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!
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.
Five clusters of vintage projectors are littered across the 4th floor of the The Photographers Gallery, initially looking more like an art installation than a photography exhibition. Once inside the space you quickly realise that they are projecting images directly onto the gallery walls; moreover as a visitor you are encouraged to activate the projectors yourself and control how the various images appear and disappear, and are layered over one another. The images were all taken between the late 1950’s and early 1970’s by the Uruguayan photojournalist Aurelio Gonzalez, who hid 48,626 negatives from the press archive of the country’s Communist newspaper El Popular ahead of the dictatorships’ censorship in 1973. Gonzalez ensconced the slides in a wall cavity in his office building in Montevideo for decades, only recovering them in 2006! The Centre de Fotografia de Montevideo subsequently restored, classified and digitised the archive, and in 2011 the Brazilian artist Rosangela Renno created this exhibition in response to the images. Obviously some heavy editing needed to be done with an archive approaching 50,000 photos, so Renno chose a small selection of images which best depicted the economic decline, protest and civil unrest that preceded the coup, and manipulated the archival black and white slides into digital images we see in this show. Little of this uprising survives in historical or photographic records, and Renno endured similar conditions herself during the military repression of Brazil during her lifetime – making her an apt artist to tell this story. Small red plastic tags attached to the projectors list search terms from the archive’s cataloguing system, offering insights into how the archive has been organised and increase your level of engagement with the photos. Likewise the constant clunking mechanisms of the old projectors intermingles with the Communist Internationale music playing in the background, making the images appear even more powerful.
The Royal Academy’s survey on Ai Weiwei was as highly political, subversive, provocative and critical of the state and censorship as I would expect (and indeed hoped!) it to be. However, what surprised me was the artists’ genuine appreciation of traditional dynastic craftsmanship, techniques and materials – which is palpable throughout the exhibition. Spanning eleven large galleries, it focusses on Ai’s work from 1993 onwards following his return to Beijing after living in America for over a decade when his father became unwell. The big-name monumental sculptures including ‘Bed’, ‘Straight’ and ‘Fragments’ take up entire galleries by themselves, and whilst I appreciated their ambitious scale and enjoyed exploring them from all angles, they didn’t grab my attention in the same way several smaller pieces did. The ‘Coca-Cola Vase’, a Han Dynasty vase (dating 206BC – 220 AD) emblazoned with the global brands’ logo raised interesting questions about old versus new, fakes being sold as originals, and if pottery is created today using centuries old materials and techniques what makes it a forgery? Similarly a collection of 3,000 ceramic crab sculptures collectively titled ‘He Xie’ is the result of one municipal authority inviting Ai to design and build a studio to help regenerate their province, which was quickly demolished and he was put under house-arrest, but through social media invited the public to dine on river crabs in protest – as the word for river crab in Chinese is synonymous with internet censorship. Human rights and suppression are common themes throughout; from a surveillance camera carved in white marble, to hand-cuffs made from a single piece of jade, gold wallpaper repeating a pattern interweaving the Twitter logo, hand-cuffs and CCTV cameras, and his most explicit fuck you in ‘Finger’ a black and white wallpaper showing the internationally recognised symbol of the middle finger in different artistic configurations!
Emily Jacir’s current ‘Europa’ exhibition was a little hit and miss for me… whilst I certainly enjoyed several pieces, I found that many failed to have an impact as standalone pieces of art, and it was only once I had read more about their political contexts that I could appreciate them. Spanning two floors of Whitechapel Gallery the exhibition includes multimedia installations, films, soundscapes, photography, archival material and texts – and covers the last two decades of Jacir’s work with a focus on Europe. All of the pieces have a heavy political leaning but some still manage to be amusing, such as ‘Change/Exchange’ which displays eye-level photographs of different Bureau de Changes across Paris alongside their receipts, detailing the journey of a $100 bill that Jacir changed into francs which she then changed back into dollars and so forth, until sixty exchanges later the paper money was gone and only coins which could not be exchanged remained. Others in contrast are very solemn; ‘Material for a film’ tells the moving story of Wael Zuaiter who was assassinated by Israeli Agents in his hotel room in Rome and features family photographs, personal anecdotes, literature and music to explain the Palestinian artists’ life and untimely death. Other pieces in the show include an installation akin to a luggage conveyor belt which only moves when it senses people nearby, feminist comments on her days living in Saudi Arabia where Vogue magazine was banned, a series of 26 photographs and accompanying diary extracts from a solo protest at a market square in Linz, and photographs of her Arabic translations of bridge stops in Venice in the lead-up to the Biennale festival (which were quickly removed). ‘Europa’ certainly provides food for deep thought, however I left the exhibition still feeling hungry for something more.
A narrow Georgian townhouse at the back of Charing Cross train station has been standing since 1730, provided lodgings for Benjamin Franklin (face on the $100 bill, Founding Father of the United States, scientist, diplomat, inventor of unusual musical instruments and more!) for sixteen years between 1757 and 1775, and has been a museum since 2006. To enter, visitors ring the doorbell much like you are paying a visit to someone’s home, are led along a corridor of original wooden floorboards and panelling, and down the stairs to the basement where the ‘Historical Experience’ begins… a small orientation room comprising information boards, an artefact display cabinet, and even human remains from the anatomy school which also operated from the building help introduce you to the House. After a short video, Polly (the landlady’s daughter and close friend of Franklin whilst he was lodging at the House) leads visitors to the Kitchen where flagstone flooring, a Victorian cooking stove, and views of the sunken basements are cleverly integrated with projections and voices that Polly continues to interact with throughout the House to help tell its’ stories. Visitors are then led upstairs to the Landlady’s Parlour, Card Room and finally Franklin’s Parlour – all complete with authentic features from the floorboards, to the shutters on the windows, marble fireplaces, and even the green paint on the walls specially mixed to match flecks of the original paint revealed through spectro-analysis. Typically I find costumed interpretation horribly uncomfortable, however it is immediately obvious that this House employs a professional actress and provides a theatrical ‘experience’ executed to a high standard. Likewise, the fact that it is largely unfurnished lends itself to this type of visitor offering, and it was refreshing to focus on the original features rather than trying to navigate your way through a cluttered house full of replica furnishings.