Confessions/Form: David Birkin

Confessions/Form: The Photography of David Birkin
Published in HotShoe International, April 2010
Images © David Birkin

David Birkin’s work sits somewhere between the three paradigms of conceptual art, performance art and a tradition of abstract representations of the human subject paramount in portraiture from a number of art-historical periods. One can positively attribute Birkin’s work to a number of sources from the simply visually referential to the conceptually relevant: Francis Bacon’s Figure in Movement (1985) might spring to mind when viewing Birkin’s Diptych from the series Form (2009), or perhaps thematically comparable is a selection of works by the symbolist painter Franz Stuck, specifically The Sin (1893) and Sisyphus (1920) – both of which show clouded human figures contorted out of natural perspective; reclined into dark, psychological spaces not dissimilar to the human subjects in Birkin’s photographs shown here.

Untitled from the series ‘Confessions’, 2007-10

This work has a consistent stamina to it, both in terms of its conceptual content – statements prevalent in the work which seek to comment upon the politics of torture and confession – and visually – his constant rendering of cold, beautiful, grain-laden portraits which are well suited to their aluminium mounts and the panels of rich colour they are often presented on in the gallery space.

The series Confessions began with a 2007 self-portrait of the artist sitting in a chair, one cowboy-booted leg swung over the other in a casual pose seemingly not afraid of divulging information to the camera and an empty room. This is the basis of this body of work: to allow a human subject to have the space to confess to the camera, the exposure time of the film running out the course of the subject’s affirmation. “Sacrament of Penance” as it is officially called in the Catholic tradition, allows the penitent to be forgiven of his or her sins. This sublimates or purifies the confessor, allowing for a distillation of guilt or a relinquishing of sin, as one might put it. As the room is empty and divulgence only witnessed by an open camera shutter, there is no priest to pass word to god, freeing the penitent of his sins. The taking of the photograph becomes the process of absolution here; as if to announce catharsis at the close of the shutter while simultaneously begging the question, where is God exactly? The nature of the confession cannot be known in this situation. Instead the camera captures a silent bout of time that unfolds only to be compressed again into the confines of a single image – the entire and unpredictable duration of the penance reduced to a single photographic representation.

The act of confessing is a performance of sorts. One reference the concept behind Confessions can be seen to make is to catharsis in the dramaturgical sense. The term, supposedly first used by Aristotle in his Poetics, refers to the feeling the audience of a tragedy should sense on completion of the drama. Despairing emotion is pent-up throughout, only to be released at the end of the performance. Much like the shutter closing after an unspecified duration in Birkin’s Confessions, as the tragedy reaches its conclusion the audience are purified of negative emotions associated with the inherent pessimism of the play itself. What is striking about Birkin’s series, is how these themes appear inscribed on the surface of the image. This manifests in the contradiction between the unfocused, obscured grain of the photograph at its surface and the supposed process of purification that should take place during confession. The act of cleansing – the confession – is in actual fact shown to be tainted by inexplicability at its visual conclusion – the photograph – the viewer is proffered the opposite of clarity at the surface of the image itself.

What makes an action political is not its object or the place where it is carried out, but solely its form, the form in which the confirmation of equality is inscribed in the setting up of a dispute, of a community existing solely through being divided.’ [1]

Diptych from the series ‘Confessions’, 2007-10

The series Form, like Confessions, shows a penitent figure. However, in contrast to Confessions, the depicted subject is not allowed the freedom of confession in his own time, but instead is tortured into disclosing information. The figures in these images hold stress positions, mimicking the discomfort a prisoner might experience while awaiting interrogation. The body is forced into a position that puts great quantities of pressure on its muscles, leading to severe pain and eventual muscle failure. Form represents Birkin’s nod to the relationship between politics and aesthetics, one of his specific interests being the events at Abu Ghraib, Iraq, which came to prominence in the media in 2004, and which were compared (visually) by art historian Steven F. Eisenman in his 2007 book The Abu Ghraib Effect to the following:

Prisoners at Abu Ghraib were shown in the subservient position of defeated warriors from Hellenistic Greek sculptures; naked detainees from the global ‘war on terror’ were posed (as in a tableau vivant) like the bound slaves of Michelangelo; anguished bodies evoked martyred saints in Baroque churches. In short, modern Muslims appeared to have been transported – hooded and shackled – to the marble altar of Pergamon in Berlin, the collections of the Louvre in Paris, and the crossing of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.’ [2]

The representation of torture in Birkin’s images does not depict sublimation or confession in the sense that we understand it in Confessions; there is no act of purification here, or even the basic premise that a sin has been committed. In this sense Form subverts the principles of confession further, begging questions about how information of any kind can and should be sought from human subjects, and under what conditions they arise, be they voluntarily or forced. Increasing secularity might be decreasing the quantity of confessions being undertaken in catholic religious practices in the West, but alongside this subsidence in religious activity is a demand on behalf of the West for confession to mandatorily take place to aid war and its illegitimate politics. This is not in order for sinners to be offered relief, but instead for the giving-over of information that might benefit a misguided and destructive politics: a discourse far from rarefied in the context of the US military and their occupation of Iraq.

1. Jacques Ranciere, Disagreement, 1995, p.30.

2. Steven F. Eisenman, The Abu Ghraib Effect, 2007, p.11.

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