Give and Take: Hamburger Kunsthalle’s latest exhibition poses questions for the ‘retinal era’

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Sara Cwynar (*1985) Videostill aus Glass Life, 2021 6-Kanal-Video (2K) mit Ton, 19:02 Min. / Maße variabel Courtesy the artist, The Approach, London and Foxy Production, New York © Sara Cwynar

Featuring the work of 20 artists – including photographer Max Pinckers and conceptual artist Martha Rosler – this exhibition from Photo Triennal Hamburg explores appropriation, identity and the changing role of the image 

“A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetise the injuries of class, race and sex,” observed Susan Sontag in 1977. Today, this idea contributes to what curators of the Triennial of Photography Hamburg, which celebrates its eighth edition this year, have dubbed the “retinal era”.

Rainy Days, 2021 Digital C-Print, 95 × 135 cm © Frida Orupabo, Courtesy Galerie Nordenhake Berlin / Stockholm / Mexico Foto: Susann Jamtøy

Led by artistic director Koyo Kouoh, this year’s Triennial explores the theme of Currency – the contemporary ubiquity of images and their impact on our lives. Within this theme, the “retinal era” is considered to be a time when the digital saturation of images has become such that a new vocabulary of looking, reading and responding is needed. 

This new vocabulary is called upon in earnest by several of the Triennial’s 12 exhibitions, but most intensely, by Give and Take. Images Upon Images. On show at Hamburger Kunsthalle’s Gallery of Contemporary Art, the exhibition brings together the work of 20 artists, each exploring realities and identities via the appropriated photo and video material of others. These include Sara Gwynar’s Glass Life, a video installation offering a feminist take on consumer culture, Mathilde ter Heijne’s Woman* to Go, an exploration of memory as a privilege and Frida Orupabo’s digital collages, which interrogate Black identity beyond colonial-racist narratives. 

“What will happen to mass produced images? How are they archived? How are they used? And how should a museum react to the kinds of pictures produced today?”

Mathilde ter Heijne (*1969) Assembling Past and Present, seit 2016 Videoinstallation mit Ton, variable Dimensionen © Mathilde ter Heijne

These works, explains co-curator Dr. Petra Roettig, as she wends her way through the brightly lit space, explore a series of questions: “What will happen to mass produced images? How are they archived? How are they used? And how should a museum react to the kinds of pictures produced today?”

However, the exhibition does not intend to answer these complex and challenging questions. Instead, the show’s varied displays – a corridor covered floor to ceiling in the cached images of Evan Roth’s search history, the famed collages of Martha Rosler’s House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home – encourage visitors to consider concepts of authorship, perspective and the role of the archive.

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin (*1970) Blame the Algorithm, 2021 Siebdruck auf Zeitungspapier, Ex. 87/100, 58 × 35 cm © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022 Foto: Christoph Irrgang

These concepts are perhaps most evident in the works of photographer Max Pinckers. Pinckers’ images, taken from his series Unhistories, are not the most immediately striking element of the sizable and, in some ways, maze-like exhibition. Their impact however, along with the debates they ignite, is considerable. 

“Pinckers comes from a documentary photography background,” explains co-curator, Stephanie Bunk, gesturing to the images mounted on the white walls around her. “But, he’s really very critical about this medium. His work is concerned with fact and fiction. He believes documentary photography is a fiction and that the pictures we see in the media are fiction too.”

“The most important thing, is that visitors leave thinking a little more deeply about the role of the image today.”

Works by Max Pinckers © Hamburger Kunsthalle, "Give and Take“ Exhibition, 2022, Photo: Fred Dott

Pinckers’ series began in 2014, when the Belgian-born photographer discovered British propaganda in London’s Archive of Modern Conflict – incomplete histories of Kenya’s Mau Mau Rebellion, told through the colonial lens. Working with veterans of the war, Pinckers has since set about creating “imagined records”, by recreating moments of struggle previously erased from history. His portraits of Mau Mau veterans wielding weapons and studying archive images are simultaneously emotive and uncomfortable. 

“It’s interesting, because he worked closely with universities, with museums and with the Mau Mau veterans,” says Bunk. “But of course, Pinckers has a white gaze on this subject. So, as he deals with questions, he also raises them.

 “This work is not the answer, but it is his attempt to fill in history’s blind spots. Using the possibilities open to him as a white, European photographer, he has offered his work, his collaborative style. How far this goes in remedying these issues in the end? That remains to be seen.”

Works by Max Pinckers © Hamburger Kunsthalle, "Give and Take“ Exhibition, 2022, Photo: Fred Dott

It’s a fittingly open interpretation for an exhibition that poses so many more questions than it answers. Volker Renner’s Faces of the Riot – 400, highly pixelated images of alleged US Capitol rioters, taken from social media platforms and used by the FBI to identify law breakers – asks that we consider questions of legality and power in algorithms. Taryn Simon’s The Picture Collection – collages created using the New York Public Library’s 1.29 million images, postcards, press and advertising photos – prompts us to ponder how visual information is catalogued and archived.

 But, with so much to consider, what should visitors take away from Give and Take. Images upon Images? “The most important thing”, Roettig says, “is that visitors leave thinking a little more deeply about the role of the image today.”

Martha Rosler (*1943) Cleaning the Drapes, aus der Serie House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, 1967–1972 C-Print © Martha Rosler, Courtesy the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin

Give and Take. Images upon Images is on show at Hamburger Kunsthalle, as part of Photo Triennial Hamburg, until 28 August 2022. Tickets are available here.