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Catrine Val - Political Letters

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This solo exhibition by German artist Catrine Val premieres a new collection of staged photoworks around the neglected canon of women in philosophy, including some new work specific to Scotland and the theme.

It borrows its title from the writing of Dundee born Frances Wright (aka Fanny Wright, 1795-1852), a freethinker and  abolitionist who became an American citizen in 1825 and established the multiracial commune Nashoba in Tennessee, inspired by the socialism of Robert Owen and the virtues of emancipatory education in the fight against slavery. By choosing philosophy, and by linking the past to the present, Val’s project posits a renewed interest in humanitarian values and the production of knowledge as a counter-position to the interaction of science, economy and politics, which tends to be a domineering influence in contemporary culture.

Val’s ‘reenactments’ merely suggest opinions on the philosophers and thinkers included, who have had a particular impact on the development on her project, exposing ambivalences between theory and reality. The staged photos embody these philosophical role models in associative fictional images. New images produced for the series open up questions and influences from a Scottish angle - for example, references to philosophers Lady Mary Shepherd (1777 - 1847) and the aforementioned Fanny Wright, figures undervalued in the ‘tradition’, and importantly two of the earliest thinkers acknowledged in this fascinating series. With a twist in gender reference, however, a preamble takes the form of a homage to Scottish Enlightenment thinking in the image ‘David Hume (1711 - 1776)  - ‘An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’. This sees Val, who is the central protagonist in these staged works, dressed in the jacketed attire that Hume wears in the painting of 1766 by Allan Ramsay. This is transplanted into the Scottish landscape as a metaphor for the wildness of nature, as distinct from rationality and reason.

Figures acknowledged in the series are both historic and contemporary, living and deceased. The German-born American political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906- 1975), rejected the designation of philosopher on the grounds that philosophy is concerned with ‘man in the singular’ and instead described herself as a political theorist because her work centres on the fact that "men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world“ as discussed in ‘The Human Condition’. Other philosophers and thinkers include Helene von Druskowitz (1856-1918) who used the pseudonym Percy Bysshe Shelley; Tara Smith (1961); Christine de Pizan (1891 - 1942); Margaret Cavendish (1856-1918); Élisabeth Badinter (1944); Laura Maria Caterina Bassi (1889 – 1915); Luce Irigaray (1930); Susan Sontag (1933 - 2004); and Ágnes Heller (1929). Critical apparatus is supplied by books by the authors which form part of the installation and which are displayed alongside the images.

By laying the artistic focus on philosophy and staging it contemporarily, a self-reflexive search is intended, integrating the cultural and historical positions of philosophy as starting points and references, interpreting it and challenging it artistically. In an effort to nuance both the questions and the answers, the conceptual task of this project is to celebrate the presence of independent female thinkers, reformers and mystics, through time and to reimagine their appearance in Europe.

Val’s earlier monographic project Feminist hovered between the realms of fashion and performance, critique and parody. The photographs address the pressure to conform to sexual, societal and cultural stereotypes, indexed to commodity fetishism and over-consumption. ‘Political Letters’ continues her large scale and elaborately staged photographic tableau. It emphasises the historical presence and absence of women to step beyond discursive postmodern modes of reasoning to speculate, or propose, as the artist does, on a renewed language for thinking.

Born in Cologne, Germany, Val started her career in Vienna, Austria working as a commercial artist in the field of advertising. Feeling unfulfilled in this profession, Val fled to the arts, beginning the course of studies at the Art Academy in Kassel, Germany. Upon successful completion of her BA, Val attended post-graduate studies at the Kunsthochschule für Medien in Cologne. Graduating from there, she worked for 6 years as an assistant lecturer to Bjørn Melhus at the Art Academy in Kassel, in the field of virtual reality, where she further developed her artistic position.

Val has exhibited widely across Europe and in Taiwan. In 2012, she was shortlisted for the Renaissance Photography Prize and was also a runner up in the Kaunas Photo Star Prize. Her project Feminist was published by Kehrer in 2012, and was nominated for the German Fotobuchpreis 2013. She has had a number of solo exhibitions, which in 2015 included ‘The female wisdom’, Galeria de Imagens Fortaleza, Brazil; ‘Feminine Wisdom’ , Helsinki University, Helsinki, Finland; ‘ENTROPY, I am an other’, Kaundu Museum of Fine Arts, Taipei, Taiwan. Group exhibitions include Center for Photography at Woodstock, NY, USA (2016), ‘Philosophers, the lotus chronicle’, INDIAN PHOTOGRAPHY FESTIVAL (2015), Hyderabad, India; MOSTYN Open 19, Llandudno, Wales; ‘Philosophers, the lotus chronicle’, Kochi-Muziris Biennale India, India. 

Catrine Val is represented by FELD+ HAUS

Political Leters runs alongside 'Set & Setting' - Mari Hokkanen

Banner Image: © Catrine Val - ‘Margaret Cavendish (1856-1918), A True Relation of my Birth, Breeding and Life’
Left Image: © Catrine Val - 'Susan Sontag (1933-2004), I, etcetera'


Programmed as part of: