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

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