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London Art Fair / Photo50 at the London Art Fair, 2014

London Art Fair / Photo50 at the London Art Fair, 2014

In the gamut of art festivals that the UK plays host to, the London Art Fair is perhaps the most welcoming and accessible to both art collectors and curious onlookers. It’s also one of the few fairs that maintains the importance of representing photography with its regular feature Photo50, a guest-curated exhibition of contemporary photography. In a time when photography is still refused independent recognition (the Frieze festival still refuses to admit photography galleries) it’s refreshing to see an established event such as the London Art Fair allotting appropriate gallery space to lens-based media.

2014’s Photo50 saw Jeremy Epstein and Charlie Fellowes of London gallery Edel Assanti attempting to get to grips with the troubling theoretical framework of photography in the digital realm, a dialogue that sat under the banner of Immaterial Matter. In the words of the gallery: ‘Immaterial Matter examines the increasingly indiscernible distinction between the digital and the material, and the implications the dissemination of images in the digital age has on our definitions of authenticity, physicality, reproduction and the artwork’s “aura”.’ 

Anyone with even a cursory understanding of photography theory will see the jumping off point for Edel Assanti’s endeavour. Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is one of those works that can always be relied upon to serve as a vital stepping-stone when establishing a theoretical foundation for a project or exhibition of this nature. Benjamin’s essay took the time to examine what implications mass photographic reproduction was having on the public’s relationship to art and, most importantly, the inherent aura (the originality and authenticity) of works of art. It’s a theme easily applied to our digital era, particularly in the grey area that exists between material and immaterial (when you’re shooting with a digital camera there is no original image, just as when you’re working from a negative there is no original print). These are, understandably, themes that we are dealing with more and more. Introductions to photography and theory are updating to include entire chapters devoted to these new parameters; see for example Douglas Davis, who appropriated part of the title for his ‘evolving’ essay The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction‘. For obvious reasons the essay ends with the words ‘to be continued’.

By their own admission, Epstein and Fellowes are relatively new to the digital game as much of Edel Assanti’s focus has been trained largely on lens-based works. While a lot of the work they are dealing with here does not use a camera, they are indeed utilising photography. As the landscape of photography shifts its focus so Edel Assanti attempt to follow suit and see what they find. What they discover is a mishmash of photographers all of whom are attempting to find their way towards a revealing dialogue concerning photography’s shifting parameters.

Perhaps the most successful inclusion in the exhibition is Nicolai Howalt’s series of appropriated images of the sun taken from the high-resolution mechanically captured images made available by NASA. Rather than bursting with solar colour, each image is reduced down to monochrome. Somehow the lack of colour renders the star more foreboding; each image renders the sun as cold hard rock floating in the infinite void of space. It’s a beautiful concept: an unfeeling machine captures the image of an unfeeling celestial star. Within the context of the exhibition the concern lies in the digital dissemination, lack of copyright and the fact that a user can manipulate and distribute them at their will. 

Also worth mentioning is Andrew Norman Wilson’s refreshingly playful ScanOps, a neat look at Google’s undying attempt to scan and own just about every book in existence. Where the project succeeds, is in showing the interaction between the tangible and immaterial. We also find blurred scans, hands that have slipped into view and crude attempts to correct mistakes with editing software. We see, clearly, that the mechanical and technological can still succumb to human inefficiency.

But it’s not all plain sailing. Elsewhere we find Constant Dullaart’s Eagle + Spectrum Clear Hammered from 2013. Dullaart’s large-scale piece tackles photographic appropriation and manipulation. Why appropriation? Because the image Dullaart uses in his work is actually a photograph taken by Thomas Knoll, lead developer on Adobe Photoshop (until CS4 at least). Dullaart displays the image behind patterned glass, referencing the variety of image filters post-production software has to offer. While the concept may seem a little superficial, it’s important to note that the image is one very small component within the overall context of Dullaart’s artistic practice. Dullart seems to be one of the few artists who is developing a clear picture of how photography can function within the digital aether. So with that in mind it would have been nice to see more of his work on display so that viewers could appreciate the bigger picture that Dullaart is attempting to create. However, with just a single piece of work, Dullaart was sadly underrepresented.

In a sense Edel Assanti created a concept that was difficult to fault. We know the parameters of dissemination, tangibility and reproduction are shifting. There is no arguing with that. But that’s exactly where this year’s Photo50 fell down – there’s was simply little challenge to the viewer. Where some of the selected artists have clear ideas about how to work within this framework (a framework that is still within its theoretical infancy), as a group the works felt disparate and disconnected. It’s an unfortunate symptom of a new school of thinking that has yet to find its real champions in theory and practice.

It is undoubtedly a bold and direct move for Edel Assanti to use Photo50 as a testing ground for these new ideas but it’s difficult not to feel that they could have perhaps used the fair’s space to better effect and tackled themes that were closer to the exhibitions we have seen within their own gallery walls. 

It’s likely to be a number of years before we see a show that is able to comfortably demonstrate the ‘age of digital reproduction’ and unfortunately Photo50 wasn’t quite the platform these ideas needed. As time goes on, galleries and artists will undoubtedly be able to hone the ideas down into a succinct and manageable narrative that viewers will be able to comfortably navigate their way through towards a clearer understanding. However, as admirable as Edel Assanti’s goal was this simply wasn’t the appropriate arena in which to move us forward into a new mindset of dissemination. So, in the words of Douglas Davis, to be continued.

­Oliver Robert Atwell

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More information: Photo50 at London Art Fair