BY Holly Walsh in Reviews | 11 NOV 03
Featured in
Issue 79

Helmut and Johanna Kandl

B + B at the Austrian Cultural Institute, London, UK

BY Holly Walsh in Reviews | 11 NOV 03

Looking at other people's holiday photos is seldom as interesting as looking through my own. This is because: a) I wasn't actually there; b) they rarely reveal anything private (which is why people are happy to share them with me); and c) most people aren't good photographers. Snapshots are the photographic equivalent of small talk but, as the Austrian artist Helmut Kandl says, 'small talk is often the beginning of better talk'.

Since the late 1980s Helmut and Johanna Kandl have used the holiday snapshot as a starting-point for the exploration of socio-political issues within European communities. During their three-week residency organized by B+B with the Austrian Cultural Forum this summer the Kandls set out to investigate relations between Britain and the Middle East for the third instalment of their ongoing project Auf der Insel Bella Lella (On the Island of Bella Lella). Bella Lella does not exist, but in naming their research in honour of an imaginary place, the Kandls have invented an alternative topography that combines different environments, people and situations.

Through newspaper advertisements and leaflets the artists asked local residents to donate photos of Middle Eastern journeys, which were each captioned with the photographer's name, date and location and assembled on the gallery walls. Predictably, contributions included hackneyed scenes of sunburnt women posing by pyramids, and toddlers admiring camels, but the Kandls were also careful to include less stereotypical subjects. Ranging from Beirut to Jerusalem and spanning over three decades, the montage combined mundane scenarios such as dusty trucks and people queuing at canteens, many of which would usually have been of little interest to anyone who had not personally experienced them. As visitors to London, the Kandls were initially unaware that the area around the Austrian Cultural Institute (in Knightsbridge) is home to a large and wealthy Middle Eastern community.

While this new body of work is clearly in its infancy, the artists displayed the results of previous projects to give viewers an idea of the potential of the snapshots. From earlier residencies in Germany and the towns of Laa and Znojmo on the Austrian-Czech border, the Kandls used their own and donated photographs to create videos, books and paintings documenting their experiences of each trip. In 2002 the artists visited Mecklenburg, an east German town struggling to maintain younger families and industry. To bolster civic pride and identity, the Kandls created a series of postcards, including reproductions of Johanna's paintings and residents' holiday photographs, to be sold in local shops. For example, the painting Kämpfer für's Glück (Fighter for Fortune, 2002) records the town's amateur fashion show. Two frumpy women parade across a field on a makeshift catwalk, watched by a dozen onlookers. Dressed in an unflattering white dress, one model struts back down the stage swinging her hips. To her right, like a member of the provincial paparazzi, kneels a teenage girl with a disposable camera. Apart from a man in a T-shirt, the audience's attention has turned to admire the model in blue. Two seconds earlier and we might have seen her strike a pose as she pauses before parading back. Instead, we miss the moment and the crowd looks elsewhere.

Like the five other paintings in the show, Untitled (Kämpfer für's Glück) encapsulates the qualities of a snapshot, including overexposed colours and closely cropped edges. Johanna Kandl's paintings quote directly from photographs taken either by her or by someone else in her presence. However, compared to the supposed realism of the camera shot, Johanna's choice of tempera on wood, simple style and matte finish creates a deliberately artificial appearance. As well as the location and date of the scene, Johanna stencils quotes - lifted from mass-media sources - across each painting. These range from Tony Blair's speeches to self-help management manuals and newspaper articles. 'Kämpfer für's Glück' is a lyric from a popular song used by the German Democratic Party. The juxtaposition of image and text prompts a range of social and political contrasts, while at the same time echoing advertising hoardings and posters. Formally, the time-consuming painting and the fleeting snapshot may be very different, but they both document Johanna's personal experience of her visits.

It will be interesting to see what the Kandls do with their research into Britain's relationship with the Middle East. Looking across the images stripped of associated explanations, it is difficult to determine any underlying themes that could be used to represent a particular British perception. As with the two other manifestations of the project, it is what the Kandls make after their residencies that really distinguishes them from mere armchair anthropologists or social archivists.