Luke Willis Thompson – Autoportrait
When I gave up writing this blog, I thought that the four years and three hundred odd posts would have made it pretty clear where I stand critically, and ethically. I thought that editors would either understand and respect these things when they asked me to write for them, or they simply wouldn’t ask. Some recent experiences suggest otherwise, and so a review originally intended for one place now needs to find an alternative home. That place, after considering all the other options, can only be Disphotic, briefly returned from the dead. I promise I will not make resurrection a habit.
This review concerns The Deutsche Börse Foundation Prize hosted at The Photographers Gallery in London, a competition which I have written about many times before, and which I make no bones about having very mixed feeling about it, both because of the sponsor, and because of what I feel is the generally unhealthy effect that prizes often have on the creative fields. These issues aside, this year’s iteration consists of an interestingly political shortlist selected by a five-person jury, from an initial longlist proposed by 100 anonymous nominators. It is however also a shortlist which illustrates a difficulty with the fashion for politically inflected art. The problem being that if you are going to champion works which challenge opacity and wrongdoing, I think you need to be pretty open and clean yourself. Put another way it is no good adopting the guise of critique while also being unwilling to practice self-critique or engage with it when it comes from outside. Any reviewer worth their salt knows that if you live by the sword, the pen, or for that matter anything else, then you also need to be prepared to die by these things.
To the exhibition then. The first of the four on show is the New Zealand artist Luke Willis Thompson who is shortlisted for his exhibition autoportrait, which took place at Chisenhale Gallery, London. This work consists of a filmed portrait of Diamond Reynolds, the young American woman pulled to public attention in 2016 after she broadcast to Facebook Live a stream of video showing the aftermath of her partner Philando Castile being shot and killed by police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Collaborating with Reynolds Thompson has created a cinematic portrait which attempts to act as a ‘sister-image’, counterbalancing the much more widely known and shared video of her. Eschewing the low resolution digital ephemerality of a smartphone for an enormous projection from a 35mm cine projector installed in the gallery, autoportrait offers a space for reflection amongst the other works and becomes incrementally more absorbing and moving the longer one spends with it.
It does however raise the question of whether the Deutsche Börse prize’s remit, to reward ‘a living artist of any nationality who has made the most significant contribution … to the [sic] photography in Europe in the previous year’ is actually useful. It might seem to be splitting hairs to point out that autoportrait is a video piece, which is not in any sense a suggestion that the work should not be in the shortlist, because for me at least it is one of the stronger pieces on display. Rather it is to point out that as ‘photography’ comes to encompass almost anything from performance to computationally derived images, the basic terms of this and many other photographic prizes seem more than ever to need rethinking. Even the old trusty recourse of ‘lens-based media’ seems clunky and self-conscious when so many fine and important works are being created without the need of even a piece of shaped glass.
Next, the French-Venezuelan photographer Mathieu Asselin is shortlisted for his book Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation, published by Actes Sud. In the interests of transparency, I have been a bit of a cheerleader for Asselin’s project since I first encountered it in 2016, and time has done little to lessen my sense that this is a really important work. Over five years Asselin has systematically investigated the agrochemical corporation Monsanto, compiling what is effectively a dossier of visual and textual evidence of the damage that their business has done internationally. From Vietnamese children still suffering the consequences of the highly toxic military defoliant Agent Orange, to United States farmers driven to the verge of bankruptcy by restrictive seed contracts and aggressive litigation against infractors. Asselin’s work is a prime example of what might be termed ‘investigative documentary photography’, but as well as taking the micro-approach of investigating one particular company, it also hints at the macro issue of a world where multi-national companies rampage remarkably unchecked.
Asselin’s display is also one of the better uses of space in the show, sensibly choosing to use the gallery to display a number of things which could never function in the original book form. More impressively he has done something I can remember no other shortlistee doing, which is to make a direct connection between the topic of his work and the sponsor of the prize. To do this Asselin has added an extra chapter to his project, one which focuses on the stock market and Monsanto’s pending merger with chemical giant Bayer AG. Two framed tablets in the gallery show Monsanto’s share price as listed on Deutsche Börse’s own stock index app, a neat reminder that the sponsor of this prize is also a facilitator and beneficiary of the type of necrotic capitalism that Asselin is critiquing. When so many avowedly left-wing, critical artists pathetically roll over at the first sight of a corporate sponsor, it is reassuring to encounter one who follows his critique right the way through.
Next, the Swiss artist Batia Suter is shortlisted for her publication Parallel Encyclopedia #2, published by Roma in 2016. A sprawling book, Parallel Encyclopedia #2 merges photographs taken from over a thousand sources into a series of chapters where one type of image flows into another, in doing so seeking to explore the ‘iconographic transformation of images’. The book encompasses everything from anonymous technical photographs to engravings by Gustave Doré, and the subject matter is similarly varied with astronomical photographs sharing page space alongside stills of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. The core idea the book has something resonant of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, an idiosyncratic attempt to identify shared aesthetic concerns across disparate art works. However, unlike Warburg’s atlas which had such a strong and peculiar thesis at its core, Batia’s encyclopedia seems noticeably lacking in a central argument or conviction about what these images are doing and why that matters, and if one exists it gets watered down by the sheer quantity of material.
For me Parallel Encyclopedia #2 is a good example of the way many appropriative photographic works seem to have ceased to be about specific, carefully judged interventions, and increasingly seem to have instead become about sheer quantity. This is rather a shame, because with our present age of digitally induced visual overload it often seems that the former type of appropriation potentially has more to say, than the latter. Viewing the shortlist as a whole and thinking in terms of the prize’s proclaimed remit, it is sometimes easy to imagine the thinking that led a jury to shortlist a particular work. In the case of Suter’s work however it is rather hard to guess the reason, although there are certainly some resonances with the work of juror Penelope Umbrico. On the other hand, perhaps realising that the other works shortlisted this year were all so avowedly political the jury decided they needed to include something of a counter-balance to that.
Finally, the Polish photographer Rafal Milach is shortlisted for his exhibition Refusal, which was held at Atlas Szutki Gallery, Lodz. This work looks at forms of subtle state control and manipulation in post-Soviet countries like Georgia and Azerbaijan. The strategies and forms on show are various, ranging from incomplete monumental architecture, to intellectual games intended to mould and develop the cognitive capabilities of children. It would be easy to misinterpret this work as an example of post-Soviet ‘ruin porn’ extended into the realm of mind, except the historical resonances and geographic specificities of the work are much less interesting than are the connections with ‘fake news’ and other forms of contemporary political influencing. Refusal is an outgrowth of Milach’s much lauded 2014 book The Winners, and a copy of this is on show as part of his display in the gallery. The Winners was published by GOST, a publishing house co-founded by Gordon MacDonald, one of the members of this year’s jury. MacDonald may have since quietly exited from GOST, but the association lingers. To my mind this is a remarkable conflict of interest, worthy of some explanation, but in the gallery it is passed over without any acknowledgement at all.
[EDIT: the subtlety of what I am saying here seems to be lost on some readers, so to clarify; I am not accusing MacDonald of exploiting a conflict of interest for his own benefit or anyone elses, only identifying that one exists as a consequence of his prior relationship to Milach and his position on the jury, and that it is problematic that this is not acknowledged anywhere.]
It may not have occurred to any of those involved that this could look dubious, but that is also very much part of the problem. There is a prevailing attitude in photography that regards accountability and transparency as superfluous, or not even worth thinking about. The corollary of this is an industry which too often operates like an old boy’s network, where mechanisms of decision making are opaque, and conflicts of interest are brushed over with a wink and a funny handshake (see my concerns about the 2016 Paris Photo Aperture Photobook Prize for another example). As if to illustrate my point, and to explain why you read this review here and not elsewhere, the editor who originally commissioned it then declined to publish it unless I removed this section of the review. In a phone call she explained had known MacDonald for years and doubted he would have done this intentionally, something which fails to appreciate that some of the worse conflicts of interest are not consciously committed. Indeed, the term ‘conflict of interest’ describes a state where such an abuse of position is possible, not a state where one has necessarily taken place. In the same call I was also advised that I didn’t need to ‘burn my bridges’ by publishing this piece myself. If there are three words that sum up much of what is wrong with this industry it is these.
One of the reasons I gave up blogging was the sense it didn’t achieve much, and because I don’t want this to just be another dead-end rant I have a request to make of you, kind reader. If like me you feel the Deutsche Börse Foundation and The Photographers Gallery could do better and be much more transparent please take five minutes to let them know. You can phone, e-mail or tweet, and if either of the latter feel free to CC me in. That is all from me, I am back into blogging retirement, and off to work in the Channel Islands for the next six months on a new project about (you guessed it!) financial transparency. I take some heart at least from the fact that Jersey has hosted a number of exiled writers in the past, not least amongst them Victor Hugo, and also from the fact there are no bridges to the island which might tempt my pyrotechnicist tendencies.
The winner of the £30,000 prize (which at the time of writing would buy you roughly 336 shares of Monsanto stock, or 317 shares of Deutsche Börse stock) is announced at The Photographers Gallery on 17th May 2018.
You can read Gordon Macdonald’s response here.
You can read exhibition curator Anna Dannemann’s response here.
You can read editor Christiane Monarchi’s response here.
You can read my follow up piece here.