‘A Story of Revolutions’
14 March – 20 April 2014
Connections between writing and image are a major component in Altes’s exhibition of digital imagery, paintings and texts at Triskel. The show’s title states the exhibition’s goal: to tell ‘A Story of Revolutions’. One particular mode of sequential visual story telling is suggested by the venue’s former life as a church. The 13 digital prints and the 6 paintings are placed around the walls of Triskel’s gallery space, which brings to mind a kind of Stations of the Cross.
Altes employs wall texts to provide the viewer with information in order to contextualise his images. He uses a collage technique in his digital prints, which bring together photographic images taken at different times. Altes’s sources include photographs taken by his family in Algeria prior to its independence in 1962, as well as contemporary photographs he has taken on recent visits.
The digital collage Chronology comprises photographs of a city at night – generic city lights and high-rise buildings stand as signs for any fairly developed city. The upper section of the collage is an image of a barren landscape; palm trees depicted in silhouette stand out against it. The blue sky has been decorated with graffiti flourishes and stenciled with the words “This isn’t democracy”. The style of this slogan and the fact that it’s in English brings to mind the recent Arab Spring revolutions. It also reads as a discrete nod towards jubilant Western references to ‘twitter revolutions’ along with globalisation in general and English as the language of international commerce and communication.
The main focus of this image is on two groupings of people. Three children wearing school uniforms and, to their right, another grouping of three – a smartly dressed couple, and an older woman in traditional dress. Altes’s text describes how the older woman, a stranger, became incorporated by chance into the photograph of his parents. The collage also contains elements that have been vertically flipped, both architectural features and figures. This obvious digital manipulation stresses the highly constructed nature of the piece and emphasises that it is not a document of a particular time and place. It functions critically due to its close understanding and manipulation of the technologies of photography.
Another of the digital works, Mal, incorporates what at first glance appears to be Arabic script; on closer examination, the resemblance is only superficial. Altes’s text describes it as being a “mock appropriation of Arabic”. The collage incorporates different modes of representation: x- rays, photography and writing, but ultimatly blocks our attempts to unlock the image. The paintings on show are drawn from a series entitled No Country for Nomads (The Myth of Origins). In an accompanying text by Dr Helen Jacey, it’s suggested that these works “serve as an imaginary reclamation of a mythical geography of birthright which is fantastical, evocative and surreal”. The paintings are overall compositions with no particular area of focus; in a number of them the ground has a gritty look, suggestive of sand. They allude to both maps and topography seen from above and are reminiscent of certain aspects of indigenous Australian painting, as well as work by Miro and Chris Ofili. They are decorative, the application of paint and their compositions suggesting vegetation, rivers, veins and blood flow. There’s a linking made between land and body, which could be read as problematic.
Though large in scale – all measuring 150 x 130cm – the paintings seem to be weightless, as much of the imagery is quite generic, which I suppose could be read as an expression of rootlessness. Though the paintings are more unified compositions than the collaged digital works, ultimately they don’t seem entirely necessary – they’re almost simulacrums of painting – paintings as signifiers of ‘painting’.
The digital works are more interesting; they are assembled in a fairly crude manner, with no attempt made to hide the joins. The rough collaging can be read as a metaphor, an attempt to assemble an art that articulates Altes’s conflicted relationship with his identity and his family background. Combined with the text they are confrontational. In Classroom Picture, an old family photograph of his mother’s school class has been superimposed onto a lurid green and white background and overlain with a text about the exodus of Pied-Noir from North Africa to Europe.
Altes’s project is a very ambitious one – an exploration of “representation, diaspora and transition within the context of the colonization of Algeria and the Algerian revolution”. Based on the works in this show, it’s debatable just how successful he has been in achieving this aim. There’s always a danger when an exhibition’s contextualising material makes grandiose claims; it directs viewers to read artworks in a certain way and the work can be found lacking if it doesn’t live up to textual promises. In fact the most successful works in this show are those that fail to ‘represent’ and instead express the fragmentary, unreliable and unstable nature of representation itself.
Catherine Harty is a Cork-based artist and member of the Cork Artists’ Collective as well as being an activist with the Socialist Party.