Unreal or hyperreal?

For the past few months I have found very little to interest me in the BJP and am considering cancelling my subscription, but this month three works caught my attention. The first was a series of bleached b&w images by Antoine Bruy, whose series “Scrublands” I enjoyed at Format festival a couple of years ago (1). This new series, entitle Outback Mythologies “exploring Australia’s vast, remote lands, and their central importance to notions of national identity” (2) caught my attention because the landscape depicted was so unusual and yet so familiar.

bruy1 (3)

It is not quite clear where the image is, or even if it is real – it could easily be fabricated from a pile of sand or salt. The lack of colour also gives it a lunar quality – is it this world or another? The ladder in the foreground gives an impression of human intervention, but the otherwise empty image could have an apocalyptic feel, were it not for the softness of the bleached tones. Other images in the series are less curious, in that they depict people and buildings so are more firmly grounded in reality, but nevertheless they retain an almost cinematic quality which suggests fantasy rather than reality. The level of detail revealed by the bleached b&w treatment makes the images almost hyperreal; a little like Crewdson’s work but drained of all colour and with it all sense of drama. There is mystery here, but not fanfare. Bruy himself says in the article: “I wanted to avoid the colour of the red dirt and the very blue, dense sky that is so familiar to this country, and its also a way for me to introduce an ambiguity into my work, which blurs the frontier between documentary and fiction by making this space out of time.”

The reference to mythology in the title is particularly pertinent, as to me that is exactly what these images portray – the fusion of reality and fiction which is the basis of any mythology is very much present in the images, not in the over-stylised way that children are introduced to mythology, but with a sensitivity to the origins and importance of mythology in establishing identity and society.

A few pages on I came across this image by Munem Wasif:

wasif (4)

The magazine draws no parallels between these two works but to me the similarity in style was striking – b&w, bleached landscapes, empty of human presence but with hints at past human activity. These landscapes are timeless and without location, potentially very frightening in their desolation, and yet both Bruy and Wasif have chosen to approach them not with awe or terror in mind but with a bleakness that seems to deny them their connection to reality. Even where, in one of Wasif’s images, we see a body on the road, it is not fear or disgust that is triggered in me as the viewer but rather disbelief, as if this is a premonition or a stage set rather than reality.

Wasif’s series “Land of Undefined Territory” has a very different basis to Bruy’s work. The entire series is largely void of people, focuses on the unmarked border between Bangladesh and India. Wasif is quoted as saying “I was interested in asking how ones defines India and Bangladesh. Further to that, how do we define the notion of a border? How do we define the ownership of land and its relationship with people“. The article also notes that the location “could be used as a set for a  film about exploring the surface of Mars such is its lack of animating features“. Taken together these comments tell us much about national identity; we seek a sense of identity through our land, our places, but in reality that identity is absent – it is through the way we populate and use those places, even the way we think about those places, which creates our sense of identity. And in that we can see the link back to Bruy’s work – his “mythologies” are the way in which we impose identity onto the landscape (convert spaces to places). Both artists, in presenting their landscapes in a unidentifiable way, have illustrated how easy it is to deny a place its identity.

Move forward a few pages more and one discovers an article about Thomas Struth, whose work I have been looking at in relation to my assignment, as he has frequently photographed tourists gazing at places of interest. However, the image that caught my eye was “Paradise 08, Daintree, Australia, 1998”.

Struth.jpeg (5)

The image attracted me because it has parallels with my final assignment for I&P (here) in which I photographed paths leading through the landscape. I have often photographed paths like this leading into the mythical deep dark wood, and I am fascinated by the way that woods are always central to our mythology and our childrens’ stories. Interestingly when I first viewed this image I assumed it was a British landscape, it felt so similar to my experiences, yet it is in fact a jungle in Australia. The rest of the series, so far as I can glean, is depicted in colour, the lush greens which make it obvious that this is jungle and not Britain. Why this particular image is in b&w, and whether that is the case in the original or just the BJP reproduction, I cannot ascertain. However, just like the other two series I have discussed, the b&w dislocates the image and allows my imagination to act upon it. Yet both the title and the landscape trigger very different emotions here; this is a land of mythology just as Bruy’s landscapes, but where Bruy’s landscapes and those of Wasif are post-apocalyptic, Struth’s landscape is pre-humanity, nature untamed and ready to be populated. He entitles the series “Paradise”, and the parallels with the Garden of Eden are obvious, even without the lush colours. Yet there is threat present in the darkness of the unknown, just as Eden is laced with the potential for expulsion. All of this comes from my reading of the landscape – it is not present on the face of the image. This landscape is just as real and just as static (in the imagery) as Bruy and Wasif’s landscapes, but each has its own connections.

I have always thought of landscape as being best depicted in colour, which I suspect is due to accepted traditions of beauty, and b&w imagery is often overworked in order to produce something dramatic but with little connection to the landscape it depicts. Yet these three works use b&w to a much more subtle effect, making the landscapes unreal not through intense colour and HDR (Disney style) but by taking away their connection to the real places that were in front of the camera. We reinstate the colour, literal and metaphorical, in our minds and thus give rise to a fantasy parasitic upon the reality in the image.

 

 

 

(1) https://www.antoinebruy.com/scrublands/ (accessed 4th June 2017)

(2) British Journal of Photography July 2017

(3) https://www.antoinebruy.com/the-white-mans-hole/ (accessed 4th June 2017)

(4) http://www.munemwasif.com/land-of-the-undefined-territory/ (accessed 4th June 2017)

(5) Image from BJP July 2017

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