John Stezaker, Untitled II, Reader from The Third Person Archive, 2012
There’s often something strangely frustrating about the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize and in some ways this year’s exhibition is no exception. Photography has been a dominant medium in art practice for a long time now but a prize of this nature has to balance art against documentary practices often resulting in a strangely unsatisfying exhibition. In this year’s exhibition, one body of work stands out in terms of he artist’s use of photography in his practice. Unusually for a Deutsche Börse nominee, John Stezaker (whose work I’ve briefly referred to before) uses rather than makes photographs, producing collages from found images gathered over several decades.
Snow is one of my very favourite things. I might not like the inconvenience of it and I’m not keen on the slip hazard aspect but that fades into insignificance against the way it looks. So snow as art is something I might reasonably be expected to love, right? Well, as it turns out, not necessarily.
In the run up to his exhibition at the Barbican in 2000, Andy Goldsworthy brought thirteen giant snowballs to London, placing them around the city to be discovered on midsummer day. The snowballs, each weighing approximately a ton and approximately 2m across, had been made in Scotland during the previous two winters and kept in cold-storage in readiness. Embedded in them were reminders of the rural landscape from which they originated which would become more apparent as the snow melted leaving behind the twigs, pebbles, sheep’s wool, barbed wire and so on.
Using ice as a building material for making art is pretty much always going to end in, well, if not tears, then puddles. In California that outcome will be comparatively speedy but in a London winter the process takes a bit longer. Anya Gallaccio’s Intensities and Surfaces, made in Wapping Pumping Station – the clue’s in the name: a former pumping station in, yes, Wapping, in London – took the form of a large scale ice construction at first glance not dissimilar to one of Allan Kaprow’s ice enclosures. But Gallaccio’s block was solid; it was also lit slightly from within (not apparent in any of the pictures I’ve been able to find of it but I’m almost certain I’m not misremembering) and with a block of rock salt within it and possibly, I think, layered between the ice bricks.
Allan Kaprow, Poster for Fluids: a Happening by Allan Kaprow, 1967
While Francis Alÿs choose to melt ice the hard way, he’s not the only – or the first – artist to make art from ice melting away. In 1967, Allan Kaprow staged a Fluxus ‘happening’ in which enclosures were built from large blocks of ice around the Los Angeles area; they were then left to melt away. Kaprow advertised the event in advance to find volunteers to help build the enclosures, a major undertaking given their size.
The event was documented photographically – by Dennis Hopper (yes, that Dennis Hopper) – but essentially this was an event to be experienced in real life rather; it existed for those who were involved in the building process and in a different way for those who came across the ice enclosures before they melted away.
Francis Alÿs, Paradox of Praxis I (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing), 1997
It’s the idea of making art by making a journey that’s brought Francis Alÿs to mind now. Alÿs is an artist whose work I find fascinating. It can be funny, moving, thought-provoking and, in a couple of cases, really quite alarming. And quite a few of his video works are all about the journey. I’m pretty sure I’ll write about other works by Alÿs at some point but the idea of the dismantling and remaking of the shed in Simon Starling’s Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture no. 2) in my mind, has made me think about Alÿs turning something into nothing by making a journey.
In fairness, a block of ice in Mexico City stood a proverbial snowball’s chance in hell really, but Alÿs has made facilitating the act of disappearing the ice into a pleasingly futile act through the application of hard work in the hot sun.
There are many ways of making political art. For some the point needs to be made in an explicit way while others are happier to leave things open to interpretation. Though Summer Camp is much easier to make sense of than And Europe Will Be Stunned, which I wrote about here recently, Yael Bartana is clearly towards the open to interpretation end of the scale. In Summer Camp, Bartana records the rebuilding of the house of a Palestinian family in the village of Anata (east of Jerusalem) by volunteers organised by the Isreali Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), a non-violent direct action group both protests about house demolitions and seeks to rebuild demolished houses. The team of volunteers filmed by Bartana included both Palestinians and Isrealis as well as people from other countries. In a sense then, Summer Camp is effectively a documentary, but as with the films that form And Europe Will Be Stunned there’s more to it than that.
Eugenio Dittborn, The 11th History of the Human Face (500 years) (Airmail painting no.91), 1990
For as long as there’s been an art world, art has travelled. In an increasingly international, multi-centre art world that’s truer than ever and artists working at an international level might have exhibitions in several countries at any one time. For some artists though getting their work out isn’t easy. For Eugenio Dittborn the question of how to get the work out has determined the nature of the work itself. Based in Santiago de Chile, for Dittborn the issue is not just about distance but about the problem of making art while living under a repressive regime and in 1984, with Chile governed by the military, he started to make what he calls Airmail Paintings. Collage-based works, these are made of lightweight, foldable materials and are posted to the galleries that exhibit them – often in segments to be assembled on arrival – with the envelopes becoming part of the work.