Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago

I was lucky enough to go to Chicago for work last week – for three days – literally a flying visit from the other side of the Atlantic! It was my first visit to the city, and I was struck by how progressive, liberal and balanced it felt with a diverse population of white, black, Hispanic as well as a China Town, Little Italy, Polish Downtown, Greek Town, well dressed professionals, homeless veterans and the buzz and grit of cosmopolitan city life that makes any Londoner feel at home. However, a trip to the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) was a powerful reminder of the civil rights and segregation issues which have plagued America, and the Chicago area is no exception. The current exhibitions by Dawoud Bey and Carlos Javier Ortiz & David Schalliol both highlight problems with integration; Bey’s two poignant bodies of work tell the story of three Klu Klux Klan members who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 killing four fourteen year old African American girls, and the ensuing violence that followed as a consequence. This is revisited in a 2012 series of black and white portraits in which Bey captures images of children the same age as those who had died, alongside portraits of adults at the age the children wold have been in 2013 (the 50th anniversary of the bombs). Bey’s work is coupled with Ortiz and Schalliol’s Chicago Stories, a more contemporary exploration of similar issues via evocative images of isolated buildings and those who live in them which explore the legacy of the Great Migration and the continued demolition and resettlement of African American communities across Chicago’s “black belt” in the south and west of the city where black residents were limited to living, but have since created thriving communities which are now being destroyed. The staff are both helpful and knowledgeable, entrance to both exhibitions is free, and I would highly recommend dropping in before 7 July when the shows close.

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War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City

The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh city was arguably the busiest attraction I visited on my two week adventure around Southern and Central Vietnam. Busier than any other must-see in the city including The Independence Palace, Fine Arts Museum, Saigon Post Office, History Museum and Saigon Zoo & Botanical Gardens, I was interested to see how the Vietnam War is interpreted and displayed to the thousands of tourists at this museum. Founded in September 1975 the museum aims to “systematically study, collect, conserve and display exhibits on war crimes and consequences inflicted on the Vietnamese people by foreign aggressive forces” and has nine permanent galleries over three floors covering Historical Truths, Vietnam; War & Peace, Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, Agent Orange Effects, Agent Orange Consequences, War Crimes, Requiem, International Support for the Vietnamese people in their Resistance War, Imprisonment, and an outdoor exhibition showcasing military aircraft and tanks from the period. The display is blunt – almost crude – and fairly harrowing. There is often very little text or interpretive material and it is heavily image led, with densely hung walls displaying photographs of other countries protests against the war and explicit images of the violence, incarceration and deformities inflicted upon both children and adults as a result of the chemical warfare deployed by the U.S military. As the museum is so strongly image led, it was also interesting to view an area dedicated to photographic journalists (many of whom sadly died during this conflict) and the poignant images captured during this war such as ‘Napalm Girl’. I did not get the impression the displays had been refreshed or updated since the 1970’s and although it is refreshing to view such an uncensored display, there was an undeniable bias and I left the museum feeling as though I had learnt less about the war than I had hoped to.

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Brighton Photo Biennial 2018, Brighton

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.

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Alex Prager Silverlake Drive: The Photographers’ Gallery

The view out of the fifth floor window at The Photographers’ Gallery is one of my favourite in London… a floor-to-ceiling clear aspect down Great Portland Street, hovering above Oxford Street and the hurried residents, shoppers, tourists, and general throng below. It also mirrors several of the large scale crowd images currently on display within Alex Prager’s mid-career retrospective. The American photographers’ “Crowd Series” features highly stylised shots of streets, beaches, airports and cinemas from an aerial perspective, allowing you to observe the scene from an unusual vantage point (echoed by the fifth floor window). In the middle of the still shots, a temporary cinema space projects Prager’s most ambitious work – a film installation. I must confess I am not typically a fan of film installations, however I was utterly absorbed by the narrative which jumps between close ups of individuals within the crowd before moving back into the swarm of people, and is projected across different and often multiple walls, before finally being projected on all three simultaneously! In addition to the crowd scenes, close up portraits of a Hitchcock inspired female surrounded by flapping birds, a brunette woman lying on a lurid green bedspread smoking a cigarette, a ballerina caught mid pose, and a female in a vivid yellow dress suspended from a red car bonnet hanging in the sky all compliment the film installation where Prager’s protagonist (within each crowd) is always a woman. Group shots and landscapes are also present; a trio of suited males taken from below looking up, a bikini-clad foursome chatting against a bright blue sky, a burning house against a deserted backdrop, and a congregation facing away from the camera to watch a rocket taking off, all enjoyably hark back to kitsch Americana! I’d certainly suggest a visit and immersing yourself in Silverlake Drive before it closes in October.

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Maison de la Photographie de Marrakesh: Marrakesh

Amidst the buzz of the north medina on Souk Ahal Fassi Street, go through the doors to Maison de la Photogrpahie and you immediately enter an oasis of calm; clean white walls bedecked with balconies dripping with plants, and curtains gently billow in the breeze protecting the photographs in the galleries which surround the central courtyard. Bold monochrome portraits of Berber women in traditional dress and heavy jewellery hang on the walls of the ground floor space and introduce you to some of the earliest images in this collection (spanning 1879 to 1960). The archive comprises photographs, glass plates, postcards, newspaper articles and other visual paraphernalia documenting Marrakesh as well as Fez, Tangier, Casablanca, the Sahara and Atlas Mountains – offering a rare insight into what captured past visitors to Morocco’s interest. I enjoyed being introduced to photographers I had previously been unaware of, notably Arevalo who shot a moving portrait of a young, black male with a bald head and piercing sad eyes, wearing an oversized cotton garment, as well as Marcellin Flandrin’s 1920’s images of Casablanca, and various photos of the Berber people, their houses and landscapes throughout the 1940’s by Jacques Belin and Pierre Boucher. The riad building with its intricately tiled floors also added to the experience, offering a space to view a photography collection perfectly framed and hung in a different context – outside of a typical contemporary gallery setting – which complemented the works. As such a wealth of Marrakesh’s architectural history has survived, many of the archival images of the city capture the Bahia Palace, Saadiens Tombs, El Baddi Palace, Medersa Ben Youssef or everyday activity in the souks, just as my contemporary photos did, and there was something comforting about appreciating the same things as explorers at the turn of the last century did.

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The National Technical Museum: Prague

I won’t lie, I was far from enthused by the prospect of spending hours inside The National Technical Museum in Prague, but was outvoted by the males on our festive trip to the Czech capital. The National Museum, numerous art galleries, monasteries and libraries brimming with antique books were far higher on my agenda, but was pleasantly surprised and impressed. The museum is housed in an enormous concrete and brick building adjacent to Letna Park with views over the Vlatva river, and I was immediately won over by the gruff looking but utterly charming old(er) man who sold us our tickets and took the time to share much information about the museum with us! The collection is vast; comprising transport, architecture and civil engineering, printing, mining, astronomy, horology, photography and household appliances across six floors. The stand-out gallery is dedicated to transport and takes up the entire back of the building with a triple height exhibition hall filled with bicycles, motorbikes, cars, trains, planes suspended from the ceiling, and even a hot air-balloon charting the history of developments in Czech transportation. With fourteen large permanent displays as well as the temporary exhibition and only two hours allotted for our visit, we decided to focus on printing and architecture. The printing gallery mimics an antiquated print shop with typesetting blocks, printing presses from various periods, newspaper and bookbinding machinery, and outlines the role print material played in developing the country’s national consciousness. Similarly the architecture gallery documents the most significant buildings erected across Czechoslovakia over the last century via original models, plans, sketches, photographs of their construction and replicas – and I enjoyed recognising and learning more about the civic landmarks I had already visited or walked past in the city. Despite my reservations, this museum challenged my preconceptions and highlighted how important technical innovations are in all our lives in myriad ways.

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Hassan Hajjaj: Somerset House

I was first introduced to the ebullient world of Hassan Hajjaj last year at an exhibition on dandyism and black masculinity at The Photographers’ Gallery which included two of his portraits – and was intrigued to see more when I heard that Somerset House were hosting a solo exhibition by the Moroccan-British artist. The Terrace Rooms in the South Wing of the building are entirely dedicated to ‘La Caravane’, an exhibition which features photographic portraits, video installations, music, an installation of a motorcycle, and pieces dedicated to humble socks and woolly hats! The first of a trio of rooms contains photographic portraits of sitters ranging from other artists to street performers, athletes and musicians, all beautifully framed with his typical repetitious tin-can or food packaging border. At the centre of the space, a motorbike bedecked in re-imaginings of the Louis Vuitton logo sits on top of bright red pallets, a green patterned base and mini cans of paint around the border which echo the framing of the portraits on the walls. The next room is dominated by a 1960’s inspired sofa facing multiple video installations of people who have sat for portraits playing musical instruments, signing, or talking to camera, as well as two portraits framed in Hajjaj’s ubiquitous style hung above the fireplaces at either end of the room. The final space contains more photographic portraits alongside three unusual works; one focusing on plastic sunglasses, one on socks and another on woolly hats. The vivid colours and customised textiles, furniture and household items utilised throughout the show evoke the street culture of Marrakesh where the artist was born and spends much of his time. Similarly his deliberate arrangements and careful positioning of people and objects in each shot shape the viewers understanding of each portrait, and question the relationship between “people” (or objects) and “place”. Vibrant, irreverent and full of personality this free – yes free – exhibition certainly put a smile on my face!

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Gregory Crewdson: The Photographers’ Gallery

‘Cathedral of the Pines’ conjures thoughts of religious buildings carved from pine trees, but instead is name of a forest trail in the American rural town of Beckett, Massachusetts and the inspiration behind Gregory Crewdson’s latest body of work currently on display at The Photographers’ Gallery. It is the first time the Gallery has dedicated all three floors to one artist and contains all 31 large-scale images from this series, allowing visitors to view the entire body of work rather than just selected pieces. At first glance the exhibition as a whole can feel a little repetitive; with many images featuring bleak landscape scenes or simple domestic settings, however on closer inspection you begin to appreciate the detail and atmosphere created within each one. These details are often a little sinister; footsteps in the ground, an unexpected reflection in a mirror or window pane, or items that seem out of place in their environment. The people and settings in each frame also contradict each other, with figures standing still but naked in the snow, or on a riverbank, or as a couple in the back of a truck within a dense forest, making you question the narrative that has led up to each scene or ‘moment’ captured – and indeed what might come next. Credwson’s photography is famously likened to film as he creates cinematic-style sets and hires actors or models to pose within these sets, however this series recalls film in a more climatic capacity creating visual suspense in much the same way as directors Alfred Hitchcock or David Lynch. Unusually this series includes natives to Beckett as well as some of Crwedsons friends and family rather than actors or models, and he describes it as his most personal project to date. On display until 8th October it’s certainly worth escaping the crowds of Oxford Street and spending some time exploring the oddly calm dystopia of this exhibition!

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Ashley Bickerton: Newport Street Gallery

Newport Street Gallery is fast becoming a favourite – light and airy, with high ceilings in all six of its gallery spaces spread across two floors, and consistently displays works by artists who produce bright, colourful, and fun or provocative pieces. Their current offering entitled ‘Ornamental Hysteria’ showcasing Barbados-born Ashley Bickerton’s works, follows the same brief and features pieces which intelligently combine painting, photography, collage and sculpture in an array of vivid colours. Bickerton is playful throughout; poking fun at the rampant materialism of 1980’s New York in his ‘Logo’ and ‘Non-Word’ pieces in the opening gallery, to portraits like ‘Smiling Woman’ where photographs are distorted in Photoshop before being reprinted on canvas and painted over, and whimsical takes on artistic traditions including an installation of life-rafts rather than traditional seascape paintings. Bickerton appears to extend the same tongue-in-cheek attitude towards himself, evident in a self-portrait where he is depicted as a grinning five-bodied serpent, and again in his regular use of the graphic motif ‘Susie’ which acts as his signature but is more akin to a trademark (again allowing him to comment on ideas around identity in a consumer driven society). The standout work for me is ‘Red Scooter’ where oil, acrylic and digital imagery of a family crammed onto a moped combine, in a bespoke frame harking back to his Caribbean roots featuring coconut, mother-of-pearl and antique coins. Bickerton evidently finds sticking to one medium far too limiting and in his own words it is “only in their combination that I find comfort”. This exhibition is certainly packed full of arresting colours, artworks which challenge the visitor, and at times are even quite frightening, however the overriding element of fun which pervades the entire show left me feeling exactly that – comforted!

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Wolfgang Tillmans 2017: Tate Modern

German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans’ work has become increasingly pertinent over the last few years, and following Brexit and the inauguration of Trump, the current exhibition dedicated to his work at Tate Modern feels relevant and timely. Rather than being a retrospective of Tillmans’ career, the majority of the works displayed across thirteen gallery spaces have been produced since 2003, which is when he turned his gaze onto political and social concerns. It comprises 450 images taken in 37 different countries spanning politics, freedom, portraiture, nightlife, and his own experimentation with processes involved in photography and printing. Each image is hung very simply either in plain white frames, pinned or taped to the walls, or held into place with crocodile clips – highlighting their vulnerability and how exposing (and often deeply personal) the photographs in this exhibition are. This is not to say the curation is simple, indeed whole galleries are transformed into installations. Several galleries feature images deliberately placed together unexpectedly to highlight how we experience different aspects of the world simultaneously, there is a recreation of his ‘Truth Study Centre’ project which began in 2005 where images, press cuttings, drawings and other objects are laid out together in contrary ways, as well as ‘Playback Room’ designed specifically for listening to recorded music at almost the same quality it was originally mastered. Images in the final gallery from the recent ‘The State We’re In’ project exploring current global tensions though photographs of the Atlantic ocean, country borders and landscape shots are stunning, but it was the lesser known images from his experimentation with chemicals, light, paper, ink, and the printing process that stole the show for me. These experiments resulted in wonderfully unpredictable effects and abstract images which I was previously unfamiliar with. On display until early June, I’d strongly suggest heading over to Southbank for an aptly-timed, educational visit!

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