Ambit: Photographies from Scotland / Reviewed by Clare Samuel / 04.06.17
Ambit: Photographies from Scotland is the first collaboration since the early 1990s between Stills and Street Level, the two major photographic arts organizations in Scotland. The exhibition aims to strengthen their connection, as well as that of the photographic communities in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and to raise the profile of diverse photo-based practices in Scotland.
The word ‘ambit’ means the scope or range of something, and SLP director Malcolm Dickson says that rather than a survey or a ‘best of’ Scottish photography, the exhibition is instead ‘some of the best happening at the moment’. He and Stills director Ben Harman were interested in reflecting the wide range of local tendencies in contemporary photographic arts practice. This diversity also extends to the artists’ ages and different career levels, but all of whom the curators felt ‘hadn’t quite had the recognition they deserved yet’ (Malcolm Dickson).
At the Stills section of the exhibition, many of the works are hung in clusters or explosions of images. With some works coming off the wall entirely or extending to sculptural pieces, there seemed to me an emphasis on the materiality of photography, despite the intentional lack of a specific theme or focus at each site.
Eden Hawkins’ work transforms everyday domestic items, such as kitchen utensils, into gravity-defying assemblages. Her strange configurations and the use of intense, almost aggressive, colours are reminiscent of Sandy Skoglund, but these feel more mysterious and intimate. The inclusion of sculptural pieces that echo the strange folds of space and time in the images, destabilizes our understanding of these domestic spaces even further.
More representational, but still filtered through the materiality of the medium, Karen Vaughan’s coastal images are created with various ‘toy’ cameras. Deliberate multiple exposures create undulating and overlapping panoramas, suggesting the ways in which these landscapes (Eastern Scotland and Newfoundland in Canada) are being redefined by economic and environmental changes.
Lorna Macintyre’s Solid Objects (Roma) is an intriguing and subtle meditation on the photographic print as a porous object, rather than a ‘window’ we look into, or as a two-dimensional closed ‘surface’. Monochrome prints of grand Italian stone carvings have been toned using soft drinks, fusing together high culture and low, questioning the value and independence of certain materials over others.
Norman McBeath’s photographs stand out as the most traditional work, beautifully printed fibre-based images of the play of light on and from different surfaces, from streetlights and candles to reflections. This work is in collaboration with poet Robert Crawford, and it would be interesting to see how it functions when that text accompanies it.
Text, and indeed many ‘texts’, are fused and fragmented in Kristian Smith’s process of assemblage and reworking. The work takes as its starting point Robert Bresson’s stark indictment of capitalism in his last film L’Argent (1983). The work includes re-photographed images from the internet and collages of original magazine adverts from the ’70s and ’80s, reminiscent of those by Martha Rosler from that time. Two enigmatic images are affixed to what appears to be an overturned table, on the underside an extreme close-up of fingertips, and on the front a waterfall that seems to be sliding off the structure, as if falling from the weight of the water it depicts.
Over at the Street Level exhibition Tine Bek’s Barok also includes images spilling off the wall. A huge framed photograph of the reflection on an oil painting is leaned up against a pillar, and images of architectural details are directly pasted onto the bottom of a vitrine, sometimes continuing up its sides. The installation channels the exuberance of the Baroque period, and the individual images focus on spaces, shape and pattern,
There feels like more of an emphasis on place and space and in the Street Level show. Sylwia Kowalczyk’s Lethe consists of re-photographed almost three-dimensional collages, with prints torn open to reveal layers of other images behind. The works suggest fragments of personalities, or past experiences, and holes or gaps in the spaces of memory.
The title of Donnie MacLean’s Sealed With a Glasgow Kiss plays with that euphemism for ‘head-butting’ based on the aggressive reputation of Glasgow. Indeed the high-contrast monochrome blurred images appear as though they were produced by the photographer making similar kinds of bodily movements. These portraits of isolated distorted figures are almost the polar opposite of the detached observer in traditional street photography. As the exhibition text suggests, this is about the ‘indecisive moment, rather than the decisive’. Subjects’ expressions are guarded if not outright hostile when they aren’t withheld from us by posture or image distortion. The sense of despair, and of emotion fusing with and distorting the body, is reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s Heads.
Blazej Marczak ‘s The Grey City also centres on a Scottish city, in this case Aberdeen, the energy capital of Europe. Scenes of urban and suburban areas are almost completely devoid of people, when they do appear as small figures they are turned away or blurred. Uniformly grey skies blend into granite architecture and there is a sense of boredom and malaise. This is broken only by bursts of incongruous colour like the painted ‘future party bus’, a Simpson’s mural, or multiple advertising billboards, which seem to offer portals into another world.
The stand out work in the exhibition is Margaret Mitchell’s In This Place, an intimate family documentary that also relates to huge social and political questions. The artist photographed her sister’s children in their council flat in 1994, and in 2016 she began documenting them again, along with their own children. In that time they have been moved from one housing estate poised for redevelopment to another high on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. Stunning environmental portraits balance vulnerability and strength, and interior and exterior details of their homes reveal a sense of stasis, alternating between frustration and acceptance. A limited edition newsprint publication accompanies the work, and gallery visitors who don’t at least flip through it are missing out. Beautifully constructed text adds important nuances and background on these individual’s stories, relating them to wider questions of class, urban renewal, and as the artist says ‘choice –do we have choices in life or are some predetermined to an extent and made for us?’.
The exhibition clearly demonstrates the strength and diversity of photographic work being made in Scotland, and the curators hope to establish Ambit as a recurring event. So with luck we can look forward to further iterations that also reveal such a fascinating cross section of practices.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Clare Samuel
Ambit: Photographies from Scotland is exhibited over two venues: 22nd April 2017 – 18th June 2017 at Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow and 22nd April 2017 – 9th July 2017 at Stills, Edinburgh.