Category Archives: Exhibitions

Bones Will Crow

My work on the poets of Burma was recently adapted as a short bilingual animation by Brett Evans Biedscheid in collaboration with English Pen. This formed part of the closing night of the Arc Publications Bones Will Crow launch tour in the UK.

Update: Bones Will Crow has just been reviewed by The Guardian.

ON HIGH for Sunny Tomorrows

I’m helping to organise and partaking in this group exhibition in the East Neuk of Fife, Scotland. Anyone passing through/lost in the area should check it out.

UPDATE: Show reviewed in the Scotsman here.

Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art)

During April 2012, I was part of a group photographic workshop in London where we jointly remade the catalogue for the 1937 Nazi ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition, the world’s first ‘blockbuster’ art show. Information on it can be found here.

The ‘remade’ publication we produced can be viewed here.

Matilda and London

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of being one of the invited artists for the 2010 London Elephant Parade, an ambitious attempt by the charity Elephant Family to raise money to help save the endangered Asian elephant. The parade was a great success, raising more than £4 million – significantly more than expected – which went directly to projects in India and Thailand.

The elephant I submitted, Matilda, was covered in a delicate patchwork of 2,000 historical photos of London carefully selected from the archives of the British Library, the Press Association, the Science and Society Picture Library, the Museum of London, and English Heritage. It turned out to be a successful work, selling for £15,000 at Sotheby’s to a collector in the Cayman Islands (where she now sits). A selection of studio images of the completed elephant can be seen here and the formal press release here.

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One of the most exciting parts of this project was the image selection process when about 10,000 photographs were reviewed and carefully filtered to ensure a good and balanced set of photos that were both historically representative and which also had a strong aesthetic coherence. The selection covered the period from about 1880 to 1970 and was a bewildering mixture of the absurd, the tragic, the informative, the disturbing, and the intriguing.

Matilda was eventually exhibited at the Museum of London for about two months though the majority of people reading this will not have had the opportunity to see it and take pleasure in any of the superb photos. So I have decided to post here a selection (80) of some of the 2,000 that sit on Matilda. I hope you enjoy looking at them as much as I have and oh, do spare a thought for those people who had to stick the damned things!

Out of his Depth in Otherness?

Anyone not living in London may be unaware that there is currently a major exhibition of Paul Gauguin’s work at the Tate Modern. It’s an excellent show that has been met with much critical acclaim.

Certain elements of Gauguin’s oeuvre are infamous, specifically the Tahitian portion covering the period 1890 until his death in 1903. Much of the controversy from this period is centred on the female models he used as the subject matter for his nudes, many of whom were teenagers (Gauguin’s Tahitian wife, Tehura, was 13 when he married her). Setting aside this issue, I’d like to briefly highlight another area of controversy, one which is particularly topical in light of post-colonial critiques and which has significance for any photographer working in unfamiliar locations and that is the thorny issue of representation.

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Uniformed viewers of much of Gauguin’s work from Tahiti would find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Tahiti of the time was some form of primitive paradise on earth, a place where the surplus repression that had created the discontents of European civilisation simply had no currency. The reality of course is that prior to Gauguin’s arrival, a century of Christian missionary activity had virtually eliminated traditional Polynesian customs, beliefs, and mythology. In fact by the time Gauguin had reached Tahiti probably only a few elders could recollect native traditions.

So on a fundamental level how do we interpret his work? Outside of any allegory to the body and its history within western art (of which there are probably many), perhaps we can say Gauguin was consciously engaged in a kind of facile filtering of western fantasy, pandering to the expectations of the day within France (and Europe) by knocking out paintings of a kind of dusky tropical fantasia, albeit in a style and colour pallet that was radically different to what had gone before.

Another view is that his work was simply naive, but this probably does him a disservice. We know he was an intellectual, profoundly literary who went the full distance in his travel experiences. By his early life history alone he was an internationalist, well versed in the world, who probably had a reasonable understanding of the period in history he found himself in.

The most likely interpretation I suggest is that Gauguin was simply appropriating from cultures he had only a superficial understanding of (but which he was no doubt fascinated by), never trying to convey an accurate portrayal of the places he visited and spent time in. Cultural specificity was probably not important to him – the location was probably just a vehicle around which he could construct his own historical reality – one which was variously grounded in the imaginary, the sensory, the experiential, the factual, and experimental. In doing so, he probably remained a hostage to primitivist myths but turned the discourse to good use, unaware of the extent to which his work would take on a life its own once it left its studio and headed out into the 20th century.

Which via a meandering route brings us to photography. Are the same kind of issues Gauguin probably grappled with and the same kind of critiques just as relevant to photographers today operating in foreign locations bringing back photos of different places and cultures? Or do we have a more objective view on cultural representation both in the taking and interpretation of images? I’m probably positing these questions from the perspective of travel photography, it being genre that is most often the vehicle for depicting other places; however, I could equally be talking about other photographic genres.

Most of the photography I take is overseas so it’s obviously something I’ve thought about a great deal. The question I often asked myself is to what extent is it realistic to expect any photographer passing through or maybe temporarily residing in a foreign location with probably only a rudimentary understanding of the cultural and geographical space they find themselves in to ever hope to produce material that could be said to be in any way representative or which embodies the essence of place? Is travel, documentary, and observational photography in foreign lands a task so inherently fraught with the potential risk of what Alec Soth refers to as ‘Eiffel tower moments’ that it is almost not worth attempting in any meaningful way?

Let me be clear in stating that I am not dismissing the relevance of my own or other people’s output or anyone’s right to produce whatever work they feel inclined to. However, my current thinking is that the majority of work geographically disconnected from one’s own place should come with an upfront qualification on a personal level about what it exactly is one is doing and how it might be interpreted. This is something that requires the utmost honesty on the part of the photographer and a recognition of the framework of understanding and codification that the material will ultimately find itself sitting within and being judged against.

It seems to me that most experiences of choice in foreign lands are fundamentally a projection of one’s own fantasies, desires, theories, and ideas and they should unashamedly and perhaps uncritically be recognised as such.

Brighton Photo Biennial

I visited the Brighton Photo Biennial last weekend to take a look at the centrally located exhibitions (there were a few venues outside of Brighton). Regretfully missed the related workshops and symposiums spread over the past two months but in any case was just pleased to make it down before it closed on the 14th November. On the whole, very impressed with Martin Parr’s curatorial selection. He has his critics on a photogratic level, but it cannot be denied that when it comes to the photography of others he has impeccable taste – consistently identifying new and emerging talent, such as Rimaldas Vikstraitis who won the Arles Discovery Award in 2009, and getting the balance of work and artists right.

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The central part of this biennial were the three commissioned photographers – Stephen Gill (UK), Alec Soth (USA), and Rinko Kawauchi (JP) – each invited to produce a body of work specifically focused on Brighton. Most interesting of these for me was by Gill who made a special camera within which he could place things (alive and dead) he’d found in and around the city, including of course on the beach. His technique was to drop his objects inside, and then wander round taking photos with the contents superimposed upon the film emulsion. Sounds a bit gimmicky but anyone who knows Gill will be aware how considered he is in his operation and the results were intriguing and certainly felt the most ‘complete’ of the three commissions. Watching a video interview with Soth at the Brighton Museum he talked about how fearful he is of undertaking overseas commissions in case he photographs a whole series of ‘eiffel towers’. Pretty obvious thing to say of course, but his fear was obviously not headed by Kawauchi in her murmaration work based around the phenomenon of the starlings cartwheeling around the west pier each evening. In fact, I’ve just done a quick search on Google images which threw up a large selection of photos very similar to her own. Beware of the the dangers of the exotic I suppose, a symposium around which I’ll be attending this Friday at the Tate Modern. Note: See subsequent Gauguin blog posting.

Other work that particularly stood out Pintados Retratos, the hand-painted studio portraits from the North of Brazil, the Corinthians work of vernacular Kodachrome images taken between 1947-1974 in the US, Vivienne Sassan’s excellent Flamboya (I never got her work in book format but on the wall I certainly did), Suzanne Opton’s powerful Veterans series, and last but not least Ju Duoqi’s Fantasies of Chinese Cabbage! There were some great fringe exhibits as well, including Jason Evans curated Nothing is in the Place and Simon Roberts’ 2010 Election Project.

Overall an enjoyable festival and just a shame it couldn’t have been a bit bigger of the scale of say Photo España. We’re sadly lacking a truly great photo festival here in the UK but Brighton goes someway to filling that gap. Shame it’s only every two years though. And nice to have a festival where photographers are commissioned to produce work in situ. As a medium, photography lends itself well to bespoke work with the ease of which people can mobilise independently over short time frames. And in these tight times I’d personally rather see festival money used for the creation of work than one-off gallery framing or venue modification. Anyway, top marks Martin and the team!