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Copyright © Rıdvan Bayrakoğlu, İstanbul Sergi Fotoğrafları

Yavuz Erkan reviews Jasper de Beijer’s Marabunta at The Empire Project, Istanbul.

As an invention, photography is based upon the camera obscura vision, which operates on one-point perspective. Since its inception in the early 19th Century, people identified photographs as an outcome of a truthful experience because the camera recorded reality as it happened. Knowledge is gained vis-à-vis seeing and the hegemonic vision of modernity is impaired by the assumption that to see is to know (1). This instant gaze produced a totality, eliminating the open-ended search for truth especially as seen in documentary photography. But the postmodern discourse around visuality is always in flux because vision is never natural or transparent. There is no sense of a unified vision even if two people look at identical photographs. What is true cannot always be seen, what can be seen is not always true (2) and what was photographed do not always represent its referent as seen in surrealist or tableaux photography. Photo-unrealism always shadows the camera’s celebrated ability to provide a truthful image of the real. The photographer also plays a key role in discrediting the camera obscura model of vision and instigating an interrogation of sight, particularly in mass media.

Installation view of 'Marabunta' exhibition. Copyright © Rıdvan Bayrakoğlu, İstanbul Sergi Fotoğrafları

Installation view of ‘Marabunta’ exhibition.
Copyright © Rıdvan Bayrakoğlu, İstanbul Sergi Fotoğrafları

Renowned for his highly constructed and manipulated photographic works, Dutch photographer Jasper de Beijer exhibits solo for the second time in Istanbul at the Empire Project. For his latest series Marabunta, he created eight large scale chromagenic prints and one three-dimensional printed sculpture about the cartels of the Mexican Drug War. Mounted on Alu-Dibond and presented inside brown wooden frames on the walls against the gallery’s parquet floor, these photographs resemble domestic religious iconography that speaks of martyrdom and heroism.

Because of Christ who suffered, died and rose from the dead, Christian death has a positive connotation. Known for being amongst the world’s top Catholic population, death in Mexico is celebrated and honoured as well. With churches seen in the background, both Marabunta #01 and #08 lay emphasis on “worship” with places coated in text, photographs and flowers. Whether a victim or a hero from this place of massacre, with his dismembered mouth sewn back to his tattoo covered face, Marabunta #06 looks like a Mara Salvatrucha member (commonly abbreviated as MS-13; a gang employed by the Sinaloa Cartel). Adorned with cellophane and tape, this portrait epitomises endurance and perpetuity of Marabunta (army ant) who fight violently and die fearlessly. But what remains unknown is whether this is an icon of victory or a pilgrimage of grief for the Mexicans.

Jasper de Beijer  'Marabunta #06' 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Jasper de Beijer ‘Marabunta #06′ 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

In Mexico while drug lords are glorified in bespoken folk songs called “corridos”, they are also responsible for public abductions and executions in broad daylight. In a realm of such contradictions, corruption consumes people at every level in the society because sacrifices have to be made as money is sparse in the region, especially in the front line of the drug trade. The choice is whether to remain morally intact and fight or give up a career as a teacher and become a truck driver carrying drugs across the Mexico-USA border (3). Living so far away from this drug-related violence and informed only through international news coverage or documentaries, it is very difficult to comprehend the criticality of the situation or decipher what is really going on with these images. Their titles are also sequentially enumerated, hiding any significant referent for the world of outsiders. But researching this ongoing armed conflict as a bystander in Mexico for several months, de Beijer recounts events and characters as seen by the public without bias. By filtering these photographs through the impressions and opinions of Mexicans affected, he instils a powerful levelling effect in our minds. His crime scene photographs might seem very colourful yet banal for the ordinary eyes. But the viewers should not fail to see the discursive aspect of other unspoken crimes or indirect effects of this drug related violence around the globe, as in why this is still happening today? Compared to his previous works, this time de Beijer frankly assembles these photographs as less persuasive but more surreal to open up the possibilities for the viewers’ minds. He playfully mimics every detail of a forensic/journalistic photograph, but he refutes their alleged documentary significance by urging the viewers to maintain a critical distance when looking. His intentionality in making these photographs “unreal” threatens the passive viewers who ignore the tension between illusion and reality in the media. Thus, his work bears two contradictory aspects – that of excessive documentation and that of simulation.

By merging the most macabre death scenes with unnaturally gaudy colours, de Beijer succeeds to intoxicate our vision and mind simultaneously. His hyperreal visual dictum poses a crucial question to the viewer who did not experience this war directly. Being accustomed to viewing conventional news reportage in a world filled with every kind of photography imaginable, how do we read images? The answer is not so straightforward but he encourages us to generate our own moral judgments in relation to the activity of looking instead of simply re-representing the facts. His life sized paper machete, cellophane and clay mixed sculptures are digitally rendered reconstructions of press stories that hardly inform us about the incidents occurring, yet he references historical and cultural events of political importance, challenging how they have entered our reality through photography. The viewers ponder somewhere between life and death under the influence of their heightened sense of vision. Photography rejoices the failure of document as evidence, and de Beijer’s surreal photographs accentuate the medium’s endless struggle between facsimile, verisimilitude and the real.

For more information about Jasper de Beijer and his exhibition, please visit his website and The Empire Project’s website.

1) Jay, M 1988 ″Scopic Regimes of Modernity″, in H Foster (ed), Vision and Visuality, Bay Press, Seattle, pp. 3-23.

2) Jay, M 1995 ″Photo-unrealism: The Contribution of the Camera to the Crisis of Ocularcentrism″, in S W Melville & B Readings (eds), Vision and Textuality, Macmillan, London, pp. 344-360.

3) Mexico’s Drug War (2010), BBC This World, UK. Retrieved February 21, 2013, from

Top image:
Installation view of 'Marabunta'
Copyright © Rıdvan Bayrakoğlu, İstanbul Sergi Fotoğrafları

Yavuz Erkan is an emerging artist based in Istanbul.

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