Side Show Valley
Mark Kimber creates a space in which an ethical story takes place. Once upon a time this would not have been fashionable. Things change. The distance of suffering is re-situated. We come to understand that in the West we need irony and perhaps some pathos to dilute the barbarism that surrounds us. Ironically we need politics veiled.
Side Show Valley is a place where people gather outside of social normality. In Mark Kimber's imagination they are 'outsiders', fringe dwellers. For this photo shoot they have come down from the hills and into the photographer's studio. They are posing for portraits of themselves. Kimber imagines himself offering photographic services to these people and his portraits are complex but ironic, sincere yet not straight documents.
Kimber makes clear statements about his material methodology, saying that these pictures are not remediated via Photoshop. They are miniature stages (dioramas) made with doll figurines that have been altered and overlaid with photographs, ripped and cut-up, suggesting appropriation but pulling back from this in any didactic way. A Walk in the Park is clearly a reference to Diane Arbus' Boy with a Toy Grenade (1962). Forever pays homage to Arbus' Identical Twins (1967) but it is modelled after Stanley Kubrick's version in his film The Shining (1980). St Ambrose of the Bees appears to reference Richard Avedon's series In the American West(1985) where he documents at monumental scale the trades of ordinary people. Kimber's image is clearly related to Avedon's Ronald Fischer, Beekeeper. Throughout his series Kimber teases the viewer, making reference to other photographers, genres and technologies, he also overlays his own images from the past. Analogue and digital collide with the fantasies of the artist as he creates an array of characters and types that intersect with the philosophies of photography.
There are multiple references to the history of photography and cinema which underline the ways in which contemporary cinema has plundered photography. 'Dick' Hickock is fashioned after Avendon's image of one of the In Cold Blood killers. Von Gloeden's Ghostis a model Kimber made based on a photograph by Wilhelm Von Gloeden that was once referenced by Joel Peter Witkin. Kimber mixes and matches his references and plays on the metaphors that accrue to photography but he is not precious about his sources preferring instead an eclectic mix, so that cinema characters now infect the historical icons of the photographic medium.
It is interesting that Kimber chooses to reference works by Arbus and Avedon as they are often related to a documentary tradition. Like Lewis Hine and Weegee they looked to the disenfranchised as a way of making political comment on society. Or at least that is how it appears. Of course Avedon is famous for saying that "all photographs are accurate none of them is the truth" and he said that cameras lie all the time, in his words: "It's all it does is lie, because when you choose this moment instead of this moment . . . you've made a choice, you're lying about something larger". Writing about Avedon's series Max Kozloff argues that: "He wants to portray the whole American West as a blighted culture that spews out casualties by the bucket: misfits, drifters, degenerates, crackups, and prisoners-entrapped, either literally or by debasing work. Pawns in his indictment of their society…".
Diane Arbus photographed freaks and ordinary people who were rendered freakish through her lens. Although Susan Sontag has argued that her privilege rendered these people other, it is apparent from the popular reception of the work that Arbus spoke loudly to a broad public. The genius of Arbus was that she presented the disenfranchised without compassion. Sontag considered this to be slightly amoral and those who criticise the veracity of photography and the power relations endemic within the medium have been sceptical of the artist but this has not stopped generations of viewers being intrigued. Critics take issue with what they deem to be a misplaced humanitarian concern amongst the privileged which instils pity in the spectator and in doing so further distances them from the suffering of others. But as Luc Boltanski says this denunciation of the 'moral order' and the 'tyranny of ethics' comes at a price. What are concerned middle class image-makers supposed to do? As Boltanski insists "Criticism is easy. But art is difficult".
Throughout Kimber's series there is a fascination with dialogues that have accrued around photography and its promise to reproduce reality. The medium of photography is fundamental to his artistic oeuvre. He engages with debates on veracity and truth by embracing the magical nature of the photograph.
The spectre of ghost photography haunts this series. In Kimber's narrative it is both a foil and a fact. The ghost plagues photography from within: the medium is predicated quite literally on its other – the negative, the positive, the immediate, the performative.
L'Inconnue of a Thousand Kisses after L'Inconnue de la Siene (the unknown woman of the Seine) is, in Kimber's rendition, a ghost photograph. A veiled woman made with the assistance of a Harry Potter invisibility cloak. The 'original' was a death mask of a young girl who was presumed to be a suicide victim in the late-1800s. She became somewhat of an icon in Paris because the mask was mass-produced and became a sought after image for artists and bohemians. People identified with the dead woman with the enigmatic smile. Her identity was officially unknown but numerous stories developed that cast her as an eccentric, a dancer and an independent woman. In a macabre twist of fate, her face became famous beyond France because it was used on a popular CPR manequin in the 1960s thus making her lips the most kissed of any woman, or so the story goes.
Mark Kimber collects the narratives that accrue to photography, he delves into the metaphors and dissects the discourses of the medium. A medium that can represent the real, a medium that promises to represent the unknown – in the name of science (particle physics) or in the name of the esoteric arts (that which cannot be represented: ghosts, phantoms, desires). As an artist, practicing photography, he understands the nuances that make the photograph both uncanny and real. With this temperament he engages his viewers.
Kimber is an eclectic. On one hand he writes sincere statements about the outsider and the disenfranchised. But these people are not 'documented' in real time, they are not their own witness, in fact they cannot speak. These are fictional characters. The physicality of the image is a sleight of hand. Made initially as little sculptures, the characters are placed in diorama settings to enact psychological narratives. There is a poetics here but, more importantly, a politics, Kimber is a passionate spokesperson when he says:
“I've set out to produce a series of photographs that explore relationships both personal and universal between aspects of the history of photography and its role in defining public ideals of identity and my own intersection with them . . . My interests lie firmly within [the] genre of 'difference', those individuals that don't fit the popular ideals of beauty and form.”
In terms of his engagement with the medium, Kimber does not pull back. The ghost photographs here also depict ectoplasm (it is as if he were a nineteenth century studio photographer). In Buffalo Bill conjures the spirit of Annie Oxley Kimber takes us back to the problematic of photography: to its roots in desire – in the nineteenth century – when photography came of age. It is here in the zone of the unknown that Side Show Valley really comes alive. L’Inconnue of a thousand kisses — the unknown woman of the Siene ( a supposed suicide who became a national legend) opens the narrative for me. She hovers over the proceedings. A mother and child captured in daguerreotype-style appear stoic but macabre. Women rule over the story but they are mute or dead mothers looking over a world, perhaps made by them, that is alien and slightly out of control.
Kimber plummets us into a vortex of presentations and genre that perplex us.
Family, history and memory haunt us. There are absurd and dark references. Dr Merlin, Illusionist doesn’t seem comfortable. There’s a deathly quality to The Spaces between Stars. Here is another Kubrick reference that reminds us of the death of progress and the hysteria of science. Kimber spirals down creating The Three Graces as weird blurry effigies in an alien landscape, safely housed on Mars or someplace else. But the images Side Show Valley and Darkness O’Clock usher in another narrative, speaking to a hallucinogenic state that inhabits the photographic medium.
There is a lot of fun to be had with Mark Kimber’s images but there is also a lot at stake. Kimber mines the medium of photography incessantly. He is a master of metaphor, a thinking photographer. He appears to know all the tricks but at heart he reaffirms a humanitarian ethic.
The images on display are part of a larger series of works that will be shown at the Flinders University Museum of Art in 2015. There will be another dialogue with the people of the valley at that stage.
Dr Anne Marsh 2014