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Forced migration, trauma and remembrance in contemporary photography in new exhibition in Munich
Eva Leitolf, Passage, Melilla – Almería, Mediterranean Sea, 2009 (from: "Postcards from Europe"), 72 x 64 cm Inkjet Print, Text-Postcards. Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Sammlung Moderne Kunst in the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich © Eva Leitolf.

MUNICH.- Documenting political and social conflicts has always been one of the central tasks of photography. This newly arranged presentation of works from the collections focuses on the way that artists tackle the topics of war, displacement and forced migration. The works exhibited have evolved out of the artists’ engagement with the lingering after-effects of the Second World War, or are played out at the intersections of the so-called First and Third Worlds, be it along the US-Mexican border fence or on the external borders of Europe. Their complex visual narratives are based upon concrete events and critically reflect upon their historical representations and social relevance. They contrast images conveyed through the media and official histories with different readings, informed by personal perspectives.

In the work There and Gone, organised as a 124-part series broken up into three chapters, John Gossage (born 1946, New York City) develops a photographic essay about the border region dividing the USA and Mexico. Viewed from the US side, he depicts hazy figures on the beach of Tijuana, the subjects being shot with telephoto lenses or taken from surveillance cameras. In the second chapter, ‘Tracking’, in precisely framed images, he documents the no man’s land of the border zone, secured with a fence and with well-worn paths, hideouts and illegal entry points. The final chapter connects detailed perspectives of everyday life in California with phrases found on Mexican lottery tickets, without allowing a direct reference to develop between image and text.

In her series Postcards from Europe, a work in progress which has been continually evolving since 2006, Eva Leitolf (born 1966, Würzburg) investigates Europe’s relationship with its external borders and the growing flows of refugees. This series does not focus on the suffering of the migrants – something which has already been documented many times – but rather the social and political interaction with them. The locations depicted are stages of conflicts which have already been played out before the artist visits them. The traces of exclusion, violence and misery – only implicitly visible here – take on a concrete form through objective, fact-based texts which can be taken home as postcards, causing image and text to become intertwined, forming a time study which is both striking and disturbing.

In the form of a photographic re-enactment, Jeff Wall (born 1946, Vancouver) shows a young man from Anatolia, whom he had met just a little earlier. His re-staged arrival occurs in Mahmutbey, an outer suburb of Istanbul which is rapidly expanding through soulless housing developments. Mahmutbey feels neither urban nor village-like, but rather resembles some sort of a transit zone, providing neither points of reference nor orientation. The perspective chosen by the artist reveals a view of the distant horizon, but not of the place where the man is heading.

Roy Arden (born 1957, Vancouver) devotes his series Abjection to a long-repressed subject in Canadian history: the expropriation, internment and temporary deportation of people of Japanese ancestry after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Images of confiscated automobiles, which had to be handed over in an amusement park, are framed by depictions of Asian people who appear to be caged in, moving abjectly and submissively. Arranged in vertical compositions, the historical newspaper images are dominated by black, monochrome surfaces, which can be read as symbolizing what no longer can be seen in picture form.

The two images, blown up on document paper, show a view of the attic studio of Anselm Kiefer (born 1945, Donaueschingen). Only upon closer observation can one make out small figures and models on the sandy surface, which turn out to be tanks and soldiers. The scenery is reminiscent of the models used to plan a battle or military offensive. While a trinity of model chairs hangs suspended over a row of soldiers, the second image shows dangling ropes which seem to have been severed. Kiefer used these and other photographs, which he partially worked over with sand and oil in his artist’s book Märkischer Sand, which was published in 1976. They make references to German history, to war and devastation.

Cease-Fire, a book and exhibition project which comprises some 50 images, can be read as a kind of mental status report, put into images using photos which Michael Schmidt (1945–2014, Berlin) created in the 1980s in West Berlin. A mere fragment of an erstwhile metropolis rather than a functioning urban community, West Berlin was cut off both from the Western world and the East as a capitalist outpost, dependent upon financial infusions from the West German government like a slowly deteriorating patient. In this setting, a pugnacious subculture had developed, ranging from a radicalised squatting scene through to the punk movement. Though the wall can be made out in many of the images, this work does not aim to provide a documentation of the divided city, but rather a disturbing analysis in which grief, loss, pain and resistance all intermingle.

Curator: Dr. Inka Graeve Ingelmann, Sammlung Fotografie und Neue Medien

The exhibition is on view at Pinakothek der Moderne, Sammlung Moderne Kunst through 1 October, 2017.

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