by Jack Willet and Hugh Hirst-Johnson
Artistic experimentation begins conceptually, contained to the makers’ mind, sketches and notes, only then to venture out into the physicality of their chosen medium. In the world of contemporary photography the medium is composed of layers, allowing for experimentation within the camera (itself a layered device), without a camera, the dark room, digital editing processes, or the found photographic archive. PHOTO 2021 is brimming with photographic experimentation, in both conceptual foundations and the medium’s articulation.
In Tachisme, Justine Varga seemingly returns to gestures perhaps found in formative concept sketches. With these marks she upsets the divide between painting and photography, playing with chemical elements and light in an act of ‘mark making’ that is distinctly photographic in its dependence on the ‘moment of action’. Group show Reconfigured/Rediscovered features artists similarly disrupting elements of photographic (and videographic) production. These experiments with disruption see us question what is an image and what is real, say in the case of Daniel Crooks, where camera and software combine to manipulate and break down footage frame by frame, splintering moments into a new sequence.
In emerging Naarm/Melbourne-based artist Aaron Christopher Rees’ solo show Horizon, experimentation continues to be centered in the post-production manipulation of the image. Rees’ new body of work highlights the deceptive quality of documentation while implicating the reader of the image. Similarly, Guy Grabowsky and Kiah Pullens’ neither here nor there sees the artists scrutinize the medium, while recognising its base level function as a documenting device, creating an installation talking to both the truth found within images and its ability to warp both truth and time. Group presentation, Not for the Sake of Something More, extends the contemporary conundrum of the truth of an image, no longer definitive, these artists ask for faith. The exhibition includes Ali McCann’s experimental staging of elements to capture still-life’s of personal nostalgia, asking us to go along with her rearticulated memory and take its new form as an informative and reflective device. Within Lillian O’Neil’s Everything Forever, misrepresentation-as-medium is present in the artists collage-based series wherein montage creates narratives absent from the original found photographs. Here we return to the duality of experimentation, found both within its conceptual underpinning and its materiality.
—Jack Willet, Curator and Hugh Hirst-Johnson, Assistant Gallery Manager, Center for Contemporary Photography
The lovely thing about visiting shows by emerging artists is that it gives you context, context, context: something to draw on in the years to come when some of these photographers are headlining festivals. How many times have we wished we’d witnessed the early works by artists, back when nobody knew who they would become? Now’s your chance…
Leyla Stevens’ A Line in the Sea is an intense piece of speculative documentary filmmaking that reframes an Australian cult-surf movie set in Bali. Through a feminist lens, Stevens lifts an outdated veil has romanced surf movies in the past, and blithely ignored socio-political complexity in favour of filming a sweet surf break. Nearby in Fitzroy, and equally as intense, is a raft of Shea Kirk’s stereoscopic works. These methodical and monumental double portraits (which spring forth from the wall when viewed through a stereoscope) are an exercise in intimacy, which suffuses both the process of making and viewing these works. Kirk has worked slowly in his home studio with dual large-format cameras to simultaneously capture two images from different perspectives, fostering an unfolding rapport between photographer and sitter. And of course, there is something private and close about viewing an image through an analogue device such as a stereoscope. It affords the work singular attention and allows the viewer a moment of controlled and focussed looking.
Out of doors, Laura Delaney’s billboard proportioned artwork superimposes vintage rock climbing photography on Melbourne’s cityscape, offering a hyper-visible meditation on the balance and bargain that is negotiated when one is in a tight squeeze. There are also several spectacular examples of emerging artists within PHOTO 2021’s collaboration with the Metro Tunnel Creative Program, including Jesse Boyd-Reid’s 40 square metre hoarding titled The Gift. This offers up quietly joyful portraits and observations of the artist’s friends and family and the life that they have built supporting each other through the vicissitudes of life.
At SEVENTH Gallery, established artists from Australian art and photography schools have nominated five recent graduates to exhibit their work in PHOTO 2021’s new talent program: New Photographers. The range in this show spreads from lumen printing to crisp, digital images, and from drawings of photographs to photographs explored through sound-scapes. Sam Forsyth-Gray, Sorcha Wilcox, Bec Martin, Kat Wilkie, Sarah Ujmaia all explore visual storytelling through different systems and techniques, showing the elasticity of the photographic medium as seen through the emerging artist’s lens. I urge you to visit these exhibitions, and the others listed below, as a glimpse into the future of photographic art in Australia.
—Pippa Milne, Senior Curator, Monash Gallery of Art
‘Digital natives’ refers to the generation growing up in the age of the Internet and surrounded by digital technology, and they perceive and create truth in a very different way to previous generations. The ‘truthfulness’ of images is being challenged as never before and will be further deconstructed by emerging technologies such as AI. The impact of which is only starting to be felt in an era of post truth, fake news, and manipulated images. Artists across PHOTO 2021 are exploring how these trends are changing how we communicate with each other, and in turn are shifting our sense of reality.
Simon Fujiwara’s film Joanne explores how a teacher’s life is upended when a compromising photograph is circulated online and how she builds a new public image through social media, fashion photography and branding. The film fluidly changes pace and merges different media—a sensation similar to exploring the Internet—and as with so much material we view online, the truth can be interpreted in different ways.
Kenta Cobayashi employs digital editing tools to distort images in a quest to question what it means to capture ‘truth’; Agnieszka Polska creates digital media works to investigate society’s shared experiences of environmental and humanitarian catastrophe; and Danish collective Sara, Peter & Tobias ask whether we are actually living in a computer simulation, through exploring the slippages between the physical and digital realms.
Two exhibitions—which are presented online—also address this topic head on. The Image Looks Back invites international artists, photographers and technologists explore the impact of machines viewing and making photographs. The exhibition investigates how notions of visual truth and human experience are shaped by new technologies of vision with contributions from myself, Thomas Hirschhorn, Rosa Menkman and Forensic Architecture amongst others. No True Self reflects on the way digital technologies mediate our relationships through virtual and physical realities, and the effects on our performance of self. Seven emerging European artists investigate the blurring of private and public realms and the agency of the individual within a post-digital society.
—Fei Jun, Professor, Art+Technology Program, School of Design, Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing
New technologies are offering a whole spectrum of new opportunities to alter, adapt and reinvent the photographic portrait. From FaceTuning your selfie to Deepfakes of Donald Trump, the relationship between what we see and what we believe is increasingly being called into question. Artists are embracing new technologies—and rethinking old ones—to question the truth behind the image.
Broomberg & Chanarin employed a facial recognition system developed in Moscow for ‘public security and border control surveillance’ to take portraits of unsuspecting Russian citizens—including a member of Pussy Riot—to explore how machines make and see images, in turn raising complicated questions about consent in photography. In a new commission for PHOTO 2021, Hoda Afshar has created a new suite of portraits of people that have blown the whistle, using 3D-scanning technology. She has photographed the 3D prints, creating a haunting image that is reminiscent of Greek statues and tragedies. Finnish artist Maija Tammi steps away from the human subject altogether, with portraits of androids and (maybe) one human.
Responding to complex questions around photography, representation and agency, British artist Patrick Waterhouse has made portraits with the Warlpiri of Central Australia, where the subjects have painted over photographs as an act of personal advocacy and reclamation. Zanele Muholi makes portraits that are constant reminders about how political the human body—and the visibility of black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people—continues to be. Jody Haines brings a feminist perspective to portraiture, and Atong Atem adds layers of fantasy and illusion to her photographs of diaspora communities in Melbourne. See also Sara Oscar’s homage to the police mugshot and Shea Kirk’s stunning stereoscopic portraits of Melburnians. These artists and more provide an insight into how portraiture is not as simple as we once might have thought, and how the rupture between image and reality is ever increasing.
—Elias Redstone, Artistic Director, PHOTO 2021
There is an inherent questioning of truths in the work of many of the women artists exhibiting in PHOTO 2021, who are living and working in the wake, or the afterglow, of second-wave feminism. Truths have been critiqued, dismantled, laid bare—from gender and sexuality to the personal and identity, to the body, to race and history, to social status and the politics of representation, to information and archives, to community, to humour, to photographic technique and the image itself. Sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly.
The work of feminist photographer Ruth Maddison, spanning from the 1970s to today, is the focus of an exhibition including early hand-coloured photographs, documentary portraits of women at work, as well as recent interventions into family archives. Pat Brassington, whose work shows the enduring influence of psychoanalysis, surrealism and feminism, is presenting a new body of her fleshy, abstract photomontages. Ann Shelton continues her research-based practice drawing on constructions of histories and feminisms with her investigation into the life of the nineteenth-century ‘mercurial figure’ Lola Montez, with a contemporary analysis of Montez’s use of photography for self-promotion. And a complex, idiosyncratic, and, at times tragicomic, view of Australian life today is depicted in the major survey of multi-disciplinary artist Destiny Deacon, a descendant of the Kuku and Erub/Mer people from Far North Queensland and Torres Strait.
These artists are not solely concerned with feminism and gender politics—nor is that the case in a broader discussion of women artists exhibiting at PHOTO 2021. Each artist has a unique circumstance which must be considered. Through these exhibitions, however, we can celebrate the ways in which women working with photography continue, together, to have a profound impact on art histories—through persistent questioning of the status quo, through gentle and fervent agitation, through the revision of archives, and, perhaps most significantly, through the insertion of diverse ideas and experiences. The presentation of these shows acts as a reminder, too, of the continued responsibility within the arts community to uncover and restore the voices of previously overlooked artists (including those identifying as LGBTQ+) from photography’s beginnings.
—Maggie Finch, Curator, Photography, National Gallery of Victoria
African and African Diasporic photography at PHOTO 2021 represents a powerful and dynamic visual cosmology that spans notions of time, place and history. The artists and exhibitions presented here offer audiences new opportunities to travel intellectually beyond the mundane and the familiar and to move both conceptually and spiritually into the realm of new visual possibilities and political conjunctures that openly engage with both old and new knowledge formations.
Emmanuelle Andrianjafy’s photographs encourage and stimulate processes of thought that concern alienation and migration. Her work encourages us to look with openness across space that is both unknown and unfamiliar. Atong Atem’s praxis is also embedded in forensic dialogue with photography’s past and the navigation of its future possibilities in the making of new identities. Her work keeps open a cultural portal in which to discuss the application of photography as a tool for self-determination, remaking histories and visual forms of resistance.
Zanele Muholi is presented through two key bodies of work that are joined through Muholi’s work as a visual activist. In Faces and Phases Muholi builds an incredible defiant textual and photographic archive of subjects who live—because of their sexuality—under the threat of death every day. Through the incredibly articulate series Somnyama Ngonyama (‘Hail the Dark Lioness’) the viewer is taken on a fantastic voyage through the difficult terrains of racism, environmental concerns and the matrix of colonialities that haunt the now. These two projects highlight the fact that Muholi is one of the most important artists working today.
Visual activism also underpins the exhibition titled The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion. The curator, Antwaun Sargent has gathered a galaxy of bright stars that arc across, over and through the worlds of Fashion and its relationship to representational politics. The idea of a black homogeneity here is imploded revealing luminous frontiers of black visibility that seductively point the way to the prospect of new and exciting visual pathways that invite us to follow, support and ultimately embrace.
—Mark Sealy, Director, Autograph ABP, London
In the year 2021, public debate and visibility around Indigenous rights and sovereignty continues to grow in Australia. In January, thousands of people marched to “Change the Date” and “Abolish Australia Day” in cities across Australia. More and more people are coming around to the fact that January 26 is not a day to celebrate; it is the date in 1788 when the British claimed the Aboriginal nations of Australia without treaty with the First Peoples, disregarding the oldest living culture in the world.
For many decades now, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists have been making photographs that raise awareness about this history of dispossession and of survival, including those exhibiting work in PHOTO 2021: Michael Cook, James Tylor, Hayley Millar-Baker, Peta Clancy, Maree Clarke, Alan Stewart, Damien Shen, the Warlpiri artists working with Patrick Waterhouse, Destiny Deacon, Robert Fielding, Paola Balla, Deanne Gilson, Tashara Roberts and Pierra Van Sparkes.
These artists reveal the power of representation and refute the dominant narrative of discovery that for too long has been celebrated in so called Australia. They have shared experiences of racism and institutionalisation, but also moments of resistance and ancestral connection to light a pathway for a more just future, just as senior photographer Mervyn Bishop did with his 1975 iconic photograph of Vincent Lingiari, Gurindji elder and traditional landowner, who fought for land rights and won.
Artists continue this service where education systems and Australian governments have done little to tell the truths about the Frontier Wars and the colonisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and lands. This year, films such as The Furnace and Higher Ground alongside the photographs by First Nations artists in PHOTO 2021 are important vehicles for truth telling in Australia.
—Brook Andrew, artist and scholar, Associate Professor Fine Art, Monash University and Enterprise Professor Interdisciplinary Practice, University of Melbourne.
The next time you are on the road, as you take in the great outdoors—take a breath and reflect on the weight that our collective human existence has left on the landscape in front of you. The dubious history of colonisation, the denial of land to the indigenous and of course the destruction of the environment in the name of progress has all permanently scarred the landscape. At a time, where almost no space remains ‘pristine,’ artists have taken to constructing imaginary environs as metaphors to explore the impact of history, culture and politics. The collective longing of the urbane for the landscape that was is reflected by a series of photographic artworks that meditate on our past and make you question the nature of truth.
Italian artists Filippo Menichetti and Martin Errichiello explore the so-called economic miracle in 1960’s Italy that looked to homogenise the country by way of modernization—through a fictionalised landscape they present the tension between what was and what shall become; Bangerang artist Peta Clancy photographs a massacre site on Dja Dja Wurrung Country now submerged underwater, a metaphor for the denial of the history of frontier violence in Australia; and Nanna Heitman documents the people and landscape of the Yenisei river, a home for displaced and nomadic peoples who were outcast by mainstream society or escaping persecution.
At the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, six artists have been invited to create work that both responds to and is installed within this constructed, picturesque landscape. Nearby, Amanda Williams brings a feminist perspective to landscape photography and, in his PHOTO 2021 commission Economics of Minerals, James Tylor draws attention to the impact of mining by super-imposing silver geometric shapes—referencing the apparatus of mining—onto stark black & white photos of a landscape ravaged by excavation.
The online exhibition You Are Here features, amongst others, the haunting photographs of Nici Cumpston, Ophelia Bakowski’s poetic photographs that invite you to suspend reality, and the intricate layered work of Anne Zahalka, which presents a tongue-in-cheek look at landscape and fauna, and challenges our own desire to ‘consume’ nature as voyeurs.
—Varun Gupta, Co-Founder & Biennale Director, Chennai Photo Biennale, India
Photography has long been uncomfortable with its purported role as a simple recording device and as many of the photographers exhibiting in PHOTO 2021 demonstrate, the understanding of photographic truth, like all other truths, depends on an understanding of culture, belief and history. To this end the work of photographers including Mathieu Asselin, Dana Lixenberg and Laura El Tantawy—to name but a few from the exhibition Not Standing Still: New Approaches in Documentary Photography—raise questions of the documentary role of the photograph today and offer alternative ways of seeing, recording and understanding the events and situations that shape the world we live in.
Using film and photography to powerful effect, Asselin’s project Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation is a sprawling five-year project tracing and exposing the long destructive history of the eponymous chemicals manufacturing and agro-industrial company. Mixing the acutely personal with the documentary mode, Laura El Tantawy’s impressionistic chronicle of the revolution that rocked Egypt in the spring of 2011 blends grainy, nocturnal and fiery red photographs of the protest on the ground with archival images from her family album.
Both Dana Lixenberg and George Georgiou turn their razor-sharp gaze onto the streets of the United States. Taken between 1993 and 2015, Lixenberg’s magnus opus Imperial Courts tenderly documents the residents of the Watts Housing Estate, an area mired in the injustices of racial politics and a cycle of poverty, crime and gang violence. Using a large-format camera, preferring the slower, deliberate photographic process this involves, Lixenberg’s individual portraits, mostly African American residents, are in stark contrast to the often one-dimensional and sensationalised depictions portrayed in the media. Meanwhile, George Georgiou’s series Americans Parade—presented as a large-scale installation on Metro Tunnel construction hoardings—pictures onlookers at events taken across the United States throughout the 2016 presidential campaign that shed an unexpected light on the fractured nature of contemporary American life.
Addressing political headlines within Australia, Hoda Afshar investigates what provokes workers to become whistleblowers and speak out against the military, detention centres and more; Kate Disher-Quill & Phoebe Powell document health workers who have been operating on the frontline against COVID-19; Brook Andrew and Kate Golding both raise timely questions regarding the appropriateness of monuments; and Eliza Hutchison beautifully investigates how politics and the democratic process itself is mediated in her role as PHOTO 2021’s Photographer in Residence at the Parliament of Victoria, blending the political and the personal in a manner that will resonate with how we consume news today.
—Alona Pardo, Curator, Barbican Art Gallery, London