My Sister Who Travels / Reviewed by Katy Barron / 11.09.14
This group show of work by six female lens-based artists seeks to present a range of contemporary challenges to canonical representations of the landscape of the Mediterranean. The region, whose geographical and intellectual definitions are forever contested, is presented as a place that references history, memory, colonisation, conflict and cultural shift. The contemporary works are shown alongside reproductions of photographs by Esther Van Deman, a leading American archaeologist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, whose detailed images of Roman construction are presented as pivotal works. Van Deman’s forensic images, which appear almost contemporary in their obsessive scrutiny, are scattered throughout the exhibition, creating strange juxtapositions between both old and new unconventional representations of familiar landscapes.
Paola Yacoub’s diptych Elegiac Landscape: Southern Lebanon (2001) draws the clearest visual parallels with Romantic representations of landscape. The work was made in Southern Lebanon at the site of a series of massacres that took place during the Civil War, whilst the region was out of bounds. Yacoub questions our gaze and asks whether we see the image as a battlefield or a nostalgic landscape. In contrast, Noor Abed’s video We Both Know (2012) is set within a continuous hostile landscape in which a young woman dressed in black struggles to carry a broken mannequin on her back across the parched stony desert. The woman’s backbreaking efforts go unrewarded as she never reaches the top of the screen and her metaphorical eternal journey continues.
Corinne Silva’s subversion of the landscape is more direct. Imported Landscapes (2010) depict huge billboards of a photograph that she has made of a particular place. The billboards are then relocated to another, very different, location. The huge displaced images challenge the conventional presence of advertising, often located within the roadside landscape, and also reference colonial history, for instance where an image taken in Morocco is re-located to Spain. Jananne Al-Ani references the military use of lens-based technologies in warfare and surveillance in the images in Shadow Sites II (2011) These are stills from a film that takes the form of an aerial journey across the Jordanian desert. Linear abstract markings depict human interventions in the landscape, from military bases to archaeological remains and reference the media coverage of the 1991 Desert Storm campaign during which the movement of journalists was heavily restricted. The sepia toning of the prints alludes to early aerial reconnaissance, in particular Steichen’s work from the First World War over the trenches of the Western Front.
Halida Boughriet’s video Transit (2011) presents the opposite perspective as the camera focuses on the dazzling acrobatics of a murmuration of starlings moving through the orange skies of Istanbul. The video is narrated in French and Arabic. Men and women describe their difficulties and the travels they have undertaken to find work abroad, and a parallel is drawn between the voices and the birds, both eternally in flight and in danger. Travel is equally central to Ursula Schulz-Dornburg’s work as she seeks to document endangered archaeological sites within the region. After making work in Mesopotamia only weeks before the Iran-Iraq War began, she has gone on to develop a practise that combines documentary activism with a conceptual artistic vision. Necropolis, Palmyra was shot in Syria in 2010, months before the start of the Civil War. The series of 13 photographs of fragments of walls can be read as an indexical group in the manner of the Bechers. However there are also clear parallels to the works by Van Deman that are shown opposite, although the motivation of the two photographers is quite different.
The exhibition raises questions about contested spaces – both those within the landscape and the metaphorical spaces within photography. Most of the works shown do not bring a particularly female perspective to the landscape but rather seek to re-present the classical ideals that are associated with the Mediterranean to an audience that has grown up with a very different visual language.
– review by Katy Barron
The Mosaic Rooms, 226 Cromwell Road, London SW5 0SW