Goldsmiths Curatorial Critique

Brighton Photo Biennal 2008 : Memory of Fire, the war of images and images of war

Posted in Reviews by berenicesaliou on October 13, 2008

The third Brighton Photo Biennal consists of 10 exhibitions spread across the South East. The event invites the spectator to discover the photography of international conflicts, which have been generated over the twentieth century. The pictures presented are supposed to give various glimpses on the topic: from the photojournalistic style to historical and artistic approaches. However, a walk through Brighton’s exhibitions gives the tone of the biennal: it is mainly about documenting war and its effects and the photojournalistic style seems to occupy the front of the stage.
The keynote exhibition is called “Iraq trough the lens of Vietnam”. Images of recent events in Iraq are put into perspective with those of the Vietnam War, highlighting how the role of the photojournalist has evolved in the last decades, from an independent position to the almost compulsory place of an embedded photographer, twisting the notion of objectivity considered as inherent in the field.
The exhibition also introduces the viewer to the latest changes that have occurred in our relationships with images and the media. The Serie of snapshots taken by torturers at Abu Ghraib are set up on a massive panel, interrogating the ambiguity of photography. In fact, the torturers themselves took and released these pictures. They literally condemned themselves because they didn’t expect the unrelenting international circulation of their dreadful war trophies. But the whole panel in itself is quite relevant as illustrating the ambiguity of looking.  In fact, pictures on the back of the panel were taken by US army soldiers. They show Iraqi civilians thanking US troops, US soldiers playing with Iraqi children, and we can note down that here, the light is much brighter than on every other picture presented in the exhibition. These pictures, which strangely look like commercials for joining the US Army, are just another aspect on what we call “reality”.

The Fabrica hosts a work called “The incommensurable banner” by artist Thomas Hirschorn. When entering into the exhibition space, people are asked if they came on purpose to see the artwork. Quite a strange question, we might think. But the reason for such a question is explained, as soon as the viewer’s eye encounter the “incommensurable banner”. Eighteen metres of intolerable war images spread on the wall. Human guts mix with burned bodies while bloody corpses enter into dialog with disfigured childrens faces. Thomas Hirschorn forces us to encounter what we do not see on TV, what the news and newspaper never show. Because, as one of the explanatory boards rightly says, “people want to know, but people don’t want to see”. And the viewer hesitates to look at the work, feeling paradoxically attracted by such repulsive images.

The Lighthouse exhibition is undoubtedly the most interesting one in Brighton. Dutch photojournalist Geert Van Kesteren presents two of his works, “Why, mister, Why?” and “Bagdad calling”, which are confronted for the first time in a single presentation process. Geert Van Kesteren is one of those rare photojournalist who worked as “unilateral” amongst the Iraqis, that is to say, without any troop protection. The topic of his images differs absolutely from the one by embedded photographers. Here, we can see the everyday life and traumas of Iraqi civilians and the fighters’ resistance. But Van Kesteren doesn’t only show pictures. In the Fabrica, he truly establishes a particularly efficient scenographic device. Pictures are presented in three series on a single wall. Colours, forms and motives circulate from one picture to another, demonstrating the artist incredible compositional skills. Spaces are left free in order to give the viewer the power to invent his own narratives and interpretation of pictures which, however, remain images of real facts. But such an aesthetic treatment of war images also leads to an interrogation regarding the viewer’s responsibility. In fact, what happens when the viewer concentrates more on aesthetics proprieties of an image than on the image itself, which shows all the cruel effects of international conflicts on human beings? Can topics such as war be treated in an artistic manner? Is it ethically possible? This is what Susan Sontag argues when she writes: “Transforming is what art does, but photography that bears witness to the calamitous and the reprehensible is much criticized if it seems aesthetic, that is, too much like art”.
The exhibition “The sublime images of destruction” at the De la Warr Pavillion in Bexhill deals with this very acute topic. However, one would have expected other works than those exhibited, which quite fail to represent the paradoxes carried out by the notion of the sublime and the aesthetisation of war. Sophie Riestlhueber for example, remains strangely absent.
Thus, if one can regret the fact that the Biennal deals more with photojournalistic images than with artworks, we can maybe understand this as a choice of the curator, Julian Stallabrass. Representing the inhuman aesthetically is maybe more subversive and intolerable than just presenting the inhuman.

Why mister why? © Geert Van Kesteren

Why mister why? © Geert Van Kesteren


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