There’s a freshness to the show of this year’s nominees for the Deutsche Borse prize at the Photographer’s gallery. Whereas in recent years the jury have tried to balance established masters from the ‘straight’ photography community with conceptual artists, often very young and somewhat insubstantial, who use the medium, this year’s selection seems less at odds with itself.
It makes sense that two of the artists on show, Pieter Hugo and Rinko Kawauchi, have been nominated on the basis of publications and not exhibitions, as theirs is the most focussed work. Hugo’s ‘Permanent Error’ is a powerful documentation of a huge technological dumping ground on the outskirts of Ghana’s Capital city. Within this strange wasteland, littered with the West’s detritus, its unfortunate dwellers must burn what they can just to survive. Hugo’s approach is to stage portraits in which the subjects wear some of the rubbish with which they, and the capitalist behemoth, subsist. It is artfully done, with a melancholy humour, wistful even, that could almost belie the serious subject matter, but rather heightens its emotional impact. A connection is fostered between viewer and subject, allowing entry into this desolate landscape. Juxtaposed with equally formal portraits of objects within the space, the series creates a deep impact. As an approach to documentary, the influences of fellow South African Roger Ballen are evident, but here’s a more contemporary, a more biting engagement with the continent’s plight.
Rinko Kawauchi is known primarily as a book-maker so it is fitting that her work be hung above the outstanding ‘ Contemporary Japanese Photobooks’ display on the gallery’s second floor. It can be difficult to replicate the experience of a book on the gallery wall, especially when the publication is the artist’s preferred destination for her work. Kawauchi’s imagery is so dependant upon its sequencing and intimate scale that the connections are almost lost here, but the selection from the superlative ‘Illuminations’, the publication for which she was nominated, just about work here. These are small, intimate glimpses, snatches, grabs; little moments of beauty and poetry amidst the chaos of existence. A spider here, a splash in pool, toreadors, bedrooms, and a suckling baby there. There is no subject to this work as such, just the links between the seemingly disparate on both an aesthetic and emotional level. The artist’s muted colour palette, combined with an often hazy focus, connotes the experience of memory, and these fragments represent those things we would like to remember as well as those things we can’t help but recall. Hung scattered and in differing scale on the wall, the display does invite a sequential reading, with individual sets offering up elliptical links. Although reminiscent of Wolfgang Tillmans in terms of its presentation, I would argue that this far supersedes his often superficial work. To enjoy this work, you need to plug in, sync and let yourself flow.
The graceful effervescence of Kawauchi is somewhat contradicted by that of Christopher Willams’ work. Showing only three images in relatively large scale, Williams, who was nominated for an exhibition in the Czech Republic, challenges the viewer to engage with a far more obtuse set of visual connections. A finger about to push the button of some cold-war era technology is set alongside a muted black and white portrait of a hay bale. Next to that is a photograph of the interior of a darkroom. This is challenging indeed, and hardly worth the effort despite Williams’ reputation as a conceptual artist. He appropriates the language of advertising, captures the signifiers of the cold war and reminds the viewer of the technological apparatus behind the image on display, but to what avail? The postmodern conceptualism that underpins the work just isn’t interesting any more.
Far more interesting as a conceptual challenge to the traditional uses of photography are the collages and crops of John Stezaker. This has been a good year for Stezaker, with a major retrospective at the Whitechapel (for which he was nominated) and a room in ‘Out of Focus’ , the large survey photography show at the Saatchi. His work artfully collages old Hollywood portraits onto one another, folding or obscuring image with image, yet somehow creating a cogent whole. Another set uses old postcards on top of, again, old portraits. These are great, if not over-familiar by now, but one can’t help but feel there’s a fadishness to his popularity right now. Through no fault of his own, the work has taken on the feel of the ‘vintage’ and one feels that these images wouldn’t be out of place on the walls of an East End bar. The ‘Third Person Archive’ in which minute figures have been cropped out of found photographs and presented in equally tiny scale, is a deeply poignant body of work and possibly the strongest body of work in the whole show, on the other hand. It’s somehow moving to see these figures, isolated and ant-like, yet noble in some way. It feels like looking at history, like looking at loss, but in a manner that encourages empathy and meditation. Existence extracted from the already forgotten, the already dead.
It feels like Stezaker is the heavyweight here, if only because Kawauchi’s work loses impact by virtue of being on the wall. Hugo is appallingly young still and will surely win one day, whereas Williams is arguably irrelevant now. It is easy to dismiss Kawauchi as light and weightless, but hers is an important voice in the photography world and Stezaker, though he would be a worthy winner, has had enough validation in the art community to justify a Kawauchi award. Either way, this is one of the better years for the prize and an exhibition well worth visiting. Visit Exhibition Here
Words/ Photos Kerim Aytac © ArtLyst 2012