Review: “Moments of Reprieve: Representing Loss in Contemporary Photography” @ Paradise Row, London

Moments of Reprieve: Representing Loss in Contemporary Photography, presented by Paradise Row and curated by Louisa Adam and David Birkin is a mixed photography show. It brings together an exciting group of contemporary artists, whose work I was very keen to see both in person, and in this curation. It is the first photography exhibition I have seen that explicitly looks at loss, a matter dear to my heart, and I was very keen to see which works from the named artists would be chosen to tell this story.

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Moments of Reprieve (Installation Image), 2012, Paradise Row off-site exhibition.

So, shortly before it ended, I recently visited the above exhibition hosted at an off-site address and presented by London gallery, Paradise Row. [On a personal note, I have to say that upon hearing about the existence of the exhibition, I was struck with both relief and deflation of the kind that I am sure all artists, art writers, curators etc. experience at least once, if not many more times: relief and confirmation that that thing you have been ‘banging on about’ (in fact, that thing that I am basing my whole MRes project on…) is validated by someone else is doing it too! …followed instantaneously by the deflated ego whispering...yes, and they did it first…now what are you going to do…?]

So in an attempt to work that out, I thought I’d first get to grips with exactly what it was I was looking at, and why.

A first and lasting thing that I have been struck by is the title of the exhibition, which both confuses me, and perhaps contradicts itself. Loss is associated with sadness; something you wanted to hold on to, but for some reason didn’t/couldn’t. Reprieve, on the other hand evokes a calm space where yes, there is something missing, but not something necessarily lost. However, the curators tell us that “the exhibition takes its title from the 1978 book by Primo Levi recalling the small and often unspoken gestures encountered during his imprisonment that restored a sense of humanity in otherwise inhumane circumstances.”[1] and I must admit, if there ever were extenuating circumstances where loss and reprieve would be intertwined, those stories are most certainly it. Yet Adam and Birkin also tell us that the title is “eschewing spectacle and explicit representation”[2] and if that were really the case, then lose the strapline? Moments of Reprieve on its own would have done this, and I can’t help but link the addition of the explanatory byline to the similar titles in academic conference papers; the witty, intelligently referenced title and then the explanatory sentence that ensures people know what on earth the presentation is about and ensures the right academics attend. Yet, being explicit is no bad thing. This is why I am here after all.

So what of the art?

The exhibition is curated by Louisa Adam and David Birkin and features the following artists:

Birdhead, David Birkin, Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Justin Coombes, Ori Gersht, Idris Khan, Eleonora Rossi, Indre Serpytyte, Taryn Simon, Jane & Louise Wilson.

First, let me say that I’m always wary of an exhibition where the curator has included himself in the lineup but I do understand there are various reasons for this. Having also visited FreshFaced + WildEyed2012 at The Photographers’ Gallery on this trip, I note that David Birkin is a recent graduate (MA) from Slade School of Fine Art (2011) and clearly his work on ‘photography and loss’ is an ongoing concern across a practice that consists of both making and curating.

Birkin is clearly influenced by the conceptual strategies of other exhibiting artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, in his own artwork, and this makes his piece Pieta, (2012) an obvious curation in this show, both conceptually and through its brave hang directly across from Broomberg and Chanarin’s The Day Nobody Died III & IV, (2008). Unlike the large strips of exposed photographic paper across from it that have witnessed the war zone first hand, and bear the bumps and wrinkles to prove it, not least the chemical burn of light on paper, Birkin’s work, a digital print of an appropriated AP wire photograph(1992) is preciously framed in its deference to ‘the photograph’.  But rather, it is the pigment overlaid that is the precious cargo here, which although speaks less to photography is undeniably underpinned by faultless conceptual ideology in the framework of this exhibition.

“Moments of Reprieve brings together a group of artists whose work responds conceptually to the challenge of articulating loss through photography.  From the personal to the political, these staged and stolen moments expand on the idea that the medium and its modes of production may point to something beyond the image, revealing as much through what they omit and conceal as the subjects they directly depict.” [3]

The curatorial statement (above) raises one of the difficulties in curating perhaps any group show. How to take works form such diverse practices and fuse them into one exhibition space? In this show we are looking across works from  artists working in a documentary style to studio set-ups, conceptual photography and mixed media productions. And of course, all those spaces in between. Overall though, the works are linked by their connections to humanity, and the title here begins to hold its own.

In my initial excitement about seeing this exhibition I noted first the artists I was familiar with. I’ve looked at photography & loss in some detail over the past few years and my research now takes the idea of loss to a somewhat more focussed and dystopian space – that of erasure.  So artists Idris Khan and Ori Gersht instantly stood out and made sense. I was keen to see what work of theirs was included, but I had a fairly good idea. Khan’s composite photographs use the principal of addition and layering, yet each addition obfuscates the subject even more from the viewer. In this exhibition the choice of his Every page…From Roland Barthes ‘Camera Lucida’, (2004) speaks not only to Photography itself, but to the humanity thematic through the understanding of Barthes reference to death in this writing. One could argue that his Every page…of the holy koran (2004) or ...Bernd And Hilla Becher Gable Sided Houses (2004) would speak to humanity and photography respectively, too, but the choice here includes both and for me echoes the exhibition title’s namesake and the complex relationship that reprieve and loss can have.

For me, both these artists work resonate with the knowledge of ‘photography’ which adds depth to their inclusion in an exhibition that is not just about loss, but about photography as well. So although, Adam and Birkin’s choice of these artists’ works did not disappoint, whereas the Khan print was beautiful and sumptuous, unfortunately I felt the Gersht print was lacklustre in viewing. The image is frustratingly beautiful, with a subtle veil that rejects the viewer and disallows any detail in this landscape, in a rejection of the notion of landscape pictorialism but the quality of the print itself (a the choice of such a matt paper and the digital grain in the image) left it lacking, and not in an intentional way. Especially in comparison to the vibrancy that was the beautiful materiality of the Khan work.


Idris Khan, Every page…From Roland Barthes ‘Camera Lucida’, 2004, Digital silver-bromide print mounted on rag board and aluminium, 158.05 x 130.22 cm

Ori Gersht, If Not Now, When #1, 2009, Lambda print on aluminium, 100 x 240 cm, edition of 6

I was similarly disappointed in the Broomberg and Chanarin works: Red House #15, (2006) and The Day Nobody Died III, (2008)Conceptually rigourous and rooted in ideas of political and war-torn loss these works make complete sense in the show, when you understand that concept. On initial viewing though, they left me wanting…information and context. With only the image details and artist names, the lack of context for these works was depriving and that spark that fires one’s interest in an artwork was decidedly missing. I can’t help but see the irony in this, in an exhibition about loss…

On the other hand, more obvious works in the exhibition that could be collectively viewed are those of Taryn Simon, and Jane & Louise Wilsons where beautiful, large-scale glossy prints, document actual sites of loss. In these works, the titles and imagery are accessible enough to warrant no further questioning, and the simplicity of this allows the viewer to revere in the awe that photographic prints of such technical quality can give you.

So in this mixed group exhibition the conflict lies between the conceptual weight of the artworks. For me, the Broomberg and Chanarin works hold enough presence as photographs, that although not completely unravelled in the gallery space, they warrant an in-depth search by the viewer in order to contemplate them further, and in doing so one is rewarded. In complete contrast, the confusing image by Eleanori Rossi stops me cold, with the low resolution, badly composed, horribly cropped and mounted print of an abandoned chair  (Yes, there is a clever title that alludes to loss, Yes I’m sure the points I just mentioned were intentional, and Yes, I am sure that if I knew more about the artist and this work of theirs I would ‘get it’) again with no context, but this time I have no interest in looking any further into what this could be. There is nothing here for me, and there is a strange sense that there was little for even the curators as it is hung on a tiny wall, only noticeable as you are almost out of the gallery and on your way. An odd choice.

So, Moments of Reprieve is a mixed exhibition for me. It surveys a wide gyre of artists who represent loss in contemporary photography. And despite my negativity on individual works, it is refreshing to have these works curated together and to think about the links that hold them.

I am left though with questions about how we make, curate, display and view artworks in a contemporary culture:

How can we overcome the difficulty of taking an artwork out of context to curate in a group exhibition, and provide the right amount of interpretive, textual, background (call it what you like) information for the audience?
For example, the level of personal research that I had to do in interpreting this exhibition troubles me: doing so made some of the works much more resonant, yet there had to be enough of an attraction in the first place to make me want to do it. There were works there that I had only a cursory look online for any helpful context (only in order to write this piece). How many visitors will be able to do this level of enquiry, and should they have to?

Is there a problem with conceptually driven projects (“research”?) that speak only to other academics? To paraphrase writer Danny Butt, Research before Art. [4]

“We need to stage the who benefits question more clearly in our research undertaken in the public interest.” [5]

Notes:

For a comprehensive set of  images from the exhibition please see the Paradise Row website, and note also the other, extensive reviews on the exhibition on their press page.

For further and insightful information on Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg’s The Day Nobody Died series, I’d recomend the video short What is Conceptual Photography?  by Source magazine which includes discussion from the artists themselves.

———-

[1] http://www.paradiserow.com/exhibitions/75/
[2] http://www.paradiserow.com/exhibitions/75/
[3] http://www.paradiserow.com/exhibitions/75/
[4] Butt, Danny Art before Research in the University – 6 figures (2012) http://dannybutt.net/6figures/ (last visited 1st October 2012)
[5] Butt, Danny Whose knowledge? Reflexivity and ‘knowledge transfer’ in postcolonial practice-based research.
Keynote address to symposium On Making: Integrating Approaches in Practice-Led Research in Art and Design. Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, University of Johannesburg, 15th October 2009 
http://dannybutt.net/whose-knowledge-reflexivity-and-knowledge-transfer-in-postcolonial-practice-based-research/ (last visited 2nd October 2012)

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