Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Shape Of Things To Come

Maybe befittingly to a city that gave birth to a philosopher and scholar better known for his Praise of Folly, Rotterdam is a striking mix of rational and flamboyant modern architecture. Since its near total destruction in WWII, the stage was set for a number of experiments in design that ranged from the kubus houses, literally cube-shaped buildings that seem to defy gravity and, most of all, common sense by being tilted on one corner by 45 degrees, to much uneventful rationalistic suburbia. This attitude has most notably blossomed in recent years to produce many very exciting buildings and a centre that has been revived from catatonia into youthful vitality. Rotterdam is futuristic, especially so along the river Maas, next to the Erasmus Bridge, where among other things the Holland’s Fotomuseum is based in the charmingly named Las Palmas. Lured by possibly one of the last days of decent weather, my wife and I hit the road on a round trip to see the present exhibition on Brazil.

If your preconceived notion of the South American juggernaut state is that of a sex packed crazed metropolis, you’ll find confirmation in this multimediatic show of photos, graphic design and videos, plus one highly enjoyable interactive gimmick that allows one to be videoed in real time and instantly played back on a mural screen, combined with apparently random but very funny cartoonesque characters and elements. Maybe it defies description, but some kind of caption to the works could have helped our understanding of what otherwise is left as a chaotic symphony of tropicalistic nonsense. Vital and sexy, sensationalistic sensuous, vaguely titillating and intellectually void. It’s almost an amusement park in museum format, games included.

Interactive stimulation continues as we dive into an exhibition of young talent from some award or other: visitors are eagerly invited to judge the works and put their preferences either in a cardboard box (for the analogue minded) or patiently typing in a submission form designed to be possibly the slowest software of the world. Since almost nobody took the trouble of fine printing their work, many images are on plain inkjet paper and are pinned to the wall by long steel nails, providing a provisional and ephemeral impression far from that of fine art photography. Maybe this is for the better, because the level of the images is more often than not even lower than that of the self-evident explicatory captions by the authors. A few of them manage the arousal of a faintly benevolent smile from the discerning spectator, and would find one almost sympathetic were they not presented in such a presumptuous manner and a lofty – although in the basement, still a museum - location.

Two floors up more gimmicks: a thermic paper camera that doesn’t work – a combination of an overhead projector and a scanner, by the look of it. To paraphrase the old slogan, “you push the button and it doesn’t do anything“ but whirr and purr and emit some heat from the slot where the print should pop out, according to the instructions printed on the front of the box. Previous visitors had been both more lucky and less accommodating, judging by a stack of discarded prints left on top of the apparatus. I settle to pick up one of the most mysterious images of the stack as a souvenir. It’s a silhouette, a kind of digital silkscreen of a bold headed man: a black matted sheet of paper vaguely smelling of graphite that I immediately and unceremoniously fold down the middle to prevent it from taking on the aura of a print. Very comfortable chairs further on provide solace to the feet, as a joystick allows browsing some photographs accompanied by a sound system that whispers a testimonial on the images softly and almost confidentially right behind one’s ears, a feeling not altogether pleasant but vaguely threatening, as it is unfamiliar to most people.

I feel both excited about the potential of this museum and disappointed by its present exhibitions as we move towards the exit, past an impressive display of cakes at the shiny coffee counter. Manned by a slightly reluctant and absent minded bearded youth, it serves a cappuccino that is as pleasing to the eye as poor to the taste budds: almost an allegory of a place that seems so far to deliver more appearance than substance. Epiphany strikes as a bolt of lightning when I come across a book on Gerda Taro in the luscious museum bookstore. You may have encountered her name while reading about Robert Capa, and this book reveals a great talent and a very courageous person on her own right. As her premature tragic death proves, she took chances and real combat photographs in a conflict that may now look primitive and weirdly photogenic but was nevertheless crude and deadly for those directly involved.

A measure of this kind of dedication to photography and panache is needed here, I think, and taking some risks. The infrastructure seems absolutely fine.

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