Through the looking glass

Stephanie Syjuco is among 17 artists whose work comprises "Being: New Photography 2018," the Museum of Modern Art's photography biennial. Syjuco's "Cargo Cults: Head Bundle" adds challenging social commentary to familiar poses and techniques. Photo: Adel Gorgy
At MoMA’s photography biennial, a look at depiction, perception and representation


Possibly no artistic medium has to contend with the idea of newness more than photography. Artists either grapple with or embrace a tool that morphs constantly and incalculably between concept and expression. What constitutes a photograph? Does an image need to be printed? Uploaded? Should it be altered digitally? Does it even have to begin with an eye and a lens anymore? What about photographs that machines take of us in stores, on elevators, in the street? If an image is moving, as some phones do automatically, does that make it some other art form (video, film)? Billions of photographs are added to the internet every day. Everyone carries a camera at all times. The screen has become the mirror of our souls.

Somewhere within that vast cloud of potential and pitfalls are museums and curators trying to keep current, find new trends, identify emerging voices and spotlight important work. “Being: New Photography 2018,” MoMA’s survey of what’s happening in the field, brings together 17 contemporary artists from around the world to address the idea of how photography can capture what it means to be human. Since 1985, curators have used this biennial series of exhibitions to present new artists and new forms of photography. Past iterations have included digital avatars, glowing, pulsating installations, magazine shops transplanted to the galleries and a host of challenges to notions of picture taking and making.

This year, curator Lucy Gallun has put together a refreshingly traditional exhibition, in the material sense, but one that packs a wallop in terms of meaning. We’re presented with things that look like photographs and act like photographs. For the most part, they’re printed on paper, placed in frames and hung on walls. But what they say and how they do it is fresh, at times controversial, and always interesting.

Photographs have an inherent realism built in. Light is captured, transferred and transformed mechanically. So turning them into abstractions, conceptual works, or performance pieces takes ingenuity on the artist’s part. German photographer Andrzej Steinbach’s 2017 series presents a fragmented group portrait. Spanning several images, subjects in black and white photographs pose separately, but together. In each, there’s a person and a half. Your eye can join the fragments, but the artist doesn’t. Instead Steinbach says something about closeness, completion, isolation and society. The exhibition’s themes — assumptions about how individuals are depicted and perceived, who has the right to represent whom, privacy and exposure, individuality and expression, and the power and peril in being identified — are put forward in intriguing ways.

Ethiopian artist Aida Muluneh uses the global tradition of face-painting, here amped up by stark, vivid coloration, to change ideas about the depiction of Africans and African-Americans in photography. Her images are arrestingly beautiful and forceful. Also finding inspiration in traditional African art is Stephanie Syjuco (who, in a nod to Cindy Sherman, dresses up and takes self-portraits). Syjuco riffs on studio portraiture like the work of 20th century Malian master Seydou Keïta, mixing formal poses with densely patterned clothing and backgrounds. But she’s adding a taste of biting social commentary. For her “Cargo Cult” series, Syjuco shopped at big chain stores and shopping malls for clothes, fabrics and accoutrements to don that seemed to express someone’s idea of ethnicity — here, corporate America’s.

Photographs have traditionally been used to memorialize the deceased, which inspired Em Rooney to encase her images in altar-like constructions, while Harold Mendez traveled to Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón in Havana, Cuba, to document traces left on the landscape after burials. His abstractions leave almost no clues about the origins or the lives that passed through or came to rest in the places he pictures. Nearby, Carmen Winant’s “My Birth” fills a wall with a moving installation of over 2,000 found photographs. Winant’s sources were magazines, books and photographs depicting women pregnant, in labor, and giving birth. They’re candid, real, unromanticized and all the more powerful because of it. “My Birth” presents undercurrents of the history of photography, of countless anonymous narratives, and of feminism, but the overwhelming flood is a sweeping vision of humanity, with all its pain and love, mess and glory.

“Being: New Photography 2018,” on view through August 19, presents 17 artists, most of them new to most viewers. It also offers thoughts on how photography has changed and how it’s changing us. Identification, self-identification, privacy, documentation, classification and the structures of power that rely on them provide the contrast for the seemingly benign fun of selfies, sharing and social media.