Thursday, 18 June 2015

Look 15 – Liverpool

While I enjoy study visits and the interaction with other students there is also a place for simply striking out on your own, and trawling whatever eclectic mix of images takes your fancy at a major photo festival, such as this years “Look 15” in Liverpool.

A  bit of web research in advance of the day gave me the following approximate itinerary:

Open Eye Gallery – Open 1 – a variety of artists covering different issues – which seems to be Open Eye’s style

The Bluecoat – Memorandum of Understanding; Tabitha Jussa and Nitrate; Xavier Ribas. The latter in particular appealed for the relatively technical sounding nature of the subject matter

Walker Art Gallery – Only in England; Martin Parr/Tony Ray-Jones – although I’ve looked at both online as part of the coursework, and seen some Parr in a variety of locations, the chance to see a significant body of the work of these two, at the same time was too tempting to miss.

Victoria Gallery – Gypsy Lore; Fred Shaw – this seemed like an opportunity to compare and contrast with Koudelka and Eskildsen, in an extension of a previous exercise.

I augmented this on the day by popping in to see New Landscapes by Gyorgy Kepes at Liverpool John Moores, and some further work by the same artist at Tate Liverpool.

Where to start? My contemporaneous notes are available here: Notes

Open Eye

Helen Marshall’s Project Tobong was an excellent start to the day capturing the tension between old and new in Indonesia, and the impact it is having on a Javanese traditional theatre troupe (and traditional theatre in general). The images are relatively easy to read – the symbolism is quite obvious – but none the worse for that, and the subject matter is sufficiently unfamiliar that there is a bit of anthropological interest thrown in for good measure. I guess a cynic might talk about turning the individuals into spectacle, and there is no obvious hint at what we, or anyone else might do to help, but overall this was an interesting and sometimes amusing insight into the challenges that face traditional artforms the world over.

Elsewhere in Open Eye Louis Quail was showing a selection from his Desk Job set which  “explores the phenomenon of globalisation thought the eyes of the office worker”. I quite like the idea that with increasing globalisation our tools and environments are becoming similar, but I can’t help the feeling that this has always been true – an accountants office will have looked pretty much the same anywhere in the world since time immemorial, and I’m pretty sure that in some cases the rather soulless office space was a relatively small proportion of the overall role.

Upstairs Richard Ross was showing a selection of images from his series Juvenile In Justice which documents conditions in young offenders institutions in the US. I have no idea if ours are better – one would have to hope so – but it should be little surprise to anyone if no-one comes out of these places a better person. Distressingimage.

The most interesting work on display for me though was Deborah Kelly’s  “The Miracles”. Presented in a series of circular frames of varying sizes and with each individual image lit/propped like a Renaissance painting this was a fascinating series of portraits of families who had children through some kind of assisted reproductive technology. The added depth came from the fact that the subjects were lit and photographed to resemble paintings who’s own histories were questioned/questionable.  I’m unconvinced that “heteronormativity” is an actual word, but the idea of interrogating our ancestry in this way seemed to highlight some of the identity issues that the children might face as they grow up. This seemed quite a modernist work in tat you really required quite a lot of previous art knowledge to extract the best from it, so the audio commentary provided by the gallery proved invaluable.

The Bluecoat

The Blue coat was showing three exhibitions which were markedly different in style and content. Tricia Porter’s Liverpool Photo’s 1972-74 was presented as about the break up of tight knit communities but I’m afraid I couldn’t see it. It looked to be fairly standard mid-70s social documentary, and to my untutored eye could have been just about any city in the UK at the time.

Upstairs Tabitha Jussa was showing Memorandum of Understanding – a study of urban development in Liverpool and its “twin” Shanghai. The images were very large panoramas, which is a style I enjoy, and while I found them enjoyable top look at I’m again unsure what the “take-away” was. In particular I’m still not really clear why the photos of Shanghai featured people, while the Liverpool equivalents did not. Maybe it’s no more than a genuine reflection of what her working practice turns up, or a result of the differing impacts of a city in which live and one where you’re a visitor. Sadly the images are not yet on Jussa’s website so I have no real opportunity to see them again and consider them further.

The other major exhibition showing here was Nitrate by Xavier Ribas. This work examines the history of the extraction of nitrates for use in fertilisers and explosives from the Atacama Desert since the late 19th Century. It encompasses archival images from official and un-official sources, photos and moving images from Ribas himself and a range of texts from diverse historical sources. During his work Ribas uncovered previously unknown material from a British astronomical expedition to the Atacama, which is also incorporated. Overall I was captivated. The work is more like a piece of social anthropology than a simple documentary project and I can’t help wondering if a similar work about the West Cumbrian iron/steel industry might not make a great project for Level 3.

The Walker Art Gallery

The Walker was showing a compilation of Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr images showing the lasting influence of Ray-Jones on British photography – perhaps even on our overall understanding of Britishness. The exhibition also featured a set of R-J images curated by Parr, which if nothing else seemed to underline the importance of curation in providing a narrative, as I felt the Parr selection lacked the humour of the R-J curated images – perhaps unsurprisingly they felt more like Parr’s rather cool, neutral, appraisial of British quirkiness.

Amazingly for such a major exhibition there appeared to be no catalog!!

Victoria Gallery

Fred Shaw apparently enjoyed the company of “gypsies” and, as a result of joining his midwife mother on visits to their homes, seemed to have a particular affinity for them. The result is a large collection of portraits taken over his lifetime. They have a very different feel from Koudelka – being closer to Sander’s style, so that e get very little sense of their lives or preoccupations. We are, for example, presented with an image of “Sam Smith (The Fighting Gypsy)” – but from the photo he could just as easily have been The Horse Whispering Gypsy – we get no hint of how his nickname was arrived at. Maybe that’s the point, but without this kind of characterisation we are simply left with a random collection of country folk from the same era, with no sense of gypsy culture floating to the surface. Intriguing but not quite what I expected.

Liverpool John Moores and Tate Liverpool

Gyorgy Kepes was a designer and visual theorist who, according to the notes, was interested in finding channels of communication which interconnect various disciplines. In particular, if these exhibitions are anything to go by, between art and science, and between nature and the man-made. His images seem to follow the same path surrealist path as Man Ray, and he frequently combines hard edged man-made objects with softer organic materials in abstract or near abstract imagery.  I found the John Moores exhibit rather more intriguing. The manner in which the pictures were displayed on suspended panels seems rather commonplace today, but appears to have been revolutionary at the time, allowing him to create constantly changing juxtapositions of images as you move around the display. It is easy to take this kind of ting for granted, and useful to be reminded that someone actually had top invent the concept of displaying art on suspended panels in this way. Along with Nitrate this was the stand-out exhibition of the day for me.

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