Eleven Voices, Nov 8 –December 21, 2019, Belfast Exposed, Belfast NI
Antoine d’Agata (b 1961, in Marseilles) joined Magnum Photos in 2004, the year he made his first, of two films rooted in a chosen site, be it a person or a city, or both, Ventre du Monde. Two years later, he focused his longer film Aka Ana on Tokyo, as a visualisation of Guy Debord’s concept of psychogeography, defined as a “study of the precise laws and specific effects of geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.” (gallery handout notes).
He spent 11 days in the city of Belfast meeting and interviewing eleven individual citizens, taking photographs of them and of fragments of close to them environment.
The display illustrates Antoine d’Agata’s stated judgement “only the voices let me understand” by large panels with the transcribed recording.
The gallery walls are divided by vertical boards reminiscent of pilasters on a church walls. Each board carries a text of one ‘voice’ – in varying lengths ( e.g.29 pages) quite difficult to read, and demanding on viewing time). The unedited texts match the willingness, spontaneity and commitment of each speaker.
The visual representation of the time and place of each encounter avoids identification, protecting the speakers privacy. Each voice is made visible in four prints:
Take day 4 for example:
1/A diary note 2/ Fragmentary view of housing in the area where the artist met the “voice” 3/ Intensifying what was visible and static, e,g, separating walls 4/ A chance encounter with a person (not necessarily the ‘voice’) in that environment.
Day four for example has 29 pages of text – from an active retired solicitor, who teaches English to immigrant and works for various sanctuaries for disadvantaged persons/immigrants. He feels that his modus vivendi is determined by his family with four children, by his very different predecessors, by him becoming gay later in life, and by a section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 that gives the Belfast council statutory duty to promote good relationship between people. He shares a motto with immigrants: ” Welcome, Safety, Inclusion and Integration”.
The text is as rich as it is long – more suited to a book than a wall display.
Antoine d’Agata saturates his camera with multitude images of fences, gates, walls that are an opposite of this person’s raison d’etre: “Walls should not be there”, he says.
Thus the central image is a coexistence of the two, the desire to get rid of the walls and the reality of the walls casting darkness of the home life.
Another set points to a better housing, and links to the voice talking about the differences between people with different incomes.
Transcription of 13 pages of a voice telling of going to integrated school and thinking about “identity all the time”, is critical of lower paid as not open to new ideas.
The speaker treasures both the school and family influence on becoming tolerant while acutely aware and critical of class based divisions of society: in comparison with the better off citizens, the working class are apparently less tolerant, less willing to free themselves from inherited indoctrination and toxic masculinity : “People have opinions but they do not know why they have it”.
The verbal makes the visual secondary in relation to time needed to view each.
An uncanny reminder of how people view visual art in large museums and galleries, they read about it for longer than they look at it.
Here, that dualism is heightened by the relative scale of each part. From that point of view the dissolution of the boundaries between art and life, between visual art, the visible, and words, experiences, memories, life, is overwhelming.
A similar display has been chosen by Chloe Bass(b 1984 NY) and Bill Dietz (1983, Bisbee, Arizona) for their current exhibition Trade Show (http://www.kunsthalle-willhelmshaven.de) – clinical precision that echoes architecture. Divergent values of exhibits forge dissonances among objects, texts and sound miming those in life. Both exhibitions share willingness to dissolve the boundaries between art and life.
Another current five exhibitions present some of the most compelling artistic practice in the Netherlands today. All five artists work with forms of storytelling, witnessing and testimony. They re-introduce forgotten or silenced narratives using evidence drawn from personal histories and official archives. Positions #5: Telling Untold Stories invites visitors to encounter the politics of story-telling in myriad ways. (https://vanabbemuseum.nl/en/)
Back to Belfast Exposed.
Having the comfort of similar ideas does not guarantee, nor aims at, similar aesthetic experience. The BX chose a display that visually accentuates sameness at first, only to harvest the power of details to reveal differences. Those are presented in the images of houses and the verbal long stories.
One is told by a policewoman, another by a priest, another by a grandmother etc The openness, sincerity of the “voices” is surprising – they trust the foreign artist, they give their accounts warts and all.
Value for a value – D’Agata listens, he is not a threat to them. Uncannily, it reminds me of Also Sprach Zarathustra – the passage where Nietzsche introduces perspectivism. Perspectivism argues that all truth claims are contingent on, and the product of, a person’s perspective.
Antoine d’Agata presents eleven perspectives on truth as lived and shared in words by eleven persons in contemporary Belfast. The visual is servicing the lived and recalled, in most cases with sincere ambiguity and limping logic. Hence this would be a good book, better for considered attention than the walk in exhibition.
Nevertheless, the photography is stunning in a particular way. Not as a fashion or celebrity images, glorifying some ideal. I sense its submission to the fleeting truth, just its visible appearance.
More like a war correspondent snatching fragments on a move, not knowing what will come next, thus allowing verism to bond with the chance, d’Agata saturates the exhibition with the images of the environment, not just one environment, housing, which is omnipresent. The commons gingery appears as if we need to be reminded of it.
Just as well – at the time when so many have no safe home to go to – all over the planet. Surprisingly – faces on the wall become a kind of the commons, shedding the privacy as unnecessary weight.
In d’Agata’s photographs of people, there is an endearing sincerity – drug addicts, old who move with difficulty, young confident students, well made up women – variety of appearances signalling other values. They could be from another city, thus harvesting a greater context of the civilisation that includes, but is not identical with, that troubled Belfast. In that sense it corrects the limits of Debord’s notion of precision, while the stories are not just specific effects of the environment, as they harvest different judgement of the same environment. The aesthetic experience of walking through “that diary” of a ” visual meeting” eleven persons at eleven sites, is not in any way flamboyant or shocking. It is reminiscent of some 20th C art and poetry focusing on “ordinary things” (e.g. J Walker, K Capek, K Teige etc) – not as deeply intoxicated with foregrounding as poetism, but nevertheless foregrounding the ordinary being in the world. Taken together – it brings forth differences between individuals as significant.
It is a good exhibition – if you give it a lot of time.
It’s a funny thing about life; if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.
W. Somerset Maugham
Images courtesy Belfast Exposed.