HIRSCHHORN_Touching Reality_1.jpg

Fragile Lives

Mike Newton Jul 17, 2013

A Different Kind of Order: The ICP Triennial
Curated by Kristen Lubben, Christopher Phillips, Carol Squiers and Joanna Lehan
International Center of Photography
1133 Avenue of the Americas
Through September 22

Hey, wanna see something? Go downstairs in the International Center of Photography right now, and you can see an artist stepping on a carrot. It’s part of A.K. Burns’ 2011 video installation Touch Parade, in which she also rubs a balloon against her belly and stomps around in the mud. These are reenactments of erotic videos posted on YouTube, but since these actions don’t read as ‘erotic’ outside of particular sexual communities, such videos handily evade YouTube censorship.

Upstairs, there’s another artist touching things: in Thomas Hirschhorn’s 2012 video Touching Reality, we see Hirschhorn’s hand as he swoops and pans through photographs on an Apple iPad. The photographs are horrific, displaying human bodies that have been brutalized into abstract, bloody catastrophes. They are most likely the result of U.S. intervention in the Middle East: wartime images too graphic for the nightly news.

These works are on view as part of ICP’s triennial exhibition, “A Different Kind of Order.” It’s a bracing, exciting show: not high on emotion, but filled with compelling concepts and a desire to engage the ever-shifting present moment. The show seems to ask, what is the role of individual artists — and, by extension, any of us — in a digitally-defined landscape of unpredictable growth, nebulous cultural entities and massive corporations? Throughout, there’s a sense that the systems have become too complex — the problems too big, the horrors too great — to even grapple with on an individual level.

And yet, individuals make do with what they have. Rabih Mroué’s Blow Up (2012) considers the human-scale effects of violence in Syria through blurry cell-phone video: hard to see, hard to watch, hard to know, and often the only footage available. In one of the exhibit’s best moments, Hito Steyerl’s videos November (2004) and Abstract (2012) find the artist using modern or intellectual tools — cinematic archives, film theory, digital cameras — to process a personal and historical loss: the death of her friend Andrea Wolf, who was killed by Turkish soldiers while working with the militant leftist Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

This theme — fragile, individual lives caught up in giant emergencies — is central to Gideon Mendel’s work, perhaps the most immediately relevant in the show. Mendel’s ongoing Drowning World project includes subtly composed photos and video of people going about their daily tasks in the protracted aftermath(s) of massive floods — not every town gets disaster relief, you see. The images are a grim warning that climate change is set to become something far worse than a disaster: a fact of daily life.

The themes of dwindling resources and waste are unavoidable (if not quite as direct) in Michael Schmelling’s photos, shot while he was working with some sort of hoarder-cleanup outfit. These pictures show frightening piles of yellowing, flash-lit, accumulated stuff: the sort of thing that sprouts up when people forget to erect barriers between themselves and American consumer culture. Then, there are the photos taken by Luis Molina-Pantin while he was reportedly posing as a real-estate agent, images that soberly show the decadent-beyond-decadent homes built by enterprising Colombian drug traffickers. The pictures are clean and spacious, but like Schmelling’s close-cropped junk-piles, they project a suffocating sense of excess.

These projects draw off the power of traditional photography as a force for social change and a way to reveal otherwise unseen realities. But photography now is different than it’s ever been — pictures are everywhere, taken by everyone. For many artists working with contemporary photographic practices, the point is not to make good images, but to reflect on the systemic conditions under which images get made. And more and more, those systems are deeply corporate systems.

There are Mishka Henner’s photos, which frame the hidden (read: classified) chunks of Google satellite maps as city-eating abstractions. And there’s Oliver Laric, with videos that use carefully chosen bits of meme-y detritus to poeticize the hand-me-down nature of Western culture itself. These works raise questions about the limits of online information, but they also (somewhat resignedly) seem to have been created within those very limits. Similarly, the works by Hirschhorn, Burns and Mroué (as well as Andrea Longacre-White and Roy Arden) wouldn’t exist without Google’s data-mining networks or Apple’s sweatshop-produced gadgets. In Steyerl’s Abstract, she quietly videotapes the headquarters of weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin as a sort of soundless protest against war profiteering and industry run amok. And she uses an iPhone to do it.

Upstairs, between Hirschhorn’s mutilated bodies and Mendel’s flooded homes, we find Shimpei Takeda’s haunting Trace photos. These appear at first as gentle starscapes, with glowing dots peering out of empty grey fields, but they’re actually a trenchant document of their own: the result of putting radioactive Japanese soil (in the wake of Fukushima) directly onto photographic paper. Like Mroué’s blurred gunmen, Henner’s redacted blobs and even Burns’ censor-free subterfuge, it’s an artist finding a way into present-day horrors, emerging with something beautiful and inviting us to join. It may all be frightening, it may be painful, but it deserves to be seen.

For a PDF version of this issue, click here.

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