What Remains Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College Chicago
In the world of physics, displacement refers to how far out of place an object is – it is the object's overall change in position. By definition, displacement is what is referred to as “direction-aware”: meaning when an object changes its direction of motion, displacement takes this change in direction into account by heading into the opposite path effectively to cancel whatever displacement there once was. In What Remains, artists Barbara Diener, Lieko Shiga, Pao Houa Her, and Jon Rafman illustrate this scientific term by revealing the transference of their full beings: their physical, psychological, emotional, and experiential selves through exploration of profound feelings of displacement. Consciously and unconsciously, each artist interlaces feelings of loss, of being unknown, of significant tragedy into actual, real images of anxiety-riddled histories and conceptual falsehoods. Each carefully expresses one of the most unsettling human experiences, but also the possible reunification of their identities through the documentation of geography, culture, space, and time. Instead of leaving me with just depictions of fractured experiences, each offers beautiful, dense intersections of the past and present – each beginning to pull me to a new native place, rich and instinctively “home.”
Collectively, our relation to place derives from the very nature of human thought – experience and identity can be established in and through place. German born artist Barbara Diener presents Sehnsucht: a German compound word derived from yearning (das Sehnen) and addiction (die Sucht). Though the full meaning is not adequately translated, in this instance it refers to a longing for someone or something that cannot be fully defined and will most likely never be found. It’s a heartbreaking word and its sentimentality appropriately resonates in Diener’s images.
Deiner began the series by photographing small towns that are demographically similar to the town in Germany where she was raised though recently they have become more about the overall sense of community maintained while a rural lifestyle deteriorates. It is this perspective, of attempting to define the abstract feeling of comfort one equates with home, that highlights the dichotomy of the somberness of the inhabitants contrasted with the natural beauty of the landscape Diener frames, further questioning the incomparable solace of an unreachable place in correlation to the memories of home.
The sadness and emotional distance expressed in Diener’s photographs is palpable, like a lump in my throat. They bring little relief – echoing the artist’s sentiment that what she is searching for is elusive, even lost. The crisp, high-definition images are in stark contrast to the subject and figures they depict, neither connecting head on with the camera, aesthetically echoing the invisible disconnection. Deiner finesses a beautiful, seductive palette – romantic and bittersweet. Each image is muted just enough to embrance the somber attitude they depict, but not so dull as to remove an ever-present hope of reconnection the artist (and I) seeks. Diener successfully reveals the human need to feel deeply connected to a particular place, however simple or complex, apparent or invisible, actual or implied. It may be in a delicate whisper, but it is exquisitely present nonetheless.
Negotiating parallel worlds, Japanese artist Lieko Shiga presents Rasen Kaigan which directly translates into spiral / helical-morphology coast. In 2008, Shiga (in the artist’s words) “met a place called Kitagama,” a small, intimate village in the North East part of Japan facing the Pacific Ocean. While residing in Kitagama, she became the resident photographer: documenting official and unofficial activities, recording the personal histories of the residents, and capturing previously invisible moments. Shiga’s physical and psychological tie to this place and its residents is evident in her work – these photographs became her ritual contribution to their society. Sadly, in 2011, the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated the coastal village and many possessions (including Shiga’s photographs) were washed out to sea. This destruction, personal and collective, dramatically altered Shiga’s work – shifting from documentation and commemoration to capturing the surreal and exaggerated version of this beautiful place now ravished by unthinkable tragedy.
Shiga’s images are lush: rich palettes with bright, almost neon pops of color against deep black, unexpectedly glossy backgrounds. These post-apocalyptic images of the place that was her home that is no longer inhabitable, a lived reality that is now merely a shadow of her former way of life, are surprisingly bold, over-sized, and over- whelming. With distinctive points of crisp focus amid cave-like backgrounds, the subjects and objects of her images are omens and totems, distorted yet just to the near edge of visual understanding. By forcing objects and figures to the very forefront of her picture planes, Shiga reminds me that we, as humans and as communities, are resilient. Our lives and homes and identities do not wash away into an unknowable abyss – hope, perhaps the resolve to survive is more appropriate than hope, is ever-present. Interestingly enough, conceptually, Shiga also intended Past, Present, Future as a title for this series. In the space of photographs, and I believe in life, there is no past, present or future; however the ability to exist in all three arenas is an engaging subject for contemplation, celebration, and prayer.
The muted palettes and direct, severe gazes of the subjects in the photographs by Pao Houa Her ponder the universal human desire to narrate one’s identity as they reveal the limits of our ability to frame our multifaceted selves for both personal understanding and outward expression. The eyes of her subjects seem to welcome me to the second floor of the gallery and then continue to follow me around the room. Even behind corners and out of view, I can still feel their gaze against my back – they are haunting and wanting and poignant. A refugee from Laos currently residing in Minnesota, Her depicts the duality of her Hmong-American identity through color portraits of herself, her family and her community. A synthesis of cultures, Her explores the complicated and often un-glamorous interaction of these two identities – a blurry distinction between lived realities and pursued fantasies.
At once both actual and pretend, a desire to belong and to be seen is evident in all Her’s subjects – even her images of fruit trees and fanciful cars. I am instantly empathetic. It is transparent that each figure is desperately trying to let go of something, but at the same time reaching for answers and acknowledgment that never seems to appear. Her’s own search for histories, memories, and answers is evident as she carefully depicts the intersection of immigrant and citizen. Through beautifully crafted images, Her invites me to acknowledge that this pursuit is universal – everyone struggles to live lives of self-knowledge, of achievement, of intimacy, and of solace.
Canadian artist Jon Rafman presents Codes of Honor, a video work exploring a now defunct gaming community and arcade formerly housed in Chinatown Fair in New York City. Partly fictional, partly autobiographical, the piece presents personal accounts of pro-gamers’ most intense gaming experiences while a narrator reflects on his loss of purpose, camaraderie, and achievement since giving up pro-gaming. I find this work the least interesting of the exhibit, perhaps because I have little interest in gaming (in-person or otherwise). Though I concede that the ideas of place can be considered beyond land and geography (and should be explored), it feels out of place in comparison to the other works in the exhibition. Perhaps it is the nostalgic nod to what feels like a childish endeavor; but the work feels amateur, especially in the context of Rafman’s other works.
With a title like What Remains, I entered the museum with deep anticipation that the works will be emotional, impactful, and rich with meaning. An exhibition that, in the words of MoCP’s Assistant Curator Allison Grant, “registers the profound connection between human identity and place through artworks made by artists who are physically dislocated from their home or community…suturing together environments that exist across expanses of space or time and navigate the psychological impact of loss, nostalgia, or longing for a native place.” It is indeed all of these things and more.
Images (from top to bottom): Pao Houa Her, Pa in purple robe with fake plant, 2012, archival pigment print, 25 x 31.25 inches; Barbara Diener: Sehnsucht: Fire, 2012, archival pigment print; Barbara Diener: Sehnsucht: George, 2012, archival pigment print; Lieko Shiga: Rasen Kaigan: 2008-2012, archival pigment prints; Pao Houa Her, Mom half naked on bed, 2011, archival pigment print, 22 x 27.5 inches; Jon Rafman: Codes of Honor, 2011, still from HD video; Barbara Diener: Sehnsucht: Alice, 2012, archival pigment print