|© Jan Kempenaers|
Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers has a new exhibition at the Breese Little Gallery in London which shows the results of his forays across Europe to record a number of large structures, many of them in a state of decay. My eye was particularly caught by his photograph of the enormous arch at Brest in Belarus (certainly not decaying) as I have walked through it myself. The offset star-shaped entrance to the Brest fortress displays an aesthetic playfulness often missing in Soviet architecture.
Playfulness, however, is not Kempenaers’ concern: he presents these monolithic structures in black and white, emphasising their hardness and dominance, but also their drabness, ossified and out of time. The results commemorate his subjects’ power and overwhelming presence in the landscape, with an emphasis on their’ graphic qualities.
He had previously compiled a series in colour, Spomenik – also shown at the Breese Little Gallery – which focused on Tito-era Second World War memorials across the former Yugoslav territories, and the colour gives them a softness his latest project lacks. As in his earlier project he has photographed the structures without people, emphasising their sense of permanence by excluding specifics that would date them, and foregrounding their sculptural qualities.
Information on the subjects is deliberately kept to a minimum as well, ripping them from their context. For fans of surviving traces of (mostly) vanished regimes – Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko doesn’t appear to be in a hurry to leave office – the exhibition is well worth a visit, but this is by no means a documentary approach and some viewers may find it frustrating not to have captions to support the images.
Down the road at the Calvert 22 Foundation, British photographer Christopher Nunn’s Holy Water work-in-progress consists of recent photographs taken in eastern Ukraine, showing as part of the Independent Photography Festival. He has captured people being themselves in what must be difficult circumstances; just how difficult can be judged by Nunn himself, who earlier this year ended up in hospital with eye damage when he was caught in shelling by separatists.
In a world dealing with so many problems it is easy to forget the Russian efforts to destabilise Ukraine, but Nunn show the determination of the residents near the front line to carry on as best they can. Looking at the photographs, one wouldn’t know that there was a conflict raging that has now claimed tens of thousands of lives. Eschewing the fighting itself, he captures people relaxing, drinking, being affectionate. Pet dogs feature prominently. As a counterbalance to the people there are shots of domestic interiors. The emphasis across the exhibition is on the everyday.
The war is not totally absent, as indicated by a photograph of a field with fragile wooden crosses marking graves, but the focus is firmly on ordinary activities. Religious iconography is prominent: a golden statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary; an elaborate tattoo on a man’s back of the Holy Family, and youths stripped to the waist by a lake sporting Orthodox crosses; but at present its residents must surely feel this is a land that God has forsaken.
While the conflict lasts, life will become ever harder and more dangerous for the local population, and Nunn’s photographs reinforce the message that the world cannot look away from what is happening. He has put his own life on the line to document this troubled region, and he deserves our utmost respect and attention.