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Public Life: Recording the blur

June 5–August 29, 2021
FotoFest

Francis Almendárez, Yan Wang Preston, Lindokuhle Sobekwa, Kara Springer


Perhaps the most immediate consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, starting in early 2020, was the issuing of stay-at-home orders by governments around the globe. Life became a series of events experienced through the windows of our homes and computer screens. The bombardment of serious social, cultural, and political headlines combined with the experience of adjusting to life in isolation produced a paradoxical temporal phenomenon wherein the pace of the world seemed to simultaneously accelerate and stand still. The exhibition Recording the Blur examines this temporal paradox through works by artists who are interested in the relationships between intimacy, identity, and introspection, action and reaction, place and production – concepts that have been challenged and redefined throughout the course of the past year. These artists turn their lenses to poetic moments that are loaded with complex cultural signifiers; signs that when considered in the context of pandemic time reflect shared global experiences and the post-pandemic vocabulary.

To create his series Denim (2021–), Houston-based artist Francis Almendárez used techniques typically reserved for fashion and stock photography such as high-key lighting and an infinity background to photograph a selection of denim jeans worn by his immediate family. By positioning these lived-in articles of clothing within the space of commercial photography, Almendárez proposes an exploration of value as it relates to global commodity production and circulation, labor, and image consciousness. The clothing depicted is lived in and faded – each crease line and mark on the denim textile serving as a material archive for the wearer’s movement and labor. For the artist, these traces signify not only the movement of the wearer, but also the movement of the people around the globe, such as his family members and other migrant communities who wear these denim clothes while working in physically intensive and essential worker environments. The artist’s placement and positioning of the clothing in heaped piles that resemble mountainous terrain extends this metaphorical representation. For the artist, the stark juxtaposition of aesthetics and ideas– between commercial images and the lived-in garments – highlights the ways in which value is produced and assigned via image-based media as well as the possibility of finding value in materials that contain the history, marks, and residue of time.

Yan Wang Preston’s series She and He (2018–19) is comprised of a series of portraits of Chinese students living away from home, who have moved to England to attend the University of Liverpool. Before photographing each student, the artist asked each sitter to consider questions specific to popular notions of gender-based identity. Each female-presenting sitter was asked “what is your daydream?” while each male-presenting sitter was asked “what makes you a man?” Preston’s interest was not simply to collect responses from the students, but to challenge her own preconceptions of gender by proposing questions that are difficult in relation to both the gendered nature of the ask itself, but also challenging when considering the complexities that exist between the cultural significance of gender identity, femineity, and masculinity in China and the U.K. When considered in the context of 2020-21, these works reflect recent cultural movements that have challenged gender and sexuality-based hierarchies and discrimination. The portraits serve as a frame through which to interrogate cultural differences while highlighting the complexity of identity by resisting the urge to represent singular or “typical” gender and cultural representation among the series.

In March 2020, during the height of global panic surrounding the spread of the COVID-19 virus, artist Lindokuhle Sobekwa touched down in his hometown of Johannesburg, South Africa following a brief trip to Houston where his work was on display in the FotoFest Biennial 2020 exhibition, African Cosmologies: Photography, Time, and the Other. Upon his arrival, Sobekwa quickly began documenting the incredible shift in cultural life in South Africa, using his camera to record the eerie silence and stillness of usually bustling streets, intense images of local police working to enforce Covid curfews and protocols, and the effects of the pandemic on the people in his community. The result of his documentation is a series of photographs that demonstrate a shared global experience of the pandemic: isolating lockdowns, food vendors struggling to make a living due to the nature of their in-person trade, and the witnessing of traumatic violence and protest online through social and news media. Sobekwa’s series does not focus on sensational moments and imagery, rather he juxtaposes tranquil images against images of intense movement and unrest, reflecting the pace of life during the current pandemic year when time simultaneously passes at a glacial pace and at lightning speed depending on the day, current events, and state of the virus.

Kara Springer’s series Untitled (Oil, Houston, TX) (2021) examines relationships between the resources that sustain daily life, care, and institutional and systemic violence. To create her work, Springer photographed industrial-grade thickened oil in her Houston studio, capturing the abstract patterns created by light reflecting off of the liquid surface. The artist’s choice to photograph oil was inspired by her experience of living in Texas, where the term “energy” is defined by the petro-energy industrial complex and where narratives of labor and extractive capitalism are written by those controlling the mechanisms and means of production. What is unwritten by these energy corporations are stories of environmental destruction, worker exploitation, and global effects of their extractive practices. This narrativization is further complicated by political rhetoric that supports the petro-energy complex by suggesting that these materials are essential to daily life despite the cost to global environmental, physical, and cultural health. Springer’s work serves as both a direct commentary on the reality of extractive capitalism as well as an allegorical reference to productive capitalism and the structures that support exploitation. Springer’s work creates space for viewers to think critically about the ways care and concern for life is sidelined for profit and production – issues that are discussed every day as concerns for public health and well-being are considered in media and politics against the cost of such care.