28 May – 3 October 2010.
Let’s get something clear. EXPOSED is not an easy exhibition. Challenging, confronting, at times horrifically violent and voyeuristic, at others compelling and strangely beautiful. It is all these things. It messes with your head, your sense of propriety and your definitions, however tenuous, of what makes one photo art and another just perverse. Both visually and intellectually, this makes for a compelling, if occasionally uncomfortable, encounter.
There is a certain timeliness to this exhibition and its study of voyeurism, surveillance and the camera. We’re in an age unlike any before where technology rules the day – and wiretaps, live streaming, camera phones and paparazzi chases are the resigned norm. Examining photography as an invasive act immediately confronts the complacency with which we accept these invasions, encourage them even in our curiosity, and though it falters in parts and overwhelms in others (this is a huge exhibition), EXPOSED successfully addresses a number of the social, cultural and psychologically motivating factors behind these kinds of images – why we take them and why we look at them. Critical to this engagement is the wall text at the beginning, which states that most of the hundreds of photographs on display were taken without the subject’s knowledge. It is a distinctly creepy start.
Philip-Lorcia diCorcia’s Head series perhaps best embodies this conundrum. Visually they are not terribly shocking or even necessarily interesting. Theatrical lighting catches the head of someone in a crowd and the effect is of a staged encounter. In fact, these people, denominated variously as Head #23 or Head #4, were photographed without their knowledge by a series of hidden cameras, the flash triggering as they walked by. Famously, one of diCorcia’s unwitting targets tried to take legal action against him but the landmark ruling defended the artist and his right to self-expression over any right the subject might have over their own image. It is difficult to know which is worse – to be censored or to be spied upon.
DiCorcia’s contemporary street photography is contextualised by a wide range of historical precedents with work by Walker Evans, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander also on show. Friendlander’s New York City, 1966 in particular illustrates the hunt and shoot mentality of the street photographer, the photograph capturing a menacing shadow imprinted on the back of an unaware woman as she walks down the street.
The leap from documentary or street photography to paparazzi’s chasing celebrities is not a huge one but thankfully the exhibition does not dwell much beyond Alison Jackson’s parodic pap shots of celebrity lookalikes. Princess Diana, perhaps the most famous victim of the long lens is accorded only a glass case with newspaper clippings trumpeting blame for her death at the hands of the paparazzi. Nick Ut’s photograph of Paris Hilton being returned to Prison in 2007 is neatly contextualised by Giuseppe Primoli’s equally tasteless photograph of Impressionist painter Edgar Degas exiting a pissoir in Paris in the early 1880s.
The ugliness of this celebrity fascination is deftly illustrated by Richard Avedon’s famous photograph of Andy Warhol, or rather, of Warhol’s horrific scars – the result of his near fatal shooting at the hands of Valerie Solanas in 1968. Framing the image in such a way, not capturing the pop artist’s face with his iconic shock of hair and glasses, but photographing him simply with his jumper pulled high has a number of effects. It humanises the very unreal ‘character’ of Warhol, it focuses the attention on the violence inflicted on him and intellectually, as a shooting of a shooting, it crystallises this idea of photography as a form of violation.
From here, the material in EXPOSED only gets darker as rooms dedicated to voyeurism and desire and witnessing violence complicate the viewing experience. The tenuousness of looking at these images under the guise of ‘art’ becomes slippery, particularly in the face of Susan Meiselas’s photographs of 1970s strippers and of Nicaraguan victims of genocide. Koshei Yoshiyuki’s 1979 series of nocturnal voyeurs preying on young couples in Japanese parks at night are particularly confronting. And not in a ‘goodness this is interesting’ sort of way. This idea of looking – and of discerning the voyeur from the witness remains far from resolved and our moral qualifications of historical import (think Abraham Zapruder’s film of JFK’s assassination, now oddly held in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) versus pop cultural curiosity is complicated by the realisation that the Pulitzer Prize-winning image of the young Vietnamese girl burned by napalm in 1972 was taken by the same Nick Ut who photographed Paris Hilton 35 years later.
With the exception of Sophie Calle’s fabulously creepy 1981 work The Hotel, where the artist worked as a chamber maid in Venice and systematically documented the comings, goings and belongings of the hotel guests, the exhibition falters towards the end, as the focus turns specifically to ideas of surveillance. Perhaps it is simply that after 13 rooms and hundreds of works focus is difficult to maintain, or perhaps it is that after 13 rooms of confronting, voyeuristic images, these large scale works – aerial images of person-less landscapes and buildings et al – feel alternatively dry or oblique. It is an unfortunate end to what is otherwise an overwhelmingly strong exhibition and having thus been implicated, under the guise of art, in a mass act of complicit voyeurism, the lasting sense of EXPOSED is that as individuals and members of our contemporary image-saturated society, we have a responsibility to look critically, ethically and sensitively – and perhaps also to learn when to look away.
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- Jun 21, 2018 Spotlight on MCA Young Guides Jun 21, 2018
- Feb 1, 2018 Art Collector Issue 84: Undiscovered Feb 1, 2018
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- Apr 2, 2017 New role: Museum of Contemporary Art Australia Apr 2, 2017
- Jan 19, 2017 Louise Paramor profile for Art Collector magazine, issue 78 Jan 19, 2017
- Dec 1, 2016 Craft Council UK – Make:Shift conference, Manchester, 10-11 Nov, 2016 Dec 1, 2016
- Oct 30, 2016 Alison Croggon on the arts funding crisis and the importance of criticism Oct 30, 2016
- Apr 27, 2016 Lottie Consalvo: mid-fall, Alaska Projects Apr 27, 2016
- Mar 18, 2016 20th Biennale of Sydney: The future is here it's just not evenly distributed Mar 18, 2016
- Nov 22, 2015 Celeste Boursier-Mougenot at the NGV Nov 22, 2015
- Sep 22, 2015 Educating People Like Us Sep 22, 2015
- Aug 2, 2015 What It Means to be Me, Western Plains Cultural Centre, Dubbo, 26 July 2015 Aug 2, 2015
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- Jul 12, 2015 Art Collector cover story Jul 12, 2015
- Jun 25, 2015 Lessons learnt: Kaldor regional progress report Jun 25, 2015
- May 5, 2015 Kaldor pilots regional engagement project May 5, 2015
- Aug 21, 2014 Melbourne Art Fair 2014 Aug 21, 2014
- Jun 24, 2014 Fresh Faces Symposium: Art Gallery of New South Wales Jun 24, 2014
- May 24, 2014 REVIEW: Sleepers Awake, MCA C3West Project, Bungaribee May 24, 2014
- Feb 20, 2014 Kevin Chin profile for Art Collector magazine Feb 20, 2014
- Feb 9, 2014 Artlink review: 21st Century Portraits Feb 9, 2014
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- Sep 20, 2013 The problem with 'Australia' Sep 20, 2013
- Sep 4, 2013 Margate: An away day and a visit to Turner Contemporary Sep 4, 2013
- Jul 28, 2013 A round-up: Miles Aldridge, Somerset House; Katharina Fritsch, Fourth Plinth, Trafalgar Square; Michael Landy, ‘Saints Alive’, National Gallery Jul 28, 2013
- Jul 21, 2013 Peckham weekends Jul 21, 2013
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