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Will Deutsche Börse Award Ever Extend Beyond Its Current Geographical Frame?

About the Deutsche Börse Award 2017

Dana Lixenberg, Sophie Calle, Awoiska van der Molen, Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs / at The Photographers Gallery, London [3 March – 11 June 2017]

Twenty years after it was founded, the Deutsche Börse Award holds a special status as one of the most important photography awards in contemporary photography. The problematic and inexact term “contemporary photography” is hereby used on purpose, despite the fact that it has not yet been agreed what it really stands for. Commonly, it refers to so-called “photography as art”, i.e. a wide range of photographic practices, which are primarily produced for and displayed in the gallery context, or in an artist book or photo book. The Deutsche Börse Award is one of the platforms that have helped spread and promote this new momentum of photography which made its unprecedented breakthrough in to the world of art, in the early 1990s. At the same time, it has created a thriving, widespread and autonomous scene within the world of art, also reflected in a worldwide network of festivals and the emergence of specialised galleries and magazines. The photographers and artists who received this prestigious award have come to be regarded as the most important figures in this fast–growing field.


Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs, Zaha, 2013 / Eurasia Project (2013-2016)


The Deutsche Börse Award shortlist, however, has traditionally been predictable and largely Eurocentric. The awarded artists mostly live and work in centres of political and economic power in the West (USA, UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands etc.), failing to take into account marginal cultural milieus where photographic scenes are (also) thriving. Moreover, it does not consider the new significant players from those scenes who are equipped with great conditions for production and extensive knowledge. In the past decade, the balance of power, relevance and quality of photography is inevitably (gradually but surely) shifting towards the so-called developing countries (China, India, Russia, Brazil, etc.) that have seen a boom in their already vivid scenes. All these milieus are persistently ignored by the decision makers behind the Deutsche Börse Award who, like most of the artists awarded, predominantly come from or live in Europe/USA. In a way, the situation reflects the fact that for many years, the West was, and it seems it still is, the predominant trendsetter in global art and photography. That is why the final exhibitions of the award could still be seen as pars pro toto of the latest developments, tendencies and aspirations in contemporary photography. But how long can this hegemony last? The Western institutions will sooner or later have to admit the fact that the (in)balance of power, as it was known in the long century since the foundation of modern world, is coming to an end and that a new world order does not solely apply to economic concerns but cultural as well.

The current exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery in London showcases a wide range of technical possibilities and conceptual approaches. The eclecticism of current photographic practices is so limitless that it is common to see classic documentary photography and complex conceptual art, new technological approaches and traditional (or even historical) techniques, being placed side-by-side–coexisting, communicating and relating to each other. Photography became like contemporary art: everything is possible and (almost) everything is allowed. That is the effect one may experience at this year’s show where works of four European artists and artist groups are being displayed: Dana Lixenberg; Sophie Calle; Awoiska van der Molen; and tandem Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs. So what do they have to show? And, what do they have to say?


Dana Lixenberg, Dee Dee Emir, 2013 / Imperial Courts (1993-2015)


Dutch photographer Dana Lixenberg showcases a photo book as part of dynamic set-up displaying her long-term project entitled Imperial Courts where she documents everyday life in a housing estate of the same name in the suburbs of Los Angeles. It took her 22 years (1993-2015) to accomplish the series, which is, above all, a valuable document. Her photographs point out the poverty in this notoriously restless community. Nevertheless, Lixenberg is determined to avoid spreading stereotypes and prejudice and does so by documenting everyday normality. The variously sized, black and white portraits of the inhabitants, set against the dilapidated backdrop of the estate, are not tendentious but rather depict their dignity and defiance. Their poverty, however, is inevitably reflected in their outlook as well as in their apparently badly maintained living quarters, i.e. badly maintained public infrastructure. The most startling of all the photographs on display is of a highway surrounding the estate that determines its marginal position within this proverbially lavish city. But the pictures hint at something more far-reaching – the state of affairs of social housing in the USA (and in the rest of the world) and the media discourse that refers to it. Decades after state housing projects were completed in the USA and UK, they have gained the reputation of being extremely dangerous places, controlled by gangs and strained by criminal activities, in order to prove social housing is ineffective. Since the 1980s, following the emergence of the dominant neoliberal agenda, many estates have been demolished and their inhabitants left to struggle on unregulated market. Furthermore, Lixenberg emphasises racial aspects of segregation, as the population of Imperial Courts are predominantly coloured and hence, for the most part, underprivileged. The images thus reveal that nothing has changed–in all these years.


Dana Lixenberg, Freeway, 1993./ Imperial Courts (1993.-2015.)


Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs, Racing Car, 2014 / Eurasia Project (2013-2016)


In a darkened room at the Photographer’s Gallery, a comprehensive spatial installation by Zurich-based tandem Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs finds its place, completely absorbing the vigilant spectator. Several images and footages are projected onto the surrounding walls, displaying a number of fragments from artists’ long road trip across Central and East Asia. Despite the catchy and often telling images, one cannot get away from the sensation that what is being displayed is nothing more than a (personal) representation of far-away, exotic places. The two artists are, like it or not, just ordinary tourists and hence their travelogue inevitably portrays a superficial view of these rarely seen areas. They play with the myths and stereotypes about the “wild east” but at the same time they create and spread them, in an attempt to build a worthwhile and somewhat ironic context. Moreover, there is the familiar feeling of pictures simply not being able to conjure the same effect as (their) personal experience. That is the nature of the mediated image. The photographs are appealing and carefully installed but they miss a more profound and subtle point, as well as visual or conceptual challenge which can be often sensed in some of their previous works such as film series Chimney, Lamp & Fire or their USA travelogue The Great Unreal.

A very complex work made with simple means has been made by French conceptual artist Sophie Calle who presents a painfully sincere and intimate piece combining text and image. Calle was nominated for her artist book entitled My All, a collection of her projects from the past 40 years. It is admirable how she managed to condense her process-based works into small booklet, made out of postcards simply bound together. Out of this vast selection, she picked a recent work My Mother, My Cat, My Father, In That Order that tells an intimate story about the death of her loved ones. As a side effect, a number of traumas, anxieties, fears and uncertainties are brought to the forefront, including an ancient fear of death. The artist is brave and radical enough to expose these private issues. There is a photograph of her mother’s feet from her last pedicure, because she wanted to die pretty; there is the photograph of taxidermied giraffe in the artist’s studio, which she thought might help her overcome her grief. She exposes excerpts from her mother’s diaries, which bear witness to their often tense and problematic relationship. And, finally, Calle also exposes her own vanity when she regrets not having children who might have grieved when she dies. Her installation is simple, unpretentious and effective. It elicits emotions and is thought provoking.


Sophie Calle, My Mother, My Cat, My Father, In That Order, 2012


The very opposite of Calle’s richly narrative work are the meditative photographs of Dutch photographer Awoiska van der Molen who explores the depths of the untouched natural world, whatever remains of it, that is. She depicts an abundance of greenery that cannot be geographically located and appears to be absolutely universal, using black and white photography. She seems to be exclusively focusing on the visual and aesthetic effects of amorphous, organic structures such as grass, leaves, tree canopies, and water surfaces. One can therefore call van der Molen a photographic impressionist. She aims to capture and express her own intimate sensations and emotions when confronted by the great nature through the mediator, i.e. her silver gelatine prints. The contemplative quality of the photographs goes as far as to reach the point where they become almost non-representational, like abstract paintings. The spectator should not even try to look for the (narrative) substance, because it is concealed in the very form.


Awoiska van der Molen, 346-18, 2013.


The winner of the Deutsche Börse Award will announced at a special ceremony on 18 May 2017 at The Photographers’ Gallery, London.


© Miha Colner, March 2017