Before considering this exhibition, it seems appropriate to quote the poem by John Donne from which it takes it’s name …
A LECTURE UPON THE SHADOW.
by John Donne
STAND still, and I will read to thee
A lecture, Love, in Love’s philosophy.
These three hours that we have spent,
Walking here, two shadows went
Along with us, which we ourselves produced.
But, now the sun is just above our head,
We do those shadows tread,
And to brave clearness all things are reduced.
So whilst our infant loves did grow,
Disguises did, and shadows, flow
From us and our cares ; but now ’tis not so.
That love hath not attain’d the highest degree,
Which is still diligent lest others see.
Except our loves at this noon stay,
We shall new shadows make the other way.
As the first were made to blind
Others, these which come behind
Will work upon ourselves, and blind our eyes.
If our loves faint, and westerwardly decline,
To me thou, falsely, thine
And I to thee mine actions shall disguise.
The morning shadows wear away,
But these grow longer all the day ;
But O ! love’s day is short, if love decay.
Love is a growing, or full constant light,
And his short minute, after noon, is night.
The Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool that is holding the UK exhibition (it has also been seen in Shanghai, China) describes it thus …
“A Lecture Upon The Shadow brings together new work by six artists from the North West and Shanghai. Using different approaches, the artists play with light, shadow and form to re-imagine familiar situations, exploring photography’s relationship to illusion and the everyday.”
The Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool is a modern angular building in black that looms over the docks. It is free to visitors and contains a small shop. We, a group of students from the OCA along with a couple of tutors, meet near the entrance around 11 a.m. and Peter Haveland, senior lecturer in photography at the OCA, gives us a chat about the exhibition, explaining the context; the fact that it is a collaboration between Liverpool and Shanghai is of interest as is the title of the exhibition “Lecture Upon a Shadow.” I wonder whether the title of the exhibition was something that the photographers consciously responded to or whether the curators looked for work that conveyed the subject of Donne’s poem. Perhaps the poem was used later as a way to cobble the works together! Peter is interested by my question but unable to answer it.
It is worth considering the input of the curators for they do have considerable effect upon the exhibition. For instance, David Penny’s images were actually chosen by Patrick Henry, the director of Open Eye Gallery who writes that Penny “makes absorbing, provocative still life photographs. It’s not easy to do this. Photographs are bound up with our desire to know something about the world out there – their lifeblood is contingency. The canon of photography (as art) is dominated by the documentary tradition. The further still life photography gets from the language of documentary, the more it swims against the tide. Still life at worst circumscribes an airless space, cut off from the world, accessible only by the obscure, absolute desire of the photographer.
Penny has found some unusual ways to breathe life into this space. He creates simple, meticulous compositions, photographing single objects against plain backgrounds, populating his frame with undecided objects – objects that pose questions and engage the imagination. His approach is tentative and interrogative – it makes us look again at what surrounds us and where it has come from. It’s photography from first principles – innocent photography, strangely reminiscent of the earliest experiments in photographic picture-making by Niepce, Talbot and others.”
Penny’s images entitled “Dutch Painting” is as Denis Joe writes “a series of images of small detailed sculptures, behind coloured glass is an interesting work. Penny takes a reproduction of a painting from an art book he found in a charity shop. The picture is cut then bent into a shape, held erect by wire. As Penny states: “There is a movement from the original painting, to the book as an object, to the torn out single page, which in turn becomes a sculpture, and then is photographed, framed and exhibited as object.”
This is the kind of work that deserves reflection. What are they about? What are they saying?
Curators of exhibitions do make decisions that effect the way an exhibition is perceived; for instance, the method of attaching the images to the walls (many in this exhibition were unframed and simply stuck on the wall) as well as laying out bodies of work in a particular way.
I first heard of the exhibition from the Open College of the Arts website where it was discussed by Dewald Botha, an OCA photography student from South Africa. He had “mixed feelings” about it.
Accompanied with notes from his tutor, he initially “had a walk through, to try and find or feel a connection between the work of all the artists, and made notes on images that pulled (or pushed) me more than others, to return and work out why.”
In regards to connecting images, he noted “The six separate wall spaces for each artist didn’t connect to each other as much as I’d somehow expected, and this disappointed me a little, but I can only put it down to not really having looked at group exhibitions before, to know what to expect in terms of ‘connected-ness.”
He proceeded to then turn his gaze to particular images and artists who were Jussa, Fan and Man. Tabitha Jussa’s image “Eldon Grove” from the UK of an “abandoned utopian social housing development” is striking and Dewald could relate to it partly through the work he has been doing yet also because “Like most of the prints in the exhibition, Tabitha’s print was nailed neatly to the wall, unframed. The print quality was beautiful, sharp and colours rendered beautifully, to bring across the gray drab British weather, but also, this allowed her to show minute detail. Her image seriously demands a first glance, followed by a second much closer analysis, because at first view it’s a beautiful place, seemingly (possibly) under paused construction, but is in fact the opposite – a slowly deteriorating once-idyllic ideal.” Personally, I found this image striking by it’s subject matter of what looked like an attractive housing estate that had gone to rack and ruin; one sees dilapidated buildings with slates missing from roofs and an overgrown area of waste ground in front of it. The fact that this image was cobbled together from a lot of digital photos is not noticeable.
Another of his choices is Man Yi’s “Memory of water” which is a collection of black and white prints. Again, it is because he can relate to the way the photographer is working as a result of his own practice, that he is attracted while also “his exploration around the element of water, and the near impossible-to-detect details, creating a strange unease … ” further intrigues Dewald as does the feeling that he is almost intruding upon the photographers personal vision. There are only 10 images in the exhibition which makes it easier to understand than the plethora of images on the website.
However, it was the work of Fan Shisan that really struck him and I likewise find it the most absorbing body of work. Entitled “The Two of us” this body of work explores the one-child policy of the Chinese government. Of it she writes … ”
I started “Two of Us” in 2009. I photograph people who grew up as an only child in China. They are the result of the strict 30 years of One-Child Policy.The One-child Policy in China restricts the number of children a married urban couple can have to one. In fact, nearly every Chinese born after 1980 in urban, including myself, is only child with no siblings. The policy is enforced at provincial level through fines and other punishments, leaving a result of over 100 million only child in China.Beside the Rusticated Youth of China, and the Culture Revolution, the only child generation was the nation’s most turmoil in post-Mao China, but it is more personal and internal. To me, the imaginary of “Two of Us” is much true than today’s reality, the progress of shooting “Two of Us” is a ceremony, to record the tragedy history of One-Child into memories. ”
Dewald wonders whether such work will be understood in the West since it relates to a kind of politics with which we are unfamiliar; I find myself a passive supporter of the one-child policy as it addresses probably the number one problem humanity faces (too many people) and one which Western governments completely ignore preferring to believe in the Christian ethic of “Go forth and multiply”. As Denis Joe writes, “In the West one finds much criticism of China, mainly from environmentalists, and those who fear the country’s rapid economic growth. But there is one policy that some sections of the environmentalist movement and Malthusians such as the Optimum Population Trust, are delighted with and that is China’s one child policy for urban families.” He continues, “It is this that Fan Shi Sanʼs work is criticising. But this is a very measured outrage. The quality of the images captures an existential crisis. The individuals within the image do not cry out to us; in fact they appear to be empty of emotion and Two of Us does not demand our sympathy but, perhaps, our outrage.”
Dewald sees loneliness in these images. OCA tutor Jose Navarro had also apparently seen “The Two of Us” and commented that the “Two of Us is a powerful body of documentary work. Moving in the no-mans-land between real and imaginary, the photographs convey a strong message and the photographer’s intention. In fact, it is the photographer’s point of view that comes across in the images, rather than the sitters’. It is the photographer’s feelings about the one-child policy that clearly transpire in the photographs.Subjective, performative documentary at its best I would say. I don’t think we can draw any conclusions re. the feelings of the people photographed. The only conclusion we can come to is how the photographer feels about the one-child policy. And that’s precisely why I like it so much. No claims of objectivity in Two of Us. The photographer felt strongly about something and let us know in his own personal, artistic way.” Looking at these images for myself on the internet and in the gallery space, I can not help but feel this is something much more than a portrayal of the one-child policy rather it reflects on the inner self, playing with the idea of the “double” and self. This metaphysical aspect is the first reference I find to the work of John Donne whose poem is full of meaning and not easy to identify in any particular way.
Dewald’s explained the nature of his “mixed feelings”; “I’ve come to the realization that I personally find work which creates and questions, invites and includes me in a conversation, much more interesting than something where I can find the answer (too easily), or even where no communication is elicited.”
I have mentioned Dewald’s views because it was he who alerted me to the exhibition as well as the fact that he is one of the most promising of OCA photographic students and more advanced along the course than I am. Following his post, I communicated with him about this exhibition; my text was “I would like to see this exhibition in Liverpool partly because I think one does need to see photography from around the world. It may not be the best example of Chinese photography but it is at least relevant.” The desire to see “Chinese photography” is perhaps a superficial reason for seeing this exhibition but it is not the only one – it is clearly accomplished work and apparently different to what one might expect to see in a UK gallery. In fact, some students do not see anything in the work by the Chinese photographers preferring that of the UK ones; this is perhaps a result of their cultural conditioning suggests Peter. Like Dewald, I also consider this body of work the strongest; I may not be aware of the side effects of being a lonely child but this work is obviously about more than just that. One can so easily project one’s own emotions onto work like this and it is surely a mistake to read too much into any body of work.
At the beginning of this blog, I quoted from a review by Georgina Wright (a writer based in Liverpool) who describes what the exhibition is about. She concludes by saying, “Overall this exhibition unites the work of all six artists in a captivating and sequential manner, provoking both analysis and sheer visual delight.” I am still left wondering though about the cohesion between these different bodies of work – where does the John Donne poem come in? As Peter points out, the metaphysical poets were philosophical and produced meanings that are hard to identify; my own experience of them is that since my teenage years when I first came into contact with their verse, the words have been echoing inside me like Zen koans, their essential meaning apparently beyond the grasp of the ordinary mind. For Peter, photographs are themselves metaphysical in their very nature by the way they construct and deconstruct; the fact that this exhibition does not seem to hang together is itself metaphysical. John Umney suggests that there are a lot of crossovers within the exhibition such as between the old and the new, between east and west and so on.
Peter goes on to talk about the state of art at the present time asking us what we think characterises the present day climate of change. I suggest a shifting attitude in our perception of death! For Peter, art is at a transition point and no one can see where it is going (could they ever?) in a world experiencing unconstrained growth and globalisation. In a post-modern world, there is no truth only truths. The discussion is not heated rather it draws us in and other students start to make comments.
There is also a review by Denis Joe that is more extensive and reflective; he also interestingly mentions the fact that the Chinese authorities took exception to the piece by David Jacques. The work of David Jacques entitled Corpus Mercatorium is interesting perhaps because of it being banned by the Chinese authorities when the exhibition was shown in Shanghai. Was this just an authority trying to be seen to be doing something or was it reacting to satire that might be considered too outrageous for Chinese tastes or did perhaps the element of demonology evident in the work and admitted by the photographer play on the sensibilities of the Chinese who have quite a strong tradition of spirituality in spite of communism? On looking closely, one can see one of the little photo-montages in which characters that look like high ranking military personnel yet are in fact corporate heads are pictured; there is a Chinese face stuck onto the body of what appears to be a yak while a western military man rides the beast – Tibet is always a touchy subject with the Chinese but this domination by a westerner and the bovine status of a Chinaman can hardly have pleased the Chinese authorities. It is only after reading Denis Joe’s review that I come to understand that the faces in this work are actually of the CEOs of international companies; this knowledge helps to further understand the context of the work.
Is it preferable to look at the photographs in an exhibition before one researches them or vice the versa? No direct answer to this! I question the practice of reading reviews of an exhibition before actually visiting it; this practice can help one get more out of one’s visit since one is prepared yet it may also prejudice one’s view as other people’s ideas crowd in upon one’s own. My question is the extent to which this exhibition covers the brief of John Donne’s poem. Did the entrants make work in response to John Donne or was his poem used as a way to consider the work on show? Peter does not consider this very important – it is the show that matters on it’s own merits rather than the way it responds to a particular brief.
The important point is that when looking at photographs in a gallery, is one needs to be aware of the environment they are in – the way they have been hung may be of interest (David Penny’s wooden frames and coloured flexiglass are of interest and an important aspect of his work which he sees as a blending of artistic disciplines) while the positioning of the photographs in the gallery space might be making a point. John Umney, OCASA secretary, admits to perhaps being a little cynical when he says that he thinks the prettiest photos have been hung where there is the most light; however, I am not sure this is true since some of the ugliest pictures, the demonological photo-montages of David Jacques, are in one of the brightest parts of the gallery – there is not much evidence of any sequencing of the work but decisions might have been made in regard to light reflecting possibly refracting off some of the works. The four images by David Penny for instance are covered in perspex.
One worthwhile aspect of OCA study days is that one gets to meet the tutors and chat with them, not about the weather but photography in general. Peter asks a question in his inimitable way … does one need to understand more than one sees in a photograph? Does one need to understand it? Perhaps confusion might be the artist’s intention! Furthermore, different people see different meanings.
John Umney is very informative on Shanghai which he describes as an output of western civilisation rather than a Chinese city. It was around here that the Opium Wars took place. He describes it as “Manhattan on steroids!”
Sometimes photos reveal, sometimes they obscure. They may not be want to convey any particular meaning (ambiguity is a recognised trait of the photograph) and what may be of interest is references contained within the image. Peter considers the exhibition to be of fine art that happens to use photography; he clearly thinks this is true of a lot of art photography exhibitions.
After seeing Lecture Upon a Shadow and having a coffee break with discussion, we went to see an archive exhibition upstairs of landscape photographs by Edward Chambre-Hardman.