American artist Julie Mehretu creates large scale interdisciplinary work on various supports. Mehretu’s work has always been an inspiration to me, due her multi layered, and multi disaplined approach to her pieces. Politized landscapes is especially interesting, from the awesome scale, screen printing, painting, context and concept. Working first with pixellated photographs Mehretu begins layering small pixels from images that were known for race riots, political activism and rallies agianst man’s inhumanity to man. Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa, she fled with her family to the US when she was seven. Mehretu makes art that depicts the cumulative effects of political and sociological changes, through the alteration of the local architecture and topography.
My intention has always been to make work with an interdisaplinary approach, having made several small pieces in the last two modules. Migrants for many reasons do not want to be photographed, this together with being removed from all the building sites that I visited posed a problem. Could I show migrant children, interdisaplinary work and site photographs together?
During the winter break, my time was spent trying to wrap my head around what I was actually trying to say with my work. My scope was too large, and realizing this it was important to find a way of paring down my ideas on urban and rural landscape. My decision was made to focus on an area on the outskirts of Houston where new buildings and stores are changing the landscape.
In his book, “Society of the Spectacle,” Guy Debord quotes Lewis Mumford. “The explosion of cities which cover the countryside with ‘formless masses of urban residue’ is directly regulated by the imperatives of consumption.”
The nature of my work is concerned with the urbanization of an area on the outskirts of the city of Houston in Texas. It is almost exclusively migrants, both legal and illegal that build these monumental structures to facilitate growing consumerism. Working in temperatures of up to 35oC, (95oF) and 100% humidity.
Photography has provided a new way of picture making, based on selection. Paintings are made using various studied skill sets, photographs are a snapshot of time, and are taken as opposed to produced. There is a skill set required to make that sliver of time resonate. Taking into account Szarkowski’s five elements, and how they pertain to my own studies was really quite interesting. My initial thoughts were, well clearly that does not feature in anything that I produce, as there are no people, just empty buildings, however on reflection most of these elements are present, time and vantage point are definitely present, but what about the other elements? Framing is also there and the detail of the migrants work, which leaves the thing itself, but is it interesting enough?
To quote Piotr Sadowski, “Psychologically a compelling sense of direct causal link between objects once physically connected but later separated.” Sadowski’s words resounds here with reference to links between structures and migrants. Speaking metaphorically, the connection between concrete, walls and construction is a thought provoking subject especially here in Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott has recently vetoed migrants from settling here, because “We already have our fair share.”
The migrant construction workers here are being physically connected to the architecture by the placing of hands on buildings in order to render them with concrete, leaving a historical imprint of the migrants’ craft. Taking a new look at the work from the last module helped me reconnect and I found myself looking closer at the migrants’ rendering of the concrete walls. The mark making is so beautiful, but ephemeral since when the building is complete, this will be covered with brick and stucco, erasing every trace of the migrants’ hands. I see this as an erasing of the knowledge of the migrants’ input and contribution to society. The skeletal state of these buildings is what interests me most, but the vast areas of concrete gave me some problems as it is difficult to convey the sheer size of these structures. I spent a good deal of time thinking on how I could resolve this, as I really enjoy WOP (works on paper) and my thoughts kept on returning to that idea.
Szarkowski also quotes Baudelaire, saying, “This industry, by invading the territories of art, has become art’s most mortal enemy”. This statement may have instilled a fear into the art world broadly, though I’m sure that the two genres can sit alongside one another and can definitely share a very exciting space. Baudelaire’s statement made an observation on photography in the 1800’s, but I think that today’s art and photography world is more accepting of expanding and interlinking both genres.
Reflecting on Szarkowski and Baudelaire’s words my research moved to considering inter-disciplinary techniques. Julie Mehretu has always intrigued me with her monumental scale, and stunning layering techniques while Jessica Rankin’s delicate needlework has also captured my attention, so perhaps I could implemented a combination of these techniques into my work to trace steps and journeys. I also recall Joanna Choumali’s work from Unseen Amsterdam, as her multi-disciplined approach really intrigued me.
I needed to find a way to make connections with the land and explore different ways to illustrate the sheer scale of this architecture. Looking at my images of rice silos gave rise to the idea of working on rice paper. My aim is to create work that showcases the migrants’ renderings and capture them before they are lost beneath the socially acceptable external facades. To do this, I intend to experiment with alternate supports, combining of images and layering.
Forum this week was great, as I really appreciate my peers and tutor taking the time to help me unpick my work. I was inspired to revisit my construction site in Katy, usually I visit when the site is empty, however this time I had the chance to be brave and ask for some images of the migrants working there. It took a few minutes before I was removed form the area. This is complex; the migrants are reluctant to be photographed and the managers are perhaps reluctant to have the migrants photographed, as they are more than likely illegal.
My work perhaps remains in the gallery art world at the moment. Whether my approaches can be housed elsewhere remains to be seen. There are many galleries in Houston and it is also the home of HCP.
My chosen theme is the interplay and impact of migration, diaspora and the resulting conurbation of Katy, Houston and to document these changes in the landscape.
The decision to avoid including migrant workers in my shots was founded in both the ethical and aesthetic. The migrant workers that are from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala almost exclusively make up the work force for construction in Houston, but since they are mainly illegal, I was very conscious of risk of exposing anyone to the authorities.
Visually, I enjoy these vast spaces when they are empty as these distribution centers are massive, with the latest one being built on an 84 acre site. The images that I took on the first shoot in Katy were very successful however, on reflection this work just really falls short on impact as they did not convey the massive scale of these spaces well enough.
These two images were taken on the same day, with the first being the most successful. I wanted to show the workmanship of the migrants who rendered this building, this is only available for a short period of time before it is covered completely. The next image was an abject failure in my opinion, from the vantage point to the lighting, nothing works for me. That said, I do like the lines on the walls and I may use those as a layering to other work.
The following two images were taken on the same day and although they are linked, the subject matter is quite diverse, with one capturing preparatory markings for new construction project and the other a portrait of a migrant worker. I think that this first image of the building markers was the most successful one.
The portrait was taken in an opportunistic basis. This image was not as successful as I had hoped for due to a combination of reasons inclding language barrier and lack of a speed light. He had a set of gold teeth which were really interesting, but he was embarrassed about showing them. The logo on his shirt could enable him to be traced, so I blacked out the company name as a means of making him anonymous.
I needed to rest this work for a while, think about its value going forward and research other artists to find a way where the work could be expanded. My art major and fascination for pushing boundaries kept coming back to me, as I feel that this is where interdisciplinary work could come into play, so I aim to explore these ideas and challenges regarding scale in this module.
Research & observations
Over the Christmas holidays I undertook detailed research on relevant photographers and artists. Looking at Szarkowski’s five properties of a photograph from the informing context module video was interesting whilst referring to my own work, to analyze what properties are important to me was a valuable exercise, framing is a really important element for me as is the vantage point, most of the points and properties mentioned are visible in my images.
John Baldessari, who recently passed away was a conceptual artist that was interested in hybrid art, mixed media, photography, text and communication. He was once told that the most engaging thing about his work was what he left out. Interesting on the concept of omitting things, this last module has been about omitting things in my work. It was really important to me to omit migrant workers in my images, the buildings absolutely had to be empty, perhaps because going forward I have strong feeling that these people deserve more of a voice, maybe a selection of studio portraits privileging them, not just tying them to a didactic series of work but something other than that, a pedestal and an understanding of their birth homes and what they left behind. I found Art 21 to be a rich source of information, talks and interviews.
Julie Mehretu was a Glassell School of Art in Houston core alumni, which is where I continued my art education when I arrived here from Scotland. I have always admired her work, as the scale is awesome and her printmaking applications, layering, and mixed media really engaging, her work Politicized Landscapes really resonates.
Jessica Rankin has a frenzied approach to her work, she has adopted a “must make must make” mantra. I find that her intricate sewing, drawing and painting works are really inspiring. My background in fine art makes me open to trial and error and pushing boundaries in any medium. I like the idea of somehow replacing the human handwork of the migrants on the massive concrete structures with mapping, layered works and architectural elements. This of course would mean a great deal of exploration, trial and error and tests on different surfaces and grounds.
Zed Nelson’s film “The Street” documents four years of gentrification in Hoxton, which is an area in London. It is quite sad to see the changes and the effects on the local people, their homes and their livelihoods. I do think that emotions run deep here, as it is heartbreaking to watch people’s history be effectively torn down and ripped apart. As mentioned in the comments page, gentrification has always and will always happen. It is development and more often than not can be tied back to how much money can be made, with no regards to the impact on the current residents.
Alex Boyd Sonnets is from Scotland and was recommended to me as feedback for going forward. He has undoubtably gorgeous images however, the context was really inspiring. Referencing my own work here and my admittedly wide and scattered approach that needs to be pared down and reigned in. I have trouble writing and contextualizing work due to this approach and would really like to be brave in this area. I need to look at one area, photograph one area and the migrants working in it.
Having moved from Germany as a boy, Boyd’s work is interesting, and I can totally understand why he would photograph this way, as longing for another place is something that I know very well since I am part of the Scottish working diaspora from. We cannot live work in Scotland as there are no positions available, so we have to go where the work is. I do not know a time when I have actually wanted to stay in a work directed country. So, the disruption and longing is very engaging in Boyd’s images.
Recapping, I have confirmed that I’m interested in migration and diaspora. They are definitely threads in the work that I do although I intend to look deeper in the resulting impacts, including consumerism and the attitude of others within the US.
This divisive topic is relevant to the area that I live in and is highly dynamic. Within the last few weeks, Governor Greg Abbott vetoed the resettlement of refugees within Texas, citing that Texas had accepted more refugees than any other state. Texas has been historically viewed as a welcoming state, but is now the first state to action the veto power under a recent executive action by President Trump.
Considering the successes and weaknesses of my previous work, as well as the exposure risk, I will focus on the buildings and less so on the people, which may provide an abstract consideration within my work.
The risk that I face is to try and address all of the aspects of this multifaceted topic, so going forward I aim to pare down my ideas and focus on one or two key areas.
I intend to address the scale issue by considering experimentation of use of mixed media, but as yet, am not sure what media I will incorporate. My starting point will be to lay out some ideas in my sketchbook and consider including trials of transfers and larger works that leverage other materials such as canvas, wood panels and rice paper trials, either in a series or one larger image collective.