Redefined Possibilities

In an era of global Post-Truth, Unseen explores distorted perceptions, reliability and control through an exciting showcase of photography.

Diane Arbus (1923-1971) once said that “a photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” Whilst the seminal American artist was referring to a quality characteristic of all image-making, this observation seems particularly suited to many of the works featured in this year’s Unseen, a leading international fair taking place in Amsterdam, which incorporates the ING Unseen Talent Award, one of the most generous accolades for emerging European practitioners. Many of this year’s line-up contribute to a larger, developing trend, where what is hidden seems as important as what is on the surface, and where the medium distorts, questions, and unpicks ideas around “truth” and visual representation. In an era where so much attention is on the spectacle, and where Jean Baudrillard’s ideas of the hyperreal have morphed into Adam Curtis’s explorations and excursions in post-truth, it’s perhaps not surprising to see questions of reliability and representation as strands that run through this diverse selection.   

Unseen combines a diverse approach to the presentation and engagement of contemporary artists, including CO-OP, a book market and a range of exhibition programmes, including The Living Room, The Exhibition, Onsite Projects and City Programme. As Artistic Director Emilia van Lynden comments, Unseen is committed to providing this support: “By nurturing emerging photography we help to make the practice more sustainable. That’s what we want to do, to not put the artist on a pedestal but to really work with them. It is important for us as an industry, not only to help them to make better images but to help them position their images within the wider ecosystem.”

The ING Unseen Talent Award showcases emerging visionaries, highlighting those who are helping to shape the future of the medium. The longlist includes 23 exciting names, whose imaginative and innovative portfolios demonstrate a new, revitalised perspective on the possibilities of image-making. Notable examples on show here include the work of the “Ultimate Selfie” creator Juno Calypso, and perhaps the lesser-known imaginations of Aruanà Canevascini and Dominika Gesicka, the former of whom finds beauty in the colourful everyday, celebrating intimacy and introspection through the use of subtle gestures and demonstrative emotion.

This year’s shortlist, whilst proving difficult to ascertain, includes some familiar names. Tom Callemin and Andrea Grützner, previous exhibitors, demonstrate the impact of the festival in creating spaces for talent to develop and be nurtured. Acting as a result of the strength and flexibility that Unseen provides, Callemin comes to the fore as an exciting pioneer, flourishing in the hands of the festival. Producing work with a restricted palette, often black and white, and exclusively in his own studio, his processes explore light and photographic gaze: “It stems from the question as to what the photographic medium can render visible or, on the other hand, what remains hidden beneath the gaze of the lens.” Hole (2015), for example, depicts what looks like a crater or pit in the earth, tantalisingly close to allowing the viewer to see inside. In Man with Child (2013), a figure covers his own eyes with one hand whilst with the other he obscures the vision of an infant. Whether in horror, play, anticipation or revulsion, very little can be drawn from the dark and mysterious background.

In one series, Callemin completely limited his influence on the subject through making work in a completely darkened studio, with the camera flash as the only visible marker of his presence. This process, amongst others practised by the Ghent-based artist, is rigorously conceptual, but also routed in a perfectionist sense of craft. He sketches, writes text and researches before composing, moving into the studio, with a deeply pre-meditated and purposeful approach. The resulting images contain both intensity and mystery, pointing to a psychological and intellectual complexity. As Callemin explains: “I attach so many conditions to it that it becomes almost impossible to realise a photograph as I had imagined it beforehand.”

If the work of Callemin is subdued and intensely thoughtful, the work of German artist Andrea Grützner asserts a deep contrast through flamboyant colours and references to advertising, architecture and both the Concrete Art and Neo-Plasticism movements. Erbgericht, for example, is an exploration of a traditional East German guesthouse, casting the building in a sequence of striking abstract compositions which also double up as a unique experimental social commentary or tapestry. The guesthouse is of the sort that, according to the artist, “has been owned by one family for five generations and is still the cultural centre of the village … Thousands of memories are intrinsically connected to the walls and the objects within each room.” In one image, the corner of a brightly coloured staircase is seen in geometric relief with a piano, an open door into a darkened room and a gap between wooden slats. In creating a kind of play between different textures, materials, patterns and shapes, Grützner’s process pulses with a vibrant abstraction and a sheer delight in photography as a practice which lends permanence to fleeting ideas and transient spaces.

However, there are also social resonances present which question how place and memory interact. Each composition investigates the magical, surreal qualities of architectural structures, whilst also pointing to models for social evolution in which communal spaces allow different generations to feel connected to adaptive, amorphous buildings. Perhaps an affinity can be found with Callemin’s work, through a shared interest in what has been left out, is unspoken, or painted over.

UK-based Alexandra Lethbridge is also on the shortlist, an intriguing artist who highlights fact and fiction, blending realism and documentary with a wry and pointed self-referential approach. Other Ways of Knowing (2016) explores the notions of surprise and beguilement, creating a fantastical history that raises fascinating questions around how our perceptions can be guided, manipulated and fooled. Her images make use of sleight of hand, distraction and illusion, such as a book that looks as though it should be sliding off the edge of a table. In another piece, a photograph of a glass sitting on two coins is balanced on a table, although this object appears in the actual composition of the image, creating endless layers. This thought-provoking work is playfully phenomenological, questioning the very concepts of knowledge and vision. As van Lynden summarises: “Lethbridge makes us think about the reliability of photography itself.”

Meanwhile, hailing from France, Robin Lopvet also employs wit and fancy, showcasing a tantalising combination of improvisation, archive and economics. Family Album (2014-present) digitally manipulates found documents from other families, interspersed seamlessly with material from his own lineage. Taking a cue from the act of sticking pictures into an album, over-scaled images are stacked up and piled over one another, like a collage that distorts and disturbs the overall narrative and timeline of events. The work eschews a straightforward linearity, and makes instead for a lively and intense act of rewriting and overtyping. Similarly, Stupid Sculptures (2014-present) is a series of manipulated images that comically re-interpret recognisable beings. One such example uses two fluffy poodles, each staring straight ahead, with three rather than two eyes. Playful, unexpected and parodic, Lopvet speaks to the influential object-oriented ontology and “tool-being” of thinkers such as Graham Harman and Katherine Behar, which refuses to anthropocentrically privilege human over object, and instead looks to the peculiar, independent dimension of items that exist without us, and seems to read photographs, which are ultimately representations, as objects in their own right.

Also on the shortlist is the Austrian artist Stefanie Moshammer, who combines an abundant lyricism through dazzling, often brightly coloured compositions, with a profound exploration of contemporary geopolitics. Land of Black Milk (2016) takes Rio De Janeiro as the subject, which is, in her own words, “not so much one city as different worlds. Multiplied realities of one place and the space in between. A two-ness, two warring ideals in one body with an inherently split personality.” This tension of inequalities is evident in all her pieces, which are luxuriously shot like fashion photography but which employ subtle visual play. In one instance, the corner of an indented wall suggests a kind of anti-flag. Another shows a precarious stack of water bottles in a plastic wrapper, which in its wobbly uniformity suggests a kind of skyscraper or apartment block. Her portraits often feature people in moments of self-awareness, putting a hand in front of their face, nervously laughing, such as one of a woman in a vibrant floral dress, standing in front of a sheet, strung on a tree, her head half turned away. In these tender moments, Moshammer, through the act of wanting to be invisible, makes the subject all the more present.

As with the ING Unseen Talent Award, the rest of the programme is a diverse snapshot of developments in contemporary photography. The fair features over 50 leading galleries, connecting individuals from collectors to enthusiasts, and from practitioners to institutions. The inaugural imitative CO-OP recognises the importance of the artist as an all-inclusive and diverse model, providing a space for innovative and experimental collectives to exhibit.

Another innovative aspect of the event is The Living Room, which is a three-day series of talks, lectures and discussions run by industry professionals. There are also many installations taking place both on-site and off-site, including a major show of Thomas Mailaender and Erik Kessels’, Photo Pleasure Palace, a fun, bizarre exhibition that takes wild joy in the distortion of the found. Mailaender and Kessels are irreverent and frivolous, undermining the authority of the photograph, and in extension, its lasting “truth” as a visual representation.

Arbus’ description of the secretive image seems to be more prominent than ever as a unifying theme in this wholly diverse and welcoming event. What happens if a photograph is instead understood as “fake news of fake news”? Many of the photographers in Unseen seem to be asking these kinds of questions.

This rhizomatic approach to supporting contemporary photography represented by Unseen, which focuses not only on the flowers but the roots and tubers, makes for a hugely encouraging and dynamic future shaping of innovative photographers. For such a serious enterprise, it’s wonderful that both the artists and exhibitions show such an excitement and joy.

Colin Herd

Unseen Amsterdam, 22-24 September