The Photographer’s Gallery is amongst my favourite galleries in London and this isn’t just because of their amazing coffee in the café at the entrance. The 4 shortlisted exhibitors this year were spread out on the top 2 floors of the multi-store gallery with expert curating.
Starting from the top floor, we are greeted by the large-scale photographs by Richard Mosse who in fact won the prize this year. His work is spread along 3 walls, 2 large ones and the smaller one adjacent to the entrance to the floor. All five images displayed are of differing sizes but what unifies them is the fact that there are no boarders used and the frames are a dull and clinical-feeling grey. This abrupt transition from print to the frame matches the subject of the photographs- the conflict in the Republic of Congo. The photographs themselves have this abrupt transition form beautiful looking landscapes to the harsh reality.
The scarcity of the number of images displayed on the large display area shares the inherent isolated feeling of a war and genocide ridden country. The voices of the 5.4 million people that have died since 1998 echo throughout the bare walls which provide a respectful moment of silence as we pass through them. There is a feeling of isolation as each frame is independent of each other.
The photographer uses an infrared film that is not in production anymore and provides a new way of looking. Transforming them to tones of coral feminizes the sinister undertones of the khaki green uniforms. The foliage of the landscapes seen in infrared resembles a cancerous and lethal tissue that is all consuming and inescapable. The blue hues of the rivers appear viscous and contaminated, perhaps something that is picked up by the curator. They resemble selfish veins that are draining the land rich in minerals and metastasising to bring about chaos and death.
The size of the problem in Congo is shown on large prints obtained from a large format camera with discontinued infrared colour film, which traditionally was used by the army to identify camouflaged targets.
Along the same floor, crammed into a small corner are photographs belonging to Lorna Simpson. This is in direct contrast to Mosse’s layout. Here are many images in a very small space.
In her work Simpson has incorporated anonymous archival prints belonging to 1950’s and she has copied the poses in her self-portraits from 2009. The artist that is known for her visual diaries here shows us a summer from 1957 and one from 2009. There are no elements that give away the time period in the photographs and often some images are duplicated. The lack of temporal identity confuses the viewer and makes them question what is now and what was then. Have there been that many changes since the 1950’s, especially for ethnic minorities and for women?
The lack of clarity of which image is the original and which one is a re-creation is carried through the way the images are displayed. They are all square prints in small white frames that have equal spacing between them. The layout is across a corner with differing number of rows on each column. This gives a grid-like appearance and resembles a calendar with differing number of days in each week. The curator plays with irony by placing the frames equidistantly to ignore the mass inequality for women and especially the ethnic minorities in the 1950’s America. Being placed in a corner of the gallery mirrors the social standing of the individuals photographed. It feels as if there is an equality in which minority groups are ignored.
The show continues on the 4th floor. Here we face the work of Alberto Garcia-Alix but before we see any of his work, we are greeted by a voice, a Spanish voice coming from the large screen placed on the entrance wall; “From Where There Is No Return”. Facing this is a bench and depending on the time of the day you visit, many people sitting or standing around it. This creates a feeling of paranoia as you enter. Are they waiting for me? Why are they facing me? What are their eyes focusing on? For anyone with social anxiety, this creates tension, the same way that the artist’s photographs have. The voice demands attention and you are sucked into the world of Garcia portrayed over 4 decades.
Excluding the screen, there are 3 walls that hold his photographs. The 2 walls facing each other hold prints of the same size, frame and mounting. On one side there are 2 rows of 6 images that are from a more recent time. The artist here is shown middle aged and alone in his images. He appears with sombre expressions and seems only comfortable when his face is hiding in the shadows or behind a mask whilst holding his genitals. Opposite this are the works from past decades. Here he often has companions within the frame and he appears to be enjoying himself, whether he is injecting himself with possibly drugs or about to have a threesome. By this temporal separation, the curator highlights the span of artist’s works and allows the viewer to appreciate his career that so far spans over 4 decades. The frames are the same colour, size and the mounting is identical.
The third wall holds 2 very large prints of equal size to each other and acts to summarise the overall feeling of the artist. One of these is a self-portrait full of emotion and the other an occupied building on a stark night sky that feels cold and distant. As he states, “fear does not paralyse me, nor stops me dead; instead it drives me on, forces me to keep looking at myself, even though I know that fear will always be the mask behind which I show myself”.
While Garcia-Alix’s layout feels that there is an element of separation with regards to time, as we move onto the adjacent room, Jochen Lempert’
s work is separated almost according to species. The prints taped to the walls are separated roughly according to size, which has a great variance. There is a feeling of taxonomy occurring in the layout. The frameless and nameless prints are held on the wall or under glass tables as if they were post-it notes full of reminders or flashes of scientific concepts. The lack of information about the images creates a unique feeling, the scientist here is hypothesizing either in a moment of clarity or utter confusion.
The photographer’s previous training, biology, seems to play a role in this exhibition layout. There are two tables with glass tops that hold some of his smaller prints, again without a frame or a mount. The curator creates a studios environment for the work of the photographer that feels less like a visual recording and more like examining specimens in a laboratory. There is one wall that holds photograms of frogs, in movement and still. The viewer interacts more with the subject that is not in hiding inside a frame.
The Deutsche Borse Prize, which awards a living photographer of any nationality whose work has contributed to photography in Europe, has awarded the first place to Richard Mosse. His depiction of the happenings in the Republic of Congo is laid out in a large space, which is in direct contrast to Lorna Simpson’s work, which is on the same floor. It is not a surprise that out of the 4 photographers, the curator have kept these two artists together. As a Caucasian male born in the 80’s that has never travelled to Africa I am far removed from the issues displayed. Most of the viewers of the show perhaps won’t have first hand experiences of these issues but the curator allows a small fraction of these emotions to be experienced.
The curator on the penultimate floor has placed Garcia-Alix’s and Lempert’s work together, again by no coincidence. Both shows have an element of separation or categorization, either in time or species.
The show has been curated expertly. Each of the short-listed bodies of work is laid out in a way that matches the content. This allows the viewer to approach the Prize as 4 individual exhibitions or 1 large one that is cohesive.