Research notes – Deutsche Borse Foundation Photographic Prize 2018

The following comments are made after attending the exhibition for the shortlisted artists in the Deutsche Borse Foundation Photographic Prize 2018, as presented in the Photographer’s Gallery, London between 23/Feb/2018 and 03/Jun/2018.

The four shortlisted artists were Mathieu Asselin, Rafal Milach, Batia Suter and Luke Willis Thompson, with the latter being the winner. The first thing that struck me is how secondary was photographic practice to many of the works as exhibited. The winning entry was a silent film projection and paradoxically, this was the entry that more closely resonated with photography, in my opinion.

French artist Mathieu Asselin (b. 1973) was shortlisted for his publication Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation. The material exhibited, and the way this was presented reminded me of the way Sophie Calle’s work is normally exhibited (coincidentally, she was one of the shortlisted artists in the 2017 edition of the prize – see my comments on this here), where photographs felt more like ancillary documents supporting a written narrative, rather than documents standing on their own. The case presented by Asselin is quite compelling, and I particularly liked that he included within his book facsimile reproductions of Monsanto’s advertisement campaigns and the Technology / Stewardship Agreement that farmers using their genetically modified seeds need to sign. The advertisements included are quite shocking in the cynical ways in which the company tried to shift public views on chemicals, particularly in the context of food additives (see for example this one). The photographs on show were primarily ambient portraits of farmers that have been affected by Monsanto’s corporate practices (see for example here). The book that was the basis for his nomination was also on display and this looked to me as more compelling photographically than what was presented in the gallery, which confirms the idea that it is not always straightforward to move work across various display platforms and achieve the same impact.

Polish artist Rafal Milach (b. 1978) was shortlisted for his exhibition Refusal originally shown in the Atlas Sztuki Gallery in Lodz, Poland. The show is supposed to expose “the mechanism of post-soviet propaganda in architecture, urban projects and objects through a consideration of sociotechnical systems of governmental controls and ideological manipulations of belief and consciousness” (1). The pieces on display included videos, sculptures, drawings and some photographs, but again the latter did not feel like they were playing a prominent role, but were just one of many media used by the artist. Many of the exhibits were related to mind manipulation or propaganda, but how much of that is specific to post-soviet culture, as opposed to endemic in many other parts of the world in current times, is debatable. In any case, and perhaps as an unfortunate consequence of the world in which we currently live, I was not particularly moved by any of the pieces on show, with perhaps the only one which I found quite intriguing being the video entitled “Both White”, which was excepted from a Soviet documentary movie “Me and Others” by Felix Sobolev (2), exploring the suggestibility of the mind. It is hard to understand what is going on from the short video shown, but the main character of the video (link to still from the video) seems to be suggested by group pressure into saying that two paper pyramids, one white and one black, are both white. The lost expression of the man in the video and the fact that he was saying something that probably is not convinced about is intriguing, and I ended up watching this for a long time (as it was in a look).

Swiss artist Batia Suter (b. 1967) was nominated for her publication Parallel Encyclopedia II. Perhaps the least interesting of the works on display, Suter’s book is a thick volume of black and white found photographs, extracted from thousand illustrated publications collected by the artists, and include images of animal, plants, industrial products, astronomical phenomena and many other fields of human knowledge, all mixed together in a seemingly unrelated fashion. Images taken from the book were enlarged significantly (each image was printed in what looks like A2 paper,  and hanged frameless next to each other in disparate ways. The images, coming from small printed materials originally, did not lend themselves to significant enlargement and the end result is jarring and unpleasant. The idea behind her work is to “…demonstrate how much of our understanding of the world, its history, cultures and geography are affected by their context” (1). I presume the artist expected that by extracting these images from their original context, and placing them together, new meanings would be derived. This is indeed an interesting concept, but in this case I could not get pass the fact that these images were too aesthetically unpleasant to look at them long enough to derive any new meanings.

New Zealander Luke Willis Thompson (b. 1988) was nominated, and won, for his exhibition autoportrait (23 Jun – 27 Aug 2017, Chisenhale Gallery, London, UK). When I read the title of the work, I was expecting a series of self-portraits like the ones done by Martin Parr and published in his book with the same title (link).  However, this work actually consists of the projection of a silent black and white film movie in a loop. The movie itself is about Diamond Reynolds, who broadcasted live on Facebook the moments after her partner Philando Castile was fatally shot by police (3). Reynolds appears in two poses in the film, moving very little on each one, sometimes moving her lips. Aesthetically, the movie does look like a portrait. Reynold’s movement is so subtle so as to give the impression that we are looking at a series of stills. One of the poses is a close up, with the frame being almost entirely filed by her head, which is slightly tilted downwards, eyes down (link to still image). In the second pose, she appears further back from the camera, with the upper half of her torso now visible (link to still image). In this pose, Reynolds appears a bit more assertive, her eyes looking slightly higher than in the previous pose. In both cases she is illuminated primarily from the lower left hand side, casting a very harsh light on the right hand side of the face. The movie, which was shot in 35mm black and white stock, is projected through a mask that makes the final image look almost square. The projecting machine used is very large, very loud. At first, this comes across as annoying, but the film is silent, and Reynolds appears to be speaking at some point. Of course, we cannot hear her. All we can hear is the humming of the projector, the tormenting mechanical sound of the cogs as they pull the film in front of the lamp. It is a continuous noise that comes to symbolise our inability to listen what others are saying when we can only listen to our fears, playing in a loop inside our brains, something that was at the heart of the Philando Castile case.

__________________

(1) Excerpted from exhibition notes from The Photographers’ Gallery, 2018. Diary Feb-Jun 2018. 1st ed. London: The Photographers’ Gallery

(2) YouTube. 2018. Me and Others 1971 USSR documentary (eng subs). Я и другие. – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fuIXiXqv978. [Accessed 03 June 2018].

(3) Shooting of Philando Castile – Wikipedia. 2018. Shooting of Philando Castile – Wikipedia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shooting_of_Philando_Castile. [Accessed 03 June 2018].

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