An Opportunity to Develop
New Works: Pavilion Commissions 2008 – National Media Museum 13th September 2008 – 25th January 2009
Review by Mick Gidley
This is a show resulting from commissions by Pavilion, the Leeds-based art commissioning agency, itself both publicly and privately funded. The awards were to enable younger artists to develop new projects (often out of previous successful ones) to at least preliminary exhibition standard. If this means they should be assessed on the basis of their conception, execution and exhibition, then the five photographers have achieved variable levels of success at each of these stages. Jo Longhurst’s A-Z of Gymnastics is fascinating in all three. As in her earlier dog project The Refusal, she is preoccupied by typology and taxonomy. Here, across a curved wall, we see a pattern of some 200 images – not all by Longhurst herself, some black and white but most in colour, some historic but the majority recent – arranged in sequences corresponding to particular types of gymnastic action: leaps, somersaults, box vaults, ring-work, etc. The photographs, mounted on blocks sufficiently thick to throw them into relief, are small, 5"x3" or less, so we have to look closely, and we cannot help but mark sharp similarities between the images devoted to each type of exercise. And always the photographer has gone for the body at its point of maximum extension – legs almost impossibly far apart and straight in the splits, for example – and caught, stilled it, at the extreme of dynamic exertion. Longhurst is deploying the intrinsic capacity of photography truly to observe, categorise and, even, understand something.
Stand Your Ground, Moira Lovell’s portrait series of seven different members of the Doncaster Belles football squad, wearing team outfits, all with John their manager, bears out Lovell’s declared interest in ‘awkwardness’. Each image – even the one titled Emily and John in which they almost touch – is a study in constrained body language. The women, whether they put hands in their pockets, on their hips, or behind their backs, are uneasy, even though some project more assurance than others, and John always has his arms in roughly the same posture: one that says he doesn’t actually know where to put them. Taken together they constitute a symbolic commentary on gender politics as manifested in football. One can imagine the series expanded, with further awkwardnesses on display, but there would be a limit to the viewer’s attention.
The subject matter depicted in Kevin Newark’s 14 square C-type prints – variously shaped vapour trails – is inherently abstract. As made, with a telephoto lens and then enlarged so that individual pixels show, this subject matter becomes even more defamiliarised. With his cloud Equivalents Stieglitz showed long ago that in the modern age, with our lack of a transcendentalist doctrine of potential correspondence between material facts, however vaporous, and spiritual states, the ‘meaning’ of such imagery is necessarily elusive, and limited. In one of the talking-head video films of the artists available for viewing in the quiet exhibition space, Newark says that this "Nephology" project is concerned with "space, time, anxiety, and displacement". I felt this is just too true.
And I have similar reservations about the results, if not the conception, of Tess Hurrell’s project, Drawing Light, Numbers 1 to 9. It developed from a preceding project that exploited the iconography of explosions. In Drawing Light according to her own comments and to a limpidly written catalogue essay by Mark Durden, she was fascinated by the idea of ectoplasm and examples of Victorian spirit photography, and one does sense in the images the nebulous weight of previous forms struggling for release. Presented, too, as hand-crafted gelatin silver prints, they possess a spectral beauty. However, it is too ghostly. Despite or because of the openness with which the images reveal their own constructedness, their resistance to ‘the real’, unlike the explosion series, is so uncompromising that it defeats rather than invites interpretation.
Peter Ainsworth’s Summer & Spring, Angel Road (A406) is, at first sight, more wide-ranging than the other exhibition projects: c-type prints of assorted sizes, made at different times, depicting a variety of people, in scenes alongside an almost featureless city edge traffic artery. And, again at first sight, his project might seem to derive from a realistic documentary tradition. Given Ainsworth’s project title and that among his influences he singles out Iain Sinclair, who famously explored the spaces and histories of the M25, we might expect insights into the A406. But, if so, we will be disappointed. Overheard at the show: a youngster to his mother: "Look, this is showing how they created a garden to brighten up the wasteland beside this busy road". His mother, looking closely at the pictures, replied, "I wish that was true. But in fact they’re making the garden only for the photographs. I bet they never bothered to finish it, and that it’s wasteland again now". I’m sure she was right. One of Ainsworth’s comments is that his work shows "nothing but the intentions of the photographer". So we have views of a man dragging a carpet round a shopping centre, another banging his head against a brick wall, a couple building a tower of bricks – all performed only for the camera, and visibly so. We know the man is not really hurting his head. There is a kind of purity in this, but it can also seem precious, even pretentious.
The mounting of the exhibition as a whole is slightly rarefied. Near Hurrell’s work, for example, there is fixed a book on the history of the shadow, near Ainsworth’s garden views one opened at Breughel’s Spring with its peasant folk struggling to make the earth grow. But both Pavilion and the National Media museum are to be congratulated for granting younger artists the opportunity to develop, and we should expect an uneven return on the investment.