Some reflections on the event, the work and my learning.
I recently attended my first OCA study visit to the above exhibition. As a very new OCA student I was keen to take part in one of these visits, in part to see what they entailed and in part to meet other students. Distance learning works well for me in fitting study around a busy work and family life, but it can be a solitary and somewhat lonely journey.
I will comment on the wider experience of the study visit later in the blog entry but at this stage I want to comment on the learning experience of the gallery visit and comment on the work.
The Deutsche Borse 2015 Photography Prize is run by the Photographers’ Gallery and sponsored by German Stock exchange organiser Deutsche Borse. The prize is intended to:
‘reward a living photographer for a specific body of work in an exhibition or publication format, within Europe, which significantly contributed to photography’
This study visit was to view and consider the four shortlisted finalists for this year’s award. I will comment on and consider their work in turn.
Nikolai Bakharev (b. 1946, Russia)
I first looked at the photographs of Nikolai Bakharev, a Russian photographer whose body of work at the exhibition documented a range of family and group portraits taken around public beaches in the former Soviet Union. His subjects, who were almost all dressed in swimwear, reveal an interesting mix of candour and intimacy but also a sense of privacy and the hidden.
Most of the images seem to be taken amongst bushes and trees, out of sight perhaps of the others enjoying he beach and leisure time. The exhibition information talks about public nudity being forbidden in Soviet Russia. A wider search on the internet of Bakharev’s work shows that he has made many studies of nudes in private and public spaces, although there where none in this exhibit. Perhaps for the subjects of the images, being photographed they had a sense of the risqué in the attire they were wearing?
The images, predominately in a square format were taken with the sitter’s permission as they relaxed at public beaches in the former Soviet Union. Bakharev, himself a trained mechanic was, perhaps like his subjects, escaping the trials of daily life and he captures moments of peace and pleasures in lives that might be otherwise quite different. The Soviet Union in its final years was a deeply unsettled place. The images look to be composed and staged to an extent and some could be confused for formal family photographs, with the photographer being more intimate with the sitter than perhaps Bakharev was? A measure of his skill as a photographer in achieving his level of intimacy with what must have been complete strangers.
Whether by association and knowledge of the eastern block (I travelled there a lot in my youth and during communist times) there is for me a hint of the end of an era, of things changing and of uncertainty. There is a defiant confidence in the faces of some of those photographed, particularly in the intimate moments of some of the work featuring younger people.
It is true that there are some very poignant moments of genuine enjoyment, affection and association in this collected work. It is also a very strong, almost social anthropological record of a time now gone when the collective consciousness of a nation was driven by a strict and imposed socio-political system that limited individual freedoms. To me the strength of these images is that they capture moments when the collective communist will was at its lowest. I could of course be reading too much into the work but I found it coherent and engaging.
I do have to say however that in spite of enjoying the work I was confused at its inclusion in the short list. In spite of some very strong images I could not see how it met the remit of the prize in that it was unclear to me that it significantly contributed to photography?
Zanele Muholi (b1972 South Africa)
Faces and phases
I visited this work next and was taken a back by the strength of the wall of black and white portraits that for me dominated the exhibition space. Although made up of many posed images of LGBT individuals, it presented to me as a single connected and coherent image.
Although the portraits had been posed, there was simultaneously a mix of pride and defiance in the faces of the subjects. The exhibition text and Muholi’s book tell something of the oppression, persecution and sometimes death of the LGBT community in South Africa and the context in which the images were made is clearly a complex one.
Describing herself as a ‘Visual Activist’ her work sets out to present a story to the wider world about oppression and prejudice in her home country of South Africa. The wall of portraits was augmented with a drawn wall hanging telling the stories, some cases from a parent’s perspective, of the sad fate that had befallen some LGBT people. I had mixed views about how well this artefact supported the work. The words where very powerful, but to my eyes it looked like the it had been created to look like it had been written in many different hands. This didn’t quite work and its message was slightly lost in the artifice of the wall hangings creation.
In addition to these dominant works there was also some large colour images of LGBT wedding ceremonies that were all together more celebratory of diversity than the rest of the work. There was also some video work that in all honesty I didn’t have time to appreciate fully.
I was left with a sense of a multi-media approach to documentary story telling that gave me a genuine sense of Muholi’s activism and her search for notions of identity in a society where there is clearly an orthodox and archaic view about sexuality and gender. The work resonated with the artist’s intention to say something about prejudice being ‘alive and well’ in a nation racked with inequality for generations. Now there are just new forms of inequality. The work appealed to the social psychologist in me and I felt this exhibit did push the boundaries of photography in a way that the prize judges would be seeking in coming to a final decision about a winner. This was a cohort and strong body of work that had deep impact on me as the viewer.
Mikhael Subotsky (b 1981 South Africa) and Patrick Waterhouse (b.1981 UK)
This was the third exhibit I visited and for me the most powerful. The artists had created a mix of large-scale photographs, collected artefacts, light towers of transparencies and 18 slim photobooks all on the theme of ‘Pont City’.
Pont City, a city centre tower block in central Johannesburg was built in a concrete ‘Brutalist’ style as accommodation for the aspirational middle classes in apartheid South Africa. The 54 storey block never fufilled its ambition and became a dilapidated home to drug dealers and the poor. Pont City is to me a study of the urban poor in its extreme. Some of the large images, particularly the one of the three robed priest praying in the open air and refuse with Pont City towering behind has an almost biblical quality harking back to renaissance painting.
The large image of the concrete and rotting interior of the building ‘Clearing the Core’ is like a vision of an imaginary dystopian future, but is actually in the here and now! This image for met set the scene for the whole exhibit.
Clearing the Core-Copyright Subotsky and Whitehouse
In addition to the large images there are some collected artefacts that form part of the exhibition, immigration papers and poignant letters to loved ones all displayed as a collage around a large picture of an immigrant boat. Above this collection of work is a sheet from a church newsletter saying ’Gods Plan for Humanity’. A saw much of the exhibition through the lens of this statement.
A further dimension of the work were the tall light boxes containing rows of transparencies, some looking out of tower block windows, others were of the hundreds of doors in the building, behind which many drug dealers appear to operate. The light boxes were very evocative and as well as being visually beautiful, also mimicked the tower block in stature, making for a strong and enduring sense of the place.
For me however the strongest part of the work were a series of ‘found image’ collages. These were pictures that had been found in the rubbish and detritus of the building that the Subotsky and Whitehouse had then located the original places in Pont City where the found photographs had been taken. They then re photographed the scene pasting in the found image. As well as been visually engaging, there was a poignancy about where the original people who had taken these photographs now might be? The collages said much about the transient nature of the inhabitants of Pont City and how far removed they were from the original intended occupants.
The photobooks were very powerful too. I only had tome to look a two in detail. Both told different stories, fictions about the place using a mix of text and pictures to imagine different futures for the location and the inhabitants. They augmented the work creating a rich sense of research and activity by the artists. To an extent, this work is in part what Cotton (2004) refer to as Aftermath Photography (pp10), in that it looks at the impact of previous events on the contemporary, in both a journalistic but also artistic manner.
The overall effect of the exhibition was to present a detailed, multi media study of a decaying edifice in which a dystopian future exists in the here and now for many of the inhabitants. The work is eclectic but coherent and for me created a link between documentary and art photography. Indeed this is work to aspire to and it had a profound influence on my thinking about practice.
Viviane Sassen (b. 1972 Netherlands)
This was by far the most visually experimental work amongst the shortlisted finalists. There was a real mix of media ranging from pure pictorial photography, the abstract very conceptual images with a mix of colour and black and white video too.
Sassen who I believe has a background in fashion and art photography has explored the use of shadows in other works but in this body of work looks at shadow and reflection in both a pictorial and abstract manner. At the risk of being contentious (I am merely a new student to this world of conceptual and abstract art photography) I was uncertain about the title,
Umbra. Whilst shadows did play a feature in a number of the images I was left with a sense that the work looked into more detail around the notion of reflection and reflections and ‘Relexionem’ was a better title (retaining the Latin reference!) I also found it far more difficult to make the links between different works in the exhibit, I hunted for a coherence, a connection between the work but failed to make connections that were easily visible in the other three artists work.
I do recognise that this was photography at the boundaries of the art, to my limited knowledge anyway, and I would acknowledge this work perhaps most strongly met the brief of the competition organisers. There is therefore a tension for me in considering all four artists. I found Sassen’s work the least accessible and perhaps did not give it the time I gave to the others. I was also that last part of the exhibition and I recognise that I already had much buzzing in my head from the previous works. I have to ask the question would I have viewed it differently if I had visited it first. I am unsure, but it does raise questions about capacity to take in work and to do it justice. Whist I did not find this work the most interesting or appealing, it did make me think (far more than any of the other works) about my own image making, what I am trying to achieve and how I can create coherent bodies of work. In this sense it was perhaps the most influential from my visit to this gallery! There is a message here; you don’t have to like something for it to have significant influence!
The Experience of the Study Visit
So what did I make of the study visit in general? It was excellent to meet other OCA students and have the opportunity to look at work as a collective. I had the opportunity to share and reflect thoughts about the work with others and there was a genuine sense of some shared analysis.
The group work activity set by tutor Sharon Boothroyd in the gallery the café for us all to consider our favourite work and to justify our choice was very good and made for a very interactive experience. It was also good to hear alternative viewpoints. Critically reviewing art is not an exact science and a range of influences come into play, not least the context of any exhibition and the prior knowledge of an artist’s wider body of work. It was good to be put on the spot about committing to some conclusions about work.
I was part of a small group that felt the Subotsky and Whitehouse ‘Pont City’ was the strongest and most engaging of all the exhibits. We felt it deserved to win. Closely followed by the Muholi work coming a close second. For me there was a coherence to the Pont City exhibition that met the competition brief in strong mix of media, thought provoking imagery and wider message about life in post apartheid South Africa. It was worth the trip just to see this exceptional work.
On a final note, the study visit proved very valuable and I will make every effort, time permitting to attend as many of these as possible!
Cotton, C. (2004) The Photograph as Contemporary Art-Thames and Hudson
I have just learned that the Deutsche Borse 2015 Photography Prize judges have awarded the prize to Mikhael Subotsky and Patrick Waterhouse for Pont City! I am delighted.