Of Life and Death

20090120135718_JULKA_MKERN07

Visited the Margareta Kern ‘Clothes for Living and Dying’ exhibition today with C. at the Impressions Gallery, Bradford. The exhibition is of two halves, with photographs documenting two ‘rites of passage’: the graduation and the funeral. It is an obvious point, but somehow before really engaging with the images, I looked about the gallery and was struck with the sense that this genre of ‘documentary art’ bears all sorts of dilemmas. I’m not sure who may have written about such a genre (which would include, for example, the work of Nan Goldin, and there are countless others). It is certainly prevalent and very much a product of postmodernity. Perhaps it was a series of simple fly-on-wall videos playing in the corner of the exhibition that did it (showing the making of some of the graduation dresses exhibited), but I couldn’t help thinking that instead of a series of photographs in a gallery, a TV documentary might have been more interesting (the sort of thing Channel 4 would show!).

Kern is a London-based artist, and a graduate of Goldsmiths, but the pictures are all taken in her homeland of Croatia/Bosnia-Herzegovina. On one side of the gallery were ‘Clothes for Death’, a series of images of elderly women displaying the clothes they wish to be buried in. On hearing from her mother of the custom among Croatian and Bosnian-Herzegovinian women to prepare clothes for this purpose, Kern sought to meet and photograph women in their homes with their chosen clothes laid out on display. As the exhibition literature suggests, ‘[h]er photographs offer an insight into the lives of women whose identities have been shaped by turbulent historical, political and cultural currents’. And the work has attracted a range of good reviews (see, for example, ‘Dress Rehearsal: Margareta Kern’s Clothes for Living & Dying‘, Selvedge Magazine, March/April ’09).

C. and I talked at some length about the images, which relate so closely to her work on memory and cloth. Yet, we felt somewhat disappointed about the images themselves. For me, in terms of content, they echoed something of the work by John Berger and Jean Mohr, yet without any of their contextual processes. As photographs I found them rather flat, which further created distance, holding back the stories these women surely must hold. Given these were images full of trust and faith, it was such a pity not to feel a greater sense of community and narrative. For C. it was the near absence of the clothes themselves that disappointed. It was true, whilst one might almost want to see these women wear the clothes (to model them?!), which was hardly appropriate, the clothes lacked presence. Their ‘touching’ stories untold. These were photographs of women and their bedrooms, not their clothes. C. wondered what the pictures might be like without the subjects, just their possessions. We shall never know.

Standing before these old women C. asked about my life, about ‘things’ right now. I gave some account, but all too soon had to break off. So we stood there for a moment, our thoughts averted entirely from the pictures on the wall. I then returned to discuss the pictures; that gesture again and again to fold up into representations of life (as I do here in writing), to find sanctuary, whilst haunted by the dichotomy of art and life. Later, however, discussing things over lunch, I mentioned my interests in the Neutral and ever insightfully C. remarked how pertinent and troubling a topic given my circumstances. Just as documentary can be (an) art, so documenting (thinking about) my life can itself be my life. What is the value of an expanded field of ethics when it seems impossible to live by? …and I hear the spectre of that same old line I trot out in numerous articles, of Derrida’s remark about the letter not arriving, ‘it’s not a misfortune, that’s life, living life’. Despite the rhetoric of fluidity, the poststructuralists offer us a philosophy of loss, of the unattainable, of mourning (epitomised by Barthes’ Camera Lucida). Where is the philosophy of life, living life? …the emphatic YES! …perhaps – in the end – it resides in all our silent stories, including the women on display in the gallery who prepare their clothes for the time they will finally be alone. (I’m reminded of that Billy Joel line again, ‘go ahead, leave me alone’ – the sense of future in ‘go ahead’, yet always at odds with one’s singular time and space. See ‘Circumstance‘)

Kern's Ana (Jennifer Lopez dress), 2006 from Graduation<br /> Dresses

Our lives are of course full of promise, often poignantly captured with the moment of graduation. Across on the other side of the gallery were images of graduation dresses ‘designed’ by Kern’s mother, who set up a made-to-measure dress-making business following the civil war. The clients – unlike those women Kern photographs approaching death – are all wealthy and style conscious, all young women recently graduated from secondary schools in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Crucially the designs are based on dresses worn by celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez (see above) and Keira Knightly, and all produced based on images found in fashion magazines (such as Cosmopolitan, see below) and on the internet, which the young women would bring to Kern’s mother.

Inevitably, given the voyeuristic nature of Kern’s work, there was something uncomfortable about looking at these images. What kind of ‘offer’ were these women making by offering to have their photograph taken and displayed – or rather what kind of transaction does Kern create by transforming these photographs into gallery exhibits? It is easy to suggest Kern, in deliberating making a choice to photograph women from ‘wore-torn’ Croatia/Bosnia-Herzegovina (rather than say her domicile London), is pasing comment on an aspirant class outside of the wealthy EU nations. But what I found most uncomfortable about these images was the fact that I see them all too often. In fact, as I stood in the gallery I had a moment of deja vu – my attempt to be thoughtful in front of these images echoed an embarrassing moment I had recently when I happened to head to my office late one night to complete the writing of an article (woefully overdue). Dressed so clearly for work – a heavy coat despite the warm night and clutching a satchel – I inadvertently walked in on the graduation ball. Desperately trying to find my way pass security to get to my office, I was confronted by a host of beautifully dressed women, all ‘celebrities’ for the night. I heard my name called. A couple of students of my mine had recognised me. I wished them an enjoyable evening but they all just smiled knowingly at my being out of place. And I suppose that is it: it is not the photographs in the gallery, nor those at the graduation ball that are out of place!

…fitting perhaps with a philosophy of life, living life: Over in the other gallery space was ‘Born in Bradford’, an exhibition concerned with the social welfare of babies born in Bradford and in particular with the relationship of fathers to babies. The photographer, Ian Beesley, having searched through the photographic archives of the National Media Museum (across the road) was struck by two things: (1) the preponderance of romantic, idealised portraits of mother and child (heavily influenced by Christian iconography); and (2) the lack of representation of fathers in early childcare. Beesley asks: ‘Has the sheer weight of religious representation suffocated the development of an alternative or is it because the majority of painters/photographers were/are men’? Though he notes too, ‘[e]ven when I researched portraits of babies by women photographers this stereotypical/traditional depiction of mother and child was reinforced’.

Bradford has one of the highest rates of single mothers and absentee fathers in the UK. Working with the Bradford Royal Infirmary (with many of the images on display there), Beesley has sought to produce a ‘series of portraits of just fathers with their newborn children. Partly as a reflection of changing practices in child care within a 21st century multicultural society … but also to provide positive images of fathering for display within the maternity units of the BRI’. Here again was the documentary art mode – to hang pictures upon the wall that document something and here even seek change. In
the end, however, these are simply pictures of new fathers, their newborn child in their hands (and again overly romantic and idealised). Laudable though they are, these images are more like mirrors hanging up in the BRI, rather than portraits. In the end it
seemed to me both Kern and Beesley’s work lacked a subtle engagement with the precariousness of life and death – though interestingly Kern’s portraits of the reproduction of celebrity spectacle held a wild spectacle all of their own.
Living life remains ever a performance!


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