Sophie Calle

REVIEW: EXPOSED: Voyeurism, Surveillance & the Camera, Tate Modern, London

28 May – 3 October 2010.

Philip Lorca diCorcia, Head series, 2002.

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.

Lee Friedlander, New York City, 1966.

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.

RIchard Avedon, Andy Warhol, 1969.

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.

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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.

Nick Ut’s photograph of Paris Hilton being taken to prison, 2007.

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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REVIEW: Mythologies, Haunch of Venison

12 March - 26 April 2009

If the scale, scope and sheer audacity of Haunch of Venison’s launch exhibition at 6 Burlington Gardens is any measure of things, the only myth being touted today is that the world is at the point of global economic collapse. Crisis? What crisis?

Taking over the 21,500 square foot gallery that previously housed the Museum of Mankind, Mythologies is both a breath-taking homage to the history of the building and a stunning ‘up yours’ to the suggestion that the contemporary art world is in dire straits.

Incorporating new and historical works from over 40 internationally recognised artists including Bill Viola, Sophie Calle, Ed and Nancy Kienholz, Jannis Kounellis and Damien Hirst, Mythologies is a dizzying and mostly successful attempt to explore notions of the uncanny, the curious, the mysterious and the anthropological as a means for elucidating some of the more fascinating social and cultural mores of the world at large.

Envisioned as a giant cabinet of curiosities, the exhibition is, as claimed, ‘a labyrinthine journey of discovery’ that begins with the tactile wall-mounted works of Anita Dube and Hew Locke in the Entrance Hall. Yes, there is an entrance hall. Works by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov and Carlos Amorales can also be found on the ground floor but it is the ephemeral, delicate shadow work of Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Wall of Shame (2005-2009) that is the most striking. White painted acid-etched brass shapes, shot with a light projector, cast dancing shadows of disturbing, anxious vignettes and creatures that tremble against the white wall. Simon Patterson’s nearby eponymous text painting Charles Darwin (2007) seems glib and by comparison and not a fair representation of his skill or his wit.

Ascending the sweeping staircase there are another seven large gallery spaces on the upper floor, each loosely afforded its own curatorial or thematic concept – Belief, Memento Mori, History and Magic, Material Culture and (Un)natural Histories. Galleries 4 and 9, featuring respectively a new installation by Kounellis and Christian Boltanski’s Theatre d’ombres (1986) are the only rooms bereft of a conceit but the all-room encompassing works really speak for themselves. Kounellis’s untitled installation features folded rows of second-hand suits framed by empty shoes and wrought with a subtle sense of sadness and nostalgia, it speaks to the passages of time and the imprint of the now absent. Boltanski’s famous shadow puppet work, with its carnivalesque parade of character, reminiscent of a macabre sideshow alley, appears to mock the universality of death and the fleetingness of life.

Highlights of the upstairs galleries include Guy Tillim’s black-and-white portraits of Mai-Mai rebel soldiers dressed in their magical camouflage. In capturing both the humanness and soulfulness of his subjects, Tillim rescues them from what might otherwise be a straightforward ethnographic study. And overtaking two large walls in a separate room is the subversive but visually stunning installation of Ed and Nancy Kienholz, 76 J.C.s Led the Big Charade (1993-94). With various images and kitsch replica icons of Christ mounted on 76 cross-shaped handles from children’s toy wagons, this well-known work by the Keinholz’s explores ideas about the abuses of spirituality and some of the inherent problems with organised religion.

Mythologies is an overwhelming experience, both for the art on display and the sheer grandeur of the building. The semantics of museum versus commercial gallery experience are articulated but far from resolved as visitors wander the rooms speaking in the sorts of hushed, reverential tones usually reserved for the National Gallery. Still. Art is still art is still art, whatever the context, and it will be interesting to witness the development and reception of Haunch of Venison’s exhibition program going forward, given their intention to continue a focus on both historically significant and recently commissioned works from the gallery stable along with lesser known emerging artists. There is no doubt that the purchasing of Haunch of Venison by Christie’s International in 2007 has enabled much of this activity, not least of all the move to Burlington Gardens, but whether or not the blurring of museum and commercial gallery experiences and expectations will upset the purists who like to know when they’re being sold something, Mythologies marks an ambitious and considered development for the gallery and makes for a provocative and most worthwhile encounter for the visitor.

 

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