What Photography has in Common with an Empty Vase:
A Sociological Study of Absence and the Impossible Document
In 2016 GRAIN Projects commissioned artist Edgar Martins to respond to Winson Green in Birmingham and the site and community of HMP Birmingham. Martins is creating a significant, multifaceted body of work developed from a collaboration with HMP Birmingham (the largest, until recently privately run, category B prison in the Midlands, now government run), its inmates, their families as well as a myriad of other local organisations and individuals. Using the social context of incarceration as a starting point, Martins explores the philosophical concept of absence and addresses a broader consideration of the status of the photograph when questions of visibility, ethics, aesthetics and documentation intersect.
From a humanist perspective the work seeks to reflect on how one deals with the absence of a loved one, brought on by enforced separation.
From an ontological perspective it seeks answers to the following questions: how does one represent a subject that eludes visualization, that is absent or hidden from view? And what does it mean for photography, in an epistemological, ontological, aesthetic and ethical sense, if it does not identify with the photographic subject but the absence of it’s subject?
The work shifts between image and information, between fiction and evidence, strategically deploying visual and textual details in tandem so that the viewer becomes aware of what exists outside the confines of the frame.
Three distinct chapters are employed in the work, each encompassing speculative, documentary and historical archive imagery (ranging from portratiture, landscape, still-life, abstraction, etc), text, projection, audio and photo-installation, signalling the artist’s growing inclination towards a more interdisciplinary perspective of the practice of photography and the experience of images.
Across this complex and radical body of work, Martins has worked with archives from renowned European institutions, leading Portuguese physicist João Seixas, inmates and their families connected to HMP Birmingham as well as a variety of other individual and organisations such as colleges, community centres, charities, fire departments, etc.
Commission by GRAIN Projects, in collaboration with HMP Birmingham and supported by Arts Council England and Birmingham City University.