How do you do this?? Frédéric Brenner made his mark by photographing Jews across the wide-diaspora. Now in this group project currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, he assembled photographers from outside the country to photograph Jews and Palestinians, Israeli and Palestinian landscapes and cityscapes in This Place. Saturated by politics, the photographs were taken, compositionally arranged, and shown in such a way as to step back from the immediacy of the conflict. The photo-manipulation lends a “reflective” character to the subject.
What is the social character and function of art? What responsibilities are brought to fine art photography? Neither “Israel” nor “Palestine,” about This Place, with its intentionally elusive title, critics will grumble about colonialism, cultural appropriation, and the aesthetics of conflict, loss, and trauma. Is there any way out of this bind as determined by pre-given ideological rubrics and political commitments? Are Palestine and the Middle East off limits to art, or only open to certain kinds of art, the art with the proper intention and political semiotic? Without a national modifier, what then is This Place about? What does a photograph bring to bear on its subject? To what degree is the exhibition This Place about a physical place and to what degree is it about photographs or about power and the way both photography and power wear on people, wearing them down or wearing them out? Finally, is This Place about place or about time and the kinds of trace they leave behind on people and land?
These questions are left open. Self-consciously skirting the line between the political and the apolitical, the human and the inhuman, the photographs brought together in This Place are marked out by weary human empathy. Setting aside the affect of anger, that is the exhibition’s best and most humane intentional aspect. People and things have been left pretty bare by the photographers. Except for Brenner, all of the group participants were strangers to the country, having made the decision with and without political reservations to immerse themselves there for over a period of years as part of the project. Their photographs have done nothing if not normalize people and landscapes. Relatively few holy sites are pictures in This Place. One cannot but suspect that the exhibition is carried along by a tired mood of quotidian sensationalism. In the present tense, the photographs signal a place stressed out by time that continues to carry on.
About the aesthetic quality of the pictures, the photographs will either have to speak for themselves or they won’t. My favorite photographs were the ones that from a distance looked like paintings. Bucking the modernist notion that photography had to constitute itself as a unique form of art distinct from painting, the con-fusion lent to some of these picture is commonplace today in contemporary photo theory and practice, especially now with digital imaging. If anything, what bogs down This Place is the urgency, the sense that these photographs are meant to show a human reality, a reality that matters, the sense that we are supposed to care about this place. The photographs that I thought worked the best are the ones that are most unreal in their painting-like visual appearance. At its best, the photographic reality of any place is conveyed, not automatically, as one might have once thought about photography, but in the tension between chance and intentional mediation.
What’s “wrong” about the exhibition This Place might be what’s wrong the place upon which it reflects. While the exhibition most obvious formal register is spatial, the exhibition conveys an even stronger sense of frustrated time. In the visual medium, the sense of time is one of time stuck, as if the photographs themselves and the country itself are caught now in the present tense, a present tense in which there is no flow, in which nothing moves, immobilized, a present tense in which the past is no longer really relevant, and for which there is no future. As part of a group exhibition, the photographs are stuck with each other around an unhappy topos of rigidly segmented human strata.
Is it time that is stuck in the present or just the sense of time? In either case, that would seem to be the illusion at work in This Place, about the artificial condition that combines the photographs all together into a group exhibition with its heavily loaded subject matter. Finally freed from “this place” and “this time” each photograph or group of photographs will one day have to step forward into its own unique future. As the project recedes into memory, each image or serial-image will stand on its own to be looked upon as such, to be judged as an individual image or series, as a human mark possessed by its own aesthetic integrity.
Having said all that, there are more than several spectacular photographs. period. About Desert Bloom, Fazal Sheikh’s contribution of aerial photography over the Negev, I posted here when I saw it exhibited on its own at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At their very best, the photographs have an open and absorptive quality. Members of the group include Brenner himself along with Sheikh, Jeff Wall, Thomas Struth, Josef Koudelka, Rosalind Fox Solomon, Gilles Peress, Nick Waplington, Jungjin Lee, Wendy Ewald, Stephen Shore, and Martin Kollar. You can read more about the exhibition here. About a BDS protest against This Place, you can read here. The claim that the occupation has been obscured by the exhibition is as patently false as the written reflection left by one visitor who wrote, “The themes that I see in the photographs is peace and enjoyment. All of them spoke to me b/c it looks like everyone is having a gr8 time and they all seem happy and at ease!”