The Archive of Modern Conflict is a photographic archive based in London and curated by Timothy Prus and Ed Jones. As a part of Caochangdi Photospring 2012, highlights from its collection and a selection of the AMC’s publications are featured in a rare exhibition organized by head of the Beijing office Thomas Sauvin 苏文. Here he discusses his work for the archive in Beijing, the exhibition, and their recent publication, Happy Tonite, which features the work of 12 contemporary Chinese photographers.
[Gordon Earl Adams and his Time Machine, UK, Twentieth Century © Archive of Modern Conflict]
“From 2006-2010 we were focusing on Contemporary Chinese photography, it resulted in the Happy Tonite publication that only showcases a tiny facet of the collection, 75 prints from 12 photographers. The collection now counts 55 Chinese photographers and a little more than 4000 prints. The AMC collects photographers from all over the world, although contemporary works are not the core of the collection.
But the AMC is open to any type of work, as long as it surprises them. I guess the game is how to surprise them. It’s not that easy, as they have been looking at images everyday for 35 years. Photography can be an amazingly boring medium. A lot of Chinese works, especially from the early 2000s, convey some sort of strange, twisted, dirty fairytale style of photography. It’s pretty unnatural, so the game was to put them together and see what happened. The photographers in Happy Tonite are all mixed together, its very hard to tell who took what.
Nein, Onkel: Snapshots From Another Front 1938–1945 is definitely their most important publication, it is actually why the AMC is called so, because in the beginning they were collecting material related to WW2. From 1993-2005 they were gathering private photo albums from German soldiers all around the world, the idea was to challenge the notion popular in that period, the “German killing machine,” and to challenge the collective memory with authentic images from the same period.
The Beijing office of the AMC has a physical space, and I’m pretty proud of it because it finally smells like Panjiayuan in there. I have bought enough dusty books, period publications, photo albums and all kinds of stuff. The archive is not public, but if I had to divide the archive into three branches, there would be the contemporary, which is still growing, period publications (mostly books), and personal photographs and albums. Two albums showing in the exhibition are the PLA clothes factory sample album, and the special effects make up artist.
If we want to build up a visual chain from 1949 to now, the only way to cover 1949-79 is through official propaganda period publications, and one must admit that pretty amazing books were made. A lot of time, money, energy and talent were spent on these huge publications, especially publications in 1959. Martin Parr is focusing on Chinese publications now, he is working with the Dutch photographer Ruben Lundgren in Beijing.
I try to go to Panjiayuan every week, but the main problem with Panjiayuan is that the sellers always think they know what has value. They have great things, but they never show them to me, because, being a foreigner, they think that I’m only obsessed with Mao or the Cultural Revolution, etc. AMC doesn’t try to dig out sensitive material, or to press where it hurts. A lot of people like to do that, especially in photography.
[Beauty and the Fridge (left); Lucha-Libre © Archive of Modern Conflict]
There are no themes that we collect by. We like to have something amorphous. You never know if something is the right thing to collect, but anything that generates an emotion, surprise, nostalgia, melancholy, amusement, is probably worth keeping. Things emerge organically. We don’t have a purpose that we try to illustrate. We try to take interest in all kinds of people and different visual universes. The best photo album I could imagine is by a real estate agent, he’s not an artist, but for years he’s been taking simple snapshots in a hardcore way—what is the price, what is the size (of real estate). I like when images are not taken for an artistic purpose, but when you decontextualize them and put them in such a space, they have another meaning.
We tend to like funny people and funny work, and a little bit of humor is very nice to find in photography. Photographers often try to convey very sad feelings and melancholia, and somehow it’s very hard to find funny work, but people really like it. So if there were one rule, it would be not to take photography too seriously, and not to pay too much attention to technique.
Most important is the history behind the image, and perhaps the great masterpiece of this exhibition is Gordon Earl Adams’ time machine. The images are not spellbinding, but the story behind them is: in the 1920s Adams’ started to build a time machine in his basement, and now both the time machine and the guy are impossible to find. So maybe it worked. We don’t know. I didn’t actually do the research myself, but AMC ended up with this huge manuscript he worked on, a huge photo album and handwritten diagrams based on Indian mythology on which the design of the machine is based. Adams was an engineer, a seeker of spiritual truth, and an unusual character. And that is all that’s left of the story. The machine––and you’ve seen it’s no small machine—and the man disappeared. Nobody seems to know, there are no records in cemeteries, and no one kept the machine. In this case, if you take the images individually they don’t say much, so we also wanted to feature his diagrams prominently in the exhibition. They were maps on how to build the machine, and showing the connection between infinity and eternity, the material universe and spiritual universe, hell and heaven.
Its always very hard to define the archive, the best way is to define what it is not. It is not a photo agency, it’s not a gallery, and it’s not a museum. It doesn’t look like anything we know.
“Photographic Oddities from The Archive of Modern Conflict” is on display from April 14 to May 6, 2012 at Chamber’s Fine Art in Caochangdi. A Chinese version of this interview was posted on artforum.com’s Chinese edition.
Interesting documentary about the AMC here http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=m0Gd_0KUkYM