Simon Norfolk is a recurrent personality on this blog, as some of you will know. I remember the first time I saw his Afghanistan work: in a hot-off-the-press issue of the sadly now defunct, but still legendary, Portfolio magazine. I remember where I was standing, as I leafed through the magazine, eager to devour it as quickly as I could before returning to savour individual images at a later stage. I remember the immediacy of the visual language used by Norfolk: the elegiac beauty of the images, the sense of destruction, mourning and loss, the other-worldliness of the landscapes, all hitting me hard, and making me want to talk about this work, to make work, to become engaged.
From the same series, “Balloon Vendor in Kabul” is the stickiest, the one image from the series that won’t come unstuck from my brain. Of course it’s a famous, well-praised, image, of almost mythical importance in the cannon of Norfolk’s work. The grandeur of the architecture emerging through a golden light created by Afghanistan’s sandy mist contrasts with the balloons’ transparent layers of artificial colour; the absurdity created by the juxtaposition of grandiose but broken architecture and anodine but incongruous street vendor throws up an internal dialogue full of questions, and not many answers – who is this balloon seller, who looks like a sad clown? Do the Afghani children growing up in a devastated country at war still muster up the joyfulness required to want a balloon in the first place? Of course they do, but in a war-torn country where poverty is rife, who can pay for the ephemeral fun of a balloon? The added layer of meaning comes from Norfolk’s caption: “balloons were illegal under the Taliban, but now balloon-sellers are common on the streets of Kabul, providing cheap treats for children.”
For me, this image conjures up something appalling and grindlingly cruel at the same time as it invites me to continue to look – and caught in this dialectic, the longer I look, the more questions I ask, the more I think, the more I feel. In 1942, Paul Eluard, the French Resistance poet, wrote a collection of poems entitled Poésie et Vérité – a collection of beautifully constructed, heart-breakingly awe-inspiring, Resistance poems, which invited the reader to engage in the fight to liberate France. Indeed, the poem “Liberté” was parachuted into the Maquis, inspiring the collective fight against oppression. This is engaged art. Sometimes, I am not sure that art should have any other function but to be engaged. And that’s why “Balloon Vendor” sticks.