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HAPPENINGText: Rachel Alexis Xu

ABBAS, 45 Years In Photography greeted its exhibition-goers with a note from the artist himself – who in good humour jests that most retrospection is done when an author is no longer around. Morbid jokes aside, this musing is an accurate summation of fame’s perennial trend – reflections of one’s oeuvre is only deemed timely after one has departed; but, incredible work remains as such whether a day or decade after the shutter was clicked – Abbas’s works proves just that.

Courtesy of National Museum of Singapore. Photo: Ray Chua

Plotted and mapped across the geography of Abbas’s travels, the exhibition documented – amongst many others – the witnessing of grisly skirmishes during the Vietnam War, street wanderings during the Iranian Revolution and years of contemplation in the halcyon of Mexico.

Courtesy of National Museum of Singapore. Photo: Ray Chua

Yet wherever and whatever the context, Abbas’s gift is clear: an ability to capture and illuminate a moment for transcendence. One questions if transcendence is to be beyond the notions of` time? Possibly. But ironically, one will only grasp its concept with the knowledge of the limitations in time and in doing so be able to work against its ephemeral nature.

Belfast. A wall crumbles down, a presumed act of arson by the IRA. 1972. UK © Abbas / Magnum Photos

Waxing lyrical on his craft, Abbas writes, ‘My photography is a reflection which comes to life in action and leads to meditation.’ The instant of an action – though all photography undoubtedly captures moments, few are able to capture powerful ones that do not merely present a subject matter but also provokes a viewer to question the before and after; Abbas’s arresting shot of a tower in Belfast captured midway through its own collapse is an almost lyrical shot of destruction that draws viewers into wondering what happened the very next second.

White doves are kept at the Yasukuni Shinto shrine, dedicated to military personnel killed during Japan’s wars. 2000. Tokyo, Japan © Abbas / Magnum Photos

But, not all prints on display looked like they were taken on a set of a Hollywood action blockbuster. Abbas’s gift does not merely lie in his timely shots but is gilded by his gaze and ability to see the humanness of every moment. What he keenly manages to expose time and again is the furor of the collective juxtaposed against the contrasting feeling of loneliness felt by individuals– be it that of a man captured standing still amidst a jubilantly dancing crowd or a portrait of an actress quietly getting into character before stepping out to face the audience.

Courtesy of National Museum of Singapore. Photo: Ray Chua

This ability is what successfully draws the various elements in the exhibition together. Even though Abbas’s subjects are from various continents and disparately different political and social circumstances, he ties them together through the use of identifiable emotions and in doing so captures the true joy and sorrow human existence.

The power of photography as a representation of reality as well as a story-telling tool is clear frame after frame in this exhibition. If transcendence is what Abbas hoped to achieve with his craft, each framed composition is a testament to his success. All sealed for retrospection – and, for eternity.
ABBAS, 45 Years In Photography
Date: 18th June – 18th September 2011
Place: National Museum of Singapore
Address: 93 Stamford Road, Singapore 178897
Tel: +65 6332 3659

Text: Rachel Alexis Xu

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