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The notion of order is really rather muddled: as we put things together to make sense of them, we also surrender some of their meaning. And by its nature, order is perpetually shifting; rules are imposed, then they are broken, reconfigured. This paradox is at the heart of the International Center of Photography’s (ICP) fourth triennial, A Different Kind of Order. As its title suggests, the exhibition, which showcases the work of 28 international artists, responds to the flux of our time. Recent years have been rife with revolution — from the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement — and as the world changes shape around us, we require new ways to interpret and understand it. A different sort of order is certainly taking hold, and with it a new aesthetic sensibility.
Upon walking into the galleries at the ICP, the viewer is immediately confronted with four green, foliage-covered canvases taking up much of the facing wall: a magnificent, three-dimensional eyesore of photography and collage by the LA-based artist Elliott Hundley. The latest in Hundley’s Bacchae series, “Pentheus” (2010) retells Euripides’ tale of the king of Thebes. A large photograph in the background shows an image from the story: a man standing, holding a cloak to his body, while Pentheus lays defeated before him, his buttocks and legs bare and his torso out of the picture. But the image is nearly hidden, covered with found paraphernalia: misty-eyed magnifying glasses suspended on pins; photos of industrial matter, car tires, cigarettes, movie stars’ faces, contorted male bodies dangling from springy metal; and snippets of Euripides’ text. Just as Pentheus was ultimately splintered into pieces in the myth, his tale seems to self-combust on Hundley’s canvas. The piece is such a mess that it shouldn’t work — one might conceive that “Pentheus” had been grown from a strange patch of earth, rather than created — but from its sheer disorder comes its beauty.
Because “Pentheus” looms so large, one might easily overlook British artist Mishka Henner’s little triptych of pixelated panoramas from her Dutch Landscapes series (2011) hanging on the wall to its right. Looking at Henner’s work after Hundley’s is a bit like listening for a whisper after hearing a scream, but it’s a quiet worth paying attention to. Pulled from Google Earth, Henner’s photos capture three areas of Holland seen from an aerial perspective, with reams of green fields, beige creases of road, immobile cars, and the roofs of houses. But these images are censored and interrupted, their detail obfuscated by colorful clusters of pixels that discontinue a road, slice a house in half. As the accompanying caption explains, when Google Earth was established four years after 9/11, in order to adhere with security measures instigated by government officials, “Google — or the image suppliers that Google uses — agree[d] to obscure the details of sites that were deemed sensitive.” By bringing to light these manipulated stills, Henner points out that censorship doesn’t divert attention but instead invites it, and that despite the abundance of information the internet offers, total transparency has yet to be achieved. There are limits to what we can see.
Thomas Hirschhorn’s “Touching Reality” (2012) a video that shows a hand scrolling through a stream of photos of atrocities on an iPad, suggests that there shouldn’t be. Following wherever the hand in the video led me — through photographs of bloodied corpses, blown off heads and limbs, and reeling, wounded bodies — I was both repelled and intrigued; I didn’t want to look anymore, but I couldn’t stop looking. Yet after a short time, I grew accustomed to the pictures, and their violence seemed to fade. I became less disturbed by the photos and more concerned with how they no longer seemed to bother me. Looking around the room, it occurred to me that all of us watching were playing against each other in a tacit game of who could look the longest without flinching, without leaving the room. Some people left at the first glimpse of blood, while others stood for the duration uncomfortably, or stared nonchalantly at the screen as though it was showing an infomercial.
Meanwhile, I began paying closer attention to the hand and how it swiped through to the next image, noting the length of time it lingered on each picture and its hunger for clarity as it zoomed in on an unclear detail, as well as the satisfaction with which it zoomed back out again. The voyeurism of “Touching Reality” isn’t offensive, nor is the video violent for violence’s sake. Rather, Hirschhorn gives us these cruel images to break the barricade of censorship and to show us ourselves — our simultaneous inability to control what we see and reluctance to look away.
An alternative way of seeing also informs the work of Tokyo-based artist Sohei Nishino. From afar, Nishino’s photomontages “Jerusalem, 2013” and “New York, 2006,” from his series Diorama Maps, look like standard monochrome pictures of the two cities taken from a bird’s-eye view. Closer up, however, they resemble revised blueprints made up of hundreds of photos of each city’s buildings, monuments, and sometimes people. Nishino is a kind of flâneur: after walking around photographing a city for a month, the artist develops the photos on contact sheets, cuts out the individual images he wishes to use, and then, over three to four months, reassembles them according to his memory of the city, re-creating a particular “vision” of it. Finally, Nishino photographs this larger collage, its parts seamlessly connected to form a printed whole.
On a basic level, we might consider Nishino’s memory maps one-page photo albums of each city, but the collages amount to more than collected memories. Although they’re real places, the artist’s cities remind me of the ones in Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel Invisible Cities; in the way that Calvino imagines that “each man bears in his mind a city made only of differences, a city without figures and without form, and the individual cities fill it up,” Nishino has dreamed up the places in his photographs. One gets the sense that they were always bustling in his mind, and in his work, they appear as he has curated and remembered them.
Looking at Nishino’s New York, Manhattan isn’t geographically precise or proportionate; Times Square isn’t exactly where it should be, and neither are Ground Zero or the Empire State Building. And with the photographs heaped over each another, Manhattan looks more like a giant high-rise skyscraper, every block another brick, every street another floor, than anything else. Meanwhile, the East and Hudson Rivers that frame the island are blurred and incomprehensible, while the bridges over them seemingly lead nowhere. And yet somehow, without giving a clear picture, Nishino’s reimagined city lends an almost authentic experience of Manhattan that a map could not: there’s the feeling of being at once marooned and preoccupied, distracted and inspired, in one place and somewhere else.
Nishino’s cities breach the laws of geography, Hundley’s “Pentheus” meddles with mythology, while Henner and Hirschhorn point to the world’s disorder. These works and others at the ICP show us the result of smaller, albeit significant, aesthetic revolutions, and the different forms those changes can take. Order is as chaotic and mutable as any city or story, and the exhibition invites viewers to approach the works much as the artists have themselves, by challenging and deconstructing pertinent ideas. The ICP triennial suggests that perhaps the point of order is that there isn’t only one — and that by engaging with these works, which sort through the discontents of a changing world, we remain open to understanding it.
A Different Kind of Order: The ICP Triennial continues at the International Center of Photography (1133 Avenue of the Americas, Midtown, Manhattan) through September 8.