Dark and Threatening Visions
Unreliable Truths: Transformation and Illusion in Contemporary Photographic Practice – Mark Cocks, John Paul Evans (Curators) Glynn Vivian Art Gallery 27th September – 30th November 2008
Review by Simon Denison
Unreliable Truths: Transformation and Illusion in Contemporary Photographic Practice presents the work of twelve photographic artists based in Wales. It is in effect an art school staff show, as all but two teach at Swansea Metropolitan University – an impressive flowering of creative energy from one institution. The curators have unified the work under the rubric of ‘unreliable truths’ because none of the participants works in the documentary, descriptive mode. It is a slightly awkward framing device as truth is a slippery concept in all photography, not just this type. At the same time most of the artists here are offering oblique but unequivocal statements about human experience, and presumably none would regard themselves as illusionists.
Given the vigorous survival, from the mid-19th century to the present, of suggestive, symbolic, staged and conceptual photography, it is remarkable that curators still need to explain the existence of non-descriptive photography by reference to what it is not. These twelve artists ‘deliberately embrace the potential for disrupting the photographic image. They are not concerned with accurately capturing reality or representing truth,’ the gallery wall statement tells us, as if to reassure the public that the blurred, shaken and otherwise unconventional images on show are not the products of sheer technical incompetence. We are often told that we live in a world of ‘media-savvy, sophisticated image consumers’ but of course most people do still think of photographs as transparent windows onto reality and expect them to look a certain way. Let’s hope that this show helps a bit. It was well attended by a local audience while I was there.
The themes addressed include family, identity and the fracturing of memory; gender politics; and contemporary vulnerability and alienation. The work is variously introspective, melancholy, troubled, pained and angry. From Peter Finnemore’s screaming heads lifted from news photographs and Ruth Robinson’s tsunami meditations, to Andrea Liggins’s anti-heroic plastic-camera landscapes, Richard Page’s and Paul Duerinckx’s anxious urban street scenes and others’ reflections on memory and loss, the show generally has a dark, threatened quality, conjuring visions of personal and family disintegration and social and environmental breakdown. Perhaps we do indeed live in doomed times; but one suspects also a certain fashionable art mentality at play here, one in which celebration of any kind is regarded as outdated, hollow and best left to the world of advertising. There are certainly few signs of enchantment or hope in this show. Perhaps only Karen Ingham’s elusive but lush family and garden fragments offer a vision of redemption, albeit of a fragile kind, through engagement with natural growth and one’s own intimate environment.
Among contemporary art trends the fashion for examining family photographs does, however, seem apt, even overdue, given the universality of the experience of family photography and the fact that the overwhelming majority of photographs for the past century have been taken in this context. A difficulty for the contemporary artist using family materials, of intense but normally personal significance only, is to make work that speaks forcefully to an audience of strangers. In Memory Tree Humberto Gatica succeeds well with work that is both formally striking and conceptually tidy. Black and white family portraits are torn into strips and rearranged, and through holes ripped out of the image we see other family portraits, neatly evoking the fragmentary and associative nature of the memories that family albums prompt, and the inevitable feelings of loss that such memories bring in their wake.
Equally striking, if not alarming, are Bed Sheet Dreams, John Paul Evans’s naked self-portraits made with a camera held at arm’s length while he lies writhing on brightly coloured sheets. The work is intended to challenge the traditional representation of the male sex as dominant. It certainly presents a vision of universal human vulnerability. It is surely inevitable that one sees this blurred, squirming, hairless torso as a tormented figure, with arms outstretched and mouth often open in what seems to be a scream or cry. The pink, orange, yellow, turquoise and other playschool colour backgrounds that first attract one’s attention provide a jarring false note, a shockingly playful context for such a vision like Mozart playing in a torture chamber.
In I Watched Her Until She Disappeared, Paul Jeff addresses the torture chamber more directly. In response to the abduction and murder of women in Northern Mexico, Jeff has confined a young Mexican model to a cell and photographed her, in the same pose, every hour of the day and night for a week, exhibiting the images as 168 Polaroids in a Becher-like grid. By subjecting her to "a harsh regime of scrutiny and representation" the work addresses the objectification of women which presumably underpins, to some extent, the kidnappings. This is troubling in a number of ways. Although one assumes the model agreed to take part and see it through, Jeff encourages us to think that she is being harshly mistreated, and that she responds through facial expression and graffiti with a "moving performance of resistance". Is he calling attention to abuse by himself abusing his model? Or should we really not take the idea of ‘resistance’ seriously? In six images the model is unclothed, no doubt with her agreement, yet we are encouraged to ogle her, reduced to the humiliated status of "pure image... as in pornography". This is well intentioned but highly manipulative of the viewer. It leaves a slightly unpleasant taste.
Meanwhile, a companion piece,Lost in Translation, consists of photographs made at the exhibition opening. Male visitors were invited to confess and apologise for their sexual sins and those of their brothers across the world to an actress at the party, and be photographed doing so. Not every male viewer will respond well to the hectoring accusation of complicity in what Jeff calls"gender holocaust", but perhaps one can take comfort in the thought that all truths presented in pictures are distinctly unreliable.