I am a bit biased as the company I work for is part-owned by the Financial Times group but this virtual event was really enjoyable and well-executed. Highlights included the Simon Schama (“Schamarama”) session about his TV show on the Romantics, the photography masterclass and some of the artist showcases sponsored by Gagosian.
The first thing I saw was Marie Smith speaking about her project, Whispering for Help which she started in 2019. The theme was around the Black community suffering from mental health issues disproportionately. Smith said she did lots of research and created a proposal about the project for participants and a mock-up so they could see visually what it would look like. She then did an Instagram call out and it was interesting (in light of my Zoomface project) to hear that some of the portraits have been captured via Zoom.
Participants were invited to write whatever they liked to accompany the image. Smith mentioned shooting in analogue so there would be a necessary delay and the image would then be chosen to match the tone of the writing. Combining image and text could convey a coherent sense of the subject (who approved the final images).
Her aim was to help Black women to feel less alone and to create an archive for women of colour talking about mental health, a platform for discussion and support. She talked about how intention was really important – it needed to be genuine and explicit. This has resulted in very intimate and powerful images.
It was interesting to hear that Smith asked the subject to chose a safe space – somewhere they have solace; it was often outside in park. She wanted a close connection so the captures would be close-up and she often favoured having the eyes closed as this would provide a reflective point for viewer and to show the interiority. This is a strategy I am also keen on in portraiture but I usually think of it as more about unlicensed voyeurism. Being able to gaze without return.
The second photographer in the masterclass was Vikesh Kapoor talking about his very personal project, See you at Home, which he has been working on for the last two years. It is based partly on how immigrants feel a sense of loss as they grow older living away from their culture. His parents immigrated in 70s and he is first generation American. He wanted to explore his relationship to them, using images from the family ‘archive’.
In his talk, Kapoor mentioned how old photos are often incorporated as objects – showing the edges of the physical photograph etc – and that it acts as an interruption, something separate. He decided not to do that as he wanted to be truer to the fluidity of memory and the idea of the slippage of time. He has chosen to present ‘seamless images’ mixing archive and the current images made by him. He uses film as he feels this allows him to be more intentional when making work.
This work blends fine art and documentary and will have text integrated as the next phase to bring in his parents’ voice more. He described it as a gentle process while spending time with the family.
Obviously the key themes are memory and identity but he claims he was initially just trying to understand parents better – look at them more objectively. Now they are more involved, he is considering the balance: how much will be their voice and how much his own? This is a fascinating study with the ragged blend of past and present, east and west, young and old etc. Kapoor talks about not knowing how to resolve yourself, the dichotomy of home and homeland, memory and myth – hugely emotive topics. It is sociological but also ‘just’ his family. The picture of his dad in the pool was highlighted by the FT’s Emma Bowkett and he talked about how the pool represents passage of time for him, remembering parties etc. This work is deeply personal and fascinating to follow.
The top highlight for me was a short section on artist Sarah Sze.
She talked very quickly so it was difficult to capture notes but some of her ideas really fascinated me. She seems to be best know for sculpture but has always painted too. Her talk started with the idea that there are so many images ‘outside of our heads’ which are dictated by the limits of camera and screen but using the potential of the mind we can create incredible images through dreams and memory and imagination. This she thinks is “much more lush, complex and stranger in terms of time and memory and location and repetition”.
Sze commented that almost all artists ‘need some consideration of collage in this day and age’. Controversial? (Although on a personal level I agree). She favours images that can be free from the frame and wants to put the viewer in position of discovery and perhaps put them into a state of confusion. She likes the idea that she can help people to recognise something by reframing it and is interested in the notion that paintings create space and sculptures take up space.
I have been thinking a lot lately (from my small quarantine world) about how to use my images to create space. I have been working on micro-landscapes but Sze has inspired me to think more about portals (into physical space and into interior space ie the mind). Another motif that she deploys, and which holds my interest, is scaffolding. I have always found it to be aesthetically and existentially dramatic and here the artist talks about using it to hold up an image within a painting. It provides structure but also imparts a sense of fragility and implied instability. Sze poses the question: is it real, is it not? Paintings within paintings convey multiple temporalities via multiple screens and frames, like windows on a computer all open at the same time. It may be a stretch but I tend to think of scaffolding as hauntological. Partly the there but not there creation of space, promised but generally disappointing futures, gentrification with all its spectral associations, the confusion of time (scaffold is so primitive and yet essential for the creation of futuristic architecture, and the uneasy liminality and non-place aura.
In her talk, Sze showed within her image a road, pasted upside down as part of a collage, sending you back but also out of the frame. She is interested in what locates us through the visualisation but also how images cans be torn up and patched together but still hold.
She feels that her work is always on the edge of falling apart and the viewer is actively putting together the image. “Every image is trying to hold its plane and the plane is also falling apart.” I suppose what really appealed to me was Sarah Sze’s nerve. To create this level of edginess and disruption but still sound so calm was very energising for me. To be so provocative, undermining our comfort, but to sound so charming was very intriguing for me. More so because she is a woman? Possibly.
Although aesthetically I could not totally relate to the work, probably mainly due to the mediation of the small computer screen, I really responded to her ideas. I imagine this work is best as a immersive experience. Hope to see it IRL one lucky day.