Prix Pictet 2012: Power – exhibition overview

by Suzy Walker-Toye

Following on from my previous post on our recent OCA study visit to the Saatchi Gallery, I said then that I would keep my review of the Prix Pictet exhibition private unless I could get permission to use the photos from the exhibition publicly. Well the good people at www.prixpictet.com granted me access to a press pack in order to write my review including photos with permission & credit, so thanks guys.

So first a little about the point of the exhibition… according to the Saatchi Galleries press release:

“The mandate of the Prix Pictet is to use the power of photography to raise public awareness worldwide to the environmental and social challenges of the new millennium. Launched in 2008 by the Geneva- based private bank Pictet & Cie, the Prix Pictet has rapidly established itself as one of the world’s leading photography prizes. The Prix Pictet has two elements: a prize of CHF 100,000 awarded to the photographer who, in the opinion of the independent jury, has produced a series of work that addresses most powerfully the theme of the award; and the Commission, awarded by the Partners of Pictet & Cie, in which a nominated photographer is invited to undertake a field trip to a region where the Bank is supporting a sustainability project.”

The winner was Luc Delahaye with his “Various works: 2008 – 2011” and the following three were shown in the gallery space on nice big prints (© Luc-Delahaye © Prix Pictet 2012):

I deliberately didn’t read anything about the competition or the short listed artists before the study day. Yeah, I know it was recommend but I wanted to know my true feelings about the work presented before it was clouded by outside influence. How else will I learn if my inner assumptions & attitudes are really valid opinions on art or if I’m being subconsciously subtly nudged in a direction by something I’ve read? On the visit, for each artist I’d look at the work & think about the theme (Power). Then I’d read the little blurb about the work & reassess. The work in the first room of the exhibition really hammered the theme home which was encouraging.

On the whole I’m pleased with my original thoughts but for some of the more conceptual work I did need the blurb the really understand what I was seeing and how it fit into the theme. Most times the deeper context made the work even more interesting. However, in the case of the winner (above) I just don’t get it. So much so, I came back home and went on the website to try and understand what I’d missed and why he’d won for this theme above all the other shortlisted artists. I still don’t get it. The work isn’t a result of one series and although some of the work fits the theme, the images feel too disparate and unconnected for me to understand why he won. Some powerful images to be sure, such as the tanks in the dusty street in “Ambush, Ramadi”, the first photo above, and the chaos reining at the “132nd Ordinary Meeting of the Conference”. But what of the other one displayed in the gallery: door to door. I don’t get what it has to do with power, or sustainability. Who is that random man, why does he have a bandage on his finger, what is he going door to door for? It caused only frustrating questions for me, perhaps due to my woeful lack of knowledge of world events? It seems as though I’m not the only one though (which made me feel slightly better). Sean O’Hagan of the guardian doesn’t agree with the winner either:

If I was to pick my favourites of those short listed I’d have to say the oil slicks & the board rooms, Daniel Beltrá and Jacqueline Hassink. For me the aesthetic of the photo plays a large part in a successful photograph. I know that sounds silly to say because a photo is a visual medium but in so many of the top competitions clever ideas & natty concepts win out over the beauty of the final image. To me, a truly great photograph has both. A slick concept but a boring looking image just does not do it for me. Maybe that makes me critically underdeveloped or too sensationalist but I guess that’s what this art of photography course is for to develop my critical palette. So bearing that in mind here is my run down of the images from this show, with my favourites first of course!

 

Daniel Beltrá – Series: Spill (© Daniel Beltrá © Prix Pictet 2012):

This guy would have been the winner had I been choosing… They are so hauntingly beautiful and emotionally provoking. Maybe I’m bias because they hit me where it hurts (the ocean! See my other blog: Memoirs of an underwater photographer). They abstract the catastrophe of the oil spill, they don’t even really look like photographs, more paintings when on display in the gallery. Once you realise what you are looking at you feel a wave of shame & guilt that you could find them so attractive. Easily the best photos in the show in my opinion. Plus I although thought these fit the theme very well on many levels  (mans power to devastate nature, power in for form of oil, the sustainability of the fossil fuel industry etc etc).

This is the artists statement:

Series: Spill
“The oil-stained, blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico swirl in my mind’s eye like a grotesque painting.

I worked off the coast of Louisiana during the spill, where approximately 4.9 million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf waters. The resulting photographs were taken from three thousand feet above, giving perspective to the environmental devastation below.

On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico killing 11 crewmen and injuring 17, becoming the world’s largest marine oil spill. More than 600 miles of coastline were affected and show lingering signs of oil and dispersant. Layers of crude are still spread thick on the ocean floor, radiating far from the wellhead site. Scientists have determined that up to 75% of the oil from BP’s disaster remains in the Gulf environment.

The Spill series is a first-hand account of this tragedy, and reveals our society’s obsessive dependence on petroleum. Every day in the United States, we use four times the volume of the oil released into the Gulf.

“Oil is the lifeblood of America’s economy,” says the U.S. Department of Energy website; this statement has become an ironic metaphor for our current culture of consumption.

We live in a finite world, yet treat its resources as if they were infinite. We pollute the ecosystems we depend upon for survival by pursuing food, fuel, and industry in unsustainable ways. In trying to harness the power of Nature we instead unleash it with dreadful consequences, failing to heed the sobering lessons of the past.

Our knowledge and ingenuity could give us the power to realise and implement a sustainable future. ”

Daniel Beltrá.

My second favourite shortlisted artist was Jacqueline Hassink for her series Arab Domains: (© Jacqueline Hassink © Prix Pictet 2012):

This series focuses on Arab women business leaders, aiming to reveal a different reality to the stereotypical images of Arab women often seen in the Western media. These women permitted Hassink to photograph their office boardroom tables and their dining tables at home. I found these fascinating, not only for promoting powerful women from traditionally male dominating socialites but seeing two sides of peoples lives – the public and private, the work and home. This is one of those instances where a natty idea and a beautiful photograph collide. What I also really liked is beside each photograph there was a little bio of the women of the following format: Nationality, Primary Residence, Date of birth, place of birth, religion, martial status (and dependants), position, industry, revenue in a particular year, date of the photo. Just factual information but it coloured how you perceived each space.


 

Edmund Clark – Series: Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out – © Edmund Clark © Prix Pictet 2012:

Photographs with a strong political agenda usually leave me a little cold, what do you think? Here is the artists statement for this series…

Series: Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out
“The continuing existence of the detention camps at Guantanamo Bay symbolises the imbalance of power that is the Global War on Terror. Since President Bush claimed the authority to indefinitely imprison anyone deemed an ‘enemy combatant’, hundreds of men from all over the world have been shipped to Guantanamo. Many have been imprisoned for years, subjected to interrogation abuses and denied fundamental due process rights. A handful were driven to suicide. It is in the daily process of their incarceration that the exercise of absolute power over the individual is most clearly seen. Every detail is controlled: whether a detainee is allowed toilet paper, mail or a pen, or whether his cell is in constant light or darkness. A man deemed non-compliant can be moved hourly from cell to cell or kept in solitary confinement; one who refuses to eat will be strapped to a chair and a tube forced down his nose. Of the 779 men detained, six have been convicted by military commissions. Despite President Obama’s pledge to close the camps, 171 remain incarcerated with little prospect of release or trial. Working under military censorship, this series explores the spaces and objects of power and control at Guantanamo.”
Edmund Clark.

However having come home and re-reviewed the images (and the rest that weren’t shown in the gallery) they have grown on me as a set. They are much more clean and ordered that you’d expect and everything is so bright, which is especially creepy given the title of the series.

 

An-My Lê – Series: 29 Palms – (© An-My Lê © Prix Pictet 2012)

This series of (practice) war photographs frame a tension between the vast natural landscape and its violent transformation into battlefields. It depicts the United States Marines preparing for deployment, play-act scenarios in a virtual Middle East in the California desert. However I think they would have been much more impressive if they had been printed up super large. They were taken with a large format camera and would have been stunning. I don’t think the display of them on screen or in the gallery really do them justice.

Rena Effendi – Series: Still Life in the Zone – (© Rena Effendi © Prix Pictet 2012):

Focusing on the long-term effects of the nuclear disarter at Chernobyl this powerful series of images bring us a glimpse into the lives of the people who live in the area. Here is the artists statement which sums it up better than I ever could…

Series: Still Life in the Zone
“Twenty-six years after the disaster, the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear accident are both visible like scars and invisible like air. While access to the area surrounding Reactor #4 is restricted with barbed wire and police checkpoints, more than 200 people – mostly elderly women – inhabit the 30 km area around it, now called the Zone of Alienation. These women survived the famine of Stalin’s blockade, Nazi occupation in WWII, and only days after the worst nuclear accident in the world’s history chose to return home. “A pigeon flies close to its nest! Those who left are dying of sadness…” – explains Maria Vitosh, one of the survivors.
Focusing on still life images – victuals, household items, relics of the disaster – I use the prism of Nature Morte to portray both the long-term effects of this nuclear catastrophe, and the power and persistence of the human spirit in the face of devastation. I am also fascinated by the earth’s ability to teem with life, not long after annihilation. The death-infused lives of the Chernobyl women, as seen through objects from their daily life, personify the promise and paradox of power – in reference to the dangers of nuclear energy and the awesome human will to survive. The story of Chernobyl turns Nietzsche’s dictum on its head – that which makes us stronger can also kill us.”
Rena Effendi.





 

Mohamed Bourouissa – Series: Périphérique – (© Mohamed Bourouissa © Prix Pictet 2012):

Unlike the photos about peoples lives that I’ve listed so far from the other artists – this series actually features photographs of the people themselves. The artists statement explains…
Series Périphérique:
“‘What I am after is that very fleeting tenth of a second when the tension is at its most extreme. We have all known those imperceptible moments when the tension seems more violent than the confrontation with the other . At that extreme point where anything could happen, or nothing.’ Mohamed Bourouissa has produced a number of works exploring social reality, working within contemporary urban environments to explore the stereotypes surrounding geographical and social spaces. Périphérique is a series interested in the territories and issues of the suburbs in France where he grew up. A burnt out car, a playing field, a cafeteria, a housing project, a concrete slab – all become a theatre in which groups where meetings bring forth ambiguity, disquiet, a latent dormant violence which comes with no actual sign of violence . Often considered to be the violent border of progressive society, Bourouissa places these suburbs in the field of art, treating them as a visual, conceptual object. His photographs reference historical paintings thus rendering them deeply connected to art history, and places the subjects in the vernacular of the French Revolution, each scene working to address the reality of the prejudices within society. His pictures are staged like cinema shots and are rich with references to painters such as Caravaggio, Delacriox, Gericualt and photographers such as Jeff Wall and Garcia di Lorca.”

 

 
Guy Tillim – Series: Congo Democratic (© Guy Tillim © Prix Pictet 2012):
Politics in the Congo – here is the artist statement:

“In modern times, the territory that has become known as the Democratic Republic of Congo began by being the object of imperial expansion and colonial dominion.􏰁The nature of these conquests set the tone for the calamities that have followed: the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko and civil war. The recent UN-sponsored elections are undermined by mistrust. These images trace some aspects of the individuals and institutions that have been in power in the Congo.”

 

Joel Sternfeld – Series: When it Changed (© Joel Sternfeld © Prix Pictet 2012):

I really liked this series, its such a great idea and the images really bring the point home… Joel explains here in his artists statement why everyone looks so shocked and appalled:

“In November of 2005 I went to Montreal, Canada to attend the 11th United Nations Conference on Climate Change. Like most Americans at the time I was confused about the subject. Even though I considered myself to be a landscapist with an abiding interest in seasonality, and even though I had clipped articles about the possibility of “global warming” from the newspaper since 1989, the information and disinformation surrounding the subject left me, and the American public with a vague sense of discomfort about the subject but little to help formulate a concrete understanding. Those were the days before Al Gore had published An Inconvenient Truth.
What I heard and saw in Montreal shocked me as nothing else. I went there wondering if climate change existed but most of the twenty thousand delegates were already considering the possibility that it not only existed but was about to become irreversible. I took photographs of the participants at moments when the horror of what they were hearing about ecological collapse was most visible on their faces.
To match the sense of anxiety and urgency seen in these faces I created a text culled from newspapers and journals and presented in the form of wire service transmissions. It was meant to provide a chronology of climate change as it had occurred in the previous twenty years—in the thinking and predictions of scientists and climatologists; in the actions of governments and non-governmental organizations, and in the landscape where dramatic events were increasingly occurring.
By the title: When it Changed I also meant to refer to the possibility of a hopeful turning point. In the past few years increasing recognition of the danger has lead to many positive responses across the globe to confront humanity’s greatest challenge. If these efforts are successful then this current period will be the time when the essential human—earth relationship changed.”

 
Robert Adams – Series: Turning Back (© Robert Adams © Prix Pictet 2012):

These images on Clear cutting (a controversial forestry practice in which most or all tree in an area are uniformly cut down) I personally found a little underwhelming. The prints were very small and they were situated right at the end of the exhibition right by the exit. Its a bit of a shame since deforestation is an important issue for sustainability:

 
Philippe Chancel – Series: Fukushima: The Irresistible Power of Nature (© Philippe Chancel © Prix Pictet 2012):

This series of images were of a fairly standard documentary style depicting the devastation wrecked by the tsunami and outbreak of nuclear contamination around Fukushima. I liked the way these were presented, with the area maps beside each one.

 
Carl De Keyzer – Series: Moments Before the Flood (© Carl De Keyzer © Prix Pictet 2012):

Last but not least, I really liked the photos in this series, they made me smile. They took a serious subject like climate change and rising sea levels and almost added an “Evan Almighty” take on it. Here is the artist statement:

“It seems to be an accepted fact that the sea level will rise dramatically before the end of the century as a result of climate change, partly through the fault of us, humans. Prognoses vary from a few decimetres to a few metres. Moments before the Flood is a visual, photographic investigation into how Europe is coping with this difficult-to- gauge threat. The coasts of Europe are the areas in which the repercussions of this threat will be felt. This is the zone in which the mainland no longer feels as “main” as it once did, where the Old World is foundering and where the future is a threat to the past. The coast is the question mark of the mainland. And that’s what makes it such a fascinating subject for photographic research that tries to depict uncertainty. This project doesn’t just focus on a possible future hazard; it also takes in the various forms of coastal protection in Europe throughout history and how today Fortress Europe copes with other swells and floods.
The 65,000-kilometre-long coast of Europe is dotted with useless coastal defences from bygone days. Many represent enormous investments in materials and man-hours, but most never served any purpose, either because the “enemy” didn’t show up, or, when the enemy did appear, the construction proved hopelessly outdated.
Is Europe prepared for the possible dramatic rise of the sea level and to what extent will its efforts eventually prove futile? Eventually the threat was not so serious, or was it perhaps because we were so well prepared for it? To a great extent, this research programme is all about this latent tension, the incapacity to define just how real a threat actually is and how efficient are our defences against it.”

well done for making it all the way through my rather long review. I hope you enjoyed reading about it and I urge you to go and see the exhibition in person if you are able at the Saatchi Gallery although tomorrow is the last day so be sure to hurry! Please don’t use any of these images from this post – they are all copyright the artists and Prix Pictet 2012.

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11 Responses to “Prix Pictet 2012: Power – exhibition overview”

  1. Excellent review. I felt as if I was seeing the exhibition all over again!

  2. Excellent review Suzy; I was on the visit too. Interested that you used the actual photos in your post – I went with just the links after all the recent debate over what is copyright and what is not and what constitues fair use for study! I went to WPOTY as well which was also very good and I thought much better than last year. Indeed too many to go to and not enough time for our own work .. and Brighton to come this weekend!

    • Hi Dave, thanks for your comment. Yes, I know the copyright rules quite well which is why I wrote to Prix Pictet for a press pack (the set of images and instructions they give the press for use in the media to promote the exhibition). That way I can use the proper images with the copyright as they describe in the terms and conditions of the pack. If they had have turned me down I would have kept my review in my private learning log for my tutor only of course. I make it a practice to write to each gallery I go to to ask for a press pack so that I can create a review and actually show the images that I want to talk about and also promote the exhibition if its any good. I did the same with the WPOTY. For that review I was allowed to choose 10 images (out of a pdf they sent me with 100 to choose from) so I choose the ones most relevant to my interests.

  3. Suzy, that’s really interesting. Had never thought of contacting the galleries for a press pack, which is why I went the same route as Dave—I’ll bear your approach in mind for the future. Thanks for that!

  4. Interesting review and use of photos; have put a link to your article on a post I made recently about photographing on study days .. http://amanophotoblog.wordpress.com/2012/10/30/photographing-on-a-study-day/

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