22 April 2011

Three photography exhibitions

Two months ago I visited the National Portrait Gallery to view the 2011 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition. After a hiatus in gallery visits, I recently chalked up three in quick succession in central London. Here's a quick run-down on the highlights.

Out of Place

Shading Monument for the Artist / Cevdet Erek
Out of Place was a small exhibition - just one room with two small annexes. It was a collaboration between the Tate Modern and a Jordanian gallery, featuring the work of four artists. According to the reliably pseudy blurb, '[t]he artists in Out of Place each explore the relationship between dominant political forces and personal and collective histories by looking at urban space, architectural structures and the condition of displacement'. 

My favourite images were the large-format architectural landscapes of Hrair Sarkissian’s In Between, which depict the ghostly hulks of huge failed building projects in the empty expanses of rural Armenia. The brutal concrete giants are punctured with glassless window frames through which, no doubt, bitter winter winds howl. On the plus side, they'd make great sets for a James Bond movie.

Ahlam Shibli's The Valley photos offered a glimpse of a Palestinian Arab village within Israeli-controlled territory. While a few frames showing the ever-encroaching development of massive houses for Israeli settlers held a real sense of purpose, I felt some of the other documentary images were less than compelling. The relative poverty that the villagers live in was only fully explained by a potted history on a caption near the photos - the images didn't really manage the task on their own.

There were also two artists working in other mediums. Romanian film-maker Ion Grigorescu shot a huge amount of footage of his native Bucharest from the 1970s onwards. While it was clear from the excerpts I saw that communist-era Bucharest was dominated by ugly tower blocks and everyone seemed to drive the same model of car, there's only so much jerky 8mm film shot at a 15-degree slant that you can take in as a casual observer.

Cevdet Erek's artwork Shading Monument for the Artist borrowed text from Spanish Civil War memorials and suspended large plastic text perpendicular to a wall, so that the movement of the sun throughout the day casts shadows of the text. It's an interesting idea, and certainly would've been more dramatic if I'd caught it on a sunny day.

(Out of Place closed on 17 April)

Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2011

The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize is an annual exhibition normally hosted by the Photographers' Gallery in Soho, but as this year's event falls during the long refurbishment of that site, the exhibition has migrated to an interesting gallery space on Marylebone Road. Ambika P3 is part of the University of Westminster's campus, and used to be a chemistry facility. Now it's an art display venue, which presents an impressive space to fill. After traipsing down flights of stairs and through a grim-looking underground carpark, visitors emerge into a balcony overlooking a cavernous 1300-square metre interior. There are four collections competing for the £30,000 first prize, which goes to the living photographer thought to have made the most significant contribution to photography in Europe in the past year.

I suspect the lead contender for the prize is the Open See series by Jim Goldberg, in which he documents the lives of modern refugees who have reached Europe. Part of the collection is a series of polaroids annotated by the subjects themselves, but the most prominent piece is a large portrait of a man sifting through refuse in 'High Noon at Dhaka Dump', in which a flat sea of rubbish spreads out behind the subject, trailing off into the far distance.

Elad Lassry's photographs are perhaps the most visually striking images of the exhibition. In particular, the Israeli-born photographer's picture 'Man 071', a head-and-shoulders view of a smiling male model that is distinguished by the eerie duplication of his eyes, so that a second set sits immediately above the real ones. And his simple yet appealing image of a Burmese cat feeding her kittens against a plain white background is dominated by the striking expression in the mother cat's eyes - staring directly down the lens at the photographer, as if she is quietly furious that her private moment with her kittens is being snooped on.

There was only room for one of Germany photographer Thomas Demand's large-scale images in the exhibition space, but it is a spectacular one. The huge image of a village church organ, with its multitude of pipes arrayed like stalagmites, is doubly impressive because Demand recreates all his subjects in 3D using paper models. The original organ, Demand reveals in an on-site video, played the same folk tune regularly for 80 years until recently, when a new town mayor blithely decided that the village needed a modern tourist attraction, and had the organ removed so it could be automated and play different tunes.

Lastly, American photographer Roe Ethridge's images straddle the world of commercial photography, where he makes his living, introducing an appealing surreal aspect to highly corporate images of modern life, like his magazine catalogue-style 'Thanksgiving 1984', which could have appeared in a department store advertising campaign, and his simple yet beautiful ballet studio portraits of ballerina's dancing feet.

(The prize winner will be announced on 26 April, and the free exhibition runs at P3 until 1 May)

Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer 1908-1974

I'd never heard of Armenian-born photographer Ida Kar before I noticed the exhibition on her life's work at the National Portrait Gallery. Educated in Alexandria but building her career as one of the pre-eminent photographers of the London arts scene, Kar was at her peak photographing a multitude of artists and creative types in the 1950s and 60s.  

The list of subjects who appeared before Kar's camera is compelling. Bertrand Russell gnaws on a pipe as he jots in his notebook. Henry Moore lurks in his sculpture workshop. Artist Marc Chagall, turning towards the light. The legendary photographer, Man Ray, round-shouldered and subdued next to a vibrant painting of a carousing girl. The architect Le Corbusier, looking up, interrupted, from his work desk. Jean-Paul Sartre, his face in shadow but a flash of light illuminating his hair to cast him as a philosophical Tintin.

Perhaps my favourite of Kar's art-world portrait was that of the art dealer John Kasmin, sitting like a mod prince in his tastefully decorated flat. Incidentally, his Wikipedia entry notes that Kasmin experimented briefly with life in the colonies:

John Kasmin briefly lived in New Zealand in the mid 1950s, working temporarily as an orderly at Wellington Public Hospital. Many young colonial bohemians of the day were entertained by his quick acerbic wit.

Later in her career Kar became an accomplished travel photographer, journeying back to visit her elderly parents in Armenia, and pursuing her interest in left-wing politics by visiting the USSR and Cuba. Her images of Cuba, in particular, display a vivid talent for street photography and a love for her chosen subject matter.   

(The exhibition runs until 19 June, tickets £3)
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