Philippe Chancel, Jon Rafman, and Michael Wolf at MOCCA: Collective Identity | Occupied Spaces

Last weekend was your last chance to see the fascinating Collective Identity | Occupied Spaces show at MOCCA, and for those who were on the fence, we wrote a quick capsule review. Today’s update of our review features additional images, links, edits, and credits for those who couldn’t make the show.

Philippe Chancel’s 2006 series of photographs documenting North Korea’s national games ceremonies was worth seeing alone. Although it is possible to get a sense of the massive scale, brilliant colours, and sheer spectacle of the annual event from online images, one must see them in person for full effect, if only to realize that behind each of those changing background images are thousands of North Koreans holding up coloured cards in sequence (human pixels!). As bizarre and excessive as the images may seem to our more or less Western, democratic eyes, all manner of interesting visual associations may be made, from the overtly political (propaganda posters, social realism) to the crassly commercial (graphics worthy of an Asian candy package), to the kitschily pop-cultural (both Esther Williams’ synchronized swimming extravaganzas from the 1940s and a strangely silly ritual from the dystopian 1970s science fiction film, Logan’s Run, come to mind); and this is a good thing in our eyes.

(click above detail to see the many black-haired heads behind the coloured background cards)

Jon Rafman’s Google Street View images, with their automated anonymity, contrast strikingly with the other Asians in the exhibition, Japanese commuters crushed up against the windows of a packed train as captured by Michael Wolf.

Rafman’s work is well-known; his selections from Google’s extraordinary database of worldwide images are most successful when they document the extremely improbable (many examples); less so when they resemble overblown snapshots of city and suburban life (also many examples).

While Google has built privacy protection (imperfect as the system may be) into their documentation of the world, Wolf somewhat cruelly invades the privacy of his subjects at a moment when their sense of personal space is already severely compromised.

True, the images are fascinating portraits of forbearance in the face of abject urban misery, and many critics have sung their praises, but we can’t help but wonder whether Wolf isn’t walking an ethical tightrope in what could be seen as the exploitation of the suffering of Others. Certainly many of his otherwise helpless subjects recognized his impertinence themselves and gestured their feelings in this regard; perhaps Wolf’s decision to include them in the exhibition indicates a willingness to engage viewers on this thorny issue.

Public: Collective Identity | Occupied Spaces also features work by Bill Sullivan, Barry Frydlender, Baudouin Mouanda, and Cheryl Dunn. On view at MOCCA through June 3, 2012.

For more information on the exhibition, see the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival website

To see more from Philippe Chancel’s Arirang series, see his website
More Google Street View images from Jon Rafman can be seen on his 9-eyes Tumblr
To see more from Michael Wolf’s Tokyo Compression series, see his website
Interview with Michael Wolf from The Independent

Bonus video! Upon seeing Wolf’s images, we couldn’t help but recall this extraordinary video of police packing human cargo onto a Japanese train; a must-see if you haven’t already, and a must-see-again if you have (click to view in YouTube).

images, from top to bottom:
Phillipe Chancel, from Arirang series, 2006 (top three images)
Jon Rafman, from The Nine Eyes of Google Street View series, 2009–ongoing (next three images)
Michael Wolf, from Tokyo Compression series, 2009, (7th and 9th images)
MOCCA: Collective Identity | Occupied Spaces, exhibition view of work by Michael Wolf,
photo by Shani K Parsons

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