist would be offended by that, as the elements of memory, nostalgia and social realism suffuse her practice, and are themes that are present in her artwork still. Although her narrative is a personal one, it also has elements that are more universal, when considering larger tropes that her work touches upon.
“The Golden City [is] a series of images that frames subjects against the sprawling backdrop of San Francisco. Similar to Plumb’s other bodies of work, The Golden City is an ode to an earlier America—a rich and playful elaboration on the human condition, and its tendencies towards hedonism and spectacle. To say that this work largely references the exploitation of the natural world on account of humans would be reductive. While sculptural detritus and empty construction sites set the groundwork for this series, Plumb flips dramatic irony on its head by capturing subjects enthralled by events transpiring just beyond the frame. We are not in on the comings and goings within this world, but are sucked in nonetheless; left only with a sense of wonder at what could be bringing about such awe.” (from Document, with an engaging conversation with Plumb you can read as well)
Much more of Plumb’s work – from this series and a number of others – can be seen here. If you’d like to listen to her talk about her work, the Museum of Contemporary Photography has a video you can enjoy here.
Plumb published a book of selected images from this body of work with Stanley/Barker books in 2022.
~ Bart GazzolaRead More
Jane Evelyn Atwood | TOO MUCH TIME: WOMEN IN PRISON, 2000November 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 GazzolaRead More
Elaine Ling | Baobab #31 – 2010, MadagascarNovember 19, 2022
Elaine Ling | Baobab #31 – 2010, Madagascar
Ce qui embellit le désert, dit le petit prince, c’est qu’il cache un puits quelque part…[What makes the desert beautiful, said the little prince, is that somewhere it hides a well…]
It is an odd feeling to encounter the work of an artist, seeing how prolific they are and be enamoured of their practice, then discover that they passed a few years ago. I’ve often had the same experience with authors (I have a habit of finding the work of a writer that is new to me, and consuming all the books, and it’s an empty sadness when you realize they won’t be creating any more).
This image is one from a series titled Baobob, by the late Elaine Ling (1946-2016). At her site it is the final series presented, from an extensive and enthralling body of work.
It can be read as having the quality of an epitaph: these massive, seemingly eternal natural ‘monuments’ that have survived her, and will likely survive all of us.
In that manner I have of being ‘too subjective’, Baobob trees remind me of Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s novel Le Petit Prince (1943): to me, it’s a melancholy story, about loss and death, with touching moments of truth that have contributed to how it – despite often being considered a story for children – speaks to many adults, like myself.
“Seeking the solitude of deserts and abandoned architectures of ancient cultures, Elaine Ling…explored the shifting equilibrium between nature and the man-made across four continents. Photographing in the deserts of Mongolia, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Timbuktu, Namibia, North Africa, India, South America, Australia, American Southwest; the citadels of Ethiopia, San Agustin, Persepolis, Petra, Cappadocia, Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Great Zimbabwe, Abu Simbel; and the Buddhist centres of Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Tibet, and Bhutan; she has captured that dialogue.” (from her site)
Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux [Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye].
On the first of August, 2016, Elain Ling lost her battle with lung cancer: her brother – Edward Pong – has indicated that he intends to continue to foster her legacy, through the maintenance of Ling’s site.
It is an impressive space with much more about Ling’s life and work – and many more of her moments from her life and around the world – that can be enjoyed here. C’est véritablement utile puisque c’est joli [It is truly useful since it is beautiful].
All quotes in italics are from Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince .
Elaine Ling was also a recently featured Artist You Need To Know, in AIH Studios’ continuing series. You can enjoy that here.
~ Bart GazzolaRead More
HAUNTED | DREAMING | CITY | STEVEN LAURIEDecember 30, 2022
HAUNTED | DREAMING | CITY | STEVEN LAURIE HAUNTED | DREAMING | CITY | STEVEN LAURIE @_steven_laurie_ @stevenlaurie_bw Steven Laurie Photography... Read More
Why Black and White Still Matters – An EssayDecember 6, 2021
High culture has pretty much disappeared along with the dress code.Read More
Christina Z. Anderson – Cyanotype: The Blueprint in Contemporary PracticeJune 25, 2021
Christina Z. Anderson
Cyanotype: The Blueprint in Contemporary Practice
A Focal Press Book, Routledge
Cyanotype: The Blueprint in Contemporary Practice is THE book you need if you want to learn how to create stunning cyanotype prints. Written by Christina Z. Anderson and available online, it offers detailed notes on formulas, papers, digital negatives and the actual process itself, as well as highlighting the work of contemporary cyanotype artists. Anderson is also the author of similar books on gum prints and salted paper prints. I’ve included 2 of my test images using her processes below. ~ Mark WaltonRead More
Liz Potter – Everything is going to be okaySeptember 22, 2021
Liz Potter’s series of panoramic self-portraits should be viewed while listening to an Aaron Copland playlist. Like the great American composer, Potter captures the expansiveness of the American frontier, or what’s left of it. She pits her everyman heroine against its searing heat, its beautiful skies and its unforgiving majesty. Small and alone, she confronts it with courage and humility, and does not fear failure or setbacks.Read More