Friday, May 30, 2014

Images from 'Representations'

Tom O'Dea 
126, Artist-run Gallery, Galway
26 April - 04 May 2014

Data of the Physical Self

Externally Published Data and Website

Installation view

The Datafied Individual

The Externally Published Self

 The Externally Published Self

The Externally Published Self

The Insitutional Self

The Insitutional Self

All photos courtesy the artist.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Images from 'In the Land of Tib and Tom'

In The Land of Tib and Tom
Stephan Brandes, Colin Crotty, Gabhann Dunne, Martin Healy, and Eithne Jordan
Rubicon Projects
Irish Georgian Society, Dublin
15 – 31 May 2014

Installation view

Detail of Stephan Brandes

Stephan Brandes

Gabhann Dunne
Martin Healy

Martin Healy

Colin Crotty
Eithne Jordan

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Enclave (Part 3)

The Enclave
by Richard Mosse
Ireland at Venice 2013 and its Irish Tour at the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin
January 29 – March 12, 2014

Opinion and review by Jim Ricks
Part 3 of a 3 part series on Ireland at Venice 2013 


Mother Jones: Is contemporary photojournalism more about daredevilry and showmanship than nuanced storytelling?

Fred Ritchin: In recent years the tendency has been to elevate the messenger over the message, a strategy which effectively keeps their more painful imagery at a distance. The courage of the photographer is celebrated while the circumstances of his or her subjects becomes somewhat secondary. As a result the photograph becomes less of a window onto the world and more of a mirror reflecting the distorted priorities of the culture consuming the imagery.

                – Mother Jones, “Can Photojournalism Survive in the Instagram Era?”, by Jeremy Lybarger (1)

The violence of war is not an unfamiliar subject for artists, providing the basis for countless works portraying symbolic and individual heroism or martyrdom. It was Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War (1810 – 20) that may have been the first Modern portrayal, and protest, against war, its atrocities, and the parties that perpetuate it. Disseminated widely as intaglio prints, the body of work makes no celebration of causes and despairingly, at times even angrily, depicts the boundless human suffering he witnessed in Spain during the Peninsular War of 1808-1814 .

Dead Confederate soldier at the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, Mathew Brady

In the mid-eighteenth century Roger Fenton, followed shortly thereafter by Mathew Brady and his team, were the first to photographically document war. Ever. Their bodies of work, evidence of the Crimean and American Civil Wars respectively, were in stark contrast to the heroic war painting known to centuries past. They portrayed, almost uniquely, two types of images: the portraiture of soldiers, officers, politicians, and the grim post-battle landscape. However, contrary to what James Merrigan suggests in his review of The Enclave in Billion #70 (2), this was not done out of any stylistic concerns or pretense; this was not Romanticism. Instead, they were both limited to what the technology of early photography allowed. That is, the exposure times needed to capture the latent image on a glass plate with a large format camera, which were far longer than we are accustom to today. Thus precluding photographing anything in motion; any action. Leaving only the margins; the still and stayed images of bodies, either posed in full regalia or decomposed in a trench. 

Susan Meiselas
Documentary photography has followed the evolution of technology (thinking of the frontline handheld 35mm SLR work of Robert Capa’s in the Spanish Civil War, World War II or the colour images of Susan Meiselas's in the Sandinista’s Nicaraguan Revolution) and continues to do so with the likes of iPhones and Instagram. Photo theorist Fred Ritchin discusses this thoroughly in After Photography. According to the PR for his latest publication, Bending the Frame: At the Crossroads of Photojournalism, Documentary and Human Rights, he “...calls for a paradigm shift in photojournalism. This shift will, according to Ritchin, require a turn away from the ego of the photographer: a turn towards the subject.”

Richard Mosse too is affected by the influence of technology, although consciously, and anachronistically, straddling the line between the documentary and the artistic. Mosse has travelled to the Congo on a few occasions in the last years, first completing Infra and then his Venice commission for the Irish Pavilion, The Enclave. In both he used infrared film to produce still images and, in the latter, videos transferred from 16mm film. Infrared film scientifically captures light waves human eyes cannot detect, and reveals it as pink. Easily processed in standard slide film chemistry, it has been frequently noted by Mosse and others that there was an inherent connection to armed conflict because infrared film was ‘developed’ for military purposes. It is a not so inspiring fact that infrared film has been around for 70 years and its use, by and large, is exclusively for a very mundane practical sort of work. Vegetation changes in the Tennessee River valley are not front page news or art. In a video interview Mosse also acknowledges the Psychedelic movement’s gimmicky use of Infrared as the beginning of its more contemporary unfashionable-ness in photo/art circles. 

Mosse embraces the infrared medium’s subtle shift in wavelength in an attempt to challenge documentary photography, and engage with the unseen, hidden and intangible aspects of eastern Congo’s situation.”(3)

The comparison between detecting unseen energy waves to detecting information beyond the normative range of knowledge is intriguing. The press release outlines further intention in the installation:

This disorienting and kaleidoscopic installation is intended to formally parallel eastern Congo’s multifaceted conflict, confounding expectations and forcing the viewer to interact spatially from an array of differing viewpoints. The Enclave is an experiential environment that attempts to reconfigure the dictates of photojournalism and expanded video art.”(4)

In The Irish Times he adds:

To try to reduce the situation in Congo to a simple, conventional narrative,” Mosse says, “would be dishonest.” (5)

Countries involved in the Second Congo War.

Ok, so let’s look at the facts; the RHA exhibition. After passing through a gallery with some of the largest mounted on glass landscape photographs I have ever seen, we enter a second darkened gallery with 6 screens. The audience is shown 30 minutes of ultraviolet film footage edited into a non-linear montage. There is a discordant soundscape overlaid throughout. In everything, green is magenta. The footage was shot recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a region that has endured a series of brutal dispersed wars, genocides, massacres in the last 20 years. The subject of the footage itself is varied, showing soldiers in a variety of activities, a funeral, crowds, a community celebration, a refugee camp, the landscape, a birth... (please see Adrian Duncan’s review in Paper Visual Art for an insightful read on this). Cumulatively, this makes up the installation and the artist will have it that all this is to be seen in rethinking and examining the “hidden aspects” of a series of wars and massacres.

...weirdly, this work does not spark any further curiosity in me to learn more about the conflict itself. The political and social features of the conflict here are rendered incidental to the more important business of how the place and people of the conflict might be aestheticised.”

                – Paper Visual Art, by Adrian Duncan (6)

Relying solely on this conceit, Mosse, rather than framing his subject matter in such a way that we see another layer, or creating a project with a structural shift away from the norms of documentary film, falls back on a rather unrigorous methodology. Unfortunately this revealing of the unseen exists as scientific fact in the film itself, but only symbolically in the meaning of the installation. I doubt very much this work has revealed hidden layers of the conflict to anyone. The photographic effect is eye candy – novelty (pink trees can also mean that it is perfectly alien, in not such a metaphorical way). The conceptual premise Mosse has put forward remains singularly an extended, unarticulated, superficial and purely symbolic visual metaphor. It has no connection beyond this symbolism to any greater idea; to anything bigger than the author. And because of this, the way of seeing and presentation is determined by the author’s intuition entirely. It is absolutely subjective, as there is no guiding principle. Any point, any attempt at uncovering the unseen is a construct imposed by Mosse and his team. 


Further, the show’s immersive installation blankets the issues of the Congo in another layer of ethical problematics. Jumbled screens provide repetitious footage visible from both sides, leaving an impression of broken shards of mirrors reflecting. It is fragmentary – cubist and symmetric. The audience is unable to see the whole picture, the entirety. De facto, this is Mosse proposing to the audience that there is no singular fixed way of seeing this war, or war at all. That military conflict fragments one's perspective; that it is chaotic in the Congo. And fair enough. But confusion is the lasting message: a physical embodiment of the artists’ sentiments. 

By not creating a system of interaction based on a critique of, or the inversion of, the author/subject relationship (and by extension then, utilising one that is only guided by the author’s needs), Mosse appears to be embarking on a kind of extreme tourism or consumerism. Besides tourism, another similarity of The Enclave might be to a human zoo.  Not as flip as it might initially seem as it turns out... In 1914 there was Kongolandshyen, a Congolese human zoo in Norway. A village of around 80 was recreated for the country’s centennial Jubilee Exhibition and was on public view for 6 months. Apparently contention, muffled racism, and an arrogant pseudoscientific wonderment, what I would regard as responses typical of that time, were generated in Norway by this exotic display (7)Dressed and housed in native trappings, this confinement becomes performative. This 'village' provided a form of entertainment based largely on preconceived and culturally constructed notions in Europe of Africa, Black, Other.  Certainly exhibiting ‘other’ people confined and on view to the public only reinforces stereotypes, not enhancing any real knowledge of their lives, or of them as people. From an ethical point of view, does The Enclave contribute anything but stereotypical portrayals of Africa to the West?

What is The Enclave? What is its objective? It was made for a major art exhibition. It is an interpretation from a non-expert, non-local. It adds little to the knowledge of the region nor convey the experience, lives, thoughts... dreams of the Congolese. On the contrary, Mosse is embedded with a militia. Throughout the work it is unclear whose side we are standing on. I accept that this may be a conscious decision as well. But these military figures appear to be acting, carrying out exercises for Mosse's team. Can we speculate that these uniformed men were paid, bribed, given gifts? Meaning and ethics alike become masked and impenetrable with the combined experience and understanding of the filming, installation, technology, point of view, and interaction. The Enclave is not a documentary nor is it for promoting knowledge.

This need not necassarily be a bad thing. As it has been put forward that documentary war photography needs to be seen in the appropriate contexts. Contexts like books, a place of solemnity and for private contemplation. But far more importantly, the supremacy of war photography (thinking of the multitude of views of the Vietnam War, the full colour portraits of brutality and anguish) has been challenged. Not least of which are the desensitisation to, and spectacle of violence and the glamourisation of the military. And (almost always) alienatingly at the expense of portrayals of ordinary people. Ritchin has posited that what we need is not war photography, but peace photography. Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others asks: “Is there an antidote to the perennial seductiveness of war?” (8)

Andrew McConnell’s Joséphine Nsimba Mpongo, 37, practices the cello in the Kimbanguiste neighborhood of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo  

Interestingly, a number of photo-documentary projects have taken place in the Congo in recent years that address these concerns. The likes of Irish photographer Andrew McConnell’s Joséphine Nsimba Mpongo, 37, practices the cello in the Kimbanguiste neighborhood of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo summarises a unique, subtle, and humanising approach to documenting people’s lives there. The Living Unnoticed series by Jana Ašenbrennerová is another example. In a way it is understandable for Mosse not to repeat the style of these works in trajectory or methodology. He is making art after all, not journalism.

 From the Infra series.

Likewise, I appreciated Mosse’s original Infra series. The early traditions of war photography, both landscape and portraiture, were realigned to be reassessed through an applied use of infrared film. A different and succinct body work. I liked that it drew me into the subject. The inverted colour spectrum momentarily pushes away the visual cliches and the semiotics of ‘soldier’ or ‘war’. Naysayers seemed to think it was gimmicky, commercial, a one liner. I also wouldn’t disagree, and I still like it.  

But the artist’s direct way of seeing in Infra, gives way to an ultimately meaninglessly complex presentation of visual montage in The Enclave. We see the Congo through the lens of a frenzied onlooker, capturing snippets of everyday life and set-up shots with paramilitaries. Multiple screens angled to each other, overlapping, not presenting any one view, and repeating haphazardly. All lending itself to obvious sculptural, physical, experiential metaphors. The sound engineering adds a menacing, tense drama to the installation while overwhelming the real sounds taking place while filming. Is this not an experiment in Hollywood’s emotive techniques? Experience the drama, but what of the actual content? But what of the structure of engagement? Indigenous people brought to a western theatre for fractured observation – The Enclave is disempowering for the subject. It has major ethical problems. 

James Merrigan followed up his review of The Enclave with The Limelight Also Comes in Magenta, a piece speculating as to the source of discontent with the work that apparently has sprung up amongst artists. He cites the (almost) uniquely Irish form of jealousy: begrudgery. He pooh-poohs the disparagers' "unsolicited discussion" and colourfully contrasts Mosse’s detractors to the general public: “it has become farcical why the inner circles of the local art scene are so emotionally invested – torches and pitchforks at the ready. While strangely, but maybe not surprisingly, the ‘general’ public bloody LOVE IT!”(9)

While I disagree that any criticism to an artwork on view to the public could ever be unsolicited, I think he raises an interesting consideration: that of the inner-circle (artists, curators, students, writers) and public split. I would however use this thought inversely: we cannot gauge art by its ‘ticket sales’. Euphemistically speaking, Mosse’s The Enclave is a box office hit, but is getting the thumbs down from the critics. It is with reason that I find this comparison to Hollywood apt. Mosse employed the slick, (and familiar) professional techniques of mainstream cinema and advertising, with surround sound and jarring, repetitious imagery accentuating the transformed candy-like appearance of the leading role: the landscape. Unfortunately, the Congolese play themselves as extras without speaking parts.

Regrettably, there are no easy answers to the countless considerations in creating exemplary lens-based work in 'conflict regions'.  Mosse documented rebel enclaves and sites of human rights violations in a way which attempts to overturn traditional realism, and see beneath the surface. But this only takes place in a symbolic way, not in a real way. It is the unfulfilled potential of this possibly empowering project that is The Enclave’s biggest failing. The spectacle of a technological trick foregrounds the concept, and the Congolese. Ultimately what is Mosse trying to say? What I was left with was a prevailing sense of an unethical sensationalism. 

 Richard Curtis, Richard Mosse and Bono in the RHA, Dublin. Photo: Julian Behal

Jim Ricks is an artist based in Dublin. He recently toured Afghanistan with the collaborative project In Search of the Truth.


(4) Ibid.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Enclave (Part 2)

An interview with Anna O'Sullivan
Commissioner/Curator of The Enclave by Richard Mosse 
Ireland at Venice 2013 and its Irish Tour at the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin (January 29 – March 12, 2014) and Ormston House, Patrick Street & 6a Rutland Street for Limerick City of Culture (March 27 – May 5, 2014)

Part 2 of a 3 part series on Ireland at Venice 2013  

Can you tell us a little about the process of selection for you as the commissioner/curator? Were you nominated separately? 

The Commissioner/Curator and the artist is a team effort with the Commissioner/Curator putting the artist forward. Richard and I came together and worked on an application initially, got shortlisted to one of four teams, which was followed by an intensive interview. 

And about your choice of Richard Mosse? Have you been aware of his work for long? 

In 2005, after twenty-three years working in the New York art world, I moved to Kilkenny, Ireland to run the Butler Gallery, a not-for-profit contemporary art gallery with a permanent collection, based in medieval Kilkenny Castle. Over the past nine years I have been working on the development of a new museum for the Butler Gallery, a build that is scheduled to begin in 2015. I met Richard Mosse through his parents, Susan and Nicholas Mosse, a renowned Irish potter from Kilkenny. I would meet Richard on his visits home from his studies at Yale University or later from his working trips to sites of conflict around the world.  I loved Richard’s energy and his passion for life. I was extremely impressed with his practice and hoped to work with him one day on an exhibition at the Butler Gallery. When a call out for the 55th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia was announced, Richard and I teamed up together, made a proposal, and got through to a shortlist of four candidates. We were required to make a presentation and were rigorously interviewed by a panel of art professionals and executives from the main funders Culture Ireland and the Arts Council of Ireland . We were astounded, and both so proud, when we were chosen to represent Ireland at the 55th Venice Biennale.


Did he have much competition?

It was a very competitive process with some very worthy Irish artists shortlisted for this most prestigious of art exhibitions.

This might sound funny, but I think there is a sense that Venice is akin to the Olympics of art, especially in a smaller nation like Ireland.  What are your thoughts on 'National Representation'? And how this worked out? 

It is a big deal to represent your country on any platform. Richard and I were both very proud to be selected and then really happy that the Irish Pavilion received such an immense amount of press and attention. It was immensely rewarding.

What do you think is strongest about his work? Or draws you to it?

While I was initially drawn to Richard’s still photography, it was his film work that really impressed upon me the power of what he had captured of this forgotten African tragedy. The Enclave is an intuitive, beautiful and tough work about this intangible war in the Congo. It is a work of contemporary art that makes visible something that is beyond the limits of language. We had huge numbers of visitors to the Irish Pavilion and many of those viewers exited the installation quite overwhelmed and moved by what they had witnessed. While artists today are adept at delivering slick video installations, Richard has created a work of immense power that has truly connected with people and given a voice to this war, where every man and woman’s job is survival. This is an immense achievement.

Obviously Infra was a body of work Richard had developed a few years prior and The Enclave being an extension of this. What was the process of developing the exhibition like?  Did you work very closely with Richard?  Or was he developing the work  already? 

I saw the beginnings of the 16mm film work and was impressed with the multi-screen approach. Richard was working on this body of film work for over a year. When we got the invitation to represent Ireland in the Venice Biennale Richard returned to the Congo to secure further footage. The contract for Fondaco Marcello, the venue I eventually rented for Ireland, was a year long lease. This allowed Richard to edit the work in the space in March 2013, which was hugely beneficial to him and his editor Trevor Tweeten.  I visited him in Venice during this process and had input and discussions with him on the installation for The Enclave and the exhibition design for the photographs. At that time I met with the carpenter, electrician, carpet layer etc. and planned what needed to be done in advance of our opening. We were lucky in that a lot of what was needed to be carried out to transform the space was achieved in April, before there was a demand for the time of every workman in Venice for all the other Pavilions. 

Mosse's work has been noted for also being commercially viable, as both a fact and as criticism. Did you work with Jack Shainman Gallery towards the show?  How involved were they, if at all? 

The healthy sales of Richard’s photographs has allowed him to develop the production of his film work and helped him to fund his many trips to the Congo. The Jack Shainman Gallery were supportive and helped with the sales of the benefit print, which was produced to assist in the Fundraising to deliver this ambitious and costly presentation. 

What were the differences between curating this scale of a show and other exhibitions you have done?  Was it a lot of pressure? 

I worked in the private sector in New York for many years as an art dealer and have curated six exhibitions a year during my nine year tenure as Director at the Butler Gallery. Delivering The Enclave in Venice and the subsequent Irish Tour was a huge job and ultimately a two year commitment. The challenge is that one continues to have a full-time job also whilst pulling this off, so the double-jobbing is intensive. Yes, it was a lot of pressure, especially the fundraising. I was committing to and spending money I wasn’t sure I would be able to raise so it was intense at times. As it turned out, it all worked out very successfully, which was a huge relief. It was an amazing experience to present a project such as this to a wide international audience and one that I will never forget.

What have been the reactions so far?

The reaction so far has been phenomenal. We have had feedback that it was a favourite exhibition of many who visited Venice. The word of mouth recommendation has been extraordinary and the Irish Pavilion became a ‘must see’ exhibition in Venice.

Did you expect the reaction that the work received?  In terms of popular media attention and also in terms of criticisms? 

I was delighted that The Enclave stirred people up in so many ways. The response was incredible and something I truly hadn’t anticipated. Richard had received a lot of attention from the press for his previous Infra series and so I knew the press were positioned and curious about what he was going to achieve in moving image in Venice. As it turned out he surpassed everyone’s expectations. I think the criticisms were a healthy response. The work is challenging on many levels so I expected the lively debate around the ethics of the work, its intent and its enduring memory. 

Did you find his project problematical in any way?

While this is a tough subject to make art about, Richard Mosse has brought this humanitarian tragedy to the attention of an audience that needs reminding of the horrors of war. This work of art does pose some disturbing questions, one of which is, what does it mean to make human suffering beautiful? The Enclave delivers a pure and unapologetic approach to understanding the Congo through the eyes of an artist, transcending facts and statistics to penetrate our sensibilities on every level.