I made two visits to this exhibition.
27th of June 2017
I arrive late morning to see this exhibition and within minutes bump into people I know! The first is Stan Dickinson and his wife who I got to know in Paris a few years ago on a student lead expedition and bumped into again at this very gallery, The Whitechapel Gallery, for the Black Square exhibition so to see them again here is surreal, a wonderful case of synchronicity. Stan who got a first class honours in his Photography B.A. received this in a ceremony with the UCA who have now more or less taken over the OCA. Apparently, my name was mentioned at the event as times past were recalled by the outgoing CEO Gareth Dent. If this coincidence is not enough then Wendy Mc Curdo, a tutor from the OCA also arrives with a friend so for a moment we stand and gossip before Stan makes his apologies as they have a train to catch. Somehow this meeting of OCA (Open College of the Arts) members seems to mirror the message of this exhibition which is about the way a particular work of art has survived almost 100 years in different manifestations and in different contexts as well as influencing other art works (Sophie Ristelhuber’s elevated photograph of the Gulf War for instance); our incidental meeting is like that of the art works in this exhibition!
The central artwork in this exhibition is a photograph made of dust by Man Ray in New York while visiting the studio of Marcel Duchamp in 1920. Ray was actually just testing his equipment setup before reluctantly engaging in a commissioned project to photograph other people’s artwork. It is not really known exactly why this photograph was made but it seems Marcel Duchamp had something to do with it and the resulting print, there are a number in existence, was signed both by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. The curator of the exhibition, David Campany, has taken this image as the starting point for the whole exhibition which seems to offer an alternative narrative to modern art, one not centred around Steiglitz’s photograph of a urinal that Duchamp had exhibited, but around a photograph that is not merely reproducing something as in the urinal photograph but manages to make what it represents, here it is dust, into something ambivalent.
As a whole, this exhibition does not represent a single artist or photographer, rather it is concerned with an alternative history of photography, a theme based around dust, and so it is really the work of the curator, David Campany. It does however, include a number of photographic artworks by different photographers which are interesting for their own sake.
The first room contains a print of the original dust photograph from 1920, made in 1968. From this there are instances of it being reproduced such as in a contemporary publications like and later publications such as Charles Henry Ford’s Poems for Painters from 1945. Also in this room, are photographs of aerial views taken during wartime which produced effects similar to the original dust photograph.
The difference between seeing the exhibition and just reading or looking through the catalogue, is that the information is presented in a less linear fashion with the ability of the onlooker to wander around the rooms at will even though works are presented chronologically. Immediately concepts aired in the book become clearer notably the various names the original underwent such as being called Dust Breeding when Man Ray came to print it later on.
Is the curator’s alternative history merely a parallel history in which recognised art photographers feature? One example is the work of Walker Evans which although showing rocky desert is not obviously dusty though it might well be described as a place where dust breeds!
Some of the artists are new to me!
Some works from the original exhibition are not here. For instance, Simon Norfolk’s photograph of an abandoned open theatre from Afghanistan. A haunting image that shows the pock marks of warfare along the back of the stage. It is an example of a photograph that has a very definite context.
I personally like Nik Waplington’s photographs of rubbish dumps and works of art inspired by them that are reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism.
However, in the final gallery, there is also a black and white video of a forest in which the wind slowly picks up so that the trees are shaking wildly by the end. What makes this relevant to the theme of the exhibition, dust, is that the forest of trees when viewed from above is somewhat reminiscent of detailed imagery of dust as in the photograph by Man Ray and Duchamp.
The catalogue includes all the art works as well as some that are not seen here but presumably were in the Paris exhibition. The essay that comes in a detachable booklet of its’ own is also an interesting read and explains in greater depth what this exhibition is actually about.
September 2’nd 2017 (with Open College of the Arts students)
A guide from the Whitechapel Gallery tells us that the gallery has no permanent collection before introducing us to the geography. I ask if there is any recording of the conference held in connection with the exhibition; it is suggested I contact the gallery direct and have a look on YouTube. There is a YouTube video introducing this exhibition which I watch; I immediately start to see the exhibition in a different way as about Dust and the representation of dust rather than a historical trajectory resulting from a Man Ray/Duchamp photograph.