Art, Photography and the Location of Meaning – Or How I Whizzed Around a Couple of Exhibitions

Tate Britain – Blockbuster Gallery

I crammed in four exhibitions yesterday. Each good in their own way, but with some clear highlights. I started in the morning at Tate Britain, and the second-to-last day of the Turner Prize. Opening 10am there was a huge cue for the box-office as the Pre-Raphaelite blockbuster exhibition was on. I love the spaces in Tate Britain, particularly the Sackler Octogon. They manage to be intimate and relaxing while also showing a wide range of contrasting work in an accessible while reverential setting.

Elizabeth Price’s video installation The Woolworths Choir of 1979 was a worthy winner of the Turner Prize 2012, with it’s careful and dedicated examination of the events surrounding the Woolworths store fire in the heart of Manchester in 1979. Price uses a montage of images and sounds to re-examine the media coverage of the event, and in the process questions the ‘elasticity’ of the digital image. I’m quite pleased that Alastair Smart writing in The Telegraph was only able to make a link between with the “rhyming connection between “choir” and “fire” alluded to in the title,” and that he “failed to find any meaningful link between the two halves.” To confound an art critic in a national newspaper is surely high praise indeed.

If the digital image is fashionable for it’s malleability and animated performativness, then what is to be said about the contrasting analogue photographic image and what it has been capable of for the last two hundred years? Inelasticity? Graham Gussin’s piece in the Tate’s Art Now rooms was a fascinating contrast, and a challenge for digital installation enthusiasts. A similar installation set-up to Price, but rather than video, Gussin uses an out-of-focus film projection showing fog permitting and shifting around various empty room spaces. I actually found this absorbing to watch, and with the clicking and whirring of the projector, this had a suitable, if low-key, sonic accompaniment.

A quick Tube ride and I was at the V&A to look at the permanent photographic exhibition. I wish that the V&A could make more of this permanent display, because the standard of the selected images and the contextual thread that run’s through the display is modest and precise. The prints are handsomely mounted and given a brief yet focussed description of what ties them together. This is an exhibition with a clear sense of connection, development and continuity. The romance of work by Robert Frank and John Deakin, and their street-based images of Parisian life, contrasts superbly with the nonchalance of Curtis Mofat’s modernistic expressionism of American life.

Retrospective Russian Underground?

Next stop was the Satchi Gallery, which is without doubt one of the best exhibition spaces in London. It’s an immediate experience with open galleries that have plenty of light and space for visitors to circulate. The main exhibition was Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art 1960-80s, which gave-in to my expectations and stereotypes of Russian life. The Soviet era hardships, the present day privations, and the post-modernist contortions and re-workings of mass-communication iconography. Boris Mikhailov’s photographs are particularly challenging and grim. Depicting the “social disintegration ensuing from the break-up of the Soviet Union – both in terms of social structures and the resulting human condition”. Mikhailov “documents the social oppression, the devastating poverty, the harshness and helplessness of everyday life for the homeless.” One can only feel compelled to ask what forces drive people to sink to such a low ebb, but then what forces drive a photographer to document their experience?

Hong Kong Eye

Standing out against this gloom was the far more playful was Hong Kong Eye 2012. This was playful, light, energetic and clever. The tricks employed where simple and honest, and there was a distinct lack of bombast in the arrangement of the spaces and the pieces that where collected. With the Russian work the questioning of the mediated representations was heavy-handed. With the Hong Kong collection, the remediations where playful and engaging. The difference between a grunt and a wink.

Rapidly moving on, my next stop was The National Gallery and the Seduced by Art exhibition. This exhibition was said to explore “early photography from the mid-19th century and the most exciting contemporary photographs, alongside historical painting”, and in doing so it’s aim was to take a “provocative look at how photographers use fine art traditions, including Old Master painting, to explore and justify the possibilities of their art.” In the end this was an underwhelming experience as the idea of ‘seduction’ was clearly misplaced. There was no sense of the transgressive potential of photography in this exhibition. Instead, it was an extended Art History 101 lecture/slide presentation that was destined to be informative but never sensual. Perhaps it was the cramped space of the exhibition rooms. The audio guide was a good innovation.

Overall, this was a busy day and one can only absorb so much information in such a short time. Locating meaning is not always easily done, especially when work is displayed in environments that are so heavily controlled as these. London is a city that thrives on iconography and appearances, are we not all performers in our own photo-exhibition now?

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