Gideon Mendel, Dzhangal

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by GOST Books (here). Hardcover, 80 pages, with 47 color images. Includes poems by Babak Inaloo and ‘Mani’ and texts by ‘Africa’, Shaheen Ahmed Wali, Dominque Malaquais, and Paul Mason. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: One of the complaints we often see leveled at the art world is that it is too inward-looking and insulated, and that it doesn’t respond actively or energetically enough to world around us. Since our artists are the people in our culture who we celebrate as among the most sensitive and attuned to the nuances of appearances and overlooked truths, we frequently (and naturally) expect them to engage our most pressing issues and questions, hoping they will provide answers we haven’t heard or seen before.

Among the major world challenges of the 21st century, population migration has bubbled up near the top as a particularly destabilizing cultural force. At its core, it ties together all kinds of abstract issues, from basic human rights and norms of human decency to complex political and economic realities at home and abroad. Caught in the middle are its many participants, variously known as immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and other less savory monikers, who are following their very real instincts to flee persecution, war, death, and destruction and to seek better opportunities and chase dreams in safer and more welcoming locales.

One set of front lines in the population migration battle has formed in countries along the southern border of Europe, where tens of thousands of refugees from wars in the Middle East and northern Africa have come flooding northward and westward in search of safety. How and where to resettle these people, both temporarily and permanently, has become a flashpoint across not only Europe, which is bearing much of the immediate burden, but farther afield in countries scattered across the globe. The wave of protective nationalism that has overtaken many countries of late can in part be attributed to the reaction to this large scale migration.

While each migrant has his or her own story to tell of intermediate stops, illegal smuggling, and harrowing journeys, many ended up finding their way to a large refugee camp in Calais, France, infamously nicknamed the Jungle. Reportedly housing as many as 7000 migrants at one point, the site has now been razed and the refugees settled elsewhere, but its position as a potent symbol of the larger problem remains. While it was active, and during its destruction, countless photojournalists and artists traveled to Calais to document the situation there, and many photo essays and photobooks have been published bearing witness to its human stories.

Perhaps the most straightforward way to photographically approach the issues surrounding places like the Jungle is to make portraits of the refugees themselves, giving a human face to the numbers and documenting the realities of camp life. But this method brings with it the inherent problems of exploiting the subjects, of finding aesthetic arm’s length beauty in the “ruins”, and of ultimately failing to make people think, given our collective numbness to the misery of the refugees. So the South African photographer Gideon Mendel consciously decided to avoid portraits of the inhabitants of the Jungle, instead spending his time gathering up the discarded or forgotten physical remnants of their lives there. In a series of trips to Calais in 2016, he collected a wide variety of abandoned stuff, which he brought back to his studio and carefully photographed against envelopingly dark black backgrounds. His results were published earlier this year in the photobook Dzhangal. (For another non-portraiture artistic perspective on Calais, see Marco Tiberio’s ImmoRefugee from 2016, reviewed here.)

Taking an almost forensic interest in the cast offs of the migrants elegantly readjusts our gaze. In a sense, it makes the “portraits” indirect, allowing us to see the humanity of the refugees (and empathize with their plight) by communing with the implied spirit that inhabits their personal objects. And it’s an aesthetic idea that has worked successfully before, particularly in Miyako Ishiuchi’s images of the artifacts from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and more recently in Richard Misrach’s isolated leftovers from the border crossers transiting the dusty desert regions between the US and Mexico.

Each of Mendel’s images is a stepping off point for a speculative who-owned-this narrative, and the pictures of personal effects do the best job of providing a reflected look at life in the Jungle. Dirt, decay, overuse, and even charring are the common characteristics of these items, from hoodies and jackets to gloves, mittens, hats, and a wide array of footwear.

The grim rhythms of everyday existence are captured in a sequential yard sale of junk – tattered blankets and sleeping bags, rusted chairs, bed springs, kitchen tools, and an array of too many dirty toothbrushes to count. While flattened barrels and corrugated iron sheets may have been part of the architectural infrastructure of the tents and makeshift shacks, the left behind children’s toys hit home with more force. Stuffed animals, teddy bears, a broken guitar, a rusted bicycle, and a doll head with a sweep of Medusa-like hair were likely closely guarded treasures, but the flat soccer balls and broken badminton rackets are a stark reminder that the play was short lived. The torn and charred book pages are among the most disheartening of Mendel’s salvage, the optimistic mood of the happy bunnies, friendly penguins, and smiling tigers found there so out of step with the surrounding reality.

In between the sober still lifes and typologies of items, Mendel has inserted first hand refugee accounts of life in the Jungle, as both texts and poetry, which add richness to the spare documentary evidence. ‘Africa’ travels from his unnamed home to Libya, then Egypt, and eventually on to Europe, where he is dumbfounded by the way he is treated in the home of democracy and human rights; now in Wales, he waits, but cannot work or even volunteer. Babak Inaloo fights the cold weather, the strange looks, and the French language, using stubborn hopefulness to make the “one-way road” bearable. And ‘Mani’ is more dispirited, the freezing cold, the endless lines, and the garbage everywhere making spoken platitudes of hope feel like lies. The double spread array of used teargas canisters are a fitting interlude to these tales, the brutal chaos of the Jungle simmering right at the surface.

As one self contained perspective on the Jungle, Mendel’s Dzhangal is both quietly moving and somberly dismaying. Its durable power lies in its honest understatement. With this restraint, Mendel shows he implicitly trusts us, and by allowing us to draw our own conclusions, he pulls us into the overlooked tragedies of the Jungle even more deeply.

Collector’s POV: Gideon Mendel is represented by Axis Gallery in New York (here). Mendel’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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