Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin

I came across the work of Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin a number of years ago in the UK with what must have been one of their fairly early projects, but I hadn't kept track of what they were doing since then.

The other day I saw they have a new book/project out called Fig.


Broomberg & Chanarin are a curious pair in a way (though probably no more "curious" than many of the photographers I know who seem to have quite the oddest backgrounds...):




Neither artist has a had conventional training in photography – Broomberg holding a degree in Sociology and the History of Art and Chanarin one in Philosophy and Artificial Intelligence – and, unfettered by conventional photographic teaching, they seem to exhibit a freedom in their research process, their photographic style and their political and social engagement unusual in the world of photography. They, for me, are refreshing oddities in a field too often limited by conceptual and stylistic formulae. There is also the question of their working relationship and the undoubted benefits this has brought to their practice.


Fig. could also be seen as either an antidote or compliment to contemporary artists’ fascination with the (re)appropriation of the, often archival, document. Rather than starting with an archival document and subverting its original intention (in the style of Sultan and Mandel’s Evidence for instance) or creating images by mimicking an archival aesthetic or mode (Sputnik by Joan Fontcuberta is a good example of this), Broomberg and Chanarin create new archive of
documents that, when positioned alongside text, vigorously question their own authenticity – the text being constantly in tension with the images and visa-versa. This marks Fig. out as a departure from both the conventions of documentary photography and their own practice to date. - Gordon MacDonald


And I must say I do also like the name of their website - Chopped Liver - which has lots of their work, essays and so on.



Their book Fig. probably takes a little bit of readjustment for the viewer in terms of getting their head around where it is heading. In fact the thing it reminded me most of was a sort of photographic version of one of Max Sebald's books - the sudden shift in space from Imperial China and the Opium Wars to a Seaman's Reading Room on the Norfolk Coast, or the entomological collection of an eccentric Englishman to the containment of Jewish prisoners in a 19th Century defence-work during the Holocaust. Similarly, Broomberg and Chanarin take us from Ditchling Beacon and the Spanish Armada to the Genocide in Rwanda by way of a geologists meticulously catalogued and classified soft porn collection, accidentally accessioned by a museum along with his fossils to a fig leaf stripped from it's branch by the blast from a suicide bomb in Tel-Aviv to the strangely mis-labeled negative nudes titled - "Sussex Pond"


At a glance, this book of photographs and texts, with its quirky leaps from one theme to another, may appear to be a darkly humorous trawl through some outer reaches of oddity: fake mermen, obsessive egg collectors, big-game hunters, and those who numerically classify their collections of soft porn. The eccentricities of its arrangement are matched by those of many of its subjects.
Yet the misapplication of control and classification systems regularly produce graver consequences that run through the book, a deeper pulse below the whimsy and amusement: in it, animal bodies are measured and displayed, human bodies—living and dead—are similarly dealt with, whether they are female models of different colourations (photographed for the enjoyment of Sunday Telegraph readers), or giants or the remains of ‘natives’. Also, at the extreme, that depictions, especially in photographs, may be used to complement the type of classification— ‘Tutsi’, for example, written in a passport—that brings death on its subject. In conversation, Broomberg and Chanarin have said that, despite many horrific photographs of genocide, racialised mass killing still continues, and this book points to the other side of that remark—that because of depiction, it continues. - Julian Stallabrass


All in all, quite fascinating work and generally following a trjectory that's quite different from a lot of contemporary photogrpahy.


1 comment:

Mark L Power said...

Tim. I gather that strange double negative image is from the book, FIG. Have you tried to reverse that image into a positive? it is a very enigmatic powerful image to say the least, fraught with all kinds of narrative possibilities. I guess I'll have to get that book although I'll be lucky if it measures up to the impact of that image. And why do they print it as a negative - is it too powerful as a positive? Anyway I enjoy your website and plan to drop in often.

Mark