“And everything starts at the airport. […] Structures that put us closer to the rest of the world and that separate us from the people who have seen us grow.”
Eastern Thoughts is a poetic, philosophical, and tender reflection on the phenomenon of travelling. Writer Marta Maia and photographer Vitor Queiroz traverse 1708 km through Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand to bring us an inward contemplation on the feelings attached to journeying, the complexity (and complicity) of tourism, the meaning of home and belonging, our attachment to memory, and more. This book will be of interest to and a consolation for all those travelers at heart who constantly seek out for an embracing place, and are always a little bit homesick.
‘Words can’t represent the sensation of freedom; the age of freedom will be the age of pictures.’ Frederick Douglass, 19th century
The text at the entrance of the current Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales notes: “Some scholars suggest that Frida first saw herself in a photograph before she discovered mirrors.” Khalo was well aware of the power of photography to fashion and shape ones identity and she used it candidly to construct hers. So was Frederick Douglass, the late nineteenth-century orator and former slave who early on recognised the contradictory nature of photographic medium – both its objectifying and its revolutionary power. Douglass’ relationship to photography was one of the topics discussed in the recent Photography.Ontology. symposium held at the University of Sydney and developed by the university research cluster Photographic Cultures.
“The oppression of women knows no ethnic nor racial boundaries, true, but that does not mean it is identical within those boundaries.” (Andre Lorde)
Bharti Kher, Hybrid series self portrait, 2007, digital C-print, 45 x 54 cm
She gazes boldly outside of the frame, her eyes fixed on the lens, confronting the viewer with the piercing look. In conventional feminist theory, the return of the gaze signifies resistance – once an object of the gaze, the woman asserts herself as a daring subject; like Manet’s Olympia she addresses the voyeur, challenging his position of power. As such, Bharti Kher’s Hybrid series self portrait is not dissimilar to artworks of western feminists such as Claude Cahun, Hannah Wilke, or Cindy Sherman all of which, like Kher, use the return of the gaze and the performative self-portraiture to assert their presence, reclaim their female bodies and subvert the patriarchal power dynamics. Furthermore, as they use their own bodies and perform variety of roles, these artists point to the fluidity of identity and to its construed (rather than innate) nature. Kher, as noted in the recent Biennale of Sydney catalogue, “sees the body as a literal and metaphorical site for the construction of ideas around gender, mythology and narrative.” Fusing human and animal body parts into “strangely beautiful but quietly grotesque hybrid figurative sculptures,” she creates “mythical urban goddesses, creatures who came out of the contradiction of the idea of femininity or the idea of womanhood … she is the goddess, the housewife, the mother, the whore, the mistress, the lover, the sister … everything’.” Continue reading
Zhang Huan, 65KG , 1994, performance, Beijing, China
In ‘Performance art and its constraints’, Thomas Berghuis outlines two distinctive characteristic of Chinese performance art: its reliance on auxiliary medium and its collaborative nature, both of which apply to the work of one of China’s best-known performance artists, Zhang Huan. Continue reading
“Mirror of male desire, a role, an image, a value, the fetishized woman attempts to locate herself, to affirm her subjectivity within the rectangular space of another fetish – ironically enough, the ‘mirror of nature’.” Abigail Solomon-Godeau
Figure 1: Louis Pierson, The Eyes, c1864.
A mysterious femme fatale of the nineteenth century Paris, Countess Le Castiglione immortalised herself through a fascinating series of more than four hundred photographs taken over a period of forty years, the majority between 1856 and 1865 “at the height of [her] fame and beauty.” Rather than conventional portraits, these photographs record her elaborate performances in which she either restages scenes from her life or plays a variety of mythological and fictional characters. The costumes, the set-designs, and the overall scenarios were all meticulously designed and directed by the Countess herself, the photographer being there as a mere technician. More than a means of self-expression or signs of narcissism, these photographs could be understood as the Countess’ attempt to take control over her own representation and challenge the narrow, patriarchal view of previously assigned identity inscriptions, thus, asserting herself as an autonomous subject rather than a fetishized object of the gaze.
According to theorist of fetishism and photography, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, such a reading of Countess’ photographs is presumptuous because it is impossible for the Countess to occupy a critical position from which she would desire to overturn the patriarchal principles of fetishisation. As she watches herself, explains Solomon-Godeau, the Countess automatically assumes a position of a patriarchal surveyor and can only relate to herself through this patriarchal gaze. From this position, which is tainted by an inherent patriarchal scopic regime, she is unable to radically reimagine herself as anything but an object of sight. Rather than disavowing patriarchal prerogative, she participates in it and even endorses it. Solomon-Godeau writes: “a living artifact, the countess has so fully assimilated the desire of others that there is no space, language, or means of representation for any desire that might be termed her own.” Rather than an author, she is nothing more than “a scribe”.
Alexsander Rodchenko, Pioneer with a trumpet, 1930
With multi-story buildings and high scaffoldings, rapid vehicles and airplanes, the early twentieth century urban and technological developments literally revolutionized the way we see the world. Soviet era photographer Alexander Rodchenko maintained that photography must respond to the new reality of urban life and capture images from radically “different vantage points.” Rather than following the traditional belly-button or eye-level perspective (which pictorialist photographers inherited from paining) camera should capture events “from inside, from above down, and from below up.” Only in this way can camera fulfill its task and function as prosthesis of the eye, offering the view that is truer (more objective) than the naked eye could ever capture. Continue reading
Nicole Foreshew and Jacob Nash, Hereby Make Protest, 2014.
“Some experience of voyaging and exile is […] necessary for being’s complete fulfillment,” wrote Martinican literary critic Édouard Glissant in his 1990 book Poetics of Relation. Similarly, art historian and curator Miwon Kwon suggests that it is through traveling and being out of a familiar place that one finds him/herself. For Glissant, this newly found self is no longer connected to a single, unitary root. Once determined by geography of our origin and a single culture, our identity is now unmoored, diffused, and characterised by the “errant thought.” We find ourselves in Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome – “an assemblage of connected multiplicities, without center or origin, […] always in process of becoming;” detached, capricious, and able to swiftly shift course.  But this fluidity and flexibility in thoughts and actions is both exhilarating and daunting. Unmoored and unbound, we also crave stability and belonging. Errantry is, thus, paired with melancholia and nostalgia; rhizome experienced as vertigo and tension.