2011. február 21., hétfő

Taiwan Calling

Well, now that we have seen both parts of the Taiwan Calling exhibition in both Műcsarnok and Ludwig Múzeum, I can put together a few thoughts about the whole thing and especially two pieces: Jao Chia-En's Proposals for 30 flags and coat of arms and Tsai Charwei's Fish project.
First of all, I have to say that I liked the exhibition in Műcsarnok a bit better than in Ludwig. I felt it was more easily digestable and closer to me. I wouldn't say that the exhibition in Ludwig was bad, the opposit, it was really good. There were several installations and paintings that I really really liked, however as a whole the Műcsarnok was better for me.

So, as I have said there were two pieces that really made me think, the Proposals and the Fish Project. Both of these installations deal with national identity and the problems it is surrounded by. I think that's not really surprising, as a Hungarian who was born not long before the régime change and who grew up and developed a national identity in the 90s I have to face the problems about national identity in Hungary almost every day. During the transition the countries in the Eastern Bloc had the chance to reify themselves and establish a new national identity that is free from all kinds of clichés pushed forward by nationalist or socialist propaganda. I don't know how other countries managed in that aspect, but in my humble opinion Hungary failed miserably. We cannot face the shady eras of our history and the political parties abuse this fact by tying their political identities to certain eras that they portray as a golden age, even though the golden age has never happened.
It seems to me that Taiwanese people face problems with their national identity too. Taiwan's relationship with China and the western world makes it a bridge between capitalism and communism, democracy and dictatorship, western values and eastern values. China does not recognise Taiwan as a separate country and still pursues the one China policy that wants to annex Taiwan to China. Most people on taiwan reject that idea, albeit they are Chinese themselves and they speak the same language. Therefore Taiwanese people are torn between two worlds and several identities: western - eastern, Chinese - Taiwanese etc. The two pieces that I'm talking about try to reflect on these issues. I loved the flag and coat of arms proposals, people usually don't really think about their national flags, it's been chosen for them and it stays the same for centuries in most cases, flags and coat of arms usually only change during revolutions or régime changes. However, we have to see that a national flag represents an identity frozen in time, for example the Hungarian red, white and green flag came about in the 16th century and it stayed ever since. I'm not arguing that this is a problem, but I love the idea that we can come up with different flag ideas that reflect on certain periods in our history, or certain important historical events. It reminded me of the dire need of my country to face its history and reify its national identity in a way that is not selfdistructive or tears apart the country.

The fish project talked to me on a similar level. In the video the artist took a fish painted 'one China policy' on its side and then she released it back to the sea to swim away. This reminded me of the never-ending debate about Great-Hungary and the peace treaty in Trianon. I think, just like Fish Project represents beautifully how
Chinese people should let the one China policy go, slowly and organically; Hungarian people should let the idea of revision go slowly and organically. Since I found these similarities striking between Hungary and Taiwan these two pieces talked to me very strongly about the issues of identity and historically rooted grudges.
And this is really why I liked the whole exhibition a lot. Many other videos and installations dealt with identity problems which I felt close to the problems that we have in Hungary. Altogether the exhibition was a very nice experience and I am genuinly glad that I didn't miss the Proposals and the Fish Project.

Photography in India and Joris Ivens

We watched several movies during this lecture. The first one was Photo Wallahs from 1991 shot by David MacDougall and his wife Judith. This one hour colour film discovers photography in a special part of India, Mussoorie, where photography thrived since the 19th century, and where princes and lords came to have their pictures taken. However, the shine of the place have faded and now dozens of photographers struggle to stay alive by taking pictures of Indian tourists.
Even though there's this aspect of the film, the movie's main focus is not the struggle of the photographers but the meaning and the use of photography in India in the end of the 1980s. The most interesting thing for me in the film was the fact that how old-fashioned photography lives side by side with modern colour photography. Even though the time has passed and the modern techniques were completely available for anyone many photographers stick to their old machines, and when I say old I mean stone age really, to take portraits of people or family pictures in a very static and old-fashioned way. On the other hand the new techniques creep in and photographers, struggling to keep afloat, take pictures of tourists in costumes with more modern colour cameras.

The whole film was revolving around these clashes between old and new techniques and the opinions of people from very varied social backgrounds; from the poor to the rich British colonial lady who had been left behind by the collapsing great British Empire.
The attitude of the photographers was very interesing to photography. It felt like they didn't really care for reality when it was about making pictures of people. They either took very old school staged, rigid and artificial pictures of people, or they dressed them up in costumes and made them make funny movements and faces. One of them argued that these pictures with costumes bring out the inner feelings and attributes so they sort of capture reality. However, I found this approach a bit surprising. Albeit, the common streak that all these photograohers had was the passion the capture beauty and hand it to the people whom they photographed. It felt that they cared much more about capturing something pretty than capturing something real. Therefore most of the pctures seemed a bit unnatural and enhanced, especially the ones that were painted over.
The other thing that the photographers seemed to agree about was that photography used to be an art form but not anymore. Most of them had this nostalgia for the old times when there were only black and white pictures taken by old beautiful cameras. Nowadays however photography is not special anymore, anyone can do it and develop it almost in minutes. Hence, most of the older photographers were kind of mooning over the death of real photography that was an art form. This approach is very interesting because it assumes that modern photography is meaningless almost, however I cannot subscribe to this point of view. It is definitely true that pictures taken by tourists on their fully automatic digital cameras are far from being art, but just because a photo is colour and was developed rapidly doesn't make it less art than an old-fashioned B + W picture.

The second video that we watched was a short film by Joris Ivens, The Bridge, from 1928.
This was a very interesting film for me because I didn't anticipate enjoying a movie that does nothing else but shows a bridge for 13 minutes. Obviously this is an exaggeration, the film was abou much more than a bridge and as it turned out I enjoyed it quite a bit. It was solely focusing on the workings of the bridge and the train that travelled through it furthermore the ship that went underneath it. So, besides the workings of the machines the other main focus of the film was movement, in that manner it was really similar to Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera. To be honest I cannot say much about this film because it was quite hard to grasp and digest. I understood the structure of the movie as it zoomed in on the bridge and then is showed how it worked, but I can't really come up with a 'hidden' meaning behind this, even though the effort of Ivens to capture the soul of the machine could be clearly felt during the whole thing.

The last piece was a fairly annoying Amercian propaganda film by Ivens, called the Power of the Land. It was very socialistic and propagandistic. The life of the farmer family without electricity and the hardships could have come through much better with a different approach, especially without the very very annoying narrator.
It worked with social cliches, the farmer works to serve and feed the nation not to feed his own family, the good state comes to give back etc. It was very 'in your face' and boldly aggressive.

2011. február 6., vasárnap

Week #3

On this week we mainly focused on photography in ethnography, and how different approaches to this medium can deliver different messages about the same subject. Edwards' article about photography in anthropological research was very interesting. She basically argues for an expressive approach to this whole problematic. According to her using photography simply to record data and trying to be absolutely objective is impossible and flat out counter-productive. She argues for a symbolic and expressive approach to the use of photos in ethnographic research because, she states, this way the reader can get a fuller view of the people in the research.
I'm not sure about this approach to be honest, a good and expressive collection of photos can enhance any anthropological study but if an ethnographer concentrates too much on expressiveness, it can distort the picture and ruin the authenticity of the research. However, I find authenticity a tricky notion that is very hard to define and therefore to be reached. If a tribe perform a dance during the day so the anthropologist can film it even though otherwise they would always dance it during the night, does that question its authenticity? Or if natives perform to tourists for money, is that authentic? These are very interesting questions that are hard to answer. In my opinion authenticity is very fluid and in some ways over-rated, it is much more important to understand and preserve the gist of a culture than to sacrifice everything on the altar of authenticity.
In the second part of the lecture we took a look at Leni Riefenstahl's photos of the Nuba and a BBC documentary about the same tribe.

Riefenstahl: The Last of the Nuba

BBC: Worlds Apart: The South East Nuba
This documentary was made because Riefenstahl's book stirred a huge debate in the anthropology world. People like Susan Sonntag felt that Leni gave a very one sided and distorted picture about the Nuba that was influenced by her Nazi roots. Riefenstahl is a very contradictory character in the 20th century, she was the

main propagandist for the Nazis and made several films, like The Triumph of the Will, to help Hitler to build the Third Reich. However, her documentaries and her photos are stunning and gripping so nowadays her work is creeping back into the mainstream. For me, however, her role in Nazi Germany is not necessarily the biggest problem, albeit it is definitely a fact that cannot be ignored. Her work with the Nuba and her pictures are absolutely stunning, BUT as Sonntag argues she fetishises and idolises the body and the beauty of the body just like the Nazis did. In her book nobody is old, nobody is sick and everything is subsumed to male strength and wrestling in the Nuba society. On the other hand if we take a look at the BBC documentary we can see that the case is a bit more layered and complex. The environment that the Nuba live in is not as beautiful as Leni's book suggests, it is a dry, brutal and harsh place to live and to try to survive. Also, the people are not as magnificently built and god-like as she tried to depict them. These are well-built but normal looking people struggling for survival in a desolate place. So, in my opinion, Sonntag is right in her article 'Fascinating Fascism' for the most part. Riefenstahl's work about the Nuba is tainted with a Nazi point of view to a certain extent, even though the beuty of the pictures is undeniable.