New York

“Strangers”

In the face of an identity crisis brought on by constitutive shifts in the art/photography relation, the International Center of Photography has lately made one bold move after another: relocating from its original home in a chilly Upper East Side mansion to the hot crush of Midtown; launching a graduate program in photography (in cooperation with Bard College) directed by artist Nayland Blake; and assembling a curatorial dream team—Brian Wallis, Carol Squiers, Christopher Phillips—to chart a new course in exhibitions. Now it’s unveiled its most ambitious project to date: the first ICP Triennial of Photography and Video (curated by Wallis, Squiers, Phillips, and ICP veteran Edward Earle).

Given that photo- and video-based media have dominated international art surveys for a decade and a half and that a more recent feature of these exhibitions has been the blurring of boundaries between documentary and art, it’s not easy to justify another international group show devoted to photography and video, even (or especially) in New York. Indeed, few of the show’s forty artists from twenty countries are strangers to the international festival circuit. But the triennial is set apart from these far larger shows by its uncommon conceptual and aesthetic coherence (enhanced by the superb exhibition design by Julie Ault and Martin Beck). With roots deep in the history of photography, “strangers” is the right theme for the times; most of the works included broaden and extend the inquiry rather than merely illustrate it.

Rineke Dijkstra brackets the show with two works that complicate the construction of the image of “the stranger.” Near the entrance are six portraits of Almerisa, a Bosnian refugee in Holland, taken approximately every two years from age six—wearing the traditional dress of her homeland and a look of openness and expectation—to age sixteen, a fully “globalized” teenager with an expression of surly contempt. In each succeeding image, Almerisa confronts the viewer more aggressively, as if to say, “If you think you can know me through this tracing of appearances, think again.” On the lower level is Dijkstra’s video of an adolescent girl singing along to the Backstreet Boys—“I wanna be with you / It’s crazy but it’s true”—while looking into the lens with a mixture of assertion and annihilation of identity that is, finally, heartbreaking.

Strangers are by definition seen from a certain distance, and the complex negotiation of that distance is memorialized in many works. Luc Delahaye’s large color prints eschew the photojournalistic close-up for a longer view of charged environments like the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. For “Dear Stranger,” 1998–2000, Shizuka Yokomizo contacted people by mail and asked them to appear in their windows at an appointed time to be photographed from outside. Yokomizo never meets her subjects, but a peculiar kind of intimacy is created by their voluntary submission to anonymous scrutiny. Beat Streuli’s long-lens street photographs, blown up and placed in the large windows facing the street, lack effect because there is not enough distance between them and advertising imagery. Surveillance itself is also interrogated, explicitly and forcefully in Harun Farocki’s two-channel video installation, playfully in Ben Judd’s I Remember (Cindy Sherman), 2000, and wryly in Krzysztof Wodiczko’s mad anti-shyness prosthetic device.

A particularly generative aspect of “Strangers” is the way it breaches the boundary between documentary and fiction. The adolescent boys bragging about their sexual exploits in Julika Rudelius’s Train, 2001, appear to have been surreptitiously filmed; when you figure out they weren’t, it goes creepy in a Kids kind of way. East LA shoppers acting out scenes from soap operas in a furniture store in Yoshua Okon’s New Décor, 2002, are obviously hamming but get real in ways that collapse the distance between them and their roles. Matthias Müller’s montage of ’50s actresses emerging from and disappearing behind draperies has a fictive magic that recalls the films of Joseph Cornell.

The show includes a remarkable range of contemporary responses to the ICP tradition of “concerned photography,” from Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s cinematic approach to street photography to Joel Sternfeld’s zero-degree portraits of antiglobalization demonstrators at 2001’s G-8 meeting in Genoa. One of the most forward-looking extensions of the documentary impulse is Susan Meiselas’s Encounters with the Dani, 2003, an examination of the effect on Papua New Guinea natives of their representation by outsiders from “first contact” in 1938 to the present. Meiselas’s history shows, in ways both tender and cruel, just how much our relation to the stranger is now played out in images and how these images no longer merely reflect but are increasingly instrumental in forming social and political attitudes.

David Levi Strauss