REVIEW: Secret Agent: Between Invisibility and Hypervisibility at Guest Projects Space

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Secret Agent: Between Invisibility and Hypervisibility

The ‘Secret Agent’ referred to in the title of Hemera’s show relates to the agency and activism in enabling feminist and post-feminist representational visibility under the patriarchal order. If “invisible” is the under or mis-represented subject in cultural production and “hyper-visible” is the sharp positioning of victimhood in relation to notions of ‘othering’ then Hemera’s show, to my mind, operates somewhere in between, where visibility is created through challenging the status quo self-reflexively, through its own visual paradigms and institutional frameworks.

The exhibition, held at Yinka Shonibare’s Guest Projects in January 2016, was shown last year in Helsinki at the Finnish Museum of Photography. It seems apt that Maud Sulter be included in this group show at Guest. Sulter, who recently passed away, offers an important departure point for thinking in art historical terms about where certain visual codes originate from, not unlike aspects of Shonibare’s own enquiry. Her photo-collages from the series Jeanne: A Melodrama (1994) draw together disparate visual forms from an image economy spanning an anonymous field of subjects, personalising them into imaginary incarnations of Jeanne Duval – Charles Baudelaire’s muse and Nadar’s anonymous sitter the Unknown Woman.

The continuation of anonymity and invisibility is played through Mathilde ter Heijne’s Women to Go (2005 – ongoing), an installation of a large retail-like display of postcards inviting viewers to browse, choose and keep. The face of each postcard depicts an anonymous woman photographed between the invention of the daguerreotype and the 1920s and inscribed on the reverse is a short biography of a woman of significant achievement, yet still not widely recognised. This disrupted photo-text concept incorporates both the negation and non-identification of the women as legitimate subjects and plays on the concealment of positive roles by those who canonise history.

A number of works in the exhibition re-address and re-configure history through the lens of the present. Aura Satz’s lightbox installation employs stills from Cecil B DeMille’s silent film Joan the Woman (1916), and through the embedded sound, creates an act of un-silencing Joan of Arc at the point of her execution. Satz’s layers of abstraction are further implicated through the predominant female labour involved in the hand-colouring of film in the movie industry of the early 20th century. Niina Vatanen’s re-working of Helvi Ahonen’s amateur photographic archive in Archival Studies/ A Portrait of an Invisible Woman, projects the potential of new narratives in photographic production with transposing and overlaying strategies onto print composition and form. Sarah Beddington’s plastic tube binoculars offer a distinct and intimate view of Palestinian processions from the early part of the 20th Century. These pieces also form an important entry point in which to consider her film, The Logic of Birds. It depicts a performative procession staged in Palestine based on an ancient Sufi poem where birds follow a migratory journey in order to seek a leader. The film acts as a strong metaphor for the exhibition, through its agency and through the possibility of the collective being empowered by looking within.

Around the peripheries of the exhibition’s more prominent themes sits the work of Ye Funa and Beth Collar. Funa’s satirical take on formal ethnic identities and projected ideologies of perfection, forms a vibrant entrance to the exhibition. A large grid of portraits in national costume encloses a centrally embedded plasma screen, statically showing an idealised landscape into which figures gently appear and disappear against the sound of a cascading waterfall. Beth Collar’s conceptual illustrations/sculptures on the other hand offer a mythical and symbolic play in perceiving an alternative visibility. Her drawings could be seen as an allegory of the ‘other side’ where mysterious cloaked figures are seen hidden from us. Collar’s presentation is framed by root vegetables signifying a past time, perhaps in pointing towards a pre-modern ritual or in emphasising the ambiguity of her ungendered representation.

Possibly throughout history, what fluctuates between invisibility and hyper-visibility is the way in which gendered discourse moves to and fro, into and out of cultural and political consciousness. This is perhaps most evident in the work of Aleksandra Domanovic. In The Future Was At Her Fingertips, she sets a chronology of technological and political change where women act as central agents or figures of influence, most notably in the development of computer technologies and media. Placed alongside this timeframe, her sculptures signify the importance of the symbolic order through cultural hand gestures, as monuments resisting male-dominated artifice in technology and embodying the power to transform.

– Sunil Shah

Secret Agent Group Show curated by Hemera Collective @ Guest Projects Space London 9 – 30 Jan, 2016

All installation shots by Ben Westoby

photo-8 Sunil Shah is an artist and curator based in Oxford, UK. He is interested in the politics of photographic representation and conceptual post-documentary practices with relation to history, memory and identity. He has undertaken several curatorial projects including Making Home at the Royal Geographic Society, London for the HLF funded Exiles Project and acted as co-curator for Brighton Photo Fringe Open ’13. He holds degrees from Coventry University and the University of Westminster. www.sunilshah.info