Friday, 1 February 2013

A Brave Attempt

In the House of My Father © Donald Rodney

Currently on at the Manchester Art Gallery is the exhibition Focal Points: Art and Photography. After having been to it during the Christmas period, I am still thinking about it more than a month later. The premise of the show is that photography lies at the heart of some of the most significant works of contemporary art. Whilst there is no denying that point, I am still at a loss why certain works were shown to the exclusion of others. So I tried to put myself into the position of the curator. How would I put together this show?

To be honest, with a theme like this, I am not even sure how and where I would start. Are photography and art two separate entities? If so, are they mutually exclusive? Who would be representative of this relationship? Would I choose hardcore photographers? Or would I opt for artists that incorporate photography in their practice, but also work with other media? Which of their works would I put on view? Would my choices be limited by availability of existing works? Would I be able to commission new ones? Would I otherwise be limited in time, space and money? Mind you, these are only some of the more practical issues. Would I explain my choices to the audience? If so, how much would I explain? Or would I let them make up their own minds? How would I position the works? What would be the natural flow of the exhibition? Can there even be a natural flow? It quickly becomes clear that this particular topic would be daunting for any curator worth his salt.

The terrain covered by the relationship between art and photography is so incredibly vast, it is difficult to comprehend it to its full extent. The concept is so malleable, so changeable that it becomes a bit of a mission to define any solid and tangible boundaries. How can it possibly be broken down into something manageable? There are some clues to be found in the exhibition. It contains about thirty works, produced from the 1980s onwards. According to the introduction text a number of artists had started to use photography in the 1980s as they had been inspired by the conceptual art and pop art movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But could another reason be that photography from the 1980s onwards received much more recognition as a legitimate art form in and of itself in museums and art galleries? Could it also be because it became much more of a commodity in the art market?

Then there is the issue that the works on show are mostly derived from the Manchester City Galleries Collection and the Arts Council Collection. Were the 1980s also chosen because most of the works in these collections are from that particular era? Why were these collections chosen anyway? Easy access played an important role I imagine. But would they provide enough source material to work with, to really explore the theme? Would they not limit the exhibition by quintessentially turning it into a British group show? Indeed, the majority of the artists on view are British. But does that not defeat the point of the exhibition? Because if it was made in a different country, with different collections as source material, would it not provide radically different answers to the many questions posed above?

Focal Points further tries to provide answers by subdividing the works into those dealing with the body, still lives, cultural identities and the exploration of living and working places. These categories were chosen because they are classic themes in art history. But are these particular subthemes somehow more easily captured with photography? How well do the works on show fit these categories anyway? And do they actually prove the point of art and photography? Only partially in my opinion. The 'architecture section', which includes the interiors of Catherine Yass and the city scapes of Thomas Demand, feels empty and out of place. The 'still lives' are generally nice, but nothing to write home about.

The images that deal with identity and the body on the other hand are really strong. The pictures from Richard Billingham's seminal series Ray's a Laugh form a heart-rending photo reportage of his dysfunctional parents living in desperate poverty. In close proximity are works by the excellent Ingrid Pollard. The photographs from her Pastoral Interlude series show black people in the British countryside. Her jarring images question the automatic association of black people with city life. Then there is Sarah Lucas' self portrait in which she looks and sits like a bloke in a chair but with two fried eggs draped on her breasts. It is a succinct and eloquent critique of gender assumptions. The Ethnographic Series by Pushpamala N is a fascinating exploration of ethnicity and gender as well as a critical reworking of anthropological photography. Donald Rodney's picture In the House of My Father is beautiful and gruesome at the same time. By fashioning a tiny house of his own skin and tenderly holding it in his own hand, he questions health, mortality and feelings of safety. The image also breaks down quite a few taboos in the process. These works really strike a chord. They do more than just record what is in front of the camera. They are genuinely a work of art.

Focal Points: Art and Photography is still on at Manchester Art Gallery until Sunday 7 April 2013.

Karin Bareman


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