Art Basel Hong Kong 2016: Lens Flair
Love, pain, war, and cultural dislocation are captured in the diverse photographic works on show this month at Art Basel in Hong Kong.
Akira Sato is the last word in a photographic style that Japan called its own in the 1960s—exotic, enigmatic, and at the same time, highly stylised. Sato was once a relatively obscure fashion photographer, but is now highly prized by collectors drawn to his unsettling oeuvre. Born in Tokyo in 1930, he started out as a student of economics at Yokohama National University but was drawn to the photography he found in Life magazine. After graduating in 1953, he made the leap to fashion photography and developed his characteristic style—meshing experimentation with fashion. In 1957, he took part in a seminal exhibition, Junin no me (Eyes of Ten), which brought together a group of artists destined to become the cutting edge of Japan’s photographic fraternity, among them Yasuhiro Ishimoto, whose eerie street portraits still resonate, and Toyoko Tokiwa, known for her stark photographs of red light districts. The Vivo collective sprang out of this exhibition, a short-lived but highly influential group that left its mark on a whole generation of Japanese photographers, including Daido Moriyama, whose work explores the collapse of Japanese values, and the prolific Nobuyoshi Araki, known for an unabashedly erotic style. Sato had a series of one-man shows starting in 1961, in which he specialised in black-and-white photographs of women, their faces shot in uncompromising closeup. “In the 1960s, Sato reacted against the narrative photography in vogue at the time and sought to emphasise the psychological subtlety of his subjects by using unconventional methods and materials for his work,” says a spokesman for Tokyo’s Take Ninagawa gallery, which will be presenting the work at Art Basel. “This gives the images a kind of montage-like composition where different elements are juxtaposed in ways that are not commonly seen in daily life. Our project for Art Basel in Hong Kong focuses on the role of abstraction as visual language. His black-and-white photograph shows a pyramidal structure in the landscape juxtaposed against a close-up of a young woman’s profile, so that the figure becomes an abstraction in itself.”
Image: courtesy of the artist and Take Ninagawa, Tokyo
Performance artist Marina Abramović has had her clothes torn off, a gun pointed at her head and even helped her partner aim an arrow at her heart—incidents she famously achieved before 10pm so as not to break her mother’s curfew. The Serbian-born artist, who sometimes refers to herself as the “grandmother of performance art,” has been using her body as a medium since the early 1970s, creating artworks that provoke, confront, and subvert. The daughter of two of Yugoslavia’s most famous wartime partisans, Abramović taps into an aesthetic of pain, a place where suffering speaks to bigger and more important truths. While her early works involved stabbing her fingers or carving a five-pointed star into her stomach with a razor blade, her later works show that pain can come in many forms. From the tedium of counting grains of rice to the excoriating truth that comes from simply staring into strangers’ eyes, Abramovi ’s work attempts to drive deeply into a transcendental space. In 1988, she split with Ulay, her lover since 1976, and they decided to mark the end of their relationship with a piece called The Lovers, in which they each walked 2,500 kilometres from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China before embracing and parting for the last time. “As every relationship comes to an end, ours went too,” Abramović told an audience recently. “We didn’t make phone calls like normal human beings do and say, you know, ‘This is over.’ We walked the Great Wall of China to say goodbye. I started at the Yellow Sea and he started from the Gobi Desert. We walked, each of us, three months, two-and-a-half thousand kilometres. It was the mountains; it was difficult; it was climbing; it was ruins. We succeeded to meet in the middle to say goodbye. And then our relationship stopped. And now, it completely changed how I see the public.” Photographs from the journey, complete with the artist’s sketches, will be presented at Art Basel by New York’s Sean Kelly Gallery.
Images: courtesy of Sean Kelly, Gallery New York and Marina Abramović archives
The visual lexicon of the war photographer has remained little changed since its inception during the American Civil War of the 1860s. Stark, traditionally in black and white, and normally bleak hyper-masculine representations of widespread brutality, the photographic servers on news desks around the world churn out war clichés that desensitise the viewer. Richard Mosse, however, wants to show that in the interstices of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—a war that has claimed more than five million lives since the ’90s—lies strangeness and beauty. Using discontinued colour infrared film originally designed for military camouflage detection, a process that gives his photographs a distinctive pink hue, Mosse shows how the conflict has affected the landscape, both natural and man-made. “Sometimes you have to walk for 20 minutes through no man’s land, down a muddy path past ambush foxholes, abandoned huts, or entire villages in a state of being reclaimed by the jungle,” Mosse explains. “Civilians here build provisionally, it seems, almost as if they anticipate having to abandon their homes in the not-so-distant future.” He was struck by the sculptural form of these modest structures. “Abject yet cannily built, they express a vernacular creativity in the face of extreme hardship and instability… Over time I began to make a series of prosaic portraits of these architectural forms.” The Irish-born photographer collaborated with Australian composer Ben Frost, who accompanied the author on a trip to the Congo to collect field recordings, to produce a maze-like immersive video installation called The Enclave, which was released in 2012. A spokeswoman for the Berlin-based Carlier Gebauer gallery, which is presenting his work at Art Basel, says, “Unlike the countless streams of war images we encounter daily, Mosse uses the conceptual pivot of visual pleasure to bring the invisible elements of a war that has claimed so many lives in the Congo into sharper focus.”
Image: courtesy of the artist and Carlier Gebauer
It was pioneers such as the surrealist Man Ray and the constructivist Lazlo Moholy-Nagy in the early 20th century that first saw the potential of the photogram to create vivid dreamscapes. By placing disparate objects on photographic paper and manipulating the light or chemically treating the surface of the paper, an image in silhouette would appear—one that allows the imagination to fill in the gaps. Almost 90 years since Man Ray created his stark “rayographs,” cameraless photographers such as Floris Neusüss from Germany are still experimenting with the form. “For me, making a photogram is almost the opposite of making photographs,” Neusüss told Britain’s The Telegraph in a 2010 interview. “A photogram is like a painting: you have a blank sheet of paper and you create a picture on it, step by step. A camera provides you with an instant image that resembles what you can see in front of you anyway.” He says the great advantage of the photogram is that it follows the contours of the imagination rather than representing reality as it presents to the eye, allowing the artist to create images that have never been seen before. “In 1960, I captured the image of a female nude as a photogram, on a two-metre length of paper. I discovered that in one sense the fact that the woman in the photogram is life-sized communicates intimacy, but in another sense it creates detachment—the picture has no surface detail, so you can’t identify distinctive features. The figure appears to be floating in space. It eludes realistic capture.” While photograms recall some of the earliest photographic processes, there has been a resurgence in interest in cameraless photography driven by the ubiquity of digital photography. “Digitalisation has helped make photography even more banal,” says Neusüss. “You can do anything with Photoshop, and everybody does, with the effect that the observer’s imagination is not engaged.” London’s Atlas Gallery is showing works by Neusüss at Art Basel.
Images: courtesy of the artist and Atlas Gallery, London
Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, Australia’s original inhabitants, make up just 3 per cent of the nation’s population of 23 million people. But in photographer Michael Cook’s works, they form the dominant culture. Aboriginal people in 18th-century British naval attire sit dreamily on horseback on the clean sands of an Australian beach. Aboriginal businessmen in classic 1960s suits stalk the streets with briefcases in hand. Rows of Aboriginal politicians fill up the green leather seats of Parliament House. And 27 of Australia’s prime ministers are re-imagined as Aborigines, their features transposed and reformed until they take on the appearance ofindigenous Australians. “We have such a small percentage of people identifying themselves as Aboriginal in Australia and I wanted to examine what would happen if the roles were reversed,” says Cook. “When you go back through all my work, what I want to do is to keep it open and ask a lot of questions. My feeling is that if you ask questions about the past, you get answers for the future.” Cook, himself of indigenous background, was adopted into a white family at birth in 1968 and only met his natural mother 15 years ago. His latest series, Mother (brought to Art Basel by Melbourne’s This Is No Fantasy + Dianne Tanzer Gallery), examines his own history and Australia’s infamous “stolen generation”—the indigenous children forcibly removed from their families under government policy between 1900 and the 1960s to be brought up by white families or in institutions. Cook hopes the work will appeal to people with no knowledge of Australia’s past. “It’s the first time I’ve felt really comfortable in showing at an international level. Because all my work has had a really strong Australian political sense to it, when I’ve taken it outside Australia I don’t know whether an international audience has really got it. I’m hoping with this body of work that it can be read on many different levels.”
Images: courtesy of the artist and This Is No Fantasy + Dianne Tanzer Gallery