Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Oliver Chanarin’s new installation inspired by Amazon’s distribution centres

Chanarin was poised to embark on a photographic survey of Britain for an installation at SFMOMA, however, confined to his apartment, the artist turned his lens on his partner Fiona Jane Burgess instead. Inspired by August Sander's photograph the Painter’s Wife, Chanarin has made hundreds of portraits of Burgess at home during lockdown
Q&A, British Journal of Photography — May 2020

Photo: Oliver Chanarin

Oliver Chanarin and Fiona Jane Burgess make a portrait every morning — after sunrise, and before their two sons wake – an instinctive image created in the liminal space between sleep and waking. Later in the afternoon, they wander their apartment, tracing the light as it gently spills across the space and experiment with performative poses. At night, darkness falls and the glare of flash illuminates Burgess as she bends and curves into more transgressive postures.

The couple collaborates at home in London — co-opting the space of perpetual lockdown to experiment. Chanarin’s unguarded photographs of Burgess express the uneasy tranquillity of this period — in which time may feel suspended and we reach for the changing moods and versions of ourselves that once delineated the day. Burgess slips from sleepy and pensive, to clothed and awake — at night, she becomes something else, animated and animalistic, alluding to the arena of transgression, which darkness provides.

Chanarin would have been working on a new project – a photographic survey of Britain, taking August Sander’s Citizens of the Twentieth Century as its start point. Sander envisioned his project as a comprehensive visual record of the German population; Chanarin was to embark upon a nationwide survey of contemporary society — until the pandemic halted him.

Sander never completed the project, however, he shot some 640 archetypes between 1920 and 1930. One of those images — the Painter’s Wife, which depicts the painter Peter Abelen’s wife, Frau Abelen, in shirt and trousers, hair slicked back, a cigarette gripped between her lips — provides a starting point for Chanarin’s new approach.

Mirroring the total number of images that comprise Citizens of the Twentieth Century, Chanarin will make 640 portraits of his wife — an “extended portrait”; “a daily and obsessive interrogation of the self”. The series will be incorporated into an installation at The Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco (SFMOMA) later this year.

Below, Burgess and Chanarin reflect on the project, and their experience of collaborating at home during lockdown.

BJP: Where are you isolating, and how has the pandemic affected you?

Oliver Chanarin: I am isolated in my apartment in London Fields and teaching my class at the Royal Academy of Art in the Netherlands, which, like all university learning, has migrated online. The classes feel like watching standup comedy without a live audience: communication flows in one direction — outwards, from the speaker into a vacuum. We all work hard to keep a genuine sense of engagement alive, however, at the end of the sessions, I collapse with a new ‘pandemic era’ fatigue.

Hugh Hefner ran his playboy empire from his bedroom in what the writer Tom Wolf described as a prison that was as soft as the heart of an artichoke. Now, we are all incarcerated in the heart of an artichoke. Hefner combated fatigue by consuming large amounts of the dextroamphetamine and so, paradoxically, the man who never got out of bed did not get much sleep, as writes Paul Preciado in his brilliant essay, published in Art Forum, which considers what can be learned from the pandemic.

How has working in this environment affected your practice?

Chanarin: My initial response to the lockdown was a kind of panic attack. I was compelled to maintain a sense of visibility and productivity no matter how futile and irrelevant that seemed. However, I quickly began to resent this impulse, the intrusion on my family, and the isolation, which I have simultaneously experienced as something quite precious and profound.

I speak from a position of enormous privilege; that same isolation is nothing short of hell for the elderly who have been abandoned in care homes, the homeless, and those bodies outside of the parallel universe of the internet’s market bubble, or, conversely, the essential-workers brutally forced to operate in spaces of lethal risk without adequate protection — as Preciado notes, “Their forced mobility is also a type of incarceration”.

Fiona, what has been your experience of being photographed in the private sphere of your home, by your husband, during the pandemic?

Fiona Jane Burgess: Our house has turned into a bit of a playground, so we have taken advantage of that. Olly has been taking photos of me since the first day we met so I’m very comfortable being photographed by him, but, being in lockdown is such a surreal situation that it has taken on a whole new intensity.

I’ve found it liberating to explore different sides of my personality, which I would not necessarily show on camera normally. Because our house is a very intimate and personal space I’ve felt empowered to express the more vulnerable or confrontational sides of my character as the project has evolved. It is important that I’m not a passive subject but rather an active participant in these photographs.

Oliver, what would you be working on now if the pandemic had not happened?

Chanarin: I am at the start of a new project: a photographic survey of Britain, which asks, ‘What do the citizens of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, look like today?’, ‘How do we identify ourselves?’, ‘Who, and what, do we feel we belong to?’.

This is a nation-wide photographic project, which surveys the state of contemporary society and investigates the tangled nature of identity and citizenship. Over the next two years, I will work with a team of researchers, photographers, and writers, in cities, towns, villages, and communities, across the UK, to build a layered picture of our contemporary world of work and leisure, cultures and subcultures, through hundreds of individual photographs.

The legacy of the great German photographer August Sander, who documented German society throughout the Weimar Republic, inspired the project. Sander’s project is titled Citizens of the Twentieth Century and comprises portraits of individuals, couples and groups, organised into sections.

I was poised to make a start on the work the week that lockdown began, with an assignment in Wales, where I am working with the arts organisation Artes Mundi and the National Museum of Wales. However, like everyone else, I have not managed to leave my apartment.

Have you felt the drive to create, or has this been a time of self-reflection?

Chanarin: Like every parent with small children, I have mostly been caring for my children. However, just before lockdown, Hasselblad in Sweden sent me a beautiful camera, and it seemed like a crime not to use it.

Obviously, it has been impossible to implement the original plan for the project, above. This will go ahead as soon as lockdown ends, however, in the meantime, I’ve taken August Sander’s portrait of the Cologne painter Peter Abelen’s wife, the Painter’s Wife, as a starting point for the photographic study of my own wife, Fiona Jane Burgess, made during the lockdown in our home in London.

Abelen invited Sander to create a portrait of his wife; the Tate Gallery’s website describes the image as follows: “With her short, slicked-back hair, collared shirt, thin necktie and trousers, Frau Abelen is presented as a distinctly androgynous figure. Her masculine garb and haircut, as well as the cigarette, held between her teeth, signal the defiance of traditional gender roles.”

And Fiona, has the experience of being photographed and collaborating on the project provided a form of self-reflection, particularly during a period that many people are describing as a time for reflection? And if so, how?

Burgess: It’s reminded me of the freedom that can be experienced when you allow yourself to play. It’s easy to curate our outward appearance to fit a certain model of how we want to be seen in the world, but this project rejects that.

My identity is fluid and constantly changing and evolving and this project embraces that. It’s made me think about how my body has a history to it and a story to tell and will continue to change over time.

For example, I have a huge scar on my stomach from surgery post-childbirth and this is the first time I’ve ever shown this scar to anyone other than my husband, so that feels uncomfortable but also somehow affirmative. If something feels confronting or exposing then it probably means it’s got too much power over you anyway.

What about Sander’s Painter’s Wife inspired you? How do your photographs reflect, and diverge from, the image?

Chanarin: The Painter’s Wife is one of 640 ‘archetypes’ photographed by August Sander in Germany between 1920 and 1930. Staring determinedly out at the viewer, Helene Abelen’s animated expression is unusual for a Sander portrait and falls somewhere between bravado and agitation.

The extended portrait, which I am working on of my wife, will ultimately comprise 640 images of one person and is evolving in a collaborative and playful spirit. There is a daily and obsessive interrogation of the self, which seems to ask, “who is this person? I do not think I’ve ever looked at her so closely!”

It is a process, which, perhaps, recalls the work of Sander’s contemporary Helmar Lerski more than Sanders himself.

And Fiona, are their days on which you don’t feel like being photographed? Do you think the images reflect your moods and emotions?

Burgess: At first I felt very self conscious about being photographed so habitually, but as the weeks have passed I’ve gradually become more relaxed about it and I’ve enjoyed the freedom and self expression it has enabled. There are definitely days I don’t feel like being photographed or performing — so I don’t. But, we don’t want these images to feel one dimensional, so the persistent and repetitive documentation is what makes it multifaceted and offers many different ways of viewing the same person. It’s all about exposing that. There are images that reflect my irritation or awkwardness, and other images that feel more performative and confrontational.

With most portrait photography there is an element of performativity that happens and we’ve not shied away from that. Photography, in it’s very nature, is intrusive — it interrupts an ephemeral moment and I’m not sure if an image can ever fully capture the emotion someone is feeling. The emotion an image evokes and stirs up in a viewer is what really fascinates me.

How has working on the project during the lockdown, and in the context of the pandemic more widely with all its political and social implications, affected and shaped the work?

Chanarin: As Michel Foucault showed us, there is no politics without body politics; in the words of Preciado, “The most important thing we learned from Foucault is that the living (therefore mortal) body is the central object of all politics.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has alerted us to the relationship between state power and our bodies. Broadly, there have been two strategies imposed by governments, either the containment of bodies through social distancing and stay at home directives, or via the surveying of our bodies by testing, tracking, and tracing. What Yuval Noah Harari refers to as under-the-skin surveillance — in which the powers monitoring our online activities are less interested in what we are clicking than the temperature of our finger as it clicks.

I am not going to make any grand claims for these portraits of Fiona. However, I will say that this has felt like one of the most personal and intimate experiences of my working life, and that is a direct product of the lockdown and the political forces, which have shaped our response to the pandemic.

The images will eventually be displayed within an installation at SFMOMA, which, inspired by the automated distribution centres of Amazon and other global online retailers, will comprise a mechanical apparatus that hangs and rehangs the photographs depending on visitors’ dwell time on each work. What significance will they take on in this context?

Chanarin: The full series of portraits will be presented as framed 8×10 prints, exhibited at eye height inside the gallery. As you mentioned, the installation is inspired by the automated distribution centres of Amazon, and other global online retailers, and has been designed and built in collaboration with the Hamburg-based collective, Neue Farben.

A mechanical apparatus will hang and rehang the photographs; moving along wall-mounted rails; sorting between stacks of portraits on the gallery floor, and transporting them on-and-off the wall for the duration of the exhibition.

At first, the works are displayed randomly, but, over the duration of the exhibition, the apparatus tracks visitors in and out of the gallery and monitors dwell time — the microseconds each visitor spends looking at a specific work. Images that receive more attention will be displayed more often and for longer. Only a fragment of the archive will ever be displayed, and what the audience sees, and does not see, is the result of what others have seen, given attention to, or ignored.

Mediated by the apparatus, my photographs are no longer just images to reflect on, and experience, but rather a means for gathering behavioural data in the gallery. It is an installation that reflects on our everyday experience of images online, in which our attention is claimed as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales. In the ‘attention economy’ images accrue value through views, and attempts to quantify our attention have turned human behaviour into the most valuable natural resource on earth.

A product of this unprecedented period of lockdown and social distancing, I hope the work can address the next taxonomy at the heart of surveillance capitalism; drawing alarming parallels to the work of August Sander – the physiognomy and the archival impulse at the heart of the photographic medium.