January 4, 2012

Mishka Henner - No Man's Land

There are places that we just don’t go, and this reluctance has little to do with geography – or at least, not the actual contingencies of landscape. Rather, these distances are specifically cultural; places (and people) are reduced to a state of invisibility rooted in the privilege of being seen, the often unearned right to assume one’s own visibility as a social force, and conversely, of negating the visibility of others. Mishka Henner’s work No Man’s Land deals, at least in part, with these themes. The project centres on the use of images taken from Google Street View presumably showing improvised sites of “commercial” sex along the back-roads and motorways of several European countries. These woman are confined to various non-places, disposable realities captured with near manic blankness. Street View is a monument to our times, a volatile presence, everywhere and nowhere.

This invisibility is a lack of economic as well as cultural agency. People have long been commodities, but it has never been easier for us not to see that fact. The social balance is always tipped in favour of those who control the ability to define it. So when we talk about “privilege” we really mean the assumption that society is an extension of how we see the world. The order of privilege, its stability, depends on that imbalance to somehow validate it. An increasing sense of distance allowed by technology, the ease with which we can hold the world at arm’s length, is just another function of these inherently flawed and alienating structures. The women in Henner’s work remain ciphers; even at the very moment in which they come under scrutiny their identity is lost. This is, of course, a tenant of the Street View project, but it is also a rather piercing metaphorical description of the faceless lives they lead.

Of all the recent projects in this idiom, No Man’s Land seems to me one of the most effective, in so far as it links the new technology with a relevant social context (Doug Rickard’s work is also exemplary for that reason). If the aim of Street View is, in a pseudo-imperial way, to make the world “visible” then surely it also succeeds – as we can see in Henner’s work – at revealing the limits of that visibility, because it occurs under a paradigm of tacit and ultimately, false authority. It is as if we cannot see these things, except at a costly distance from them, a distance that suggests they are not part of “our” world at all. Yet this is the world that has created and now sustains the very lives these women live. The way in which they are seen embodies a social paradox; by incorporating this sense of (social and technological) distance into his work Henner achieves something unique.

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