Transitory Moments, Eternal Images

The me Collector Rooms, Berlin |The Moment is Eternity – Works from the Olbricht Collection

How does a taxidermy giraffe help us to see photography in a new light? It’s a question that curator Annette Kicken challenges us to consider in her exhibition The Moment is Eternal at The me Collection Rooms in Mitte. Part of the European Month of Photography, the exhibition features over three-hundred photographs from the Olbritch collection.  The title comes from a poem by Goethe. It captures a romantic idea: each second is a tiny increment of eternity and photography has the unique power to preserve these transitory moments forever. By hanging photographs in thought-provoking clusters, Kicken encourages audiences to consider how the moment we see in a frame reflects more than the second it was taken.

Kicken has also playfully installed curiosities from the museum’s wunderkammer. These weird and wonderful items include things like an illusion mirror and a crystal egg. It is quirky and unexpected. Without any wall text, the links between the photos and objects are often perplexing. However, there is something valuable about being disoriented and thinking more deeply.

Some of the juxtapositions add a lot of value. On one wall is a series of famous portraits, including Albert Einstein’s. In front of them, in a glass cabinet, is a collection of miniature carvings. These curious two-headed statues show the same person both alive and dead. It is interesting to reconsider the portraits alongside these odd objects. Every portrait shows a person who will die or, in some cases, has already died. Yet, a pair of lively eyes stared out the photo, the subject forever immortalised on the photographic plane. It’s a cool comparison: like the statues, there is a union of the living and the dead within the photo portrait.

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A couple of hours after leaving the gallery, my friend texted me. We saw the exhibition together but she went back later in the afternoon. On second glance, something bothered her: ‘Why are all the women in this exhibition on the transience of time and the eternity of the present naked? Or faceless? But the men are not?’. It is true. Thinking back on the exhibition, almost every photograph depicted women in a sexualised or de-individualised manner, with only a handful of exceptions. It is a troubling observation but what bothered me more was that I hadn’t noticed. It’s problematic that the female nude is such a common trope in the Western canon that the eroticisation of women has become normalised. Given that the exhibition focusses on ideas of universality and timelessness in photography, it is sad that the predominant depiction of women is as objects. I couldn’t help but think of Hannah Gadsby observations in Nanette: the art world does not exist in a vacuum and therefore the objectification of women in art perpetuates the toxic culture that disempowers women in real life. 

On balance, the representation of the female body in the exhibition was not without nuance. Indeed, Cindy Sherman’s naked self-portray undermines the male gaze because she asserts herself as the subject rather than the object of her photography. Nonetheless, how can we move beyond this? Surely curators have a responsibility to select a more diverse range of images that portray womanhood in a more, nuanced and complex manner. And, where art is inflected with historical prejudices, curators should take the opportunity to comment on it.

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Overall, The Moment is Eternal makes a clever argument about the dexterity of photos. Whilst I was jaded by the representation of women, the exhibition makes one thing clear: there is more to every photo than surface appearances. Juxtaposed in new ways, photos can reveal different meanings and enliven new discussions. To Kicken’s credit, by creating unexpected constellations of photographs, she opened up a discursive space that promoted active contemplation. And clearly there is a lot to be considered…

Enjoy in moderation all life gives:
Where it rejoices in each thing that lives
Let reason be thy guide and make thee see.
Then shall the distance past be present still,
The future, ere it comes, thy vision fill
Each single moment touch eternity.
– Goethe

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