Strange and Unfamiliar Once Again: Sophie Wright on Unseen 2015, Amsterdam
Unseen is an apt name for Amsterdam’s photography-related event in more ways than one. Not only does it signify the fair and festival’s championing of new work, but it also hints at an impulse drawing together a lot of the work occupying the 19th century gas containers in the west of the city and its environs: the desire to explore and photograph what can’t be seen.
A common distrust in the photographic image resonates through the vast space, twinned with a deliciously mischievous embrace of all of photography’s dysfunctional qualities. Acutely aware of – and comfortable with – the medium’s limitations, many of the artists on show mix truth and fiction to expose and ponder all that we do not know. In this light, our world, every corner photographed a million times over, becomes strange and unfamiliar once again.
In Italian artist Alberto Sinigaglia’s project Big Sky Hunting, our quest to conquer the cosmos is taken apart. A mysterious collection of representations of outer space, some photographed and some constructed by technology, is paired with images of obscure paraphernalia. Sinigaglia is on his own celestial expedition, one engineered to underline the futility of its very aim. The project is both a celebration of human curiosity and a reminder of its limitations.
In Closer to home on planet Earth, Swedish duo Inka & Niclas’ practice is engaged with dissecting this curiosity and what it is driven by. Their photographs are rooted in a fascination with nature and the power it holds over us, taking the clichéd, romanticised representations of the natural world that dominate the Internet as their starting point. Their work features alternative sunsets in the shape of heavy black holes of dust suspended in the air, and supernatural caves where otherworldly lights caress grey stone. A collaboration between the elements, nature, the artists and the camera, these sublime fragments exist solely for the camera, which the artists see as a ‘bridge’ between the visible and invisible world.
In a very different vein is the work of American artist Raymond Meeks, who is captivated by the enigmas of everyday life. His slow burning narratives form a chronicle of family life in the States that pays delicate attention to the unphotographable layers of time. The photobook is Meeks’ is the perfect form of choice for his tales, where image and text coalesce to ignite the imagination. The work on show here demonstrates this. Like vignettes from a novel, carefully sequenced photographs mingle on a page: an image of a young body free falling in nature sits next to a cocooned branch, tangled in spider webs with the single world ‘paralysis’ balancing just above the image.
Next door in the book market, a deceased relative is resurrected through performance in Goran Turnsek’s Jakob, one of the photobook dummys shortlisted for this year’s Dummy Award. In this big green volume, we are teleported to eastern Slovenia where instead of documenting his grandfather’s house, the domestic space becomes a stage on which the artist (who is also a dancer) brings him back to life. Each spread features several images where Turnsek’s contorts himself into a hunched figure to reenact his daily routine and moments from his life, like a young boy playing dress up. Simple domestic tasks become jagged and oddly assiduous, given surreal weight from the one line of descriptive text nestled at the bottom of the spread.
From creating fictions that feel uncannily close to reality to real material that feels like it couldn’t be anything other than fiction, we move to Dutch artist Mariken Wessels’ Taking Off. Henry my neighbour. Pieced together from a mind-blowing archive of images, collages and sculptures that Wessels was given permission to use, she tells the story of Henry, an amateur artist who obsessively made some 5,500 nude photographs of his wife according to a personal classification system. When his muse finally tired of being photographed, she threw his life’s work onto the street and left him. He collected the remaining images and retreated to lead a hermit’s life, where he dismembered the photographs to make collages and clay figurines. Packed with thousands of images, the extraordinarily sequenced book is a delirious journey that tumbles through love into frustration and obsession.
Through this brief snippet of what was on offer at Unseen, we see that when photography is put under scrutiny and its authority challenged, what we think we know is unfixed. We are invited to discover a muddled world of truth and fiction much closer to our own.
Sophie Wright is a writer and photographer currently based in Amsterdam. She has worked for several London-based publications and international photography festivals. Her most recent post was editor of Unseen Magazine.