Still dancing: Vanessa Winship discusses her work

As an exhibition of Vanessa Winship’s work continues at Fundación Mapfre in Madrid, the British photographer – the first woman to win the prestigious Henri Cartier-Bresson Award in 2011 – talks to BJP about what photography means to her, while Carlos Martín García, who curated the retrospective, discusses his vision for the exhibition.

The show features 188 photographs from across Winship’s oeuvre, beginning with Imagined States and Desires: A Balkan Journey, and takes visitors through series including Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction (parts 1 and 2), Sweet Nothings: Schoolgirls of Eastern Anatolia (2007), she dances on Jackson (2011-2012), which we featured in BJP last year (July 2013, volume 160, issue 7814), ending with her most recent work, Where Gold Was Found, made in Almería this year.

BJP: What did you want to convey through the exhibition? Was there a particular message you wanted to get across?

Vanessa Winship: I would like to convey something about fragility, about how both the landscape and the human beings who inhabit it are marked by their history and their place within in it, here and now.

BJP: You describe your work as focusing “on the junction between chronicle and fiction, exploring ideas around concepts of borders, land, memory, desire, identity and history”. How do you draw on fiction in your work?

VW: From where I stand now, there’s no certainty; nothing is fixed, everything changes. I think photography is a subjective act that relies on the descriptive nature of the real to give it its meaning. This is not too dissimilar to how history is written and how memory works – fragmentary, incomplete. For me borders are a man-made construct, and through this construct an ideology is built around history and memory that leads people to identify, or not, with an idea of nation. This is particularly accentuated right now in the east of Europe, where histories are being reinterpreted. During my time in the Balkans and the Black Sea, I began to see that every ‘side’ had their own perspective; each was telling their truth. So for me it was a question of a plurality of truths and realities. There are many layers of history, more questions than answers. I first learned about Albania and the Albanian landscape in the broader sense through the fiction of Isamail Kadare, whose work is drawn from living through and experiencing life under a very particular system and at one junction in history. I also read the work of writer and journalist Neal Ascherson, whose work was focused both on history and what was happening in the here and now. So this is how I came to use the title Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction for my work around the Black Sea.

BJP: For your recent work in Spain, you turned more towards the landscape and away from portraiture. Why? What did you take away from this experience?

VW: In my work I have always spoken about land and what it means – from the work in Georgia onwards, I’d been moving towards using the landscape to articulate my feelings about the place, and in she dances on Jackson, the larger body of the work is landscape. In Almería, I wanted to fully explore this possibility. Our human condition is marked in and on the landscape – the feeling of frontier, history, the environment, the nature of work, the constructed landscape of a film set, an idea of home, migration, waste and corruption. I wanted to speak about absence and the nature of anonymity when I think about how, and who, provides the food that arrives on our tables. I consider the work in Almería, when put together as a series, to be a group portrait.

BJP: What does this exhibition at the Fundación Mapfre in Madrid mean to you?

VW: It has come at the right time to reflect upon the work I’ve made in the last 15 years – to address the issues, questions and themes that have occupied me, and to make sense of the path I’ve taken. It’s a series of notes. I’ve also been given the chance to work with an incredible group of people, who have worked extremely hard to bring the work to Spain, so I am grateful for this.

BJP: Could you tell me about the process of selecting the images to show – how did you decide what to include and what to leave out?

Carlos Martín García: The selection process was teamwork in which Vanessa Winship and I collaborated, along with photographer George Georgiou, her creative and personal partner, whose experience was vital in the whole artistic conception of the exhibition. The show, then, is the result of a collective activity and fruitful dialogue. All Winship’s major series are present. The larger series, such as Black Sea – originally comprising hundreds of photographs – was reduced but the main narration lines within it were kept intact. In fact, as we made the selection and tested different displays, we discovered new and unexpected discourses within each series, which only appeared to us when we had a global view of Winship’s work. The image selection captures the spirit of each series, which are different from each other, although they share common notions of fragility, vulnerability, territory, border and absence.

BJP: How are the images arranged in the space, and why? What can visitors expect to see?

CMG: Each series has been displayed differently. The space has two floors: on the upper floor we have created three different spatial unities for A Balkan JourneyBlack Sea and Georgia. Seeds Carried by the Wind. In the Balkans series the photographs are displayed in a certain way so that we have left some blank spaces that can be seen as a reference to absence and loss, since the pictures comment on the movements of refugees from Kosovo and the effects of the recent history on that territory. For Black Sea, we created an environment where the viewers are confronted by a wavy, non-linear grid of photographs (referring to a geopolitical area where boundaries have been – and still are – unstable) as they hear Winship’s voice coming from a projection. The third space, dedicated to the Georgia work, displays a large grid connecting formal portraits with some small colour photographs of Georgian gravestones and, in front of it, large-scale landscapes that underline the beauty of a land that seems to be collapsing.

On the lower floor, we arranged the series in a more classic way. Sweet Nothings needed a democratic distribution because the images are portraits of Turkish schoolgirls of a similar age, taken from the same distance and in the same format. Her more recent series, she dances on JacksonHumber and Almería, possess a solemnity and silence that required a quiet pace and a certain independence for each of the photographs. We respected their more abstract appearance and symbolic nature by displaying them in a more straightforward manner, which allows the viewer to stand and try to hear the particular ‘sound’ emerging from each of them. Visitors can expect to enjoy an exhibition where Winship’s work could be mistaken primarily for that of a photojournalist and portraitist, to then discover a poetic gaze, where landscapes and people bear arcane messages related to the recent history of those places and to the human condition in general.

BJP: How does the exhibition differ from previous exhibitions of Vanessa’s work?

CMG: This exhibition at Fundación Mapfre is the first retrospective ever made of Winship’s work. Therefore, it can hardly be compared to previous ones – either in Spain or abroad – although there have been remarkable partial presentations of her series before. It is the exhibition of an artist who has reached her first peak and whose photography is at the point where it poses intriguing questions about the nature of the medium itself and its role for understanding the wounds of the past still present in each of the people and territories portrayed. Winship’s shift of focus to the US in 2011 for she dances on Jackson, and her more recent work in Almería, can now be fully understood in the context of her previous work in Eastern Europe and Central Asia; there is a clear distillation of her way of looking at the work and more hermetic and introverted mode of expression. Visitors will be able to perceive a certain unity within diversity, a common sense of places in the world that are geographically disconnected but linked by invisible sutures, subtly highlighted by Winship’s eye.

The Vanessa Winship retrospective is on display at Fundación Mapfre in Madrid until 31 August.

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