Kerim Aytac reviews a mixed bag of photography exhibitions in London this month, with some excellent work to see from artists both established and emerging. As the degree shows begin, this month’s galleries provide an interesting insight into the marketplace aspiring graduates are about to enter.
Most recommended is the excellent ‘Light Break’ from the always interesting Nicolai Howalt at Edel Assanti. Renowned for his ‘Boxer’ and ‘Car Crash Studies’ series, Howalt has moved away from straight photography in assembling a portmanteau of appropriation here. Howalt tries to capture the nature of invisible light through an investigation into the late nineteenth century revolutionary research into “light therapy” undertaken by doctor and Nobel laureate Niels Finsen. Finsen deduced that certain wavelengths of light could have beneficial medical effects for a number of otherwise incurable conditions. Through collaboration with the Medical Museion in Copenhagen, Howalt was able to access the vast archive relating to Finsen’s research, unseen in storage for almost a hundred years.
The show includes some of Finsen’s own photographs of patients, which are strangely contemporary and completely haunting, alongside a large scale photograph of one of his ‘moulages’ (wax masks of the face who underwent Finsen’s ‘Phototherapy’). Deteriorated over time, these masks may be seen to provide an accurate depiction of what exposing the skin to harmful UV light might actually do.. Also on display are large scale experiments Howalt conducted by photographing UV light channeled through crystal prisms, essentially Finsen’s process. The results are soft abstractions, off kilter but somehow absorbing.
It is hard to think of light as dangerous, as harmful, and Howalt seems keen to convey the wonder that may have underpinned Finsen’s now completely discredited work. Like Marie Curie, whose bedtime reading was assisted by Uranium glow, for Finsen the illumination light offers masked its invisible dangers. Howalt hints at this in images of the Sun appropriated from Nasa, presented in differing scale and converted to grayscale. The most beautiful of the series on show, these images highlight the brutal violence of the light source, its beauty in sight but absolute terror to the flesh. We can no longer look upon this wondrous star with Finsen’s innocence, we know its game.; the light has indeed broken. This is a fascinating show that links seemingly disparate elements with intelligence and flair.
Purdy Hicks have some of Samuel Fosso’s images on display. Large scale, these images provide a brief intro to the great exhibitionist’s career but with little sense of continuity. Fosso, who used the self-portrait to embody and mock not only Western cliches of identity, but those surrounding masculinity and African archetyping as well, was fairly prolific, so it would have been nice to see more images here. The images present do reflect his astute sense of how the camera could be used to represent the figure as idea/myth, as well as his huge talent for the ‘mise en scene’ of the stereotype. The impish flamboyance with which Fosso took to making his images belie the satirical scalpel with which he exposed the falsity of images of ‘great men’. This show should be cause to investigate Fosso’s body of work further.
Next door at Wapping Project Bankside is a curious exhibition: ‘The Other Side of Everything by Stephen J. Morgan. For the past year, Stephen J. Morgan has travelled across the UK and photographed both, the Union Flag and St George’s Cross where he found them: hanging from tower blocks, displayed in the windows of houses, swinging from poles. According to the press release ‘The Union Flag is commonly associated with the Monarchy, the British Empire and the British Armed forces. It may function as an emblem of pride and patriotism, or of racism, xenophobia and a rudimentary form of nationalism, depending on who sees it, when and where, thus leading the artist to ponder its function in today’s multicultural society.’ Each image is titled after landmark dates in Britain’s recent history, which have had a profound impact on Morgan’s childhood and early adulthood.
t’s an interesting idea which recalls Paul Graham’s ‘Ceasefire’ in which the photographer took different pictures of the overcast sky on the day the Irish ceasefire was announced. Where Graham’s work is poignant, however, informed by a conceptual framework that helps to communicate an opaque concept more clearly, Morgan’s images are throwaway and banal, afterthoughts even. Rather than make the viewer question the multiculturalism or British Identity, which Morgan claims to want to do, his artless approach encourages dismissal and discourages contemplation. The images come off as amateurish snapshots in such a refined gallery space and though I’m sure there’s something I’m missing, it seems a strange choice for the Wapping Project Bankside to have made.
Words and Images by Kerim Aytac Main Photo: Wapping Project Bankside, ‘The Other Side of Everything by Stephen J. Morgan.
Nicolai Howalt @ Edel Assanti until June 22
Samuel Fosso @ Purdy Hicks until July 6
Stephen J. Morgan @ Wapping Project Bankside until July 13