A View of the Future / Identities in Flux
The Art of Rana El Nemr (EY)
by Trine Rytter Andersen
Translated by Martin Bielefeldt
To celebrate this year’s Images of the Middle East Festival and Aarhus Festival Galleri Image has invited the Egyptian photographer and artist Rana El Nemr to exhibit her work in Denmark.
Her contribution to the festival is the photographic art project Coastline (il sahel in Arabic), which documents the many very different gateways that mark the entrances to summer residences and private resorts along the northern coast of Egypt. Since the early 1990s the Mediterranean coastline between Agamy and Alamein has developed into an attractive residential area, and the gateways, whose architectural design is highly eclectic, together with the names given to the developments serve to sustain expectations of aspirational and luxurious prosperity.
The gateways are often designed before the rest of the buildings, usually by an architect who has nothing to do with the design of the later complex. The gateway functions as an advertisement to attract investors and potential buyers. The entrepreneurs and architects use these gateways to send specific signals to the public, and they are thus the focus of extra effort and investment to make them as appealing and prestigious as possible. The gateways are built and then photographed. These photographs are then published in brochures and reproduced in other promotional contexts as an icon for the relevant development. As a result gateways with no architectural or conceptual link to the finished complex are often created. They represent an attempt by the entrepreneurs and architects of each complex to generate a particular image in the mind of the buyer an image based on highly specific expectations in terms of social, political, cultural, intellectual and economic status. Central for the buyer is that this image, with its eclectic mix of architectural styles and frequent contradictory design, reflects an aspirational identity in Egyptian society.
Rana El Nemr is interested in the way in which these gateways symbolise the various influences at play in contemporary Egyptian society. The way in which various architectural elements interplay with language in each individual gateway can be seen as an acknowledgement and accumulation of these influences, making it capable of interacting with similar images and dreams in Egyptian society. In Coastline both the individual gateway and a long series of them side by side reflect how society, as well as the individual, perceives identity and relates to very different and often contradictory conditions and opportunities in life.
Rana El Nemr reveals the challenge facing the architect, who has to gather all these different elements in a cohesive whole capable of possessing an individual identity of its own that also has social resonance. For Rana El Nemr the question is what these new exclusive and highly secure areas actually represent, and how they contribute to shifting identities in contemporary Egypt.
The gateways guarantee security and privacy for the lucky few. These small, gated communities represent an exclusive dream of security and distance from surrounding society. This, in combination with their location along the Mediterranean coast of Egypt – the historical locus of cultural exchange with Europe - gives this string of luxury developments added significance.
The transformation of the coastline from an open area to a closed, secure zone for an exclusive and wealthy minority of the population can be seen to symbolise the sophisticated way in which Egyptian society both absorbs and exports cultural, economic and social values, constantly changing and updating its contemporary identity. These new coastal complexes simultaneously isolate themselves from the society beyond their gates and slowly absorb, filter and digest the values and attitudes that influence the outside world. There is a gradual and growing identification with outside influences within these sharply delineated areas, the gateways of which mark their beginning and end. Beyond the gates the rest of society picks up traces and incoherent and artificial elements of the same influences, which it similarly absorbs and identifies with these closed worlds. Through their exclusivity and location these small societies experience a larger shift in identity due to Western influences than the rest of society, making the identity differences in Egyptian society even clearer. These secure, protected societies are in themselves a symbol of the changes taking place in Egypt, and the degree of privacy these new developments offer also emphasises the individual needs that are so closely linked to a sense of identity.
From a Scandinavian perspective, and in a European context, it remains impossible not to ask whether these exclusive Egyptian complexes on attractive stretches of the coast are very different from comparable fenced-in, privileged complexes throughout the world - areas which in a globalised context become more and more alike as luxurious resorts for the world’s most privileged cosmopolitans. These are resorts where the best and most beautiful from one culture meet their equivalents from another – like meets like in a world of privilege. Or else the complexes represent areas where the security-seeking middle classes can mirror themselves in each other at a safe distance from a society they no longer identify with.
National differences are created and emphasised and international identifications registered in a process of privileged cultural globalisation, which in the wake of the media, investments and developing infrastructure generates distance and connections traversing physical boundaries and borders.
For the Egyptian a look through these gateways is a view of the future either within or beyond his or her immediate grasp. And for both the Egyptian and visitor to Rana El Nemr’s exhibition these ostentatious gateways are open - to our interpretations, prejudices and projections.
Between Heaven and Earth
An essay on contemporary photography, scenery and identity
By Trine Rytter Andersen
Translated by Martin Bielefeldt
What is your favourite colour? I am asked now and then. My answer comes promptly, and it has been the same since I was little: sky blue! The real kind, that is. For nothing can cheer me up like waking up to a clear blue sky, and nothing compares with the sense of freedom and vitality that I have experienced in sceneries with a high blue sky above my head.
On our way into town, at a certain time early in the morning, the bus drives along the sea, and every single time we get there, I get a glimpse of happiness, as my eyes run over the sea surface in order to meet the sky, where the horizon line separates the sky and the sea: the morning light and the changing colours of the sky mirroring in the sea give me a sense of joy and hope.
I often observe my fellow passengers, as if to mirror myself in the joy, which I presume that they as well as I must feel. Often, though, only a few of us lift our heads and turn our gaze towards the beauty of morning. We smile quietly and congenially at one another, while the others are preoccupied with frown provoking ponderings, or sitting twisted in uncomfortable positions, falling into a slumber in an attempt to make up for lack of sleep, or simply to defer the disinclination that the daily chores sometimes cause.
Meanwhile, the bus continues its journey steadily along the asphalted road, which clings to the surface of the earth, reminding us that human life is mostly lived horizontally, and in movement from one place to another. But the sky is blue and the sun generously kisses everyone’s face, both those awake and asleep.
My memory stores unexpected and surprising experiences of light and life, which are revealed within intense seconds when no one expects it, leading to joy and wonder. A squirrel outside the window, a very unique light on the floor in the living room, or a mountain ash suddenly filled with rapidly foraging waxwings. I also recall great nature experiences, in vast sceneries, where the sense of being insignificantly small in a large space can be such a relief that it liberates a zest for life, which can be perceived almost as an omnipotent intoxication.
An intense presence, an almost transcendental presence, which is quite simply emotionally satisfying and wonderful on a deeper level, attaches to the small miracle of everyday life, as well as to the grandiose, spectacular view.
Last week, I spent hours studying three different photo series, each one focusing, in its own way, on nature, the landscape and what takes place there.
The first pictures by Ebbe Stub describe a range of scenes from mountaineering in Norway in the 1950s. The equipment and clothing of the mountaineers resemble expeditions of bygone days. There are both men and women, and their bodies are softer outlined than today’s well-trained hard bodies. They are on their way up the mountain, in a snowy landscape linked together by ropes, the human chain in the photograph supplying direction as well as contrast to the picture plane. In another picture, the persons are making a halt in sunshine, posing frontally, relaxed and sitting on the cliff, the landscape behind them.
The colours are greyish, but not without intensity. The persons are not really in focus. What is missing? Another halt: now by a precipice near a fiord. The persons in the picture stand and sit on the mountainside, their faces turned towards the fiord. One is standing dangerously close to the precipice, but in an oddly unreal, almost somnambulistic way. What is going on here? Again this sense of something missing—that there is more going on than what meets the eye.
The pictures seem to point towards the psychological side of mountaineering, while toning down the historical and representative part. The landscape is the goal, humans on their way towards the goal—the mountain top.
I visualize the famous picture, The Wanderer, by Caspar David Friedrich, the figure on the mountain top surveying a mass of fog with pointy peaks like sharp teeth coming out of a huge mouth.
The pictures in front of me also contain romantic elements: grandiose and, at the same time, full of presentiment, the sense of invisible layer in the pictures that the viewer senses as underlying shadows. The fog in Friedrich’s picture is here replaced by a manipulated blur, toning down what was originally focused and sharp, and which introduces instead the look to new ways within the pictures in the search for fixed points and meaning.
In that way, the viewer is compelled to dream while awake, and as the persons in the sceneries grope their way upwards, the viewer must grope his way through the pictures, in an attempt to establish a dialogue with these ghosts from the past. And while looking through the pictures, our glance seeking to gain a foothold in the scenery and to get into contact with the persons in it, we discover that what is meaningful is not the individual’s actions at all. Indeed, what is important is the grand perspective; not the narrative of a single picture, but the whole range of pictures in their displaced connection.
The pictures of the Norwegian mountains focus on how we used, and continue to use, nature for experiences and self-realization. Even though the artist has erased what was supposed to underline the significance and greatness of the moment in a subtle manner, we still sense what is at stake.
Sojourning in nature, the vertical movement up the mountain is connected with physical and mental challenges, and the presence here, between heaven and earth, brings us in contact with a gamut of senses, on another scale than the one we know from our ‘horizontal’ everyday life. Modern psychology speaks of how resistance sharpens our sense of being alive, and that this is the reason why we are so inclined to seek it out. Mountaineering is associated with such a resistance, and during our efforts to cope with it, our senses are sharpened to the utmost. Up there, on the top, we relax, the reward coming in the form of the rush of joy, liberated entirely on its own through hormonal sources. While we might have perceived the ascent as a misty affair, in which we tried to keep step with our companions, perspiration streaming from our foreheads and sore, tired muscles, we experienced the hormonal ecstasy, ourselves in connection to the outside world in a strongly present manner: the world reappearing, the look no longer blurred and distant. Everything is perceived as sharply as a razor blade: the body, the heartbeat, the scenery, the smell, the light and the wind.
In moments like these, we are closest to ourselves. In moments like these, we also feel the largest urge to share the world with another person—to spread the joy! In Romanticism, people regarded this emotion as a way of getting closer to God, but in modernity, we are left to our own devices, leaving us to recognize the experience as an individual performance.
Nature experiences as perspectival and corrective catalysts for becoming an individual, physically and mentally.
The detour of the landscape
Originally, landscape art used to be the domain of the painter, culminating in the modern, abstract colour field painting, which was floored in the 1960s by the dogmas of minimalism and monochrome art. Despite its vitality and optimism in the 1980s, the poor painting ‘died’. New generations of artists danced on painting’s grave, and many of those who felt that their artistic wings had been clipped in the lengthy shadows of post-modernity, turned curiously towards photography in order to examine, in peace and quiet, the artistic possibilities of the medium. Along with these people, the photograph emerged with a scope and strength bringing the then marginal art medium directly into the heart of the established art world before long. Also, the technological development favoured this medium, and the photograph rapidly became common property, and since then utterly mainstream. Luckily, for even though the painting re-emerged with renewed freshness in the 1990s, painting landscapes still involves certain explanatory problems. The photographers, on the other hand, may fire away.
Photographs of today often have sizes resembling the ones of paintings, and there is no doubt that contemporary photography has approached painting to a pronounced degree. Not just because photographers make the most of the scale on a conscious level, and, at the same time, refining the pictorial possibilities of colour photography. Digital technology creates new possibilities of manipulating photographs, just as a painter is able to repaint or add elements to his picture.
Employed in connection with scenery motifs, the photographer is, to a much higher extent, in a position to unfold as a narrator. The pictures are not solely documents of reality, but also very much fictions with narrative additions, generally defining not only the described physical moment, but, in the highest degree, the underlying motives too. Staged photography, as a representative of this definition, is highly estimated, and a photograph can easily be a sampling of several pictures. In a photo series, one picture often contains visual or emotional elements, which lead to the next in an associative manner. In this way, much contemporary photography is to be found in the borderland between painting and film, with references, ostensible and as regards content, to both genres.
In a healthy way, it has been possible to liberate the photographic field from the most reactionary dogmas, now contributing to giving the medium its great width and general openness towards new technologies and opportunities. Contemporary photography is, perhaps surprisingly for some, a most plastic medium.
In this context, all photographers are exponents of a younger art generation navigating unproblematically between analogue and digital techniques, and all of whom see themselves as storytellers referring to painting, literature and film.
Between heaven and earth
Here, in the middle of this text seeking to unfold between heaven and earth, we shall now look straight into the air. A whirling lump of bones, wings and feathers fluttering towards us: a gun-shot pheasant, fluttering while fighting for its life in the air on its way towards the unavoidable death when hitting the ground. Dying Birds is the title of this series by the artist duo, Nicolai Howalt and Trine Søndergaard. In their entire fragile wing flapping beauty, the birds are ‘captured’ in the split second it takes gravity to take control of their suddenly lifeless bodies during the fall between heaven and earth.
In an earlier series, How to Hunt, the two artists focus on the hunting traditions employed socially and practically in Danish autumn landscapes. The dying birds are extracts from the hunting sequences, but the birds are seen separate, as greyish black signs on an almost white background. They are scanned from analogue photography into digital pictures, and later into the intaglio printing process of photogravure, which is characterized by a very palpable and grainy surface. The dying birds appear as black-and-white, almost abstract figures, resembling signs made with pictorial brush strokes. An almost invisible aura of green and violet shines on the surface of the pictures, adding a special immaterial quality to these highly aesthetic pieces of death poetry. In Dying Birds, Howalt and Søndergaard unite the two opposing desires of hunting: affection for the animal, and the wish to kill it. In a uniquely refined manner, the pictures maintain the viewer in these ambivalent reflections, in that the birds in the picture planes keep fighting for their lives in a movement up or down (?), here, taking place eternally between heaven and earth—between life and death.
In a tree house, sheltered by the night, we can unfold our dreams of desire, here we can howl at the moon and scream our urge to know other people than ourselves.
These days, contemporary Danish photography is able to present a quite special ‘sneak’, a photographer who has made the scenery and the night her domain. Astrid Kruse Jensen has a thorough sense of the uncanny and the erotic within the familiar, as well as of the psychology of emptiness and suggestion. A series of night pictures from Norway is of current interest in this connection. Like the previous ones, the pictures unfold between heaven and earth, depicting deep-blue sceneries with lonely houses, illuminated by a golden, warm light spreading picturesquely here and there. Spruces are standing against a blackish blue night sky and a shining moon. A female form is so close that the sensually red material of her suit almost tickles the viewer’s nose, and again, at distance, her face turned towards the cold light of the street lamp, like a moonstruck person on a longing wandering in a desolate world. The pictures of Norway revolve around the resounding quietness of grand nature, the insignificance of man, the restlessness of the heart and the eternal desire for the other.
In the eroticism of absence, in a potent mise-en-scène of that which is full of presentiment, the photographer and we are voyeurs. We are approaching ‘it’, but we never get there. The pictures do not reveal their secrets; they are like a coitus interruptus of the kind that only those, who know what it means to sing with the moon, know about. Notwithstanding the realism of the pictures, they belong to the dream, thus disengaging themselves from time and space. Astrid Kruse Jensen therefore affects our collective sub-consciousness deeply, and for that reason her pictures easily evoke a response in similar psychological journeys from the world of literature, film and painting.
Back on the ground, we can spend a brief moment reflecting on whether nature and the landscape of today are mostly tools for self-realization and perception when dealing with the question of identity.
All over the material world of human beings, the demand for functionality and aesthetics are dominating, but these demands lead the way, also in relation to our view on animals and nature. We ‘create’ animals that suit our practical needs (dogs without fur made for allergy sufferers), and which have a look that confirms our individuality (the increasing dressing of one’s pet). In the same way, the scenery and nature are adjusted to practical demands and aesthetic expectations. Our relationship with nature thus becomes strongly influenced by our need for self-reflection and for staging ourselves.
Everywhere, nature is reduced to aesthetics that follows entirely topical trends all the time within the area of how we organize our world in general, in order for it to mirror our attitudes and needs in the best possible way. At a given moment, our perception of nature can thus also be seen as an expression of the attitudes manifested in fashion, interior design, health culture, garden design and art.
Time, freedom and eroticism
In a world in which everything must move faster, time, freedom and eroticism constitute the most popular ‘commodities’, and are therefore being used as sales arguments in almost every commercial.
The aesthetic and the erotic are closely interwoven, and in an affluent society, in which commodities are no longer sold on facts but on stories and dreams, these are gradually becoming the only valid sales arguments at all.
Consider, for example, the car (or human beings, for that matter), which is constantly experiencing a function optimization, and a corresponding aestheticism. The car has become an object of strong eroticization, maintaining it as a very sought-after object of desire. Similarly, the staging of nature, with its objectification of the animal, and of nature with matching comfortable accessories and expensive branded equipment, is also classifiable as eroticization.
Therefore, the utilization of nature and the staging of it can be explained by our need for time, freedom and eroticism.
Nature is not at all an implausible argument in the quest for these elements, in that it has great potential of ‘delivering’. The fact is that, psychologically speaking, the feeling of having enough time combined with the sense of freedom (movement), create mental energy, a presence that is erotic (stimulating) in itself.
Add to this the inclination of the literary tradition to connect nature, freedom and eroticism; a connection that has worked since Romanticism, and which is still present in many people’s (sub-)consciousness after all. Nature was, and still is, a very effective means in our individual quest for joy and sensual satisfaction. On the long view, there is no indication that man’s desire for time, freedom and eroticism will diminish concurrently with the development of the so-called modern world. Likewise, there is no direct indication that the erotic will ever cease being closely connected with the aesthetic, and in future, nature and the landscape will thus, to a still larger degree, be used as an aesthetic scene, or as formable material, to satisfy these primary human needs.
In that way, nature will continue playing a decisive part vis-à-vis our self-knowledge and identity.
The truth is that the modern world contains great passion potential, and fantastic and mind-expanding experiences. The crucial point is how each of us chose to take advantage of these possibilities.
Displaying curiosity and expectation, contemporary art has opened itself towards the modern condition, and with the aesthetic and reflexive potential of art in the tool-box, the artists are capable of pointing to the limits and possibilities of the modern world. Art often moves in an indeterminate realm, where things are not immediately coherent or meaningful. The role of art is to open sensuous and mental channels to the viewer who has the courage and energy to consider new insights and views. In that way, we are sometimes able to discover that there is more between heaven and earth than we already know.
THE FRAGILITY OF FLESH AND MIND
The art of Harri Pälviranta (FI)
Essay by Trine Rytter Andersen
Translated from Danish by Martin Bielefeldt
A couple of years ago, I was examining 247 profiles of young male criminals in a room at a police station in Aarhus. The purpose was to identify a young man, who had robbed me in the street a few days earlier. As I saw the man clearly in my mind’s eye, I agreed to make an effort to find him in the rogues’ gallery. Perfectly unprepared for what was expecting me, I took on the task. It turned out that the pictures presented to me were partly large wall projections, partly sharp close-up photographs, as I know them from hundreds of art exhibitions. These pictures seemed much more pervasive in this context, and it made quite an impression on me that several of the young men starring back at me from the wall had been subjected to physical violence and that their appearance was therefore marked by the punches, cuts and scratches inflicted on them immediately before their arrest and photographing. I was not prepared for the excoriation—still less the presence of violence—in these pictures, and the experience in the darkened room therefore turned out to be one of the most intense I have ever had with photography as an intermediary that is followed by highly ambivalent emotions. I did not identify “my” robber. Instead, I came across a long line of young men and boys with gentle, angry, mournful, hostile and anxious eyes. I spotted vulnerability and honesty in these pictures—rarities even in my world: the art world.
I had this memory some time ago, when I was presented to Harri Pälviranta’s photographs of people subjected to physical violence in the public space in a city in Finland. Pälviranta’s pictures resemble the ones shot by the police photographer, the only difference being that Pälviranta’s pictures are crime scene photos, taken just seconds after the police intervened and stopped the violence.
Alcohol and violence are a hot issue in Finland, Pälviranta explains. Workshops are organized and articles are written as part of an ongoing discussion of the problem and the solution of it. Pälviranta regrets that the people involved are not participating in the debate, and his series Battered, displaying portraits of people who have been in a fight, is a visual contribution to the wordy and, in his opinion, far too abstract debate.
As the saying goes, “When alcohol goes in, the brains go out”. We all know the theory and practice of this saying. Intoxication and violence were, and still are, associated with masculine behaviour, and are obviously closely connected with the fact that testosterone makes us more prone to sex as well as aggressive behaviour, and that the level of this hormone is about ten times higher in men than in women. Thus, when drinking and socializing, our sex drive and violent behaviour are promoted.
The question is what we can do about it in the new experience economy, in which intoxication in all variants constitutes the culminating moment of life. Get dead drunk and be pissed—that will give you status, also in Denmark, where the alcohol culture manifests itself by the total lack of culture in its originally educative sense. Drinking is part of the identity, and particularly among youths, its barrier-breaking potentials are pursued without restraint.
We live in free democracies in which everyone can do as s/he pleases, as long as it takes place on the right side of the law, and as long as getting dead drunk is not prohibited. However, it is prohibited to hit others. After all, the Ten Commandments constitute the Christian moral basis on which the law is built. Thus, we may face a real problem here, which we are obliged—due to the law—to recognize and remedy.
The question is: what is the solution? Is it not perfectly understandable that drinking to excess has violent consequences? Is violence not an immensely small problem when compared to the liters of alcohol consumed over the weekend in any sizeable Western city? Who will suffer from being punched on the nose? Might the experiences that impetuous youths get from their escapades in nightlife have advantageous consequences and be a behavioural corrective in itself? Is violence simply an evil we are compelled to tolerate as long as we have “liberal morals” as regards alcohol?
One thing is certain: all our talk and prohibitions alter neither human needs, nor the interpersonal mechanisms coming into force, when hormones and intoxicants are mixed in sufficient quantities.
Throughout history, drug wars and Prohibition have proven ineffective and have only created a basis for criminal underworlds. Each time a prohibition is introduced, a new criminal platform is created. Exactly the same holds true for pornography and prostitution.
In modern democracies, every citizen has access to sex, money, technology and drugs. All four ingredients are in high demand, and they form part of most people’s self-realization projects. We can use these items freely because it is none of anyone’s business, as long as we keep within the law and our own morals.
We must learn to live with the fact that other people’s behaviour may cause clashes and offences. At the end of the day, society cannot change anything at all.
In the process of building a secular society, we have neglected advancing ethical discussions within the framework of our community. The result of this being that we, as a community, are having great difficulties understanding some of the problems that our access to speed, pornography, intoxicants and money create for the individual and for society as a whole.
In cases regarding violence and alcohol, it is only about one person’s right to drink versus another person’s right not to be beaten. This dispute will be settled in court, and somebody will probably be satisfied with a settlement, which will perhaps make him wiser?
Even though our law-governed society is built upon Christianity, we do not concern ourselves with wisdom and spirit in modern life.
Eric Fischl, the painter who has brilliantly portrayed the American middle class, rightly calls attention to the problem by describing people in our modern affluent society: “We have all the action we can dream of, but we suffer from a total lack of genuine contact and grace.”
With this observation, he points to the fact that we have neglected the exercise of relating, on a deeper level, to the possibilities in which the world is so rich. In that way, we preclude ourselves from the truly consciousness expanding potentials and insights in which Western societies abound.
We teach our children and adolescents how to use sex and intoxicants as commodities and as a way of strengthening their egos. The ego rules in consumer societies. The ego fears ethics because ethics always want to make the ego responsible, and responsibility is not its strong point. However, perhaps we ought to see these things as offers enabling us to develop our personalities, and demanding us to take a stand involving insight, responsibility and ethical reflections.
If we want to change something—encourage alternative behaviour—it is necessary to broaden the discussion, so that it will not only be a question of rights and duties. Perhaps we ought to have a look at sexuality, and try speaking about it in a more dauntless, genuine and honest manner? This way we would not have to get drunk in order to be courageous enough to approach other people.
Holding this catalogue in our hands, the object must be to view Harri Pälviranta’s portraits without condemnation, and to see them merely as expressions of realistic human behaviour, vulnerability and honesty in a world of opportunities, unrest and ambivalence. In fact, I would claim that right there we might find some of the dignity so difficult to spot elsewhere.