Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin are everywhere these days. Having just won the prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, they’re also included in MoMA’s 2013 New Photography, and Holy Bible finds itself on the 2013 Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards Shortlist. In a day and age where even the relatively small world of art photography has become very highly fragmented, this has got to mean something. I’d be very happy to argue that whatever you might think of these artists’ approach to photography and photobook-making, what they’re doing, they’re doing very, very well.
Without wanting to spend too much time on this point, it might be worthwhile to realize that when assessing artistic merit there is quite a bit to be gained from not being overly guided by one’s own preferences. Having said that, I have been following Broomberg and Chanarin for quite a while now, and I am always looking forward to a new body of work. I am very much interested in the use of photographs, and I am interested in investigating the political power images have or how power is created when images are being used. What distinguishes Broomberg and Chanarin from many (if not most) other artists working in this vein is the high quality of their output, regardless of whether that quality then translates into artistic merit (which is, of course, entirely subjective – unless we wait one hundred years, in which case we could take what is still being looked at as that, which has the highest merit).
It might seem weird to preface a photobook review the way I just did. But I do think it’s important for me to state where I’m actually coming from. What is more, we have come to embrace the idea that an artist should be measured by previous bodies of work – an approach that creates all kinds of problems (unless an artist wants to literally repeat what s/he has been doing ad infinitum, the art world’s surprisingly popular version of Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal recurrence of the same). If an artist’s later project is not the same as some earlier one, then we should judge it on its own artistic merits and not on whether it looks like the previous – or a very famous earlier – one.
Holy Bible follows in the foot steps of War Primer 2, which had resulted in the Deutsche Börse nomination and eventual win (see my interview with the artists to learn more about their ideas). I’ll admit I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the idea. It sounded just a tad too simple. You take the Bible and put pictures inside? My worries were cast aside very quickly once the actual book arrived. It does indeed look and feel (and even smell) like a Bible. All details are perfect, including the rounded edges, the two bookmark strings, etc. Inside, you get the Bible, with photographs/images selected from the Archive of Modern Conflict superimposed. As you can see in the image at the top, in addition certain, usually short, passages of the text are underlined, thus creating an anchor between text and images. There is no simple on-to-one correspondence between image(s) and text – occasionally, one image is referred to by more than one text fragment. Some spreads have one image, some two, and there even is a short set of pages (in Leviticus) with marked text but without images. It was this passage that fully convinced me of what the artists are doing here.
It’s very tempting to dismiss Holy Bible as, well, an overly provocative piece of art. In much the same fashion, it’s equally tempting to focus on the large number of violent images in the book. But those images refer to the text – so if you find the images too violent, does that say something about the artists matching images to text? What is more, Holy Bible is not merely filled with violent images. Instead, there are references to family and the relationship between the sexes, say, and to a large variety of cultural issues.
On top of that, there are many photographs of magicians (or circus acts) linked to “it came to pass.” Those images are just amazing, given how they subversive they are in their utter ridiculous playfulness. In fact, the magicians are much more subversive than the violent images linked to violent text. Here we have Broomberg and Chanarin asking whether power, religious or political, isn’t essentially just an act of trickery, a trickery that requires considerable skill and, crucially, the audience’s willingness to ignore the knowledge that it’s just trickery, not real magic.
Holy Bible; image selections by Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin; essay by Adi Ophir; 768 pages; MACK; 2013
Ratings explained here.