Paris exhibitions

In order to try to clear the backlog, I’ve put three Paris exhibitions together, with just short reflections. None are strictly photographic, but each one has relevance to at least one aspect of the development of my own work.

Junya Ishigami, Freeing Architecture

07.08.18 Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris

An extensive survey, covering both floors of the gallery, of the work of a radical Japanese architect. In a discussion in the previous module, it was stated that how a building will look when photographed was influencing architects in their designs. The absence of photographs in this exhibition is notable.

Instead, models, drawings and text dominate, reinforcing Ishigami’s concern with the relationship between the natural and the human, and in particular, fluidity between the interior and the exterior (for instance, in the digging out of the basement and removal of interior and exterior walls in the renovation of a museum, the construction of a chapel in a valley from two high undulating walls open to the sky, the creation of interior gardens and the utilisation of open space under canopies and walkways in a number of buildings). Ishigami also prioritises engagement of the community, to both understand how space is used and involve people in consideration of radical spacial solutions which, in some cases, can be adapted to how they are used in practice.

 

TeamLab, Beyond Borders

08.08.18 La Villette, Paris

I was impressed by a small piece by TeamLab (presented on an LCD panel) at the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide last year. This, massively scaled up immersive experience, draws on the same technology and philosophy, but has very different aspirations. It’s an experience, not a gallery piece. In the end, though, more entertainment than art. The cycle of of nature narrative (played over the period of one hour) was unconvincing, and seemed to be more a way of organising the experience than carrying any greater meaning. An engaging experience in a playground like environment, but ultimately spectacle rather than art. Reinforced the need to leave space for something new to be created by the viewer/participant.

 

Ryoji Ikeda, continuum

08.08.18 Pompidou Centre, Paris

Data driven, with integration of the audio and visual. Very much an immersive experience. Worked beautifully with the neighbouring ‘Coding the World‘ exhibition, which explored the link between art and technology through the influence of programming and coding (from systems art through to Ikeda and others, in all disciplines).

Roger Mayne & Bill Stephenson, Love Among the Ruins

S1 Artspace, Sheffield, 20th July – 15th September 2018

This is the first exhibition since S1 Artspace moved to its new gallery on Sheffield’s iconic Park Hill Estate, which is the subject of the exhibition.

 

Commissioned in 1956, the estate was seen as a radical response to the post-war housing and health crisis. Mayne’s photographs were taken in the early sixties and his grainy monochrome 35mm images, in the style of his work in other working class areas of Britain, capture the day to day life of the community in the early years of the estate. In contrast, Stephenson’s posed informal colour portraits of residents, were made in 1988 in the last days of the, now demolished, neighbouring Hyde Park estate, when both the estates were in considerable disrepair and decline. Today the Park Hill estate is going through substantial redevelopment, with the first phase of redesigned apartments being sold, and one of the other two remaining blocks empty.

 

The exhibition includes projection of a 60s documentary on Park Hill, and display of documents charting the development and decline of the estate.

 

The photographs represent two very different periods and approaches to photography. Mayne gives insight into an era in which working class communities were relocated to new housing developments, and explores how communities reform in new, radically different context of the housing development. Stephenson’s work focuses more on the individuals and has a clear sense of collaboration with the people in the photographs.

 

[From Bill Stephenson, Streets in the Sky, 1988]

The estate is still there as a context, and a clear sense of life on the estate is conveyed by the portraits. For me, bringing these two bodies of work together seems, as an exhibition, arbitrary (though it makes sense as the initial exhibition in this space, and reprises an earlier joint exhibition). Stephenson’s work is certainly closer to the work that I aspire to create. As an exhibition experience, I’m aiming for something more engaging and challenging.

As a footnote, the Park Hill estate acted as a template for the Singapore Housing Development Board estates, with somewhat different outcomes.

 

Art Against War: Peter Kennard and the CND Movement

Millennium Gallery, Sheffield, 9th June – 7th October 2018

Great to see all this work together in one place. The work has clear intent, has a distinctive visual aesthetic (subverting established forms, particularly those of the press and advertising), directly engages the viewer and arises from a particular way of working. The short video that accompanies the exhibition gives insight into Kennard’s motivation and methods.

Two quotes stand out for me. The first from the video and the second from the introduction to Read and Simmons (2016).

‘There is this sort of mystique still around what art is, and that you have to go to art school, which is rubbish because art is a fantastic way to explore … your own feelings. The gallery is perhaps the only space in our society where people will spend time looking at something that’s not just … fleeting. So it’s really important to put social and political arguments into that context.’

Art Against War: Peter Kennard

‘Researching reality for me involves ripping photographs out of their context to bring the perpetrators of war and poverty slap bang into the same space as their victims. I want to act as an early warning system, be the canary down the mine. Imagining through images the end result of the direction in which we are heading and picturing people struggling to find another way’.

Peter Kennard in Read, M. & Simmons, S. (2016). Photographers and Research: The role of research in contemporary photographic practice. London: Routledge. p.vii

 It’s the close articulation of (political and personal) expression with engagement of the viewer (and consideration of the context, from poster and pamphlet to the gallery) that is important for me here, and prompts me to think carefully about how my own work, and other forms of image making and circulation, address these issues. This is very different in form and content from my own work, but lots to learn about the importance of focus and ways of engaging viewers, in the gallery and through other modes.

Mode of operation (part one)

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, but, having just seen the contents of Michal Iwanowski’s backpack, and reading Photographers’ Sketchbookslooks like the time is right.

Doing the work on the Roding Valley Park has involved frequent walks through the area at different times of day, and collection of different kinds of material (like sound recording and written notes) as well as making images. That has entailed having a light and compact set of tools ready at hand, which in turn has shaped the kind of work that I have made. A kind of iterative process of mutual shaping between way of working, form of the work and the place. Upshot of this is, reinforced by looking at other photographer’s working practices in Photographers’ Sketchbooks, thinking more carefully about working practices in relation to different projects, and what remains invariant (a component of practice that contributes to making an artist’s work distinct) and what varies with circumstance. And the question, at what level is the character of the distinctiveness of a body of work (and across an artist’s bodies of work), from the conceptual to the operational, formed? These are clearly important practical, and developmental, issues, but there is also, I think, a need to deconstruct the notion of personal practice, as utilised in arts discourse, as well as reflect on the development of our own practice.

Exhibitions

I’ve built up a backlog of exhibitions on which to post comments. In order to address this, I am going to try to set appropriate expectations so that the comments can be short and focused. As these are for the CRJ, I am going to focus specifically on the relationship between the exhibition and the development of my own practice, in general, and, in particular, on the development of my final project (and associated work). That also means thinking about the form and design of the exhibition, which I haven’t much considered before. I also want to use it as the beginnings of a kind of database of exhibition related resources. So, to get to grips with the scope of the catching up exercise, here are some of the exhibitions I’ve been to since starting the course in May (plus Another Kind of Life, which was a bit before, but I am revisiting in print now), on which I will post something over the next couple of weeks.

05.04.18 Barbican, London. Another Kind of Life

04.05.18 Fotografiska, Stockholm

Christian Tagliavini, The Extraordinary World of Christian Tagliavini

Hans Strand, Manmade Land

Anna Clarén, When Everything Changed

02.06.18 UNSW Gallery, Sydney. Christian Thompson, Ritual Intimacy

03.06.18 NSW State Library, Sydney. World Press Photo 2018

03.07.18 Photographers Gallery, London

Trish Murtha,  Works 1976-1991

Alex Prager, Silver Lake Drive

25.07.18 Barbican, London. Dorethea Lange/Vanessa Winship

01.08.18 Tate, London. Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art

07.08.18 Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris. Junya Ishigami, Freeing Architecture

08.08.18 La Villette, Paris. TeamLab, Beyond Borders

08.08.18 Pompidou Centre, Paris. Ryoji Ikeda, continuum

 

Reflection on Barthes on/and/in photography

Whilst it is unsurprising that Barthes is very widely cited in photographic theory and by practitioners (having dedicated a book to analysis of photography), coming to this with a familiarity with his work from other disciplines (sociology, cultural theory, linguistics), it is interesting that the form of this influence is tangential to, from my viewpoint, his major contribution to 20th Century thought. Camera Lucida, published just months before his untimely death in a traffic accident, for a large part, focuses on subjective responses to photographic images. The early sections draw heavily of the language of semiotic analysis (to which Barthes’ contribution has been remarkable, and has left a mark on diverse areas of scholarship, research and practice). In fact, it is difficult to see how much sense can be made of some of these sections without some knowledge of semiotics. This passes quickly (with periodic reprise, through the ebb and flow of unexplained semiotic analysis and personal reflection), however, and through the application of the distinction between studium and punctum, focus shifts from semiosis to interest, rumination and emotional response.

The question here is, do we actually need Barthes (the semiotician) in order to think through the relationship between our image making and the interest of the reader? What exactly is, for instance, Idris Khan saying, in describing how he made his composite images, when he states that ‘I used 70 to 100 images for each picture. I wouldn’t necessarily take the whole image, but fragments of images, and bring them together on the computer. I would try to choose something that really stands out in the photograph. Roland Barthes called it the punctum’ (New York Times Magazine, 2012)? What is gained by invoking Barthes (to say that in selecting parts of images, Khan looks for those which are likely to be of interest to the viewer), and what does Barthes have to offer in understanding the appeal and impact of Khan’s work? The idea of the punctum, certainly as it appears to be understood by many photographers, sits apart from Barthes’ theory and analytic method. So having invoked Barthes, there is nothing of further value to be gained from engaging with his work in making sense of these particular images. Khan undermines his own apparent point, as Barthes places the punctum beyond the direct control of the photographer.

Barthes’ analysis of this particular aspect of the photographic image, besides providing a ready at hand point of reference for a relatively mundane (as utilised but not as conceived) concept (outside the wider semiotic project), thus offers little scope for development. That sits in contrast to the richness of forms of semiotic analysis, which flow from his conception of the sign and the processes of signification, and the exemplary cultural analyses that he offers. So, to what extent do we need Barthes to say that an image has a visceral point of interest to a reader? And is there more that we can gain from engagement with the more challenging, and conceptually developed, aspects of his work?

As a work within the corpus of Barthes’ writing, Camera Lucida stands as an example of application and extension of his method, not as an induction into the form of analysis and the concepts on which this is founded. This poses a problem for those with a specific interest in photography, but without a grounding in semiotics. The book has clearly entered the corpus of ‘critical theory’ in the study of photography and acts as a point of reference in photographic discourse (as in Khan’s commentary on his own work), but isolated from its intellectual base (as a lone reference to Barthes work, and semiotics, and its extensions, more widely), can offer only a truncated resource for critical and analytical discourse. The citation signifies a form of familiarity with ‘theory’, but is otherwise empty of meaning. There is so much more to be gained from engagement with Barthes.

Pretty as a Thousand Postcards, The New York Times Magazine, 1st March, 2012 , http://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/03/01/magazine/idris-khan-london.html?_r=0

The challenge of storytelling

As a primary school teacher, I used to keep a collection of images (postcards, photographs, cuttings from magazines mounted on card, and so on) to act as a stimulus for imaginative writing. The task was to draw four cards at random, look at and think carefully about them, form a sequence, and then write a story that in some way brings the four images together. The story was a construct of the reader come writer, and not inherent in the images themselves. Close to forty years on, I find that photographers commonly state that through their images they are attempting to tell stories. At the level of intention, this makes some sense, in that, through engagement with the world they can make, select and sequence images in such a way to, they hope, convey a sense of related events, or a set of relationships or circumstances. The reader then has to reconstruct that narrative, or at least some kind of narrative, through their engagement with the images. The question here is, to what extent is this possible without some prior knowledge or experience of that which is presented in the images, or, lacking this, some set of assumptions about the lifeworld or circumstances being presented?

This bears resemblance to making sense of metaphors. In trying to convey some notion, for instance, of what a fraction is, I can say that a fraction is like a slice of cake. Yum. But what particular qualities of a slice of cake do I wish to invoke, and associate with a fraction, through the metaphor. We, you and I, as readers, clearly have a idea of what a fraction is, and in what sense it resembles a slice of cake. But without already having this, possibly only vaguely formed, notion, what sense can we make of the metaphor? And, beyond that, how prepared are we for the utility of that understanding to collapse when we start to try to do things like multiply and divide fractions (this is like no cake I have ever known). The point here is to raise the question of the extent to which storytelling through images can do any more than reinforce already existing understandings (or prejudices), that is, can only tell stories that we (as readers) already know, or think we know?

Rather than lead us down a dead end, we can turn this into a challenge. What might we do to produce images that have the potential to transform, challenge, enlarge or enhance the understanding of the reader (in a fundamental sense, not just giving detail or texture to existing knowledge, such as the knowledge of Russian dress gained by Barthes (1981) from engagement with William Klein’s Moscow photographs)? One approach might be to consider storytelling as the primary practice, and photographic images as a principal (and not necessarily sole) resource. We might also consider what, distinctively, photographic images (and different modes of presentation of these images) can add to the practice of storytelling, and how the different resources available to storytellers can work together, particularly in creating an experience that shifts us away from the familiar and subverts the habitual.

Juxtaposition of images provides one resource for constructing, or invoking, a narrative, for instance in Esther Teichmann’s installations . Looking at these, however, leads to me to turn the relationship between images and storytelling around again, and place both as alternative means of enhancing understanding or addressing the ineffable, and each can draw on the other to that end. The story need not act as an intermediary between the images and the affect.

Barthes, R. (1981). Camera Lucida. New York: Hill and Wang.

Esther Teichmann, http://www.estherteichmann.com

 

Portraits

Did portraiture course at City Lit last week. Preparation for getting to grips with portraits for major project. Made studio and street images with natural light, studio lighting (flash and constant) and on camera flash (including fill in). Lots to learn, but now at least have a basic grounding. And some ideas around the use of backdrops in the field. Selection of images below.