There are few things that annoy me more than ‘art’ that requires a thesis tacked next to it on the wall to explain what the hell is going on. For the most part, this pet peeve keeps me away from both the established and emerging art worlds and in my little cave where I moan about how inaccessible everything is. As a concession to my partner, who is obsessed with his latest cameras and always contemplating doing that photography course sometime, I often go along to the Photographer’s Gallery because it is small and that means I can pop over and get a new wok cleaner in Chinatown or shop for comic books on the way back to the bus. At the Citibank Photography Prize exhibition, those long-winded, wall-mounted diatribes are there to explain away your initial reaction to a bunch of photographs ranging from mediocre to infuriating to bad (and not as in good). The only thing the pictures and the explanations compelled me to do was to return to the foyer and reread in horror exactly how much cash one of these people was going to win. Twenty thousand quid in case you’re wondering.
It’s all based on adoration and fetishisation of the abnormally shaped female body
As the easiest to pick on (from a feminist perspective), I’ll begin with high fashion photographer Juergen Teller. I am sceptical about exactly how much of an artist one needs to be to take an object (beautiful, thin, most often white women) that has been manipulated and primped by someone else (hair, make-up and designer) and put said object in a beautiful or contrasting location and encourage it to look a certain way to achieve an image that people will be drawn to. It’s all based on adoration and fetishisation of the abnormally shaped female body and the exorbitantly priced clothing that looks good on that body and frankly, people will buy into it no matter who does it. Take these components and confines away from a high fashion photographer like Teller and what do you get? Photograph 1). An objectified looking man, stark naked and dripping wet with eyes opened in shock looking straight at the camera. Photograph 2). A dead frozen dog in a bin somewhere in the Czech Republic. Photograph 3). A lovely, and very camera-conscious, Björk and her son swimming in a steamy lake in Iceland. This was actually the best picture at the exhibition and the one they used to entice viewers.
Interestingly enough, the most repugnant photograph of the show was also provided by Teller. Über model Stephanie Seymour (Victoria’s Secret and Axl Rose’s it girl) posing with legs spread in stilettos and a ball gown that is hitched up to reveal a completely hairless bikini line and most of an equally hairless outer labia. The catch? She’s sitting on a child-sized plastic chair along the wall of a nursery complete with drawings by tots and scattered toys. I’m sure that some will argue that this is merely symbolising Seymour as sexy mum and hey, we can’t separate children from sex because they wouldn’t exist otherwise, right? As someone who used to be a nanny in New York City where men would dribble through the fence of the playground as they watched the toddlers play, I fail to see the artistic merit of sexualising children’s space. It creates an atmosphere for both women and children to be leered at and harassed without question whenever they dare to go out in public. This photograph implies that an acceptable perception of motherhood emphasises merely the parts of the body that are equated with birth. Almost as if, because children are conceived and born with a woman’s legs spread, that woman can never be seen otherwise, no matter how glamorous and un-matronly she manages to look. It doesn’t even seem to matter if she has a child in tow, which would be just another accessory to a mediocre fashion photographer.
Van Manen’s photography looks like the holiday snapshots of a tourist
You may be thinking we just need some women to right the wrongs of Teller. Leave it to Citibank (are you surprised) to select two women who commit equal crimes against photography. Both Bertien van Manen and Jitka Hanzlova take subjects that can easily be reduced to ‘other’ and turn them into something to be gawked at and exoticised. Van Manen has made several trips to China, camera in hand and reveals an intimacy rarely seen in these secretive people, to paraphrase the wall-mounted pack of lies describing her so cleverly titled (listen to this) East Wind, West Wind collection. Not only are these photographs generally bad, one is a portrait of a group of dolled-up young women on a night out complete with red eyes from the camera flash, they also fail to portray any intimacy with the subjects. In almost all of the photos, the subjects are frozen whilst looking straight into the camera lens. If anything, it reveals exactly what this exhibition is, the work of a white, Western woman objectifying the people of an ‘exotic’ Asian culture, following perfectly in the footsteps of popular culture and fashion. From the hoards of young white men with Asian fetishes to Western designers using embroidered silk and having their make-up artists use eyeliner to give their white models Asian eyes, van Manen’s photography looks like the holiday snapshots of a tourist, catching ordinary people off guard and telling everyone back home that ‘these fascinating people’ are her new friends. Interestingly enough, this is exactly what the organisers of the exhibition argue her work isn’t, writing, “Her approach is not to construct the Chinese as ‘other’ by exoticising her subjects. Instead, she portrays them as she would her Dutch friends and family.” Unfortunately, I’m not convinced, or maybe I am because they do look like they’ve been pulled straight from a bad family photo album.
Jitka Hanzlova is a Czech artist who decided to do the same thing as van Manen but right here in Britain, Brixton to be precise. Unlike van Manen who admits the cultural differences between herself and her subjects, Hanzlova chose black women in south London because she identifies with them. After I read this, I didn’t even want to look at her photographs but for your sake, I pressed on. With just another large helping of average portraits of strangers on the street in her collection, I might have not been so offended by what was written on her plaquard, maybe she likes hip-hop, perhaps she has her nails airbrushed or any other ridiculous stereotype that might align a white European woman with the annoyed looking black women in her photographs. But when I saw that interspersed with these portraits were landscapes; snow covered forests, fog-filled forests, generally a view of untamed wilderness, the critical and theoretical side of my brain started to wonder why these two vastly different subjects were contained in the same collection. All of the women are standing or sitting upright, lacking any expression that could humanise them, in front of a brick wall or some other background that makes them blend into the landscape. It smacks of nothing more than a reiteration of black female stereotypes; urban and vibrant on one hand, aloof and ghetto on the other. The combination leads the viewer to feel that instead of identifying with black women, Hanzlova actually sees them as different to her as leafless ash, oak or pine trees. About her work the organisers write, ‘as with strangers, forests symbolise the allure of the unknown.’ I couldn’t have simplified and critiqued it better myself.
It smacks of nothing more than a reiteration of black female stereotypes
Believe it or not, I have some good things to say about the work of Simon Norfolk and his collection entitled Afghanistan. He records the aftermath of America’s relentless search-and-destroy Osama Bin Laden project. These pictures are beautiful and make full use of the technical advancements of modern photography. There is no red eye in these professional photos, mostly because there are barely any people and focus more on the war-torn landscape who’s former inhabitants are everywhere else seeking refuge. The highlight of the exhibition indeed, but guess what? These photographs are stuck up on the wall of the cafe next door to the actual gallery. So while you are admiring the beautiful purple hue of the sky scarred by the American fighter planes’ jet stream, someone is walking in front of you to fight over the last remaining seat to eat a panini. Regardless, my suggestion for this exhibition is to get yourself a nice soya latte and sip it slowly while you admire the work of Norfolk. Skip the gallery next door and go comic book shopping early.