James Gallery Exhibition Casts an International Gaze on ‘Documentary’ Modes

Deadpan: Photography, History, Politics—the latest exhibition at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Amie and Tony James Gallery—brings together distinctly different bodies of work from Sierra Leone, Lebanon, South Korea, and Australia to consider the efficacy and politics of ‘documentary’ photography. On view from May 16 through June 28, the exhibition features images by four acclaimed photographic artists—Anne Ferran, Hein-kuhn Oh, Walid Raad, Candace Scharsu—that challenge assumptions about the nature of the documentary mode and its role in the representation of history.
The gallery is open Tuesdays—Saturdays, 12:00—6:00 PM, and is located off the lobby of the Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue at 34th Street. The exhibition is curated by Geoffrey Batchen, Professor of Art History at the Graduate Center, and Jeehey Kim and Jung Joon Lee, both doctoral students in the Ph.D. Program in Art History. (The press is invited to an opening reception on May 16, 5:30–7:30 PM.)

Anne Ferran’s work consists of six gelatin silver prints from a larger series produced in 2001, titled Lost to Worlds. The undulating hills of grass depicted in these prints were once the sites of prisons for women located in Tasmania. Such prisons, known as Female Houses of Correction or simply ‘female factories,’ operated from 1828 onward. Ferran’s work seems to show us nothing much, but this denuded landscape is virtually all that remains of these women and their fate. Her photographs testify to a history of those who are now invisible to history, conjuring a memory of Australia’s women convicts as a kind of ghost story.
Hein-kuhn Oh’s work references the May Democratic Uprising in Gwangju of 1980, a period of civil protest in South Korea during which at least 165 people were killed. Seven inkjet prints from Oh’s 1995 series Kwangju Story document the recreation of the uprising during the making of a film about it. The disconcerting ambivalence of these images forces the viewer to confront their own responses to these crucial events in the recent history of South Korea.
The two large color prints representing the work of Walid Raad and The Atlas Group display a similarly abstruse aesthetic strategy. Secrets in the Open Sea, both made in 2002, contribute to a broader body of work concerned with representing a visual history for the civil wars in Lebanon between 1975 and the early 1990s. Employing complete abstraction, these pseudo-documents imply that only by this means can the complexity of the lived experience of this conflict be adequately represented.
The work of Candace Scharsu is exemplified in five searing images taken in 2000 in Africa to document the ongoing civil war in Sierra Leone. Centered on the control of diamond mines in that country, this conflict is inscribed on the branded and scarred bodies of its victims, as well as in the moving personal stories told by the texts that accompany them.
Viewed via Sierra Leone, Lebanon, South Korea, Australia, this exhibition casts an international gaze on the representation of history, and the creative capacities of photography as an historical medium. The bodies of work also engage with each other, initiating a visual conversation about strategy and affect. The curators hope that their juxtaposition in the gallery will invite viewers to participate in this conversation, and to explore their own relationship to, and responsibility for, the histories on display.

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