Friday, 29 April 2016

Jessica Hardy: 'These are all fictions of me'

Next up from the Documentary Photography course at the University of South Wales is Jessica Hardy with her project, The Running of the Tap. 

This project is very much in progress. It was partly inspired by the work of Laia Abril, with references to Rosy Martin and Jo Spence (who Jess wrote in her final paper - the link between research and practice coming good ), but most of it is coming from Jess's own experience with bulimia. 

It's an intensely personal project, with words from diaries, from school year books, reflections on former relationships and friendships, both uplifting and toxic all coming into play. 

Those elements and those words are still waiting to be resolved (which is difficult because they are quite brutal words), but the images relive key chapters from Jess's life, chapters that connect to the development of her bulimia and her ability to confront it through its causes. 

This is Jess's Statement:

‘Through the medium of visual reframing we can begin to understand that images we hold of ourselves are often the embodiment of particular traumas, fears, losses, hopes and desires’ (Spence, J, 1988) 

Recreation of memories allow one to reach a deeper understanding of themselves by exploring their thoughts and feelings attached to each moment. I now presently have Bulimia, an eating disorder that involves purging after eating. I believe that this could be linked to my past experiences, so through using the technique of recreating memories within photography I learned to help myself understand and accept what has happened to me to move on from it. After constructing my past selves I then worked with creating my present selves to understand where I am now in my life and again try to gain an understanding and acceptance of who I am.

‘These are all ‘fictions’ of me – as are all photographs. Each shows different ways of ‘seeing’ myself.’ (Spence, J, 1988)

Rosy Martin writes: ‘By acknowledging aspects of myself and my past, which I might otherwise hide, or see as my ‘shadow’ side, I have freed myself from internalized restrictions and oppressions, and have come to accept myself as I am.’ (Spence, J, 1988)

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Thursday, 28 April 2016

Rocco Venezia's Nekiya: A Journey Into the Land of the Dead

Next up on the overview of work from students on the Documentary Photography course at the University of South Wales is Nekiya by Rocco Venezia.

Essentially Nekiya is the idea of the journey of recovery of the self by flipping the conscious and the unconscious mind and travelling to those dark inner spaces where the real monsters lie. It's a trip to the underworld of the self in other words.

For Rocco, the symbolic recovery of the self, his trip to the underworld involved a literal trip to the River Acheron in Greece, the river that in Greek mythology separates the living world from the Underworld, from the Kingdom of Hades.

And of course it's taking place in Greece, which is undergoing its own crisis of self. So there is a mix of the personal, the symbolic, the mythical and the political. It's a work in progress, but it's ambitious and there's a story that is being told. It'll make a great book (and I've got my name down for a copy because he's making a bunch for the end of year show)!

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Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Molly Kempster and the Marginalisation of Women in Agriculture

all pictures by Molly Kempster

So I gave my last lecture in Room H8c in Caerleon a couple of days ago and yesterday I gave my last tutorials to third years there before the world's oldest Documentary Photography Course completes its move to Cardiff.  And so, as we head towards the end of year shows, it gets me a little bit sentimental.

After giving fifty odd lectures to these third years in the previous two years, the same number of seminars and numerous tutorials, it is a pleasure to see them write about their work and talk about their work and make their work (which I rarely get to see because I teach history and theory) in a way that goes beyond the content they have been given.

It's the idea that they have gone from having images, theories, ideas and histories put into their world to becoming people who are creating their own worlds. So hearing them talk is like receiving something back from their world - like getting a lecture, a seminar, a tutorial in return, somethng that isn't just theoretical in a distant way or image-based in a cold way, but something that connects back to the real world and examines how it has been shaped and understood over the years.

I've heard about the history of soil and how it has been mapped and shaped by the politics of land use, I've heard about Greek mythology and a photographer's personal journey to the depths of hell, about somebody who has learnt to live on the land, to fish and hunt, about the link between the heart and the land, about the body and ritual, and then some more.

In keeping with this, the next few posts will feature a series of works that are just coming to fruition for the end of year show. All these are from Documentary Photography course at USW and you can follow them at




First up is Molly Kempster. 'Blue Bib and Braces' portrays women working in agriculture in the UK. What I find most fascinating about the project, which is a straightforward documentary, is the way it links in to the history of women in agriculture, and the way they have been marginalised and written out of visual and social history since the dawn of the British agrarian revolution. Nothing happens by accident and visual representation counts. This is what Molly says about the project (which is still ongoing).

‘Blue Bib and Braces’ is a photographic project that represents a number of extraordinary women from the south of England, who continue to defy the gender stereotype and myth that surrounds the farming industry by actively participating in job roles within agriculture, alike those of men. The existence of these women is presented through a series of uniform portraits in order to evoke the feeling of hardship and emotion that accompanies these job titles. Women have, and will continue to be the ‘backbone’ of the agrarian industry.

(and if you want to study on the Documentary Photography course, remember it's called  Documentary Photography, not anything else. There's a reason I say this. You'd be surprised!)

Monday, 25 April 2016

So Farewell then Room H8c Newport (aka Caerleon)

So farewell then Room H8c, base of Documentary Photography in Newport for the last 20 years. I gave my last lecture in there today - from next year it's all Cardiff where Documentary Photography will still continue bigger, better and stronger back in an urban setting!

The choice for the final slideshow was either Ester VonPlon's Requiem

...or Mark Power's Lambada.

Sad or Happy. Death or Rebirth. We went for Happy!

Bye Bye Newport. We'll all be Port Forever.

Anne de Gelas and the Recovery of Self

So there are people who aren't written about and one of the pleasures of this site is I can write about them and hopefully more people get to see their work.

One of the least-written about artists is Anne de Gelas. I wrote about her beautiful but tragic L'Amoureuse five years ago. This told the story of Anne's search for herself following the death of her husband on a day out at the beach.

T., my lover and father of my son, died on April 5, 2010 of a brain stroke. He fell beside us on a beach at the North Sea. The violence of his death put me in front of a big void…a silence that echoed in my head only equal to the brightness of the blue sky which no planes crossed because of the ashes of a volcano in anger, my anger.

So the book's about the search for herself - which comes after the loss of self, the loss of multiple selves in fact, and the strategies employed to reconnect, to disconnect, or simply to evade the question.

It really is a most beautiful book and (even though it is in French) I find it hard to fathom that nobody else has written about it in the English language. Perhaps it's time for an English language edition.

Now de Gelas has a new book out. It's called Mère Et Fils (Mother and Son) and it's about how de Gelas's relationship with her son has changed, how her son has changed, the intensity that has become upon him since he became a teenager, since the death of his father. 

It's also about de Gelas herself, and the return to femininity and a desire that disappeared with the death of her partner. 

So it's a collaborative project, one of shifting identities, one that deals with the most difficult challenges that life can throw at us in a thoughtful and very moving way. Again, it helps if you speak French, but the depth of the work comes through no matter what the language. This is work that confronts life. 

See more images here. 

See the limited edition artist's book here

Friday, 22 April 2016

Elena Ferrante: Entertaining and Intelligent

picture by Ruth Orkin

I started reading Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels last year. These are some of the most entertaining, page-turning books I have ever read. I love them as so many people do. But they're not just entertaining. They have depth, they have intelligence, they have a sense of authenticity about them. And despite the difficulty of the subject matter, they are somehow joyful. They have energy and dynamism and personality.

The novels tell the stories of the narrator Elena and her childhood friend Lila as they grow up in Naples. They are stories in which Lina and he friend go from being girls to becoming women, girlfriends,  lovers, wives, mothers.

In the Neapolitan Novels they are all the time subjected to the pressures to be someone they are not (the girlfriend, the wife, the lover, the mother), The community around them, the different worlds they inhabit, their husbands, their families, the institutions they are part of all smother them in different ways.

It's as John Berger says in Ways of Seeing - the bit where he says

“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another....'

But Ferrante does  much more than that. It's the History of Art, the Male Gaze, the Family Gaze, the Academic Gaze all wrapped up in one. And that makes it sound distant and cold. But it's not distant and cold because it's not written for our intellectual consideration, it's written for our pleasure. But the intellectual consideration comes free. It is pleasurable and it is intelligent and it tells the story directly through concrete experiences, emotions and everyday lives. This is from the My Brilliant Friend, the first volume in the quartet.

'For no obvious reason, I began to look closely at the women on the stradone. Suddenly it seemed to me that I had lived with a sort of limited gaze; as if my focus had been only on us girls…. That day, instead, I saw clearly the mothers of the old neighbourhood. They were nervous, they were acquiescent. They were silent, with tight lips and stooping shoulders… Extremely thin, with hollow eyes and cheeks, or with broad behinds, swollen ankles, heavy chests, they lugged shopping bags and small children…They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers… When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings?'

So that is what the series is about, the transformations of life. And despite the grimness of the subject matter, the casual violence, the domestic abuse, the sorrow and the fear and the resentment, the books are still somehow uplifting. They create a world that is three dimensional, a world where you care for Lina and the people she cares for. It's intelligent and it's beautiful to read. It improves your mind and it improves your soul. It is all about pleasure.

Reading Elena Ferrante made me consider this picture that I had to look at over Christmas. I had to look at it because it was advertising perfume for Dolce and Gabbana and it was everywhere. I had no choice in the matter. I couldn't choose not to look at it because it was there all the time. It was an act of visual abuse. It was forced upon me.

Why does it annoy me so? Because it's by Dolce and Gabbana for a start, that doesn't help. So there's simple prejudice. But there's also all that quasi-Italianicity, or is it Sicilianicity.

You get it in the old couple who are sitting at the back. There's the flat cap, the waistcoat, the lace table cloth, the moustache.

And they're all at the dinner table in a sitting room, laughing and smiling so you know it's a happy family.

Then there's Scarlet Johannsson sitting there with Matthew McConaughey . I have no idea what either of those are doing in the picture (I know, I've seen the film which is dreadful. Imagine if it was full feature length. Nobody would come out of it alive. We'd all slit our wrists in the first five minutes. It's that bad. Not like the Chanel surfing one. That was nice. Made me want to surf!).

Matthew Broderick kind of looks like he's part of the family. He's got a suit and facial hair and he's not as recognisable as Scarlet Johannson who is a thing unto herself - is she visiting on his behalf, is he the son of the family, or have the older couple got two Hollywood stars visiting all at the same time, just by coincidence.

And actually, I don't really care. It's neither smart nor beautiful. There is nothing in the picture that has enough depth to make me care. In fact, all the depth has been removed. I bet the old man and woman have loads going on in their life (are they D or G's mum and dad. Is that it?), but you don't get a glimmer of it from this picture.

So the picture fails. Except of course it doesn't. It's a complete success and replicates a Disneyfied view of Italianness that Dolce and Gabbana specialise in; a shimmery, slippery, surface view,  Downton Abbey gone Meditteranean with pastoral peasant characteristics. And it glories in its superficiality. It's supposed to.

And I'm happy with that. I like simple pictures, I like the basic. But this picture, though wilfully simple, is not basic. It's ridiculously complex, wrapped up in its own conceit, its own deceit.

And the problem is when I'm reading Elena Ferrante, which is simple, but not wilfully simple, and is in no way wrapped up in its own conceit, it elevates me to a higher plane, a plane on which Scarlett Johannson and Matthew Broderick just become embarrassing.

That's the danger of seeing something really good; whether it be literature, photography, or film. It's the opposite of a vaccination. It reduces your immune system to the base and the trite. You lose your tolerance of the mediocre or the worse-than-mediocre.

But that's a good thing. Right.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Tracey Emin, “Minnefuckinghellholeshittingapolis” and The Art History Audience

I enjoyed reading about Young British Artists at the weekend in Did Britart Change the World, especially the bit about Tracey Emin, who always struck me as having a lot that went beyond the formulaic and the superficial and is a gobshite in the good sense of the word at least some of the time,

This is what the article said about Emin showing in Minneapolis which I thought I'd reproduce for my friends in Minneapolis.

 At the 1995 show Brilliant!, at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis (or in Emin’s words, “Minnefuckinghellholeshittingapolis”), Emin exhibited her tent sewn with the names of everyone she had ever slept with. When she tried to remove it, because it was installed in a noisy space, she was informed she wasn’t allowed to take it off the premises. “I was told by the curator that, with my attitude, I would never show in an American museum again,” she says. And his prophecy proved true for nearly two decades.

I saw her bed at Tate Britain for the first time two weeks ago and really enjoyed it; the overflowing ashtray, the stains and the greyness of the sheets, the sauce sachets, it's not just a female bed. As I approached it there were two young guys filming and one said to the other, "If you allow this, then you allow anything," Which he meant in a bad way. But round the bed itself, nobody had that sentiment. The bed had an audience (see the picture below) that completely understood where she was coming from. I completely understood where she was coming from.

Emin's bed, and its audience, reminded me of  Amelia Jones and her ideas on extending the audience and art history. It seems a curious thing to say about something that practically has its own room in Tate Britain, shared only with a few Bacons, but the quote fits.

“For me, art history is really about studying history through the lens of culture. But the truth is that art history as a discipline remains remarkably conservative and has steadfast ideas about what art is supposed to be — all of which is steeped in its European foundations. From very early on I found myself interrogating the structures of the discipline, by asking such questions as, ‘Where are the black artists? The women artists?’ In my work I also started challenging the neutrality of art history, and I came to increasingly believe that my job, the position I took onto myself in art history, was to find the artists who had not been written about in art history and to make visible the structural, often invisible, biases within the field which led to these artists not getting the attention that they deserved.”