An official public installation of Scotiabank CONTACT, Drowning World by London-based, South African photographer Gideon Mendel transforms Toronto’s Queen’s Park subway station into a unique public exhibition space featuring portraits of people whose lives have been devastated by floods. The exhibition also threads throughout the city’s subway system, capturing the attention of more than one million daily commuters on PATTISON Onestop screens with the artist’s Water videos, which capture people navigating their lives in the midst of recent floodwaters.
Drowning World is an art project with photojournalistic roots, which Gideon Mendel began in 2007 as a response to climate change. This long-term effort spans 9 countries to date. The project is grounded in the artist’s belief that depicting the individuality of the victims will counter a tendency to view them as faceless statistics.
Mendel’s images surround the viewer within the massive underground gallery created within Queen’s Park subway station. Twenty-six large subway posters featuring portraits of flood victims from Mendel’s international project are positioned along the tunnels, and sixteen smaller posters depicting flooded homes and landscapes line the stairwells.
With this body of work, the 8th annual Contacting Toronto opens up space for contemplation of an experience that erases political, geographical and cultural divides. The exhibition offers an opportunity to ponder human vulnerability and the idea of a shared identity drawn across cultures.
Gideon Mendel is a contemporary artist whose socially engaged photography and video practice has been internationally recognized and awarded. Contacting Toronto: Drowning World Contacting Toronto: Drowning World is Mendel’s first major Canadian exhibition.
Contacting Toronto: Drowning World is a part of PATTISON Onestop’s ongoing Art in Transit programme and is co-produced by Art for Commuters, in partnership with Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival.
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Gideon Mendel is known for his politically committed, intimate style of image making. Work from different phases of his 28-year career has been shown in major galleries and publications around the world.
Born in Johannesburg in 1959, he studied psychology and African history at the University of Cape Town. Following his studies he photographed change and conflict in South Africa in the lead-up to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.
n 1990 he moved to London, and shifted his focus to global social issues. He began photographing the impact of AIDS in Africa in 1993 and his groundbreaking work over twenty years on this subject has been widely recognized.
He has won six World Press Photo Awards, first prize in the American Pictures of the Year competition, a Canon Photo Essayist Award, the Eugene Smith Award for Humanistic Photography and the Amnesty International Media Award for Photojournalism. He has worked for many of the world’s leading magazines—among them National Geographic, Fortune, Condé Nast Traveller, Geo, Guardian Weekend, L’Express and Stern.
His first monograph, A Broken Landscape: HIV & AIDS in Africa, was published in 2001. Since then he has produced a number of photographic projects with campaigning organisations such as The Global Fund, MSF, Treatment Action Campaign, The International HIV/AIDS Alliance, Action Aid, The Terrence Higgins Trust, Shelter, Leonard Cheshire Disability, UNICEF and Concern International.
He has established a global project about the impact of flooding on individual lives entitled Drowning World as a way of addressing climate change. Photographs and a video installation from this project were part of the ICP Triennial in New York where it was selected for the Picture Windows installation series in the 13 large windows of the institution on 43rd Street. The work was featured as a public display in the Chobi Mela Festival in Bangladesh. There have been two solo exhibitions of the project in London at Somerset House in 2012 and recently at Tiwani Contemporary. Mendel’s Water, part of the Drowning World project, will screen as part of the inaugural exhibition at the Sackler International Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington D.C. in May 2014.
Drowning World is a long-term global project about flooding. It’s my response to climate change, and the obsessive consumption that drives it. The flood is an ancient metaphor with its connotation of water washing away sin. Yet some of those most affected by these floods are arguably those least to blame for their cause.
Portraits of flood victims are at the heart of this project. I frequently follow my subjects returning through deep waters, making the photographs at the remains of their homes. They address the camera, looking outwards from the landscape of an environmental calamity that has all but destroyed their lives.
I believe that their plight is a direct result of over-consumption. A small proportion of the world’s population—mainly those in the affluent and developed world—uses up most of the world’s resources and produces most of the greenhouse gas emissions. This causes climate change and the extreme weather conditions I am documenting.
The images have been made in nine different countries: the UK, India, Haiti, Pakistan, Australia, Thailand, Nigeria, Germany, and the Philippines. They bear witness to a shared experience that erases geographical and cultural divides.
Despite the logistical difficulties involved I make the images on a set of old Rolleiflex cameras using film. I find that this slows me down, giving a certain gravitas to the shooting situation and also makes for a distinctive image quality.
This work has photojournalistic roots and references but it is also reaches into a fine-art context. It asks questions about the place where the land meets the water in a disruptive way and challenges conventional notions of portraiture with the subjects posing in a conventional manner, in an unsettling environment. It also highlights the fragility of material possessions.
A growing strand of the project is a record of the mark the floodwaters leave behind on landscapes, objects, surfaces and found photographs. The film component to the project is also increasingly significant with a series of video installations being exhibited alongside the images.
My intention is not to shock but to move. As many of my images play with reflections in desperate situations I hope my audience might reflect on their own relationship to the natural world.
As I continue responding to floods in the coming years, I hope that Drowning World can work as both advocacy and art, and have an ongoing and connected life in both of those arenas.