Fotograf Magazine

PHoto España 2013: Bodies and Politics in Madrid

 For sixteen years now, PHoto España has ranked among the largest and most notable photography festivals in the world. Its most unique feature is the rotation of curators every three years, which – on one side prevents the repetition of stereotypes that can occur at festivals under the same management for long periods of time – as is the case with similar festivals in Paris, Houston, Bratislava or Łódź; on the other this can sometimes cause a great unevenness in terms of overall concept, reflecting the personal priorities of various curators. The most recent chief curator to date, the Cuban Gerardo Mosquera, whose term will come to an end this year, has faced a rather daunting task – heading the festival during a period of deepening economic crisis in Spain, during which many traditional private-sector sponsors have significantly reduced their support or cut it entirely, while public cultural institutions have been affected by drastic budgetary reductions. As a result, the festival was also forced to make a major cost reduction, though this year’s budget of 1,895,000 Euro is in fact not that small (although it is three times smaller than the budget of the Arles festival). This year, far fewer festival banners and posters were visible around Madrid, while the official program featured a mere 26 exhibitions (another 48 shows were part of the Open and “Off-festival” programs); the gala dinners held for festival guests in former years were no more, and the refreshments served at exhibition openings were modest. 

The organizers associated with the photographic collective La Fábrica were nonetheless thrilled as they managed to expand the festival to other cities. This year, the nearby Alcobendas, which already has a large photography collection and hosts the festival’s portfolio evaluation sessions, is set to acquire a new PHoto España International Center that will organize creative workshops and a variety of other educational programs for photographers. The Madrid Festival wants to significantly intensify collaborations in Latin America, above all. Twice a year they organize a portfolio review there, and regularly feature exhibitions of noted Latin American photographers, as well as establishing a Brazilian branch. They have, however, increasingly expanded their operations to other Spanish cities – and, thanks to a joint effort with the Czech Center and the Instituto Cervantes also to Prague this year, where in spring 2013 they presented an exhibition of portraits and impromptu photographs by the film director Carlos Saura and his contemporary Leopoldo Pomés as well as an exhibition of the documentary photographs of Yaakov Israel, winner of last year’s portfolio competition. 

Madrid naturally remains the main center of the festival, with most attention focused on the official exhibition program, which this year was dedicated to a highly attractive theme: Body – Eros and Politics. The organizers conceived the theme broadly, incorporating in its “political” section even rather mediocre magazine photographs by Mark Shaw, illustrating the life of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his wife. Both festival themes intersected in two larger and one smaller exhibition; the first of these being the retrospective Woman. The Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s assembled from the collections of the Austrian electric corporation VERBUND. Photographs of twenty-one artists including Martha Rosler, Cindy Sherman, Hannah Wilke, Francesca Woodman, VALIE EXPORT and Helena Almeida formed a radical polemic with the dominant male perspective on woman, and simultaneously were entirely in keeping with the tendencies of Action and conceptual art of the period, as well as the ongoing sexual revolution. For many of the artists on exhibition, their own body became the object of a number of provocative games addressing such themes as the quest for identity, the struggle for emancipation, or ironizing machismo, while others used this for a more introspective probing. The other exhibition combining motifs of the body with politics was an imaginatively installed retrospective of the famous Iranian artist (now long since based in the United States), Shirin Neshat. Her staged scenes featuring veiled Islamic women in the desert, photographs combining fragments of bodies with projected text, and visually compelling slideshows with motifs of rebellion, express in symbolic terms the plight of the women in her homeland, under the control of a conservative theocratic regime, as well as a more general conflict between violent authority and religious fanaticism on one side, and freedom and individuality on the other. A third venture into these themes was a smaller exhibition by the Mexican artist Fernando Brito, presenting fascinating images of dead bodies in bucolic landscapes. Responding to an upsurge in narco-mafia fueled violence in Mexico, the artist achieved a most evocative fusion of horror and beauty, as well as documentary and artistic photography. 

A number of exhibitions were dedicated to the classical nude – or perhaps better said, the traditional representation of the nude body (in vast majority the female body, one should add, as the male nude was prominent only in the exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe). The principal attractions of the festival included a double-bill of classics of modern American photography, Edward Weston and Harry Callahan, from the collections of the Center for Creative Photography of the University of Arizona. Its title – He, She, It – highlights the fact that both artists primarily photographed the women around them, often using photography to try to express their connection to them. Weston’s nudes, with maximum definition and rich tonal range, usually created in the open against a backdrop of desert and rocks, as a rule tend to abstract the body into elementary lines, accentuating the contrasts of light and shadow, and the bonds between humanity and nature. Harry Callahan, who for many years photographed his wife Eleanor more than any other subject matter, represents a more subjective attitude towards the nude. Even here, we can find a tendency towards the reduction of reality to the bare minimum of motifs, as well as a sharp counterpoint of black and white. The exhibition at the Circulo de Bellas Artes, one of the most prominent exhibition venues in Madrid, did not present only nudes, but also examples of other work by both artists, often arranged in compelling parallels. It was a pity that to see the retrospective exhibition of a third American legend, Emmet Gowin, one had to trudge all the way to the outskirts of the Spanish capital, where the gallery of the MAPFRE foundation is located, and it was thus not placed in direct confrontation with Callahan. In fact, a number of Gowin’s photographs of his wife Edith have much in common with Callahan’s work, a similarity in terms of their intimate and loving gaze. 

This year, Czech photography was represented by František Drtikol, with a small exhibition of his Modernist nudes dating to the years 1923–1929 being held at the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts, in an immediate proximity to works by artists such as El Greco, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Francisco Goya, Diego Velázquez and Juan Gris. It was the first ever solo exhibition of Drtikol in Spain, and included nudes from his peak period, when he most creatively drew on impulses of futurism, expressionism, art deco and other tendencies, often combining the bodies of his male and female models with geometric sets or projected shadows. The exhibition, organized with considerable contribution from the Czech Center in Madrid, drew more than five hundred visitors daily. The organizers of PHoto España proudly claimed that this year, the program featured an ample selection of East European photography (the difference between Central and Eastern Europe is well below the capacity for distinction of most Spaniards). In reality, it was presented at no more than three exhibitions. Apart from Drtikol’s nudes, this included a creatively installed exhibition of de-eroticised photographs of nude bodies from the 1970s cycle Gesticulations by one of the pioneers of Polish conceptual photography, Zbigniew Dłubak, and the strongly stylized self-nudes and portraits of the Lithuanian photographer Violeta Bubelyté, which in the puritanical atmosphere of the Soviet Union often provoked outrage. 

Billed as a major attraction, the exhibition of photographs from the collections of the National Center for Fine Arts in Paris, although boasting the all-embracing title Knowledge is Power, and including a number of works by famous photographers such as Barbara Kruger, Boris Mikhailov, Robert Doisneau, Jim Goldberg, and others, lacked a clearly defined concept. More compact as well as more revelatory was the exhibition of Spanish photographs featuring motifs of the body from the collections of Alcobendas, although this too would have benefited from a more clearly articulated curatorial intention and stricter selection. A great deal of original work, chiefly modern portraiture and works verging between staged and documentary photography, was presented at the exhibition of fourteen contemporary Latin American photographers, selected from the portfolio competitions held by PHoto España in Costa Rica and Mexico. The extensive exhibition entitled (Re)presentation was housed in the impressive venue of a former tobacco factory. 

A number of smaller exhibitions were held outside of the official festival program, among them shows by Thomas Ruff, Max Pam, Bernard Plossu and other stars of the international photography scene. One of the greatest disappointments, though, was the exhibition of new still life images by Nobuyoshi Araki, who photographed flowers in gaudy colors, and dolls, symbolizing his deceased wife, with toy dinosaurs representing the artist’s alter ego, on the balcony of his house. A sad sight indeed, witnessing the decline of such a highly esteemed (and often overestimated) artist, the author of provocative erotic photographs. 

The Madrid festival, however, is not merely about exhibitions alone. Important sections also include the symposium on theory, this year supervised by Oliva María Rubio (naturally also dedicated to the subject of the body), an immaculately organized portfolio review, a competitive exhibition of the finest publications on photography – which, unfortunately, is not held in Madrid itself but in the town of Alcalá de Henares (this year, the main prize in the international category went to Karl Lagerfeld and Carine Roitfeld’s book The Little Black Jacket, and best publisher recognition went to Germany’s Hatje Cantz). Further events included creative workshops for families, educational programs for three hundred students of Madrid schools, as well as a number of guided tours of the exhibitions. The fact that PHoto España is so open to a broad public (in the first month after it opened in early June, it attracted more than six hundred thousand visitors – and many exhibitions stayed open for even longer), and is so active in popularizing photography, are probably its greatest merits. 

Vladimír Birgus