Deutsche Börse award review – from unshakable knickknacks to grave sound

<span>Life is lived and love lost… details from a work by Lebohang Kganye, shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse photography prize.</span>Photo: Lebohang Kganye</span>“src =”–/yxbwaWq9aglnagXHBMRLCJT3PTK2MDTOPM4NA–/https Commission/en/TheGuardian_763/99652A4B108C06924E257 9dda7049140 “data-SRC = “–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTM4NA–/″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Living people and lost love … details from a work by Lebohang Kganye, shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse photography prize.Photo: Lebohang Kganye

I am standing in a black box. It’s so dark I can barely see. There are ominous scraping and scraping sounds, a distinctive metal chink, the shrill hum of insects reverberating through a subwoofer. The physical effect is a kind of reverse ASMR. It sounds like death. And it turns out exactly what I’m listening to.

A sound installation without visuals is a heavy entry point for a photography exhibition. But it also makes sense, since it deals with two of photography’s biggest problems right now: absence and apathy. Seeing the consistent failures of photography, the impossibility of describing everything in visual terms – these have become compelling subjects, and they emerge in the exhibitions of the four shortlisted artists at the original photography prize This year’s Deutsche Börse.

The images you encounter inside the black box – an installation by Syrian artist Hrair Sarkissian with the bold title Deathscape – are the ones you imagine yourself. Sarkissan’s argument is that watching is never enough. We must approach the images through action – to feel before we see, to understand. Deathscape is also a document of action: the excavation of a mass grave in Spain, a citizen-led initiative to recover the bodies of loved ones who met their fate under Franco’s brutal regime.

Emerging from Deathscape, is another project by Sarkissian. At first, it resembles spartan images of typical houses – living rooms, kitchens, gardens – all empty. After Deathscape, you’re eager to realize that there’s more to this than meets the eye; These are documents of absence Last Seen (2018-2021), photographs of the last places their families saw, before they disappeared during conflicts in Argentina, Brazil, Lebanon, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their names and the date of their disappearance are embossed on the image – they can only be seen when you get up close. Their whereabouts are still unknown, leaving their relatives in anguished uncertainty. The emptiness of the two abandoned glasses on a kitchen table becomes terrifying.

Viennese performer and pioneering feminist artist Valie Export has been nominated for her retrospective The Photographs. While the show was still on tour, this exhibition was curated as a mini-survey of Export’s work, from documents of early guerrilla performances such as her Action Pants: Genital Panic, when she paraded around a Munich cinema in triangle trousers. removed at the crotch, to her Body Configurations, in which she literally reinserts her body into patriarchal structures, lying, pushing and contorting her body into the ethnicities and arches of buildings that represent authority and power – an urban version kind of Ana Mendieta’s Body of the World. There is no live colonialism here, although Export had one in front of an audience. Humorously, it all makes the point that patriarchy was not designed for women or their bodies.

The export is not “now” – most of the work was done here in the 1970s – or a photographer directly. But it’s easy to see how widespread her influence is, from Marina Abramović (who re-directed some of Export’s performances), to Carrie Mae Weems’ Museum Series and Hito Steyerl’s cyborg feminism. Photography has been an important witness to her wild and radical interventions over the years. And the photos – such as the artist holding out a pack of Valie Export branded cigarettes towards the camera – are irresistible.

Prix ​​Pictet winner Gauri Gill and collaborator Rajesh Vangad are nominated for a co-authored book, Fields of Sight, published last year. Much of Gill’s work is focused on telling the stories of – and with – marginalized communities across India, challenging traditional documentary photography. This work synthesizes her photographs of an Adivasi village on the Maharashta coast, with the ornate imagery of Vangad, a Warli painter – a traditional art form practiced by the indigenous Warli community.

Vangad was initially Gill’s guide, but recognizing that the complexity and richness of the place could not be captured, he became her protagonist and collaborator – her photographs as a canvas for his intricate geometric motifs, depicting the past, the today and the future of every site built by Gill. There are stories of labour, displacement, violence and destruction – things you don’t see in just one image. Vangad’s painting dances across the photographs, bringing them to life. Imagination seems to bring us closer to the truth.

Photography doesn’t have to be one point of view. Lebohang Kganye’s work is an attempt to deal with this at a natural climax for the show. The room is filled with Kganye’s sepia-toned theater clips, and archival and family photographs printed on a large scale directly onto honeycomb cardboard, and attached to supports. These pictures show the history of the Kganye people – their grandparents and a herd of cattle; her grandmother who was evicted from her land during apartheid and was a domestic worker stands in her kitchen, iron heat on the stove. An ordinary house in a township, washing hanging on the line, memories from a family photo album usually come. As you contemplate these theater tables, the light shifts overhead, casting shadows instead of images. Kganye, too, is about absence. These cut-outs are silhouettes of past life and love lost, reminding us that photographs cannot always stand for life and love.

The Deutsche Börse – the Turner prize in the world of photography – cannot be as good as the art that has been exhibited in the past year (an international expert jury nominates artists and photographers on the basis of exhibitions or books held in Europe in the previous 12 months that). This year’s cohort comes together with startling clarity in a summative survey that echoes the cataclysmic world outside.

• The Deutsche Börse prize exhibition will be at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, from 23 February-2 June.

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