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Photojournalism, form follows discourse.

Artist: Alfred Stieglitz
Title: “The Steerage”
Medium: Photogravure, 33.4 × 26.4 cm.

In Alfred Stieglitz’s photo “The Steerage” (1907), we see a scene shot from a passenger ship carrying migrants from New York to Germany. For many theorists, this photograph represents a documentation of migration in a historical era that was characterized by mass migration from Europe to America.  

However, given the fact that the photograph depicts the transition of people from America to Germany, for other theoristsis it is a comment on social discrimination. This is because the represented passengers of the ship are in fact migrants from Europe that were deported from America because they didn’t meet certain admission criteria.

Stylistically, the photograph has a distinctive pioneering feature that also supports the aforementioned conception of the photograph. Until that time, photography in general as a medium attempted to imitate the compositions depicted in classical paintings as an attempt by photographers to “prove” their validity as artists. It was only through the immitation of painting that photographers could acquire the status of “artists”. 

The pioneering element of Stieglitz’s photograph however, is that he goes beyond that conception of photography by using the distinctive features of the photographic medium. For example by using the angle, the space, and the shapes arround, he shoots in a way that the resulted form is linked to the thematic content of the photograph.

Forexample, in the photograph “The Steerage”, we are confronted with two “spaces”; one above and one below, that represent two different “classes” of people; the rich and the poor.

Besides that, the photograph is divided by the diagonal passageway in the center of the photograph, as if the two “worlds” are distinct and estranged to each other. Another interesting fact is that the staircase on the right side of the image is cut off the frame just before it reaches the “upper” class, as if the “last” chance of reaching the upper side of the picture is finally also prevented.



Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage, Photogravure, 33.4 × 26.4 cm
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Place de la Concorde, empty space

Artist: Edgar Degas

Title: “Place de la Concorde” (1876)

Characteristics: Oil on Canvas. (78.6 cm x 117.5 mm)

Keywords: alienation, realism, urban, existential

The work “Place de la Concorde” or “Viscount Lepic and his Daughters Crossing the Place de la Concorde”, is an oil painting by Edgar Degas. The work depicts Ludovic-napoleon Lepic (a patron of the arts at the time) with his daughters and his with an unknown man on the left. The painting is almost unconventional for its time as it seems to leave a big proportion of “empty” space in the center of the painting. The figures look away from one another, and the “main” figure, that is Ludovic-napoleon Lepic, looks outside of the painting to the right. The whole image seems to be influenced by photographic “snapshots” that capture the flow of moments, as well as influenced by the style of Realism and Impressionism.

The image, could be considered as a reflection of the changing world of the late 19th century. As it happens with most of Degas’ works, Edgar Degas points out the crisis of the modern world that is gradually dominated by machines, speed, and the isolated individuals of the emerging mega-cities of Europe. The empty space in the center, seems to suggest a lack of coordination, or cohesion in the composition, or a lack of central subject; a meaning within the painting. This meaninglessness, an existential crisis is a modern phenomenon that characterizes the individuals living in the modern, industrialized cities. Artists and poets of the era, such as Baudelaire also describe this phenomenon in their works.

The above-mentioned concepts are made clearer, when we realize that indeed, the individuals’ looks never meet. It is as if, each of them lives in his or her own world, even the dog; everyone is “lost in translation”. As such the painting points out a feeling of isolation, incomprehension, emptiness and consequently, an existential crisis, a crisis that prevails in modern industrialized cities since the 19th century.

 

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Edgar Degas, Place de la Concorde, 1876, Oil on Canvas. (78.6 cm x 117.5 mm).

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“Home”, an artistic exploration of the estranged familiarity.

Artist: Mona Hatoum

Title: “Home” (1999)

Characteristics: Wooden table, 15 steel kitchen utensils, electric wire, 3 light bulbs, software and audio (displayed: 6000 x 3500 mm)

Keywords: alienation, unheimlich, estragement

 

Mona Hatoum’s work, explores the different aspects of psychological and physical space we inhabit. Many of her works, are influenced by conflict and war, refugee crises and displacement. Her installations create spaces that are filled with household items, in an attempt to transform the space of the gallery into a psychological space of “familiarity” and sense of “homeness”. At the same time, the use of certain objects breaks down abruptly the sense of familiarity and subverts the meaning of the space, transforming the familiar into its abject twin.

The creation of this uncanny feeling seems to result to a disorientation for the observer, a sense of alienation from what is supposed to be “familiar”. This seems to be an allure to the way a crisis works. For example, during grand scale conflicts such as wars and social upheavals, as well as during family conflicts, the home that supposed to be a safe place, is transformed to a threatening space.

                        “Having always had an ambiguous relationship with notions of home, family, and the nurturing that is expected out of this situation, I often like to introduce a physical or psychological disturbance to contradict those expectations”.

Her work “Home” (1999) is consisted of a table covered with metal kitchen appliances and objects. Also, a lighting equipment controlled by a computer software emits light periodically on the objects on the table. The whole space is protected by wires that prevent the beholder to access the table mainly for safety reasons as the lighting equipment works with high voltage.

With a first look, these objects give off a quality of familiarity by a reference to the kitchen. For example, it may evoke memories of family moments in home, or memories about cooking before a family dinner.

Its polished wooden surface though, the metallic legs of the table, as well as the fluorescent light above and the clean white background, subverts this feeling and transforms it to something threatening. The kitchen knife is transformed to a medical scalpel, and the kitchen table to a surgical table. Meanwhile the exposed electrical current, transforms the warm light emitted on the objects to a dangerous threat.

This kind of estranged familiarity is explored substantially in the psychoanalytical work of Sigmund Freud, Julia Kristeva and Jacques Lacan.

The “unheimlich” as Freud names it, comes as a rupture within what feels stable, familiar and predictable. According to psychoanalysts, when we enter the “symbolic stage” – the plane of language and symbols – we move our mental experience from a direct contact with our surroundings that is fully “good” or fully “bad”, to a linguistic or “discursive” level.

On that level, the pleasurable and the non-pleasurable; the good or bad, become part of the linguistic realm of signs and signifiers. As such, an object is not fully benevolent and good, and not fully hateful and evil but rather, it is in proximity a holistic and unified mental image of the object; a signifier.

Our contact with a paradoxical aspect of what we expect mentally from an object, disrupts the continuity of the mental space we inhabit, and enables a contact with another probability of that space. A space that is occupied with the evil twin of what is “familiar”.

It is in this space that we feel an eerie, otherworldly sense of estranged familiarity.

 

Home 1999 by Mona Hatoum born 1952

Mona Hatoum, Home, 1999, installation 6000 x 3500 mm, Tate collection. Photo: Tate Gallery.

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“Basketball”, a Mediterranean modernist artwork.

Artist: Christoforos Savva

Title: “Basketball” (1959)

Characteristics: mixed media on cloth, 198 × 111 cm

Keywords: hybridity, anti-colonialist, diversity, spatial fluidity

 

            The work “basketball” by the Cypriot artist Christoforos Savva (1959) it is a mixed media work that depicts two men playing basketball. It is one of the first works of Savva to be made of unconventional techniques. It is a work which led him to work further with fabric, creating a kind of “textile art” that is considered his major contribution to Cypriot and Mediterranean modernism in general.

What is particularly interesting about the artwork, as with many artworks of Savva, is the interweaving (literally as well as figuratively) of the different – otherwise isolated – elements within the composition, into a wider synthesis.

            The work is characterized by a lack of a central element around which the composition unfolds. On the contrary, it is characterized by the construct of a web of interconnected elements that are interdependent; his choice to work with fabric maybe an allure to the interconnection of elements within the spider web.

            This aesthetic technique is regarded as an attempt of Christoforos Savva to mix different elements and different materials together, in order to create a hybrid composition that transcends the subject and makes it part of a whole, instead of treating it as a point of emphasis.

            As the art historian Antonis Danos1 suggests, this element could be regarded as a core aspect in what he regards as an “alternative” (Mediterranean) modernism, because it reflects the “corruption” of dichotomies, as well as the deconstruction of the impression of a distinction between a “center” and a “periphery”; between high art and low art, between the “European Modernism” and the “Peripheral Modernism”, and consequently the “high culture” and the “low culture” as well as all the political and social consequences of similar distinctions.

In a way, it is the difference between the Gridthat is structure, and the Web that is inter-connectivity.

            As such, we can see Christoforos Savvas’ artwork as also a political critique towards dichotomies and hierarchical thinking.

            Stylistically, within the work “basketball” (depicted below) we cannot easily perceive a central – dominant – subject within the composition, but rather we perceive many different interconnected subjects that interact as part of a wider “composition” characterized by movement and an open ended inter-connectivity.

This echoes the post-colonial critique on the way a dominant, “central” power that is the colonizer constructs the identity of a “subordinate” peripheral “other”, that is the colonized. Given the fact that Savva’s work coincides historically with the anti-colonial sentiment of Cyprus during the 1950s, we can see how through his artwork suggest an anti-hegemonic, anti-colonial, “un-hierarchical” society without a colonizer and a colonized, without a subject and an “object”, without center and periphery, and without high culture and low culture. Another element that suggest his anti-hegemonic motives, is the fact that he uses fabric, a material associated with “applied arts” (textile manufacture), as well as womanhood.

Therefore, Christoforos Savvas’ work, could be used for another definition of “modernism”, and modern culture. A modernism that is defined outside of the European “center”, and outside of a “central” grid or hegemonic discourse in general.

A modernism without hegemonic Narratives under which everything must be adjusted,  but instead a modernism that works as a “network” without centrality, characterized by interconnection and interaction, that is fluid and hybrid.

1 Elhariry, Yasser, and Edwige T. Talbayev. Critically Mediterranean : temporalities, aesthetics, and deployments of a sea in crisis. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. Print.

2 Krauss, Rosalind. “Grids.” October, vol. 9, 1979, pp. 51–64. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/778321.

 

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Christoforos Savva, Basketball, 1959, mixed media on cloth, 198 x 111 cm, private collection.

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Western Graveyards, Nancy Holt

Artist: Nancy Holt

Title: “Western Graveyards”

Characteristics: Photography

Keywords: death, fear, community

             In the photographic work of Nancy Holt, named “Western Graveyards”, the artist represents 60 photographs depicting graveyards found in deserts in Nevada and California. The work, influenced by Land Art tries to understand the relationship between space, time and human condition. Graveyards are often fenced and delimited spaces in the vastness of the desert. That suggests that people needed to delimitate a space, to grasp an understanding of the vastness of the surrounding space.

                        “how people thought about space out West; their last desire was to delineate a little plot of their own because there was so much vastness.”

            This could also be applied to historical, philosophical and political human endeavors, as attempts to delimitate and understand the vastness of existence through the construction of “limits” in our thoughts, ideas, emotions. For example, political identities, nationalist discourses, historiography, ideologies, scientific categorization of nature, personal neuroses and obsessions about how something “must be”, all try to make sense of chaos by delimitating our thought in a constrained yet “meaningful” way. Also, death works here as a symbol of the ultimate fear of the chaotic and the unknown.

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Nancy Holt, Western Graveyards, 1968

 

 

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Sun Tunnels, an artwork by Nancy Holt

Artist: Nancy Holt

Title: “Sun Tunnels” (1976)

Characteristics: Land Art, Concrete tubes

Keywords: Death, unknown, fear, community

            The Land Art installation made by Nancy Holt, is consisted of four concrete pipes placed in cross arrangement in the Great Basin Desert in northwest Utah. Holt worked with engineers and astronomers, to arrange the pipes in a way that the sun rises and sets in the center of each tubes during Summer and Winter solstices. Meanwhile, holes on the top of the tubes arranged in a certain way, enable sunlight to project the images of constellations inside the tubes.

            In her own words her motives were to “bring the vast space of the desert back down to human scale”, as well as to meaningfully indicate the “cyclical time” of the solar year. As it happens with her project “Western Graveyards” she tries to understand the way humans orientate themselves in time and space by delimitating them meaningfully, in history, science, art, politics, borders etc.

          The political nature of the seemingly apolitical Land Art by Nancy Holt, lies to the fact that by “delimiting” the vastness of space, she suggests that humans, by delimiting space and time, they may feel safe in a vastly chaotic and infinite universe, yet at the same time they risk locking themselves within the limits they construct all by themselves. Meanwhile, the symbolism of “sun” as “truth” and the “light” as “knowledge” beyond the “limits” might referring to the truth that is beyond the arbitrary, “logical” meanings we ascribe to space and time.

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‘Sun Tunnels: Sunset,’ 1976. (Courtesy Nancy Holt/Tufts University). Photo through observer.com/