tina b. The Prague Contemporary Biennale  

Curated by Roger Szmulewicz

Invited artists:
* Carlos Aires – Spain
* Elinor Carucci- USA
* Kyungwoo Chun – Korea
* Tim Davis – USA
* Charles Freger - France
* Katy Grannan - USA
* Kerry Skarbakka - USA
* Alix Smith – USA
* Alec Soth - USA





Portraying Identities:
The Contemporary Photograph and its Relation to the Portrait

By Matt Carey-Williams

Six years into the third millennium and the two hundred-year old praxis and lexis of photography continues to ask of its protagonists the same questions, all of them centered on the trinity of image, index and process. Today, a new generation of artists using photography has emerged, with many of these individuals’ reputations having been nourished exclusively in the twenty-first century. Whilst the practice of photography remains essentially the same, (point, shoot, process), the aesthetic and, especially, conceptual boundaries by which the medium has been historically confined have been deconstructed by a younger generation. Today, many artists using photography negotiate the annals of tradition (be they formal or technical), making work that clearly speaks of itself as landscape, still life or portrait. However, the means that afford our arrival upon certain images, in itself, provide a more rewarding exploration of their work. It is not so much a postmodern expansion of means that makes these forays back into traditional subject matter interesting, but rather the journey from tradition, through several different strategies of meaning and making and then back to the traditional form that enriches contemporary photography and, specifically, the contemporary photographic ‘portrait’.

In turn, this problematizing of the very process of 'shooting pictures' becomes a wider discussion of the way contemporary photographers tackle their very specific traditions, ones that most certainly led to the invention of the camera in the first place. The ability to capture a likeness, and to do so very quickly, contributes to what one might consider photography's fetishizing of the portrait genre. The camera transformed the language or typology of the portrait format and its structure. In some cases, it manipulated the need or desire for portraiture. Portraits have always engaged us with the binary antagonisms of self and other; viewer and viewed, and led us into wider discussions concerning the politics of the gaze. The structure of a 'likeness' now became less subjective, given that the camera never 'lied'. The question now is one of identity, so that photographic portraiture gains relevance today in its ability to (de)construct the human condition, and not necessarily through capturing images of the human body. For many of the artists included in this exhibition, identity becomes this slippery form, sometimes directly referenced and other times barely whispered within the frame. Identity becomes structured much in the same way as a poet structures rhythms of thought through the use of cadence, alliteration or symbolism. Artists using photography who engage specifically with this age-old tradition of portraiture thus negotiate a unique trajectory of display in terms of capturing a likeness. Environment, action and lighting all become those similes or rhyming couplets, adding texture to the portrait in mind. Ironically, today one comes to poetry and not prose for a better interdisciplinary appreciation of the portrait photograph (as if understanding the mechanics of abstract painting prepares us better than comprehending the nature of figurative art). It is as if in the past portraiture sought to define veritable truths inherent to the sitter. Today, it is the opposite: possibly true, possibly false elements coalesce into identity.

Carlos Aires' installation In a glass darkly immediately disrupts any preconceived notion of the 'portrait' as a single object of a single sitter. Rather, Aires' invitation to step through a closet and into a magical dark space inhabited by hundreds of black and white images of laughing anonymous sitters purloined from the media in tacky black plastic frames seems as much a portrait of a collective consciousness as anything else. We all laugh, and we all love to laugh and Aires makes that abundantly clear. Our physical shift through the wardrobe to a new arena further suggests the idea of discovery; here of one's self achieved through a seemingly endless litany of happy people that chronicles the very uniqueness of the human condition. However, to be surrounded by numerous laughing portraits in a darkened space at which one arrives through a wardrobe lends a sinister air to the scene. There is the joy of laughing, and the pain of being laughed at, and Aires’ installation seems to embody both.

Elinor Carucci’s Diary of a belly dancer also documents the meeting between self and other in the eroticized ritual of the belly dancer and her audience. Again, the 'act' associated with this particular woman becomes the subject of the portrait. If Aires took pictures of laughing people, providing us with a multiplicitous version of what it means to laugh (and thus be human), then Carucci’s almost forensic investigation into the belly dancer’s movements and how she occupies the stage and becomes the focus of her charged audience is about that sexualized frisson between self and other, between the dancer and her audience. It is the portrait of the erotic itself; the dancing woman as both the subject and object that we employ to navigate our understanding of the erotic and the very nature of desire and what it means to be desired.

Chun Kyungwoo's portraits also command a significant amount of time from the sitter. Whereas Carucci’s performer 'dances' the portrait over a period of time, Chun’s portrait requires simply time. The artist's method is predicated upon an extremely long exposure time (often the exposure lasts the subject's age in minutes – a fifty-year old photographed with a fifty minute exposure). Identity becomes amplified as likeness is lost; it becomes an ethereal, phantasmagoric shadow that is all that remains of the relation between artist and subject. Chun’s portraits are not so much images of being as of becoming. These shadows of self are beautifully captured in Tim Davis' Illilluminations. By photographing shadows cast by antique sculptures Davis reveals how the past literally casts its shadow on the present, and, by extension, how light becomes the visual vocabulary with which we attempt to understand these shadows. These Illilluminations essentially become conclusions on the mechanics of looking.
Charles Freger’s extraordinary body of photographs, Rikishi, catalogues young Japanese sumo wrestlers. Rather than depicting them in action, he photographs them rather seriously, posing as if they were already the stars they yearn to become. It is a portrait of youth, albeit a specific type, as well as a snippet of how the concept of nationality manifests itself. The calm, hieratic exterior of these portraits are in contradistinction to the hormonally-fuelled youthful dreams that fizz through each of these young men’s minds. As such, desire lubricates their reality in much the same way that Katy Grannan’s sitters occupy the space between fact and fiction. More than any other artist of her generation, Grannan's poetic, dark creative vision reveals the human figure as a vestibule of desire. As such, the politics of the gaze are thus confronted by Grannan in her dialogue with her model and the final advent of their 'pose'. A young adolescent boy chooses to lie in the bushes; his hardened stare confronting the viewer (in an almost antagonistic fashion), contrary to the vulnerability that Grannan usually depicts. Twin sisters, in matching tops and shorts, lounge in a similarly bucolic environment, a meticulous, almost manicured space which seems to have been prepared for this very image. Of course, the flora, grasses and vegetation in which these portraits are shot enhance the darkened, brooding quality evinced by the sitters. The strangeness of their poses, their gazes and the liminal spaces which they inhabit, off the beaten track, lend an uncanny air to their portraits.

Kerry Skarbakka, like Grannan, shifts the dynamic between the comprehensible and the incomprehensible. As such, his falling figure, like Yves Klein's Leap into the Void, is a portrait of the abandoned self, captured between states of being and non-being. This extreme abandon confronts the viewer with issues of control, the precarious equilibrium we all maintain between self and other.

In much the same way, Alix Smith creates images that she considers to be 'constructed identities'; portraits of sitters who are familiar and in some cases related to her. Yet the thrust of her portrait is not the likeness, nor the familiarity, but the manner in which identity (the bedrock of portraiture) can be willfully constructed. A young, misty-eyed woman peers out of the photograph. Her simple (but expensive) little black dress is adorned with a string of pearls. The darkened background tantalizes us by letting us barely see expensive furniture, an ornate fireplace and the baroque frame of a painting we cannot see, but which we know must be by an Impressionist master. Smith creates a portrait that demands the inclusion of these accoutrements, much in the same way that saints are identified by the symbols they carry in historical portraits; it is a portrait of wealth; old New York wealth. In the end, a generic portrait of ‘old money’ in ‘young shoes’ is forged which speaks clearly of lineage and tradition.

Alec Soth's most recent project, NIAGARA, can be seen as a portrait of a place that has, for over a century, been inextricably linked to notions of love, marriage and desire. Thus Soth records several images of the Niagara Falls themselves, that most wonderful of natural wonders which Oscar Wilde declared the 'earliest of disappointments in American married life'. The Falls themselves are joined by series of portraits of locals and visitors; some come to get married, some come to get over marriage. Facades of motels, all erected in the boom days of the 1950’s, add another layer to our ideas of desire. Soth has also photographed nude couples, some in their own home, their corpulent 'realness' at odds with the dreamy hopes of the happily ever-after. Just as the Falls themselves shift in mood, so does one get an extraordinary array of emotion in the love letters that Soth has photographed. Given to him by various people he met in Niagara, Soth shows us the pure index of identity here. Unknown individuals pour their hearts out to their loved ones; some are so happy that they quote bad 1980’s pop songs; some so unhappy that their angry scrawls, betray pain and loss.

Matt Carey-Williams
Gagosian Gallery
April 2006
Tina B © 2006



Alix Smith
from the series "Constructed Identities"



Elinor Carucci
from the series "Diary of a Belly Dancer"



Kerry Skarbakka
from the series "The Struggle to Right Oneself"








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