jersey museum

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We’ve been looking forward to the Franklin Mineral Museum for weeks and it did not disappoint. The kids collected eight pounds of rocks in the rock dump and were excited to see how they glow under the special UV light. They also went “gem panning” and got a bag of beautiful rocks to bring home. In the museum we saw rocks from all around the world, including one that is over a billion years old. Plus trilobites, petrified wood, and lava bombs! We learned a little of what life was like for the miners both before and after electricity changed their work. It was a great day!

A Jersey Lily (1878). John Everett Millais (English, 1829-1896). Oil on canvas. Jersey Museum and Art Gallery.

Born Emilie Charlotte le Breton in Jersey, Lillie Langtry went on to become a great society beauty and later a well-known actress. Her lifestyle challenged the social codes of her day. Millais’ portrait of Langtry (holding what is in fact a Guernsey lily) was one of the most celebrated paintings of its day. It was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1878 where crowds thronged to see it.

‘Aren’t we all completely incomplete?’ Claude Cahun: Beneath This Mask @ East Gallery NUA

A body. A camera. An eye to take the picture. A hand, (of your own or of an accomplice’) to press the shutter. An eye to view the image.

Beneath This Mask was a recent exhibition of works by surrealist photographer Claude Cahun, held at East Gallery NUA. During the 1930s surrealism sanctioned art in which personal reality dominated, where images could be conceived not as other but as self. In fact, Cahun’s revolutionary surreality was formulated in response to a culture shaken by war. Cahun transformed into a surrealist ‘objet’, a mannequin for a myriad of guises and disguises, subjectified and objectified. All Cahun’s ‘bodies’ interact, greater than a connection between a collection of exhibited images, the figures communicate, celebrate a common morphology, remain elsewhere. Within these photographs Cahun makes visible an effect of playful repetition questioning the principles of identity, oneness and visibility.  

Cahun’s ‘act’ exists solely in images chosen as documentation, to supplement and impart access to the originary occurrence, the multiple and complex experiences of a single figure, proliferated. This exhibition of photographs presents reproduction prints, from negatives. In the present, the images and the ‘act’ are inextricably linked, for the art event requires the photograph for evidence, dually the photograph requires the body art event, as an ontological ‘anchor’ of its indexicality.

Fig: 1 Claude Cahun Self Portrait c1930 black and white photograph Jersey Museums Service

Forever mischievous, but all the while ingénue. A little impatient, unsettling, uneasy and haunting. Uncomfortable? Yes. By design. Cahun revels in the voyeuristic confrontation of the spectatorial gaze. The majority of works on display remain nameless, or at the most titled Self Portrait. Perhaps Cahun too desired to remain “Untitled”. Instead the sexually ambivalent, genderless pseudonym ‘Claude Cahun’, indicates a reluctance to ascribe to either binary gender role, opting instead for androgyny.  Viewers rely on the appearance of each figure, within each image and the amalgamation of their companions to formulate a narrative practice.

A gaze. A lens. A reflection. A subject. A photographer. An audience. The images are claimed by numerous pairs of eyes. Viewers, cast as voyeurs, visually invade Cahun’s scenarios. Photographs, and their exhibition, merely provide a convenient means of accessing the veracity of the episode. The physicality of the silence within the gallery penetrated the gaps between the works (of which there are many more than I personally would have liked. For Cahun I am insatiable.)

Cahun flaunts the interchangeability of roles, feigning vulnerability, the exhibition seeks to present the artist’s practice as one for the purpose of private art making, however Cahun made theatrical public appearances in disguises of her own creation, created in cultural, economic and political situations not entirely of her own making.

Cahun’s photographs were captured in the 1920s and remained unseen, closed to alternative reading until the 1980s. Joan Riviere’s seminal piece, Womanliness as Masquerade, was written in 1929, and is undeniably a text to read Cahun’s work to. Despite the photographs being established around the notion of superficial disguise, the images suffer depth, meaning and conceptualisation. Theories and literature which influenced it’s conception and reception, and the cultural and historical zeitgeist are all but ignored in this exhibition, to the detriment of its viewer.


Claude Cahun Self portrait c. 1939 black and white photograph Jersey Museums Service

Once an image declares itself as representing reality (as made possible by the camera), its relationship to the audience alters, for photographs fuel a voyeuristic appetite to captivate the observer. I desire to discover unseen Cahun. The curator as impresario of the art event (exhibition), has the capability of making every visitor feel part of the fantasy. I didn’t. The exhibition should allow the spectator to experience the pleasure of surrendering to Cahun’s mise en scene, not just to witness the artist’s surrender. Creating scenes, and posing for images as if one is apparently another, is undeniably about fantasy, partially or wholly. “We are better able to enjoy a fantasy as fantasy when it is not our own.” (Sontag. 1964)

This exhibition partially succeeds in delineating the innumerable representations which Cahun ‘tries on’, working towards a position outside traditionally fixed notions of character, identity and gender. The photographs reject the acute requirement of society that we be precisely what we seem to be, unfortunately the selection, curation and presentation offers less heterogeneity. But in truth, this presentation is barely a mask, sitting on the surface of Cahun’s practice, theoretically and historically it does not penetrate the intricacies and vital contexts under which the photographs were taken and are now displayed. In Self Portrait 1945 Cahun grasps a German insignia between her teeth. The date so poignant, and familiar yet Cahun’s appearance is quite unusual.

‘Identity’ resides in the person most like ‘us’ a moment ago or a step away, however, like or most like is not enough to affirm individual identity. Cahun proves we have more power over our identity than seems possible. There are critical lessons to be learnt from Cahun’s work and one cannot help but conclude this exhibition is a squandered opportunity to stage a more imaginative presentation.

Claude Cahun Self Portrait 1945 black and white photograph Jersey Museums Service

Adopting surface appearance means the depth of the image imbues the act of dressing up with more significance than the image itself. The viewer is complicit with the figure in the image, as Cahun experiments with the audience’s understanding of photography, as a way of documenting reality. The photograph is historically regarded as an acceptable means of official identification, whilst offering no guarantee of unique recognition, an identity can be adequately summarised in a photograph. It is poignant that ordinarily a photograph presents the truth of someone, however in Cahun’s case, the photograph might be untruthful. Disturbing pictorial conventions for maintaining distance between art-object and observer, the exhibition itself does not disrupt any conventions, in it’s conservative display, while highlighting the similarities it fails to emphasise any disparities.

Singular images of self re-invention do not impart any idea of identity quest or loss, the obsessive drive for self-disguise can only, in my opinion, be truly conveyed in series, as shown here, where disparate realities are encountered within each projection of the invented, fictional self. Exhibitions of Cahun’s work should be as numerous and extensive as her output.  The appearance of the display is relatively slick and attractive (Fig?). Assisted by the sole inclusion of monochromatic photographs in uniform black frames, with a universal print size across the board, allowing of the repetition of themes and sequential narrative, prevalent in Cahun’s work, to remain apparent.

Claude Cahun Beneath This Mask installation photograph, December 2015

The exhibition provides suitable evidence to illustrate Cahun’s self-conscious set of practices. The photographs themselves are technically and visually alluring. But as I touched on previously I would have liked to have seen more intellectual, historical and contextual information, the inclusion of some academic texts perhaps. Cahun’s circumstance and personal history imbue the images with profound significance. The apparent lack of enriching accompanying events program seems to me a glaring missed opportunity.

As ever the contexts of these images are vital, a flick through January’s edition of Elle reveals Cahun’s influential aesthetics; “surrealism” depicts models merging, arm to torso. Although reassuring to see evidence of Cahun’s subtle influences in modern media, it is heart-breaking to note the absence of this significant, pioneering artist in most major survey publications of ‘women’s art’ or ‘art’ in general. The photograph is ultimately a substitute for reality, capturing an act for preservation, proof and perusal. This exhibition allowed opportunity for perusal but remained one dimensional, shallow, narrow, a stance I doubt Cahun would have supported. The works require imagination, unfortunately very little imagination was applied to the design of this presentation.

Claude Cahun Self Portrait 1928 black and white photograph Jersey Museums Service

Beneath this mask showcases Cahun’s representations of repression and liberation doubly. We seldom regard ourselves in any form of dual existence, to do so requires a third observing self. Narcissism and voyeurism are employed strategically by the artist in order to reclaim the body and the image for exhibition. The images on display give evidence to Cahun’s action as subject, object and author, circumnavigating the voyeurism of the viewer. Arguably there is no way for an ‘outsider’ to enter the mêlée, the miniature bespoke universe of fluctuating states of being and becoming. The mimetic artworks, charming in themselves and pervasive in their company now demand a visibility they have previously been denied.

The fracturing of a single solitary self, the rejection and exclusion of self, in favour of other, is a common preoccupation for artists. Freud limits identity to sameness but incompleteness allows the artist to become something else, indefinite, in-finite. As photography is subjective, so too is any exhibition. I concede I have been critical of this presentation, but in my heart I believe Cahun deserves more. This exhibition would have benefited from the acknowledgement that all activity takes place in relation to a constantly shifting horizon in which the self and the other must negotiate their becoming at the same time. But ultimately…

Aren’t we all completely incomplete?


Review by Alison Humphrey

With thanks to Fay Harris at NUA.

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For Richard Mieier’s new model museum he chose a quiet locale: a converted warehouse building in the post-industrial suburb of Jersey City.

The museum is tucked into the larger Mana Contemporary complex, which houses art studios, collectives, and experimental galleries. Meier’s project is a striking addition to the building’s avant-garde agenda that confirms Jersey City's emergence as a veritable satellite for New York City’s creative community. (A native of New Jersey himself, Meier is also making headlines for his development of teachers’ housing in nearby Newark.)