A Biennial in a Book


Blink is the latest entry in Phaidon’s ambitious series of contemporary art survey books, and the first devoted to photography. It follows two fat volumes on art, cream (1998) and Fresh Cream (2000), and one, 10×10 (2000), on architecture, all of which have adapted the same shrewdly straightforward format: Each of 10 curators is invited to choose 10 artists who have come to attention or broken new ground within five years of the book’s publication. The result is in every case a highly opinionated showcase, a biennial in a book, with the same attendant pleasures and problems. Because the curators are chosen with broad, international diversity in mind, none of these projects involves a coherent consensus, and their too-many-cooks inclusiveness can feel random or chaotic at times. But Phaidon’s format feeds on that chaos, which is, after all, emblematic of the post-postmodern moment, and makes exhausting overabundance a virtue. Since no one but the most intrepid biennialite is likely to be familiar with all the artists in any one of these roundups, the books provide armchair gallerygoers with a valuable opportunity to sample work that may never come to their country, much less their neighborhood MOMA.

Phaidon doesn’t claim that its curators are the ultimate arbiters in their field, and none of them occupies the few remaining establishment posts that can make or break a reputation. But the idea here is less about wielding influence than exercising taste, and there’s no question that the Blink crew are in a position to know what they like—most of them are also photographers in their own right. The book’s curators include Paul Wombell, the director of London’s excellent Photographers’ Gallery; Christine Frisinghelli, co-founder and editor of Camera Austria; Simon Njami, co-founder and editor of Revue Noire; Wendy Watriss, the artistic director of Houston’s biannual Fotofest; Marcello Brodsky, president of Latin Stock, a network of agencies representing photographers from Latin America and Spain; Dennis Freedman, creative director of W and Details; and Joan Fontcuberta, the devilishly clever Spanish photographer, who is also co-founder and editor of Photovision. Shuffling their collective 100 choices and putting them in alphabetical order helps subvert the star-making machinery inherent in projects like this, but it doesn’t entirely remove the temptation to trumpet an artist or an idea that is best kept to oneself.

I’m not saying the curators’ choices are in any way suspect; in many ways, they’re exemplary: unpredictable, idiosyncratic, impassioned, and—quite literally—all over the map. Because no one curator can dominate the process (and project editor Antonia Carver slips in a quick opening note, then remains discreetly behind the scenes), critical orthodoxy is both dissipated and undermined. In its place is an (almost) anything-goes freedom rare in surveys of contemporary art and photography—an encouraging openness in what often seems an arbitrarily closed system.

In Blink, this means photojournalism, diaristic documentation, and fashion work exist alongside a broad range of fabricated, fictional, and conceptual images. Steven Klein, Uta Barth, Samuel Fosso, MassimoVitali, Beat Streuli, Carrie Mae Weems, Boris Mikhailov, and Helen Van Meene—to cite a few of Blink‘s more immediately recognizable talents—might not have found genuine common ground here, but it’s important to see them side by side, sharing the same virtual exhibition space. It’s even more important to see these already established names alongside artists whose reputations have been nurtured primarily in their own countries, some of whom are receiving international exposure for the first time here. Not all of them are great—that would be too much to expect. But many of them are exactly the sort of discoveries a book like this promises but rarely delivers.

Many of these new names come from Asia and Africa. In his curator’s statement, Njami says, “knowing that the African continent would probably be the area with which my colleagues would be least familiar,” he chose only photographers from there. But as he points out and his selections make clear, “If there is such a thing as African photography, it is, like African languages, multiple, ambivalent, contradictory.” Among his choices are Fosso, whose obsessive self-portraiture toys with gender and identity whether he’s outrageously costumed or outrageously naked; Yto Barrada, who opens a brilliant window on Morocco with her crisp, sophisticated social landscapes; and Otobong Nkanga, whose blurred, on-the-road images of wrecks, signs, and debris suggest a country at once mired and relentlessly on the move.

To their credit, most of the curators display a similarly wide-ranging appreciation for stylistic variety. Although Freedman chooses only photographers who work in fashion either exclusively or occasionally (including Steven Klein, Craig McDean, Tina Barney, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, and Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin), they have little in common except audaciousness and a healthy disdain for bland naturalism, and few of them would be here without him. Like Njami, many of the curators bring a lively knowledge of their continent or their specialty to the project, with Brodsky being responsible for many of the terrific Latin American photographers here, and Shahidul Alam, the head of Pathshala, the South Asian Institute of Photography, bringing in excellent work from that region, notably the vivacious, documentary-style ad images of India’s Swapan Parekh.

At the end of the book, each of Blink‘s curators is given space for a brief personal statement. To help “locate the photographers’ work within current debates,” according to editor Carver, they were also invited to select a pertinent text—”a recent piece of writing which has struck a chord with their experience of photography.” Since the curators annotate each of their selections with descriptive assessments, readers will have already had a taste of their prose style—sometimes punchy, sometimes pungent, rarely off-putting—but those short paragraphs don’t really prepare us for the shock of confronting their more generalized opinions head-on. To be fair, most of their statements are modest and thoughtful, full of enthusiasm for the work they’ve brought to the mix and optimism about the state of the medium. “This is a golden age for photography,” Watriss asserts, comparing current “dynamism” with the fervor of the ’20s and ’30s, when Bauhaus, constructivism, futurism, and surrealism coexisted with engaged photojournalism and classic modernism. “We live in uncertain times,” Alasdair Foster, director of the Australian Centre for Photography, begins, but that’s a good thing: “In an age of uncertainty, ambiguity becomes insight; reality is found in paradox; and truth becomes relative.” Fontcuberta argues that “in an age marked by the predominance of . . . images conceived in terms of spectacle, propaganda or consumption, it is well worth restoring a certain ethical sense to the image.”

But however direct and appealing their approach to these personal statements, many of the curators go on to choose texts of such dismaying opacity that few are worth reading all the way through. Frisinghelli’s selection—an essay by Christian Höller whose title, “Image Work: The Symbol-Political Dimension of Contemporary Image Production,” should be fair warning—is perhaps the most egregious, but far too many of these pieces are exercises in the academic absurd. All the jargon and slippery thinking I was relieved not to find in the previous 418 pages erupts here in a thick sludge. Freedman’s choice—succinct excerpts from Arundhati Roy’s vividly written The God of Small Things—is a welcome relief, but Watriss provides the best antidote to all the self-important nonsense in the form of a conversation between photographer Vik Muniz (one of her 10 choices) and curator Charles Stainback. Even though Muniz is talking primarily about his own work, his remarks are illuminating and instructive. “Reality or representation?” he asks, touching on a key concern for contemporary photographers. “As soon as I discovered how similar these two notions are once they become visual information, I began to feel more comfortable using this polarity to my advantage.” Rather than tangling us up in cant, Muniz connects impulse to image, and helps put Blink back on solid ground, where it began.

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