Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, 2011

Stephanie Hurst

The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize is awarded annually to a living photographer of any nationality for the most significant contribution (in exhibition or publication) to the medium of photography in Europe. The Prize was originally set-up by The Photographers’ Gallery in 1996, with the Deutsche Börse Group (financial exchange) sponsoring the £30,000 award since 2005. The Group is driven by “core values of creativity, precision and innovation” and maintains one of the largest collections of contemporary photography in the world.

Candidates for the Prize are nominated by the Academy—an international panel of experts invited by The Photographers’ Gallery in London. From approximately one hundred nominations, four finalists are shortlisted and subsequently exhibited. The winner is selected by a jury midway through the exhibition. The exhibition aims to showcase groundbreaking photographic practices and to address broader social implications of the medium.

Now in its 15th year, this prestigious international Prize has awarded the likes of Andreas Gursky, Rineke Dijkstra and Juergen Teller. This year’s shortlist illustrates the diversity of the photographic medium, ranging from neo-conceptual to social documentary. The finalists are worthy and dissimilar, which makes for a close and unpredictable running.

While its customary home at The Photographers’ Gallery undergoes renovation, this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Prize is exhibited at University of Westminster’s Ambika P3. Built in the 1960s, this 14,000 square foot, triple height, subterranean hangar was once used to test concrete for Spaghetti Junction and the Channel Tunnel. The colossal structure has retained many of its industrial features, and offers a dramatic and impressive scale. The main room is cavernous with a seemingly endless ceiling. Thomas Demand, perhaps most prominent of the contenders, is featured immediately upon entering the space.

He is nominated for "Nationalgalerie," a retrospective at Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, which included over forty large-scale works spanning fifteen years. This prolonged body of work summons post-war narratives to represent Deutschlandbild (the German image). The exhibition title is a literal pun for national identity and its venue, designed by Mies van der Rohe, is not only a primary example of post-war architecture, but also a symbol of Germany’s economic and cultural renewal.

Demand chose to show one photograph from the nominated exhibition, but it dominates the space with sheer scale. Heldenorgel (Heroes’ Organ) is a photograph of a three-dimensional 1:1 paper replica of a freestanding church organ. The instrument lives on the German-Austrian border and was built in 1931 to commemorate WWI casualties. The same haunting tune has been playing every day at noon for over eighty years. With 4,307 pipes and 46 registers, it is the largest open-air organ in the world. It took nearly three months to construct a paper replica.

Thomas Demand, Heldenorgel, 2009 
© Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/DACS, London. Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin, London/Esther Schipper, Berlin/Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

Demand, who shares a studio with Olafur Eliasson and Tacita Dean, has been perfecting his painstaking paper sculpting methods for the last three decades. He culls press photographs as a starting point for contextualising the picture. He then builds, lights and photographs the sculptures, subsequently destroying the models. Finally, he uses the Diasec process to mount the large-format colour prints behind sheets of reflective Perspex. “The lightness of the effort and the outcome is so beautiful,” he says.

The outcome is a two-dimensional picture of a three-dimensional picture inspired by other two-dimensional pictures extrapolated from the real world. By generalising the source images, Demand obscures the narrative, while managing to stimulate a vague memory. He relies on collective recognition to imbue these unassuming landscapes and interiors with social, political and cultural significance. “Whenever we remember something, we recreate it at the time of the memorising,” he explains in a 2009 interview. “We reconstruct the picture in front of our inner eye all the time. It’s not like rewinding a tape and playing it again. Pictoral memories are completely artificial; you make them up again and again.”

To that end, Demand omits both language and human presence from his adulterated compositions, but deliberately includes the appearance of material flaws. Here, the materiality of the newly-built facade is revealed. Setbuilding extends to the Prize exhibition in the form of an unsightly wooden structure at the foot of the main space. Heldenorgel rests on a wallpapered image of woolen curtain folds, which runs the length of the freestanding installation. Actual woolen curtains (produced in collaboration with architects Caruso St. John) accompanied the original retrospective and provided tonal contrast against the high gloss finish of the photographs. Stefanie Braun, curator at The Photographers’ Gallery, assures that “this single picture ably encapsulates the idea behind his show and is enough for visitors to be able to engage with his practice,” but the effect is difficult to recreate and the installation disappoints.

Jim Goldberg, nominated for Open See at The Photographers’ Gallery, is featured alongside Demand in the main room. Goldberg is a self-described “documentary storyteller” and Open See continues his distinctive approach to experimental photographic reportage. He combines Polaroids, video, text, ephemera and large and medium format photographs to document the plight of “new Europeans,” i.e. illegal immigrants, refugees, displaced people and asylum seekers from Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

Jim Goldberg, Democratic Republic of Congo, 2008. (His radio is the sole possession that he took with him while escaping a rebel attack in his village. He now lives in a refugee camp with 60,000 other people where poverty, disease, and crime run rampant). © Jim Goldberg, Magnum Photos.

The project originated as a Magnum Photos commission for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Located on the southeastern tip of Europe and bordering the Mediterranean Sea, Greece is a major port for illegal migration and therefore, an appropriate springboard for the work. Goldberg recognised the universality of the metanarrative and in 2007, received a grant from Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, which enabled him to expand and pursue the project through present-day.

Goldberg accounts for the abridged nature of documentary by encouraging subjects to annotate or personalise documents. He uses scrapbooking techniques to tackle the individual-universal duality of the migrant experience. The resulting cluster of intimate portraits invites the viewer to look closely, to have “a thoughtful reaction, rather than a knee-jerk reaction.”

Jim Goldberg, Lavrio, Greece, 2005. (Two detained Afghani refugees point to the refrigerator on which they wrote, approximate translation: “The Sea of Sadness has no shore”) Lavrio Detention Center. © Jim Goldberg, Magnum Photos.

“Since 1970, I’ve been using text and ephemera as well as photographs in order to tell stories of one kind or another,” says Goldberg. “There's a thread that runs through all the work that is to do with bearing witness. The photographs are about asking questions, though, not answering them. I’m not a politically radical person. In fact, I’m much more interested in being radical aesthetically.”

Issues facing social documentary are addressed indirectly in the project, i.e. the refugee as spectacle and the desensitisation of the viewer through the sheer volume of images of suffering. Goldberg reconciles this phenomenon by inviting the viewer into a one-to-one patchwork of humanistic proportions. Unfortunately, much of the content remains inaccessible; it upholds the function of the document, but proves ineffective as a visual language.

It functions best as a publication. The set of four softcover books are assembled with paperboard band and the lack of captions, pagination and in some cases, translation, produces an intimate and earnest collection. The first three books are photo essays traversing the migrant experience across three global regions, and many of the portraits are striking and poignant. The fourth book records both the initial expectations and the ultimate realities of the “new Europeans.”
 
Contrary to the gaping main space, the adjoining room has a low ceiling, comfortable body-to-building scale and the remaining (younger and fresher) finalists. Miami-born Roe Ethridge is nominated for his solo exhibition at Les Rencontres d’Arles in France.

He playfully addresses the redundancy of the image and the impossibility of photographic originality. His large-format colour photographs are composited from any mad thing he decides to include, e.g. a photo spread for Vice magazine (Old Fruit); a magnified and grainy close-up from a sticker on his daughter’s notebook (Pumpkin Sticker).

At first glance, his pictures seem reminiscent of stock photography—dated and slightly nostalgic, but the individual images remain inconclusive and deadpan, revealing nothing. In this way, Ethridge composes visual fugues that acquire their meaning from the seemingly random way they have been grouped, shuffled and arranged in nonlinear narrative sequences.

Roe Ethridge, Ballet Studio (Casia), 2009. © Roe Ethridge, Courtesy of Greengrassi London/ Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York/Mai 36 Gallerie, Zurich.

“I’m not making individual conceptual images, but a conceptual aspect comes about in the juxtapositions and groupings,” he says. In a post-appropriative exercise, Ethridge orders and reorders already recontextualised images to renew their signifying possibilities and to generate a shallow visual language. He is simply making images; creating snapshots from an array of available visual elements.

In a self-written 2008 press release, he writes: “One of the reasons I’ve been so interested in this kind of displaced, broad scope approach is an effort to embrace the arbitrariness of the image and image making. For me serendipity and intention are both necessary. Another reason for the wild style is the dread of conclusiveness. The dread of finitude. This work is against death and finality. No, that's too hyperbolic, let's say it’s about working in the service of the image and getting my kicks too.”

This fundamental disengagement affects the spontaneous narrative-making that will occur in the viewer’s head. Suddenly, the development of narrative relies on what has been seen before—rather, the powers of reminiscence. “There could be any kind of counterpoint—formal, conceptual to content,” Ethridge says. “It’s like a plate spinner. You want to keep all of them going at one time.”

Ethridge subverts the photographs’ original functions in favour of image selection and grouping. The process seems a sort of cutting away at allowable boundaries to produce elusive images that somehow manage to negate their own arbitrariness. Case-in-point: Thanksgiving 1984 (the most heavily loaded image of the group) depicts a generic young woman sitting at a Thanksgiving feast. Her lips are parted and upturned, her eyes are empty and deep-set, her arm crosses her chest, and her hand rests awkwardly on her shoulder. Every element in the picture plane seems unaccidental and yet, hollow on the whole.

Roe Ethridge, Thanksgiving 1984, 2009. © Roe Ethridge, courtesy of Greengrassi London.

Across the room, Israeli-born Elad Lassry is nominated for his first comprehensive institutionalized exhibition, self-titled at Kunsthalle Zürich, Switzerland. Lassry intersperses small-scale portraits, still lives and filmic works, each mounted at eye level and contained in uniform 11 x 14 picture frames. The tacky frames are painted to match the singular dominating colour within the oversaturated picture plane.

Like Ethridge, Lassry defies photographic originality and places even more importance on seriality and grouping to develop photographic practice. He employs a rigorous research-led process of archiving, collecting and restaging. His pictures derive from analogue source material that already exists and is subsequently abstracted according to predetermined rules. “It would be hard for me to justify creating an image that bears the pretence of originality,” he says. Rather than create new narratives, Lassry redeploys pre-existing images to reconsider their original functions.

In a recent interview with Maurizio Cattelan, Lassry said, “…personally, the limitation of pictures is very clear to me; it’s the starting point of my practice. The death of the picture, of indexicality, of authorship, of originality is something that I’m starting from. It’s a given thing, it’s not something I’m looking to arrive at. The pictures that end up in my work have this quality that I refer to as free radicals: they’re pictures that appear to be resolved, and they’ve sort of snuck into circulation, they’ve snuck into printed matter, but actually they’re almost reactive, they’re almost there only to latch onto something and become something else.”

Lassry’s objective is the instability and suspension of the image, to expose new possibilities of depiction and duplication. He constantly shifts between original and found materials to build collages of pre-existing imagery and allude to the language of product photography. He opens a conversation between photography and moving image to consider ideas of authorship and appropriation, and to change the standard questions that are asked about images.

Elad Lassry, Burmese Mother, Kittens, 2008. © Elad Lassry/ Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, CA.

A primary consideration is the physicality of the image, both sculpturally and in its dispersal, i.e. the physical possibility of the image to travel. Here, subjects are suspended between sculpture and image; they are abstracted and democratised by their own creation. “I think there is a true democracy to the works when they’re being presented,” he said, “like once something is ready to leave the studio I think of it as being in this space. I don’t think of it as a photograph anymore. I wouldn’t show something that I have a photographic engagement with.”

In other words, the picture becomes a secondary thing and invites new discourse about the portability of subjects. The photograph functions as a vessel for a subject that is replaceable and the frame functions as a ready-made into which subjects can be inserted and shuffled. Physicality becomes a direct mechanism for addressing the status of the picture and questioning its implications; such as, what does it mean if the subject is replaceable?

The meaning of the image is completely irrelevant to Lassry’s work. Physicality rises to the surface as the viewer contemplates the basic sensory experience of the picture. In regards to unwanted narrative, Lassry explains, “I think that if the back story is interesting, then I’m in trouble. If you care about the back story, then it means that the work doesn’t function. To me the work is so much more complex than the occasion of taking each picture.”

In fact, Lassry is utilitarian in his approach to photographic process. He aims to remove distractions from the picture in order to suggest a new conversation for the viewer. While the viewer will realise that the image potentially had an address or location before, Lassry hopes to move the subject into a new status of physicality. To this end, he regularly intersperses Super 16mm film projections with his photographic objects. The running projectors inject the room with a low, hurried hum and the presence of hardware. Lassry considers the filmic and photographic elements to function in the same way: as images traveling in space and time.

The images themselves are strange and seductive. Man 071 is the earliest picture in the group and references Bauhaus photography—experimentation with negatives and attempts to learn more about the subject. It is a prime example of the subject becoming a perceptual exercise because, at the same time, the subject is negated and therefore dismissed. Nevertheless, the bold colours are easy on the eyes and the consistency of presentation makes for a comfortable viewing experience.

Elad Lassry, Man 071, 2007. © Elad Lassry/ Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, CA

In the context of the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, it would seem that Lassry has had the greatest impact on photographic process this year both in theory, in practice and in the production of a compelling body of work. Among the shortlisted candidates, post-appropriative media has emerged as a prominent theme along with selection and seriality. The overall exhibition has a sensible layout in terms of grouping Demand and Goldberg in the main space, Ethridge and Lassry in the adjoining room.

The Prize will be on display until Sunday, 1 May 2011 with the winner announced at a special award ceremony on Tuesday, 26 April 2011. After its run at Ambika P3, the exhibition will travel to C/O Berlin and The Cube in Frankfurt.

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Stephanie Hurst is a London-based freelance writer and artist. An abbreviated version of this review was originally published at Wallpaper Magazine online.

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