The Art of Seeing
1. Landscape as metaphor
Jo Ratcliffe – a “revelation of absence”, Johannesburg artist Jo Ractliffe draws on a range of photographic and art practices, including snapshot, documentary, forensic and studio photography, as well as installation video and projections.
Artist Statement: “What interests me are things that are ephemeral – desire, loss, longing – and their relationship to photography. I am also curious about what we don’t expect from photographs, what they leave out, their silence and the spaces they occupy between ‘reality’ and ‘desire’. I try to work in an area between the things we know and things we don’t know; what sits outside the frame. I am interested in exploring these oblique and furtive ‘spaces of betweenness’, and in how they figure in producing meaning in a mode of representation that seems so often predicated on specificity and transparency. Photography is quite a resistant and unforgiving medium.”
In 2009/10, Jo Ractliffe traced the routes of the “Border War” fought by South Africa in Angola through the 1970s and 80s. Following Terreno Ocupado, which focused on Luanda five years after the country’s civil war ended, As Terras do Fim do Mundo shifts attention away from the urban manifestation of aftermath to the space of war itself. Ractliffe’s black and white photographs ‘blandscapes’ explore the idea of landscape as pathology; how past violence manifests in the landscape of the present.
Ms. Ractliffe, who lives in Johannesburg, took the photographs in 2009 and 2010 in Angola on visits to now-deserted places that were important to that country’s protracted civil war and to the intertwined struggle of neighboring Namibia to gain independence from South Africa’s apartheid rule. South Africa played an active role in both conflicts, giving military support to insurgents who resisted Angola’s leftist government, and hunting down Namibian rebels who sought safety within Angola’s borders.
It’s through this historical lens that Ms. Ractliffe views landscape: as morally neutral terrain rendered uninhabitable by terrible facts from the past — the grave of hundreds of Namibia refugees, most of them children, killed in an air raid; the unknown numbers of landmines buried in Angola’s soil. Some are now decades old but can still detonate, so the killing goes on.
2. Object as metaphor
Lamia Joreige -‘Objects of War’
Objects of War 2000 is an installation that comprises a single–channel video, shown either on a monitor or projected, and thirteen miscellaneous objects. The video is a collection of interviews conducted by Joreige concerning the Lebanese Civil War which lasted from 1975 to 1990. Each of the thirteen interviewees was asked by the artist to talk about an object that had some significance for them during the war. The objects chosen include items such as a guitar, a wallet, a pack of playing cards and a bag with the Muppet character Miss Piggy printed on the front. Although seemingly banal, each object holds very personal memories and associations for their owner. The objects are displayed alongside the video in the gallery. The interviews are recorded mainly in French and Arabic, with English subtitles.
Joreige started conducting the interviews in 1999 and the work was first exhibited the following year. Objects of War is the first work in a series with the same title that comprises a further three videos along with their respective articles. The project as a whole examines the ways in which memory and trauma come to be embodied in material objects, sublimating the psychological affects of past conflict. In seeking to present an alternative history of the Lebanese Civil War to the one presented by the media, Joreige chose to record personal accounts of the conflict that would otherwise remain private. The conjunction of the personal and the political at a time of war is ironised in the title of the series; the term ‘objects of war’ usually refers to military machinery, weapons and ammunition, but in this instance describes everyday objects used by innocent civilians as sources of comfort during periods of crisis. For example, the artist Akram Zaatari talks in the video about his childhood in Saida, in southern Lebanon, and his refusal to join the militia. His chosen object is a cassette tape that he made in 1982 containing radio programmes he recorded, songs by the pop group The Bee Gees and the sound of gunshots from the streets. Joreige has stated: ‘by seeking such personal stories, I give a voice to those that have been ignored, to the stories that have been concealed.’ (Joreige 2006, p.241.) The artist has also explained that ‘these testimonials, while helping to create a collective memory, also show the impossibility of telling a single history of this war’ (quoted from http://www.lamiajoreige.com/installations/installations_objects.php, accessed 10 January 2010). When displayed in the gallery the artist stipulates that two or more works in the series should be shown together, enabling the viewer to understand the process and longevity of the project.
Joreige’s work navigates the vicissitudes of memory via the material traces of history. The social and political realities of life in Beirut, the artist’s home city, have had a profound effect on her work, linking her to other Lebanese artists such as Walid Raad (born 1967), Marwan Rechmaoui (born 1964) and Akram Zaatari (born 1966), all of whom are represented in the Tate collection, and whose work similarly reflects upon the Lebanese Civil War and its aftermath. These artists were also among the first in the region to begin making video art, a development that makes Objects of War especially significant to the emergence of contemporary art in the Middle East
3. Place as metaphor
Mai Masri – Children of Shatila
Many people first became aware of the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon after the shocking and horrific Sabra-Shatila massacre that took place there in 1982. Located in Beirut’s “belt of misery,” the camp is home to 15,000 Palestinians and Lebanese who share a common experience of displacement, unemployment and poverty. Fifty years after the exile of their grandparents from Palestine, the children of Shatila attempt to come to terms with the reality of being refugees in a camp that has survived massacre, siege and starvation. Director Mai Masri focuses on two Palestinian children in the camp: Farah, age 11 and Issa, age 12. When these children are given video cameras, the story of the camp evolves from their personal narratives as they articulate the feelings and hopes of their generation
4. Color as metaphor
Wassily Kandinsky – “The man who heard his paintbox hiss”
Russian-born artist Wassily Kandinsky is widely credited with making the world’s first truly abstract paintings, but his artistic ambition went even further. He wanted to evoke sound through sight and create the painterly equivalent of a symphony that would stimulate not just the eyes but the ears as well. A new exhibition at Tate Modern, Kandinsky: Path to Abstraction, shows not only how he removed all recognisable subjects and objects from Western art around 1911, but how he achieved a new pictorial form of music.
Kandinsky is believed to have had synaesthesia, a harmless condition that allows
a person to appreciate sounds, colours or words with two or more senses
simultaneously. In his case, colours and painted marks triggered particular
sounds or musical notes and vice versa. Kandinsky discovered his synaesthesia at a performance of Wagner’s opera
Lohengrin in Moscow: “I saw all my colours in spirit, before my eyes. Wild,
almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.”
Kandinsky achieved pure abstraction by replacing the castles and hilltop towers
of his early landscapes with stabs of paint or, as he saw them, musical notes
and chords that would visually “sing” together. In this way, his swirling
compositions were painted with polyphonic swathes of warm, high-pitched yellow
that he might balance with a patch of cold, sonorous blue or a silent, black
void. Rainbird describes how the artist used musical vocabulary “to break down
the external walls of his own art”.
“Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its
5. People as metaphor
Diane Arbus – A pivotal figure in contemporary documentary photography, Diane Arbus produced a substantial body of work before her suicide in 1971. Her unrelentingly direct photographs of people who live on the edge of societal acceptance, as well as those photographs depicting supposedly “normal” people in a way that sharply outlines the cracks in their public masks, were controversial at the time of their creation and remain so today.
She said of her pictures, “What I’m trying to describe is that it’s impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else’s…. That somebody else’s tragedy is not the same as your own.” And of her subjects who were physically unusual, she said, “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. [These people] were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”
I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.
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