Article by Alena Sokhan in Berlin; Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014
Curated and organized by the The Month of Photography Berlin, Memory Lab at the Martin-Gropius-Bau epitomizes the themes of the photography festival this year by reclaiming the photograph from its conventional use as an impartial record and charging it with affect. Sixteen artists showed their work in a powerfully sensitive response to history and to the history of photography. Since photography was invented, it has been celebrated for its ability to render an objective imprint of reality, overcoming the physical and subjective “limitations” of the sense of sight. In Memory Lab, artists challenge that notion, using the indexical nature of the photograph to represent contingency and chance, evoking in the viewer an affective response to phantoms and memories. The photographic apparatus is used as a prosthesis to sensibility, with images that subtly touch each viewer in a uniquely personal and intimate way.
Tomáš Šoltys‘ ‘Man on the River’ captures this concept in a beautiful metaphor. The film shows the artist standing upright on the Danube River on a small skid that takes him downstream with the current. The dark, slowly turning, drifting figure appears a small and solitary shape caught in between – between the banks of the river, and between the flat grey sky and the water reflecting it, between nature and the urban settlements peaking through the trees. The performance was highly dangerous, with the artist at risk of falling and getting pulled under by the deep current of the river. The quiet surfaces – of the body, of the lake, of the towns, of the image itself – powerfully express an intensity and evoke a depth through the slight gestures and ripples that reveal what cannot be seen.
The surface and the image is the expressive and sensitive quality of the body, not a limitation that must be overcome. Anna Charlotte Schmid‘s series ‘The Other Side of Venus’ captures the distinct movements and fashion of queer youth in Budapest, who, unable to live or behave according to their sexual orientation, can identify each other through the particularities of their dress. Schmid captures tense, temporary moments of gentle contact in hallways, behind window blinds, that all speak to the volatile social existence of her characters who are able to communicate and create a community through subtle appearances and simple touches.
Stephanie Kloss looks at the lasting traces of history that cannot be simply painted over, how phantoms remain despite attempts to contain them in a narrative of the past and how memories of a space materialize in the present. Kloss’ photographs, in the series ‘Bei Otto’ encounter the traces and patterns left on the luxury tourist spot, El Cabrito by its history as a commune, run by the Viennese Action Artist Otto Mühl. Kloss’ works are warm, hazy images of the Spanish coast, capturing details of the still landscape, traces of leisure activities and chance patterns. It is difficult to say what directs the photographer’s eye: the curiosity of a tourist or paranoid suspicion. Knowing the history of the site as a location of child abuse and sexual perversion during its use as a commune, the simple scenes, objects, and textures begin to take on an ominous meaning.
Pablo Zuleta Zahr‘s ‘Puppies in Torture Chambers’ shows images of Chilean children exploring the ruins of a former underground interrogation chamber from 1973–75 and 1984–85, that was used during a period of political instability. The children, who do not live in that era, both transform and repurpose the history of the space with their play. Their movements, gestures and glances express a childish fascination, unease, excitement, nervousness, and fear as they dash through the hallways or peer through doorways.
As a whole, the exhibition is a strong and well curated collection of photographic and film works, creating phantoms and memories through piercing details that tell stories, rather than write histories. The images affirm Roland Barthes’ crucial text on photography, Camera Lucida, in which he writes that the photograph is capable of intensely sentimental encounters with the photographed subject, through chance forms and insignificant details that create a direct and personal point of contact with each individual viewer.
Alena Sokhan is working on her Masters in Media and Communications at the European Graduate School. Her research interests lie in the topics of Queer Theory, Critical Theory, Film and New Media Art, and Economics.