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Moments of Reprieve: Representing Loss in Contemporary Photography

BirkinRevisited1.jpg

David Birkin, Revisited, 2006, c-type print mounted on aluminium, 76 × 95 cm

David Birkin, Revisited, 2006, c-type print mounted on aluminium, 76 × 95 cm

As impetus or outright theme of an exhibition, it’s hard to imagine a field more familiar – less lost, let us say – than ‘photography and loss’. I say this as a happy sucker for mourning and melancholy, ruinous maundering and, in formal terms, the eloquent nothing, or near-nothing, of a photographic blank or blur. But even an inveterate loss-monger had to ask what more could be wrung from the rubric curators Louisa Adam and David Birkin had attached to this group show, mounted off-site at the former premises of David Roberts Art Foundation. The portentous title didn’t help. Primo Levi’s 1978 book Moments of Reprieve collects impressions of individuals the author felt some frail human compact with during his time at Auschwitz: a Romanian who smuggled soup to him, a young Hungarian man who gave him a stolen radish. If you’re going to invoke that level of historical desperation, your show had better not be using it as a cod-poetic catch-all for all manner and modes of loss.

But that is essentially what ‘Moments of Reprieve’ proposed, suborning everything from Indre Serpytyte’s quiet studies of personal effects – related to her father’s mysterious death in Lithuania – to Idris Khan’s palimpsests of canonical photography texts into its supremely vague remit. One had to wonder first at Birkin’s inclusion of his own work, which typically effects a clunky rapprochement between artistic ego, politically charged imagery and some pretty basic self-consciousness regarding his medium. A dismal, crass for-instance: Birkin has photographed himself performing ‘stress positions’ from the CIA’s torture repertoire. But the problem here was rather one of form: his Revisited (2006) is a bruise-hued blur with a dark figure suggested at the centre. The image is composed of re-photographed stills from the last video Birkin took of his brother, Anno, before he died in a car crash aged 20. It’s in no way to belittle that loss to say that Revisited failed in this context: in part because, like most works in the show, it was stranded without reference to its origin or related images, but also because it so superficially resembled Khan’s adjacent and over-familiar Every Page … From Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (2004), with its digitally layered pages of text and photographs.

Some of the weakness of ‘Moments of Reprieve’ was certainly to do with this easy assertion of visual counterparts to actual loss, resulting in some glossy restraint in the face of lightly conceptualized but actually quite terrible content. That is almost a definition, I suppose, of the work of Taryn Simon, whose Kenneth Waters, Scene of the Crime … (2002) refers to a notorious miscarriage of justice in Massachusetts and is quite of a piece with Simon’s pretty, and pretty unoriginal, take on the hidden spaces of recent American history.

But thematic overreach and some very thin work aside, the most dispiriting thing about ‘Moments of Reprieve’ was the impression of good work treated in the most cursory and telegraphic fashion. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s The Day Nobody Died III (2008) is the abstract, streaked product of time spent embedded with the British Army in Afghanistan. A long strip of photographic paper was exposed to the sun on the first day without casualties during their visit. The resulting photograph, mottled and irradiated-looking, makes no sense reduced to an instance of indeterminate ‘loss’. Nor was the show able to compass Jane and Louise Wilson’s recent work in Pripyat, marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster: Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum) (2012) shows an indoor swimming pool in a state of ruin, roofing material hanging like appalling globs of organic rot. It’s an ambitious project, here cut off from its real engagement with the lives of those affected by the catastrophe, looking instead like just another picturesque ruin.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of this glib show was the impression that one really was looking at some kind of loss, or at least debilitating absence: to wit, the curators’ failure to notice that their subject was cruelly passé, their unwillingness or inability to be more precise or more ambitious. Instead, the whole felt half-hearted, hubristic and, well, lost.

Brian Dillon’s Essayism (2017) and In the Dark Room (2018) are published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. He is senior tutor in writing at the Royal College of Art, London, UK.

Issue 150

First published in Issue 150

October 2012
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