Group Show / ‘Changing States’ at Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art
Contributing Artists: Alyson Agar, Najla Alsalamah, Gabriella Blenkinsop, Antony Chambers, Elizabeth Cummings, Rebecca Clarke, Kay Donnelly, Stephen Gill, David Jones, Jamie Macdonald, Simone Rudolphi, Chris Sykes.
Hosted by the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art and housed within the impressive glass and steel construction that is Sunderland’s National Glass Centre, Changing States is a group exhibition by the University of Sunderland’s graduating MA Photography students. On entering the gallery one is struck by the considered presentation of this collection of diverse work. Co-curators Alistair Robinson and Craig Ames have helped to engender a small jewel of an exhibition: maximising the visual impact of each project while bringing them together as a unified whole. Each is emboldened within its own small sphere of light against the room’s grey walls. Large portraits mix with small landscapes, abstract works sit beside colourful documentary shots, and the moving image casts its flicker onto sculpted photographic forms, with each project in productive dialogue with each other.
A variety of themes are explored and embodied in imaginative ways and can be grouped into three main areas: investigations into the veracity of the photographic image, its manipulations, concealments and revelations; dignified expressions of the inherent value of each individual; and explorations of the UK’s changing physical landscape, shifting in relation to social change and industry. However, the common denominator, as the title Changing States suggests, is their shared focus on process – whether photographic, physical or cultural.
The Apollo Paradox foreshadows a number of self-reflexive projects deconstructing the ambiguous nature of photography. Restaging images taken by NASA of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, David Jones’s largely monochrome work exudes a somber majesty. Presented in gleaming silver frames and flanked by supplementary texts, these sometimes crisp, sometimes blurry shots are laid out like official evidence for our contemplation. Jones notes that photography does not offer evidence of incontrovertible truth, with NASA’s images documenting the landing also providing conspiracy theorists with ‘proof’ to discredit it. Methodologically as well as conceptually, he illustrates the ease with which photography can misrepresent, reproducing images of the lunar landing in his garden and home-studio and framing them as official documents. Without contesting the event itself, Jones elucidates how simple it is to mislead the public. “If one person can produce these [images] on a limited budget”, he says, “what could NASA have done with their unlimited budget?”
Despite appearing worlds apart, Kay Donnelly’s triptych Portraits of Women also challenges the fictional manipulation of the photograph, acting as a corrective to fetishised images of femininity rife in visual media. The large scale of her photos not only echoes the advertising boards seen at bus stops, but confronts the viewer with the physical reality of ageing. Donnelly notes the “obsession with looking young and the detrimental effects it can have on women of all ages”, as well as the need for a greater range of media representations. She thus ensures every blemish, wrinkle and fine hair is visible on her subjects’ faces by using a 105mm macro lens: creating a tension between their outwardly youthful appearance – they are all in their thirties – and subtle signs of ageing. Her brightly-lit images embrace the ageing process, in contrast to the utterly smooth, mummified fantasies seen in advertising.
The psychologically manipulative effect of images on the viewer is also explored in Rebecca Lynda Clarke’s Inhuman Seduction. A projection of still-images all lit with a green glow play out against a dark wall at the gallery’s centre. Depicting a range of individuals, the camera captures their physiological and psychological reaction to scenes of filmic horror in close-up: shown shielding their eyes or covering their face as a form of psychic self-defense. Clarke examines the contagious nature of emotion to understand how advertisers use images of fear to engender curiosity and mobilise audiences for horror films. She notes that faked expressions of terror are as effective as authentic ones in this regard, with her work containing both.
Photography is shown to possess the ability to visualise hidden realities as much as it can manipulate our sense of reality. Chris Sykes’ experimental, digital series Beyond Words represents five famous orations in photographic form, condensing the linear experience of a speech into a single visual image. Sykes dissolves a precious metal called Gallium into warm water and places it atop a speaker. Playing a range of speeches – among them Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” (1963), Hilary Clinton’s Beijing address at the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995) and Adolf Hitler’s first speech as Chancellor (1933) – he photographs the mixture reacting to the sound at fixed intervals, before sequencing, mapping and processing his images through high-resolution ‘Photogrammetry’ software. The results are stunning abstractions, appearing like satellite images of amorphous landscapes. Dense areas of peaks and troughs appear like large forests, while silences manifest themselves as flat plains. They are intriguingly enigmatic works, prompting us to question the typical representation of time as unilinear.
Across the room hangs Gabriella Blenkinsop’s photo-sculpture series #Cloud. Both this and Beyond Words illustrate that, in an era of increasing digitalisation, data can be abstracted and utilised for radically different purposes. Blenkinsop’s luminescent, eye-catching models – photographs printed onto acetate and carefully folded – hang on invisible wires above white pedestals, while a flexible light creates azure or deep orange shadows, shifting as the viewer explores each piece. Addressing the appropriation of our online data by websites by using the hash tag ‘Cloud’ to source images and then repurposing these, her variously folded forms show how easily information online is obtained, “categorised, manipulated, sold and misused”.
As with the aforementioned projects, Alyson Agar’s Monuments to the Everyday draws attention to the obscured or under-represented. There is a subtle fascination in her studied attention to unexceptional scenes. Inspired by the depiction of everyday objects in art – Andy Warhol’s screen-printed Campbell’s Soup Cans for example – she presents three diptychs, each image a complimentary inversion of the other. One particular juxtaposition is of blue bin bags piled by a gridded wall, next to a photo of an upturned wire basket on blue plastic. Another is of a postcard of a mountain on a wooden crate paired with a close up of towering peaks of blue plastic. The absence of dramatic content draws our attention to the images’ formal elements – their recurring patterns, bold use of colour and composition – marking these as celebratory tableaus of the banal. At the same time, Agar highlights the importance of context “in the elevation of the status of objects” – her images of general detritus and weeds in a gallery setting bestowing on them an increased aesthetic value.
Complimenting Agar’s rendering of the ostensibly ordinary is the adjacent 3 x 5 grid of monochrome images by Antony Chambers, who depicts random locations within Middlesbrough in his series Evidence. Described as possessing undercurrents of “cynicism, playfulness and a sense of impending doom”, one needs to step back for these elements to fully reveal themselves. Individually, and without captions, each photo appears as an anonymous instance of disuse. But, seen as a whole, the work’s apocalyptic vision becomes clear. These fifteen images convey a city devoid of life. Car parks remain unpopulated, while each location contains an element of inaccessibility (epitomised by a disabled parking space beside a flight of stairs). Wire fences, metal barriers, overgrown vegetation and looming trees are encountered throughout the series. There is something hopeless about these desolate milieus, reminiscent of 28 Days Later’s opening scenes of an eerily abandoned London.
Another key thematic thread winding through the exhibition interrogates the changing physical and social landscape of the UK. Stephen Gill’s series Infra Ordinaire: Habitat explores a characteristic tension between nature and industrial development, with nature’s sphere of influence diminishing in relation to humanity’s increase. His triptych of slightly impressionistic images represent the remnants of an area being redeveloped by the construction of a biomass power plant, “a seemingly insignificant habitat cast adrift from the reshaping of this post-industrial environment”. Informed by George Perec’s concepts of the ‘infra-ordinary’ and ‘endotic’ that describe something neither ordinary or exotic, his photographs express nature’s resilience by showing it thrive under less-than-ideal conditions, with wild profusions of flora such as Colts-foot and Yorkshire-fog filling the frame.
Jamie Macdonald’s series is formed of thirteen silver gelatin prints that chronicle the decommissioning process of a North Sea oil rig. Rig’s photographic narrative charts the gradual dissolution of this industrial monument, punctuated by portraits of residents from the local community. Macdonald notes that the series is “a metaphor for current political and social times”, and retrospectively symbolic of Brexit, with the Brent Delta withdrawn “after forty years of production in the Shell Brent oilfield, off the coast of Scotland, around the time of the referendum”. This makes for an intriguing visual analogy. The white borders of the rig images are juxtaposed with portraits of pensive individuals flanked by obscuring shadow, while the subject’s positioning often mirrors that of the rig. The relation between national decline and local communities is emphasized here. As the rig is gradually deconstructed – depicted in a detached manner – the residents remain, left to face the long-term consequences. The final pair of images, one being a young girl facing a wall of darkness with her back to the camera, evoke apprehension about the future to come.
Highlighted throughout Changing States, and particularly resonant given the xenophobic rhetoric exacerbated by Brexit, is a message of individual value and mutual respect. Elizabeth Ellen Rose Cummings’ series The Importance of the Unseen implicitly addresses the tension between a reactionary concern about migrant workers and their vital role in “sustain[ing] the viability of the British fishing industry”. Her detailed inkjet prints individualise a predominantly Filipino crew. Shot at a distance, these full-body portraits contextualise each person within their environment. However, although their surroundings threaten to dwarf them, the subjects are sharply defined against the large ships, standing proudly dressed in bright clothes. These shots express both their individuality and their integral importance to the industry, serving it in spite of the inherent danger.
Shimmering on the wall at the far end of the gallery is Simone Rudolphi’s delightful The Value of Everyone: Encounters. Taken across Newcastle, Syria and Amsterdam, these images are founded on ‘organic’ encounters with the people she meets on her travels. Sharing a similar humanistic message to Cummings’ work, she presents it however in an ideologically alternative way. Rather than individuating each subject, Rudolphi takes the novel approach of applying gold leaf to each human figure. Despite obscuring identities, their humanity is retained through their detailed outline, gestures and accessories. The gilding process serves multiple functions. Across locations, races and cultures it emphasises the equal value of everyone. The Sustainers #1, taken in Newcastle’s West End – perceived as a ‘no go area’ by some – shows a man and two children peaceably leaving a grocery shop, while in The Sustainers #2, we see a family in Aleppo, Syria, also returning home with shopping down a rubble-strewn street. The act of gilding provides an aesthetic and thematic connection between images that unites people from diverse locations: stressing commonality rather than highlighting difference. As Rudolphi compassionately states, “it always astonishes me that so many people in 2018 find it impossible to see how similar we are. I hope my work contributes to people reflecting more and ultimately feeling less fear and more kindness towards others”.
A celebration of the alterity of other cultures, Folklore: Ardah Al-Najdyah is a video installation by Najla Alsalamah. This Saudi Arabian folkdance is performed solely by men and typically consists of two rows of swordsmen, each standing shoulder to shoulder, with drummers performing between them as a poet chants verses suited to the occasion. Honouring the founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it is performed at a wide range of celebrations. Like Rudolphi’s work, Ardah promotes an attitude of equality (among men, at least) in that anyone can take part, regardless of their social status, age, or profession. In Alsalamah’s filmic representation of this dance, a lone man performs the role of both swordsman and drummer as poetic chants play over the headphones. The camera alternates between close ups of culturally significant items like the Daghla (an ankle-length woolen jacket) and the Tathlith (a drum adorned with colourful tassels) with long shots of the performer alone in an empty hall, illuminated in a circle of light. For a tradition so inherently social and celebratory, one wonders if Alsalamah’s depiction of a Saudi man enacting Ardah alone might speak to a sense of cultural alienation for Saudi citizens living in the West. Regardless of whether this is accurate, it proves a beguiling spectacle to watch.
Changing States is a pleasure, presenting a range of conceptually bold, creatively executed projects. Individually, each illustrates a strong engagement with current concerns, as well as an unbounded curiosity about the possibilities of the photographic medium; presenting us with a blend of experimental, digital, filmic, documentary and socially engaged approaches. As a unity, it is an impressively conceived exhibition, visually arresting and utterly engaging in its diversity. It astutely distils the anxieties of our contemporary age: the disturbances of rapid national change; increasing incidents of xenophobia and isolationism; the ongoing denigration of our environment; and rising epistemic incredulity about those things framed as truth.
In each case, photography is used as an invaluable tool in interrogating each of these areas: discerning fact from fiction, truth from lies, and advocating compassion rather than ignorance. It is therefore pleasing to see the University and its students practicing what they preach, by driving awareness around the imprisonment of activist, photojournalist and friend Shahidul Alam by the Bangladeshi government, after his public criticism of their treatment of student protesters. Alam’s work is currently being displayed in solidarity across the country, and more information about his case can be found here.
– By Daniel Pateman
Changing States was exhibited at:
Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art
c/o National Glass Centre
City of Sunderland SR6 0GL