new photography from the middle east

3 December 2012 § Leave a comment

Western artists have got it easy, and they should visit this exhibition to see just why.

New Photography from the Middle East is an excellent concise exhibition giving an overview of some of the very best in contemporary photography from the region. Given the politics from the region the work here is deeply imbued with suffering, death, repression and anger.

Ahmed Mater

What you will not find here is dull and pretentious art – like the silly constructions of household objects (Isa Genzken at Hauser & Wirth) or bored students walking around with mirrored sandwich boards (Josiah McElheny at White Cube) that I saw in recent days.

Tal ShochatThe exhibition is separated in to three key themes; Recording, Reframing  and Resisting. In the opening section we see that the photograph is a powerful tool for recording people, places and eventsAhmed Matyr at the same time questions its reliability by using a magnet and iron filings to create an image that looks like pilgrims at Mecca (above) whilst Tal Shochat selects ‘pefect’ trees, washes them down and adds a fake background. He questions photographic reality.

Hassan HajjajThe second section reframes and reworks existing styles or images. Hassan Hajjaj takes inspiration from fashion photography to create fascinating collisions between Western consumerism and Middle Eastern ideals (above) whilst Taysir Batniji brilliantly takes inspiration from the Bechers’ water towers with a series of watchtowers on the West Bank. Taysir Batniji

In Resisting artists undermine the authority of the photograph. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalili Joreige present images from the burned negatives of an imagined photographer.Joana Hadjithomas & Khalili Joreige

The best come right at the very end with a series of three photographs from the wonderful Nerdine Hammam. Taken from the series Uphekkh (2011) Egyptian soldiers are found transported in to idyllic landscapes – perhaps places they imagine or would prefer to be. Brilliant.Nerdine Hammam

Ultimately this exhibition is not depressing, as one might have imagined, but is inspirational and uplifting. Photography – and art – is a power for optimism, hope and good. Perhaps some Western artists can be inspired to produce work that is more meaningful and interesting? I hope so.Nerdine Hammam

Light From the Middle East: New Photography is at the V&A until 7 April 2013. Free entry.

Nerdine Hammam

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postmodernism at the v&a

3 October 2011 § Leave a comment

Or to give it its full title Postmodernism – Style and Subversion 1970-1990.

Strangely the V&A select a date period for the exhibition as postmodernism has always been a slippery thing to pin down. Does anybody really know when it started or when it finished – if indeed it has? It’s very nature – drawing heavily on the past whilst at the same time rejecting it with pastiche, irony and the subversion of the title – makes the whole era confusing to define and explain. In the sad absence of any attempt at definition by the V&A here is a copy of an amazing and almost unknown document that provides one of the only theoretical definitions.

Entitled ‘The Postmodern Manifesto’ and found, unpublished, by Jacques Derrida’s deathbed, it is also signed by the hugely influential thinkers Roland Barthes and Michel Foucauld (courtesy Brian Sewell in the Standard):

1. The art of the past is past. What was true of art yesterday is false today.

2. The Postmodern art of today is defined and determined, not by artists, but by a new generation of curators, philosophers and intellectuals ignorant of the past and able to ignore it.

3. Postmodernism is a political undertaking, Marxist and Freudian.

4. Postmodernism is a new cultural condition.

5. Postmodernism is democratic and allied to popular culture.

6. Postmodernism denies the possibility of High Art.

7. Postmodernism deconstructs works of High Art to undermine them.

8. Postmodernism is subversive, seditiously resembling the precedents it mimics.

9. Postmodern art is pastiche, parody, irony, ironic conflict and paradox.

10. Postmodern art is self-consciously shallow, stylistically hybrid, ambiguous, provocative and endlessly repeatable.

11. Postmodern art is anti-elitist, but must protect its own elitism.

12. To the Postmodernist every work of art is a text, even if it employs no words and has no title, to be curatorially interpreted. Art cannot exist before it is interpreted.

13. Postmodernist interpretation depends on coining new words unknown and unknowable to the masses, on developing a critical jargon of impenetrable profundity, and on a quagmire of theory with which to reinforce endowed significance. Vive le Néologisme!

Brian Sewell, clearly not a fan, dismisses postmodernism  thus in an excellent essay in the Standard: “Once the distinctions between the visual arts and other forms of intellectual sustenance are blurred in the pan-cultural soup of Postmodernism, nothing means anything precisely, everything is individually interpretable by anybody, and the deliberately obscure language of this anybody or group of anybodies becomes an art form in itself, for in Postmodernism art and language are one and the same and everything is text.”

Oh well, but like it or not postmodernism has existed and been represented in many different ways in the fields of architecture, art, design, theatre and music. The V&A here attempt an overview of the whole movement, vastly ambitious and only vaguely successful. You leave no more knowledgeable about postmodernism but it is still an enjoyable ‘romp’ though the era – bright, brash, colourful and theatrical.

Art-lovers will note an almost complete absence of works but will find a nice sense of period. Working from a supposed beginning in architecture the exhibition runs helter-skelter through design, music, art, film and more. There are wonderful Sotsass pots, memorable pieces of Italian design and Memphis furniture. A clip from Blade Runner plays next to costumes from the film: Rachel’s office dress and the window-crashing replicant’s plastic mac. There are clips from Grace Jones, Talking Heads and Devo music videos plus items of costume – my highlight the ‘big suit’ of David Byrne‘s.

Eventually, after passing through a section on money – the Warhol dollar sign is of course there – the exhibition ends with a Robert Longo film and a large portrait featuring one of his convulsive figures (David Byrne drew on theses convulsions in his stage act by the way). The image is unsettling – is he falling, dancing or perhaps just been shot. We are of course not meant to know. The exhibition asks us therefore  ‘Are we all post-modern now?’ Probably.

At the V&A until 15 January 2012

rush to the ballets russes

4 January 2011 § Leave a comment

If you haven’t yet made a beeline for the ballet you must do so right away! Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes – the current blockbuster at the V&A – closes this Sunday 9 January 2011.

Even if, like me, you have little specific interest in the ballet this is a marvellous exhibition that explores the world of the influential artistic director Serge Diaghilev and the most exciting dance company of the 20th century, the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev imaginatively combined dance, music and art to create ‘total theatre’. A consummate collaborator, he worked with many of the greatest artistic talents of the day; people like Stravinsky, Chanel, Picasso, Matisse and Nijinsky. There are, for example, amazing Russian ‘suprematist’ costumes from Leon Bakst, fascinating artwork from the likes of Bracque and Matisse  plus vast theatre backdrops from Picasso and Gontcharova.  A brilliant Wyndham Lewis oil even manages to find its way in to the mix.

Diaghilev’s dramatic performances transformed dance, reawakening interest in ballet across Europe and America. Celebrating the company’s key period of activity, this major exhibition reveals Diaghilev’s enduring  influence on 20th-century art, design and fashion and includes more than 300 objects including giant theatre cloths, original costumes, set designs, props and posters by artists and designers. These tell the story of a company which began in the social and political upheaval of pre-Revolutionary Russia and went on to cause a sensation with exotic performances that had never been seen before.

The whole is interspersed with informative mini-lectures, archive film and stirring music from the likes of Wagner (no, the real one) and Stravinsky. All very educational – you never know, I might even break the habit of a lifetime and try a ballet at Covent Garden!

Full details at the V&A website.

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