Structures of Identity includes series and sequences made by artists from Europe, the United States, Asia, and several countries in Africa. Their work is organized according to six thematic axes: Structuring Nature, Archiving the City, Events of the Self, Distance and Desire, Acts of Intimacy and The Ends of Nature.

Appropriated Landscapes
The modernist penchant for order and classification is best expressed in taxonomy, the study of the identification, naming, and organization of living organisms and other things. In the early twentieth century, German photographer Karl Blossfeldt applied this fundamentally biological system of order to the close-up representation of various plant forms in his encyclopedic Urformen der Kunst (Art Forms in Nature). Later, photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher and J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere employed taxonomic series to create visual typologies of outmoded industrial buildings and Nigerian hairstyles, based on form and structure. Each of these series of photographs utilized standardized depictions of natural or man-made objects to establish a visual language of seemingly objective and systematic imagery.

Using a similar but looser concept of seriality, a number of photographers from Southern Africa have considered the natural and built environment as a prism of experience, a reflection of ideology, and a stage for the performance and perception of identity. At various geographical sites throughout South Africa, Angola, and Mozambique, they have recorded the marks of the region’s violent political history of war, migration, colonialism, and industrialization. Some traumatic events may leave only the slightest traces on the land, as seen in the subtle but striking images of Jo Ractliffe and Santu Mofokeng. In contrast, works by David Goldblatt and Guy Tillim portray the urban environment as an indelible archive of human transformation. Through their long-term, serial engagement with landscapes and cityscapes, these artists demonstrate how physical spaces preserve and even impose the philosophies of social order.

Documents of the Built Environment
Since the nineteenth century, photographic documentation of the built environment has established an order based on archives of urban spaces, depictions of buildings, and straight photographs of the dramatic transformation of physical structures and landscapes. For the most part, these photographs place little stock in aesthetic aspects of photography, such as style or composition. Conceived as elements within a business or government-related archive, such serialized images lack meaning individually and assume relevance only in relation to one another, recording changes to the environment and exposing the political and social construction of public space.

Two elaborate photographic panoramas by Eadweard Muybridge of San Francisco and Lars C. Henrichsen of Portland were conceived as promotional devices, featuring dramatic views of emerging cities intended to entice urban pioneers and to boost further expansion. A particularly striking, time-based documentation from around 1919 captures the sudden development and progressive transformation of Lynch, a small mining town that flourished briefly in a coal-rich valley in Kentucky. Architectural surveys include an expansive sequence of buildings along Sixth Avenue in New York in the 1930s and a typological study of saloons, hotels, and bars in Prohibition-era Pennsylvania. This seemingly neutral type of commercial photography, with its dispassionate style and lack of a subjective point of view, influenced many photographers throughout the twentieth century—such as Bernd and Hilla Becher, Shohachi Kimura and Yoshikazu Suzuki, Ed Ruscha, Stephen Shore, and Thomas Struth.

Markers of Identity
For at least a century after the 1839 invention of photography, portraiture was the predominant use of the medium—both as a personal item and an identifying tool. More recently, artists have turned to portraiture to interrogate the cultural conventions of the genre, raising incisive questions about the connection between omnipresent photographic images and the social construction of identity. Deployed in this manner, the photographic portrait is not purely normative, but philosophical as well. It oscillates from the event of making the self visible to the gaze of another, but also to the gaze of society, by adjudicating notions of the body politic through mimicry, gesture, and pose. From constructions of gender and sexuality, to those of femininity and masculinity, portraiture becomes a game of theatre, premised on the performance of self-construction.

In his masterwork, Antlitz der Zeit (Face of Our Time), August Sander worked to create an exact photography that catalogued and contextualized individuals from the various social strata to underscore the “true psychology” of early twentieth-century Germany, unsentimentally capturing a society in transition, shifting from agriculture to industry. Seydou Keïta, on the other hand, made portraits of predominantly urban middle-class Bamako residents, during a period of dramatic shifts in Malian familial hierarchies, migration, and political movements in the decade just prior to the country’s independence from France. The poses and gestures that Sander’s and Keïta’s modern sitters adopt suggest their agency as witnesses, as well as participants in the construction of historical narratives.

For photographers in recent years, the generic regimented format of the studio portrait or typological structure has become the starting point for ambitious critical investigations: series such as Richard Avedon’s gallery of American power brokers before the 1976 presidential election, Accra Shepp’s chronicle of the Occupy Wall Street protests from 2011—2012, and Thomas Ruff’s resolutely neutral portraits of German youth from the 1980s, capture specific social or historical milieus. Other works negotiate conventions of studio portraiture and documentation, such as Sabelo Mlangeni’s and Zanele Muholi’s portrait series of queer and transgender South Africans, Samuel Fosso’s pantheon of African liberation and African American civil rights icons, Guy Tillim’s profile of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Hiroh Kikai’s taxonomy of characters in Tokyo’s Asakusa district, and Malick Sidibé’s portraits of female back views. These series encourage reflection on the underlying ordering structures in society, uncovering a wide array of both prevalent and underrepresented roles and mobile identities.

The African Archive and Contemporary Reconfigurations
Late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century photographic portraits and figure studies, postcards, album pages, and books from Southern and Eastern Africa are set in dialogue with photography and video art by contemporary artists. These works reflect a critical engagement with historical photographic typologies that once sought to classify African individuals as scientific, legal, or ethnographic types, and to establish white European domination over African subjects, who were portrayed as spectacular or exotic.

Considering the diversity of objects and images encompassed in the African archive, artists such as Sammy Baloji, Candice Breitz, Pieter Hugo, and Zanele Muholi raise questions about the historical uses of photography and the fictions that underpin it. Moreover, the juxtaposition of historical and contemporary approaches allows the viewer to reconsider the significance of pose and composition, the relationship between photographers and models, the staging of subjectivity and identity, the agency of African subjects, and the politics of unequal power relations inherent in most European depictions of colonized peoples.

The Erotic Gaze in Japanese Photography
The photographers Nobuyoshi Araki, Daido Moriyama, and Kohei Yoshiyuki have each given special attention to the role of eroticism and sexual subcultures in contemporary Japanese society. Through various interpretations of the black-and-white documentary mode, they employ a sustained approach to charting sexual relations within public and intimate spaces. Using the serial format to convey how time can be fragmented through action, observation, or performance, Araki, Moriyama, and Yoshiyuki call attention to the implicit psychological dynamics embedded in various acts of sexuality, power, and intimacy.

Yang Fudong: East of Que Village
One of Yang Fudong’s most chilling films to date, East of Que Village (2007) draws upon the bitter and cold feelings associated with rural China, embodying a sense of dislocation and loss increasingly present within society. Since the 1990s, Yang Fudong has emerged as a visionary artist working in video and film. Rooted in the cultural references of his native China, and characterized by multiple narratives and poetic sequences, Yang’s videos invoke a broad canvas of the anxieties expressed by a society dramatically recalibrating its material values. East of Que Village follows an untamed pack of dogs attempting to survive at the most basic level of existence. As they roam the desolate, unforgiving landscape and feed off the bony carcasses of what seem to be fellow canines, the stark black and white film alternates between wide panoramas and close shots of their snapping jaws—highlighting their dogged battle for survival.

© MUSEO DE ARTE CONTEMPORÁNEO DE MONTERREY, 2016 | Zuazua y Jardón S/N, Centro. Monterrey, N.L. Mexico, 64000 | Ph. +52 (81) 8262.4500

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