DOCUMENTA KASSEL 16/06-23/09 2007

“For me, photography itself is also a form of research”

Interview with documenta 12 artist Lidwien van de Ven

Installation view. Photo: Lidwien van de Ven
Lidwien, your photos and posters in the installation “document” (2007) imply visual literacy and political knowledge. Do you expect the visitors to recognise the political situations of the times?

To some extent, yes. I don’t expect everybody to know everything there is to know or to make connections between the subjects in relation to one another, but by and large the subjects are addressed almost daily in the media. And often we also have somehow a personal way we relate to these issues.

Out of more general questions relating to politics and religion, I have been following the political and social developments around western European migrant society for quite a number of years now. Since 2001 politics and religion have become more and more prominently mixed, along with a special focus on Islam. Events that are shown in the photos are quite well known, such as the Danish cartoons or the ongoing debate on the Islamic veil. The strong media influence on our encounter with Islam in today’s society, the influence of the “war on terror” on developments here, with all the new laws initiated in the name of safety and protection, now comprise a substantial part of our politics. Parallel to this I travelled to different countries in the Middle East, even though most of the photographs from the Middle East that I work with in document were taken in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

We “know” about all these subjects, but at the same time we often actually know quite little. Still, the media give us our view of the world and we get the feeling of being informed from it.  This collective knowledge along with the media’s visual language are complementary to the images I show in this project.

Installation view, 16/06-19/07. Photo: Nils Klinger

Additional descriptive keywords accompany each photo entitled with place and date, such as “demo Danish cartoons” or “Allah, Vlams blok”; this seems to refer to archival methods. Also, the motifs you choose are different from press photography, which would always describe or even interpret the picture. Your photographs do not seem to catch an exciting or spectacular moment, but instead demonstrate a kind of lasting topicality.

The titles of all photos (except one) consist of the place and date that they were made. They form a conceptual line of where and when. They also serve to place an image in its context. The subtitles that are added in the paper and the summary in the installation derive from my personal notes, but they turned out to be a good additional indicator to place the photo in a broader context. They also offer a more subtle way to guide you to issues that can be quite controversial in and of themselves and in which even the name of a place can indicate a political standpoint.

Some of my photos may come from quite spectacular backgrounds, but don’t show it. In press photography the demand is often for a very specific image presenting its subject in a split second and illustrating the text that goes with it. For me it is merely an aspect of a photo rather than a demand to be clear on its subject. I set out lines through content and often accept visual blindness. In fact it is far more often the case that the spectacular aspects of reality simply cannot be viewed or even photographed. Photography is a revealing mirror of both our society and our cultural relationship to (in)visibility.

When I built up the particular installation, visual and content aspects are again newly addressed. The visual impact and multifarious connectedness of an image is important to me. It makes it worthwhile to look into an image for an extended time and to enable a more complex, multilayered connection between the different images.

So your photos demand a certain amount of time for the process of reception?

As much as you are willing to spend, but to me it is important that the work can continue to unfold and connect you to the specific subjects addressed in each image.

I also find it very interesting how you comment on the fact that the documenta is taking place in Germany by republishing two very topical articles that call for revisions, such as in the ”Manifest der 25”, which is suggesting to rethink relations between Germany and Israel, and an article by Azmi Bishara (previously published in Al-Ahram Weekly), analysing the different ways of denial of the Holocaust.

The essential thing for me was the connection between Europe and the Israeli/Palestinian situation in the Middle East. We so often perceive it as two different stories, but it is not. We are quite closely connected to it. Both these texts explicit this relationship and ask for new ways of looking at it and relating this also to the Holocaust.

How did you select the photographs for your installation “document”? All of those on display were taken between 2000 and 2006. I imagine that you had a lot more pictures to choose from.

Between 2000 and 2006 I worked in western Europe and in the Middle East, and my photography developed against that background. On the basis of two thematic lines – politics and religion – I drew connections to specific issues, places and countries and pursued them further by reading up on them and relating them to their larger context. I followed quite closely the debates and political developments we are now witnessing around migrant society as well as the new (political) developments influenced by the fear of terrorism.

For me, photography itself is also a form of research, a way to understand what you are relating to. I find it particularly important to travel and to physically bridge the distance between here and there. It is also a way to look  into the origins of the images that we often know so well from the media, but which represent just very little of the reality behind them. Working as a photographer also makes you confront very directly our culture, its ideas and laws concerning visibility.

All the images together plus all the research become like an archive from which I choose the photos I work with for an installation. Conceptualizing the installation itself is again a new process in which form and content, and more specific questions and specific situations are balanced with one another.

Installation view, 16/06-23/06. Photo: Nils Klinger
Why did you produce most of the posters in black and white and yet some in colour? Is the format close to life-size?

Basically I am a black-and-white photographer. For a couple of years I have also been working with colour photography. And slowly the colour photos are taking their place in the installations. My background for presenting my work is mostly in the form of monumental installations. I usually know the space that I will work in long ahead of time and carefully work out image, content, sizes and presentation techniques. It is like a language for me to work like that.

On the other hand, a large format is also important in its direct impact. It enables you to look closely into an image. It takes details out of their shadows and may open up things that you would never be able to find in a small size. The whole image becomes a form of travel. For instance, in Jerusalem, 24/04/2006 (graveyard/Danish flag), the drawing of the Danish flag on the pavement in the cemetery becomes very visible in the enlargement. And in London, 04/09/2004 (Hijab Solidarity Day), the protest songs that the women are singing can be read word by word, as well as the small paper saying “another world is possible”. But it can be other details too: a text on a banner, the brand of a T-shirt, a photo on a wall. It makes it possible for you to look closely into the image.

Installation view, 07/07-18/07. Photo: Nils Klinger

Would you agree that your installation in Museum Fridericianum creates a two-sided room: the small, framed photographs all form one line, your repertoire. And the big posters form the stage, enter into a dialogue, into a special relationship with each other?

It is set up in different, but connected parts. The small prints together with the publication form a way to connect (in different ways) to all that develops during the 100 days.

Would you also agree that the white posters could be read as a blind spot, as a representation of the virtual impossibility to understand every aspect of a political situation? Or do they represent a break within today’s overload of images?

It is a means of placing the whole installation within a process and letting it grow from one juxtaposition into another situation, thereby making it possible to connect images from different backgrounds. It is also a way to give a physical shape to the non-image and to address different media (photography/painting). The absent images are just as important in the installation as the visible ones. This can be a blind spot or things we do not understand, or a break with the overload of images today, but simultaneously it is a constructive part that sets the process in motion.

And with your work you are trying to give these connections a visual surface, you form a grid?

There is an underlying grid in which the images are embedded, but the installation can always be viewed both as one particular situation and as a sequence of different situations.

For instance, the first image that you see when you enter the space is like the start of a chapter, beginning with Europe, “Paris, 26/12/2006” (Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité); at a later stage there is “Yarmouk River, 20/01/2004” (border/Golan/Yarmouk Battle Site) showing the border between Syria and Jordan, marking Europe’s past in the Middle East, by dividing it up into different nations. At the same time it is an important site of Islamic history (Yarmouk Battle Site) and in the present it relates to Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights. The last  photo will be of a graffiti in the Old City of Jerusalem that is painted over, blotting it out. The text cannot be read anymore except for the word “nation”.

In the larger space the narration is built up using around thirty different large-sized images that blend from one configuration into another.

Lidwien van de Ven 'Jerusalem, 24/04/2006'.

What do you think about the works by Peter Friedl, Ahlam Shibli or Abdoulaye Konaté which also refer to the Israel–Palestine conflict? You also took a photograph in Qalqiliya, the city where Friedl’s stuffed giraffe is from.

Qalqiliya is one of the places in the West Bank that is almost completely surrounded by the “defence wall”. It has destroyed almost all agriculture and the connection to the rest of the West Bank. That is the policy at all in the West Bank, to split it up the entirely into small units, thereby making it impossible to build up any kind of society.

Peter Friedl found a way to address this and when I first heard of it I was quite impressed that he managed to actually realize it. It is really difficult to move around there at all or to get permission for anything. I think his giraffe is not so much about the giraffe itself, but all that is connected to it: the reality that also caused the death of Brownie, the journey of the giraffe to Kassel and after documenta back to Qalqiliya, and how our reactions differ when it is an animal (rather than bombing, children, soldiers) that characterises the conflict.

Different approaches make sense. I could not do what, for instance, Ahlam Shibli does since she is Palestinian and lives in Haifa, so I couldn’t have her perspective. And of course she cannot have mine. I think it is a strategy that carries through the whole documenta, that you are not offered absolute/isolated conclusions or standpoints, but within the entire documenta you are continually asked and re-asked about similar topics. All of them deal one way or another with ethics and aesthetics. In that sense it addresses the participation and relevance of art today. It does not have one, or even the right answer. But it is important to pose this question.

Installation view, 29/07-03/08. Photo: Nils Klinger

How important are the symbolic politics in your photographs? Is that also a criterion for you, to find pictures that include aspects of both places, such as what seems at first to be an ambiguous situation, or something that breaks down stereotypes?

The images I work with often connect at more than one level. That is more important to me than for them to be a symbol. It does not need to be an ambiguous image (though it can be), nor must it break down stereotypes (even though it could). The photo is not used primarily as a tool to send out a message – new, better or different – but as a result of the photographic act taken back to our visual language to understand images. It deals with aesthetics as a visual language, but also with photography always connecting reality and imagination – which is necessary to make and interpret the image – and reflecting our society as screened through its relationship to (in)visibility.

A symbolic political reading of an image is for me one aspect of it. I need it to be part of the whole to some extent, so that you have concrete points in order to step into the work, but I am not after making new symbolism or statements as such. Addressing essential matters, yes, but as a method I try as much as possible to enable a more multi-layered and open reading of the images addressing our relationship to where they came from. So it makes sense to spend time with an image and delve deeper into it by getting involved with the subjects that are addressed, through that which is around you.

Thank you for the interview.

The interview was conducted by Vera Tollmann.


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