Ripped from the headlines
Dutch photographer's politically charged images take uncomfortable position between art, journalism
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/03/2017 (2015 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When art makes the headlines, it’s often bad news. Antiquities looted and destroyed in distant war zones; closer to home, vulnerable, personal works vandalized and stolen from a recent Craft Council show at HSC.
In the United States right now, in 2017, the art world is tearing itself apart over a painting. I’d take it as a sign of art’s enduring relevance if the particulars weren’t so fraught.
Included in this year’s Whitney Biennial, Open Casket by painter Dana Schutz, who is white, reinterprets horrific and widely circulated photographs of Emmett Till at his funeral. The fourteen-year-old black boy lynched by grown white men in 1955. Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, insisted on a public viewing: the world would see her son’s face, or what was left where his face had been.
Moved by the image, Schutz painted it in her muscular, semi-abstract style, transmuting mangled flesh into violent smears. Since its debut, black artists, critics and their allies have lined up to thoughtfully, forcefully and persuasively explain why she really shouldn’t have.
The question is less about Schutz’s “right” to use the image than her responsibility to use it conscientiously, not beautify or “estheticize” it and, most importantly, not profit from an image of pain that critics argue she can never understand. Schutz’s paintings routinely achieve six figures at auction: she’s promised not to sell Open Casket, but the attention will bolster her brand, regardless. Calls for the work to be withdrawn and destroyed have inspired predictable waves of counter-protest.
Schutz and Till — faceless images, rights and responsibilities — are on my mind at Living On, the exhibition of large-scale documentary photographs by Dutch artist Lidwien van de Ven at the University of Manitoba’s School of Art Gallery, though on the surface its particulars are different.
Van de Ven is an artist, but she’s adopted the esthetics and working habits of a photojournalist. She travels Europe and the Middle East documenting scenes of street-level protest that capture shifting power dynamics and clashing waves of uprising, repression, migration and reactionary nativism.
In Living On, we get an uncomfortably close bird’s-eye view of protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. In Beirut, a woman who reads as a South Asian domestic worker walks someone’s dog in front of a bombed-out car. A Palestinian boy hides his face behind a doorway in Ramallah — playfully or in fear, we can’t know.
Layered graffiti, protest signs and rotting posters are recurring motifs, the last of which finding echoes in the installation itself. Van de Ven’s prints are monumental, pasted directly to grey-toned gallery walls. They appear almost as projections, apparitions or JPEGs on a screen, even as they’re emphatically, physically fixed in place. They’ll have to be scraped off when the show comes down.
A straight-ahead shot of a faded, water-damaged flyer memorializing a now-faceless suicide bomber exemplifies the subtlety of van de Ven’s treatment of image and text — and the profound ambivalence of her approach.
Photojournalists are held to exacting ethical standards, artists less so. For better or worse, that tension is central to what van de Ven is doing here. She’s cannier than Schutz (the ephemeral prints at least sidestep the secondary market), but similar questions persist. Her photo of survivors huddled in the shelter of a blasted apartment tower has the grace and presence of a Baroque history painting or Romantic landscape, but to see it this way seems monstrous.
As an insulated North American, I can find value in my discomfort, but I worry that’s not important. Better to ask the boy in the doorway or the woman with the dog, the families left behind by the suicide bombing, whoever they are.
One image tears loose from the hushed gallery, migrating out to the lobby. Shot in Berlin, a row of German police stand between van de Ven with her camera and activists protesting PEGIDA, an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim hate group. We don’t see anyone’s face. “Which side are you on?” it seems to demand, and from van de Ven’s perspective (and ours) it’s hard to tell. That ambiguity, for me at least, strikes much closer to home.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.