This is the first of two posts I plan to make recording my trip to the Arles photo exhibition with OCA. Mostly I will talk in this and the next post about the work I saw, but first I want to reflect a little on the occasion itself and what I got from it in general terms.
Some years ago I went to OCA’s first ever studyday, at which the only other student attendee was Keith Greenough. Things have moved on since then: Arles was the first overseas study day and in contrast to Brighton, there were eighteen student attendees plus a number of their partners. Most came from the UK but we also had students from Ireland, France, Switzerland, Germany and Russia. One of the great boons of OCA is that students from all over the world can study art courses at degree level. Distance learning has many positive aspects and for many is the only way they can study, but at times people can feel isolated. Online forums and blogs are very helpful in easing isolation and sharing learning, but there is nothing quite like meeting fellow human beings in person. OCA core reason for organising this event was a desire to expose students to the wider photographic world outside the UK. Those of us who attended this study day or went under their own steam will gain from that exposure: I hope that others who didn’t make it this time or who may not be able to travel get something from this and the other blog entries and discussions that will take place.
I made a note of all the things I took away from Arles: it’s a reasonably long list, but it boils down to two key things – social contact with like-minded people and photographic inspiration. On further reflection I think the two are themselves connected. It was great to meet friends old and new. It is very nice to spend time with a group of people who all have a similar interest to me and to be able to discuss things that matter to me and not feel that I am losing people. I enjoyed time with everyone but I was very fortunate to share my journey with three wonderful travelling companions – Catherine, Hazel and Vicki - and also particularly enjoyed meeting two people I’d communicated with over the net many times but never met in person – Brian Cooney and Stephanie D’Hubert. It is hard to put into words the overall effect of the visit but I think I can say that I feel re-inspired and ready to get stuck back in again with my current course. Sometimes working away on your own with occasional tutorial exchanges and some online interaction can result in a loss of momentum. I’ve been very busy with work including the Tanzania aid project and have struggled to keep going so have taken a little agreed time out, with a view to starting again around now. The timing of the Arles trip was very good for me in that respect: meeting up with group of people with a common purpose gave me a real sense of being part of a wider community and definitely acted as a shot in the arm.
|Discussing the Bechers: Miriam and Anna, Amano and Catherine, Stephanie chatting to just-seen Vicki, and Stanislav and Jesse (standing behind)|
|Time to reflect (Catherine and Amano)|
Another common theme for me from this trip was consideration of what photography means to me, and indeed in general. Much of this thinking was crystallised in the visits to two exhibitions by Sugimoto and the remainder of this blog post will cover those exhibitions, with John Davies, Berndt and Hilla Becher, Alessandro Imbraccio and one or two others to follow in the next one (I’m not planning to discuss everything I looked at but only those that impacted on me in some way).
The first Sugimoto exhibition was called Revolution. The setting was a long dark room. At each end wall of the room were two horizontal images, one of sea and sky (per the opening picture above) and one of land and sky. Along the long walls were a series of vertical images in panels. These were originally vertical panoramic images of the sea and sky at night. They had been turned so that they hung as vertical panels. The effect on first coming into the room was very powerful. It felt like a hushed church or meditative space. I could easily have spent long periods sitting with these pictures and just falling into them. But then lots of people turned up and somewhat broke the spell… You can get an idea of the effect of being in the space from this film, which also has some footage of Sugimoto speaking in English about the work.
Overall I wasn’t sure that the sideways on pictures worked as pictures. As graphic objects I thought they looked great and certainly worked well in the space. As you looked down the room they were like glowing dark windows onto a different world. But I found it difficult to really appreciate them individually other than as simply aesthetic objects. I think the intention behind revolving them is to add to the sense of flying over the space and getting lost in it. For me in some ways it had the opposite effect.
|Amano looking at Sugimoto. He wasn't very impressed by Revolution|
Sugimoto’s work reminds me strongly of Rothko and on looking into the work I find that his work has been linked with Rothko’s in a joint exhibition. http://www.pacegallery.com/london/exhibitions/11142/rothko-sugimoto-dark-paintings-and-seascapes I was interested to find this as I have been making some pictures recently that made me think a little of Rothko’s work. I’ll post about them in a later blog. For me these little square pictures of sea and sky are in part about a release from the mundane everyday – a kind of personal sublime. http://www.simonmorley.com/biography/The_Sublime-An_Introduction.pdf I hadn’t consciously been aware of Sugimoto when making the pictures but fellow students mentioned him to me. It is odd to see work that in many ways is so similar to my own, albeit in this case in black and white. Here is one of mine for comparison.
As I’ve said, I loved the overall effect of this exhibition. I haven’t fully resolved what I think of this work, or my work in this context, yet, and will continue to reflect on that. However the experience of being in this space did cause me to wonder, not for the first time, about the purpose of photography or any art in our lives. Where does an artwork like this live? Is it in a gallery space filled with more or less interested people passing through every day, or is it in our heads, the memories and myths we carry round with us? I am inclined to think the latter mostly, or at least that the impression that the work leaves on us carries more weight than a five minute viewing in a gallery might imply. I feel that I am carrying round the sense of these works and of the space and that in some ways it is becoming absorbed into me and part of my thinking.
I often ask myself why I take pictures – what is the point? I know instinctively that the answer is that I do it largely because I feel driven to do so. It gives me great personal pleasure and is simply something that matters to me. But part of me would like to think that there is some purpose in it beyond just passing the time. I know this isn’t a straightforward question with a simple answer: humans have been making pictures for millennia and they have serve many purposes. Perhaps it doesn’t all add up to much, but that idea of leaving impressions in others’ minds – enriching their lives – is one that interests me.
Sugimoto’s second exhibition explored the question of the role of art in a very interesting way.
The Colours of Shadow is based around a series of pictures made on polaroid film. The images are of morning light reflected via a prism and mirror onto the photographic plate. This exhibition had been sponsored by Hermes, who made selected pictures into limited edition silk scarves. The scarves were hung from the ceiling of a disused church (some were also shown on mannequins so that we would see how they might look if we were to wear them). When I went into the church space initially I was captivated by the colours and the way the scarves move in the breeze. They were very lovely. It is tempting to be sanctimonious about the link with Hermes but I asked myself what really was the difference between making a photograph into an expensive scarf and making a limited edition paper print. True, it would be hard to wear the print, but I suspect that both play to the same audience. The person who buys a £30,000 Burtynsky print is I think often buying status and a brand as much as if they are paying a rumoured 7000EU for one of the scarves. Those of us who can’t or won’t buy them can still look at them in places designed for the public to venerate and admire such things. The church seemed to me a very effective metaphor for an art gallery. Clearly Sugimoto was interested in this potential as the exhibition made further use of the church and related symbolism.
Here you can see that the former altar space at the core of the church is taken up with a prism, reflecting and refracting light and colour and fascinating photographer viewers. Against the back wall acting as a kind of altarpiece is a Last Supper – an artwork by Sugimoto that was damaged in a hurricane. It of course brings to mind Leonardo’s famously damaged Last Supper in Milan, an object with almost mythical status, almost more interesting for being damaged.
Around the altar area the original tiny polaroids are arranged in special cases like votive objects or precious relics.
This sight brought to my mind the fetish for original prints by popular photographers, and how much more such ‘originals’ are valued by collectors. It also clearly refers to the way objects such as relics and art works are venerated in many churches.
I don’t think there are any easy answers to the questions is poses but I did find the whole work fascinating. I am sure it will resonate in my mind for some time. There is further information about the project on the Hermes site here http://editeur-en.hermes.com/editions/h3-hiroshi-sugimoto/couleurs-de-l-ombre-2.html. You can also see all the scarves. I note that a number are sold out at this date.