Review: Memory

Leo P. Polhuis's family photos, JF Langhans' celebrity portraits, Mihael Milunović's prints of decayed negatives and Dušan Skala's video montages combine for a memorable show


Leo P. Polhuis & Peter Hellemons

JF Langhans

Mihael Milunović

Dušan Skala

Susan Sontag once said that "in America, the photographer is not simply the person who records the past, but the one who invents it." A relevant statement indeed, with regard to the Langhans gallery's new show, Memory. Composed of several parts, and unifying artists' work and gallery archives under the common theme of photography as memory, this show addresses the problems involved in the process of preserving, creating and managing memory.

The show itself, on four separate floors, offers a wealth of different aspects to consider. Dušan Skala's mélange of largely unrelated video and film footage, captured on different media, is seamlessly edited in such a way that the viewer is fooled into believing that the people portrayed are somehow related. Set to an interesting and well chosen soundtrack, the characters and scenes in the video are all from Zahrádka, a Czech town which is relevant to the artist's own family history. The video, however, is less about the characters or the actual finished work and more, as the artist puts it, "about the adventure of acquisition itself."

Memory of the Nation is part of an ongoing Langhans project aimed at introducing the public to their remarkable archives. The walls of the main floor gallery are graced by stoic and striking portraits of actors and musicians spanning a period from 1894 to 1944. These prints are contemporary, but made from original and long forgotten glass negatives that were found in the gallery's basement in 1998. Old photos, especially those in black and white, are shrouded in a mysterious unattainable quality not present in most contemporary portraits. Part of the gallery's aim in resurrecting these stately men and women, awash with the poise that their industry demands, is to go beyond the medium and to create an active dialogue with the sitter. With this in mind, it's possible to gain a uniquely intimate and personal experience at this show.

Perhaps the most curiously enigmatic exhibit is Leo P. Polhuis' fantastic and extensive collection of family photographs taken between 1959 and 1981. Polhuis himself was an amateur photographer, but a truly capable and avid one. A staggering 2,448 slides and almost as many prints, meticulously numbered and stored, were discovered by his family shortly after his death. Subsequently, his son-in-law recognized a unique talent in these photographs and was determined to have them publicly displayed. Luckily for us, he succeeded. The prints are a wonder to behold, full of skilful compositions, entertaining subject matter; they are, to put it simply, wholly enjoyable.

The Ghosts live on the top floor; Mihael Milunović has reprinted damaged and neglected glass negatives from the early 1900s, found by the artist while rooting through the remains of a desolate farmhouse in southern France. Excited by his find, yet also affected by the "overprint" of natural decay on the glass, Milunović wished to revive the memory of these "ghosts," salvaging what he could by creating large-scale prints of the negatives. Viewers are now able to take what they can from the strange images that resulted, and play their own part in keeping the subjects' memory alive.

Needless to say, all the photographs in this show have had a history created for them simply by placing them in a gallery setting. What were once memories of a specific family history have been given new life as artistic creations, leaving the loved ones nameless players on the viewer's stage. But isn't this part of the draw of photography? The photographs in Memory assist the viewer in personally engaging with and forming a relationship with the subject matter and, because of the nature of the medium, the show helps us to experience just a bit of the magic the artist feels when they're composing an image.

Memory is at Langhans Galerie Praha until Sunday, May 7th, 2006.

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