Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Taryn Simon at Tate Modern

The art worlds most talked about contemporary photographer Taryn Simon has cemented her status with a solo show at Tate Modern. Represented by the Gagosian Gallery and with a wealth of useful connections Simon threatens to put photography once again in the public eye.
This show however will come as a disappointment to many people who know what to expect from “great photography” and prefer an artform that is accessible and less likely to challenge them. Recent fine art photography has been large in scale and predominantly single image, such as the work of Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth, which is easily understood. What Simon does in her work by contrast is to isolate subjects from their surroundings and bring a deep level of reinterpretation to what is at first glance a straightforward set of circumstances. She choses a difficult path. Her work involves not just months but years of preparation and the results are not easy for the viewer. The casual visitor to her show will be ill- prepared after meandering through galleries of easy viewing.

Each work is set out as a grid of images - each related to one another. The multiplicity has a numbing effect but it lulls you into a false sense of security. People are connected by bloodline,  even animals, in this case seemingly identical rabbits in different positions. The grids are democratic, symmetrical, unremarkable, the portraits straightforward – it is a direct challenge to power we associate with a photograph on a gallery wall. But…there is always more, a story, a link, a connection, a moment that has bound these people these images together.

Babloo Yadav, aged circa 11/12, and Mukesh Yadav, c10/11, of Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, India.  Copyright: Taryn Simon

I was fascinated by the series of relatives from a Lebanese sect who believe in reincarnation. The fact that the same person reappears time and time again due to this belief system is mundane visually but the repetition has real meaning here, this is image reproduction which baffles the mind. How could this person be the son and the father to his own father? In this context a duplicated image confuses and distorts the normal associations we have of multiple images.
There are complex ideas here at work which is the hallmark of Simons approach. She seems to revel in the threads, meanings, associations beyond the straight photograph. Her concern to establish a real depth actually pushes her further wawy from her role as a photographer. Only recently she declared “I think I”ve just gotten tired of photography in a way and am trying to use it as a simple recorder..” (Observer 22/5/11 Sean O'Hagan article)
In stripping away any embellishments in her photography she seems to be saying this is all photography is, nothing more and there is far more interest beyond the image. The image, the print, the object has become purely a starting point, a window to a subject. She is constantly questioning the validity of photography and the conclusion in this exhibition is that it is bordering on the meaningless. The grids where portraits are missing, because someone has died or has disappeared, appear to have the real power here. Simon perversly celebrates the empty space, and the narrative that it provides.
Simons progression as an artist one imagines could lead to her discarding photography altogether. To some people that may be no great loss, but her rigorous questioning and interrogation of a medium that we happily accept provides us with a real depth and intelligence often lacking in art photography today.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Poster from 2008 exhibition

One of my screenprint posters with stencilled vinyl from Somebody Anybody at Exposure Gallery, London. This one was requested recently but few remain as most of them were used for promotional purposes - ending up on lamposts around the West End. Surprisingly some lasted nearly a year before disappearing. I wonder who took them...

Monday, 12 September 2011

Thomas Struth at Whitechapel Gallery

As the third in a series of photography exhibitions at the Whitechapel, Thomas Struth's exhibition impresses straight away. Two huge prints welcome the visitor - Audience 06 and Audience 01 are both scenes from an unnamed Florence museum. It is a comment on the art lover that greets the art lover here as they arrive. It shows people gazing in a large space at an artwork out of the photographic frame. It is typical of a large body of Struths work showing people in large spaces, against large manmade backdrops often with  religious backdrops. There is a wow factor here in the size of the print, the scale of the building and astonishment on some faces.. Is there more to it?

Audience 01, Florence 2004

Curiously some of his early work in black and white showing mostly deserted streetscenes holds more meaning and mystery. Maybe the historical context adds weight and interest as most of the photographs are from the early 1980s. They are much smaller but have a quiet impact that implies a living breathing fabric to the architecture of the city.

Crosby Strret, New York/Soho, 1978

Struth chooses to make singular statements with his photographs. There is a sense that each is a singular comment and this probably has come from his clear objectivity that he has always used. To show scenes “as they are” and without embellishment is an approach straight from the German school of Bernd and Hilla Becher which found favour in other artists such as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth and Candida Hoffer. There are critics of this approach including Paul Graham (whose exhibit preceded this one coincidentally) who is more of a fan of a different approach by the German Michael Schmidt. Graham prefers bodies of work where images build to make a more coherent statement than the powerful shot delivered to impress.
Struths family portraits retain a powerful understatement that is sometimes missing in the large scale single statement photographs. One feels different characters within a group, who cling to individuality but whose identity and connectivity cannot be ignored. A sense of the unmentioned pervades, the family secret not yet told. I was surprised how this series grabbed me.

The Ma Family, Shanghai. 1996.

Overall a strangely uneven show, but nevertheless with many points of interest for viewers with different tastes in the subtleties of photography.