Last week, I was lucky enough to be able to spend a few days in Brussels. I visited with my wife, mother-, sister- and uncle-in-law. While they were busy seeing the sites of a city I’ve visited a couple of times previously, I headed out to see a few of the many photography shows on in the city as part of its Summer of Photography.
I visited the following:
Woman – The feminist avant-garde of the 1970s: Works from the SAMMLUNG VERBUND, Vienna. Bozar, Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels. 26 June 2014
Where we’re at! – Other voices on gender. Bozar, Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels. 26 June 2014
No Country for Young Men – Contemporary Greek art in times of crisis. Bozar, Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels. 26 June 2014
The Belgian Six – a group show for Belgian photography curated by The Word Magazine. Bozar, Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels. 26 June 2014
Regenberg M. Fair use. Foundation Stichting. 27 June 2014
Heinecken R. Lessons in posing subjects. Wiels Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels. 27 June 2014
I’m not going to attempt to write up all of the shows in detail, but will concentrate more on the thoughts I had regarding the type of photography that appeals to me and that I aspire to take having seen such a broad variety in a very short time. Much of the photography I saw was very conceptual and brought me right back to that first chapter of Charlotte Cotton’s book. The work demanded engagement, imagination and thought from the viewer and while I am happy to put that effort in, I sometimes struggle to do so when I see such a volume of work in one go.
The major show, Woman – The feminist avant-garde of the 1970s was a collection of 450 works from 29 female artists. Much of the photographic content was conceptual art from Cindy Sherman and Francesca Woodman’s familiar self-portrait work, through Annegret Soltau‘s Self series, Rita Myer’s Body Halves, Suzanne Lacey, Renate Bertlmann, Birgit Jürgenssen and Martha Rosler to more accessible work such as Helen Almeida’s Study for 2 Spaces. At times it was very heavy going, reflecting the feminist movement’s politics, protest and occasionally fun. It was necessary to remind oneself that these were not contemporary works and probably far more provocative and controversial in the 1970s.
Where we’re at! featured women photographers and video artists of African, Caribbean and Pacific cultural backgrounds and began with some straight-forward but striking portraits by Angèle Etoundi Essamba before moving again to more conceptual work and video work on subjects like genital mutilation that was impossible to watch.
The Greek and Belgian shows had more accessible work that I was instantly drawn to. In the collection of Greek work that is informed by the recent and ongoing problems there, two photographers’ work stood out. Panos Kokkinias‘s images are staged but subtly so. His night time work is very much in a style that I aspire to – this new work ‘Paros’ is magnificent, particularly when shown in a gallery; perfectly printed and impeccably lit. It dominated a cluttered space, not because of its size, but because it had a luminescence of its own. The subtlety of the lighting on the young girl’s face, lit by a mobile phone à la Dan Witz is beautiful.
Alkis Konstantinidis is a photo-journalist who has shot many graphic and striking images of the troubles in his country. A set of these was printed on to newspaper and pinned to the gallery wall. After so much conceptual work in the previous collections, the images were refreshing and a I actually breathed a sigh of relief.
My favourite work of the weekend however came the following day. A long walk across the city brought me to the exclusive Foundation A Stichting and Max Regenberg’s Fair Use show. He photographs the billboards and advertisements that elbow their way into our surroundings and tackles similar subjects of ubiquity of images and the power of subliminal absorption as Tim Davis’ wonderful ‘Retail’. His eye for the way that these huge images can be complimentary or at odds with their surroundings (for example, the Marlboro cowboys riding into a sunset with the orange turned up are presented against snow, bare trees and a particularly unappealing fence) is entertaining, provocative and cleverly presented.
Reflecting on what I liked and what I didn’t from these six shows, it appears that I have much work to do on my appreciation of the photograph as contemporary art. I am much more comfortable with documentary or subtly staged photography (that isn’t photographs of performance art) than more complex, narrative heavy, concept driven work. But I question whether I need to apply myself in this way. Why should I? What is important is my ability to express myself and my ‘world view’. That may take the form of straight representations of what I see in front of the camera, or it may, with time, develop into a desire to challenge myself and my viewers to engage with my photographs in a different way.
It’s back to the bio I wrote when I started the course; I can take pictures that people will ‘like’ and ‘fave’, but maybe photographs need that extra layer, that engagement from the viewer that only comes when the work becomes conceptual and that requires interpretation and effort from the viewer. Perhaps it’s like listening to a song without paying attention to the lyrics. The voice can be just another instrument to one listener who will enjoy the song. Someone else who studies the words, gets the references and applies themselves to engage with the writer will appreciate the work on a different level. But do they enjoy the music any more than the first? Or just differently?
Higgins, J (2013) Why it does not have to be in focus. London; Thames and Hudson
Witz, D. (2010) In plain view – 30 years of artworks illegal and otherwise. Berkeley, CA; Gingko Press