Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin: Dora Fobert

The South African duo present their first curatorial project, a photographic exhibition from a fictional artist...

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In the Warsaw Ghettos of 1942, Dora Fobert embarked on a project that would remain a secret until friend and survivor Adela K. revealed it to the world in 2010. Fobert’s unfinished photographs of nude women not only defied the vicious Nazi propaganda of Jewish female fakery and ugliness, but the inhumanity of their forced conditions. Many who visit the South African duo Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s first curatorial project, may feel emotionally betrayed by its heteronymous nature - that Dora Fobert never actually existed - but it is the disparity in the relationship between the artist and viewer that is at the essence of this project.

Dora Fobert first appeared as part of the 2011 Krakow Photomonth Festival where the duo enlisted 23 writers to make fictional bio blueprints for 23 artists to explore. For Broomberg and Chanarin, it has been somewhat of an experiment and statement against the contemporary art world’s obsession with the artist as celebrity. Dazed talks to co-curator Oliver Chanarin about the project...

Dazed Digital: What kind of woman is Dora Fobert?
Oliver Chanarin: The first thing to know about Dora Fobert is that she never existed. She was invented by a Polish writer Karolina Sulej, for the Krakow Photomonth in May 2011. Adam and I inhabited her biography for a short while and produced the photographs that we think she might have produced. Perhaps you can get a sense of her personality through this series of images. Dora was concerned, consciously or unconsciously, with the way Jewish women were regarded by the Nazis. During this period, around 1942, there was an idea, a classicist ideal, of the Aryan women as naturally beautiful.

She did not need make-up or perfume or well cut clothes for her beauty to be apparent. The Jewish women were set in opposition to this ideal. The adorned Jewess, as she was known, was bohemian, decadent, and exotic. Under The Third Reich she was de-humanized, reduced to the status of an object, a 'piece'. Nevertheless there is evidence that the Adorned Jewess was at the same time seen as a sexualised object and Dora, according to the narrative, rejected this objectification with her series of playful and intimate nudes.

DD: What do the unfinished nature of the photographs add to the work’s meaning?
Oliver Chanarin : The only surviving images by Dora Fobert are all paper negatives. During the period that she was producing these images, photographic materials had become scarce in the Warsaw Ghetto. Film was not available, neither was fixer, which is the chemical used to make photographic images stable in day-light. Instead the photographs are produced by exposing light to paper. And while the prints are properly developed, they have not been fixed and are therefore sensitive to light. For this reason the entire archive can only be viewed under red glass.

DD: Can you tell me about the response you've had from the project so far?
Oliver Chanarin : This work was first commissioned and exhibited in Krakow Photomonth which we curated under the title ‘Alias’. We described the festival as an incomplete survey of invented artists. It included works created by fictional others, spurious institutions, anonymous collectives and artists who had decided to inhabit an alternative version of themselves. So in this context the work of Dora Fobert, a fictional young woman taking photographs in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, was not at all surprising.

Outside of this context the status of the works are more ambiguous and it's going to be curious to see the response. At Paradise Row the gallery staff are extremely careful to communicate the context to visitors, which has lead to some interesting encounters.

DD: Do you think that creativity is at its most interesting and imaginative when faced with obstacles?
Oliver Chanarin :
Not necessarily. Artists, like anybody else, appreciate a safe and open working environment. I don't think one could argue that the holocaust, as an obstacle, inspired better art. It's an argument has been used to justify spending cuts to the arts in the UK. You hear people say that the recession is good for art. I don't accept that. There might be some masochists out there but generally artists make better work when their projects are well funded.

DD: What, for you, has been the most powerful aspect of this project?
Oliver Chanarin : We were two grown men with beards stepping into the shoes of a seventeen year old Polish Jewish girl. It was special. And the women who volunteered to pose each had their own reasons for doing it... I think we were all a little nervous. But we were all playing our roles and in the end it was empowering. Dora Fobert may not have existed, but she easily could have. It's paradoxical but that's what makes this fiction authentic.

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin present Dora Fobert, PARADISE ROW, 74 Newman Street, London, W1T 1PH, until November 12, 2011

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