Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age
Barbican Art Gallery
A comprehensive survey of photographs of buildings starting with a selection of Berenice Abbott’s dramatic photographs of a dynamic New York City and moving through to near-contemporary photographs of construction in China and destruction in Iraq; finally, celebratory, hopeful pictures of humans living despite architecture in Caracas, Venezuela.
These are largely the photographs the architects want us to see, photographs which communicate the vision. So we see Le Corbusier's work through the lens of his preferred photographer, Lucien Hervé. Viewed as a group from afar, these high contrast prints are reduced to records of the implementation of the design concept rather than dwelling places for real people.
Twixt Two Worlds showed items from Eastbourne, Brighton and other south coast museum collections in the context of the emerging topic of the History of Photography. The images presented were from when the science of photography had already been around for at least a generation, the technology was sufficiently stable to attempt to present moving pictures.
The twin surprise of the Rencontres d’Arles was both how much photography is on show and how each photographer strives for visibility but also how crowded the shop fronts and display spaces are with other events. Competing publicity ranged from bull fights to poetry festivals, and show fights in the town's Roman remains by re-enactment gladiators...
There are the expected formal displays of framed photographs in carefully curated gallery spaces, the visitors walking round respectfully. There’s a book or catalogue with nicely printed reproductions. And of course an app with taster photos from each exhibition but which - on my Android at least - failed to do the most useful thing of using the GPS and map to guide me from the app to the real gallery through the labyrinth of the delightful medieval street plan of the city of Arles.
An impressive display of work across a very broad spectrum from this year's graduate students at the Royal College of Art. My companion and I concentrated our attention on the exhibitions from the RCA’s Fine Art department at the new site in Battersea; these works encompassed traditional framed artwork on the wall, photobooks, video work, sculptures, installations and environments, performance work and even a performance work where we were invited to step on to a set and participate as actors in a drama. Much of the work seems to have been the result of collaboration which the college has specifically cultivated between workshops whose titles would otherwise indicate separate skills. I was struck but the imagination and detail of the pieces, my companion noticed the high standard of workmanship overall.
Trends I noticed included a move away from short descriptions or explanations of the piece; many pieces stood without explanation, others displayed a quote or a theme which was a starting point for their work. Some sculptures had additional notes in a handout in newspaper format whilst some of the contributions to the photobook Waving Flags interweaved text and pictures in almost equal area on the page.
“Choosing to step outside the boundaries of social acceptability” says the ICA’s publicity, it is a huge understatement and although there is no claim of a “first”, this exhibition must surely be one of the first public showings of many of these works by artists such as Tom of Finland, Cary Kwok, Mike Kuchar and Antonio Lopez, who portrayed male sexuality in the raw and - in the case of Tom of Finland - defined and inspired the whole leatherman subculture.
Biographical details are provided but there’s very little explanation provided but not much provenance or context; there seems to be no catalogue or accompanying essay. Whilst is interesting to see these works in a prime London space at last, surely Sarah McCrory (curator) could have provided more context and explanation than the few words of the publicity handout. This mentions the high level of technical skill and outlines an interpretation based on gender politics and challenging of social conventions but fails to make the most of this opportunity to re-evaluate these works at just the moment they would be able to receive recognition outside specialist audiences.
Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper) continues at the at the ICA / Institute of Contemporary Arts throughout the summer. Free admission: worth checking out, even though there’s very little interpretation. The ICA has an OK coffee bar too!