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Reading Rämistrasse #146: Hella Wiedmer-Newman on Oliviero Toscani at the Museum für Gestaltung - Akademie - Kunsthalle Zürich

Reading Rämistrasse #146: Hella Wiedmer-Newman on Oliviero Toscani at the Museum für Gestaltung

The survey exhibition of Oliviero Toscani’s photographic oeuvre, including some of his work for Benetton from 1982 to 2000, at Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich opens with large banners hung in the center of the hall featuring some of his most striking photographic portraits. The exhibition is generally visually pleasing, save for a gimmicky disco ball illuminating a room of New York club photos from the artist’s early period – perhaps hiding less than excellent-quality images. But there is a strangeness about the centring of the portraits, while his better-known and more controversial works are tucked away in side galleries.

As I wandered through the exhibition, I found myself wondering about the curator’s aims. Not because the images are controversial. They are products of a specific place and time and of a changing context of image- and advertising consciousness from the 1980s to the 2000s during which these images held a certain shock value, even as they paved the way to our more desensitised visual environments. But because the curator, Christian Brändle, failed to properly contextualise them as products of their time, framing images of starving children in Africa next to an image of the model Isabelle Caro, who died of complications from anorexia, to war refugees and AIDS activist and victim David Kirbey with display labels detailing the process of the given ad campaign, but doing little else to explicate the cultural climate out of which the images arose. A series of images of a dark-skinned person photographed from behind from various angles uncomfortably recalls phrenology exams performed on colonised people at the turn of the last century, but again they are left uncommented.

Exhibition Oliviero Toscani: Photography and Provocation at Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, 12 April–15 September 2024

Photo: Susanne Völlm © ZHdK

If the aim of an exhibition of photographs from the 1990s, a decade receiving more and more attention for various political reasons, is to stir up conversation about ‘social conventions and topical issues such as gender, racism, ethics, and aesthetics’ and not merely to celebrate their progenitor, then proper contextualisation is necessary. I am not arguing here for a pandering and overly didactic approach. I also put little stock in the reactionary idea that troubling images should be censored or viewers’ affective responses to them endlessly unpacked or aestheticised. I’m simply suggesting that we take Toscani’s activist project through the channel of branding at face value and engage with it, as well as with the criticisms levelled at him. Why not, for example, frame the exhibition with the question of whether brand activism is even possible or merely cynical ‘ethical’ or ‘conscious’ capitalism. Or highlight changing discourses about multiculturalism, diversity and (anti)racism. A photograph of three identical-looking hearts side by side, variously labelled ‘white’ ‘black’ and ‘yellow’ testifies to a universalist, but highly contentious form of antiracism that garnered the artist charges of racism. Focusing on the complexities of socially engaged photography and its repeatedly unintended consequences would have made for a more interesting show, and it would have provided a real forum in which to discuss these issues in relation to the past and the present.

The curator seems at pains to showcase Toscani’s conceptual and compositional skill by centring the glossy portraits (although the architecture of the space only allows for so many curatorial decisions), but this move banalises his whole project, whatever one might think of its ethical dimensions. Especially when paired with the photo booth set up in the middle of the exhibition, which allows visitors to ‘become part of the exhibition,’ by having their snapshots broadcast on screens. Is the exhibition’s aim to be a photo-op for viewers? Or is this a way of shifting attention to the artist’s solo career, exemplified by his ongoing series of documenting people all over the world, Razza Umana (2007-present), and away from his work for Benetton, with whose founder, Luciano Benetton, he broke over the fallout from his death penalty campaign in 2000.[1] Either way, the exhibition is provocative in the most predictable of ways, leaving me cold, not inspired to think. A more provocative take would have been to use the exhibition as an occasion to ponder our own time’s complicated entanglements of ethics and aesthetics.

[1] He would return in subsequent years to realise further advertising campaigns

Oliviero Toscani: Photography and Provocation, Museum für Gestaltung, 12 April–15 September 2024

Reading Rämistrasse

If art criticism is losing ground, we must act. That’s why we created space for criticism – Reading Rämistrasse – on the Kunsthalle Zürich website and publish reviews of current exhibitions in Zürich. What is published here does not represent the opinion of the Kunsthalle Zürich. Because criticism has to be independent.

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