in the anonymous biographies






Hashem el Madani/ Akram Zaatari



How can we but see in our taste for everyday life in the past a resort to the only remaining means for restoring the flavour of things, the slow rhythms of past times – and in the anonymous biographies of ordinary people the understanding that the masses do not allow themselves to be measured as a mass?
Pierre Nora


‘Diversity is the most important factor in resisting misrepresentation,’ says Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari, whose photographic archive features in Tate Modern’s current exhibition New Documentary Forms. Zaatari has collected photographs taken between the 1940s and 1970s in Saida by studio photographer Hashem el Madani. While one might expect el Madani’s studio portraits to be uptight pretensions, posed and conforming to conventions of a conservative society, they are anything but. His studio in fact offered an escape from external mores and customs; and his subjects sought refuge and fun there. Children play and scowl before the camera; best friends embrace; men wear dresses and pose as bride and groom. El Madani’s portraits are arranged according to subject – groups of children, couples, individuals. While this organization, along with the pristine wood and glass framing, dresses the photographs in an archival ‘uniform’, their contents resist homogenising.  A girl in a floral dress standing behind a patterned tabletop stares out of one photograph, towards somebody or thing behind us and to our right. The fact that her gaze misses us by this small but unmistakable margin, focusing intently on what we will never see, adds to the mysteriousness of the subject. She has the face of a much older woman, her lips slightly pursed and her brow ridged in concentration, yet her shoulders and arms are those of a ten year old. El Madani’s portrait allows the girl to be both a child and a complex and developed person. He does not force her into a cliched infantile pose, instead letting her keep her thoughts and secrets somewhere behind that tabletop and brow.  El Madani’s subjects are not celebrities, and it is safe to assume the costumes they wear for him are not worn on the street. Indeed, these portraits might be the only photographic record of some of the anonymous individuals archived and celebrated here.




Hashem el Madani/ Akram Zaatari




Also at Tate Modern is A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, a solo show by American photographer Taryn Simon, whose photographs of hidden aspects of American culture featured in Denmark’s contribution to this year’s Venice Biennale. Tate’s show comprises eighteen research projects undertaken by Simon between 2008 and 2011. Simon investigated eighteen families’ bloodlines, uncovering their stories and contexts. Each bloodline forms one of her ‘chapters’, here presented in a highly systematic manner reminiscent of an archive. As with Zaatari’s collection of portraits, Simon’s meticulous framing and order (portraits fill frames on the left, textual information and captions are in the central frame, and additional photographic documentation relating to the family’s history fills the right hand frame) propose an order against which the subjects resist. The bloodlines all belong to families who have been involved in historical turmoil of some form or other, be it involvement with the Nazi regime, Brazilian feuds or Thalidomide births. As with Simon’s work at the Biennale, unacknowledged or obscure narratives are researched and brought to light, and as with Zaatari, diversity is presented in order to resist history’s standardising and amassing force. Having said this, the archival presentation of such diversity seems contradictory. One views each chapter as one might a catalogue of amusing and slightly freakish crockery sets, all packaged identically but cracked or fired in their own way. While raising awareness of history, peoples and identities is surely positive, the extent to which Simon frames and compartmentalises her subjects ultimately endangers their individuality and turns them into commodities of curiosity.




Taryn Simon



Taryn Simon



The obscure and overlooked also guide filmmaker Emily Richardson’s practice. Richardson’s film Memo Mori is currently on display at The Wapping Project, in the power station’s cavernous basement that was flooded with water for a Yohji Yamamoto dress installation earlier this year. Richardson has collaborated with Iain Sinclair for this film, a 23-minute documentary on the wastelands of east of London currently being developed for the Olympics. Sinclair provides the film’s malcontent and melancholy voice over, commentating on a kingfisher flying over a canal in the ‘blasted landscape’, before slipping into excerpts from his psychogeographical book Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire. The camera pans slowly in a circle, revealing the Thames’ tributes as they ooze past brick bridges and skeletal cars, or surveys allotment sheds using low-down and static shots. The sheds are portrayed as individual characters, each built in its own idiosyncratic style, from driftwood and car bonnets. We linger on a shot of a shed door numbered 33 and wonder at its extraction and former, tragically distant, neighbours. Indeed, though the shed shares some formal likeness with Heidegger’s homely hut, in Richardson and Sinclair’s rendering, it is far more forlorn. The allotments are abandoned and will soon be cleared, like the travellers’ sites and warehouses that stand in the way of Stratford’s Olympic development. The context of the film installation in Wapping Power Station, now largely taken over by its restaurant and bar, is important: Wapping, like much of east London, has a history of gentrification and redevelopment. Its warehouses are now bistros and apartments for city traders, and Stratford’s unique improvised homes and habitats will soon be paved over by computer-designed parks, stadiums and plazas. Sinclair’s monologue evokes Robert Smithson’s brooding over ruins in reverse on the New Jersey shore, and Richardson's shots of diggers and cranes echo Passaic's. Sinclair's voiceover is interrupted by a second voice, which expresses an opposite attitude towards development. The voice is that of a tour guide who accompanies bus visitors to the Olympic site. The tour guide boasts that Olympic catering companies will provide sixteen thousand litres of milk and 3.4 million eggs during the games, this information ironic considering the visuals of deserted fields and muddy riverbanks. Suddenly we jump to what appears to be a disconnected subject, though this is part of the Sinclairian genre of wandering narratives. A drone of insects – cockroach-like leather-clad Hells Angels – appears on screen. Sinclair explains that during filming in the east end, Richardson encounters a Hells Angel biker's funeral whose size rivals a Kray Twin’s. The Hells Angels’ head quarters is just off the Hackney Road, we are told, and the funeral procession will move north east, past the Olympic sites and up, further and further, towards Chingford. The bikers’ swarm therefore – peculiar, idiosyncratic and ugly though it is – is another example of individuality existing on the margins of society and capitalist redevelopment.



Emily Richardson