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What Is to Be Done between Tragedy and Farce?

W Eugene Smith: More Real than Reality 


FOAM until 16 March

Activist Club: one of Chto delat?’s multi-disciplinary works SMART Project Space until 13 March

SMART Project Space first became acquainted with Chto delat? (What is to be done?), the Russian art collective, at the 2009 Istanbul Biennial. Una Henry, SMART’s creative director, was immediately impressed by the eclectic nature of the collective – artists, philosophers and writers – and thought it was a group SMART should start following. And so they did, inviting the collective to pioneer their ‘Statement’ series and offering them a two-month residency, which began in January and ends mid March. ‘We decided to make a change in programme, where we really start to think about artists who work in a very hybrid way,’ explains Henry, who appreciates Chto delat?’s multidisciplinary approach, which includes video works, performance art and newspapers. In fact, the artists have been granted total freedom to create a complete programme that includes an art exhibition, film screenings, lectures, workshops and performances, taking over the entire SMART Project Space. The group criticises the governing of post-Perestroika Russia in an informative but aesthetically engaging way. ‘We are not journalists, not just showing something from Russia,’ says Dmitry Vilensky, the group’s driving force. ‘We developed different methodologies.’

For example, in large murals that wrap around all four walls in some rooms, animal figures are used to reinterpret statistics on current affairs, such as levels of oil production, records of homeless people and tax revenues. Apart from the wall paintings, the exhibition features a room with wooden booths where visitors can watch the ‘Songspiel Trilogy’, a series of politically charged musical films, and a reading space with the collective’s published newspapers. Their main focus may be Russian society, but Thomas Peutz, founder and president of SMART, finds the collective’s capitalist critique to be a useful trigger for dialogue and reflection on the situation of immigrants to the Netherlands in a more general way. Refugees from Dutch camps play an important role in Chto delat?’s programme: some of them may participate in ‘The Shop of Utopian Clothes’, a clothes-making workshop with group member Gluklya (Natalya Pershina-Yakimanskaya), but they will also star in the collective’s new ‘Songspiel’ instalment to be filmed at the Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven), which is co-producing the piece with SMART. The film envisions a bleak, not-so-distant future when all refugees will be deported from the Netherlands, with a few lucky ones escaping to the museum, Peutz explains, ‘the last bastion of free thinking’. Catalina Iorga

The artists have been granted total freedom

54  February 2011

Before seeing the exhibition, I disapproved of the title ‘More Real than Reality,’ as I suspected W Eugene Smith would have. More journalist than artist, the father of the modern photo essay was passionately attached to the truth and would’ve rebelled against the idea that subjectivity tainted his reporting. Visiting curator Enrica Viganò, however, designed the exhibition as a kind of emotional journey, allowing for reflection on how the photographer’s frame of mind affected his reporting. Paradoxically, however hard Smith worked at keeping an objective eye, his essays focused increasingly on the harsher side of reality and FOAM’s chief curator Colette Olof chose to darken the walls of the museum as the exhibit progresses into darker subjects – a brilliant touch. In the first room, spacious and painted a pleasant light blue, which nicely enhances the gray-silver gelatin prints, Smith’s 1950 ‘A Spanish Village’ captures the essence of a small, traditional village in Franco’s Spain, with perfectly composed snapshots of first communions, wakes and funerals, and stolen visions of daily life, including the lovely portrait of a girl brushing her hair. In the second room, where the walls are a darker blue, his ‘Country Doctor’ series shares the space with ‘A Nurse Midwife’. Although they share a medical theme, the way these works are arranged on two different walls highlights the contrasts between the two series, created three years apart. ‘Country Doctor’ opens with whimsical and touching shots of children visiting the doctor, while on the other side of the room, every picture is dark, lacking light as well as hope. Smith spent months following a black nurse through the horrors of poverty-stricken South Carolina: there are no more shots

of children with booboos. When we reach Smith’s last body of work, the photo essay on mercury poisoning in Minamata – his most personal crusade – the sense of doom and despair is almost palpable in the small, dark claustrophobic room. We’re offered a unique chance to see the heart-wrenching ‘Tomoko being bathed by her mother’, which can no longer be reproduced, even though the masterpiece, quite rightly dubbed ‘the 20th century Pieta’ by Smith, could have been better placed and highlighted. It’s a dignified choice by Viganò not to milk the tragedy. This is where the exhibit should’ve ended. Going through the next corridor with portraits of the artist and the chronology of his biography humanises the man behind the camera, but it’s almost painful to enter the next room, a retrospective on Smith’s monster work on Pittsburgh – commissioned by the Magnum agency for the city’s bicentennial – which is so urban and detached that it places the viewer in the role of distant observer without a cause. The experience is not unlike falling out of love. The subtle, intelligent progression through an emotional four-room concentration of Smith’s mission has shown us reality, the one far away from our mundane concerns. Perhaps Viganò wanted to spare us the burden of walking out carrying Smith’s demons; maybe she wanted to remind us he was also an artist, a vehicle for visual pleasure, and leave us with ‘A Walk Through Paradise’, the lovely photograph of Smith’s children, rather than all this sickness and tragedy. This is another side of reality, undoubtedly, but one that seems fickle and complacent compared to Smith’s giant body of work: heavy with passionate social and political engagement. Marie-Charlotte Pezé

Juan Larra Spanish Village 1950: stolen moments from daily life