The problem with coins is that they have two sides.
French asset management company Carmignac Gestion has awarded its recently created photojournalism prize to Kai Wiedenhöfer’s series of photographs taken in the Gaza Strip.
Kai Wiedenhöfer’s politically committed work is daring and provocative. The German photographer’s images of severely scarred, defaced and crippled civilian men and women are, albeit highly estheticized, incredibly poignant. Their frontal gazes are hard to ignore. Their scarred bodies and missing limbs really strike home. Compositional beauty and emotional content draw us into their real-life traumas. Lengthy display captions relating the horrifying narrative of plight involve the viewer-reader even further and draw us into a world so far from our own. Capturing the human devastation caused by air raids, bombs and shrapnell of armed conflict as politically divisive as the Gaza Strip is a provocative anti-war statement.
Carmignac Gestion’s choice stands out amongst the plethora of art prizes and awards, and from this point of view publicly rewarding his efforts is a welcome surprise. It’s good journalism and an audacious form of committment to free speach and the arts from an asset management firm. In fact, I’m surprised to admit that it’s a choice that actually made me want to find out more about this company – although I can’t say I have any assets for them to manage. That’s how I noticed that they’re also the sponsors of the Basquiat retrospective that’s the real crowd-puller at Paris’s Museum for Modern Art at the moment. Funny, but brands we don’t know get kinda drowned out in blockbuster exhibitions. Whereas this event, discretely hung in part of the basement space, really struck me.
Yes, it seems to me that while radio, newspaper and prime time TV chat shows are talking about the “censoring” of Larry Clark’s photo exhibition (another “upstairs” exhibition at the museum at the moment), this show arguably has far more disturbing content. While Larry Clark’s erotic images are to be viewed only by 18+ visitors, this basement show is open to all and only a small, barely visible warning at its entrance signals that the content may be a bit tough to handle for some.
Tails: It is fair to wonder whether pushing the limits and showing highly disturbing imagery constitutes a brave approach to corporate sponsorship or a calculated publicity ploy. I remember the uproar that Benetton’s “cycle of reality” campaign provoked. It started with a shot of a cemetary in 1991 at the outbreak of war in Iraq. The Benetton scandal reached its peak in 1992 when their ads showed news photos of a man dying of AIDS, a soldier gripping a human thigh bone, a man assassinated by the Mafia, a car on fire, a ship being stormed by emigrants… But that was Benetton, a high street fashion brand and the images were hung publically on billboards. The display of Wiedenhöfer’s work is far more discreet and its context completely different.
Also, when you look at Carmignac’s website you see that this isn’t a one-off stunt. They seem genuinely engaged with art of our times. Choosing to begin a photojournalism award in 2009 rather than a 100th contemporary art award was certainly an intelligent and rational choice but, to be honest, it doesn’t seem to me to be one driven by cynicism. Au contraire, there’s a grit that I like. It offers an interesting contrast to an (art)world of complacent platitude.
Heads or tails?
What do you think?