Finding wonder in the everyday

Eliza Williams reports from this year’s PHotoEspaña festival, held in both Madrid and Lisbon

The theme of this year’s PHotoEspaña is ‘the every­day’, an appropriate subject for a festival that celebrates a medium now so ubiquitous in our lives. Since the arrival of digital photography and the internet, we snap pretty much every­thing – from birthdays and work parties to our journey to the local shops – before hoisting it rapidly onto social networking sites and blogs to share with the world. Yet, as an exhibition of photographs from the 1970s that forms one of the 16 official shows at PHoto­España demonstrates, many of the themes and styles pertinent to the images we take today have been prevalent in photography for decades.

The exhibition features many well-known artists and photographers, including David Goldblatt, Christian Boltanski, Sophie Calle and Cindy Sherman, but what is surprising is how sharply relevant much of the work is to today’s world. Many of the artists tackle the notion of everyday surveillance, perhaps with only an inkling of how much our lives would be systematically observed in the future. Some of the surveillance here is covert – such as Kohei Yoshiyuki’s shots of people having sex in a Japanese park, or Ed van der Elsken’s image, taken from some distance, of a couple making love outside their country home, while a motorcyclist drives by oblivious on the road nearby. Other projects, such as Calle’s series The Sleepers, where she photographed a selection of friends and strangers sleeping in her bed, are a complicit agreement between the artist and her various subjects.

A number of the 1970s works, despite changing fashions and the use of black-and-white film, would fit comfortably onto Facebook today.  Christian Boltanski’s series, A D. Family Album, shows a selection of images of a family’s life, including a great many posed holiday shots as well as candid photographs of children playing. The photographs feel generic, as if they could be any family from almost any point in history. Time seems similarly conflated in Malick Sidibé’s small snapshots of middle-class youths at parties in Bamako, Mali. There is something both comforting and uneasy about how universal these images seem, a point that Cindy Sherman picks up on in her early series titled Bus Riders. Here Sherman portrays a number of the banal poses – all performed by the artist herself – adopted by women waiting at a bus stop. While the images are theatrical and clearly unreal, the attitudes and postures displayed are immediately recognisable, and can still be seen today scattered across Facebook and other such sites.

Despite certain behaviours that cross both culture and time, there are of course multiple experiences of the ‘everyday’, as PHotoEspaña amply demonstrates. The festival, which takes place annually, is a dizzying experience, spread across Madrid and the nearby smaller city of Cuenca, with two official exhibitions also taking place in Lisbon. Alongside the official selection there are also countless shows in the smaller commercial galleries across Madrid, so, unless you have a good week to spend visiting the shows, you will be forced to pick and choose what you see. The official selection features many historical exhibitions, including a show of images by Bartolomé Ros, which document the end of the Moroccan War and the beginning of Spain’s Primo de Rivera dictatorship of the 20s and include fascinating shots of Franco, as well as exhibitions by Dorothea Lange and Italian photographer Ugo Mulas, who photo­­graphed many of the most famous artists of the 1960s. There are also significant displays of more recent works, including a series of painted photographs by Gerhard Richter, where the artist has splashed, spread or dripped paint over snapshots of his family and friends. The results of this technique are varied – at times Richter creates an atmosphere of intense menace and disquiet with his paint additions, while in other works the methodology he has used appears all too obvious, leaving the images somewhat flat. 

Elsewhere are exhibitions by Patrick Faigenbaum and Sergey Bratkov, both of whom mix docu­mentary style imagery with self-conscious and sometimes staged portraiture. A mixture of the real and fiction is also explored, far more deeply, in the work of Walid Raad, who is showing a large retrospective of his work as part of PHotoEspaña. Raad worked on The Atlas Group project from 1989 until 2004, where he created a fictional archive of the recent history of Lebanon. The archive includes a number of donations from invented characters, including Dr Fadl Fakhouri, who provides documentation of the ‘little-known fact’ that the major historians of the Lebanese wars were avid gamblers. Elsewhere in the exhibition is film footage supposedly taken from a surveillance camera on the seafront in Beirut, where an army intelligence officer, instead of filming the passers-by as instructed, would each day turn the camera to the sea and record the setting sun. With these poetic pieces, Raad’s archive forces us to address our blithe acceptance of historical documentation as fact, as well as presenting alternative readings of how war can affect the life of a city.

While Raad’s exhibition proves fascinating, other shows in PHoto­España demonstrate the old adage that the truth is often stranger than anything fiction can provide. Along­side plentiful exhibitions of stills photography, there are a number of film and video works showing in the festival, and two of these provide evidence of the magical and bizarre moments found in the everyday.

At Cristóbal Hara’s exhibition in Lisbon, there is a short film work alongside his excellent still photographs taken across villages in Spain. The film shows bits of glittery rubbish – perhaps confetti – chasing itself in circles around a car park in the wind. This kind of ‘beauty in the everyday’ has been seen numerous times before, but Hara’s film remains utterly compelling, with the hypnotic movement captured on a grainy handheld camera.

A similarly lo-fi technique is employed by Chinese artist Zhao Liang for his film on show back in Madrid. Liang uses a non-professional camera to capture daily events in Beijing between 2004-05, and in fact this rough technique feels refreshing within PHotoEspaña, with the festival having a tendency to display works in polished sanctity. In spite of its lack of slickness, Liang’s film is striking and bizarre, as he shows us drunks fighting in bars and passing out on the subway, and a man knocking golf balls across an industrial wasteland.

Other clips show the slow progress of the Olympic construction work in the city, along­side evidence of social despair and dysfunction. Part of the appeal of Liang’s film lies in its snapshot of ordinary life in China, but it also emphasises how the odd sits alongside the regular within all of everyday life, if we only choose to look out for it.

PHotoEspaña takes place in Madrid, Cuenca and Lisbon from June 3 until July 26, phe.es

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