Resolution is not the point. / Reviewed by Daniel Pateman / 19.01.18
Photo50, the photographic companion to London Art Fair which takes place annually in North London, is curated this year by the ambitious and engaging Hemera Collective, comprised of members Jaime Marie Davis, Ashley Lumb, Helen Trompeteler, Kay Watson and Bindi Vora. Orchestrating an intellectually and methodologically rigorous implosion of conventional photography, their show illustrates its limitations, its historical and ideological elisions – and undulating VR tongues – through the purposeful employment of a bounty of myriad technologies.
Resolution is not the point. goes beyond the purview of your average photography exhibition. It both self-reflexively investigates the medium itself, its ideological underpinnings, and illustrates its ability to challenge hegemonic narratives through creative reflection and documentation. Aesthetics are integral to the show, but more as a means of artistic self-cannibalisation; employed to comment on and reveal the psychic functioning of cultural productions. Visual pleasure for its own sake is viewed with suspicion; a method of obscuring hidden realities and oppressing contesting voices. As curator Kay Watson notes of the displayed photo-essays of Marie Yates, pleasure and desire are often “absent from socially engaged approaches to art”. This ethos is evident in the outward looking, collective approach of Resolution, whose scope goes against an ideology of instant gratification. If this exhibition were a TV programme, it would probably be The Wire.
Every inch of the space is carefully utilised for maximum effect; formal yet striking, intriguing yet rigorously composed. There is no ostentation, just a focused impression of thoughtful critical enquiry. It is the sort of show that would be well-placed in Whitechapel Gallery; contemporary and cerebral, utilising multiple technologies, challenging singular categories.
The entrance is a corridor of sorts, where the playful yet productive exhibition title looms. Either side are two walls papered ceiling to floor with a colourful camouflage pattern, creating the impression of domesticity; a synthesis of ERDL camouflage and a Farrah Fawcett pin-up poster. Entitled 105 Degrees and Rising, it acts as the backdrop of a complimentary black and white photo of artist Pio Abad, inside the home of Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos the day he was deposed in 1986. It is an eye-catching, innovative use of space, and places the viewer at the heart of Abad’s cultural and visual dichotomy; the wallpaper alluding to the ubiquity of American cultural and political influence/interference in Vietnam, while its juxtaposition of images suggests the collapse of private and public worlds, the inextricability of the political and the personal.
The assemblage of individual artists and collectives all display enormous engagement with the concerns of their work; the product of a great amount of research. Such variously raised concerns are: the causal connections between developed and developing countries, and the complicity of the former in the arrested development of the latter; the historic legacies of colonialism and racism on national and self-perception; the insidious impact of ostensibly innocuous cultural productions, whose power arises from their obscured visibility; and a general desire to shake truths from the monopolising tree of patriarchy. These things and more the artists elucidate with intense resolve.
The viewer, rather than being the passive receiver of impressions, is thrust into the exhibition in the role of detective. As the title Resolution is not the point. suggests, the curators favour an engaged, dialectical approach over the dogmatic; a dialogue between various groups, people and disciplines. Traces of Nitrate is a quietly imposing installation: a table with a box of archive photographs and a pair of white gloves, in front of which is a display of roughly forty monochrome pictures. This sombre panorama, and the white gloves provided for handing photographic evidence, evokes the sense of the artist’s (and indeed viewer’s) task as comparable to a police procedural; where guilt is to be found not in a single image but in their networked relation. The photographs, the research of Xavier Ribas, Ignacio Acosta and Louise Purbrick, depict the movement of mineral wealth – nitrate and copper extracted from the earth in Chile – through global markets into transformed (European) commodities. The collective’s documentary procedure exposes this legalised injustice; tracing the theft of natural resources from one country to another, and showing the geography-spanning chain of culpability and exploitation.
At the far end of the show are works responding to historic legacies of racial stereotypes and their persistence into the present. Larry Achiampong’s Glyth series (2014) utilises personal photographs on which he places digitally drawn black spheres over his subjects’ faces, in an approximation of the practice of ‘blackface’. Doing so illuminates the proximity between the personal and socio-historical; in this instance acting to alienate individuals from their surroundings, from the viewer and arguably from each other. Complimenting this is Qiana Mestrich’s The Black Doll Series (2017). With striking formal regularity and colourful geometric abstraction, her images are the result of the digital re-creation of pictures of vintage ethnic dolls from websites like Ebay. At the same time as expressing depersonalisation, they are similarly an attempt to challenge visual stereotypes, and to perhaps also re-appropriate colour from the symbolic taint of history.
The red velvet curtain behind which lies the virtual reality simulation Hollow Tongues #2 adds a further dimension to a show that engages all the senses, beguiling with its wobbling mobile tongues and spherical globes, while David Birkin’s I Was So Entranced Seeing That I Did Not Think About Sight (2012) is a meditation on “the dialectics of looking and seeing, visibility and vision”. It is a large black, largely featureless print, though warped and run-through with a braille inscription, inspired by a letter from the deaf-blind activist Helen Keller. Apart from this dark square, a glorious, azure glow abounds in this corner of the gallery, with Birkin’s cyanotypes and New York skylines appearing luminous behind glass. However, as we are repeatedly forced to acknowledge, behind the surface sheen broods the multiple layers of the past; our institutions and cultural productions saturated with traces of systemic injustice. The seemingly innocuous joy of colour is loaded with gloomy significance in Birkin’s works. Midnight Blue (2018) for example is a selection of cyanotypes produced from Paul Hamann’s negatives of 30 years ago, taken in Mississippi State Penitentiary. These high contrast white and blue tinted photographs illuminate the prison environment in an evocation of electrocution, showing it as a place of inherent oppression and death. It is not coincidental either that the method of making these cyanotypes involves a chemical by-product of hydrogen cyanide – the same chemical used in Death Row executions. As the exhibition illustrates through its articulate, analytical collection of works, nothing is innocuous, nothing is “just wallpaper” – everything having far reaching ideological and cultural resonances.
Resolution is not the point. is a thoughtful exploration of the key concerns of our contemporary moment: the effect of our historical actions as manifested in the present; the fact of our intractably connected world, one that, for all the far right’s rhetoric, we cannot undo. Illuminating these, Hemera have selected works that weave together numerous modes: text, photography, film, archive documents and audio, all coalescing to challenge the dogma of the dominant narrative and causing categories to collapse in on themselves like old empires, exposing the structures that kept them in place.
By Daniel Pateman
Resolution is not the point. is exhibiting at London Art fair until Sunday 21st January 2018.
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