Opening in the Photographers’ Gallery this month is the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize Exhibition. The prodigious award, now in its twentieth edition, celebrates a recent collection from a living photographer, and this year the competition features four nominees – Dana Lixenberg, Sophie Calle, Awoiska van der Molen and the pair Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs – in a diverse exhibition that takes in landscapes, travel diaries and post-modern self-portraits.
The prize’s lofty remit is to celebrate a photographer who has “challenge(d) the boundaries of the medium”, and former winners have included renowned artists such as Boris Mikhailov and Andreas Gorsky. Many entries also take a social focus: Richard Mosse collected the award in 2014 for his piercing examination of the conflict in Congo; and Trevor Paglan’s treatise on drone surveillance and warfare also swiped the top prize in 2016. Nominees, however, have tended to form an eclectic mix, and the whistle-stop tour through the gallery and its mini-collections is a bit like speed-dating for art – as soon as one’s done, in comes the next.
Opening the exhibition is Dana Lixenberg. The Dutch artist began her career as a photo-journalist and provided work for Newsweek, The New York Times and Rolling Stone before transitioning to gallery pieces. Her competition entry, Imperial Courts, grew out of her time as a reporter and examines one of her most personal subjects, the Los Angeles neighbourhood of Watts. Assigned to the economically deprived area in the early 1990s, Lixenberg developed a relationship with its community and returned on numerous occasions. Her submission assembles portraits of local men, women and children from across the two decades-worth of visits in a stark and poignant display.
Imperial Courts is a piercing, self-conscious piece with many of the pictured figures staring back down the camera lens at the viewer. Sophie Calle’s entry in the gallery’s fifth floor takes a similarly self-referential inflection, but with a very different tone. The French multimedia artist explores the death of her parents in a collection of photographs and accompanying texts ironically entitled My Mother, My Cat, My Father, in that Order. The sparklingly irreverent ensemble exposes the façade of recording the last moments of life and the impossibility of capturing death – as one caption reads:
“On December 27, 1986, my mother wrote in her diary: “My mother died today.”
On March 15, 2006, in turn, I wrote in mine: “My mother died today.”
No one will say this about me.
Calle made her name through her stalker-like approach to composition, pursuing her bemused human subjects step-by-step for days on end, and her latest exhibit displays a similarly intrusive line of attack towards her own life. Photographs show her deceased cat in a coffin and a taxidermied giraffe she supposedly bought to commemorate her mother’s death: “I named it after my mother and hung it up in my studio. Monique looks down at me with sadness and irony.” It’s a gleefully sardonic take on the well-worn topic of death – not to be missed.
Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs collection is entitled Eurasia and presents the products of a partly fictionalised tour across the double continent. The pair pioneered a similar project in 2008, The Great Unreal, a hypnotic road-trip through the American heartland, both geographically and metaphorically. Asia yields an investigation into the infinite as the creaking, cranking projectors filling of Floor Four gallery display film clips of never ending highways and pictures of seemingly endless woodland. Any who have visited the myriad of countries that stretch across the Steppe will recognise the distinctive look and feel in the images – the particular undulations of the grassy plains, the architectural style of the buildings. Onorato & Krebs delve headlong into this cultural specificity and unearth some truly intoxicating photos.
Finally, Awoiska van der Molen offers a series of mesmeric environments in her exhibition Blanco. Van der Molen’s work has been described by some as abstract landscapes. The collection of photos present sunrises, cliff faces or even blossoming flowers, but the subjects are rendered in such a way as to be almost unrecognisable, reduced to a series of magnetic lines and colours. The perplexing Image 8 shows fir branches overlapping one another in a wood. The eruption of contours, light on dark, amass into a kind of ethereal explosion, vaguely akin to germs under a microscope. It’s both attractive and dizzying, and although many in the small collection take an identical approach, there’s still enough in this small ensemble to hold the attention.