'History Now' in Stockholm: a participating artist's report
by Sue Williamson
How do artists consciously take the writing of history into their own hands in order to give their own interpretation of events experienced within their lifetime? This was the curatorial question addressed by Magnus af Petersons and Niclas �stlind in planning 'History Now', the main exhibition of XpoSeptember, Stockholm's photo festival. For artists, point out the curators, there is a much greater freedom with regard to forms of narrative presentation than is possible in the news media or academic historical research. Artists have the liberty to work from a personal or an oblique point of view. That this point of view can be more illuminating and resonant than straight news reports had already been made clear by a plethora of artists working in video, photography and performance on ' Documenta 11'. 'History Now', which opened at the Liljevalchs Konsthall on September 9, seemed to be almost a continuation of Documenta, with its themes of deep trauma worked upon individuals by events beyond their control.
As on his Documenta piece, the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar's piece focussed on eyes, and looking. In The Eyes of Gutete Emerita, two LCD screens the size of television monitors hang side by side. A short text tells the story of the artist's meeting with a Rwandan woman who has lost her husband and sons. The narrative ends with a shot of the woman's haunted eyes, which flash on and off so fast as almost to be subliminal.
Refracting the painful history of Argentina though the lens of what happened to his own family, photographer Marcelo Brodsky showed Buena Memoria: Good Memory - a deeply affecting installation which captured the imagination of the Swedish audience, and was mentioned specifically in all the reviews. Brodsky came of age during the years of Argentina's most brutal military government, 1976 to 1983 - it is a strange coincidence that these years also were amongst the worst in this country - when 30 000 Argentinians "disappeared." Brodsky's brother and best friend were amongst these. He himself fled the country knowing that he was on the hit list. Today, his work is dedicated to not allowing those who died go unremembered. Twenty five years after a 1967 class photograph was taken, Brodsky photographed as many of his old schoolmates as he could against a giant enlargement of the photo, tracked the others down across the world, and put a ring with a line through it to mark those on the photo who had disappeared. On another wall, a photograph shows two boys on the deck of a boat, a brown river swirling in the wake. The boys are Marcelo and his brother, the river the one into which his brother's ashes were later thrown.
A more intimate family trauma was suggested by the work of Swedish artist Maria Miesenberger, who combined doll-like soft sculptures of pre-pubescent girls in what can only be described as "threatened" poses with snapshots of families in which the figures have been flattened and fuzzed to black blurred shapes. The suggested is more nightmarish than the explicit. In Zineb Sedira's work Don't do to her what you did to me it is the pressures of society which seem to be being called into question. This is the sentence written in ink on the back of several passport photos, which in a video sequence are then lowered into a glass of water. The ink lifts and swirls and images and words are dissolved.
Other artists include Jasmila Zbaníc of Bosnia, whose film gives voice to survivors of the war in her home country, in conversations which are often fraught and uneasy with subtexts and Carrie Mae Weems, seen in this country on the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale. Weems was invited to comment in her work on a collection of photographs taken by Frances B. Johnston (1864-1952). In one moving sequence, a family group of Native Americans are seen before and after missionary influence, the two images divided by a photograph of the missionaries. Before, they wear traditional blankets and beads, and their hair is untamed and long. After, shorn of their locks, they all wear suits.
Keynote image of the show was provided by the Irish Willie Doherty - the kind of green country road one associates with travel brochures has a deserted burnt out Mini in the foreground.
A full list of participating artists is: Marcelo Brodsky, Miriam Bäckström, Magnus Bärtaås, Willie Doherty, Carl Johan Erikson, Alfredo Jaar, Carl de Keyzer, Maria Miesenberger, Zineb Sedira, Carrie Mae Weems, Sue Williamson and Jamila Zbanic.
An excellent catalogue designed by Stefania Malmsten accompanies the exhibition, which has now moved from Stockholm and can be seen at the Museum of Work, Norrköping until January 6, 2003.
Opening: October 26 2002
Closing: January 6, 2003
Museum of Work, Norrköping