Susan Bright asks what the past can tell us about photography’s present in five exhibitions on the theme of déjà vu, running in Madrid this summer
The question mark is very important, says Susan Bright of the title of her latest curatorial venture, Déjà Vu?. As guest curator at the 22nd edition of the Photo España photofestival, which opened on 05 June in Madrid and runs to 01 September, Bright has put together five exhibitions along the theme of identity – or rather, how contemporary photography has drawn on or borrowed from the past.
How are artists returning to what’s gone before, and what does the past really tell us about how they are working with photography today? These are among the questions Bright explores through the work of six international artists: Elina Brotherus, Clare Strand, Délio Jasse, Patrick Pound, Laura Letinsky and Sharon Core. “I worked on Elina’s show, Playground, in Finland, and Photo España was already taking that show, so when I was invited to be guest curator, everything had to work around that,” explains the British curator, who is based in Paris. “It could have gone in the direction of performance, or in all sorts of ways, but I really liked this idea of going back to something – of Elina going back to the Fluxus ideas and bringing them forward. When I started to think about that, there were lots of other interesting artists also [going back], and so this idea of déjà vu became the theme.”
Several recurring ideas play out across the exhibitions in Déjà Vu?, including art history, painting, communication and miscommunication, collaboration and the archive, explains Bright, and it is these that “bind the work together”. Returning to the past isn’t nostalgic, but rather a curious endeavour, she says, adding that the artists work with photography by questioning its limitations, functions, history and legacy.
In The Discrete Channel with Noise, Brighton-based Clare Strand explores how photography might literally be transmitted into painting. Her husband, Gordon MacDonald, assigned numbers from one to 10 to areas of tabloid photographs and then relayed those numbers over the phone. With a grid as her guide, Strand used paints with corresponding numbers to create a new work, embracing the inevitable miscommunications and misinterpretations along the way.
Chance and questions around photography’s complex relationship with painting come into play in Angolan artist Délio Jasse’s O Outre Chapter, shown together with Strand and Brotherus at the Fernán Gómez Centro Cultural de la Villa, one of the most impressive of the Spanish capital’s many excellent arts venues. Drawing on fragments of information from documents found in a Lisbon flea market, Jasse pieces together stories about the lives of his protagonists – colonial Portuguese settlers in Mozambique and Angola – through a multilayered process that involves creating new negatives, reprinting photographs, and screen printing.
Patrick Pound collects vernacular photographs, which he turns into installations on myriad themes. For Déjà Vu?, Pound works on the theme of ‘air’, while Sharon Core and Laura Letinsky look to still life in their show, Double Take. They probe pictorial traditions from art history and in doing so confront issues of representation and reproduction.
“I wanted to do solo shows to slow everything down, to enable people to take time with each body of work,” says Bright. “Much of the work is quite conceptual, so I had to do a lot of explaining. That’s why there’s a big accompanying essay, because I needed to think it all through. What I love most about curating is how you get complex ideas over in an accessible way. I work collaboratively with artists and there is a lot of back and forth.”
Present in all of the work is a questioning
of process and a desire by the artists to return
to past movements, moments or genres, says
Bright. “The work often involves other people,
it’s performative or to do with collecting
or editing. Or, as with Délio, it’s alternative processes. The body is very involved for all of them, and I wanted that to come across. The artists are really in their work. What you’ve got on the other end is quite distilled and beautiful.
“Artists have always looked back, I think,” she adds. “I don’t know if it’s happening any more now than before. I want people to think about photography more widely. It’s not just about what it shows, it’s about how it’s been constructed and how it acts, how it goes out into the world and what it says.”
In addition to Bright’s programme are major exhibitions of William Klein, Joel Meyerowitz, and Donna Ferrato, and a show devoted to Russian books and magazines produced between 1913 and 1941. At
the Museum ICO, Frits Gierstberg has put together a survey of long-term photography commissions that focus on the changing rural, urban, and suburban European landscape over the past 35 years. The Casa Árabe, meanwhile, is devoting space to The Moroccans, one of the last works made by Leila Alaoui, who was killed in a terrorist attack in Burkina Faso in 2016 while working on a photoessay about the condition of women for Amnesty International. Plus visitors will be able to see work by numerous Spanish photographers, including Javier Vallhonrat, David Jiménez, Paula Anta and Eduardo Nave alongside others.