Interview with Els Barents, curator for the Belgium & Holland section at the inaugural Dubai Photo Exhibition

By Anna Savitskaya - Tuesday, March 15, 2016
Interview with Els Barents, curator for the Belgium & Holland section at the inaugural Dubai Photo Exhibition

One of today’s most outspoken events in proclaiming international contemporary photography as an art medium is the inaugural Dubai Photo Exhibition (16-19 March) organized under the patronage of HIPA (The Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum International Photography Award) and the Crown Prince of Dubai. This interesting and unique event makes it possible to see and compare contemporary photography from different countries selected by invited curators from these countries, those who are considered to have the most acute and impartial view on their local art scene.

Interview with Els Barents, curator for the Belgium & Holland section at the inaugural Dubai Photo Exhibition

Undoubtedly, the photographic medium is irreplaceable in contemporary society, serving as a means of self-expression, communication, entertainment and leisure. When it comes to position of photography as one of the mediums of contemporary art, and the question as to whether a particular photograph constitutes an artwork - everyone is free in one’s judgments and it is largely up to the viewer to decide whether it’s creative and touching, or just a fixation of a present moment done morely for documenting purposes. Today’s availability of photography and the accessibility of information about this medium is simply amazing. The practice of photography as an art form is fueled by the growing number of photo fairs, exhibitions, biennials, contests and similar projects, allowing us make our own opinion in determining the role of photography in contemporary art.

One of today’s most outspoken events in proclaiming international contemporary photography as an art medium is the inaugural Dubai Photo Exhibition (16-19 March) organized under the patronage of HIPA (The Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum International Photography Award) and the Crown Prince of Dubai. This interesting and unique event makes it possible to see and compare contemporary photography from different countries selected by invited curators from these countries, those who are considered to have the most acute and impartial view on their local art scene. Moreover, the selection of the participating artists and works is completely different from the one made by galleries at photo fairs, since it’s not driven by popularity, big names and commercialization. As organisers describe the mission of "Dubai Photo Exhibition: "The exhibition intends to educate as much as to illustrate the medium of photography. With this in mind, Zelda Cheatle was asked to select curators from the 23 countries and regions around the world that Dubai had chosen to participate. These curators, in turn, could choose a maximum of four 20th century photographers/artists, and four 21st century photographers/artists, to work with. In this way, those who are new to the art of photography will be able to appreciate the evolving methods of this medium. The works presented will demonstrate distinctly different ways of approaching the medium - from daguerrotypes to film – allowing the overall exhibition to trace the beginnings of photographic art to their contemporary expressions."

At the same time, it differs also from most other exhibition projects by its scope and representativeness. The inaugural exhibition, presenting over 800 museum-quality photographs from 23 countries curated by 18 international curators, will be held in the Dubai Design District (d3), and is organized by the World Photography Organization (WPO). Artdependence Magazine had the opportunity to talk with Els Barents, former Director of Huis Marseille Museum for Photography in the Netherlands (1999 - 2015), and the invited curator for the Belgium & Holland section at the inaugural Dubai Photo Exhibition. In this interview (which took place before the curators gathered in Dubai to install their shows), Els talks about the overall concept of the exhibition, personal evaluation criteria and the diversity in photography from different countries. 


 L-R: Zelda Cheatle, Chief Curator, Dubai Photo Exhibition; His Excellency Ali bin Thalith, Secretary General of HIPA; Scott Gray, CEO, World Photography Organisation 

Artdependence Magazine: What is the theme of Dubai Photo Exhibition? Does it aim to convey a certain message?

Els Barents: My perspective on this event has been formed in the process of being curator for the Dutch Belgian pavilion (from November 2015 until now). To my understanding there is not so much a theme as an ambition involved: A Global Perspective on Photography, as it has been called. This might sound very mainstream, but I do not think it is. I see this amazing initiative by Sheikh Mohammed to engage in the organization of such a large scale photo exhibition in Dubai as an encounter, motivated by lots of interest in and curiosity about our qualities in photography, and the way we work with it. As far as the mind's eye is concerned, photography is one of the most sensitive media, in art as in the whole field of humanities. The roads to and from may differ greatly, but, in the end, a photograph filters down to some form of understanding, which often arrives in a very direct way. Since this event coincides with the Art Dubai Fair and it’s planned for Global Art Forum with The Future Was discussion, one also senses a certain context and strife for the art side of photography, preferably at a world scale .

AD: Were the participating countries selected or invited? 

EB: I was invited to curate a Dutch/Belgian Pavilion based on my own choice and experience. The same for the other colleagues. They also invited à titre personnel, not so much to represent their country, but to make a selection, loosely based on national, artistic identities. Sometimes neighboring countries were combined,  like in my case where the work of Dutch and Belgian photographers is shown in one pavilion. The Dubai approach clearly differs from the so-called stately representations in, for instance, the pavilions in the Giardini at the Venice Biennial, which are literally owned and ran by the different countries themselves, in close cooperation with their Venetian counterparts.   

AD: Could you please clarify what is the association between Dubai Photo Exhibition and the HIPA award? Do the winners of the HIPA awards participate in Dubai Photo Exhibition?

EB: What I understand is that HIPA already was an existing, organizing body in Dubai, focused on photography. WPO’s assignment to organize this global event was given through them. I am not aware of any mixing between the two events other than that the HIPA prize will be announced during the Dubai Photo Exhibition.

AD: Was there any censorship or any special requirements implied in the process of selecting the artists to participate in Dubai Photo Exhibition? What did you base your selection on?

EB: The Arabic culture is quite different from the Western one, in many aspects. For instance, it has a long and frequent use of abstractions instead of a figurative visualization like we in the West tend to do. I’ve tried to imagine what they would have had in mind, in starting such a bold and highly complex initiative with a global perspective and approach (like I explained in my answer to your first question).

Besides, when making our selection there was also the quick realization that wall space per pavilion would be rather limited. What ever there was to show, it had to be short and powerful. I therefore decided not to look back but to focus on the current generation of Dutch and Belgian photographers, the 40ers and a little older. I wanted a certain amount of abstraction in the images shown. Photographs hovering on the edge of figuration and abstraction, so to speak. This immediately involved juxtaposing black and white with colour photography, which I find to be a very intriguing fact of contemporary photography.  

I must say that I haven't had any problems with the photographers I selected. There has been an issue with one photograph chosen, though. I still will have to find out why it turned into an issue, though my guess would be that the shock of the new might have had a lot to do with it. In order to understand images from a different culture, one needs a certain historical and aesthetic framework. For Belgium it is essential to understand the role that Surrealism played for my own country, it would require a deeper understanding of the long tradition of the so-called Still Life, which implicates a strong focus on a part in order to show you the whole.       

AD: In your opinion, does photography from different countries or regions differ? And if yes, what is the difference?

EB: Absolutely! One can tell the difference between photographs made in different countries, sometimes even between regions within a country. The same is valid too for other art forms like painting, sculpture, music, design, fashion, and even architecture.  Pointing out these differences works best by comparing two photographs, each being of such a different national origin. But I must say, it doesn't always work and it’s tricky to do, since there is always a mix, within a photograph, of personal touches and nationally formed elements. It is a highly interpretative thing to do. There are quite some open doors, false sentiments and generalizations to avoid. But, one might point, for instance, at the way the light is handled, the perspective chosen, a certain image style or tradition followed, or the type of views or sentiments shown. Anyhow, a trained eye might discern many more levels in comparing photographs from different origins than what we would now call folklore.        

AD: What makes a photograph valuable for you?

EB: For me? Good photographs need a certain visual density. A good image offers so much more than just an accidental framing around a subject.  Eye-catching and mind-blowing images are very rare. It requires an impossible combination of elements. They need to be meaningful in the first place, besides this they also require qualities like perfect timing, solidified movement, tension and a certain suspense, or harmony and stillness as opposed to drama. All of this must then be translated into subtle graphic elements like transparency, colour and palpable greys and blacks. They have to move you, you see, despite the fact that it is just a static view of a larger whole.  

AD: What is your personal attitude towards digital manipulation in photography? 

EB: I see digital manipulation as a follow-up of the analogue retouch. Though too much manipulation comes at the expense of liveliness. In the end, the image just loses its credibility and becomes a fantasy.

AD: What advice would you give to young artists working with photography?

EB: Photography requires a certain life experience, the older you get the better you will become. Don't give up too soon!

AD: Could you share any highlights of the Dutch and Belgian section of Dubai Photo Exhibition with the magazine? 

EB: Since the 20th century, we’ve replaced our romance with modernism with a growing interest in new horizons. Nowadays, most projects in photography focus on sustainability and identity in a highly volatile world. Despite these chaotic circumstances, one finds new, equally thrilling and intricate, strong and subtle, artistic approach to these subjects. Photographers are not only investing great creative power to imagine the characteristics of a globalizing world, but they do so in a surprisingly fresh and reflective way. The theme of the Dutch/Belgian Pavilion centers around the current perception and the imagination of such inner and outer spaces – in landscape, architecture, urbanism, as well as in the mind’s eye. It’s all about picturing the bigger subjects in a very deliberate but yet light-footed way. Photographers shown in the Dutch and Belgian sections are Dirk Braeckman (B), Popel Coumou (NL), Geert Goiris (B), Scarlett Hooft Graafland (NL), Awoiska van der Molen (NL), Frank van der Salm (NL), Marijke van Warmerdam (NL).

© Frank van der Salm. Arcade, 2006 Courtesy of the artist

Frank van der Salm (NL 1964, lives and works in Delft)

From the very beginning, Van der Salm's main focus has been the Urban Landscape. Early works, like the so-called 'New Topographics' (photographs of a man-altered landscape), have consolidated his oeuvre, which deals mainly with themes of controlled landscapes, lack of space, infrastructural issues, and the pressure on time and space in contemporary metropolises. Dualism is at the heart of these photographs, which in a way is a reflection of our contemporary, high-speed, communication.

Education: Willem de Kooning Academy, Rotterdam (1988-1992)

Exhibitions: Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (2014); Stedelijk Museum, Schiedam (2012); Haunch of Venison, Zürich (2005), Venice Architecture Biennial (2004).

Publications: Frank van der Salm Building Image (2016); Zoet & Zout (Sweet & Salty) (2012); Reading the American Landscape (2008).

© Geert Goiris. Trope, 2013. Courtesy Galerie Art: Concept, Paris & the artist

Geert Goiris (B 1971, lives and works in Antwerp)

The work of Belgian artist and photographer Geert Goiris has an amazing mix of qualities.  At first glance, you have the strong and graphic shapes of a portrait, or a tree, a piece of rock or an occasional flower. His landscapes are equally bold, adding the necessary depth to his otherwise flat and monumental images. By times, color turns up. Placed in sequence, there is a sense of sudden shifts. Still, each image carries its own impact (its visual weight).

At the same time, the evident virtuosity of this photographer seems to be counterbalanced by a haunting and dreamlike quality. There is a sense of the uncanny, of suspended time and unspoken narrative. The artist puts it as follows: “My images refer to familiar fictions. Simultaneously, they register authentic locations. The fusing of fact and fiction is precisely the fracture that I intend to conserve.” (Geert Goiris in: The latent Threat, by Jean Paul Felley and Olivier Kaeser, 2014). This is image making on the brink of Surrealism.

Education: Higher Institute for Fine Arts, Antwerp; FAMU Academy of Performing Arts, Prague; Saint Lukas Academy for Visual Arts, Brussels (1989-2000).

Shows:  FRAC Haute Normandie, Rouen (2016); Belfast Exposed (2015); Foam, Amsterdam (2014); VOX, Montreal (2014); Musée de Bagnes, Chable (2014); Barrage de Mauvoisin, Le Châble (2014); Museum M, Leuven (2013); The Nest, Nairobi (2013); Hamburger Kunsthalle (2010).

Publications:  Prophet (2015); HISK: The Institute (2015); Prolifération (2014); Lying Awake (2013) 

AD: Do you have any preferences among other artists (not from your section) exhibited at Dubai Photo Exhibition?

EB: I haven't had the chance to see anything else yet....

Anna is a graduate of Moscow’s Photo Academy, with a previous background in intellectual property rights. In 2012 she founded the company Perspectiva Art, dealing in art consultancy, curatorship, and the coordination of exhibitions. During the bilateral year between Russia and The Netherlands in 2013, Perspectiva Art organized a tour for a Dutch artist across Russia, as well as putting together several exhibitions in the Netherlands, curated by Anna. Since October 2014, Anna has taken an active role in the development and management of ArtDependence Magazine. Anna interviews curators and artists, in addition to reviewing books and events, and collaborating with museums and art fairs.

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