What I know to be true, and other encounters
The photographic process is a series of encounters: between the artist, the camera, the subject(s), the image, and the viewer. The fluidity in these exchanges encourage endless interactions with the world and inspire expansive possibilities for image-making.
What I know to be true, and other encounters explores the ways in which photography enables us to interpret the complexities of our experiences and navigate the core beliefs that determine how we perceive the world.
The title acknowledges a turbulent past two years, with prolonged uncertainties that brought on a collective grief for the ambiguous loss of routine, comfort and familiarity. In this strange, arduous time, I found myself uprooted and confronted with changing realities – an unsettling experience that forced me to accept, endure, adapt, and make sense of. When facts and feelings compounded and grew overwhelming – at times languishing – what grounded me was identifying the truths that I knew; in the things I could see and in the images I could envision.
Through photography, artists Aaron Turner, Jhen-Ying Lin, Athena Torri, and (Nur) Aishah Kenton articulate such visions with intimate responses to their changing environments. As a medium that inherently engages with truthfulness, photography inspires critical encounters with the world around us, and provides a sense of grounding in disorienting experiences.
Exploring their unique photographic encounters in experimental ways, the four artists have created new images that challenge narratives, embody multiplicities, and reveal complex, idiosyncratic observations.
Aaron Turner’s series I Won’t Be Here (2021) is a pursuit of abstraction, focusing on a non-representational response to his lived experiences. The abstract images, most of which are elaborate installations in his studio, highlight the formal qualities of a photograph: sharp focus, distinct tone, defined borders, and clear detail of textures, shape, and figurative form.
Situating his practice in response to the historical legacies of Black abstraction in America, Turner describes his work as ‘[creating] a speculative narrative’ in which abstraction, devoid of explicit political sentiments, can be deployed to ‘make sense of chaos’ in a liberating way.
This ‘freedom’ in opacity and ambiguity, as Turner expresses, challenges the expectations for Black artists to occupy representational space by making explicit political statements. In doing so, however, Turner nonetheless explores the self and the archive to grapple with the complex space of Black identity within US history. This approach extends from his ongoing project Black Alchemy (2013-present), an iterative photographic series that uses historical photographs to explore the changing ‘Black experience’s representation’ and racialised occurrences of ‘passing’. The series adopts a sculptural approach, deconstructing historical photographs by masking them using folds and layers of cut paper and recontextualising these documents by projecting them alongside other archival images. Continuing these experimentations with material manipulation, Turner’s I Won’t Be Here expands the narrative of Black artists with a formal, deliberate engagement in image perception.
Jhen-Ying Lin’s forensic-style play in Let’s Stay Here for a While (2020-2021) also uses abstraction, reducing objects and materials down to a molecular level that renders them unrecognizable. Using this microscopic lens, she distorts her subjects (a random selection of whatever she had at hand, like oysters, fish and cement) by submerging them in various liquids and mixed substances like paint, alcohol and resin. Through this involved process, Lin produced almost a hundred images; each of them uniquely peculiar, yet all possessing a biological resemblance to membrane, tissue, and cell-like forms that curve, twist and dissolve into one another.
For Lin, this experimental approach to abstraction produced a sense of personal liberation as it did not require serious preconception. A complete detour from her established practice in fashion photography (which requires meticulous planning, collaboration, and clear concepts), the intimidating process she described as ‘losing control’ transformed into one of freedom and serendipity. The experiments became an exercise in embracing uncertainties, as Lin returned a year later to the dark room to create new images in the same way, this time with a little more confidence. In relation to the personal challenges that life continues to bring, Let’s Stay Here for a While, and its title, is a tender reminder of the comfort we can find in precarious times.
While Turner and Lin’s investigations turn inwards, Athena Torri and Aishah Kenton look outwards into their surrounding physical environments, reflecting upon the sense of disorientation that can occur within even the most familiar landscapes.
Athena Torri’s work often plays with the blurred lines between fiction and reality, a practice she likens to magical realism, a literary genre often associated with Latin-American literature. Torri is interested in the genre’s capacity to represent fantastical events in a realistic form, which resonates with desire to convey ‘[her] experience of the moment,’ and to better demonstrate the complexities of lived experience.
Torri’s Nature Studies (2020) exemplifies this approach with her landscape images in the geographies of her upbringing. The work is a series of closely framed photos that are all superimposed with strokes of watercolour that accentuate certain details of the landscape and obscure others. Torri carefully titled each work to specify the regions and climates the images represent. Using paint to intervene into these photographic studies of nature, Torri is perhaps orienting herself within an outdoors that can be perplexing at times, despite – or in spite of – their familiarity.
Torri reflects on how the natural world has always ‘interjected [in her life] in peculiar ways,’ recounting how a volcanic eruption in Ecuador that took place as the country was weakened by an economic crisis in 1999, forced Torri to migrate to the US. In contemplating this aggressive interaction between humans and their environment, she draws a parallel to the manual manipulation of her nature photographs, an experiment she describes as bringing a ‘closer connection to the landscape and [her] experience than just the photographs alone.’
Humidity (2021) follows Aishah Kenton’s relocation from Canberra to Cairns, where she settled into a new home across states in the tropics, a climate similar to that of Malaysia, where she grew up. The work reflects on Kenton’s realisation that the familiar weather was more disorienting than comforting, as it brought on feelings ‘worse than nostalgia’, a constant and overwhelming reminder of family and a past home out of reach in a pandemic.
The images in Humidity were all taken in a single area and depict quiet, still observations from the domestic space to Kenton’s surrounding natural environments. Intimate portraits of her husband in both these settings convey a sense of longing in the series. The soft, sombre and straightforward nature of the photos is a departure from the playfulness in Kenton’s previous works, characterised by a frequent use of flash to highlight dynamic compositions, sharp contrast and saturated colour in her images.
Kenton explains that it took her a while to pick up the camera again after her move, demonstrating the often confronting process of facing a new reality. She also explained that the images were made at the peak of wet season, a time when the ‘environment really takes you on,’ especially as you’re moving. While Humidity’s title refers to that damp, thick, stickiness of the climate, the series is ultimately reflections on the slow and steady process of navigating through change.
The four artists in this show demonstrate the ways in which images help place oneself in a changing world. At its core, their photographic processes are about encountering the self; offering liberation through abstraction and experimentation, and a sense of grounding in disorienting environments through documentation. In these ways, photography enables self-preservation through self-presentation. The works assembled in this exhibition positions photography as a means of coping with change, and reflect on image-making (the ones we make, imagine, and see) as a means of finding peace through engaging with and reflecting on experiences. And this is what I know to be true...
About the Curator
Annette An-Jen Liu is a Taiwanese writer and curator working between Australia, Taiwan and New York. She is passionate about working with contemporary artists, and is interested in photographic histories and expansive forms of image-making. Liu is a Curatorial Assistant for the travelling exhibition Drawn by stones, presented by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian art. In 2020, she worked at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in the Department of Photography, contributing to the upcoming Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear retrospective. She previously worked at the White Rabbit Collection and MAY SPACE in Sydney, and her writings have been published in Art Monthly Australasia, Magnum Photos, Runway Journal and Musée Magazine. Liu received her MA in Art Curating from the University of Sydney in 2019, and completed a double Bachelors from the Australian National University, graduating with First Class Honours in Photography and New Media Art.