The Place of Photography in (an Irish) Commercial Art Gallery
by Siún Hanrahan
Photographic practices are hugely divergent, ranging from the economic and functional to the aesthetic, so that exploring the places in which photography has a role raises interesting questions about the strategies employed to contain this diversity and maintain boundaries diluted by photography's vicissitudes. This article looks at the place of photography in Dublin's Kerlin Gallery, a commercial gallery and a significant force on the contemporary Irish art scene.
Considering the place of photography in a commercial art gallery involves four terms: photography, commerce, art and the gallery. Different permutations of these four terms reveal different dynamics in the relationship between them. Of the possible permutations, the three that struck me as interesting in the present context arise from the emphases placed by the following orders: 1) gallery, art, photography, commerce; 2) commerce, art, gallery, photography; 3) photography, commerce, art, gallery. The first of these reflects the Kerlin's emphasis upon serving the love of art, where photography is one of the visual arts they represent and the commercial transactions involved are an uninteresting afterthought. The second permutation of the four terms places 'commerce' at the heart of the matter, while the third returns us to the original question regarding the place of photography in Ireland's commercial art galleries.
Returning to the first permutation (gallery, art, photography, commerce), the Kerlin Gallery seeks to represent contemporary art at both a national and international level. It represents eighteen Irish artists whose work it promotes in the gallery and at international art fairs. The Gallery also brings the work of international artists to Dublin. This enhances the Gallery's profile and allows its curators to follow through on personal interests, to educate people here in relation to the international 'scene' and to boost sales to Irish collectors.
The Gallery claims to have a 'strong' relationship with both its artists and its buyers; the relationships are very personal, they are founded on trust and developed over a period of time. The Gallery endeavours to work closely with both its artists and its buyers for the good of all concerned and thus sees itself as a service industry, enabling the meeting of the right artist and the right buyer. 'Personal care' is what people are buying into - the artist is given support in her/his career, and the buyer's confidence in the worth of art and of particular artists and artworks is nurtured.
What the Gallery demands of the art it features is that it be good and relevant. What 'goodness' might consist in is hard to define, nonetheless what is sought of a particular art practice is solidity and sustainability. That the work be specifically saleable was not mentioned. 'Quality of life' was mentioned, however, as something that buyers are seeking in or through art - at both a conceptual and aesthetic level. Photography's status as art is not an issue for the Kerlin Gallery, which represents two photographers. They do not distinguish between artists working solely in photography and those who do not, although they do distinguish between ways of making photographs - characterised as 'documentary' vs 'not simply documentary'. This distinction reflects their interest in photographs that are 'multi-faceted, aesthetic and conceptual, that have repercussions and layers of meaning'. As an art form, however, photographs are complicated to handle - they are usually printed in editions of six, so that for any given photograph there are six prints to keep track of in terms of where they are at any given moment and in terms of their individual histories.
'Commerce' was a remarkably unwelcome topic within the Gallery, given that it itself is a business. Any suggestion that they might be subject to market conditions within Ireland was dismissed. They work in partnership with their clients who they support through their knowledge and supply of what is 'good'. In relation to international art fairs there was a reluctant acknowledgement of 'the market' and the strategic thinking required by particular contexts. Thus, while the relationship between art and commerce was abruptly pronounced as 'healthy', the subject generated considerable anxiety.
One way of exploring this anxiety is to replace 'commerce' at the centre of the dynamic through the permutation 'commerce, art, gallery, photography', thus raising the question of the relationship of art and commerce. 'The aesthetic' is widely conceived of as a sphere that does not fall under the principle of profit maximisation. In bourgeois society, art is not supposed to function as a commodity - a thing whose exchange value is more important than its particularity - it is supposed to lie outside of the praxis of life (in which the maximisation of profit prevails) and anchor our understanding of ourselves. In reality, however, the separation of the symbolic (art) and the economic has been overcome through the subsuming of art within the economic - art is a growth industry, and even its critical products are rapidly accommodated as high-class commodities.
While some in the artworld have responded to this by wilfully embracing art's commodification, for many it remains a source of unease. The Kerlin Gallery, along with most others, falls into the latter category. The Gallery does not offer mere 'goods off a shelf', it brings the buyer into contact with concrete expressions of 'a concept - an approach to looking at life and at things'. What is at stake is the credibility of art's expressive potential, its particularity - for the buyer and the artist.
On a less esoteric note, the London art scene casts an interesting light upon the Kerlin's relationship to commerce. By comparison with London, the Dublin scene is very small and the Kerlin has relatively little competition. Consequently, it can afford to be disdainful of making studio visits to see work by up and coming artists as its current 'stable' is unlikely to be poached. Furthermore, this passivity on the part of the Kerlin seems unlikely to result in a major loss of market-share since Ireland's lack of a strong tradition of buying art leads to a heavy reliance on the established galleries' knowledge and supply of what is 'good' in contemporary art. Perhaps one can afford to be dismissive of market-conditions in such circumstances.
The relative inexperience of the Irish market also has significant consequences for Irish photographers, as buyers remain suspicious of photography as collectible art. It may also have an impact on the kind of photography represented. The work of the photographers represented by the Kerlin (Willie Doherty and Paul Seawright) has been clearly political and, as such, manifestly conceptual and recognisable as art. Thus, although photography is described by the Kerlin as 'the medium of the present', the Gallery seems to be largely uninvolved with the complexities of photography as a medium. Attempting to broach some of that complexity returns us to the original question regarding the place of photography in Ireland's commercial art galleries (and the permutation 'photography, commerce, art, gallery').
One aspect of photography's complexity is its dual nature; while there is no longer any need to argue for photography's acceptance as a form of art, most photographic images are not produced as art (although some such images do come to be valued as art). Consequently, the range and diversity of photographic practices poses a problem of demarcation for the art world - arts councils as well as art galleries.
Another aspect of photography's complexity within an art context is its potential for unlimited copies. Given the existence of a negative, it makes no sense to ask for an authentic print. And yet this is precisely what strictly limited editions of photographs in the art world seeks to overcome. Authenticity and value are guaranteed by placing an artificial limit on the number of photographs printed from the negative, and this is then reinforced by the artist's/Gallery's differentiating between the (identical) editions of a given image and tracking of their histories (exhibitions, owners, etc.).
What has not been allowed to wither in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the artwork. What is curious is the lack of engagement on the part of 'the Gallery' with the contradictions this involves.