The gallery moved to Bold St when the area developed and took its sensitivity to the Liverpool cultural mentality and its international knowledge of people working in the field with it. Again it moved to Fleet Street. When it moved here I found the work displayed no longer connected with me and I found myself no longer visiting. It has moved again to Mann Island and I was curious to see if I could start relating to what was being displayed and I would wish to be a regular visitor again.
I popped along this afternoon and was immediately welcomed by 2 volunteer gallery assistants who were interested in my story and took time to explain how the gallery worked. They also made sure I had a gallery guide. I did a kind of test and wondered how a photo gallery would respond to my request to have a picture taken to accompany this article. They quickly responded, took 2 photos as I was in the gallery and they were waiting for me in my e-mail when I arrived home. I’ve got to say this is the best I’ve ever been treated in a gallery and it really added to my experience.
I enjoyed the 2 shows that were being shown. I found them both thought provoking and related to my experience of living in Liverpool. I think we are a city that can look outwards at times and I was interested in the main exhibition that attempted to document what is happening in the Congo. I was impressed by the range of size of prints and how they related to the gallery space plus the innovative use of film. This is an exhibition that made me think of the effect the west has on Africa and has stimulated me to find out more. I discovered there were strong literary connections to Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ that I recently read with my book club which added to my experience. It was also good that the gallery has space for someone like me to sit and read the exhibition guide and accompanying photographic books and allow time to reflect on what is being seen.
Overall I had an enjoyable and interesting hour or so in the gallery. I noticed that the other visitors were also treated in a friendly welcoming way. I will definitely go again, esp. as I have been added to the mailing list so I will be invited to future talks, events and openings.
Originally published on Art In Liverpool.
When I started writing about this, I had some trouble. As the title suggests, when faced with images (or situations) like this, it's difficult to know what to say. Anything you write has the tendency to come off as cliche. It may be tempting to say "let images speak for themselves", but this leads to another issue - if we fail to write about a subject/discuss it, are we less likely to remember it? If we don't try to find the words to describe what is happening, will our memories of the events disappear, as we see the last traces disappear in these photographs?
(See Loftus and Palmer's research into the impact of language on memory - I'm sure there's much more thorough and relevant research out there, too).
The images themselves reflect a change in Norfolk's work (described in the gallery text as "photojournalism...to landscape photography", although I don't think either of those terms quite fit any of the work here), but what effect does this have on the 'message?'
The images from Cambodia seem the closest to photojournalism, although there is still a definite consideration for the aesthetic, the creation of an interesting composition. I found a quote, actually by Norfolk's co-exhibitor Richard Mosse, which explored this idea, and can be applied equally to both artists' work:
“Photojournalists tend to avoid the dilemma of ethics and aesthetics – the problems that arise when you make aesthetic images from human suffering,” he says. “Very few people consider any alternatives to the Capa low-fi, grainy, black and white approach, whereas photography has huge aesthetic potential, you can make extraordinary beautiful images which are very powerful.”
Moving on, the Auschwitz photos begin to show a move towards more abstract imagery, and as a result are successful in capturing a sense of emptiness, showing traces of something (someone) that was once there but is now gone. The worn staircase speaks more subtly but perhaps more effectively than the piles of human bones in the Cambodian former teachers' college.
The theme of desertion continues throughout, as the pictures become more focused on the landscape, the empty space. There is just enough information to tell the story: The two distant figures in 'Armenia: Exile', the vague shapes buried in the sand in Namibia (we think we can possibly make out familiar objects, just on the point of being lost forever.
The last photo, just titled 'Namibia', is the most abstract. In fact there is little 'information' here at all, just the silhouetted mountains and the one band of light on an otherwise pitch black landscape. As an image standing alone, it is perhaps not so successful as the others, and with so little detail, it is perhaps one of those pieces where you have to know the 'backstory' to fully understand what's happening. As an ending to the series, though, this works. It is the closing chapter, nothing remains to be seen of the genocide here.
Three of Mosse's short films are shown, all of which pre-date the main body of photographic work.
'Theatre of War' sees a group of soldiers around a drained swimming pool in a palace owned by Uday Hussein. They sit, they wander about, they look completely bored. They are doing nothing. The image is completely ridiculous. In no way do I want to trivialise the war in Iraq, but these soldiers appear as children who have taken over another group's den, and after brief celebration realise they really don't know what to do with it.
The sight of the palace itself is a reminder of how much has been destroyed in the war. The artist does not sympathise with Hussein, but rather with the building itself. There is a great sense of sadness and waste(fulness) here, the dereliction of such a building in turn making us reflect upon those less grandiose residences, those everyday lives, destroyed by war.
'Untitled (Iraq)' seems a more abstract piece. We see objects in the desert landscape, objects shot to pieces and further corroded by the environment. We hear a list of place names, some recognisable, others probably unheard of by many Western viewers. A reminder that while we are given a certain amount of information through news reports, there will always be unreported incidents: towns devastated, lives lost, that we will never know about.
'Gaza Pastoral' begins in what seems to be an underground tunnel. When we emerge, it is to a strange world. The camera seems to 'float', giving a dream-like quality to the piece. We see herds of goats wandering in urban spaces - this is not the 'pastoral' scene a Western viewer expects. The rolling hills are replaced by angular rooftops, destroyed by bombs. We hear faint rumblings, maybe the wind, maybe distant planes, and then, an oddly human sound, and two men are revealed, amongst the rubble, breaking rocks.
We come back to the goats, fleeing from the camera. Then what sounds like gunfire, and we see people, a few at first, then scores, running down the hillside, oddly reminiscent of those goats. The dreamlike sweep of the landscape continues, then it's back underground - to safety?
Background information on Richard Mosse and the techniques used in "Infra" can be found on the Open Eye Gallery website. They explain it a lot better than I could. Lets just say that it makes some things very, very pink. And purple. And crimson. And all things in between. In 'Tutsi Town' we see a crowd scene. The infrared image seems to divide them up - those wearing shades of red and gold, and those wearing grey - almost as if they were split into teams. This is an interesting effect considering the complexity of a conflict which doesn't have two defined sides to choose from. At the centre of the crowd we see a man with a gun. He confronts the camera, telling us that he controls the scene, but what of the others, stood right behind him, ready to step into place as soon as he's gone?
This is a striking set of images; the colours are fascinating and beautiful, particularly when Mosse photographs vegetation. Trees and other plants 'glow' with an intensity that is unnatural and completely natural at the same time. The title 'The Crystal World' is perfectly fitting, in fact I thought of Ballard's novel as soon as I saw these images. However, the titles of other works pose a bit of a problem for me. I'm not adverse to musical references, I've done it myself, but does it work when dealing with a subject like this? Yes, there is something quite reminiscent of the 60s about these images. Infrared and false-colour photography was popular in the 60s because of its 'psycedelic' effects, so maybe titles like 'Ruby Tuesday' and 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun' are forgiveable. When we see others, though, like 'Rebel Rebel' and 'We Hate it When our Friends Become Successful', does this cheapen the work slightly? Is there too much humour? Do the images simply become a series of pop-culture references?
But then, they're only titles, and either the artist or the gallery has actually chosen not to display them next to the works. Instead, you have to look in the book provided (well worth doing, by the way). Choosing not to give the titles of the works allows an objective experience. The viewer is not being told what to think, and is given space not only to consider the subject matter, but also to appreciate the images aesthetically. Perhaps for someone like myself, not exactly knowledgable about the Congo, this is the best way to view them.
Mosse himself says that he is concerned with "consciousness" more than "conscience". I don't claim to know exactly what he means by this, but perhaps it gives the viewer a clue that it is not necessary to know anything about the subject matter to be able to appreciate these pieces as works of art. I enjoy the idea of the 'pastoral' in Mosse's work, how its meaning for us is shaped by a Western sensibility. How we expect the rolling hills, the herds of livestock, and how when viewing the 'pastoral' through the eyes of another culture, these ideas can be reflected back at us but completely distorted at the same time, almost as if looking through a kaleidoscope.
Lastly, Emily Speed's work on the outside wall is interesting. Using the same material as the walls themselves, Speed's 'Nothing is Finished, Nothing is Perfect, Nothing Lasts' seems to be a section of the wall peeling itself away, perhaps dying like a wilted leaf, perhaps alternatively coming to life. I can't make up my mind about this one - would it be more successful if more areas of the walls were 'peeled', or does its success lie in the fact that it is so subtle (I didn't even notice it on my way in)? On her website, Speed jokingly suggests that the silicone used to join the piece to the wall might be so strong that it has to stay there permanently. I think this would be a great permanent addition to the gallery, its subtlety gaining validity over time.