Bruno Boudjelal, Bentalha (2002) // Post-traumatic landscapes

I am currently working on a project about post-traumatic landscapes – the sites where atrocities have occurred and yet where no visible sign of the event remains.

I am looking in particular at the work of Hrair Sarkissian (Execution Squares, 2008), Bruno Boudjelal (Bentalha, 2002) and Paul Seawright (Sectarian Murder, 1988), whose work forms a contemplative counterpoint to the dramatic spectacle offered up by ruin and aftermath photography.

As part of this broader project, I have just finished a paper on Bruno Boudjelal’s work in Algeria (1993-2003), including images from his visit to Bentalha – a small town just 15km from Algiers, where 400 people were massacred on the night of 22-23 September 2002.

Bruno Boudjelal’s journey to Bentalha is a detour, an unplanned deviation which takes him to a site where – unlike the documentary photographer or photo-journalist – he is unsure what to do, which visual information to look for or capture. He arrives – as is perhaps always the fate of the photographic project – too late, in the aftermath.

http://www.agencevu.com/stories/index.php?id=17&p=10
http://www.agencevu.com/stories/index.php?id=17&p=10

The massacre presents itself obliquely, in the gestures, poses and demeanour of those who remain; in the stubborn residues that are produced by, survive and encircle it and in the inscrutable (though for this no less resonant) reconfiguration of the everyday that attends what we might describe as post-traumatic landscapes. Boudjelal’s photographs show Bentalha as a town much like any of the others that cluster along the length and breadth of Algeria’s poorly maintained roads. Water and mud collect in the streets, which are full of potholes and alternately dilapidated and half-built housing blocks. Pylons and power lines punctuate a landscape dominated by an overwhelming sense of dirt and entropy, as human constructions appear to slide back into the miasma from which they have emerged. The interiors are basic and unadorned. There is little or no furniture and only minimal traces of any human presence (for example an abandoned pair of trainers or a mirror). A simple standpipe set against the wall provides water; televisions are omnipresent.

And yet this apparent banality is punctured by a number of ‘poignant details’ (I draw here on the vocabulary that coheres around Roland Barthes’ punctum [i]) or strange bodies that are at once meaningless and meaningful, and which attest to the presence within the broader landscape of unincorporated residues from the past. In one photograph, two fully clothed men sleep on a rug on a bare floor, using their rucksacks as pillows. They do not stir as Boudjelal enters the room but remain indifferent to his presence. Nothing in the image enables us to understand what their circumstances are, how or why they have come to sleep here or indeed who they might be; and yet they articulate, obliquely, some connection we cannot understand with Bentalha’s past and the ways in which that past continues to contaminate or make itself present in the present. The sleeping men are a kind of ‘fistula’, a term from the biological sciences meaning ‘abnormal passageway’ and which has been appropriated by the historian Eelco Runia to describe ‘holes through which the past discharges into the present’, ‘a kind of “leak” in time through which “presence” wells up from the past into the present’. [ii] Another photograph is filled entirely with an expanse of rough concrete floor, stained with brown patches that may or may not be traces of blood. The photograph evokes Jean Dubuffet’s sols paintings, [iii] both in terms of its textured abstraction and the way in which it draws the gaze into its irreducible detail, while at the same time resisting all totalising spectatorial appropriation. This is a fragment or detail that is at once complete in itself, yet which points also beyond its own frame to an experience that remains outside the cognitive range of the spectator.

The representation of sites like Bentalha and events such as the dirty war must negotiate an impossible path between both a surfeit and absence of meaning. The hermeneutic, semantic and affective networks in which Bentalha is enmeshed and through which it discloses itself to Boudjelal in the aftermath of the massacre – even if he cannot make immediate sense of what presents to him while he is there, in the midst of the (unclaimable) experience – inevitably inflects the way in which the site signs to him and how he makes meaning of the site. The very name – Bentalha – carries a powerfully resonant charge, functioning metonymically as a cipher for the worst atrocities of the dirty war and the state’s (hidden and disavowed) involvement in attacks against its own citizens. And yet when Boudjelal visits Bentalha, what he discovers is an incarnated negative space produced by what happened there and which now structures what remains as a potent presence in absence. Everything in Bentalha points to the event, yet the event itself remains a hole in cognition – a blind spot.


[i] Roland Barthes, La Chambre claire: note sur la photographie (Paris: Gallimard, 1980).

[ii] Eelco Runia, ‘Presence’, History and Theory, vol. 45 (February 2006), pp. 1- 29, p. 16.

[iii] See, for example, Fruits de feu du sol (1959), a photograph of which can be viewed at http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/paintings/jean-dubuffet-fruits-de-feu-du-sol-5392548-details.aspx

 

Hull (again)

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The Reckitts chimney stands 141m tall. Located on Morley Street in Hull, it’s where Reckitts, in 1884, began making synthetic ultramarine (often known as dolly blue). Used as a laundry product, ultramarine prevents the yellowing of white fabric when it is washed and enhances the brightness of colours. It is now widely used in the cosmetics, paints and automobile industries.

Natural ultramarine was derived  from ground lapis lazuli, sourced in the mountains of Afghanistan. Artists reserved the use of this expensive bright blue pigment for their most important (usually religious) works. Cennino Cennini (b. c.1370 – c. 1440) described it as “illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect, beyond all other colors”. Vermeer used natural ultramarine extensively (Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, 1663-1664). In 1828, the French chemist Jean-Baptiste Guimet developed a synthetic equivalent, which was used for example by Renoir (Les Parapluies, c. 1880), Monet (Gare St Lazare, 1877) and Pissarro (La Côte des boeufs, 1877).

For decades, the chimney pumped sulphur dioxide into Hull’s atmosphere. My grandparents lived in Stoneferry, the area in which this factory was located. I remember the sweet smells drifting from the cocoa processing plant on Cleveland Street and the hot metallic tang of the factories by the river.

(Image licensed under Creative Commons; http://www.mylearning.org/local-history-pack–a-how-to-guide/images/2-1838/)

Marginalised sexual industries – Joshua Holt

All photographs by Joshua Holt, 2012.

This series looks to explore ways in which the sale of sex and items of a sexual nature seem to have been pushed into peripheral areas largely free of residencies and permanent communities. Sheffield’s red light district, as well as Pulse and Cocktails ‘sex superstore’ and The Crystal Suite massage parlour are located in and around the Neepsend area, which by day is a bustling industrial area and by night is largely abandoned.

It seems that the attitude of those who have pushed such things into these areas is one of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. It is as if the city wants to lodge them far back into its subconcious and avoid dealing with them properly. These images examine the places in which sexual industries (both legal and illegal) must go about their business and the marks left by them.

Joshua Holt, 2012

Finding paintings in Upperthorpe

Finding Paintings in Upperthorpe
   On 11th April 2012, I had a wander through Upperthorpe in order to find some source material for a forthcoming exhibition. I was looking for some found paintings. That is, accidents in paint that turn my head. I’ve been collecting them for years, along with stuff that looks like sculpture. (See http://foundpaintingsandsculptures.blogspot.co.uk/ for more examples).
   As I started it became apparent the Upperthorpe doesn’t have much in the way of this stuff. There are bins with hand-painted house numbers on them, but little else. I did notice that some brick walls looked like they’d been cleaned recently. They sometimes have a tell-tale scrubbed section in their centre, indicative of a graffiti clean-up team. I walked all the way up Upperthorpe to wear it touches on Walkey (and enjoyed a bagel and coffee at the New York Deli on Commonside), before heading back downhill on Springvale Road.
   It was a beautiful morning (though hail would pummel the place later on), but aside from some blossom, nothing much to photograph. I walked all the way down to the Tesco’s on Infirmary Road and then cut up through the nearby housing estate and woods (with seemingly abandoned skate bowl and five-a-side pen). It was here that I did find some stuff. On one of the green picnic tables someone had scribbled a circle in white paint and some trees nearby have pink spots sprayed onto their trunks. I’m assuming this is a death sentence of sorts. One tree had some thick pink paste on its trunk. On the housing estate I had seen the rendered wall equivalent of the scrubbed brick. Graffiti on these walls is painted over with neat, modernist, rectangles and two of these were painted on an end wall, either side of a rust stained outlet for an extractor. Perhaps accidental marks are more acceptable than deliberate ones.
   I turned uphill on Fox Road and ended up back at the small parade of shops. Just before that some has amended a reflective chevron sign, probably in order to make it more dramatic in the dark. Perhaps the black was fading and no new sign as forthcoming. The image has the touch of Jasper Johns or Jim Dine, which I like.
   Time was passing and I need to get back to the city centre, so I started back towards the blocks of flats. On Martin Street (or it could have been Oxford Street), I saw that someone had sprayed a radial design on the top of a bin. Erosion or something more deliberate had knocked it back, but it was still recognizable as a sympathetic piece of work. Just as I was leaving the district with only a few pictures, I noticed that – yes – someone had dropped a tin of white paint at the foot of one of the blocks. There’s always an accidental Jackson Pollock.