Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Foam Photography

The temporary absence of three usual exhibits from the Foam Photography Museum both increased the poignancy of the messages contained in the two existing exhibits and cut the price of my ticket in half. What seemed initially unfortunate ended up enhancing my experience of viewing both “Album Beauty” by Erik Kessels and “La Madre” by Petra Noordkamp.
The museum’s open, mysterious architecture mirrored its content. Situated in a modernized structure that was probably converted from a typical house, floor length windows and a rotating glass door now constituted the entrance, and sets of narrow stairs connected exhibits in no particular order. The lobby doubled as a giftshop; no unnecessary rooms were added.
I began my visit with “Album Beauty” on the first floor. A couple of steps led me into a room cluttered with decorations: most notably, walls plastered from floor to ceiling with yellowing photographs, each approximately the size of a small horse.  I suddenly had the impression that I had been shrunk and thrown into a stranger’s scrapbooking closet. Stepping around more larger-than-life photos that littered the floor—none with captions of any sort—I made my way over to the wall containing a large block of text. This informed me of a global shift away from traditional photo albums to digital substitutes, and explained how this exhibit aspires to glorify the dying art form. It flashed through my mind that unlike most other types of art, photo albums tend to focus exclusively on people. I had never consciously considered how a photo album contains a “manufactured family as edited for display,” but as soon as I read this phrase, I swiveled around and peered at the stories surrounding me in visual form. Each photo had been posed and placed, yes, but looking at them now still made me feel like a voyeur. Although each album had a timeless message—baby’s first photos, newlyweds, sports teams—this greatly contrasted with the complete mystery surrounding the specifics of these people’s lives. Who are they? What are their stories?
A particularly striking photo depicted a bride with piercing blue eyes and a glinting gold wedding ring holding a birdcage as large as her torso. In another set of 4, a lady appeared in each picture holding the same blue umbrella and wearing the same outfit, but with a different background each time. Huge photos cluttered the walls, rugs and cut-up posters made of photos surrounded the room, and a mishmash of photo album stacks—each one carefully tied up in twine—adorned the floor of the final room. As I wandered into a transitional room, I stumbled across a book, also by Kessels, that consisted of 75 passport photos of the same woman taken across a 60-year span.
I left the exhibit, pondering the difference between a picture of someone and their real life, and headed towards the stairs to find the next display. A steep staircase yielded to another, and I rounded a bend to find a third, more rickety set that finally deposited me in what must have been the former attic of the building.
The two-room exhibit that I stumbled into, “La Madre,” seemed like a story straight out of a fiction novel that forever lives in the SALE bin of a decrepit bookstore. The artist, Petra Noordkamp, drew inspiration for the exhibit from a former lover named Emilio who, she later discovered, had committed matricide. As a further coincidence, Emilio’s father had designed a beautiful church she had studied as an architecture student. Noordkamp used the exhibit as a form of closure to escape from the trap formed by this strange web of connections.
The exhibit itself was tiny, two rooms in size. The first contained pictures of the small European town where the church stood, including people who lived there, and a series of stages in its design and construction. Behind a set of black curtains, a sixteen-minute film played in a loop. The video slowly rotated through photos of the church from a variety of angles, overlaid with the artist’s voice describing her story and how she learned to deal with her struggles from the past.
Both exhibits focused on personal stories. The first accomplished this by examining the many ways a single media can portray anyone’s story and asking implicitly whether this technique effectively recreates the full details of somebody’s life. The second focused on an individual’s story through a variety of media, creating a much narrower, yet deeper feel. Upon leaving the museum, I had a sense of nostalgia for these past stories because, in both cases, something had been lost—I will never have any way of knowing the exact set of circumstances that shape any one person.
I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Foam. A photo is definitely worth a thousand words, but no one ever mentions the thousands of words that might still be missing. 

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