Irony is alive and well at the V&A

Some good photographs spoilt by too-precious display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK.
Light from the Middle East exhibition entrance

Once you enter, the exhibition is anything but light, seriously marring appreciation of the photographs. What an ironic title!

A last-minute change of plan took me to the V&A museum in South Kensington, London, to see its exhibition of photographs entitled Light from the Middle East this week. It is hard to imagine a less appropriate title for this display; it is poorly lit to the point where it is not possible to fully appreciate the photographs. The museum says that the low light is to protect the prints, but what’s the point if they can’t be properly seen? There is a journey from obscurity to recognition to art object to cultural icon that filters significant images. It is the V&A’s job to collect the last in this list so it is clearly in its interest to accelerate this journey, but this exhibition pushes this process too far too fast.  Perhaps the “Light” in the title refers to the speed with which the V&A would like the images to acquire cultural value.

Light from the Middle East entrance notice

Exhibition entrance notice. I find it ironic that photography is not permitted in a photographic exhibition. Why is this? It means I can’t show you the exhibition to form your own opinion.

To reconcile the need to actually see culturally significant objects many museums, including the V&A, exhibit casts of statues rather than the originals, so why not do the same with prints? Copies can be so good these days that it isn’t possible to tell the difference with the naked eye.  This would do far better justice to the medium as well as the message of these images, which is still contemporary rather than historical.  And if this draws a “tut tut, no no no, couldn’t possibly do that” from the establishment, then make it policy to acquire 2 identical images: 1 for viewing and 1 for preserving (the additional cost of doing so might well remove those dug-in heals).

These artist-photographers who record, re-frame and resist (the 3 sections of this exhibition) deserve to have their work disseminated and built on by others, not turned into pseudo objects-of-worship in a dimly lit quasi-religious interior. The hushed and hallowed atmosphere was only broken by the squeals of children in the main museum. Thanks goodness it was half term – the kids managed to subvert the preciousness of the exhibition without realising it.

As for the photos, most show a thoughtful, incisive interpretation of middle eastern life.  I would love to hear from the photographers whether they think this ArtFund collection exhibit enhances or validates their work, or in the long-term, just consigns it to a set of archival-quality boxes in a museum store room.

Yes, I’m being harsh in singling out the V&A for this criticism as they are certainly not the only organisation guilty of being overly precious towards art objects and photographs in particular, but please V&A, break out of your traditional box and get more imaginative with your exhibitions; you are not doing justice to the artists with this type of display.

Rant mode OFF.


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