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!
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.
Here’s a few facts to get things started: by 2002 more information was stored in digital forms rather than analogue, by 2007 ninety-four percent of global information was digitally coded information, and we continue to produce 2.5 trillion bytes of data each day. I almost feel guilty posting this blog and adding yet more to this ever increasing phenomenon… but this is exactly the subject matter Somerset House’s current exhibition ‘Big Bang Data’ is exploring. Data is discussed in all forms; from the sheer volume of selfies, tweets, Instagram posts and GPS information produced each day, to how it can be harnessed for the common good, its surveillance, what it fails to tell us, and finally examples of abstract creations by artists and designers using this data. One installation entitled ‘data.tron’ by Ryoji Ikeda highlights the infinite scale of the worlds’ data through a hypnotic and constantly changing screen of mathematic formulae and data sets. Another innovative interpretation of data came from Ingo Gunther’s ongoing ‘World Processor’ project started in 1988, featuring a series of acrylic globes representing mapped data on political, economic, social, historical, environmental and technological world issues. Data-centrism is also addressed as there is a growing belief that data contains all the answers, failing to acknowledge that numbers can be manipulated and skewed. This is succinctly summarised in Jonathan Harris’ printed monologue ‘Data Will Help Us’ which questions everything from advertising to dating and whether society has now reached a point where we are ignoring context and common sense, to blindly trust data. The exhibition does a compelling job of making a complex (and indeed dry) subject matter not only accessible but interesting and even beautiful. My only criticism is that the curators played it a little safe and could have probed a little deeper and been more controversial.
This years’ annual Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize elicited 4,292 submissions from 2,201 photographers and provided a refreshing mix of famous faces (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Obamas and Peter Capaldi) as well as informal portraits of photographers’ friends and families, and spur of the moment images captured by street photographers across a wide range of global locations. I didn’t personally agree with the 2015 winners and found David Stewarts’ ‘Five Girls’ first prize portrait of his teenage daughter and four friends sitting at a table unduly posed, unnatural and a little stiff. Similarly, the runner up prize ‘Hector’ – a portrait of a naked baby inspired by Caravaggio’s 17th century ‘Sleeping Cupid’ by Anoush Abrar, simply left me cold. The exhibition did nonetheless include some wonderful portraits, and a personal favourite was an inkjet print of the Japanese artist Yayoi Kasuma by Noriko Takasugi which much like its subject was full of character and bursting with colour. Similarly ‘Happy Pupil’ by Mark Chivers captured a genuine and heart-warming moment when a Ugandan boy called Owen smiled infectiously across his classroom (as his education is funded through the charity Lessons for Life). At the other end of the spectrum, hard hitting issues were addressed by Lithuanian photographer Viktorija Vaisvilate Skirutiene in a portrait of her four year old neighbour naked in the window holding up his toy gun, shot in solemn black and white, producing a powerfully disturbing image. Closer to home ‘Constable Robling and Fintab’ a portrait of Britain’s first female UK policewomen to become a dog handler by Adrian Peacock captured an aggressive Fintab (the Alsatian) with gnarled teeth and visible tension on his lead, all humorously explained by the dogs’ hostility towards photographers! As always, I left feeling excited about next years’ prize and what 2016 will have to offer.