Thursday 23 June 2011

Photomonth Krakow 2011 (ALIAS)

You see them here, you see them there, you see them everywhere. In their latest project, the artist team Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg (featured in #11 of 1000 Words) have been blessed with the opportunity of curating an entire photography festival, and in so doing have left an indelible mark on the landscape of such events.

Photomonth Krakow 2011, now in its ninth year, was subject to ALIAS, an unconventional series of conceptual exhibitions, split into two halves that tested the limits of acceptability and has divided audiences and critics alike. The festival is counter-balanced by a series of exhibitions from invited curators called ShowOFF.

The first half of ALIAS features twenty-three writers who were commissioned to construct a fictional story with a main character. A visual artist then inhabited this character and the work exhibited is the result of this symbiosis. Writers included such notables as David Campany, Ekow Eshun, Brad Zellar and Siddhartha Mukherjee taken from the art, literary and medical worlds, and visual artists such as Rut Blees Luxenburg, Alec Soth and David Goldblatt occupied the fictional artists and produced their work. We are wonderfully unaware of who did what, which is the point. This flies in the face of the egotistical and heavily loaded notion of authorship, and so the artists and writers remain anonymous. It can be helpful in the creative process for the artist to create an alter ego, in the guise of a protagonist with a pseudonym or simply to remain unknown, giving license to make work outside the confines of expectation and reveal a greater sense of self. As Chanarin and Broomberg point out in the accompanying catalogue, this conception of artists taking on or dealing with the subject of alternative personalities is nothing new, and the second half of the festival, buried in the aptly named Bunkier Sztuki Gallery, displays the work of artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Gillian Wearing and Sophie Calle. As an example these artists have produced work as the fictional and real people of Rrose Selavy, Jean and Brian Wearing and Maria Turner. One such artist, Brian O'Doherty, as a protest against Bloody Sunday embodied the persona of outsider artist, Patrick Ireland, whose subsequent symbolic death was, as perceived by O'Doherty as the "chance to bury hatred".

Scattered in various galleries around Krakow were stories of humour, tragedy, strangeness and ordinariness - all quite believable though always with a hint of the uncanny. The various exhibitions are too numerous to mention, but one story struck a chord, and finds poignant roots in Poland's dark history. This is the sad tale of a photographer called Dora Fobert (born in 1925) during her time in the Warsaw ghetto. It is a piece of fiction that sounds as authentic as the almost unbelievable story of Oskar Schindler, whose infamous factory in Krakow is now the site of the impressive and newly constructed MOCAK (Museum of Contemporary Art). Fobert's last photographs were hastily printed and chemically unfixed, before being taken by the SS, and can only be shown in daylight behind red glass. The effect is imbued with multiple meanings; the fragility of life, the impossibility of fixing a moment, the frustration of not seeing and how photography is a process. The story also tells of how the Nazis vilified the Jewish woman as a bohemian, free thinking seductress, opposed to the idealisation of Aryan women - dressed in uniform, hair tied back, restrained and orderly. These photographs are the last act of defiance and reveal old and young Jewish women posing nude for Fobert's studio camera in an expression of freedom.

Dora Fobert, from the archive of Adela K. circa 1942

What is ALIAS then, and how should it be remembered? The curators boldly claimed that this concept was to be an experiment and an experiment is a method of testing with the goal of explaining the nature of reality. It is rare to find festivals that proclaim such an experimental and admirable model. Though definitions should matter little, this festival is really an art festival more than it is a photography festival and because of this it has opened up a real Pandora's box. One question it asks is that in a world confused with the ever-mounting proliferation of imagery are we really better informed and especially from photography that reports the ‘truth’? Given Chanarin and Broomberg's trajectory from documentary photographers to constructors of photography this process lends credibility to the concept of ALIAS, in other words it is not being different for the sake of being different, rather it is logical and emotional conclusion. We are perhaps more intellectually astute about the role of photography than ever before and therefore we are better able to deal with conceptual festivals such as ALIAS that suggests that the truth is better understood from the perspective of non- truth.

ALIAS is by no means a festival of easy gratification; it is the antithesis of a spectacular and populist festival since it demands contemplation from the audience, and this, surely, is no bad thing. Those who resist are probably looking for work that is easily digestible and grumble at having to exist outside their comfort zone. But the mischievousness of this festival is highly enjoyable and perhaps raises the thinking behind future happenings even if this is in danger of alienating the local population.

One of the reasons for ShowOFF, than other to simply showcase new Polish photography, was perhaps to address the issue of the difficulties of ALIAS by inviting curators to realise more 'conventional' exhibitions, but no less interesting for that. ShowOFF was curated by Polish photographers and theorists such as Kuba Swircz, Magda Wunsche and Rafat Milach to select and featured the work of Ula Klimek, Karol Kaczorowski and Yulka Wilam to name but a few. The work is young and fresh, with a tendency towards the conceptual, and perhaps points to the future of Polish art photography.

All of this takes place in the wonderful city that is Krakow. With its rich cultural and historical diversity it continues to fascinate and is right on time for a festival such as this. In a sense, Photomonth Krakow is the Arles of the East; everything is within easy walking distance and beyond the photography there is much more to be seen.

Michael Grieve