Much of the Hamburg art world has departed to New York for a week of mega-events -- including the 2004 Whitney Biennial Exhibition, the 2004 Armory Show, and a massive Dieter Roth show at the Museum of Modern Art and P.S.1. Among them are two Hamburg galleries, Sfeir-Semler and Produzentengalerie, which have premiered works locally that they are also presenting at the Armory.
At Galerie Sfeir-Semler is a project by the Atlas Group, which is itself a project of New York artist Walid Raad, whose contribution to Documenta 11 -- a filmed installation purporting to document the experience of a hostage taken by Arab radicals -- was much admired. Raad's strategies are reminiscent of Sophie Calle's, though his products are much more easily taken for fact than hers are.
Raad's exhibition in Hamburg, titled "My Neck Is Thinner than a Hair," presents documentary photographs of car bombs from the 1975-91 Lebanese civil war. The wreckage is dramatic and sad, with nothing much left of the automobiles other than their engines. The victims are nowhere to be seen, of course; any humans in these photographs are curiosity seekers. And the distancing quality of documentary photography prevents a reading of those images as metaphors of mangled bodies.
"Furthermore, I am finding that the history of the car bomb is also a history of the way that wars were physically and psychologically experienced," writes Raad, identifying the car bomb as the leitmotif of the Lebanese wars, so to speak. Perhaps the images are apotropaeic -- designed to avert harm, even retroactively. Or numb the real pain by diverting attention.
Produzentengalerie Hamburg is presenting a group exhibition called "Blickverbindung" (which translates as "view connection"), featuring portraits by seven artists of people from different social, political and religious backgrounds. Ralf Tooten's series of photographs, "Eyes of Wisdom," presents spiritual leaders from cultures around the world. Herlinde Koelbl has accompanied the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, with her camera in the last decade, mapping how being in high offices had an impact on Fischer's appearance (he got thinner).
Ursula Ott and Teresa Calem take a more painterly approach, retreating from the heavy content pitching in favor of a more sensuous approach to image making. Cao Fei directs our attention to the more obsessive moments of life.
The show gave a certain emphasis to the Israeli photographer Efrat Shvily's much-exhibited series of portrait photographs of one-time Palestinian ministers (the works were on view in the Venice Biennale, and Produzentengalerie is bringing them to the Armory). In May 2000, Shvily traveled to Ramallah in the West Bank to take pictures of the Palestinian cabinet ministers, who were then preparing for a summit meeting at Camp David in the U.S.
As if to help establish the new Palestinian state photographically, Shvili wanted to make dignified portraits of its ministers-to-be. But in September 2000, riots erupted in Ramallah, marking the beginning of the Second Intifada. Shvily has not returned since. "With six portraits missing, the project is incomplete. She wants it to remain so, in order to indicate that this short period in history, when peace was on the horizon, has come to an end," writes the Witte de With Museum in Rotterdam, which, under director Catherine David, has acquired the work.
But what do we actually see? The faces of the ministers remain unfamiliar to most viewers in Europe or America. The "official portrait" genre reveals more about photographic stereotypes of power than it does about Palestine or its representatives. These photographs could portray almost any Middle Eastern group, political or otherwise. It's the idea behind the project, and its good intentions, that validates it. The gallery, however, presents these black and white portraits in black frames, which seems to transform them into an obituary for the Palestine government.