Words and photos by Dan Gorman
I attended the opening of the Josef Koudelka exhibit at AIC last week. I walked through the exhibit itself Thursday afternoon, and then attended the panel discussion in the evening.
The exhibit is spread out over three galleries in the Modern Wing. One of the galleries is across the main hallway from the other two, which unfortunately kind of breaks up the viewing experience. The staging is both chronological and thematic, with each of the major phases of Koudelka's career (theater, Gypsies, Invasion, Exiles, and panoramas) getting more or less its own space. The gallery devoted to the panoramas must have been just a bit too small to hold them all, as one large piece was hung in the gallery across the hall in the larger gallery where most of the Exiles pieces were displayed. Koudelka made reference to the staging of the exhibit during the discussion, stating that the three galleries taken together were the smallest space he'd ever had to work with for a retrospective, and that the size of the space created some "challenges" in putting the show together.
There were also some interesting choices in the layout of the galleries. The Invasion images are all displayed in a fairly narrow corridor, which serves to emphasize what a brief and finite interval of his career this episode really was. At one end of the corridor, there's a small monitor playing a video loop of a Walter Cronkite nightly newscast, showing several of Koudelka's images for the first time on broadcast television, roughly a year after they were taken. The images were accompanied in the broadcast by a sound recording of Morley Safer's on-the-scene reporting as the incipient rebellion was being crushed by Warsaw Pact troops. Very dramatic.
The gallery housing the main body of the Gypsies images is trapezoidal in layout (see illustration above), which seems like an interesting choice—almost as if the curators wanted to create a feeling of being in a tightly confined space, possibly analogous to the interiors of the Roma homes in many of the images. In a glass case nearby are displayed a couple of different editions of Gypsies, along with some proofs marked up with notes by Koudelka. In another, separate section of the gallery, Koudelka's own prints of the Gypsies images, made in the mid-1960s, are displayed. Koudelka mounted these prints on some kind of rigid backing material, and left them unmatted and unframed.
The images from the Exiles period (roughly mid-'70s to early '90s) occupy two long walls. They are large traditional prints—I wondered whether some or all of these might have been printed by Voja Mitrovic, but didn't see anything to indicate one way or the other. [Probably—Voja has been Josef's primary printer for many years. —Ed.] The prints in this section seem to have mostly been made in the mid-1980s.
There are several very large (at a guess, 24x60") inkjet prints of Koudelka's recent panoramas of ancient ruins. The prints are gorgeous, but the gallery in which they're hung is so small as to allow no distance for appreciating such large pieces. In the same gallery are hung three or four of Koudelka's "accordion" books, comprised of panoramic images on themes like the Israeli security wall on the West Bank, and the so-called "Black Triangle" of Central Europe. The books are displayed fully opened, with some extending perhaps 50–60 feet along three walls at more or less eye level. While it's interesting to see these books in their original form, seeing them on a wall from several feet away makes it difficult to see the kind of detail you could easily see holding the book itself in your lap. While I was in this gallery, the guard had to caution several people not to get too close to the images, explaining that the humidity from their breath could damage the books—a curious way to display these very powerful images, I thought.
The panel discussion (or "Conversation," as it was billed) was held in Fullerton Hall, which probably holds something like 400 people. While the audience filed in, a slide show of Koudelka's Gypsies and Exiles images played on a projection screen, accompanied by what sounded like Roma folk music. The hall was packed, with perhaps 100 additional people (including me) standing along the sides and back of the hall. Joining Koudelka on stage were the two curators of the exhibit—Matt Witkovsky of the AIC, and Amanda Maddox of the Getty Museum.
Koudelka had a number of interesting things to say (all heavily paraphrased here, as I didn't try take notes during the event, but scribbled down the bits that lingered in memory immediately afterward):
- This is the smallest space for one of my shows, made it a challenge, had to limit selections from each period
- Wanted to show three films to introduce panel conversation, but would have taken 30 (of 60 total) minutes
- I like difficult people, they challenge me, I can find out if my ideas are right or wrong
- There are no great photographers, but there are some great photographs
- The best portrait of a photographer is his photographs
- Wants to do as many exhibits and books as possible, because he wants to define his own legacy as a photographer; doesn't want some "clever" curator to "discover" unknown photos after he's dead and re-define Koudelka as a photographer—if Koudelka didn't choose to show it or publish it, you should assume he didn't think it was good
- After he stays in one place 3–4 months, can't "see" anything anymore
There's a brief video on the AIC web site, of Koudelka talking about the exhibit, and about the title "Nationality Doubtful." Worth a look.
I want to thank you, Mike, for introducing me to Koudelka. You've written admiringly of his work several times, and without your introduction I might never have gotten to know it. I hope you'll get a chance to see the exhibit, and maybe write about it on TOP.
"Nationality Doubtful," a retrospective of the work of Josef Koudelka, is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, in the heart of downtown Chicago, Illinois, USA, until September 14th, 2014.
©2014 by Daniel Gorman, all rights reserved
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