Laura El-Tantawy: Beyond Here Is Nothing / Reviewed by Jessie Bond / 25.05.17
Beyond Here Is Nothing (2017) is a new body of work by Laura El-Tantawy that explores the notion of home – or more specifically her struggle to find a sense of home.
In 2016 El-Tantawy was nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize for In The Shadow of The Pyramids (2015), a self-published photobook that evocatively captured the confusion, violence and devastating impacts of events during the Egyptian Revolution. The project began as an exploration of the country and city she knew growing up – but became a documentation of Egypt as it struggled to redefine itself. Beyond Here is Nothing shares a similar aesthetic to her previous work – blurred, snatched moments verging towards the abstract – yet rather than record historic events, they attempt to capture bittersweet moments experienced living between places.
El-Tantawy’s photographs offer ambiguous glimpses, shifting on the edge of articulation: a condensation-fogged window obscures most of a skeletal plane tree; a palm silhouetted against an orange sky is seen through a dirt-flecked window. Although the locations are unnamed, subtle atmospheres and qualities of light indicate the shift between the West and the Middle East.
There is always something obstructing a clear view in El-Tantawy’s images, creating a sense of being inside looking out, or not being able to get close enough. People appear, but they are silhouetted or only present as shadows, we cannot see faces or expressions. There is always an absence. To an extent they are reminiscent of Saul Leiter’s iconic colour photographs that framed strangers on the streets of New York, documenting a feeling of isolation.
It is a surprise to find out El-Tantawy’s photographs are all taken with an iPhone, their poetic quality – capturing transitory effects of light, long distorted shadows and spectacularly illuminated clouds – is far from autofocused crisp snapshot. Rather than connecting us, as the iPhone is meant to continuously do, El-Tantawy’s photographs suggest instead a lack of understanding or missed communication.
In El-Tantawy’s work the surface of the photographic image is unstable – it is a gauze that can be seen through, or a layer to hide behind. This opacity and slipperiness is accentuated in the exhibition by images printed on lengths of fabric draped over the windows. Each photograph is split in two, and in between the slit, like the crack between drawn curtains, viewers can glimpse the sky through frosted glass. These layered barriers to the outside world suggest that home might be a place to be fortified within, looking out to an almost-concealed world.
In an attempt to conjure the intimacy and privacy of home, a bed has been installed in the gallery. El-Tantawy’s images are projected onto the crumpled white sheets, which have written across them in black: ‘I am lonely sounds like the most sinful confession to make’. A text on the gallery wall also describes a painful solitude. The rawness and confessional tone of these texts pull into sharp focus one reading of El-Tantawy’s images: while the home is a site of refuge, a place of safety and intimacy, it is also as a space of loneliness and isolation. For El-Tantawy who grew up between places, home is also a mythic quality to strive for, to continuously journey towards.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Jessie Bond
Beyond Here Is Nothing, an exhibition of new work by Laura El-Tantawy, continues at Seen Fifteen until 4th June.
Below, Beyond Here Is Nothing, two installation views at Seen Fifteen, courtesy Lewis Bush
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