Black Diamond: Mishka Henner

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Mishka Henner, Black Diamond, Installation photograph, Carroll/Fletcher, London. ©Carroll/Fletcher

In The Right to Look: A Counter History of Visuality (2011) Nicholas Mirzoeff traces the original deployment of the word visuality from its usage in war zones. Visuality expressed the ability of the General to oversee the conflict from an elevated position and strategise far from the action. It was the capacity to look without being seen, and the primary weapon of power is the ability to control visibility; the panoptic gaze is one that can’t be returned. Mirzoeff’s formulation of the counter-visual can be summed up as the response to the command: “there is nothing to see here, please move on” with “let me see for myself.”

Mishka Henner’s first solo exhibition in London, Black Diamond at Carroll/Fletcher, interrogates the potential of the counter-visual. In Henner’s most famous work, made in 2009, he appropriated Robert Frank’s iconic book The Americans, cutting out parts of it so that elements of the original photographs floated on white backgrounds. It was a neat conceptual gesture that inverted the impetus of social photography. Documentary discourse has been historically allied to the democratic project – visual representation is tied to political recognition. Henner’s iconoclasm inscribes his own subjectivity over the canonical work, asserting his own historical conditions. Henner replaces the shutter for the screen grab, a camera for the laptop – he doesn’t make images but sources them – navigating and editing what is already available.

‘If we extend the persistent allusions to the Internet as a type of liquid expanse, then the spammer is a type of pirate that occupies the semi-legible spaces between international jurisdictions.’

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Mishka Henner, Cedar Point Oil Field, Archival pigment print mounted to aluminium in tray frame, 149 x 258 cm, 2013-14. ©The artist. Image courtesy Carroll/Fletcher.

The series Feedlots and Oil Fields (2013-14) are representative of his practice. The large-scale photographs, installed over the first two galleries of the exhibition, present the two most in-demand commodities in America – beef and oil. The photographs are uniformly sourced from Google Maps and printed at scale with evident high-production values. The drone-like images feel ominous. Cows, houses, people and cars start to look the same, each becoming a component of a much larger abstract system. The expanses depicted are the manufacturing sites of global capital and the cheap fuel and food that sustain our economic conditions. Like Dorothea Lange’s images of displaced agricultural migrants during the American Depression, Henner’s work depicts, with affective immediacy, an economic system that resists visual representation.

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Mishka Henner, Black Diamond, Installation photograph, Carroll/Fletcher, London. ©Carroll/Fletcher

In the third gallery Fifty-One Military Outposts (2010) Henner displays images on top of plinths. The photographs present Google Map images of American military bases around the world. We hover over the image, inverting the surveillance-like gaze – the watched become observers. The project shifts the public documentarism articulated by Frank and Lange towards the unseen spaces of private finance and security. The co-ordinates of the sites were sourced from WikiLeaks and public domain ‘loop holes’. The ability to navigate and edit data provides new conditions of political accountability in an era of information as capital. Henner’s work recalls Eyal Weizman’s reading of the politics of verticality in relation to the Israel occupation of Palestine. For Weizman, power is structured around a vertical axis by asserting sovereignty over the land (through archeology) and surveillance (by controlling the elevated spaces and skyline). Henner’s images of military sites  dramatise this verticality by inviting the spectator to look down at things shot from above.

Downstairs Henner presents Scam Baiters (2013 – present), a new body of work that explores the strategy of Internet vigilantes who feign receptivity to email scammers in order to publicly expose them. The project brings together email correspondence, signs and photographs made by the scammers in a process that remains slightly oblique. If we extend the persistent allusions to the Internet as a type of liquid expanse, then the spammer is a type of pirate that occupies the semi-legible spaces between international jurisdictions. Through his presentation Henner attempts to re-embody these virtual figures that normally remain out-of-sight. One can also see the scammer offering another in-demand, if non-existent, commodity – easy money.

Similarly to the larger photographic work seen upstairs, Henner formulates representative conditions for places and people that would prefer to remain hidden. Whether it is agricultural, virtual or military topologies, Henner’s work is engaged in a complex and experimental relationship with the documentary tradition of photography. His practice is pervaded by the notion of the counter-visual, and taken collectively, his images offer new opportunities for the development and understanding of documentary practice.

George Vasey is currently curator at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art in Sunderland and a writer based in Newcastle. His essays and reviews have been published in Art Monthly, Art Review, Kaleidoscope and frieze.com

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