Last Thursday at the Musée d’art moderne, the Prix Pictet opened an exhibition of its 12 shortlist artists that it had announced on July 10th at the photography festival Rencontres d’Arles. In its 6th cycle this year, the Prix Pictet has selected work from artists that engage the theme of “Disorder.” Since its commencement in 2008, the prize has had annual themes of “Water,” “Earth,” “Growth,” “Power,” and last year, “Consumption.” Its founding premise is to use photography to draw attention to global issues of sustainability.
On Thursday evening, the Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan presented the 2015 Prix Pictet to Valérie Belin for her series Still Life. Her work as well as that of the other shortlist photographers Ilit Azoulay, Matthew Brandt, Maxim Dondyuk, Alixandra Fazzina, Ori Gersht, John Gossage, Pieter Hugo, Gideon Mendel, Sophie Ristelhueber, Brent Stirton and Yang Yongliang encompasses a wide range of engagements with the theme of “Disorder,” as well as a variety of approaches to photography. With pieces ranging from combat-zone and portrait-based photojournalism to avant-garde still lifes and digital photo collages, the diverse world of contemporary photography is well represented throughout the exhibition.
Out of all the exhibition’s works, Mathew Brandt’s series Honeybees presented the most genre-stretching interpretation of the photograph. Brandt uses dead bees as his ink, shaping this strikingly gruesome medium on paper via a process of gum bichromate printing. The images rendered with the insects’ crushed bodies are of bees in flight: somber, monochrome compositions that convey a blunt but multilayered statement. Bees are dying on an unprecedented scale, but this is tough to see and easy to ignore. Thus Brandt abandons conventional photorealism, instead replacing it with painterly, even sculptural representation. Photorealism is represented more subtly in the bodies of the bees themselves, on the level of the work’s medium. In this way Brandt captures the intangible nature of bees’ plight. As bees continue to die off, they will simply stop appearing. So how to capture this disappearance in photographic creation? Brandt has embedded the bees’ death within his medium, situating the negativity of their death in the additive, creative process of his photography. By challenging the ability of photography to convey a reality, he examines our ability, indeed inability, to perceive the harm we inflict on our environment.
On the other end of the spectrum is the unassuming but conceptually loaded series Should Nature Change by John Gossage. His work captures scenes of middle America and sits comfortably within a more conventional approach to photography. Sombre, black and white film photographs speak in subtle, allegorical strokes to the subtle yet disruptive manifestations of climate change in our lives. The stuffy tranquility of a Colorado suburb is tinged with smoke, creeping in from raging forest fires in the mountains. A skull tattoo grins, creeping out from under the hem of a man’s shorts, an innocent moment turned jarringly introspective and sinister. And on a car’s dashboard a plastic dinosaur keels over beneath the heat rushing through the windshield—the violence of the greenhouse effect evoked in the everyday, the unremarkable.
Valérie Belin’s mesmerising series Still Life falls somewhere in between Brandt’s genre-stretching work and Gossage’s simple, brooding investigations. She photographs tangled arrangements of gaudy plastic objects that speak to the troubling habits of our consumer culture, a throwaway culture where endless mass-produced objects flit briefly through our lives. Belin’s still life compositions draw on vanitas and memento mori painting, recontextualizing these traditions’ morbid exploration of the transience of life and the material world into her contemporary critique of mass consumption. These photos don’t immediately assert themselves and their critique. They sit calmly within the blunt familiarity of the still life tradition. Their interior complexity surfaces slowly, however, emanating from eerily processed, hyper-saturated colors and a lingering instability between the contemporary, synthetic sheen of their objects and the cliché of the still life.
Disorder, an exhibition displaying the photography of the Prix Pictet’s finalists.
From Nov. 13th to Dec. 13th, 2015 at the Musée d’Art Moderne. After Paris, the exhibition will go international, passing through 34 cities including New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Rome, and more.
By Chris Gortmaker