Sheyi Bankale / On Curating ‘Photo 50’ at London Art Fair, 2015
Sheyi Bankale, curator and editor of Next Level Magazine, is guest-curating this year’s prestigious Photo 50 exhibition within the London Art Fair in January 2015. With a remit of including 50 works, Photo 50′s curator has free rein to present a critically engaging exhibition of photography, and this year Sheyi’s selection will include work by Jonny Briggs, Thorsten Brinkman, Julio Galeote, Adad Hannah, Hassan Hajjaj, Darren Harvey-Regan, Nikolai Ishchuk, Andrew Lacon and Tom Lovelace, with a literary allusion in its title Against Nature. Below, Christiane Monarchi interviewed Sheyi about his thoughts in putting together what promises to be a very compelling exhibition.
Christiane Monarchi: I’m interested in the starting idea for your curated group exhibition, the novel by JK Huysmans Against Nature, first published in 1884. Could you tell us what inspired you to consider the photographic, from this fin-de-siècle novel ?
Sheyi Bankale: The novel Against Nature by JK Huysmans has been an intricate muse intertwined in the art world for many decades. It was first published in the 19th Century ‘fin-de-siècle’ as you say. This period sustained a prolific stage in the scope of photography. In more recent years the Penguin Classics edition had been edited by Patrick McGuinness in 2004, and most recently in 2012 Klaus Weber’s exhibition entitled ‘If You Leave Me I’m Not Coming’ interested me as well. This commission by Nottingham Contemporary featured several new works by Weber; important for me was the JK Huysmans’ Against Nature (1886) depiction. This work used a vertical beam of light created by a heliostat seated on the roof of the building to gradually bleach a copy of Against Nature onto stockpiles of black paper. In an introduction to the exhibition, Nottingham Contemporary curators noted, “Klaus Weber’s art works create ruptures with what we would call reality. In so doing they call our deepest belief systems into question. They provide an ironic counterpoint to the shared understanding – social, natural, scientific – that underpins our society. They also expose the maverick forces of nature that disrupt our own ability to control.”
So what has all this to do with photography, you may ask? The natural world and our changing view of what is natural, the notion of photography and our changing view of what photography can be; this is the framework of the exhibition. The nature of photography has always been regarded as a given application and process, the underlying assumptions we all share. Huysmans’ novel explicitly broke away from the Naturalist tradition of literature in the 19th century. This exhibition of controlled experiments with forms of photography aims to break away, too, from tradition.
A further link is the home of the main character in the novel, Jean Des Esseintes, which is filled with objects that aroused curiosity. I view the artwork of the artists in this exhibition in a similar environment arousing curiosity of presenting a photograph or photographic process as an object.
CM: In past incarnations of Photo50, curators, notably Sue Steward and Edel Assanti have presented interesting ideas about the changing view of what photography can be – particularly with challenges to traditional physicality, surface and source material. The ideas evoked by Klaus Weber’s homage to JK Huysmans’ book promises another dimension entirely – that of the exploration of the meaning of one’s inner world. Considering Huysmans’ character Des Esseintes’ highly decorative and intricately constructed states of mind, what kind of objects may we expect to encounter in your curated exhibition? Could you give us a peek at a few of the works you have in mind, or if these are still in progress, to the artist’s practice you might place at the core of this exhibition?
SB: Well, there have been a number of previous exhibitions that you have identified in the lineage, because they inadvertently all set the stylus of a new groove to question photography. At the crux of these ideas about the changing view of photography lies the critical and self-proclaiming response of the artists to new technology, that has dumped millions of pixel-based flat screen images as the norm of viewing. You and I are a prime example as editors of photography publications. We view the majority of work online, for what ever reason be it temporal, geographic or staying in our comfort zone, instead of visiting every exhibition or studio as previously scoped. In an accusation to this, artists are responding to the historical act of photography to make something that will cohesively contextualise and establish a sense of new work as objects.
The display this exhibition reveals is part of my effort to look at issues I believe other curators or institutions overlook, and to show new, challenging and what I credit as important work. The display will be fascinating objects; several devoid of function to the point they cocoon into being visual objects. Artists will present objects of photography – objects that are key to the history of the medium – objects that are engrained in the medium. In this instance, one artist has eluded to objects with a play on Fox Talbot’s seminal The Open Door, 1844.
CM: Indeed, I agree with you, and personally am always pleasantly surprised when I am physically engaged encountering works in person; they become more than images in the mind’s eye. On this note, can you share your thoughts on how you may plan to differentiate the space your curated exhibition will live, distinct from but in the company of the gallery stands in the London Art Fair? UNSEEN and Paris Photo have engaged different strategies in this direction, where visitors encounter curated works that are not for sale, what elements do you think are important for the viewer experience?
SB: Preliminary differences are the generous option of experimental risk taking in an exhibition environment versus the physical limitations of the gallery stand. I would describe the distinction that the gallery stand is a process of reception and curated works a process of transmission. In saying that, each space is no less important in evolving the audience consciousness of visual arts.
I think it is an indeterminate difference that other art fairs are designed to seduce the audience’s attention to visit curated works that are not for sale. We can appreciate and depreciate the impact of such strategies. The importance is the ability of the curator not solely in curating the work, but also in the creative ability to foster the narration in the fabric of the space. A great deal of critical discussions in the art world have been aimed at resisting the temptation to reduce works to justification of economics. So what I have in mind for this exhibition is to create a display that is not grounded in such a way. Several works are for sale, while other works are not; this allows for an appreciation of works that draw solely on the exhibition experience.
CM: Thank you Sheyi, and we look forward to experiencing this exhibition in January.
Sheyi Bankale is the Curator of Next Level Projects and Editor of Next Level magazine. He frequently acts as panelist, judge and nominator for The Art Foundation, Google Photography Prize, CONTACT Photography Festival BMW Prize, The Prix Pictet, and Next Level Awards. He is a leading expert on photography at major international portfolio reviews such as Houston Fotofest, and Les Rencontres D’Arles, and facilitates the acquisition of photo artworks with international museums, art collectors, and private clients. He is Visiting Professor of Photography at the University of Derby and has lectured on ‘Photography as Contemporary Art’ at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, University of Westminster, City University – London, and the University for the Creative Arts and Centre of Contemporary Art – Lagos. Curating experience includes the extensive touring exhibition on contemporary photography, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, for the European City of Culture 2011, which is the largest exhibition of contemporary photographic art displayed in Finland. www.nextleveluk.com