Monthly Archives: July 2010

Anthony Gormley sculptures at De La Warr Pavilion

I’ve been intending to visit the modernist De La Warr Pavilion on the south coast of England for some time, so when I heard that Anthony Gormley was exhibiting a version of Critical Mass on the pavilion’s roof, the opportunity to see both was too good to miss. It was a warm sunny and breezy day when I visited and the pavilion was at its best – a marvellous study in light and shade, which changes character as the sun moves round.

On the roof terrace were Anthony Gormley’s cast iron figures being brilliantly lit by the sun, which made the shadows as interesting as the figures. I started by seeing the sculptures as objects; cast iron shapes in almost abstract form, but as I walked between them looking at detail – the rust pockets, the fall of light and shade – I started seeing the resemblance to the bodies at Pompey, where the volcanic ash has preserved the shape of the huddled figures even though the body has long since decayed. It was as though Gormley’s figures and those at Pompey were negatives and positives of the same event. And the Gormley figures are a black – negative – version of his own white body from which the casts were made.

My final reaction to the sculptures was how they must resemble bodies on a battlefield or exhumed from a mass grave. Although I’ve never been in this situation for real, I can imagine anyone who has would have their memories re-kindled by this display.

Despite my rather macabre reaction to the exhibit, it is was well worth the visit.

Sally Mann exhibition

I’ve visited The Family and the Land: Sally Mann, an exhibition of Sally Mann’s photographs at London’s Photographers’ Gallery several times recently (July 2010), and my reactions have been different – evolving – each time.

Sally’s reputation-making series “Immediate Family” was strong, direct and candidly honest at the time it was published, and remains a set of excellently expressive portraits today. But this was not my main interest, I really wanted to see her more recent work, particularly her landscapes. She has been using hand-coated glass plates and the wet plate collodion process, which predates gelatin-based plates and film, and requires rapid pre and post exposure processing. This process was popular from about 1850-1890 and many example exist that show flawless technique, so we know it can be done. Flawless technique is definitely not what Sally is aiming for though: if you are expecting master craftsmanship you will be disappointed. In fact, in the film about her work she hopes that she never achieves this mastery. She want the serendipitous dust specks or coating flaws to achieve the look she seeks.

I found myself having to work to accept this concept. Sure, I’ve used simple lenses, pinholes and alternative processes myself, but I’ve never wanted the process to intrude on the image to the extent that Sally does. Still, after a couple of visits to the exhibition I could see the merits. For me it worked particularly well in the series of decaying bodies (What Remains) but less well in the closeup portraits; the extreme closeness, restricted plane of focus, primitive lens and process flaws all combine to produce photos taken to an extreme – into the realm of novelty rather than beauty, exaggerated beyond the point of real meaning or message. My reaction to the landscape images (Deep South) interested me a lot. They needed a long look and a second visit before I started to warm to them. My particular favourite was Swamp Bones, 1996, depicting the stumps and roots of swamp cypress, highly reminiscent of old bones, which was particularly appropriate given the juxtaposition of the photos of decomposing human bodies.

As a whole, it was a rather sombre exhibition with undertones of death and decay, so I can understand why Sally would want the last impression, exiting the gallery, to be one that is life-affirming, though as I’ve said these ultra-close, ultra-large portraits didn’t really do that for me since they have a marmoreal, death-mask quality to them.

Do try to watch the film (also showing in the gallery, What Remains: the Life and Work of Sally Mann. 2006. Director Steven Cantor. Zeitgeist Video) as this gives an excellent insight into Sally’s work and influences.

Full marks to the Photographers’ Gallery for this, their last show before refurbishment, and to the curator for giving the photographs the space they need. I look forward to many more when the gallery re-opens!

Ed Burtynsky’s Oil

publicity poster at The Rooms, Newfoundland, Canada

Ed Burtynsky publicity poster at The Rooms, Newfoundland, Canada

I’ve been an admirer of Edward Burtynsky’s work since I first saw the Manufactured Landscapes book, which has a permanent place on my shelf.
More recently Oil has joined it but I had barely had time to flick through its impressive pages before going on holiday to Canada. I spent a few days in Saint John’s, Newfoundland, and was surprised and delighted to see that Ed’s Oil pictures were on show at The Rooms art gallery. What a fantastic selection of images! In his typically understated style, Ed produces consistently strong individual images, usually from an elevated view point, which combine into a collection that highlights important issues about oil-dependent societies and poses significant questions for business, politicians and citizens the world over. And he does this without shouting at the viewer, which makes his messages and questions all the more powerful.
The composition of the images is consistently high but varied enough not to become boring. This make my eyes want to linger on individual images and also on the pairings and juxtapositions designed into the exhibition. The detail contained in these enlargements, which are typically 1.5m on the long edge, makes me want to look closer. Taking this time to look starts to make me see beyond the content to the message about the fundamental unsustainability of oil-based economies and processes that are predicated on continuous growth. To the question of “how do we get ourselves out of this addiction to oil?” there are no answers, but just the posing of the question by this exhibition is enough.
This well-curated exhibition and book deserve to be seen around the world for both it’s artistic and journalistic values. Thank you Ed, really good. No, brilliant!