Well I might have missed the BPB launch – as a loyal attendee at Host’s own Christopher Morris show – but I was back in my hometown on Saturday for the inaugural Simon Norfolk fish and chip supper. To wash it down, Simon and Katina served huge bowls of Kool Aid, which appeared magically all night long only to disappear just as quickly from the table by the window with the lovely view of the sea. As the only purpose of mentioning such a bash can be to namedrop: in attendance were curator Julian Stallabrass, organiser Bruno Ceschel, photographers Jenny Matthews, Simon Roberts, and Rosa Ugarte, BJP editor Simon Bainbridge, artist E J Major, Sunday Times picture editor Monica Allende and critic Sue Steward (who – best anecdote of the party award – used to get Sid Vicious’s methadone for him). And lots of other people who I didn’t get to talk to, united in the effort to eat fish and chips standing up, plate in one hand, glass in the other, and still hold a conversation. Thanks to Katina and Simon for great hospitality.
After the Kool Aid fuelled night, the intrepid were planning to head to Bexhill and other venues by bus (Further), leaving town at 10am Sunday morning. I was rather pleased, smug in fact, to stay in bed, having been to Bexhill on Friday, when it was sunny and the sea was silver.
Burned filing cabinets in the archives of the Iraqi National Library, Baghdad 19-27 April 2003 ©Simon Norfolk
The Sublime Image of Destruction, featuring work by Norfolk, Paul Seawright and Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin cried out for the exquisite Gallery One at the De La Warr Pavilion, where Grayson Perry held his Unpopular Culture exhibition earlier this year. Anyway, it was Gallery Two – deal. And it was a fine way to kick off my journey through the biennial. The men in black had arrived even before me – Ken Grant and the Newport contingent were staking out the balcony. Mark Durden was chivvying the staff to open up while the others drank strong coffee (they had attended the official launch the night before, obviously). The hang was ‘dense’, they reported, as they headed off peaceably to Battle (to see Harriet Logan). In fact, the hang was so dense that a solitary Paul Seawright image shared the north wall with three works by Broomberg and Chanarin. which was, well, a little odd. The east wall carried further Seawright images, and the south wall was all Broomberg and Chanarin. Four works by Simon Norfolk dominated the west wall, from Iraq 2003. Contextual information was provided by Norfolk’s precise captioning in a way that is noticeably – and for me, regrettably – absent from the other work, which stuck to fairly abstract titles. Without captioning, which is probably considered a little vulgar in the art world, the unanchored pictures risk becoming merely decoration. One of the questions raised by the show is whether the musification of the photograph leads to too great a distance between aesthetically beautiful image and political message.
Street corner where five boys were killed. US soldiers came to destroy and Iraqi tank that had been left behind. They threw in an incendiary grenade and left. People came to watch the burning tank and when its ammunition exploded, five were killed. Street 60, Mechanical City, Dora. Baghdad 19 – 27 April 2003 © Simon Norfolk
Fortunately, the De La Warr continued its practice of piling a relevant collection of books on a table outside the gallery. For anyone not familiar with Broomberg and Chanarin’s work Chicago, from which this show’s images are taken, all is revealed in their well-researched accompanying text in the eponymously titled book. Maybe it was because Chicago was there in book form, as well as Norfolk’s Afghanistan: Chronotopia (and even Kant’s Critique of Judgment) that made me wonder if there isn’t something else that curators and exhibiting artists need to do to engage the observer. While I could have sat and read the accompanying texts all morning, I was only in the gallery for a few minutes. Is the act of looking enough? While Stallabrass et al rise to exactly that challenge by curating this biennial, with its implicit theme (among others) of how we look at images, it is hard to achieve peak engagement with each individual show, especially when they are – geographically – so far apart. Yet for anyone who hasn’t seen Norfolk’s burned filing cabinets from the archives of the Iraqi national library, the Bexhill show is worth it for that alone. And the view.