Image as a Social Mediator

“A people or class which is cut off from its own past is far less free to choose or to act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history.”
-Berger, 1975

Working forwards from this statement, we want to approach the question of representing the past and present as being inherently social in its nature. We are interested in the ways in which artistic inquiry can act as a catalyst for rediscovering new ways of reading the past and the present - through creating real or false representations, by transforming and re-interpreting the phenomenon of storytelling. How do you approach working with already present pieces of memory while constructing new ones through artistic practice?

Agata Engelman
I think the notions of real and false are problematic in relation to storytelling, as sometimes in order to speak our truth we need to go beyond facts. Werner Herzog calls this the ecstasy of truth, differentiating between fact and truth, and following the latter, which sometimes means making up facts in his documentaries. Personally, I don’t care that much about whether a story someone tells me is true or not, especially if it’s a good story. Sometimes fake or just slightly coloured-up stories can be a carrier of meaning that the audience will find relatable and that will reveal something previously hidden or transparent. It becomes more problematic when the issue goes beyond individual experience and there are consequences to the stories told. I believe art should be political, or - art is political even if it doesn’t want to be, and there are things more important than artistic freedom.

Julija Rukanskaite
Agata, you are mentioning the so called "fake" stories. In some of the works featured in this conversation there is a tendency to approach the concept of a non-lived past that emerges from false memories constructed by the media or people you encounter. It is very much present in the work of Annabel Hesselink and in your own work as well. Can you two expand on this a bit more?

Annabel Hesselink
In regards to your question about artistic influence: if we talk about the past, artistic representations are one of the only things we have so they have a huge influence on our idea of that time. Paintings, sculptures, architecture from our past shaped the image we have now. But in the present with the widespread democratization of image making, art is only a tiny source of representation. So to be honest I'm not sure contemporary art can really work as a catalyst to collectively 'rediscover new ways of reading the past and the present'.
For my work, the starting point was the representation of the first landing on the moon. I started to investigate the influence of this representation by making video-interviews in lunar landscapes around the world. I asked people about their memory of the first landing on the moon and their image of the moon itself. In the answers the moon was either a deserted empty rock (as seen in the moon landing images) or a magical romantic light (as seen from the earth). This duality for me is the wonder of the moon, to know it's a rock of dust but still being struck by it with awe when seeing it from the earth. So I started to recreate the moon in video-experiments, digging lunar craters, rolling snowballs and throwing big balloons, trying to catch that kind of intense wonder that resides at the limits of the rational mind.
Agata Engelman
I think that’s a good point, Annabel Hesselink, that contemporary art has relatively little influence on the cultural imaginary, compared to, for example, popular culture. It should be an incentive for gallery art to step out of the closed societies of like-minded people, and this has indeed been happening on a growing scale, with artists reaching out to wider audiences. But it’s a slow process, and the majority of the artworld prefers to stay alienated. My piece showed here, The Great Flood 7209, started with an encounter. I came across this outdoor curiosa exhibition, full of old stuff, bicycle tyres, toys, books, and photos, arranged into little scenes, all really damp as it had been raining. It was ran in a garden of a half-collapsed house by two drunk men who had a little dog, and who told great stories. Red-faced, full of vigour, happy and sad at once. One of them showed me pictures and told about their previous life, when the house had a roof and their museum of curiosities was indoors, full of well preserved antiques, musical instruments and trinkets. Among those pictures was one showing that same house, and he said it had been taken during a great flood that happened in 1972 and there was water everywhere. When I was leaving, he gave me the photo of the flood. I really saw flooded streets at first and only after some days I noticed it was just melting snow. I liked how my perception of the image and those two men changed, it became an even better story, it was no longer just about a flood, it was about storytelling. It kept intriguing me so I went back in 2009, but the men and their museum were no longer there. The local bar owner told me one of them had gone to jail. He also told me about their past, adding more elements to the story. I took a picture of the house, trying to get the same angle as on the one I’d been given. The video shows my attempt to align the two images, but it’s impossible, as the person who took the original picture must have been much taller, so when one part of the image aligns, the others shift apart. Much like the story.

Emily Dundas Oke
I'm curious now to return to the notion of one's practice, either artistic or curatorial, that turns directly to archives of our social past in order examine our relationship to them. Agata, your mention of the impossibility of of replicating the original 'Great Flood' photograph brings to mind the wonderful text “Camera Lucida” by Roland Barthes, through which his desire to find the “genius” of Photography leads us back to the world, to the referents inherently tied to the medium. This turning back which you attempted - this leap from present day to grasp at the so called great flood from long ago, points the bind that creates photography's interest. Photography, and related archiving, is never about itself, it is always about the world. The photograph always points beyond itself to it's subject, yet only certain people will follow that directive. Photography implicates time in a manner other mediums do not, and I argue that with this implication the notion of truth is brought along.

The discussion thus far has led us to explore many interesting streams. We've been invited to contemplate the dichotomy between false and true, which Agata has been shown to be problematic in terms of storytelling. The correlation between truth and meaning has been posited as one of difference but great potential. Here, I am curious as to the potential of this turning back, the return to the archive, place of referent, or social myth, as a revealing act. Archival materials and their display may often be conceptualized in terms which imply solidity or stasis. A photograph is a “slice in time” - it is not a course of direction nor a movement. It seems removed from the fluidity that characterizes the social sphere.

I believe that in these acts of looking back, these artistic and curatorial inquiries, such as Agata's return to the great flood or Ananabel Hesselink's return to the landing on the moon, ironically point to false nature of the accepted truth the photograph, archive, of social memory purport. These creations often results in artist projects or objects, objects which may seem to declare their meaning, and yet I believe they point more to the ways in which they are taken up. Artworks that restage or recenter original events seem to highlight this inability to capture _within_ the photograph 'the real' - the 'real always seems beyond', which leads me to think it is never fully present.

Julija, I find that your work as a curator pulls from such material in ways seems to point out that meaning is not contained within the materials, but rather, that combinations open new possibilities for meaning to emerge from. Could you speak to this?

Julija Rukanskaite
Yes, One method of considering it is thinking through the principle of collage, through approaching curating as a collage on its own terms. A collage where the non-continuity of the piece, its clear open-endedness and, most importantly, its grounding in previous artistic and non-artistic practices make up the piece itself. As archives include more and more diverse media the argument of a single-narrative archive is no longer relevant. It could also be argued that this draws one’s attention away from the concrete works that come into building such architectures of meaning and curating sometimes acts simply in order to take over the spotlight intended for the actual artworks presented . Yet if taken as a playful hermeneutic circle the arrangement of artworks can be both a singular artwork while still being inhabited by and acknowledging or enhancing the pieces that make up the totality of the structure.

Further works

Elsa Haiby
With this piece, it is important to ask: “ Why are we intrigued by painful experience in art?”

Today, there is a normalization of society that creates a satisfaction within us, but it also dulls our senses. The flux of visual information in my video simply mirrors the one of our contemporary daily lives. We are so used to it, that we stop noticing it. But my aim is not to take advantage of the suffering of others in order to shock. Julia Kristeva says that “contemporary art installations aspire to incarnation but also to narration.” She believes that they should be full and real experiences that tell not only the story of the group - countries, nations, populations, etc. - but also the story of the individual – the artist, the people concerned, each audience member, etc. These stories can be painful but also become ways of revolt. In this way, art creates and provides images linked to real life that have capacity for revolt and renewal, thus helping us break our foundations and reconnect with our true selves.

Maria Kapajeva

In this two-screen video piece, Maria Kapajeva juxtaposes iconic scenes from the Soviet film ‘The Bright Way’ (1940, directed by Grigori Aleksandrov) and re-enactments of these scenes carried out in the abandoned territory of Krenholm, a closed textile mill in Estonia. On the left, we see Ljubov Orlova, the brightest star of Stalinist era cinema in the role of a stachanovite, love-seeking weaver, and on the right the young Estonian dance artist Maarja Tõnisson in the production spaces and courtyard of Krenholm. Leaving audible the artist’s instructions from behind the camera to the dancer in front of the camera, Kapajeva makes the viewer aware of the manipulative mechanisms behind every artwork – and not only behind the socialist realist film classics – by not letting her or him fall under the influence of the piece even for a moment. ‘The March of Enthusiasts’, sung by Ljubov Orlova in the famous scene of the looms in the film, inspired the artist for the title of the exhibition ‘The Dream Is Wonderful, Yet Unclear’.