A Brave Attempt
Currently on at the Manchester Art Gallery is the exhibition Focal Points: Art and Photography. After
having been to it during the Christmas period, I am still thinking
about it more than a month later. The premise of the show is that
photography lies at the heart of some of the most significant works
of contemporary art. Whilst there is no denying that point, I am
still at a loss why certain works were shown to the exclusion of
others. So I tried to put myself into the position of the curator.
How would I put together this show?
To be honest, with a theme like this, I am not even sure how and
where I would start. Are photography and art two separate entities?
If so, are they mutually exclusive? Who would be representative of
this relationship? Would I choose hardcore photographers? Or would
I opt for artists that incorporate photography in their practice,
but also work with other media? Which of their works would I put on
view? Would my choices be limited by availability of existing
works? Would I be able to commission new ones? Would I otherwise be
limited in time, space and money? Mind you, these are only some of
the more practical issues. Would I explain my choices to the
audience? If so, how much would I explain? Or would I let them make
up their own minds? How would I position the works? What would be
the natural flow of the exhibition? Can there even be a natural
flow? It quickly becomes clear that this particular topic would be
daunting for any curator worth his salt.
The terrain covered by the relationship between art and
photography is so incredibly vast, it is difficult to comprehend it
to its full extent. The concept is so malleable, so changeable that
it becomes a bit of a mission to define any solid and tangible
boundaries. How can it possibly be broken down into something
manageable? There are some clues to be found in the exhibition. It
contains about thirty works, produced from the 1980s onwards.
According to the introduction text a number of artists had started
to use photography in the 1980s as they had been inspired by the
conceptual art and pop art movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But
could another reason be that photography from the 1980s onwards
received much more recognition as a legitimate art form in and of
itself in museums and art galleries? Could it also be because it
became much more of a commodity in the art market?
Then there is the issue that the works on show are mostly
derived from the Manchester City Galleries Collection and the Arts Council Collection. Were the 1980s also
chosen because most of the works in these collections are from that
particular era? Why were these collections chosen anyway? Easy
access played an important role I imagine. But would they provide
enough source material to work with, to really explore the theme?
Would they not limit the exhibition by quintessentially turning it
into a British group show? Indeed, the majority of the artists on
view are British. But does that not defeat the point of the
exhibition? Because if it was made in a different country, with
different collections as source material, would it not provide
radically different answers to the many questions posed above?
Focal Points further tries to provide answers by subdividing the
works into those dealing with the body, still lives, cultural
identities and the exploration of living and working places. These
categories were chosen because they are classic themes in art
history. But are these particular subthemes somehow more easily
captured with photography? How well do the works on show fit these
categories anyway? And do they actually prove the point of art and
photography? Only partially in my opinion. The 'architecture
section', which includes the interiors of Catherine Yass and the city scapes of Thomas
Demand, feels empty and out of place. The 'still lives' are
generally nice, but nothing to write home about.
The images that deal with identity and the body on the other
hand are really strong. The pictures from Richard Billingham's seminal series Ray's a
Laugh form a heart-rending photo reportage of his dysfunctional
parents living in desperate poverty. In close proximity are works
by the excellent Ingrid Pollard. The photographs from her Pastoral
Interlude series show black people in the British countryside.
Her jarring images question the automatic association of black
people with city life. Then there is Sarah Lucas' self portrait in which she looks
and sits like a bloke in a chair but with two fried eggs draped on
her breasts. It is a succinct and eloquent critique of gender
assumptions. The Ethnographic Series by Pushpamala N is a
fascinating exploration of ethnicity and gender as well as a
critical reworking of anthropological photography. Donald Rodney's picture In the House of My
Father is beautiful and gruesome at the same time. By
fashioning a tiny house of his own skin and tenderly holding it in
his own hand, he questions health, mortality and feelings of
safety. The image also breaks down quite a few taboos in the
process. These works really strike a chord. They do more than just
record what is in front of the camera. They are genuinely a work of
Focal Points: Art and Photography is still on
at Manchester Art Gallery until Sunday 7 April 2013.