Friday, 28 May 2010

Overexposure: Exposed at Tate Modern

There’s a familiar trajectory when you visit a big exhibition, especially one dedicated to a single artist and arranged in chronological order. Typically, they begin with the artist’s first stumbling steps towards developing his or her distinctive style. These early works usually make sense viewed retrospectively, but tend not to grab you on their own merits. Combine this with the real-world adjustment to being in an exhibition (the need to toggle all of your own switches from ‘walking and going somewhere’ to ‘standing and being somewhere’), and exhibitions can often initially seem alienating, confusing, or dull. Stick with it, though, and the first drafts gradually give way to the more fully realised works, in a journey that takes you about ten minutes but probably took the artist twenty years.

Exposed takes this narrative and turns it on its head, with an exhibition that is instantly accessible, but becomes increasingly alienating. It doesn’t take much mental effort to look at photographs and video, our most familiar visual forms, or to think about tabloid subjects such as fame, sex, and violence. The first room features high-resolution close-up photographs of people walking the streets of New York, taken without their knowledge or consent - leading to a landmark legal case in which one of the subjects took the photographer to court, and lost. This introduces the main issues which dominate this exhibition: the ethics of photography, and the politics of looking and being seen.

(Oh, and America. It should be mentioned that the exhibition as a whole is overwhelmingly dominated by works from the USA: tenements in Tennessee, Hollywood stars caught unawares, strippers in San Francisco, street scenes in New York, discarded litter at the Mexico/USA border. Fair enough to an extent: if the twentieth century was the century of photography, it was also the century of America. It’s a shame, though, that the Tate couldn’t have put a more British spin on the idea. America is hardly short of exhibitions of this kind, and even if, as I suspect, this is targeted at transatlantic summer tourists, more could have been made of its real-world location. There are no photographs of London at all; Shizuka Yokomizo’s intriguing snaps of strangers at the windows of their homes, the only ones taken in the UK, are not distinctively British. This seems a missed opportunity.)

The first theme is ‘The Unseen Photographer’, featuring photographs taken surreptitiously with all manner of devices: cameras which appear to point in one direction while really capturing another, cameras disguised as books or hidden in pockets, or taken with extreme telephoto lenses. Some of these, especially the very old ones, are fascinating: a nineteenth-century snapshot of two young women sharing a book on a train shows a casual familiarity that a posed photo could never achieve. However, as shown most clearly in Lewis Hine’s photographs of child miners and factory workers (he was hired by the National [i.e. American] Child Labor Committee), these are mainly interesting for what they show, not for the process of showing. This is photography as documentation: evidence at the time, now vividly real social history.

The next theme, ‘Celebrity and the Public Gaze’, is less distinguished, save for a very early paparazzi shot of Edgar Degas leaving a pissoir in Paris. Slebs on display here include Garbo, Jackie Kennedy, and Paris Hilton; we’re veering into Heat territory. This exhibition contributes to the ongoing culting of Alison Jackson by including two of her large faked photographs of celebrities. Whereas the real paparazzi pictures confront us with the torment of those photographed (and have potentially serious consequences), Jackson’s pseudo versions add nothing to this.

From the very first room, when you as a viewer discover you’re looking at photographs of people who absolutely did not want to be looked at in this way, you are placed in an uneasy position. This feeling intensifies as you proceed onto theme 3, ‘Voyeurism and Desire’, with pictures taken secretly of women in changing rooms, unsuspecting couples having sex in cars, or young girls in the streets of a provincial town. Other than Susan Meiselas’ compelling photographs of carnival strippers and their audiences and Kohei Yoshiyuki’s documentation of the bizarre goings-on in a Tokyo park, few of the works here seem to have much to say about voyeurism and desire, as opposed to simply being expressions of voyeuristic desire. This is a problem. The Tate’s write-up talks of ‘the viewer [being] implicated in acts of voyeurism’, rather than ‘blam[ing] the camera’, but that’s not really an answer.

It is when you reach the set of rooms dedicated to ‘Witnessing Violence’, that this feeling of implication becomes overwhelming. In quick succession, you are presented with suicide and genocide, lynchings and shootings, executions and death camps, battlefields and bodies. These images are detailed, explicit, and horrific. But whereas a Francis Bacon painting (say) is allusively horrifying, which is to say it creates a sense of mortality and corporeality in a non-literal way, these are simply documents of actual appalling things that have taken place. And personally, I don’t want to look at piles of bodies at Dachau, or a man lying dead in the street, for aesthetic or intellectual pleasure. This is not about avoiding the reality and the horror of life, but because it is distressing and unnecessary (and maybe even, to use a contentious word, wrong) to peer at them.

Displaying these photographs doesn’t per se raise interesting questions or do anything worthwhile. Yes, photographs like those of a suicidal black South African man on a high ledge, and then jumping from it to his death in front of a jeering crowd, are sickening, but what does that prove? The Tate claim that such photography may ‘allow us to bear witness to a victim’s suffering’, or alternatively ‘anaesthetize us to the horror’, but all I saw were people gawking in a way that undermines their own dignity, as well as that of the broken bodies on display. There are better, cleverer, subtler ways to interrogate man’s inhumanity to man - and the role of the spectator in it - than to become part of the heartless crowd of onlookers.

Having been through these rooms, I was in a bit of a daze by the time I reached the final theme of ‘Surveillance’: a shame, as this section includes some fascinating projects by Sophie Calle and enjoyable works dealing with spying, military and civilian watchers, even if the stuff about CCTV is hackneyed.

There is a lot to see in this exhibition, and much of it is gripping and powerful. Undoubtedly it is worth visiting and taking your time over. However, as the Tate themselves state: 'Exposed explores the uneasy relationship between making and viewing images that deliberately cross lines of privacy and propriety’. The thing is, though, they really do. It's not necessarily the job of art galleries to find and show the most gruesome, intrusive pictures that they can. Maybe it actually isn’t right to hang or to look at some of these photographs. Man cannot always bear this much reality. No, nor woman neither.

Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera, Tate Modern, 28 May - 3 October 2010

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Cheese and Biscuits: Jaffa Cakes and Marc Quinn

JaffaCakes TLV is the UK's first-ever exhibition of contemporary art from Tel Aviv. On this evidence, I hope it's not the last.

The exhibition begins with a four-minute film, ‘What about me?’, by Etgar Keret, a renowned Israeli writer who is credited as the inspiration for the exhibition as a whole. This film is a short, funny parable of sorts featuring a young soldier guarding two posts in the vast empty space of the desert, a suited businessman with a passing resemblance to Alan Sugar, and a donkey.

Upstairs, one corner is dominated by Mika Rottenberg’s short film ‘Fried Sweat’. Indian musicians play drums and pipes while a hulking body builder works out, the sweat dripping off his muscles and onto a hotplate below. It’s a heightened, grotesque, blurry feast of colour and bodies: the endless loop of the film, the bulging eyes, the impassive musicians, the sweat sizzling in the pan. There's no single obvious meaning but the effect is visceral.

By contrast, Maya Attoun’s pen-and-ink drawings and rope sculptures are cool and calm and lovely. Her drawings ‘Daily Wonders’ and ‘Daily Wonders 2’ show women sketched in simple monochrome, magically hovering in the air while they perform household tasks, while the gorgeous sculpture ‘Bloom’ consists of red roses and their trailing black stems, all made from thick twisted rope.

The works of Know Hope, described as a ‘street artist’ who specialises in ‘whimsical personifications of urban objects’, repay a patient inspection. At first glance, they have a distinctive cartoony style with a faintly disturbing edge, like one of those odd late-night kids’ TV programmes. But looked at more closely, there’s something arresting about the repetition of motifs – the red heart on the sleeve, the bird, the blue teardrops – and the silent, unexplained struggles of his cardboard characters.

However, it is Nogah Engler’s paintings which stand out a mile, even beside these other intriguing and accomplished works. Engler paints stunning, strange, multilayered landscapes, with faint Breughelesque figures half-appearing among the dark trees, streaks of dirty snow, ponds of light, large square holes opening up inexplicably in the ground, sharp dark edges, a black dog suddenly in the corner of the picture, barking from behind a fragment of wire fence. These are the landscapes of half-remembered bad dreams. Engler is an oustanding and distinctive painter of works which resist complete comprehension.

What a contrast, then, to come out of this exhibition and enter White Cube on the neighbouring side of Hoxton Square to see Marc Quinn’s latest collection of sculptures and paintings. Where the works in JaffaCakes are troubling, quietly odd and beautiful, Quinn’s new collection is a dull riot of the superficial. And whereas I was almost alone in the Rove Gallery, White Cube was crowded with pleasure seekers getting their intellectually respectable pervkicks.

The exhibition consists mainly of shiny sculptures of celebrities such as Pamela Anderson (represented here by two more or less identical statues, neither of which look much like her) and Michael Jackson, and others famous for their transgressively modified bodies, such as Buck Angel, the transsexual ‘man with a pussy’, Catman, who has undergone extensive surgery to take on feline characteristics, and Chelsea Charms, a porn star with huge silicone-enhanced breasts.

The centrepiece of the main gallery is a oversized white marble nude of Thomas Beattie, who was widely hyped in the media as ‘the world’s first pregnant man’ (he is, in fact, a female-to-male transsexual who has only partially undergone the transition). Accompanying the statues are several very similar multicoloured paintings of vaguely sexualised flowers, with long pretentious titles (e.g.: Venus After Magellan (In the Night Garden); On the Separation of the Body and Soul (Easter Island)).

The White Cube's write-up states:
Although all modelled from life, these bodies seem to exist beyond the normal boundaries of classification - appearing almost 'trans-gender', or 'trans-corporeal' - throwing the very notion of identity into question, exposing it as a fragile, complex and multi-layered construction, interminably co-existent with their external physical selves.
Surely it's understating matters quite drastically to say that Buck Angel, a thickset tattooed man with female genitals, ‘appear[s] almost “trans-gender”’?

In any case, these are obviously, glaringly non-natural bodies, and simply displaying them doesn't do anything to disrupt the relationship between the experienced self and the perceived physical form. Art has tried to approach questions of identity, the self, and the body in many different ways, but just reproducing those which are already renowned for their self-conscious artificiality and blurring of boundaries doesn’t get anyone anywhere.

All of those who dabble in the worlds of online pornography, genderqueer, ‘furries’, and body modification have long been familiar with those featured here; they are celebrated examples of people who have deliberately undertaken extreme alterations for various reasons (such as attempting to conform more closely to a perceived ideal body, or to gain money or fame). But their fame isn’t restricted to underground subcultures, although the breathlessness and prurience of some of the coverage might suggest otherwise. One reviewer writes:
It's at once an unexpected ensemble Рthe risqu̩ sculptures arranged in front of a series of vibrant psychedelic flower paintings Рand shocking too. Shocking because the figures I'm confronted with haven't just been conjured up by Quinn in some kind of hormone therapy, plastic surgery, skin bleaching freak show; they are real life people, who really look like this. And have chosen to look like this.
It makes you wonder what kind of elevated cultural bubble people must live in to be genuinely shocked by the existence of these ‘real life’ bodies: Catman has been featured in documentaries on Channel 4 and Channel 5, while Thomas Beattie is familiar from a slew of front pages and Pammy was the darling of ITV teatimes way back in the early nineties. It is they who deserve credit for exposing identity as a construction not grounded in essentially natural physical bodies, if anyone does - not Marc Quinn.

The joke, or the serious point, of these sculptures lies (the reviews assure us) in their deviation from the idealised physiques of Greco-Roman statuary, a similar idea to Quinn’s earlier sculpture of amputee artist Alison Lapper, which occupied Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth. But even leaving aside the fact that sculptures have historically depicted an enormous diversity of human bodies, it is difficult to see that this does anything more than highlight their abnormality by placing them in this frozen freakshow. Certainly this is suggested by the reactions of the exhibition visitors, goggling and giggling as they peer at the statue of Buck Angel being fucked doggystyle by chick-with-a-dick Allanah Starr. You can find this stuff online, you know - someone should tell them.

In the end though, the most significant difference between these two exhibitions is their affective power. Quinn’s previous project Self, for which he modelled a sculpture of his own head from his own frozen blood, had something immediate about it, but these works don’t. The statues don’t implore or beseech or threaten; no human connection is made; they leave you cold and detached. Compare this to the stifling heat of Rottenberg’s ‘Fried Sweat’, with its grunting, sizzling, straining flesh. The works in JaffaCakes refuse the crowd-pleasing shortcuts and leave you with a lot to chew on. And a smashing orangey bit.

JaffaCakes TLV, Pop-up exhibition at Kenny Schachter’s Rove Gallery, 33-34 Hoxton Square, London N1 6NN. 16 April – 15 May 2010
Marc Quinn, White Cube, 48 Hoxton Square, London N1 6PB. 7 May – 26 June 2010