Since the late summer, I’ve been working on an exhibition in my hometown of Brighton. It was an ‘open submission’ on behalf of Brighton Photo Fringe, and some 4,000 images were received (which was something of a surprise – in a good way). It’s designed to be a prelude to next year’s festival of photography in the city, Brighton Photo Biennial, curated by Martin Parr, and the collected events organised by Brighton Photo Fringe. Fringe Director Woodrow Kernohan and mentor curator John Gill decided to bring in three guest curators to shape the show. I was lucky enough to be selected, along with two independent curators Chloe Hoare and Yasmina Reggad. Chloe has been involved with various great Brighton group exhibitions, as well as working for the Brighton Photo Biennial and Fabrica, and Yasmina runs a company called Photo-Festivals and curated the Collectives Encounter at Derby’s Format Festival earlier this year.
Looking through our edited selection of nearly 30 artists, a clear theme arose… not one that we decided to slap onto the works as an afterthought, but one which was clearly on the minds of many of the artists who had entered the exhibition: that of spectatorship. A host of questions arose: what are we looking at, how do we look, who is engaged in the act of looking? When applied to the works selected for From Here, such questions about the social construction of the observer raised further questions, probing issues of colonialism, historiography, voyeurism, identity and surveillance. We felt we were onto something… here’s why.
In Jason Larkin’s series, Past Perfect, we witness how the institution of the museum renders a country’s past, however bloody or chaotic, quite perfect. By including museum visitors and staff in his photographs, seeing through their respectively captivated and disinterested eyes, our experience of looking is mediated by theirs. In this way we are forced to acknowledge what is always already true… that our own act of looking is at least one step removed.
Another traditionally passive type of looking is brought into focus with the work of Heather Tait. How do we feel when we watch game shows like Deal or No Deal or reality TV programmes such as Big Brother? Are we sympathetic towards the contestants whose hopes of winning thousands have been dashed? Or are we cynical consumers of a form of entertainment that thrives on exploitation? By studying the facial expressions of the studio audience, Tait’s screen grabs, called The Dream Factory, provide the space for us to contemplate the methods used by television production companies to exaggerate the drama and manipulate the viewer’s response. Close ups of pained expressions, terror and tears; this game of life being played out on screen points us to another type of mediated experience – that of victims of tragedy the world over, whose emotional pain is brought directly into our living rooms. The voyeuristic tendency that compels us to slow down when we see a car crash is the same human trait that has created a market for television such as this. As we begin to understand our position as the viewer, we realise that we are in fact watching ourselves.
The work of Ozzy Yorulmaz also displaces the observer, by substituting our gaze for that of an interloper, the figure of a lone travelling man, who intrudes – via a digital rear projection – upon a series of found family photographs. Yorulmaz himself plays this role, becoming at once photographer, subject and spectator. In this way, The Visitor is a deeply subversive, voyeuristic figure, whose disruptive yet persistent presence invites a rethink of conventional family narratives.
Two further works of self-spectatorship serve to question how, or even if, things are seen. We are invited to witness the changes to the physical appearance of Bénédite Topuz, as she photographs herself undergoing cancer treatment. Though the cancer itself is invisible to the naked eye, concealed within the body, the side effects of the treatment insist upon the visibility of the illness. Over a seven month period, Topuz subjects herself to scrutiny of her hair, her breasts, the essence of her femininity, in order that she might reappropriate the various gazes – from the medical to the curious to the sympathetic – newly directed at her changing body.
In the work of André Penteado, it is as though the subject of his father’s suicide exceeds the possibilities of vision for the photographer. Penteado dresses in his father’s clothes and photographs himself with his own eyes tightly closed as if to engage with the other senses that reconnect him to his paternal lineage, those of smell and touch. The viewer’s role in sharing such a heavy loss becomes an ethical question, unresolved.
Whether or not we can believe our eyes is a question raised by at least two bodies of work included here. Richard Rowland’s Urban Fictions appear to be photographs of building developments located somewhere in Europe; the architectural style unquestionably Western. On closer inspection something unsettling starts to emerge. The visual codes are obvious, yet the order is somehow displaced. We discover that these are reproductions and the location is China. In a strange twist on colonialism, instead of constructing familiar urban landscapes in conquered territory to signify ownership, here architects have created imitations of distant lands without a physical battle for power. The result, in a country slowly emerging from decades of communism, is a hyperreal paradise for China’s new elite. The buyers and sellers of these buildings are trading in illusion, a mirage created by the dizzying embrace of late capitalism.
With Caleb Churchill’s cryptic body of work, Horny Dog, the question of what we are looking at is never fully resolved. He brings to his work a sense of witnessing a series of private moments, yet his very presence undermines this possibility. The viewer confronts a final image, which is overexposed, flooded with too much light. It is as though the image exceeds itself, reaching its apogee in the image Absolute Blindness. In this unsettling body of work, the photograph almost disappears, until all we are left with is representation itself.
The question of who is looking at us is also raised, through the work of Anthony Carr, acknowledging the centrality of the subject of surveillance in our perpetually-scrutinised society. Carr distributed 30 miniature homemade pinhole cameras at Cumberland Lodge in Great Windsor Park, a great house that is now a conference centre ‘for discussions aimed at the betterment of society’. His 24 hour, 7 day, 17 week exposure resulted in a series of spectral images, which show that although everything was recorded, the everyday business of the Lodge remains invisible. In an exciting development, Carr installed 10 pinhole cameras in the exhibition space last weekend… the results will be published on the Brighton Photo Fringe website (and I’ll ask permission for a sneak preview here on Foto8).
We hope that the works selected for From Here acknowledge the impossible position of photography, so often asked to be a witness to history, then disregarded for its inability to do so, at least with any kind of objectivity. By implicating the spectator and insisting upon the centrality of that role in the act of looking, our own complicity in the act of representation is exposed and, albeit fleetingly, a sense of freedom is unleashed.
Hope to see you there.
Brighton Photo Fringe
13 Black Lion Street
Brighton, BN1 1ND
Open: Friday–Sunday 12–6pm
17 October–8 November 2009
Private View: Friday 16 October 6–9pm