All the American fun of the fair!

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It’s that time of year! The Fête de Genève. The main event of the annual civic calendar. The Cartoons for Peace exhibit is removed from the lakefront. Articulated lorries swing into the centre of town loaded with the unlikely metal constructions of a hundred shows and rides. Shouting in a dozen languages, muscled and tattooed young men bolt and hammer the whole scene into place.

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It is a couple of days before the Lake Festival begins. It is mid-morning but there are already thousands of tourists ambling about. Selfie city. Rock music blasts out. Hotel California. Johnny Be Good. Spicy smoke from Asian food in preparation stings my eyes. I notice a small 116 year-old carrousel. In this setting it is rather understated and dignified. The decoration has a by-gone charm. There is even a hand-painted and quite passable landscape of a Swiss lake with famous centuries-old boats. So cute!

I decide to look more closely at the artwork on some other attractions. Maybe not so cute but fascinating nevertheless. The circus theme is predictable.

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Most are decorated by spray paint. There is beautiful stuff to be found here. I can’t help wondering who these master aerosol-painters are. Is this the day-job for hooded graffiti taggers?

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A panel with a hundred bulbs is bolted into place. Jacko! Then I spot Elvis!

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In a moment of giddying perception, I realise that, in fact, the main visual theme of the whole show is Pop Americana!

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Why American objects such as big American trucks or American football helmets should excite us to the point that we dig into our pockets and spend hard-earned money on being turned upside down at high speed and nauseated is difficult to comprehend. But it’s all part of the atmosphere… I guess!

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Above all, the dominant theme of these technically brilliant works is Disney. The origins maybe American but the appeal is global and the images universally associated with good times, fun and laughter. This must be America’s biggest cultural export ever.

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I couldn’t resist snapping Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear, my favourite Disney character. He’s just so duty-bound and lovable but poignantly dim. He invites us into some cosmic whirligig. Subliminal message: even if you are scared out of your wits, good old Buzz will look after you!

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Right next to Fun City Vegas Super Nevada Paradise is Ali Baba. I am not sure what Ali is offering as the construction is, inshallah, ongoing. Somehow, given the current state of Americana, I just don’t think a fairground stall with a middle-eastern theme including camels and bedouin tents (but Disney-style treasure chests!) will have a great success. I’ll go back soon and bring you an update.

If you go down to the lakefront in the next days, you really don’t need to take a ride. Just take in some of the decoration! Send us a photo or two!

Cartooning the big issues

Geneva. It’s a wealthy, safe and pretty place that is, at times, surprisingly left-leaning especially when it comes to issues such as freedom of speech. Every year, the city sponsors a lakeside exhibition of “Cartoons for Peace” from all over the world. Beautiful? Maybe. Brilliant? Absolutely!

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One hundred huge panels display the best of cartoons that accuse, taunt, embarrass and blame the powerful, the corrupt and the cruel. The pencil-wielding warriors don’t pull the punches. Those war-mongers must really cringe! However, the exhibition has mission creep. It’s no longer just about peace. Other subjects that reach us daily via global media get a caustic drenching from these observant graphicists. For the viewer, the slick images fire an intriguing alloy of emotions.

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Boligan (Mexico)

There is a universal desire for peace. There’s an app for everything now. Hey! You military guys! It really could be that easy!! This makes me feel a kind of pity for humanity.

Some people can think up jokes. They have the ability to merge different elements of a narrative into a timely punch-line. I guess a cartoon is a kind of visual joke. A few disparate observations or notions are drawn together into one arresting and complete visual concept. At first glance, a cartoon is simple; but the viewer is invited to examine the image, refine its elements and then “get” the interaction of those elements in a mental join-the-dots exercise. There is then an emotional impact. What fascinates me more is that by “getting” a cartoon about a big global issue, I feel I am actually doing something about it. Ha! Slactivism!

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Cristina (Belgium)

A major car company. Guilty smile. Lies. Children’s toy. Innocence. This amuses me.

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Joel Pett (USA)

Superior American military technology. Unthinking citizens. Anonymised “collateral damage” (especially children.) Killing at a distance. Unknown and unseen perpetrator. This makes me very angry. Too close to the bone!

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Hani Abbas (Syria)

Writing not possible although it should be. Erasing is the norm. Censorship. I feel a kind of objective concern. I’ve never lived for any length of time in a country where I cannot say what I think. I admire the simplicity of the image.

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Shahrokh (Iran)

Sinister anonymity of a man of violence. Juxtaposition of delicate flower and ammunition. Making a wish. Wind blowing right to left (east to west?) I am afraid.

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Firoozeh (Iran)

Migrants from islamic countries. Families about to drown. Only possibility of survival is Europe. I feel sad and enormously lucky to live where I do. I also feel a responsibility but I am not sure what I can do.

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Brandan (South Africa)

A compass. Is it worth undertaking the journey? Stark choices for Africans. Desperation. I feel totally helpless.

A cartoon may work in our minds like a joke but is not always amusing. Unlike the verbal equivalent, a cartoon on being propagated can identify its talented creator. Let’s not forget that in many countries, the emotional reaction to these clever drawings might end in a prison sentence or worse for the cartoonist responsible.

“Révélations” at the Musée Rath

I visit “Revelations” at the Musée Rath in Geneva This is that rare kind of exhibition that you can just get lost in. It is where the cultural, scientific and political history of this extraordinary town meets photography. Archives have been searched, venerable institutions have collaborated and local photographers interviewed. The exhibition is beautifully designed. No surprise that Philippa Kundig had a hand in it!

What an extraordinary invention photography is! In a week of troubled politics on both sides of the atlantic, I am reminded of just how powerful images can be. Here, I limit my self to three photos indicating the diversity of what’s on show. I hope to whet your appetite.

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Jean-Louis Populous, La rue du Marché, 1848

Yes… 1848! What an amazing image! Down-town Geneva nearly 170 years ago. I am fascinated by this photo. Where was the photographer positioned? What kind of camera? Where are the people? I imagine the taking of such a photograph was such a big event that the whole street was cleared.

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Anne-Julie Raccoursier, Remote Viewer 3 (part of), 2007

Anne-Julie Raccoursier’s contribution is two huge juxtaposed photos. One shows an aerial view of a graveyard for military aeroplanes with a road running through it. It is simply mind-boggling. I guess we understand that fighters and bombers are built and sold and maybe used in armed conflict but I am not sure we give much thought to what happens to them when they are redundant. Well, now we know!

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A. Stephani, Radiograph of a giant Dolium (Tonna Galea), 1971

My absolute favourite is an x-ray image of a sea shell. I try to determine why it appeals so much. There is something very beautiful about the rhythm and progression of the lines and curves of this creature as revealed by radiography. It speaks of the mathematics of natural forms; of fractals and the Fibonacci sequence. But there is something else; a fleeting, gorgeous pop image. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit to it, but it reminds me of Marilyn Monroe standing over the subway grate. Now, that’s a photo!!

Everyone is a photographer now and “Révélations” has something for everyone. This dazzling exhibition reveals the importance of photography in our lives and how it has advanced humanity. Go to Musée Rath. Take your time.

Northumberlandia

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I have a meeting with a lady. She is, apparently, very beautiful. She is called Northumberlandia. Although we have not met before, I know I am about to become one more admirer. I drive a long way to our rendez-vous in Northumberland, England. The weather gods have served up the vilest of British weather for our first encounter. I emerge from a dripping beech forest and catch my first awe-inspiring side-view of her face and breasts. She takes no notice of the lashing wind and rain.

The full extent of her beauty is revealed when, later, I go on-line and find an aerial view taken in unimaginable sunshine.

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Ol Batten’s award winning drone photo of Northumberlandia, 2015

Northumberlandia, seen from above or explored at ground level, has the air of some ancient pagan queen. She is immense. She exudes fertility. Her coy pose and raised right index finger indicate that she is at once inviting and admonishing. Her vital statistics are impressive. She is four years old. She is 400 metres frown crown to toe. Her nose is 40 metres above the ground. She weighs 1.5 million tonnes. Her features are drawn by six kilometres of sandstone paths. She is beautiful stuff on a grand scale. I am smitten.

This is one more dazzling project conceived by architect-sculptor Charles Jencks who took inspiration from the feminine forms of the distant Cheviot hills. Today, these hills are lost to view.

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Big public sculpture doesn’t get better than this. The whole enterprise was sponsored by the BANKS Group. They run the adjacent Shotton surface coal mine from which the rock and clay for the construction were transported. DEFRA provided additional funds. The land was donated by the Blagdon Estate. The site is co-managed by the Land Trust and the Northumberland Wildlife Trust. It warms my heart that such co-operation is possible in the spirit of creativity and environmentally conscious development.

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I stand atop her right breast. I can’t help thinking that the undulating green of her right hand could have been the work of Old Tom Morris.

I am alone. The wind blows harder. I struggle unsuccessfully to keep my camera dry. I decide to take cover in the visitor centre. I meet Wayne, Northumberlandia’s warden. Today, he has time to chat. Nice guy. He makes me a warming cup of coffee. He is justifiably proud of his charge. When the weather is fine, he tells me, the place is heaving. Last year saw 90,000 visitors. I buy a post card, say goodbye and trudge soddenly back to my car.  I am cold, wet, enthralled and enchanted. I am determined to see Northumberlandia again.

Nick Brandt’s African ghost animals at Fotografiska

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I’m in Stockholm and have the afternoon off. Facebook tells me there’s a new exhibition by British photographer Nick Brandt at Fotografiska. I’ve seen his wildlife photos before, but I have never seen anything like his news series, “Inherit the Dust.”

Brandt has developed life-size prints of his fantastic animal portraits, glued them to huge aluminium and plywood panels, and carefully placed these in polluted, abused and dystopian parts of Africa, where animals once roamed freely and lived in harmony.

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The panels were left long enough for the inhabitants to stop paying attention to them, after which Brandt captured the scenes as black-and-white panoramas through the lens of his medium-format Mamiya RZ67 Pro ll.

The most poignant panorama shows a family of elephants beneath a road, next to a group of homeless and glue-sniffing kids, juxtaposed to a billboard (in the horizon) of a man relaxing in a park with the text “lean back, your life is on track.”

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“Underpass with elephants (lean back, your life is on track).” inheritthedust.nickbrandt.com

Brandt’s “ghost animals” are a stark reminder of what poaching, climate change and capitalism actually put at stake here. Together with the marginalised, poor people living in these places, they are the victims of our destruction of nature.

I buy a copy of Brandt’s book, make a donation to the Big Life Foundation and leave the exhibition feeling embarrassed and hopeless. I wish that parents bring their kids to Fotografiska. They need to see this now, and I bet you: they don’t want to inherit the dust.