CONSUMPTION Prix Pictet at the V&A May 2014

The Prix Pictet is an exhibition that has been running since 2008; it is concerned with the global environment and sustainability.

Previous topics have included water, earth, growth, power while this year the topic is consumption. Portfolios of these exhibitions are available as books in the V&A shop but not the present one for some reason; a member of staff informs me it is because the exhibition is only on for a short time but if this is the case, why do they have  so many of the previous catalogues? It looks as though the catalogue is not yet ready for distribution.

The subject of Consumption relates to the fact we are all consumers and this has a huge impact on the world around us. Text at the entrance to the exhibition informs us “We have built vast empires based on luxury goods, creating demand for essentials that we didn’t know we needed. We have sustained this through the sometimes thoughtless exploitation of the world’s poorest people.”
Entrance to the Consumption exhibition

Entrance to the Consumption exhibition

The exhibition space near the entrance to the Museum is a large hall around which the work of 11 exhibitors is displayed. One can walk around the displays in a few minutes but as often with good photography, a little time spent lingering over images and reading captions if available can be worthwhile. Many of the entrants are well known photographers and this is a good chance to see their work printed large rather than squeezed into a publication.
The competition is not one that asks people to enter rather there were 275 nominators from 66 countries and six continents who put forward over 700 photographers; from these, 11 photographers from nine countries were shortlisted.
The winner is Michael Schmidt presumably because his images are closest to the subject; he is one of the older photographers being nearly 70 who died shortly after his success was announced. Of his working method, he says “I stroll straight into a cul-de-sac and can’t find a way out. Then I come to terms with this as a sort of condition and at some point later on, I’m back on the outside again. (…) That is to say, failure or making mistakes is an integral part of my way of working.”
A display that runs along and up the wall of one part of the exhibition space, contains a barrage of images that convey the message; we see a wrapped lettuce photographed in all its’ detail while other images are more abstract and some photos are appropriated. It is an original take on the brief, a different way of looking at Consumption and a clever use of imagery although on narrative is apparent. There is a box of tomatoes in green, baked beans looking like fish spawn, a pair of beef burgers in gaps etc These are images that tend not to stand alone; they remind one of Parr’s work but without context; it is en masse that their meaning is felt.
The first images one encountered on entering were the clear cut images of Adam Bartos, an American, who has made up close photographs of everyday objects that were being sold in makeshift markets (hence the title of this series “Yard Sales”). This serves to “recycle essential household goods and clothing within local communities, significantly extend the life of objects, help to regulate overconsumption, and reduce waste” unlike chains of commercial stores such as Walmart.
One of the female photographers is Laurie Simmons who has made photos of a life sized “love doll” along with a deluge of pretty bric a brac, a rather gross example of consumption; someone comments that it is not her best work. OCA tutor Clive White remarks with a laugh that if a male tried to do this he would not be allowed owing to current debate; this of course gives me an idea to do something with a sex doll.
There is a series by Rineke Dijkstra who shows an immigrant woman from Bosnia starting with a photograph of her as a young girl of five years old newly arrived in Holland and finishing with her as a woman of almost twenty holding her own baby. These images, characteristic of the photographer, are immaculately crafted, well composed and show all the detail present yet one wonders why this series has been selected although if captions were shown they might help to convey the sense of how quickly a girl is born, grows up and goes on to produce another. This series is called Almerisa after the female depicted. The writer on photography, Sean O’Hagan, suggested against the odds that she might be the winner but that it usually goes to a man; I was unsure about the link between this work and the prize’s topic of Consumption although I did think they were perhaps the best set of photographs.
Allan Sekula is a writer about photography who died in 2013; it is interesting to see his images for a change. Called Fish Story, these document the shipping of containers around the world from the last unionised shipyard in Los Angeles; “Movies are made here, but otherwise the industrial appearance of the port is misleading.” It is the kind of documentary style that one recognises and might feel comfortable with. There is an image of a billboard featuring a glamorous woman tilted above a burning building to which a fireman attends with a hose yet Sekulla’s imagery does vary in intent with others having a more physical presence such as the boat full of containers heading out across the sea. There are photographs focussing on things and photographs more concerned with meanings.
Hong Hao is a Chinese photographer, born there in 1965 and also working there. My things shows an array of objects from Beijing, China; a fascinating image partly owing to it’s complexity yet the objects have all been composited with a sense of artistry. Of his work, the artist says “a project that I started from 2001, is a photography series created by scanning objects. I’ve been working on this project for 12 years. Twelve years, in Chinese traditional concept, represents the period of transmigration in cycles of different fate and destiny. The process of producing works of this series is an assignment associated with one’s life trace. Day by day, I put my daily consumed objects into a scanner piece by piece, like keeping a visual diary. After scanning the original objects, I’ll save them in digital forms and categorise these digital files into different folders in my PC, in order to make a collage of them later on.” These images are not mere collections and there are surprises such as a fist poopping out in My Things No.1. The method is scanning of consumed objects is followed by Photoshopping them together and is concerned with the minutae of everyday life and our need to question it.
Motoyuki Daifu photographs the consumable objects in his home. There is noticeable use of flash (over-exposed foreground with occasional shadow) makes one wonder if is a conscious comment or merely naieve? These distortions could be edited out so one might assume their inclusion is some kind of statement. This work centres around the family home and shows characteristic Japanese chaos which is quite different from the more formal approach of American photographers such as Stephen Shore. The artist says of this work, “My mother sleeps every day. My dad does chores. My brothers fight. There are trash bags all over the place. Half-eaten dinners, cat poop, mountains of clothes: this is my lovable daily life, and a loveable Japan.”
Abraham Oghobase, a Nigerian, presents photographs of street walls with graffiti adverts on them. These are roughly constructed black and white images in keeping with the bare brick walls they picture and the graffiti upon them that covers subjects such as sex, laundry, cars and piano lessons. of this display, the photographer says … “My engagement with one such wall of ‘classifieds’ serves to question the effectiveness of such guerilla marketing.”
Juan Fernando Herran is a Columbian who presents high resolution images of commonplace building such as a plank bridge over a muddy dyke and other similar constructions. The artist (he is an art professor who works with different media) asks “What happens when there are groups of people that hardly participate in the consumer society? How do you live in the contemporary world when excluded from one of the concepts that underlie it?”The work of  Mishka Henner is presented as large prints made from high resolution Google images; in reproduction they look like a 3D model. It is very convincing with an “art” appeal, more a creative work than mere representation. Some people object to such work saying Henner should make his own photographs rather than appropriate existent imagery and yet, Henner is making a valid statement about photography as well as commenting on modern society. The following concerns the main image on show … “In certain parts of the USA, the country’s unquenchable thirst for oil has altered the landscape beyond recognition. Natural features are supplanted by man-made marks and structures reflecting the complex infrastructural logic of oil exploration, extraction and distribution. Resembling the bold brush strokes of abstract expressionists, these marks are produced by the hand of an industry striving to satisfy a national and international compulsion.”
The final entrant Boris Mikhailov amuses me with his bawdiness (there are a few naked bottoms on show if one cares to look for them) and yet original and direct coverage of his home town in the Ukraine; the body of work here is called “Tea Coffee Cappucino” about the onset of the modern world in his town; he says “I choose to focus on ordinary, everyday scenes and the search of formal solutions to translate this monotony into photography. These are photos I took over the last ten years (2000-2010) about the current state of affairs. I continue my search for a photographic means to reflect the changes occurring in our lives. A new age has come – the age of business. Everything can be bought and sold – even children. Old women have started wheeling around trolleys full of their commodities, calling out “Tea, Coffee, Cappuccino”, the ‘preambulatory product’ of the age, also provided the title of this series. The reality of globalisation has come and extended to the places where we live and rest. A flux of cheap commodities has conquered ubiquitously, creating a colourful new plastic reality.” In spite of the lurid nature of many of these images, I can not help but like this humorous approach to the vicissitudes of modern life.
Around the hall , broken up by partition walls, there are aphorisms written on the walls … one by Samuel Beckett is “Our life is a succession of Paradises successively denied”
While researching and writing about this exhibition, I wonder who has written the captions where included and other accompanying texts since reading them is bound to influence our reading of the photographs.I went into this exhibition largely blind reading only the brief write up on the V&A website although I did have previous knowledge of the competition and it’s aims which seem in accordance with the contemporary world.
students and tutors @ OCA restaurant

students and tutors @ OCA restaurant

After seeing the exhibition, the OCA group with tutor Clive White and Daniella his wife, decamp to the V&A restaurant to discuss the work we have seen and photography in general. What criteria exists for judging these photographs changes? Whatever they are, they are likely to change.Is the photography of everyday life making a comeback?
Clive reminds us what these days are largely about … producing a meaty blog for assessment of work; of course, they also can help one to digest what is on show and absorb more of what the medium of photography means.
a wider view of OCA students with Clive White, standing centre!

a wider view of OCA students with Clive White, standing and facing far left

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