Yesterday was the perfect autumnal sunny Saturday for a daytrip down to the coast to catch the opening of the Brighton Photo Biennial 2018. This years’ theme is aptly Brexit, and all of the photographers and projects spread across multiple sites both indoors and outside explore themes around identity, the UK as an island, our relationship with Europe and current politics, and the refugee crisis. I began in Jubilee Square which is dominated by a shipping container showing a single portrait by Uta Kögelsberger – this portrait will change over the next month, but will consistently depict someone who feels alienated from their own country. Inside Jubilee Library a series of staged self-portraits by Heather Agyepong in varying colonial garb, printed on long paper sheets loosely draped over scaffolding are on display, moving as people walk past or the breeze takes hold of a corner. Winding through the laines to Fabrica, a former church and now contemporary arts hub, I viewed Harley Weir’s body of work taken immediately before and during the destruction of the refugee camp in Calais known as ‘The Jungle’. These large scale works have been printed on silks and suspended from the original church architecture, making for a powerful and elegant display as the sun coming through the windows shone through the silk images, and is arguably my favourite project in this years’ biennial. A little further on, I discovered a video installation by Hrair Sarkissian incorporating two projections shown side by side; one showing an architectural model of the photographers’ home in Syria slowly falling apart, and another of the artist himself knocking down a wall with a sledge hammer. I ended the afternoon at ONCA Gallery, hosting the winner of the Open18 Solo Exhibition, Sarah Howe’s interesting multi-media installation. Brighton Photo Fringe is also on simultaneously for the next month with various projects displayed along the seafront as well as in two regency period buildings, again examining the inescapable themes of the European Union and identity.
Thursday 23rd June 2016 – and perhaps moreover the morning of Friday 24th June – will remain etched in the minds of current generations as a date that has left the UK indisputably divided. Though official statistics show the UK voted to leave the EU by a slim margin of 51.9% versus 48.1%, this figure hides the 28% of the population who failed to vote, the overwhelming majority of young people aged 18 – 24 who voted to stay, subsequent protests and calls for a re-vote, and indeed the resignation of our Prime Minister David Cameron. These current political circumstances made it an apt time to visit Wolfgang Tillman’s solo show; a German photographer who epitomises what it is to be part of the EU by splitting his time between Berlin and London, and an ardent ‘Vote Remain’ campaigner. This is his eighth solo show at Maureen Paley in Bethnal Green and displays new work focussing on the visible and invisible borders that define and control societies. Encompassing the entire building, the exhibition is curated simply yet effectively with work either hanging in plain white frames or unglazed and pinned delicately to the walls. The ground floor is dominated by a vast image of the sea entitled ‘The State We’re In’ capturing an intersection of the Atlantic Ocean where international time lines and borders meet. This focus point is bookended by images taken at both the Northern and Southern observatories looking beyond their country’s boundaries. This theme continues upstairs with Tillman’s ‘I refuse to be your enemy 2’ installation, a recreation of a workshop he gave Iranian students which explored the uniformity of printed communication through office paper from various different countries. The entranceway, stairwell and exterior spaces of the gallery are filled with incarnations of Tillman’s pro EU poster campaign, and in these uncertain times it is refreshing to see an artist using their creativity to heighten political awareness and take a firm stance.
If you read this blog regularly you’ll have no doubt picked up on the fact that I’m no fan of the modern day phenomenon that is the selfie – so the lead marketing image for this years’ ‘Sony World Photography Awards’ of an astronaut taking a selfie in space (Julian Maeve’s ‘Greetings from Mars’) was slightly worrisome! That aside, I couldn’t miss seeing what 2016 had to offer… so headed to Somerset House this bank holiday to catch its two week exhibition run. Each year I seem to forget how big the exhibition is, and with a staggering 230,103 entries from 108 countries, the works chosen to go on display this year only represent a small percentage of what was submitted. The West Wing galleries are dedicated to professional photographers work, and the East Wing houses the youth and student entries, as well as the open competition. The talent is palpable throughout, from Filip Wolak capturing unusual angles in his aerial shot ‘Snowy Central Park at 10,000 feet’, to wonderful everyday scenes including ‘The Lantern Store’ by Malaysian photographer Swee Choo Oh, and harrowing images of victims of acid attacks by Asghar Khamseh largely committed against women and children as a result of divorce requests, rejected marriage proposals and revenge. The exhibition also included humour in A. Talomby’s series of portraits of men with touch facial features juxtaposed with feminine geisha hairdos which raises questions around stereotypes, gender and race, as well as moments of discomfort in Photographer Hal’s images of vacuum-packed couples in ‘Fresh Love Returns’. With so many photographs on display I appreciate the difficulty in identifying one winner, however the amount of winning shots is a little confusing (with 14 different prize categories spanning conceptual, portrait, staged, still-life, campaign and environmental amongst others for the professional photographers alone) and would be my only criticism.
You don’t expect to see a restored vintage car on the 5th floor of a Soho gallery… but that’s exactly what greets you as the lift doors open on the top floor of The Photographers Gallery. Dutch artist Erik Kessels’ Fiat 500 displayed alongside polaroid and larger scale photographic images on both the floor (those taken from above) and hanging on walls form his ‘Unfinished Father’ body of work, which is just one of four finalists in this year’s Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Prize. Behind Kessels’ work, the space darkens and a huge projection of yellow, orange and red broken by a black silhouette introduce Laura El-Tantawy’s entry ‘In The Shadow of the Pyramids’. This image has a painterly quality to it and does not immediately suggest riots (more specifically the Egyptian revolution of 2011) however as you move around this image, additional beautiful but harrowing portraits and sounds of the crowd intermingled with the artists voice annotate the socio-political conditions leading to the overthrow of Mubarak. The floor below displays the two other finalists work; German artist Tobias Zielony and American artist Trevor Paglen. Zielony’s ‘The Citizen’ documents African migrants who arrived in Germany and protested about restrictions placed on them, alongside related newspaper articles. Similarly ‘The Octopus’ shows Paglen tackling a political theme, this time mass surveillance and data collection through his photographs of federal and military outposts, underwater fibre-optic cables and passing drones which expose these clandestine practices and raise questions about contemporary cultural politics. An annex on the 4th floor contains a plasma screen and headphones with artist interviews, as well as blue polling cards where visitors can pick their winner and offer an explanation behind their choice. Whilst Laura is undoubtedly my favourite, having seen the finalists’ work and read other visitors’ comments, it will be interesting to hear who is chosen at this years’ prize-winner in June.
Directly across the hallway from ‘Performing Sculpture’ at Tate Modern is ‘Performing For The Camera’ – a photography exhibition spanning fourteen galleries and exploring the relationship between photography and performance. Taking a thematic approach the exhibition looks at how the camera has been used as a tool for exploring identity, gender and sexism, race and politics, and manipulated in advertising and by society’s portrayal and construction of themselves from its invention in the 1800’s to contemporary social media. It comprises over 500 images and several stand out; three large black and white images of Ai Wei Wei holding a 2,000 year old Han dynasty urn, dropping the urn, and the urn smashing on the floor, as well as Tomoko Sawada’s ‘ID400’ showing a collection of passport photographs taken by the artist over a 4 year period highlighting her diverse looks and identities yet still being the same person, Jemima Stehli’s ‘Strip’ which depicts the artist taking her clothes off in front of six different subjects who control the camera and timing of photos being taken, and Romain Mader’s ‘Ekaterina’ which humorously discusses Ukranian mail-order-bride tourism through a series of nine staged photographs. Another highlight of the exhibition was being introduced to Japanese photographer Eikoh Hosoe whose collaboration with the dancer Tatsumi Hijikata are documented in wonderful black and white images densely hung against bright red walls. With such a large volume of photographs on display there were bound to be some notable images, however the exhibition as a whole lacked something, and in contrast to the Calder exhibition across the corridor I felt that sculpture ‘performed’ much better than the camera on this occasion.