Thomthumb84's Blog

Exposed Exhibition – Art Review

Posted in Art by thomthumb84 on September 1, 2010

After much procrastination I finally made it to the Exposed Exhibition at the Tate Modern this weekend and was pleasantly surprised. It think it’s the first exhibition I’ve been to at the gallery with such an emphasis on photography and while I normally think it has its place as an art form there is a part of me that considers photography a slightly minor form of artistic expression compared to other mediums.

To hang them in a gallery so recognised for its internationally renowned sculpture and painting did leave me sceptical. While, of course, there is some room for the abstract in photography I find that, on the whole, it is used as a means of recording events as opposed to expressing one’s self.

And, yes, I certainly have a lot of room for the use of film as an art form but then the flexibility of film means that more can be done. Photography is static – film can push life into an object and this brings a new edge to the forms of expression available.

But to be honest I don’t why I got into all of that because I loved this exhibition. The theme was vague enough to provide the possibility for a number of issues to be examined but the sections managed to provide a clear enough line between each other to give the impression that this was part of a greater whole. With this in mind I think the best way of looking at this is by going from section to section:

The Unseen Photographer: “The first section of the exhibition considers ways in which photography can reveal the world unawares and show people caught with their guard down. This idea begins with the technologies that have allowed images to be made surreptitiously, from nineteenth-century cameras hidden in walking sticks, shoes or inside suit-jackets, to twentieth-century devices such as the lateral view-finder which allows the photographer to apparently face one direction while taking a picture in another.” (Tate website blurb)

Now you see this is what I am talking about when I refer to photography being a means by which to record a moment. What is unique about these pictures, though, is the fact that we are being presented with a certain honesty that is seldom seen in other photography from this period. The clandestine means by which the photos are taken means that we are seeing images that move beyond the stifling conformity of portrait pictures of the time, such as Walker Evan’s Subway Passengers.

But it also means that we can view visual evidence of those sides of society so frequently glossed over such the working conditions of children in cotton factories. In this sense they almost feel like a visual take on works by Orwell like Down and Out in Paris and London or Road to Wigan Pier. But there is something about the visual that brings these things home.

While you can hear about the conditions in mines, or children being forced to work in factories, or the living conditions of the lower classes, there is nothing like a true picture – actual proof that these things actually happened. In this it is a great success.

Celebrity & the Public Gaze: “The notion of celebrity as we know it today is inseparable from the invention of photography. By the 1860s, photographic studio portraits allowed notable figures to become instantly recognisable to the public. However, this period of controlled self-publicity was short-lived. Smaller, more portable cameras allowed for covert picture-taking during private moments, and faster shutter speeds opened up opportunities for capturing subjects off-guard. Whilst some famous figures have manipulated the medium to their advantage, the infringement of privacy represented by such photographs remains controversial.” (Tate website blurb)

Considering the continuing interest in this area it was inevitable that this would come up. I have to admit I find the whole thing a bit ‘done’ now. Yes, we appreciate that as a society we have an aggressive desire to look into the world of celebrities – that we feel some possession of them once they enter the public realm – that celebrities have become a consumable object, etc etc.

But stop now. If anything it annoys me because it intellectualises the paparazzi. It seems to legitimise them as purveyors of a necessary public service, which they are not. This is not to say I am any better. As I was saying above I like to get another perspective on events and times. Photos of those who play key roles in our cultural heritage are therefore compelling – even if it is only Degas leaving a bog or Jackie Kennedy having a swim.

The pictures by Alison Jackson do annoy me, however, as I really see them as a bit of light hearted ‘faddy’ entertainment. It feels a bit like Banksy – it entertains but says very little even if it has pretensions to do so. And these were not even some of the best I have seen by her. Not impressed.

Voyeurism & Desire: “Sexual or erotic images have been made throughout the history of photography. This section includes photographs that gaze openly at willing subjects as well as those depicting illicit and intimate acts made without the knowledge or permission of their subjects. Many of these images seem to position the viewer in the role of a ‘peeping tom’. At the same time, they pose difficult questions about who was looking and why, when the picture was made, and whether we should collude with, or reject, this point of view.” (Tate website blurb)

Now we are getting somewhere! This was great stuff. Cammie Toloui’s photos of strippers in the struck a chord – the way in which the women were viewed by the men alienated them in an interesting way. As my girlfriend said “They looked at them like they were animals in a zoo.”.

What is interesting here is the fact that the men watching react in the same fashion – does their viewing of the women in this way –through the significant factor of majority numbers and concentrated perspective – transform that woman into what they believe she is. Does her own opinion of herself in this role transform her into it?

Merry Alpern’s pictures through the window of a brothel in New York are interesting. These kinds of fly on the wall shots are compelling because you can feel that you have participated without getting dirty yourself. Of course, this comes back to the larger issue of voyeurism but its interesting because you know that you would not want to participate anyway. By placing the pictures in front of you it is forcing you to participate. It reminds me of Rear Window where he is forced into participation and action by the view in front of him.

And then there were Kohei Yoshiyuki’s ‘Park’ pictures. These are so odd I think it is worth having the Tate’s description here: “When first shown in 1979 at the Komai Gallery, Tokyo, Kohei Yoshiyuki’s series of photographs titled The Park were visible only by flashlight, as each visitor shone a torch over the pictures. As a young commercial photographer, Yoshiyuki uncovered a nocturnal phenomenon of Japanese park life. Whilst walking in Chuo Park in Shinjuku one night with a colleague, he noticed a couple on the ground, and then a number of men creeping towards them.  The men were trying to get close enough to touch the bodies on the ground without being noticed. Yoshiyuki participated in the voyeuristic ‘sport’ for several months before he started to document it using his 35mm camera and an infrared flash bulb. “To photograph the voyeurs, I needed to be considered one of them”, he has said. “I behaved like I had the same interest as the voyeurs, but I was equipped with a small camera. My intention was to capture what happened in the parks, so I was not a real ‘voyeur’ like them. But I think, in a way, the act of taking photographs itself is voyeuristic somehow. So I may be a voyeur, because I am a photographer.”” (Tate website blurb)

Yes, indeedy. Talk about voyeuristic! And isn’t it interesting how the line between the photographer and other participants is blurred? And again, as with the New York brothel pictures there is this general feeling of being forced into this environment. You are being properly exposed to this situation –as though you were there – whether you want it or not. Really great stuff.

For me the absolute highlight of the show was ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’. I am a sucker for intimate pictures of stranger’s friends and family at the best of times – something I do rather too frequently on Facebook (interesting thing that wasn’t looked into I think…). I like examining their expressions and body language (do you think he really loves her? Is he really looking at that girl in the corner? Etc) – but here we are really invited into this very strange and (might I say it?) rather hip New York life. We crash their parties and watch them fucking. Birth-life-death. It’s all there for our scrutiny and for me that is the ultimate thrill.

Witnessing Violence: “Photographs of violence produce paradoxical responses. On the one hand, the acknowledgement of the crime and confrontation with its gruesome effects is an admittance of the need for social improvement; on the other, repeated confrontation with such images may simply numb us to their shocking effects. Does photography allow us to bear witness to a victim’s suffering, or does it anaesthetize us to the horror?” (Tate website blurb)

I remember when I first saw one of Warhol’s prints of the electric chair and others of police dogs being used and maybe a car crash? It was strange because it presented you with the moment of post-violence, or the object of potential violence, outside of its larger context through the use of different colours. I always found those pictures very attractive because they altered my understanding of the original picture – it forced me to look at it from a different perspective.

Here, we have pictures that (again) are more a documents of the event rather than the artist’s own expression of the event in question. In a certain sense this left me cold. Everyday we are exposed to newspaper pictures of extreme violence. Why, then, should we show shock at a picture of a man or a woman jumping to their death? I am sure most people from 15 onwards have seen worse in movies or on the news. The most chilling point comes with the descritions by the side of the pictures for it is here that the story lies and your heart breaks. I have to say I really failed to get this.

Surveillance: “Derived from the French word ‘surveiller’, meaning ‘to keep watch’ or ‘to watch over’, the surveillance camera has been used to police borders, to assist war-time reconnaissance, to gain advantage over political enemies or simply to gather information. Techniques of surveillance are closely linked to developments in photographic technology – from the earliest aerial photographs to satellite pictures. In the twenty-first century, cameras on street corners, in shops and public buildings silently record our every move, while web-based tools such as Google Earth adapt satellite technology to ensure that there is no escape from the camera’s all-seeing eye.” (Tate website blurb)

Some very interesting stuff indeed. I liked the narrative structures of Sophie Calle’s work as she hired someone to follow her or took diary entries after poking around in people’s hotel rooms as a chambermaid. The same is true of Emily Jacir’s webcam pictures, which act as a sort of diary of her time in the main square in Linz. In terms of looking at them through the context of surveillance I understand that the point is that they are using surveillance to observe themselves – bending the whole thing around – and that certainly appeals.

While I liked the idea behind Shizuka Yokomizo’s stranger pictures I don’t really feel as thought I got much out of them. I can’t really explain why but it just felt a touch stifled – the discomfort between model and photographer was there but with no real intensity. They knew, after all, that they were being photographed. My girlfriend also pointed out the fact that while Yokomizo writes letters to the models instructing them to close their curtains if they don’t want to be photographed – why the fuck should I have to? I would much prefer that you didn’t come onto my property with your camera at all thank you. You will not force me to close my curtains!

Hmmmm….. I hate finishing on exclamation marks… Well it had its ups and down but I think on the whole this was a good one and well worth seeing – if only for ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ on its own.


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