Sunday, September 27, 2015

Glenn Ligon - Encounters and Collisions - Tate Liverpool (showing until 18 October 2015)

‘The past inside the present’. This is a sample repeated throughout Music is Math, a track by purveyors of IDM, Boards of Canada. It neatly reflects Ligon’s approach in this exhibition, both in meaning and method. Encounters and Collisions is a Ligon self-portrait of sorts, inserting his work into a mix of heavyweights (Warhol, Kline), photojournalism, photography, Sun Ra, Basquiat etc. It could also be understood as a portrait of America – that fragmented, divisive, nuanced, pluralistic, brutal, exciting social construct. Ligon probes and collapses these hierarchies and social constructs – and in doing so offers the viewer a transformative, disorienting and reconfiguring experience of identity. Here are all Americas – black, gay, female, male, white, racist, civil rights, etc. In the opening room, one of the paintings appropriating comedian Richard Pryor’s stand-up proclaims ‘we ain’t killed you motherfuckers’. I’ve seen Pryor’s stand-up before and yet in this painting it’s disconcerting. The lurid colours are unsettlingly cheerful and there’s a duality in presenting such apoplectic words in this palatable way. To quote and de-contextualise one of Ligon’s favourite writers, James Baldwin, ‘he was taking me some place I didn’t want to be.’ (Sonny’s Blues).

Ligon’s musicality is experienced throughout the space – through visual motifs he creates ripples and reverberations; the police baton in Kelley Walker’s silk-screen triptych Black Star Press (2005) is echoed by the physicality of Cady Noland’s 1989 Pipes in a Basket sculpture –these emblems of brutality and punishment help build up this uncompromising, multi-layered vision of America. In a William Eggleston Alabama photograph from 1969, a portly, white old man, bespectacled and suited, strokes a red US Air Force plane tenderly, as one would a pet. Whether this man is a racist or not, he becomes a convenient linchpin with which to excise white collective guilt. This speaks of photography’s tokenistic, too facile interpretation – something which Ligon’s complex vision wildly discredits.

In order to anchor myself in the exhibition, I am necessarily reductive and pick out ‘samples’. For me, Mythic Being, (1973) by Adrian Piper and Untitled by Ligon act as centrifugal forces through which to understand Ligon’s wider concerns. Piper, a mixed race, female Conceptual artist, in moustache and Afro, enacts an imitation of a black male. Suspending disbelief she embodies an identity that’s not hers, comically playing with society’s hegemonic, ingrained ideas of gender and racial difference. This acts as a precursor to Judith Butler’s gender theory: ‘the tranvestite’s gender is as fully real as anyone whose performance complies with social expectations.’ My Benjamin ‘aura’ moment is mediated via Ligon’s Untitled (I lost my voice. I found my voice.’) This work points to the circularity of Ligon’s preoccupations and as I start to lose myself in the incantatory repetition of the words a voice in heavily accented English disrupts my interior epiphanies: ‘I lost my voice. I found my voice. I lost my voice. I found my voice. I lost…’ the voice, belonging to a young Chinese woman, gives way to a series of unsuppressed giggles. Initially, I’m annoyed, but then I understand her performance as another layer of the work and I feel like saying, ‘read that disappearing ‘I’ in a softer way.’ The refrain is deeply affecting (and a welcome pause from Ligon’s cerebral machinations) and as your eye follows the individual letters, they dissolve, becoming fainter, darker, fainter, the negative space around them producing a series of downward, undulating waves, pointing at the cyclical, existential, identity crises we all have as humans.

The news of the summer provides yet another prism through which to consider Ligon’s themes (Rachel Dolezal’s bizarre construction of her identity as black, the Charleston shootings, the Supreme Court equal marriage ruling, the fictional Atticus Finch re-assessed as bigot) as well as Liverpool’s pivotal, historical role in African slavery.

If Celan informs Kiefer’s (another titan of non-linearity and histories trapped in the present) work, the spectre of Baldwin looms large in Encounters and Collisions, and yet his physical manifestation is disappointing. The cartoonish, colourful Beauford Delaney depiction of Baldwin is a slight, equivocal portrait of a gargantuan mind. So is Ligon’s obfuscation of Baldwin’s words in one of his paintings.

In Don de Lillo’s Cosmopolis, billionaire Eric Packer crassly wishes to purchase an entire chapel of Rothkos which would result in them being closed to the public. We need not covet a collector’s wealth as, in placing these works together, Ligon freely gives us a multiplicity of ideas which linger on far longer than on initial viewing.

By Eli Regan

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Remembering Adam McVay

I’ve been thinking about my friend Adam lately. He took his own life in September 2004. I found out about it months later, sometime in 2005. I found out via email and let out a cry outside the canteen building of the college where I was studying Art Foundation. I never met Adam face to face, but he was one of my best friends. Adam McVay, was a friend of my friend, Marie. The connection was Spain, where both of us had lived (although my parents are English and his are American) although he wasn’t living in Spain anymore but had relocated to Louisiana. Marie introduced us via email. After that, we wrote to each other on and off for six years. I was 15 and he was 17 when we first started corresponding. We wrote about all sorts – art, literature, politics, scrambled attempts to make any sense whatsoever about our respective loves and friendships, music, film, depression etc. He introduced me to the art of Andy Warhol. That seems incredible to me now, as Warhol’s everywhere. Well, I didn’t know about him until 1998 when Adam enthusiastically sent me a long email about him with a bio and potted history of sorts. Adam’s interests were eclectic and he was a fucking intelligent young man. But that’s it, he stayed young. He took his life at age 23. We used to send each other poems. This is one that Adam wrote and this is the preceding note to it. ‘anyway, i wrote a poem with my sister, yan yan, you, and a bunch of other girls in mind, just kind of the sense of frustration and understanding that i get from one or the other. anyway, see what you make of it:’
Poem by Adam McVay

It's someone you know, and love very much

And with the failure of a phone call

They turn into that sense of loss you scream out against.

You never get sick gradually

You're sitting there eating a hamburger or something

And then you just don't want it anymore

Why not? Because the air from the A/C is too cold

And your long sleeves are about to make you pass out sweating

It kind of happens like this

You are anxious and hopeful

So much that you push away that sense of evil

The one that occupies your peripheral awareness

Then you dial in the number and wait

She's talking, and you answer, and she says oh

I was talking to Lisa, or Wade, or God

You're talking about art, and the romance of old couples

who were separated by death for only a few hours

And you know she usually thinks of things like that

But she thinks you're weird because you say them

It's that feeling of sickness that makes you feel like a hollow body

Just a cold animated steak that wants to cry in bed

I feel so fragile, like I have the energy of a great American dam in my head

But someone could shatter me from the outside with just a laugh.

But I've been sitting here for hours staring at the bed from a chair

And the bed seems like a large, sickly, off-white person

You just don't want to sleep with, thought it'll be ok when you fall asleep

So instead I am going to work on my fluorescent tan, writing poetry

About intangible things that I think only Elisabeth will understand

And identify with, Unless.

I’m the ‘Elisabeth’ in the poem, that’s my Sunday name although I go by Eli. I hope I’m not blinded by my friendship with Adam, but I think it’s a fucking fantastic poem – aptly describing the debilitating nature of depression while scrambling bravely still to connect with loved ones, to feel human again. It’s desperately sad, but also very moving and well-crafted. Reminds me of an Elliott Smith or Jackson C Frank song, in its tone, subject matter and musicality.

The following poem is something I wrote for Adam, maybe a month or so after finding out. I remember feeling guilty for missing him. I thought I had no right to grieve as I’d never met him in person and I knew his sister, parents and girlfriend Yan Yan, and our mutual friend Marie, would be beside themselves with pain and unimaginable grief. I wrote to his sister, Micara and to his mum at the time and I’m still in touch with Micara.

For Adam McVay 10.07.05

Abducted. Vegetating
in certain states
by a current; seamless
flow. Ingrown words
plagued by somnolent
soul splashed
into a soul-less
screen to
wake me
make me
stand to attention
refill my brain
with heightened
idea injections,
pokings -
highly welcomed -
orchestral poetics
by a raw, life-fanatic
whose haunted passage
infected me with
what is an
unstoppable surge of rage
at the nothingness that
remains of
this agent of passion,
constantly mocking the mediocre into oblivion -
overwhelmingly overloading me
with upwardly descending
to fertilise my mind
with explosions
of wonderfully unstaged,
arranged - indescribably
beautiful letters -
that unsettled, alarmed me
into action -
this creator, instigator
is angrily, notably
missed in his absence.

I wrote a more tender poem for him another time, and I hope it doesn’t sound too angry. I wasn’t angry with Adam, I was angry about his loss. My poem isn’t great but it does describe something of the rawness of being 22 (when I found out about Adam’s suicide) and losing someone I’d loved and connected to on a deep level. This is something I wrote to Adam’s mum at the time, which I hope sums up our friendship somehow:

‘Throughout those six years when we wrote to each other, he sent me a
sizeable amount of his writing. Much of it was published on the internet.
I was wondering whether you’d like me to send any more of it. All I know is
that such an indescribably soulful person as Adam should be remembered, for
his enviable enthusiasm, and his talent for art, poetry and thinking.
I loved him, even though I never met him, he was one of my best friends.’

The line in Adam’s poem where he says ‘They turn into that sense of loss you scream out against’ fucking gets me to now. Sums things up about his loss so painfully. I miss him very much and from time to time wonder what he would think about certain situations, artists, music etc. I wish his poems, paintings and stories had a wider audience. He was a conflicted, depressed, funny, raging, talented, provocative thinker and person, and just beautiful.
If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or depression, I would urge you to contact 24/7 helpline Samaritans. UK: 0845 790 90 90 ROI: 116 123 or via email at

THE CAMPAIGN AGAINST LIVING MISERABLY, or CALM, is a registered charity, which exists to prevent male suicide in the UK. In 2013, male suicide accounts for 78% of all suicides and is the single biggest cause of death in men aged 20 – 45 in the UK. Get in touch with them from 5pm to midnight every day on 0800 58 58 58

There is also a fantastic BBC documentary called ‘Life After Suicide’ by Angela Samata, here: BBC Life After Suicide Documentary I watched it earlier this year, and it was immensely helpful and moving. Angela’s partner took his own life and the film charts Angela’s journey over a decade after, remembering him and the aftermath of his death, but also talking to other families bereaved by suicide. It’s a very brave film and Angela is helping to open up the dialogue about an incredibly painful and taboo subject.











Monday, June 29, 2015

Richard Ross – Juvenile in Justice – Open 1 – OPEN EYE GALLERY, LIVERPOOL by Eli Regan

Secluded appropriately upstairs away from the other galleries is a selection of images from Richard Ross’ comprehensive study of incarcerated minors in the US, Juvenile in Justice, showing as part of Open 1. By casting the work out upstairs and giving it its own space, the curator allows the viewer to enter this world of unremitting, institutional lights, carefully echoing the imprisoning world the pictures depict.

Pinned simply like posters that might appear in cells of yesteryear, when health and safety were merely embryonic, the images benefit from this silent, inobtrusive curation – each of them supported by the background stories of the imprisoned children, most of them involving some degree of parental neglect whether through chaotic lifestyles (drug addiction etc) or actual physical or sexual abuse.

Ross protests that in his earlier career (photographing architecture, museums) he photographed too many beautiful things, his implication being that he wasn’t concerned with effecting social change. In fact, I would argue, it was time well-spent. A lesser photographer would not have the necessary unflinching eye to present these realities in such a visually harmonious way. It is precisely because of the pictures’ clean, editorial edge that we can look in the first place. If these images had no testimonial evidence, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were straight out of a film – posters promoting a serious, arthouse film such as Hunger by Steve McQueen or Elephant by Gus van Sant. Either that or fashion pictures straight out of i-D magazine.

In one of the testimonies, J, 16 tells us he is in his segregation cell – ‘I spend all day and night in here. No mattress, no sheets, and I get all my meals through this slot.’ All we can see in the accompanying picture is a locked door with an open flap, and through it, sits J, in the distance, on a cold, uninviting floor.  

A young Caucasian girl, photographed just from the waist down smacks of vulnerability with her overly big New Balance trainers, her right trainer’s laces slightly undone, her oversized skirt and her hands awkwardly clasping each other. Caption-less she could just be at school, but in fact she as at Maryvale, an all-girl correctional facility in Rosemead, California.

In one particular photograph, a tall sixteen year African American boy perches uncomfortably at the edge of a bottom bunk bed, his overgrown adolescent feet peeping out of his flip-flops while he buries his head in his lap. Above him, the words scratched into the bunk bed’s frame speak of the isolation experienced by these children ‘madre mia la amo para siempre’ (mother of mine, I will love you always.’). Behind him the unmade sheets hint at the fact there is no mother present to scold him while a cartoonish depiction of the Palestinian flag adorns the old, wooden cupboard.

Most of the walls in the images are clinically white but in one image, inhabited by a 12 year old African American boy, the walls are a messy, muddy brown. The graffiti on the only white wall shows child-like depictions of aliens, and the boy faces these scribblings, perhaps because they provide a welcome escape from such dismal, basic surroundings.  In another visually cluttered picture, a 17 year old Hispanic inmate’s lunch made up of sandwich, apple and juice lurks perilously close to the toilet. Perhaps these busier pictures serve to offset the cleaner, more minimal pictures and offer a realism to the document it might have otherwise lacked.

As mentioned earlier, Juvenile in Justice is part of a comprehensive study Richard Ross has undertaken visiting 1,000 children detained across 250 correctional facilities in 31 states - work that includes photographs, websites, film, audio interviews. There is something very powerful in just encountering the still images and their supporting background texts. The commodification of art for consumption means visitors to galleries often don’t spend much time looking at work on gallery walls. Encounters with these images are different. Visitors repeatedly come up the stairs laughing or talking. Looking at Ross’ work audibly disrupts their banter and they spend a significant amount of time reading the texts and looking at the images. It is in this silence, that these pictures shriek and are forensically examined.

Richard Ross – Juvenile in Justice, part of Open 1, showing at Open Eye Gallery, Mann Island, Liverpool (16 May – 23 August 2015)

For more information visit and
A 12-year-old juvenile in his windowless cell at Harrison County Juvenile Detention Centre in Biloxi, Mississippi, operated by Mississippi Security Services, a private company. There is currently a lawsuit against MSS that forced it to reduce the centre’s population. An 8:1 inmate to staff ratio must now be maintained.
Harrison County Juvenile Detention Centre
Biloxi, Mississippi, 2009
From the series Juvenile in Justice by Richard Ross






Saturday, May 16, 2015

MENTAL by the vacuum cleaner, Contact Theatre, Manchester (May 7th/May 8th)

May 8th 2015. It’s the day after the election and like many, I am utterly shocked (and in denial) about the result. How to make sense of it? Mental, an autobiographical monologue by artist and activist the vacuum cleaner (James Leadbitter) told with the aid of his psychiatric notes and a police file on him proves the perfect antidote to post-election blues.

From the beginning, Mental feels clandestine and therefore magnetic. Near the railway arches between Deansgate and Oxford Road Station, in the incessant, torrential clichéd Manchester rain, I’m met by a girl in a purple Contact Theatre jumper. ‘Are you here for Mental? Can you see the man with a green hoodie on? Cross-over and he’ll lead you to the vacuum cleaner.’ I mistrust her sweetness and slightness, but I’m compelled to follow her instructions.

The young, hooded male leads me up some stairs, away from the downpours to a residential, unassuming block. The audience comprising twelve of us are taken up in the lifts. We are led into a flat and offered carrot cake.  I decline.

In the living room we sit on cushions and stare nervously at the centre-piece, a double mattress. A mournful, male disembodied voice with a Lancashire brogue gives himself a pep-talk ‘You can do this. You have to do this. They’ve paid for tickets. I can’t do this. I can’t do this.’ And suddenly, a few minutes in, Leadbitter surfaces from under the duvet, unexpectedly, confronting us with a shy gaze while a record player blasts the soulful Wake Up Everybody by Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes. 

Leadbitter mourns the election result and asks us if we’re ok. The atmosphere is already painfully familiar without this intimating rhetorical question.  His direct method draws us in, and he proceeds to tell his us his story creating a relaxed atmosphere by the lo-fi accompaniments of record player, overhead projector, lamp and FUCK OFF mug (a desecrated Starbucks logo), which entertainingly forms part of his story.

Doing away with acts or breaks, Leadbitter structures his piece with the aid of his overhead projector, 1999-2003, 2003-2009, 2009-present. This overall structure seems to be more in line with the episodic nature of silent film, the novel-like style of The Royal Tenenbaums or the wonderfully slapdash approach of American Splendor, weaving jazz, comic, film and theatre together in a decidedly post-modern piece.

In a tattered, navy turtle-neck dress, Leadbitter beguiles us with his stranger than fiction tale. Appropriating the language of the state (psychiatric and police) on him, makes him reclaim his own story. Leadbitter’s gentle persona makes you forget that the story that he is telling us is quite potent in its scandal. His dead-pan, comic and at times blunt delivery softens the shock of the brutality of the state – whether mediated by psychiatry or by the police.

The two strands of his story are woven intricately (and one could say interchangeably?) – one is his history of mental illness, the other his history of activism. On the one hand he is labelled with ‘borderline personality disorder’ by psychiatrists, and by the police as a ‘domestic extremist’. These labels smack of the Orwellian nightmare, and reflect the language used by politicians post 9/11. One could levy these labels at the present elected party in the UK is my immediate, recurring thought during the performance.  

His cartoonish escapades (the lawsuit Starbucks made against him, protesting against Eon, getting dressed up as a clown as a group of activists) could descend into bathos, were it not for the darker, truly shocking accounts of police brutality he weaves into his story. In 2009, he was protesting peacefully in London, and on that fateful day, Ian Tomlinson was beaten by a police officer whose brutal blows contributed to his death. Leadbitter visibly shakes as he tells us about being kettled by the police, unable to leave the scene of police criminality.

Alternating violence with humour, Leadbitter pulls out a Borderline Personality Disorder for Dummies guide returning us to a more light-hearted place. The relief is only temporary as the almost forgotten carrot cake ends up being a tragic part of his story – the last meal he wanted before attempting (almost successfully) to kill himself. This denouement is raw and deeply felt by the audience – part sick joke, part genius, part indigestion and part immense sadness.

The only slightly troublesome note arrives when Leadbitter breaks to ask for a hug from a member of staff. This criticism could seem utterly heartless, but despite the clear pain in his story, the request for the hug seems gratuitous or as if it’s part of the performance itself, and therefore slightly contrived.

Leadbitter’s great strength is that the pain doesn’t stay just pain. It is mediated into Art. With the backdrop of another  disco treat Love is the Message,  Leadbitter tells us  about Ship of Fools, an irreverent and inventive take on his own pain, an artwork where he sectioned himself in his own flat, for 28 days as an imitation of a Section 2 under the Mental Health Act 1983. He invited artists and friends to spend time with him, and was able to convince doctors not to section him. In parodying the psychiatric system of containment for his own purposes, he is able to both make an important comment on and take back his personal freedom. His perspicacity in not just surviving pain but making it indivisible from his process as artist astounds. 

The act of mere existence, of difference is affront to the establishment. In some very small, but not negligible way, the very act of being here, listening to his story, feels like protest. Mental couldn’t feel more relevant as Art and protest in these Citizen Four times. In telling us his story in a particular way, he is able to remind us that the personal is the political. 

Despite the myriad revelations, the end result doesn’t feel like an over-wraught confessional. Leadbitter’s piece defies straightforward labels. Part documentary, part DJ, art performance, testimonial. He is a technicolour Charlie Chaplin, regaling us with his ludicrous (but strangely true) Hannah Barbera misadventures that are peppered with huge amounts of personal pain but somehow don’t feel too burdensome. 

As I walk away from the performance, going to meet my sister for post-election drowning of sorrows, I pass the homeless protesters camping out in tents outside Central Library. The landscape feels alien; like the worst dystopia you could imagine, except it isn’t. It’s real. Leadbitter’s activism, protest, art and life feel more relevant than ever.

By Eli Regan

Saturday, April 18, 2015


All images and text: Eli Regan

Madrid; cameraless

It’s funny to be a photographer without a camera. You can’t help 
seeing the experiences before you photographically even though you 
curse the fact that it is broken. Still, maybe the experiences ring 
truer in your head because you’re not allowed to mystify the moment 
into a single photograph or succession of shots.

Madrid, especially the centre exists as a fluctuation of the same 
people, same faces. They appear, as if by osmosis long walks away from 
where you originally saw them, just as you do for them.

And then its stationary people make their mark - the man with the White Afro in 
a self-styled navy uniform sits outside the McDonald’s of Sol for hours observing 
people, but only the ones that meet his gaze straight on, like a 
focused camera or automaton war photographer. He does not beg, only 
sits there. The armless men shaking their plastic glasses with their 
mouths, making self-mocking rhythms out of their misery and desperate poverty.
You feel an urgent surge to ignore them and you revile your first reaction.

The gypsy women with romero in the Retiro, accusing you of having a 
friendly face and not living up to it. Americans with 
heavily accented tones shout ‘Plaaaasai Meiiiyour’ to denote Plaza 
Mayor, an Irish woman precisely and politely answers a Spanish 20 
something old boy with a hair bun’s questions, a couple get mugged at 
night 50 metres before us - the perpetrator snatches the bag so fast it 
is almost invisible to the naked eye. (If we hadn’t bought that barra 
who knows what could have happened… we ponder rather smugly).

On the first night Mark and I sit in Plaza Mayor and this South American chubby woman
in her fifties sits next to us, all dolled up with red top, white tight jeans and red heels.
This bald guy starts leers at her from a few metres away,  a 
Spanish equivalent of Grant Mitchell. She goes Niño, ven pa’ca
Realising that the older-than-Mitchell lookalike has been in the same 
spot for about a minute, I make awkward hand-gestures, trying to make Mark
 realise we need to leave. He innocently asks ‘why?’.

The fact that this conveniently rouged lipped woman is a whore doesn’t 
strike me with the poignancy of ‘The Boxer’, a Simon & Garfunkel song… 
Rather, I feel like belly laughing! She isn’t after all Iris in /Taxi 
Driver/, she in her 50’s, or at the very least in her 40’s… She enjoys 
the role too much for it to be anything other than funny. The strange 
man is after all, not a stranger, but more likely to be one of her regulars.
I can tell by the way they sit closely and chat amicably, 
like friends, and not two people about to strike a bargain.

Another day, I think the next, we’re waiting for the Metro to arrive 
and I can feel this strange, persistent and painful poking in the same 
area of my back, but I keep turning back and I can’t see who the 
culprit is. I finally clock him and expecting him to be a child, 
unwittingly glare at him. The culprit is in fact a man in his 80’s and 
the owner of bright green neon trousers. He declares: “Qué pase el 
ciego, hombre!” I quickly get out of the way to make way for the blind 
man. The old man treats his role in the situation gravely with a  knowing sigh 
and look in his eyes, as that of saviour, as if this simple, irritable but charitable gesture absolves him forever of all wrong-doing in his long and full life…

Monday, April 13, 2015

Madlove (part of the overall exhibition Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age at FACT, Liverpool 5 Mar – 17 May).

Described by the artist and activist the vacuum cleaner, as ‘a desirable and playful space to go mad’, is Madlove, an installation showing as part of the overall exhibition Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age at FACT, Liverpool. Perhaps the most notable aspect of Madlove is its position. It welcomes you immediately with its colourful, crazy arms, beckoning you as you enter FACT from the street. Whereas psychiatric hospitals are shut away from society at large, this is in an open, public space – proud, loud, unabashed, challenging notions of mental illness as ‘other’.

A makeshift bookcase painted bubblegum pink with the absurdist title Staircase to Nowhere entices me with its copy of Roger Ballen’s photobook Asylum of the Birds. I make my way to the coquettishly entitled Turkish Delight, a small tent-like structure, whose red-cushioned insides remind me of the hallucinatory red room in Twin Peaks and its outside of the cartoonish tent in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. The atmosphere is cocooned, almost womb-like and I look at Ballen’s surreal, primitivist black and white pictures, eerily aware that this is not the sort of book that would be typically on offer to psychiatric in-patients.

When I venture out after that delightful respite, I’m greeted by Weather Station, a series of white, large umbrellas hanging upside down from the ceiling instantly making me recall the ‘I love to laugh’ scene from Mary Poppins. The soft furnishings and manic, child-like, almost psychedelic colour scheme might seem at odds with its desire to present itself as a comforting space to ‘go mad’ and yet Madlove is both zany and soothing.

Although very much a public project, informed by the artist’s own experience of mental distress and his stay at psychiatric hospitals, as well as the public – service users, mental health practitioners, artists etc, Madlove is not immune from echoes of vast swathes of conceptual art and Pop Art. Abstract painter Bridget Riley springs to mind, which is particularly interesting given that her trademark stripes recently have adorned the corridor of St Mary’s hospital in London. In this way, the art world and health world seem to be engaging a lot more lately, as if playing a mutually beneficial, unending game of ping-pong.  

It is telling that in an arts venue renowned for its indelible relationship to technology, I’m drawn to the most organic artwork on show. The rest of Group Therapy is provocative, almost overwhelming as it successfully tackles our difficult relationship with the digital and its effect on our communal mental health. The darkened, enclosed, encased galleries offer the viewer a dystopia which is disconcerting and challenging. They prey on our vulnerability reflecting our addictions and discomfiting relationship to technology.

Finally, I pay a visit to Cooling Tower, a tall structure painted in the brightest yellow and orange stripes. The note accompanying the work urges the viewer to Let off some steam and scream. In its padded, red, cushioned insides I don’t feel I need to. I’m suitably lulled.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Exhibition Review: DPRK by Philippe Chancel at the Open Eye.

Eli Regan
Exhibition Review

Location: Open Eye Gallery, Wood Street, Liverpool.
Photographer: Philippe Chancel.
Subject: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK); the last Stalinist regime
Population: Approximately 23 million
Title of the show: DPRK

And so on, and so forth. The facts could continue in this deconstructed manner and they would be a truer reflection of the eerily symmetrical, highly stylised photographs on display by French photographer, Philippe Chancel.

Chancel was born in 1959 at Issy-les-Moulineaux. He became a photographer at 22, after studying Economics and Photography. It was around this time that he started photographing Eastern Europe, in a reportage fashion. Since then, he has developed a very neutral, balanced style for which he is known. He regularly photographs other artists and their studios, such as Anselm Kiefer and Christian Bolstanki. There is certainly some of Bolstanki in ‘DPRK’ (e.g. Dead Swiss), though perhaps less personal and presented on a larger scale, and formally as Lambda (similar to LightJet) prints on Diasec.

As I enter the gallery, I’m instantly overwhelmed by the seamless geometrics. Muffled sounds emanate from the back room so inevitably I venture into it, hoping it does not contain any eminent North Korean officials. The muffled sounds materialise as footage shot by Chancel entitled ‘DPRK sequences’, a 12 minute video, reminiscent of Amber Films. We are presented with the first scene in which the camera stands motionless as a witness, focused on the statue of Kim Il-Sung and slowly people start entering the picture, transfixed and hero-worshipping the statue, celebrating one of the state’s endless ceremonies. We are presented with footage of people crossing a bridge, and after that the focus is on ‘the changing of the guard’, except in this case they are female traffic wardens. Chancel then focuses on another ceremony, one of many state-choreographed dances, with ladies adorned in fuchsia, neon green and yellow garments. There is a man in the middle constantly waving a North Korean flag and as they dance we hear operatic, shrill music, no doubt chanting of the immortality of the Great Leader.

The film plays incessantly and is reflected on a particularly striking photograph, perhaps strategically positioned so you can absorb both realities at once. The photograph in question bears the caption: ‘Lips, uniform, and pin badge’. It is an arresting image, presenting us with a close up view of a female guard, possibly belonging to the army. The lips are full like those of a filmstar and yet she remains embedded in the mass anonymity with uniformed bodies extending beyond her, in a sort of Matrix reality. Chancel reinforces the obscurity of the person presented to us by narrow depth of field, focusing on the badge, highlighting her belonging to DPRK. Periodically, I catch glimpses of the dancers of the film reflected onto ‘Lips, uniform and pin badge’, strengthening the importance of ritual. While this back room is the stronger of the two rooms, my attention turns to what the leaders of the nation would say about this gallery. They would surely turn their nose at such a small, inconsequential gallery. And while the latter is not necessarily my view it does seem ironic that a minute gallery would contain such a grandiose subject like DPRK. There are slight problems in this back room like a damp patch on the ceiling and chairs stacked on a higher part of the subdivided wall, nothing too concerning and yet it this is slightly at odds with such precise, monumental imagery. There are 129 photographic illustrations in the book accompanying the exhibition, of these very few images can comfortably fit in the Open Eye. Having said that, the curator seems to have made the right decision in selecting the photographs we see on display.

In them, we find clear themes emerging, such as surveillance, the aesthetics of horror, idolatry, ritual as commodity and the importance of institution. Still in the back room, we find a photograph of a ‘War Museum Tour Guide, Pyongyang’. A female tour guide stands outside the entrance in an immaculate, military-like uniform. She stands in almost perfect symmetry in relation to both sets of open doors. However, her hands grasp onto each other slightly awkwardly, and there’s a shy, diffident look in her eyes, as she places one foot somewhat further than the other. Even though we can see her whole person, she remains as anonymous as the girl from ‘Lips, uniform and pin badge’, another machine cog employed by DPRK to encourage institutionalism and idolatry, as perpetuated by the state.

To gain some idea of how extreme this totalitarian regime is, you only have to log on the Korean press website and read some of nonsense: ‘They are full of optimism and firm resolution to perform feats in the hopeful New Year’. In reality, 2006 was the 11th year of food shortages in North Korea. Another article declares: “The great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung is immortal. The participants paid humble reverence to the statue”. In many of the images Chancel took, framed pictures of Kim Il Sung (d. 1994) and his son, present leader Kim Jong Il, are displayed, framed equally and positioned next to each other, like an all pervasive diptych, existing even on their underground carriages. Frankly, I am disturbed by ‘DPRK’. ‘DPRK’ and Chancel’s style of photographing seem the perfect marriage. Other Chancel subjects (including his London pictures) suffer from being too neutral and dispassionate. ‘DPRK’ is ideally rendered by Chancel, in that he manages to at both please DPRK’s officials and propaganda and horrify the rest of the world by confirming our suspicions and prejudices against this dictatorship. His pictures therefore exist in an awkward duality and irony that would have escaped other straight documentary practitioners. We are as horrified by what we see as by what we cannot see. Chancel himself says: ‘In North Korea I often had the impression of being in an immense open-air museum of communism.’ His impression of course is not a mirage at all, but North Koreans’ everyday reality. Chancel also remarks: ‘I constantly felt that I was living in a non-reality, a virtual world straight from video games’. I can relate to that in the photographs, but as I said before I constantly remind myself that this is their truth (or not, depending on the propaganda they are relentlessly being spoon fed). One photograph that stands out as being from ‘video games’ is ‘Singing rehearsal, Children’s palace’. Girls in uniforms of white, blue and red (uniform also worn by their Cuban contemporaries) sit rigidly while a fellow classmate dances. In the background swans are painted into the brick, flying and I can’t help equating the girls with these ‘bricked swans’, unable to flower, unlike the kitsch flowery floor. This interpretation might be ridiculous in itself, but it is the only photograph that can be read in such a way.

Another photograph stands out for its seemingly normal subject matter.
You can be forgiven for thinking that ‘Avenue’ or ‘Workers erecting scaffolding’ (as entitled in the book) has a more humanistic aspect to it than the other photographs on display. In reality it serves to confirm this autocracy more than most pictures. It shows the workers looking towards the sky, one in particular smiling, all of them transfixed as if smiling to their Leader, holding a rope. Of course, they are only working, but this is crucial to the communist regime. They are symbols, in the same way that Rosenthal’s victorious American soldiers erecting their flag were in the iconic picture. The gray smog that is the sky is ever present in every picture appears here too, and while people go about their business, I focus on a sign, of a man descending stairs. This is a contrast to the men looking up, but is more suggestive of their reality with no hope of ascending ranks.

In another photograph, we spy a tasteless mural, another permanent advertisement of the regime. In ‘The Grand Theatre, Pyongyang’, the overly sentimental mural resembles a sort of Sound of Music theme with military, dancers and children celebrating the regime with flags, while below real kids, women and men go about their daily lives. This mural is yet another reminder of the all pervasive despotic regime. Chancel contrasts the bright and brash mural with its drab surroundings and reminds us again of the human element subjugated under DPRK.

DPRK is the last Stalinist regime on Earth. Until it was occupied by Japan in 1905 as a result of the Russian-Japanese War, Korea was an independent kingdom. After World War II, Korea was divided with the northern half becoming Soviet ruled. It failed to vanquish the South (Republic of Korea- ROK), DPRK’s founder Kim Il-Sung took on ‘Juche’- a course of action meaning self-reliance as a counteraction to Soviet and Chinese influence. In 1994, after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il became his father’s successor.  Since the mid-nineties DPRK ‘has relied heavily on international aid to feed its population while continuing to expend resources to maintain an army of 1 million.’ With a population of 23 million, this seems not only excessive and criminal, but perceived as dangerous by the Western world. Its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programmes are viewed by the US especially with increasing trepidation.

It is therefore, seemingly miraculous, that Chancel had this unprecedented access to DPRK. I am rather uncomfortable with the thought that photojournalists and film crews risk their lives to secretly document such a closed regime as DPRK is and Chancel, through knowing someone connected to someone in high places in DPRK is granted permission to authenticate its realities (albeit the more superficial realities).

Here we are confronted with an important issue, access. To a certain extent, every photographer has to tackle the issue of access, but Chancel’s dealings with it are more profound than most because it is a subject that for most would be restricted. Chancel says: ‘Photography has always been an excellent pretext for being wherever I was. In North Korea I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I was.’ In Chancel’s statement we recognise an admittance of pure luck. His access is indeed limited, and he was accompanied all the time by guards or ‘guardian angels’ as he jokingly refers to them. As stated earlier, in some way this is the strength of Chancel’s document, that he only records state approved subjects: the dances, parades, ceremonies, monuments, institutions, workers, train stations, most of them presided by statues, murals, or photographs of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The horrors of the regime are absent except the silent horror of omnipresent orchestration of the citizens’ lives. There is a sense of utter compliance in the people; they are robotic with no room for any other ideology but DPRK’s. In ‘At the Revolution Martyr’s Cemetery’, one of the men carries a chrysanthemum while he looks warily at the camera, as do two of his companions. Chancel has captured in this otherwise unremarkable photograph, a reality less represented in the rest of the work. Those glowering looks speak of prohibition and the regarding of anyone foreign as alien, a spy, objectionable.

In this exhibition more than most we are challenged with the subject of state museums containing history and what this represents. The Open Eye Gallery no matter how small is state funded and as such is an emblem of the UK, just as much as its museums are North Korean symbols. In the book accompanying the exhibition there are far more photographs and one of these shows a sound library. I think this print should have been included in the exhibition. In the front of the room we notice the omnipresent portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong Il. In this picture endless radios/cassette players are shown, with people slouched over, as if giving into historical amnesia. To me, this picture is more chilling than any containing the statue of Kim Il Sung.

With ‘DPRK’ Chancel has created necessarily cold and stark imagery. There is no room for escape from these photographs, as there is no viable escape route for DPRK’s inhabitants. The atmosphere created in the Open Eye is of claustrophobia, and the constant playing of the footage replicates the idea of incessant propaganda and torture chambers. Only two couples (in the thirties/forties) came to see the exhibition in the two hours I was there. Most of the comments didn’t show much engagement with the subject: ‘Nice pictures’ and some joker had signed himself Kim Il Sung and written ‘My beautiful country’. The amount of time spent by both couples was not considerable, a reflection of art as commodity. Derrick Price states: ‘It may seem strange that works created to comment on current events are shown, divorced from any serious text, in the contemplative space of the gallery […] it is also a consequence of a change in intention  on the part of photographers in response to the pressures of the structure of contemporary communication’. While certainly it is necessary to read more in order to understand Chancel’s photographs, he is able to communicate visually very successfully the radically different reality that is DPRK. He focuses in on repeated motifs: statues, the diptych of Kim Il Sung and son, ceremonies, etc to create an almost definitive account of North Korea at the start of the 21st century. In presenting us with such calculating images we begin to unravel some of what it must be like to live in such a highly ordered, structured state with no room to manouvre. After spending a considerable time absorbing the photographs I decide I should leave soon. By the time I have left the exhibition, however, I am Winston Smith at the end of 1984.

Is documentary photography dead?

Is documentary photography dead? by Eli Regan (essay written in 2006)

The bigger picture does not exist. The nature of our existence in relation to the world around us dictates our capacity only to understand and see situations around us in fragments. The physical photograph allows us to revisit those fragments which were particularly memorable as we trapped them. The photograph is an isolated incident (however many situations/interactions are being shown within one photograph) free of context which represents our gravitas to subjectivity. However, to contradict the last statement or at least undermine it, it should be said that these rectangles and squares become in being trapped, liberated by constrictions of time and space and in their silence are able to provide the starting point for endless interpretations and possibilities.

This essay aims to begin to question and not necessarily resolve whether documentary photography is alive or dead in the 21st century. It aims to create a thoughtful debate by discussing a few aspects in relation to documentary photography: 1) Documentary photography and truth, 2) Postmodernism and its effect on the documentary genre, 3) Recent critics’ views on documentary practice within photography and 4) A brief discussion of a photograph by 20th century and 21st century documentary practitioner, Donovan Wylie.

1.Documentary photography and truth

I remember an image of a woman in Sudan crying out in the heat, maybe mourning the dead or the living in the front of The Guardian, deeply affecting me. I remember seeing the same image printed in the front page of The Independent months later referring to Sudan . It’s strange how I could not muster the same depth of feeling as I had on my first encounter of the image. It is not that the situation was any less torturous for the Sudanese, but I felt betrayed by the lack of current pictures. The chances are that my first encounter with the image of the Sudanese woman crying, was an archive ready-made commodity. The association of documentary photography with truth is a contentious one, and one much criticised by many documentary photographers themselves. In David Levi Strauss’ book of essays, “Between the Eyes-Essays on Photography and Politics”, he refers to Richard Cross, a photojournalist who covered the conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua between 1979 and 1983, as stating:
“In photographs, the priority seems to be on getting good shots, so to speak, shots of the news moment. And it’s a sort of unwillingness to come to terms with what is going on down there in a systematic way... I would opt much more for telling the story with lots of images and text that tries to relate what has been going on in El Salvador with what has been going on in the last 50 years in the world- things like the decline of neo-colonialism and the rise of independent nation-states.”

Documentary photographs can be used just as powerfully as text as political propaganda. With the aid of captions, cropping and editing these images are interpreted in endless permutations by the viewer, and in turn the media and or government have achieved their aim of misrepresenting the work of even the most socially conscious of photographers.

This fractured, deconstructed, overanalysed world offers us the chance to mistrust absolutely every picture we come across. There appears to be no medium between the media employing either immediate grainy mobile phone footage or hopelessly outdated images obtained from internet stock photography companies such as Corbis or Getty Images. The result of this is two fold: a public who is understandably, increasingly distrustful of the “truth” in images (be they outdated, edited, digitally manipulated, etc) and the lack of opportunities for idealistic photographers who still believe in capturing the essence of truth of a situation in various images (whether it be war, homelessness, local news, etc). The Guardian photographer, Don McPhee, spoke about the lack of opportunities for young documentary and photojournalistic practitioners in a talk about his exhibition at Manchester City Art Gallery in 2005. It is not that these documentary opportunities have completely disappeared, but in an era that demands information faster than any other generation before, quality and truth are often disregarded in favour of cost-effective immediacy.  In this climate of crisis, our hunger for photographs grows, as our cynicism also increases. Historical amnesia can have terrible consequences, and our incapacity to understand the present is causing short term memory loss even in the most discerning of people. The Orwellian nightmare is upon us and yet technology, for its all retrograde authoritarian, surveying, all-knowing power, can also be a tool for subversion, so frequently an aim of documentary photography.

2. Postmodernism and its effect on the documentary genre

There is a notion in postmodernism that refers to the concept of ‘partial histories’. To begin to understand this confusing social theory that so many discuss but not many comprehend, the concept of ‘partial histories’ is useful to grasp.

“Postmodern historians and philosophers question the representation of history and cultural identities: history as “what ‘really’ happened” (external to representation or mediation) vs. history as a “narrative of what happened”, a “mediated representation” with cultural/ideological interests… [As Walter Benjamin stated in “Theses on the Philosophy of History]: “every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.””

Once we begin to understand the idea of ‘partial histories’ as one of the hallmarks of postmodernism we see how much of an impact this has had on the documentary genre. Artists such as Willie Doherty from Ireland , are a clear exponent of this theory. His work, mostly filmic and photographic aims at understanding history through the blurring of reality and fiction, or his own political interpretation of Ireland ’s history. Doherty, in an interview with Tim Maul, says about his own work:

“ ‘The Only Good One’ drew on those cinematic clichés of the assassin and victim but attempted to not create a character but to try and assimilate or look at the mutual dependency of both of these positions.”

His work, therefore constitutes (as with Paul Graham) a blurring of the lines between documentary, propaganda and art, another recurring theme of the postmodern, the hybridization of cinema, photography, propaganda and surveillance into highly textured, complex pieces.

Doherty also explains:

 I had a different kind of knowledge of the place [ Derry ] than most photographers, I wanted to try and use that insider information and try to work around the existing images… I didn’t want to be a Journalist and I didn’t want to try and make work for newspapers or magazines and I felt that if I could find a position within the art world it might be a more interesting place to have some kind of debate or discussion, and to allow the work to be part of it.”

This bastardization of various genres in order to get to the root of the various problems but not necessarily find any answers is the great impasse of postmodernism. It is also its beauty, in that for all its pluralistic values, and cynicism about absolutes, it questions, subverts and challenges the status quo, and in turn can overthrow seemingly steadfast truths with rabid interrogations.

3. Critics’ recent views on documentary photography

It is not only the artists and photographers that are questioning the established order; critics do through their appraisals of documentary practice.

Echoing what Willie Doherty believes, Brigitte Lardinois and Val Williams state:

“the view of Ireland in photographs has always been a partial and biased one.”

While this is true of most history, Ireland is the perfect example of complex issues of politics, religion, tradition and conflict that do not seem to be understood widely and are dismissed frequently. They go on to say:

When attempting to place the work of Magnum photographers within a history of photography made in Ireland , one soon becomes aware of how fragmentary and unwritten both of these histories are.”

The word ‘fragmentary’ is perhaps one of the most useful, in order to understand the basis of postmodern thought. Everything is broken down, Tarantino style with little hope of a Hollywood straightforward narrative. Lardinois and Williams proclaim:

We change and modify our concept of visual history. For many Magnum photojournalists, the editing process which their pictures underwent could also be a re-writing of history. Ian Berry remembers well how selective editing of his work during the 1970’s could entirely change its political significance.”

This view brings us into line to the earlier view that Richard Cross had of editing. So much depends on our power to interpret or see beyond what is in front of us. People misconstrue postmodernism with the notion of rejecting history and modernism. In fact, it often desires to understand history much more objectively, however fragmentary, it recognises, its attempts are.

Alicia Miller in her essay ‘Return to the Real’, in source view is:

Experimentation in every artistic medium is what drives expression forward and there is a need to acknowledge the alternate forms of photographic expression that many artists are working with. It’s time to recognise this romance with the real for what it is- a nostalgic reminiscence with something we thought we knew.”

I fundamentally disagree with the above statement. While I agree for the need for photography to go forward, I believe as stated earlier that the truth of a situation can still be represented by the hybridisation of photography with other art forms. Photographs or series of photographs can also stand on their own, real, or almost hyper-real as displayed in the recent work of Julian Germain and Donovan Wylie. 

Perhaps it is useful now to discuss various photographs from Donovan Wylie’s recent portfolio: Maze.

4. Donovan Wylie’s ‘Maze’

Donovan Wylie. The Maze Prison. Prison cell. H-Block-5, B Wing 3/25, 2003.

The caption to the photograph confirms the cell-like, incarcerating nature of the photograph. Yet that light. That screaming light. Under the relentless scrutiny of that light, I can sense the loneliness of the many who slept there, almost realise the desire for constant dark, so as to not experience the metaphor come true of light showing the grime of the crime they may or may not have committed. The tree shaped air freshener hung from the curtains echoing the curtains themselves with tree-like motifs makes me stop and look at this particular photograph, examine it slightly more than the others in the series. Maybe this person did prefer the light, maybe he preferred light, cleanliness, air freshener. Maybe his mother had been the most house proud in her street, instilled in him a sense of the ordered.

Speculation is part of the attraction of postmodernism. Wylie, born in 1971, falls into the category of Generation X, a generation without marked out beliefs trying to carve their own reality. I would say he is most definitely a documentary photographer, but I would also say he practices documentary photography in a different fashion to previous documentary practitioners.

Documentary photography, therefore is not dead. It has evolved, but in this evolution, something has been lost. Some argue, like Miller, that it was never there, we just thought ‘we knew’. I think, previous photographers, tried, in the best way they could, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, to understand the essence of a situation and portray it as honestly as they could. This inevitably tended to be from the angle of a leftist political point of view, and therefore, biased, yet who could fail to admire their idealism and noble aims? Perhaps, many, but not me. We possess in our hands invaluable historical and social documents that teach us about wars and the working class man and family, more truthfully, I believe, than any other generation could have hoped for. History, as they say in postmodern circles, is always told from the victor’s point of view. Franco and Henri Cartier-Bresson. I know who I would rather learn my history from. 


1.   Lardinois, B and Williams, V. 2005. Magnum Ireland. London: Thames & Hudson.
2.   Strauss, D.L. Between The Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics. 2003. New York: aperture foundation.
1.  Miller, A. Winter 2004 (Issue 41). Return to the Real. Source: The Photographic Review.
1.    Irvine, M at Georgetown University, 2003.  The Postmodern, Postmodernism, Postmodernity: Approaches to Po-Mo. Available from [accessed 07/08/2006]
2.    Haul, T interviews Willie Doherty. Available from [accessed 25/10/2005]

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