Still from 'White House', single channel widescreen projection.  David Claerbout, 2006.

Ideas Series Interview: Gilane Tawadros

In this exclusive interview for Photoworks magazine from Issue 7, Julian Stallabrass talks to Gilane Tawadros about ideas and motivations which shaped the 2006 edition of the Photo Biennial.

The second Brighton Photo Biennial, curated by Gilane Tawadros, brought together historical, contemporary and newly-commissioned photographic and moving image works. It featured works by artists who explore, in different ways, the thin line between past and present, fact and fiction, illusion and reality. In particular, through the placement of the main exhibition, Nothing Personal, in the Royal Pavilion and its gardens, links were drawn out between imperial Britain of the early nineteenth century and the imperial present of our own time. Around this core, throughout Brighton and along the South-East Coast were solo and group exhibitions of established and emerging international artists, presented across a number of distinctive sites including the Argus Building, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Brighton University Gallery, Charleston Farmhouse, the De La Warr Pavilion, Fabrica, Gardner Arts Centre, and Meta Gallery, including work by Alfredo Jarr, Fiona Tan and Henna Nadeem.

JS: The main exhibition takes its title from a collaborative book by Richard Avedon and James Baldwin published in 1964. Although the two were school friends, there is nevertheless something very odd both about the duo and the collaboration itself: in a book by Max Kozloff that Avedon managed to kill with legal action, he pointed to part of the oddity: Baldwin lashes out at the unmitigated nastiness of the American scene, but Avedon does no such thing. This impresario of haute couture at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar lacked the credentials to offer any sort of critique from below. So can you say what you found inspiring about the book, and why you felt that it spoke particularly to the present?

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GT: I have been fascinated by Avedon and Baldwin’s Nothing Personal book for over twenty years and intrigued by the silence surrounding what I consider to be one of the most significant photography publications to emerge from post-war USA. There has been an all-too-eager readiness to dismiss Avedon as a superficial purveyor of fashion photography or as an ‘impressario of haute couture’ as Kozloff puts it, which perhaps explains the reluctance to see this as an important artistic and political collaboration.

Avedon and Baldwin had collaborated previously on the school magazine Magpie which they jointly edited (together with Emile Capouya) at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. But this was their first professional collaboration. One of the extraordinary aspects of this collaboration is that they developed the images and text separately—Avedon’s photographs do not illustrate Baldwin’s text nor does Baldwin comment on Avedon’s images—and yet there is a powerful synergy between images and text, underpinned by an incisive and unequivocal critique of contemporary America. Published a year after the assasination of John F. Kennedy, Nothing Personal is an analysis of post-war America’s inherent contradictions and the tensions which accrue from the gap between a nation’s image of itself and reality. Nothing Personal, it seems to me, still resonates powerfully today, provoking questions about the state of the American nation and its representations in the context of the US’ increasingly imperial role on the world stage.

JS: And the exhibition, Nothing Personal, contains much US work that dwells on broadly political representations of the nation, including Walker Evans’ abandoned Southern plantation houses and Civil War monuments, Warhol’s Electric Chair series, Paul Fusco’s photojournalistic work on the crowds mourning Robert Kennedy, and Richard Misrach’s desert scenes. A couple of features stand out in that selection: the first is that (with the exception of Warhol, arguably, though it may apply even to him) that it is work that comes out of a tradition of considered realism; the second that the work has a strongly elegiac character. Evans and Misrach, in particular, consciously construct their work in series, and alongside texts, to develop political points and to explore the possibilities and limits of photographic meaning. Aside from Fusco’s work which is actually about a funeral procession, Evans’ work in the South ambivalently mourns the passing of a brutal regime of slavery but also of the elevated and folk cultures that disappeared with it; Warhol’s representations of instruments of execution appear aged though they were (and are) contemporary; Misrach examines the archaeological traces and after-effects of nuclear testing in recent but ancient-looking ruins. How do these features relate to what you want to say about our current imperialist impetus?

GT: With the exhibition Nothing Personal, and indeed with the Biennial as a whole, I was interested in exploring the limits of representation, both political and pictorial. This seems to me a particularly urgent question for the times in which we live. I would suggest that Evans’ images together with Misrach’s Desert Cantos, Fusco’s RFK Funeral Train, Warhols’s Electric Chair prints and Eggleston’s photographs of Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion (also included in the Nothing Personal exhibition) are all archaeological in the sense that they excavate the signs and meanings of the post-war American landscape, both interior and exterior, posing questions about what is going on in the world around them. They invoke James Baldwin’s desire to ‘unlock the past’ so that it can be deployed to make sense of the present. Too many curatorial projects, particularly within the framework of the international biennial, focus exclusively on the present without reference to what has gone before or without reference to a specific focus of intellectual inquiry. For me the political process is about finding answers to particular material questions. By contrast, the artistic process is concerned with raising questions without the promise (or intent) of securing any definitive answers. This Biennial, I hope, will provoke questions about how we have arrived at this particular political moment and the lessons that we might learn by excavating the past and by negotiating the precarious line between the space of representation and that of lived experience.

JS: I agree with you about the ‘neophile’ character of many biennials. And, naturally, that the artistic process is not dedicated to material questions in the same way that the political process is, though ‘finding answers’ is a generous description of the latter. But could I push you to say a bit more specifically what questions this exhibition raises about our present political moment and its representation, particularly in combination with the other elements of the Biennial? Eggleston, to take your example, could be thought to be another unlikely hero in this critical examination: on the surface of it, after all, here is the archetypal ethnographer of the exotic South pointing his lens at the memorial traces of one of the greatest engines of US cultural supremacy.

GT: Eggleston’s photographs of Graceland are included here precisely because they deal with the ‘surface’, both material and iconographic of the American nation which is the subject of a ferocious attack by Baldwin in Nothing Personal on what he calls America’s myth of itself.  Like Brighton’s Royal Pavilion with its deceptive physical spaces and trompe l’oeil decor, Graceland obscures the line between illusion and reality. Like Fiona Tan’s solitary old man imprisoned within the Pavilion and Van Leo’s self-portraits, we enter a world where it becomes impossible to distinguish fact from fiction.  This is the nature of the cultural and political moment in which we find ourselves today, one in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between illusion and reality, in which the politicians and media of the world’s most powerful nations not only believe but propagate the myths of themselves without reference to the reality of the world around them.

 JS: It seems that we have on display various levels of wilful repudiations of reality and projected fantasies: on the level of the individual, Tan’s A Lapse of Memory, with its bewildered protagonist wandering the rooms of the Royal Pavilion, and Van Leo’s role-playing for his camera; with both the Pavilion itself and Graceland, a projection of such fantasies into public architecture, and so into the minds of a wide constituency that variously adopts or resists them; and at the level of the mass media and the state, purveying an image—of upholders of freedom and democracy, for instance—that is more or less believable depending on many factors, but particularly which end of the gun barrel you find yourself. But these phenomena are hardly new. Marx described them as ‘ideology’, and his ideas were of course taken up and modified by numerous other theorists. One common element of many of those theories is that ideology or hegemony produces effects that are real—to dismiss it as merely ‘fiction’ or ‘illusion’ is to miss the source of its power. So this leads to two questions. First, do you see the power of ideology as more evident now than in the past (whether it is that of Baldwin and Avedon, Elvis or of George IV), and if so is this a matter of its weakness or strength? And, second, what role do you see for art, and specifically for the Biennial, in challenging that power?

GT: I’m interested in the gap between representation in a political sense – i.e. a diversity of ideas and experiences reflected in the political process, the public accountability of those in power and the upholding of civil liberties—and what I would describe as a kind of placebo for democracy—reality TV shows like Big Brother, constant invitations to vote for this or that on radio and television and so on. Of course, as with medicinal placebos these do have ‘real’ effects. They do offer the opportunity for participation not just an illusory promise of it. However, they do not offer the opportunity to be agents for change in any significant way.

Allied to these increasingly limited opportunities for us to effect democratic change on a bigger stage, I have witnessed a growing intolerance to oppositional views and to voices of dissent. I have always considered the role of the intellectual and also of the artist as one which should disturb the accepted way of seeing things, cause a degree of discomfort, and dissent from the status quo.

 JS: In relation to that fostering of dissent and discomfort, could you say more about the mix of old and new work in the Biennial, and more about how you see its various components working together?

GT: The mix of old and new works in the Biennial is very important, not just in terms of creating a dialogue between different historical moments which are very different to each other but also because the artworks invite a different kind of response and engagement on the part of the viewer. For example, the Avedon/Baldwin project is an unequivocal call to action, signalled by the final image in the book of students from the non-violent co-ordinating committee of Atlanta. By contrast, David Claerbout’s The White House (2006) is a far more open-ended work. An exchange between two men set against the backdrop of an abandoned house climaxes in a crescendo of unexplained violence. The sequence is repeated over and over again seventy times in real time. The light changes as we move from dawn to dusk, the shadows lengthen and the actors become tired and dishevelled. As the film repeats, one becomes more and more aware of the background—the changing light, the oppressive atmosphere created by this neo-classical setting. Nothing is resolved; however, the process of viewing the film repeatedly reproduces the conditions of moving from the impact of a violent trauma to the aftermath of trauma as you try to understand what generated the violent event.

JS: In a number of ‘political’ shows that have contrasted work of the past and present, there has been a tendency to present activist work of the 1960s and 1970s against more open-ended, ambivalent—one may almost say chastened—contemporary work. Is this how the contrast works in the Biennial, or do you have more overtly activist and committed contemporary works?

GT: Certainly, there is a difference in this Biennial between works from different periods but it’s not always so cut and dried. As you pointed out, Walker Evans’s images of neglected plantation houses could be seen to be nostalgic of the historical South as well as critical. On the other hand, contemporary works like Kara Walker’s ‘8 Possible Beginnings….’, and Alfredo Jaar’s The Sound of Silence are powerful works which couldn’t be described as ‘chastened’. When I saw Kara Walker’s piece in New York, only one other visitor watched the whole film through to the end. The spectacle of lynchings and sexual abuse in the history of Africa-America (as Walker calls it)—even played out by puppets—was uncomfortable and unwatchable for many people.

It’s important to address the question of why contemporary works appear less overtly political than some works made in the 60s, 70s and even 80s. My view is that this has to do with the nature of the times we live in and the reluctance to make or to receive definitive, closed statements. I suspect that these days we are too ready to dismiss work that appears too polemical or didactic and artists are investigating new ways of engagement which may still be political but may also be poetic or tangential. One artist recently told me that she felt the world was too complex now for her to make the more overtly political work that she made in the past. She found herself absorbed by simple gestures like a physical movement from one side to another. This might seem self-indulgent until one considers all the connotations implied by movement from one geographical space to the other. I don’t consider this approach any less valid or indeed less challenging. Often it is more demanding of us as viewers and, as a result, perhaps has a greater impact.

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Published in Photoworks Issue 7, 2006

Commissioned by Photoworks

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