The Science Museum in London has recently inaugurated a new Media Space. I was expecting it to be filled with photos of super computers and distant planets. Instead, i found Only in England, a retrospective of Tony Ray-Jones' photos curated by Martin Parr. Which is completely fine by me as i'd rather spend an afternoon looking at eccentric English ladies than at moons around Jupiter (no disrespect to satellites.)
In the late 1960s, Tony Ray-Jones traveled across his country in a VW camper to document the leisure and pleasures of the English. He was a man who lived by his own rules. One of them was to never take a boring photo. There are dozens of images in the exhibition and none of them is remotely insipid. It's easy to see why the photographer had such an impact on Parr's work: he had a taste for the quietly humorous, the compassionate detail, the ironic narrative.
Ray-Jones died of leukaemia in 1972. He was only 30 but in his short career, he invented a new way of looking at society.
A black and white photo series by Martin Parr, The Non-Conformists, is also part of Only in England. The work follows the religious life of the Methodist and Baptist communities in and around Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. Shot in the mid-1970s, just after Parr graduated from art school, the photos have a gentleness i wasn't expecting from Parr.
Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr is a the Science Museum until 16 March 2014.
And now for something completely different....
Last Thursday, i stopped at the British Museum to see Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art. I thought that Thursday would be a good day for a quiet visit. Wrong! It was the kind of crowd in which you have to stretch your neck in unnatural directions to read the descriptions of the works and wait patiently behind several people before you can actually approach a print. When finally you're in front of the work and have had a good look, you want to turn and walk to the next window but you're blocked by the people waiting and staring behind you. And no, they won't move lest they loose their spot in the queue.
My visit was thus laborious but i liked the show so much i'll have another try (a Tuesday morning when the doors open? a lunch time?)
Produced in Japan from 1600 to 1900, Shunga (or "picture of spring", spring being an euphemism for sex) are erotic paintings, prints and books that were used for personal stimulation and for the education of young lovers.
Make no mistake: this was art, not what we'd now call "pornography". In fact, the works were regarded as a suitable gift to brides on the eve of their wedding or to official foreign visitors. Unaffected by the inhibited sexual attitudes of Christianity or Islam, Shunga presented a fantasy world of sexual delight enjoyed by both sexes. The sense of sin didn't have a place in shunga. But female pleasure, tenderness and beauty did.
The genre flourished even when it was officially banned and many works were in fact produced by some of the country's most distinguished artists. The decline of shunga is attributed to the arrival of Western culture and technologies at the end of the 19th century and in particular the importation of photoreproduction techniques. How could Shunga compete with erotic photography?
In Japan, however, the influence of shunga can still be seen in manga, anime, tattoo art and other popular cultural forms.
I got the following photos from the British Museum press office. Unsurprisingly (but disappointingly), the ones i received were quite tame compared to most of what you can see in the show:
Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art is at the British Museum, until 5 January 2014.
I haven't seen that many exciting exhibitions in London over the past few weeks. I was however, bowled over by the photos of Philip-Lorca diCorcia at the David Zwirner Gallery. The East of Eden series brings side by side biblical references and the American dream gone sour. East of Eden is named after John Steinbeck's 1952 novel, contains direct references to the book of Genesis and is inspired by the collapse of the economy as well as the political climate of the United States towards the end of the Bush era.
"It was really about the loss of innocence I think the whole world went through when the financial crisis started," diCorcia explains. "The financial crisis was the beginning of an economic crisis that led to a political crisis. It took two administrations to learn that the war on Iraq was based on a lie, that Saddam Hussein didn't work together with Al-Qaida, and that Afghanistan was an impossible country to transform. Now we have natural disasters that we never could have imagined before. And then there are all those people with no homes. I did feel some compulsion to respond. I never respond directly. But I had a distinct motivation for the conceptualization of the imagery."
The only photo in the gallery that is not likely to throw you into a melancholy state is the one with the two placid white dogs watching porn in a Hamptons home. They were actually looking at much tamer images. 'I rarely manipulate photographs after they are taken,' said diCorcia, 'but in this case the dogs were watching Bambi. I put in the porn later.'
The lady in Iolanda is the artist's mother-in-law. She is either staring at her own reflection or looking at the sky outside, waiting for the tornado forecast on tv.
The tempting Serpent from the Garden of Eden is symbolized by the stripper gliding up and down a pole.
Everything has a meaning and purpose in diCorcia's photos. One man is wearing a red jumper, the other a blue one, while a pregnant woman looks at them from the door. Cain and Abel are locked in reluctant embrace before one kills the other. They also represent U.S. politics and more precisely the Democrat/Republican relationship.
UPDATE: David Zwirner will host a talk by Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the V&A, about the artist's work, 19 October 2013, 11 AM, RSVP to +44 (0)203 538 3165.
The first early human human fossil found in Africa that provides a key evidence to support Darwin's theory of human evolution (and in particular the origin of anatomically modern humans to sub-Saharan Africa) was discovered by a Swiss miner in 1921 in a lead and zinc mine in Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia (now Kabwe, Zambia.) An upper jaw from another individual, a sacrum, a tibia, and two femur fragments were also uncovered. Anything else was lost during the mining exploitation of the area. The skull, dated to be between 125,000 and 300,000 years old, was taken to London by the British colonial authorities -in violation of protocols put in place by the British South Africa Company- and it is still there, as part of the collection of Natural History Museum. Meanwhile, the Lusaka National Museum, in Zambia, is only exhibiting a replica of the cranium.
Except that right now, the Lusaka National Museum is not even exhibiting a replica but an identical model recently purchased online by a Thai artist. A replica of a replica, thus. The replica itself is on show, all alone in a big room, at Chisenhale Gallery in London.
Pratchaya Phinthong has loaned the replica skull and asked the museum guide, Kamfwa Chishala, to travel to London for the duration of the exhibition in order to communicate the history of the skull to the visitors of the art gallery, as he does in Lusaka. Kamfwa Chishala is thus the only genuine participant to this exhibition. He was invited by the artist to bring his own subjectivity and perspective to the story of the Broken Hill skull. Something he certainly does with passion. I'd recommend that you get to the gallery, listen to his presentation and have a chat with him. He's a lovely man.
The replica skull is displayed with a copy of the wooden box where the original is kept at the NHM and with the export license that the artist had to obtain from the National Heritage Commission in Zambia because the replica skull is classified as a national relic. I thought the Zambian government was quite brave to allow the replica to travel to London since their attempts to repatriate the original to its country have all failed so far (tell that to the Greeks!)
Broken Hill explores the provenance and the authenticity of artefacts but also the way human interference further complicates their status. The exhibition is the outcome of a network of personal relationships between individuals living in cities as different from each other as Lusaka, Bangkok and London.
After all these years seeing skull after skull in art galleries and contemporary art fairs, it was time some artist put a skull in a context that is more than simply anecdotal, sensational or sloppily 'zeitgeist'-conscious.
The photo above lured me to take the train to Peckham Rye and visit the South London Gallery. The image is the one relentlessly featured in the online mags announcing At the Moment of Being Heard, a show of works and performances that reflect on sound and modes of listening.
Sadly, Aquaphone Cornemuse Opus 143 is not presented in the exhibition. But in case you were still curious about it, the Aquaphone is part of a series of 'instruments d'écoute' (instruments for listening) made with glass objects used by chemists. The Aquaphone works in closed circuit to amplify tiny sound phenomenons. The glass element is partly filled with water and with air that acts as sound transmitter.
Even if the Aquaphone Cornemuse Opus 143 is not part of the exhibition, it still embodies accurately the tone and character of the show. At the Moment of Being Heard is the quietest exhibition about sound i've ever visited. You hear salt being slowly poured, speakers quietly growling, piano strings being struck, shutters falling down echoing inside your head only. At times, you might even hear silence as well.
Tuned piano wires stretches all over to the ceiling in criss-cross patterns. The wires of Eli Keszler's installation are periodically struck and scraped by mechanical beaters to deliver deep and resonating sounds that reverberate through the main gallery. The result being quieter and much more harmonious than my description would have you believe.
crys cole's sound sculpture lays nearby and unassumingly within the gallery floor's vents. One part of the work is a small heap of salt that fills the vent in the left corner of the room. Its counterpart is located in the vent at the other side of the space, but this time there is nothing to see, if you bend down slightly you can hear the sound of the slow action (it took 108 minutes) of filling the first space with salt.
Filling a Space with Salt (in two parts) nicely echoes a photo by Reiner Ruthenbeck showing a lady closing the shutters outside a gallery. The black and white photo elicits the loud clang of the shutters inside you head, even if nothing in the room is actually making that sound.
Singing, by Rolf Julius, is made of seven suspended speakers which emanate a low, resonant hum. The vibrations in the cones cause sieved black pigment on the membranes to shift in sync with the quiet composition.
At the Moment of Being Heard is a nice, subtle, almost meditative show where i spent more time than expected. It reminded me that i love sound art as much as i dislike writing about it. Speaking of which.... I've only blogged about the pieces in the main gallery but there's more works upstairs: Baudouin Oosterlynck's score-drawings made over journeys in Europe in search of silence, Rolf Julius' curious videos of upturned speaker cones submerged in ash and a lonely and almost undetectable speaker playing an outdoor rural Summer soundscape.
At the Moment of Being Heard doesn't stop there. Live performances and special events run until September at the SLG and also at nearby off-site venues. This one looked good, i'm sorry i missed it:
At the Moment of Being Heard is on view at the South London Gallery until 8 September.
If you're as horrified as i have been by the endless queues to see the David Bowie exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum, maybe you could walk by and try the ticket-free and crowd-free Making It Up: Photographic Fictions.
V&A has selected from its vast archives some 30 images that denies the assumption that photography captures 'the truth'. Since the early days of its history indeed, the medium has also been used to stimulate viewer's imagination or simply to deceive.
The exhibition is small but dense with narratives that entertain, betray, trouble or convey extra layers of information. Some of the stratagems used in these images are subtle, others are downright theatrical.
Roger Fenton's Valley of the Shadow of Death photos are, i've been told, extremely famous. I must admit that i had never read about them before. Fenton was commissioned to document the Crimean War in 1855. Because of the limitations of photographic techniques of the time, because of the danger of entering the battlefield with a cumbersome photo equipment, but also because of the government's wish to present the war in a light that would not upset the public, Fenton couldn't represent the conflict directly.
Valley of the Shadow of Death is a striking example of how Fenton communicated the aftermath of a battle. The photo doesn't show corpses nor wounded soldiers but cannonballs strewn over a road near Sevastopol.
It was later discovered that Fenton had taken another photograph of this scene, with only rocks laying on the road this time. Historians speculate that Fenton probably staged the scene, moving cannonballs from the ditch onto the road in order to create an image dramatic enough to evoke human casualties on the battlefield.
Terry Towery (born 1963) aka Timothy Eugene O'Tower (1829-1905) claims to have 'discovered' this photo by his descendant Timothy Eugene O'Tower, a 19th century photographer. The photo immediately recalls Roger Fenton's. O'Tower is in fact a figment of Towery's imagination and his photos show table-top constructions masquerading as landscapes.
Jan Wenzel's compositions are made entirely inside a photobooth. He used to work in a booth located in the Census Office of Leipzig until, in 1998, he found an old Fotofix booth, repaired it and installed it in his studio. For each of his tableaux, he would set up the scene inside the photo booth and rearrange each frame at 28-second intervals.
The photos above are not the ones exhibited at the V&A but they are close enough to give you an idea of his work.
Nothing in Oliver Boberg's images is what it seems. He selects a location, takes a snap of it then goes back to his studio where he builds a model of the place, carefully lights it and then photographs the scene from predetermined vantage points.
He calls the result "generic modernism". His 'locations' are banal and familiar urban scenes, yet they are alien, stripped of any human or non human life. A reality so controlled and constructed, it becomes almost abstract.
Bridget Smith´s image depict sets purposely built for an activity that the photographer does not represent as such. The bathroom above (the work in the V&A exhibition was a locker room but i couldn't find any photo of it online) is an empty stage set used in the porn industry. The photo is part of the series "Glamour Studios" which catalogues architectures of desire.
Gregory Crewdson works on a Hollywood movie scale with actors and a large crew but it is only after an elaborate process of digital editing that an effect of "hyper-visuality" arises in both the details and the ensemble of these Amercan suburb scenes. More than film stills, Crewdson's images are 'frozen moments', they allude to mysterious, disturbing events usually taking place at twilight. The puzzling scenes leave viewers wondering what has just taken place or what is going to happen.
Duane Michals uses sequences of photos to suggest a narrative. In this sequence, two men pass in an alleyway without incident, but the encounter seems loaded with significance.
Lady Hawarden used her two eldest daughters as models who play out courtship scenes, dressed in 18th-century costume.
Robert Thomson Crawshay was the owner of an ironworks and an amateur photographer. The sitter is not a fishwife but his own daughter whom he photographed in various guises.
More images from the show:
Making It Up: Photographic Fictions is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until March 16th 2014.
Related story: Manipulating Reality - How Images Redefine the World.