by Rahul KumarOct 10, 2021
At the dawn of the 20th century, photography revolutionised image-making practices by freeing the visual arts from the function of having to depict reality. The way humanity perceived the world was transforming dramatically as the camera was progressively redefining notions of sight and cognition. This ocular transition into the 21st century was accompanied, and accentuated, by the proliferation of technology necessary for capturing and processing the photographic image. Alongside the visual literacy promulgated by this widely popular phenomenon, whose popularity can be attested by the mass appeal of image-sharing platforms such as Instagram, there has been a diversified movement amongst various art practitioners towards a photographic avant-garde.
On February 21, 2020, the first edition of The Henie Onstad Triennial for Photography and New Media, titled New Visions, was inaugurated at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in Oslo, Norway, with the intention of celebrating this movement with its many tendencies as it may be discerned in the contemporary moment. Curated by Susanne Østby Sæther, the curator for photography and new media at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, in collaboration with Behzad Farazollahi and Christian Tunge, from MELK Gallery, Oslo, the exhibition features a wide variety of photographic experiments by contemporary artists of varying experience levels and reputations, including award-winning savants such as Wolfgang Tillmans and Viviane Sassen, with their only commonality being the location of their individual practices within the present moment.
Farazollahi explains their curatorial direction as such, “diversity was important, both geographical and conceptual, and, the processes of the artist’s work, they all kind of represent different sites of photography right now. It was also important that most of the art was no older than two years, so it is quite new work that we show. Many of the works were made for this exhibition. It was important that it wasn’t just a group show but we tried to show the diversity between… different generations almost, and also the materiality. The way the artists work, they kind of map themselves out in a way and the themes came by… we worked with architecture, pop-culture, materiality, the body, still-life, technology: all these were characteristics that came along as we were working.”
The triennial’s title also echoes the divergence of contemporary photographic practices, being a pluralised reference to the Neues Sehen, or New Vision, movement of 1920s, whose proponents such as László Moholy-Nagy considered photography as a pathway to new subjectivities and the camera as an essential tool for the future. Amongst these practices, many of which escape easy categorisation, are forms that emerge from the unorthodox use of archives, forms of display that may be described as sculptural, novel methods of depicting the human body, contemporary takes on still life and the use of traditional photographic processes to evoke subjective sensibilities, amongst a plethora of other kinds of experimentation.
Alongside the exhibition’s formal heterogeneity, one also witnesses a range of thematic concerns that elucidate the scope of artistic enquiry. With Paul Mpagi Sepuya, there is a reflective sense of intimacy, while Timur Si-Qin tackles environmental issues using the dialectic of commercial materiality. Lucile Boiron uses the human body to explore the polemics of abjection and acceptance, Ingrid Eggen is interested in the psychology of gestures, and Sara Cwyenar’s collages are vignettes of western culture in transition. The list goes on, just as the possibilities for representation are endless.
To a sensibility that is attuned to the documentarian utility of the camera, the diversity presented at New Visions can be disconcerting but there is a coherent sense of flow within the exhibition, with each artwork reverberating with the next to present a unified curatorial vision, albeit without thematic or formal stratification. According to Tunge, “When we saw these different themes emerging, we were all also interested in finding artists who were fluid between themes, so we could build up a dynamic show… where you can see one theme bleed into the next one.” Espen Gleditsch’s exploration of temporality through classical sculpture finds a resonance with Sara VanDerBeek’s sculptural studies of the historical representations of the female form. The sensuality of Asger Carlsen’s archival abstractions is counterpoised against Sassen’s surrealist use of the human body. Motifs and styles converge while simultaneously illustrating the exponentiality of photographic media.
New Visions was the result of the shared interests of the curators and was facilitated by the momentous appointment of Sæther in 2018. The triennial’s roster was constructed through a selection process that Sæther describes as bottom-up, “We didn’t conceptualise the show in advance more than starting with the idea that we wanted to show what we found to be some of the most interesting artistic practices and artists within this experimental field of contemporary photography, and then through looking at all of this material some tendencies and themes emerged.” “I think that is important when you are starting out a triennial because if you have already mapped out what the exhibition is in advance, you are not really being contemporary. So, you have to do the proper research and get a map of what is happening in contemporary photography and then start on the exhibition and not the other way around,” adds Tunge.
The book accompanying the triennial, titled Why Photography?, was edited by Bjorne Bare along with the two curators from MELK and includes essays by Sæther and Brian Shollis. It is not a catalogue and does not include all the artworks from the exhibition but instead consists of a series of interviews with the featured artist and some others, and was to be launched on May 24, 2020, but this date is subject to a possible suspension amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Henie Onstad Triennial for Photography and New Media is on view until September 13, 2020. The exhibition can be viewed virtually on Henie Onstad Art Channel.