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Süden - The Villa Romana at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle
It’s Only a Step from a Miracle to a Disaster - Visiting the 55th Biennale di Venezia
Pictures of the End of the American Dream - Philip-Lorca diCorcia in the Schirn Kunsthalle
Enchanted Geography - Sarnath Banerjee: Forays through Berlin
The Subversive Potential of Hermès Scarves - Shirin Aliabadi discloses the desires of young Iranian women
MACHT KUNST - The Prize-Winners: Keep painting - Lovro Artukovic
MACHT KUNST - The Prize-Winners: Gray Zones - Radoslava Markova´s Emotional Landscapes
Theaster Gates: Inner City Blues
Violence and Creation: Imran Qureshi in the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

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Pictures of the End of the American Dream
Philip-Lorca diCorcia in the Schirn Kunsthalle


Philip-Lorca diCorcia combines documentary street photography and elaborate staging to create enigmatic images that resemble film stills or snapshots of some imaginary act. Now, the Frankfurt Schirn is presenting the photographer’s work in a major retrospective—his first in Europe. Sarah Elsing spoke to diCorcia about the exhibition, his photographs in the Deutsche Bank Collection, and the darker sides of American society.


Again and again, Katharina Dohm had to leaf through the illustrated book, which is now out of print. From front to back, and then back to front. A Storybook Life—a book of images by the American photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia taken between 1975 and 1999 left the curator of the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt no peace. “Something grabbed me and at the same time disturbed me,” she said. “And so I flew to New York and convinced diCorcia to do this exhibition.” The result is that the storybook life now unfolds in the Schirn, where it’s like walking through a photo book. From the beginning, where the artist’s somewhat frail father is watching TV in bed, to the end, where he lies in a casket in front of several empty rows of chairs. In between are 74 pictures in which diCorcia recorded friends and relatives in banal everyday situations. The brother renovating a ceiling, a woman ironing, a friend resting his punctured arm on a typewriter, as though he were about to begin typing. The images feel like documentary snapshots, and yet all of it is staged. These are moments frozen in motion that have no before and after. The woman will never finish her ironing and the friend will never write a novel. And despite this, the viewer still searches for a story behind the people, maybe even a “life story,” as the title of the series suggests. But it doesn’t exist.

“I think it’s more the enigma, the suggestion of the story that is intriguing to people,” diCorcia explains. “If they went further I don’t know if they would be interested.” Yet storytelling is something he is very familiar with. He had originally wanted to become a filmmaker. “During my time at art school I was very interested in film. I was interested on an aesthetic level, but just as much on an emotional level. Film's capacity to suspend disbelief and it affective power were and are something I admire,” he reports. Indeed, many of his photographs resemble film stills: they’re sharply lit and clearly staged. “That’s right. But films are not about style, they’re about a narrative. And the stories I sometimes make up about the people in my pictures are not strong enough for a screen book.”

DiCorcia’s most recent series, East of Eden, has an obvious fictional reference. Not only because the title refers to the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve, and the expulsion from Paradise. East of Eden is also the title of a famous Steinbeck novel—magnificently filmed with James Dean, who portrays the dark side of the American dream in an allusion to the story of Cain and Abel, in 1955. But East of Eden also has a very real basis: “It was really about the loss of innocence I think the whole world went through when the financial crisis started. The financial crisis was the beginning of an economic crisis that led to a political crisis. It took two administrations to learn that the war on Iraq was based on a lie, that Saddam Hussein didn’t work together with Al-Qaida, and that Afghanistan was an impossible country to transform. Now we have natural disasters that we never could have imagined before. And then there are all those people with no homes. I did feel some compulsion to respond. I never respond directly. But I had a distinct motivation for the conceptualization of the imagery.”
 
In the East of Eden images, the symbolism looks pretty dismal. Adam and Eve are a blind pair, he is black and she is white, and they are surrounded by what they’ve managed to hold onto in life—a modest home and a white Labrador. For diCorcia, the fact that the two are blind not only means that they can only participate in life to a limited degree; they have also lost a glimpse of paradise. “Blind people don’t dream. At least if they are blind since birth. They don’t have these floating images that we have in our dreams.” And diCorcia staged another version of Adam and Eve: in an all-white luxury apartment, two white thoroughbred dogs are staring at a porn video on TV. A moment of realization? A loss of innocence? Symbol of a perverted greed for luxury?

The problems America is suffering from are even more acute in his picture Iolanda: financial crisis, national debt, natural catastrophe. The skyscrapers of New York, those symbols of growth and prosperity—how absurd, and as what delusions of grandeur they must seem to the woman looking out from her hotel window. On TV, the next tornado is already spinning towards the city, but the woman is gazing at the tranquil skyline, with her reflection superimposed on the plate glass window.

DiCorcia has already used the device in earlier works, where he introduces a second level in the image by inserting a TV. One of the series Hustlers, in which he photographed male prostitutes in the early ’90s around Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, is Gerald Hughes (a.k.a. Savage Fantasy), about 25 years old, Southern California, $50. Gerald poses in a motel room wearing a bikini bottom with a keychain hanging from it. His black muscular body glows in the light of a television set broadcasting the Bill Cosby Show—the first American series to feature upper middle-class African Americans. A stark contrast to the man who charges a mere 50 dollars for his services and whose name, Savage Fantasy, speaks to the cliché of the “wild” black man.

DiCorcia is especially interested in people stuck on the bottom rungs of the social ladder. Outsiders, the poor and blind, prostitutes. This can also be seen his series of 2004, Lucky 13, whose title alludes to the American saying about how a streak of bad luck should finally come to an end. In a club, he photographed naked women pole dancing in acrobatic, erotic poses. Upside-down, their upper body parallel to the ground, held solely by braces wrapped around the pole. The slender bodies of the pole dancers shine white and smooth against a bar background vanishing into darkness, almost like the marble sculptures of fallen angels.

“That comes as a secondary result because of the lighting,” explains diCorcia. “But it’s necessary because I’m making a visual object. I’m not trying to offend people—visually at least. You are supposed to be able to look at the picture one time, twice, several times. It’s not like that kind of photography that goes ‘Boom’ and that’s it.” Indeed, there is an even deeper level behind diCorcia’s images. For him, the dancers are a metaphor for the people who fell from the towers of the World Trade Center. Almost all of them are hanging upside-down, as through they were falling. “I’m afraid of heights. The worst thing I could possibly imagine is falling out of high towers. I felt like the United States had made a kind of fetish about 9/11. So in my mind I put it together. But Eros and Thanatos are always connected in mythology. They are one side of the other.”

The 1951-born artist is often included in the Boston School together with David Armstrong, Nan Goldin, Mark Morrisroe, and Jack Pierson, who like diCorcia studied photography in Boston in the seventies. The concepts often cited in this context are “snapshot aesthetic” and “social outsider.” While there are common thematic and formal elements in the work of these five artists, each of them has nonetheless developed a highly individual photographic language. In any case, diCorcia rigorously rejects this label. He became known with his series Streetworks (1993–1999), in which he shot unwitting passersby on the way to work, at home, shopping, or while engaged in sports. As in the “Hustler” series, diCorcia first carefully chooses the location, camera position, and composition; he lights his sets with elaborate set-ups. He then documents everything in Polaroid. And then the passersby randomly enter this film set-like arrangement and trigger the “shot.”

DiCorcia’s favorite work is Cuba from 1999, which can currently be seen as a part of the Deutsche Bank Collection in the exhibition Stadt in Sicht (City in View) in the Dortmunder U. A second print is hanging in the exhibition in Frankfurt. “I was in this spot with a camera on a tripod for two hours before it started to rain,” relates diCorcia. “But when I looked at the eleven shots I took later, it seemed unusual because there was a lot within this small little street happening in these two hours. So I made a series of it. Cuba is actually my favorite one. Maybe because it just seems so incongruous. It’s probably cruel, but the woman on the site has enormous hips. And the man on the left is short and has crippled legs. The fact that he looks at her almost with desire I found interesting enough that it was demeaning to either one of them.”

Or London, also from the Deutsche Bank Collection and on view in Dortmund: a solitary businessman walks through the city of London. The streets and sidewalks are completely empty, although it’s the middle of the day. What is strange, however, is that the man is wearing headphones, which were not yet standard equipment for the modern big-city dweller in the late ’90s. He is deaf to the world, even though his surroundings are already empty and quiet. For diCorcia, this is a significant phenomenon of our time: “I feel like this is a kind of self-absorption. Those devices isolate people from what’s around them. I’m even sure of it because I ride a bicycle in New York City and people listening to their Ipod or Iphone or whatever with earbuds are dangerous. They don’t pay attention to anything other than themselves.”

The distance from Streetworks to diCorcia’s next series Heads (2000–2001) isn’t all that far. Instead of a hectic street scene in its entirety, he focuses his spots and camera on a single person. An old woman is hiding beneath her rain hat, a pimply teenager stares into space, a black security guard gazes at the floor in resignation. No one looks into the camera, because no one notices it. And despite this, one feels one can see something characteristic in these faces, something genuine and intimate. Even if the person portrayed has passed by a fraction of a second later. This shakes up the whole concept of classical portrait photography. After all, what is a carefully prepared, well-staged portrait worth if just as much can be recognized in a snapshot of a stranger?

It was precisely this element of “recognition” that proved uncanny to one of the people portrayed, an Orthodox rabbi. He recognized himself in an exhibition of diCorcia’s works and sued the photographer because he saw his right to privacy and freedom to practice his religion violated. But diCorcia won the case—as an artist. Yet he nonetheless distances himself from this title: “There is something quite sanctimonious in the word artist. Like they are a special breed. There is this famous Picasso quote that art is the lie that reveals the truth. But I just don’t believe that artists have some special connection to the truth. That may have been true for a few geniuses over the centuries. But in fact today most art is made for some very practical reasons: to decorate a bank lobby or for the ego of a hedge fund manager.”

When one takes another look at the images from the series East of Eden, new ideas come to mind. As ever, the Marlboro Man is riding his horse through the prairie. It could all be so very beautiful. But the land where milk and honey once flowed has been burnt to the ground. Eve, as stiff and pretty as a Barbie doll, stands frozen beneath a tree. In reality, even the apple tree that diCorcia made so dense and abundant with the help of Photoshop that even eternity didn’t seem to have anything on it, no longer stands. A hurricane ripped it right out of the ground. There could hardly be a more emblematic image for the death of the American dream—and doesn’t it contain en element of truth?


Philip-Lorca diCorcia: Photographs 1975 – 2012

Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt
Through September 8, 2013




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