Global Documentaries – Your Comfort Is My Silence

April 23, 2007

by Ali Mincer



I went to Mark Durdens talk called ‘Global Documentaries’ at the Cornerhouse on Thursday. He spoke about Martin Parr, Paul Graham, Philip Chancel, Santiago Sierra, Andreas Gursky and Boris Mikhailov. He also referenced the work of Chris Killip and Nobuyoshi Araki. The images moved through both positive and mostly negative sexualised images of women and images of the working classes as either automatons or vulgar.


More than 50% of the images were actually of sexdolls, ‘tacky lipstick’, working class women sitting in dirty landscapes and Mikhailovs naked older women. We were even shown the place where women buy their shoes. Mark Durden selected the photographers and then selected the images. When he spoke about Philip Chancels images of Korean women he then spoke of ‘how sensuous, erotic, exotic’ they were. The audience was predominantly female. Talk about white noise – the torture method. I was told later I called out ‘I can’t take anymore – of these talks’. It took all my strength to stay in the room. Someone even called out ‘Do you think they have issues?’.


He told us that through these images of us, through these endless negative images of women and workers and the downtrodden, these men were revealing the very ‘ugly, shallow, hollow, tacky, fake’ face of global consumerism. No one was prepared to question the very holy grail of documentary though Mark seemed open to our questioning. I wondered why this work had more old boys colonial theory wrapped around it and were we to believe these photographers had in fact conquered us with their cameras? Whilst Mark seemed a very lovely person he was totally unaware of what he had just shown us. We offered alternative suggestions but Mark said he didn’t like their work. I explained that I found each individuals work very interesting but shown together in this particular context with these particular images he was giving out a very clear message. He also spoke of their influences including, Turner, Araki, Barnett Newman, Pollock, all male artists but no mention at any time was made of any female creative practitioner bar the fleeting barely audible reference to Sherrie Levine…


Ironically women have long been at the forefront of the deconstruction of those very images dealing with consumerist culture. From Barbara Kruger – ‘your comfort is our silence’ – to Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer to Jo Spence and many more. In lens based media for decades marginalised artists have been questioning these old boys visual clubs. How sad for us then that this mentality still persists in our institutions….


I went from there to the East German show at the Cornerhouse – the difference was pronounced and I wondered why that was. There wasn’t the same old boys colonial vibe to this show – it was predominantly women taking the images here and more than half the big hardback monograph books were by women. Very different from the documentary mentality in the West. I compared this to the old boy’s mentality I just witnessed in the talk.


I later called into a sweet shop and was confronted by long rows of photographs of naked, white, blonde haired women on the front of all the mainstream male magazines on the mainstream shelves and I knew I was back in ‘that mentality’ again…..


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