Monday, 13 April 2015

Study Visit: FORMAT 15 – Evidence: Derby; 28 March 2015

This is my second visit to FORMAT and after the first in 2013 I had fairly high expectations of an interesting visit. This years theme was “Evidence” and given that the festival features the work of 300 photographers spread over 25 venues it was never going to be possible to do more than scratch the surface in a study visit lasting just a few hours. As a group we made what seemed like a sensible selection – concentrating on “Beyond Evidence: An Incomplete Narratology of Photographic Truths” in Quad Gallery, and then moving to the collection of Chinese (mainly) photobooks in St Werburgh’s Church before finishing in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery. I also managed to squeeze in Forensic Turn at 1 Corn Exchange before the study visit proper started – I’m glad I did but more of that later.

Beyond Evidence

…perhaps sometimes “Beyond Comprehension” this was a group of works which took “its cue from the legendary work Evidence by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel from 1977.” I’m generally suspicious of descriptions such as legendary but I don’t know enough about the work of  Sultan/Mandel to offer comment. To be fair I was insufficiently prepared for this exhibition which was billed as an interrogation of the relationship between image and knowledge – and it makes more sense in hind-sight and with further research than it did on the day.

Take for example Lukas Einsele’s “The Many Moments of an M-85 – Zenon’s Arrow Retraced”. At an initial examination it appears to be a fairly straightforward presentation of how an M85 Cluster bomb is produced and led me to consider if a similar approach might not be applicable to, e.g., a cup of tea. It might – but that misses the ironies, questionable linkages and plain craziness of some of the material on show. Who would have thought that there was an acceptable level of “duds” in the bomblets – in effect an acceptable level of risk to those who come after the battle is over. I’m not really clear however that this is interrogating the relationship between image an knowledge.

Much clearer examples were provided by Christina de Middel’s “Jan Mayen 2014” and  Sara-Lena Maierhofer’s Dear Clark. Without de Middel’s history of staged documentaries “Jan Mayen” would be totally believable – it’s presentation and content is sincere and internally consistent, right down to the tonality of the images and plays on the trust we place in the notion of documentary and the camera not lying.  Maierhofer’s work was more far-fetched but still eminently believable and taken together they should lead us to question all claims of documentary reality without some further research.

Other works I thought worth some time (given that it was limited – I accept all are in isolation) included di Noto’s visual representation of the Dark Web – the “Here be dragon’s” for a web-savvy generation, and Keenan and Weizman’s “Mengeles Skull” which invites us to consider not just the clever technology that allowed us to link pictures of Mengele with pictures of his skull, but also the mindset that requires an image as proof when plenty of other evidence abounds.

A final mention should go to Henner’s fairly well known (legendary perhaps?) Dutch Landscapes – a study of the Dutch Government’s attempt to censor Google maps. I can’t help but feel that the the attempt simply highlights areas that should be targeted by enemies of the state…or does it?

St Werburgh’s Church

The church was playing host to a number of exhibits – most prominently a collection of Chinese photobooks, many of which appeared to be handmade by the photogrpaher, and European books by a company called Editions Bressard. I’m entirely unconvinced that an exhibition of photobooks is in any way useful – it is information overload in a way that not even a Tate Modern exhibition can emulate. There were miniature books, books in vanishingly small limited editions, books with metal covers, books with three covers (one in the middle!), books in fancy slip cases and as you can tell I remember the content of none of them – nothing sticks – it was simply too much too quickly.

On the other hand Phil Toledano’s “When I was six” was totally heart rending, documenting the relationship his sister (who died when Phil was six) had with his/her parents through a range of objects saved by their mother, interleaved with images of the slightly strange small boy fantasy world that he inhabited at the time.

The Derby Museum and Art Gallery

I think it’s fair to say this was a disappointment. I had been looking forward to Zhao Renhui’s “A guide to the flora and fauna of the world” but unless I missed something it was represented by a single piece which reproduced several of his enigmatic images at very small scale. Seeking solace in the Sputnik collective’s work I was confronted by a series of images which appear to be the work of a collection of slightly naughty schoolboys. I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but without an obvious point of engagement I struggle to see what’s on offer. Thoroughly underwhelmed.

And finally…The Forensic Turn

This, and the accompanying Myth and Media were considerably more up my street. The Forensic Turn consists of a series of images of objects associated with atrocities, rather than the victims themselves – a technique which offers the potential to avoid the aesthetisicisation of suffering. The images on display do highlight one issue of photography in general, and photographs of objects perhaps more acutely– the need to provide supporting textual material to aid understanding and provide a more comnplete document. So we have a collection of broken watches, which hint at violence, and become considerably more disturbing when we are informed that they are recovered from the mass graves of massacre victims, shoes which have been used on refugee marches and clothes associated with the “disappeared” of Latin American civil wars and despotism. In the words of French sociologist Violette Morin these objects are “..the witness of the functional unity of the user, his or her everyday experiences made into a thing.” (cited in Janet Hoskins; Biographical Objects; Routledge; London; 1998)

I’m going to stop here but I feel sure I shall be returning to The Forensic Turn in particular which was worth the trip to Derby on its own.

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