Discursive Documents / Reviewed by Greg Leach / 19.04.17
The title of this exhibition, Discursive Documents, combines two words that – while not literal antonyms – might seem contradictory. A document, in law, originally referred to proof, and in modern parlance the term retains its association with fact and fixity rather than fluidity and discussion. This is a clue to where the show is taking us. What it presents are six photographic artists loosely twinned by their themes and mode of practice, creating dialogues that are intentionally harmonious. Layla Sailor and Sarah Eyre make installation-based work, employing a range of art-based photographic strategies that challenge the representation and commodification of the female body in patriarchal societies. Seba Kurtis and Alex Beldea work out of the traditions of socially-engaged editorial and documentary photography, sharing an interest in the pressing issue of international immigration from the standpoint of the beleaguered migrant. Richard Mulhearn and Richard Higginbottom adopt ‘straight’ photographic practices to explore the relationship between human behaviour and its setting. This order reflects how the visitor encounters the pairings within the rectangular gallery space.
Given its diversity, the show’s introduction is an important gateway into its wider agenda, which is to test whether photography and art can engender political, social and cultural debate. I was immediately struck by the negative terms in which this proposition is expressed: it clearly expects a sceptical reception from the audience, describing the claim as seeming ‘crazily optimistic’. If such a doubting (dare I say philistine) response were remotely valid, a significant portion of 20th and 21st century art would be dismissed at a stroke. The pessimistic tone may be the product of the show’s location in a provincial gallery; it is certainly hard to imagine a major exhibition in Manchester or Leeds adopting such a guarded position. As to the locus for the legitimacy of this claim, curator Liam Devlin believes that, for photography, it resides in the dialectic between the photograph’s dual status as documentary record and aesthetic image-object. This is the premise with which the viewer approaches the work.
Interestingly, the only object in the image-based show is presented at its opening: the plastic face of blow-up sex doll Delores, staring out from a Perspex cube, with its android or even death-mask connotations. Delores – whose features, rather surprisingly, are not grotesquely sexualised – was purchased from a vending machine by Layla Sailor during her residency in Ningbo, China. What becomes apparent as you move through the exhibition is how much less authentic this three-dimensional visage is compared to the many two-dimensional portrayals that follow it. Sailor’s work, which comprises collage and moving image, is a darkly comic study of this object, using it as a powerful metaphor for both Western and Eastern relegation of the female, reducing women to objects and second-class citizens alike.
Sarah Eyre’s work, entitled Lady Lane, resumes this theme, also using collage and moving image. Her kaleidoscopic GIF is particularly captivating – an endless, inwardly swirling vortex made up of female body parts (notably lips) that becomes almost hypnotic. I was reminded of the Hollywood movie director and choreographer Busby Berkeley, famed in the 1930s and 40s for his musical sequences featuring innumerable identikit women performing in perfect synchronicity, their movements rendered as symmetrical pattern by the camera’s bird’s-eye perspective. Eyre’s piece can be read as an intimate reworking of this: a lone woman caught in a loop of self-consumption, locked into a regenerating analysis of her own physicality and desirability.
Ironically, perhaps, it is the overtly art-based practice of Sailor and Curtis that fits most readily into the broad categorizations outlined above; for while Seba Kurtis and Alex Beldea have obvious links to issue-driven documentary photography, both adopt strategies to circumvent the problems of representation that attend it. To achieve this, both have engaged actively with migrants beyond their role as photographer; consequently, the product of their insights has greater credibility and integrity. In Talcum, Seba Kurtis has made apparently spontaneous portraits that nevertheless evince great psychological intensity, his subjects sharing a wary gaze that bespeaks their bitterly arduous life experiences. Importantly, Kurtis acknowledges his expressive subjectivity by employing collage to mask some of his sitters, alluding to forms of smothering experienced by stowaway refugees (the title is taken from a newspaper headline: ‘Hidden in a tank truck full of talcum’). He also pre-empts the lazy perception of the pictures as ‘windows onto the world’ by occasionally misaligning the frames in which they are displayed.
Alex Beldea achieves something similar by becoming facilitator as much as photographer in his project Asma. He has drawn from the repository of images on the internet, snapshots taken by migrants attempting to integrate themselves into new cultures – an approach that places emphasis on the human over the political, fostering empathy. This is complemented by a film that offers compelling first-hand testimonies.
The show concludes with the work of Richard Higginbottom and Richard Mulhearn. More than any other pairing, common cause has resulted in a partial mirroring of presentational strategies in this section: both photographers have a small number of images pinned directly to the wall; both use empty space to suggest incompletion and flux; both have accompanying publications that offer fuller iterations of their projects. For Cut/Weld, Richard Higginbottom operates on a simple modus operandi: he repeatedly ventures into the city to capture fleeting impressions of its ever-shifting contents, all of which are familiar, yet are re-presented for us here in unique and intriguing combinations. Happenstance seems important: Higginbottom is quick to concede that his pictures are not definitive; that, in the spirit of the flâneur, chance plays a part in the version of the city he assembles, one version amongst infinite possible versions. Beyond their singular fascination, resonances of subject matter, form and colour begin to appear across the pictures, creating nascent narratives that emerge fleetingly before being subsumed into the urban mélange.
Richard Mulhearn’s approach is more elliptical. Kerb is an exploration of the unconscious human impulse to depart from prescribed behaviour, often expressed in gesture, in moments available only to the camera. In his seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin wrote: ‘Only the camera can show us the optical unconscious (the things unknowingly seen), as it is only through psychoanalysis that we learn of the compulsive unconscious.’ Mulhearn seems to function at the intersection between the optical unconscious and the compulsive unconscious (exemplified by the inadvertent disclosures of the ‘Freudian slip’). The ‘anti-decisive moment’ is also at play here, the pursuit of which can lead to the conclusion that the elegance of the gestural apex is always preceded and succeeded by variously more or less ambiguous and inelegant constituent parts. Perhaps it is these complexities that have increasingly drawn Mulhearn to scenes devoid of human presence; all that remains now is the aftermath of our non-conformities. While the expectations of its accompanying statement are not fully met in the work, the intelligence and visual acuity applied to the image making more than makes up for this.
In keeping with the exhibition’s mission, a series of three public discussions are offered during its run, bringing together the twinned artists with two respondents, who, along with the curator, set an agenda for wider debate. These are (from my partial experience) edifying and interesting, although a fourth discussion, focusing on the curatorial, was perhaps needed to complete the set. In exhibitions of this kind, the curator arguably becomes artist manqué, establishing a meta-theme that is as important as those of the practitioners. Liam Devlin has no doubt declined such attention out of modesty rather than conceit, but greater scrutiny of his role would have elicited valuable insights.
The current photographic discourse has shifted in recent years towards an acceptance of the plurality of the medium, particularly since the advent of digital technology. So varied are its forms and uses that it can only be usefully understood in relation to its discrete functions and contexts. (Despite this, the connotations of the term ‘photographic’ have remained surprisingly rigid in public perception.) This exhibition testifies to that expansion, despite only showing a small portion of its myriad creative incarnations – sub-sections within what is already a sub-section. With this in mind, Discursive Documents as an experience feels somewhat compartmentalized. Had there been more slippage between its sections, the journey through it might have culminated in a greater sense of discovery, particularly for those less well versed in contemporary art, at whom the show is directed, judging from the introductory statement. (Admittedly, this might have required a larger exhibition.) In that sense – to reverse the dictum – the whole is slightly less than the sum of its parts. Nevertheless, any attempt to heighten awareness of the power and potential of visual communication is laudable, and the contents of the show, both singly and collectively, do indeed stimulate thought and debate on a range of issues, including the medium itself. The opening case, if it needed verifying, is proven.
– Reviewed by Greg Leach
Discursive Documents continues at Huddersfield Art Gallery until 6th May, 2017.
Huddersfield Art Gallery