A brief holiday review here, with the chance discovery of the Festival Pil’Ours in France: an outdoor, multi-site exhibition of work by ten female documentary photographers across the region of St Gilles Croix de Vie. It’s a fitting reflection of the holiday mode that sometimes we encounter photography incidentally, without seeming to connect with its directive in normally prescribed ways. Here, at three sites on our family’s travels, a windmill at St Révérend, the coastal promenade of St Gilles Croix de Vie, and visiting a church at La Chaize Giraud, we found the work of Sanja Knezevic, Maan Youssouf Ahmed and Yagazie Emezi (above) respectively.
What I noticed wasn’t so much the depth and strength of the artist’s portfolios, but the impact of the surrounding setting and the kind of detached engagement which this al fresco photography seems to encourage. At no point did the information provided at the sites mention any competition website, artist website, social media, or even email, in order to find out more. The global Pil’Ours logo communicates an international reach, and so do the subjects of photographers based in Nigeria, Serbia, and elsewhere; yet frustratingly they seemed unreachable. This absence of physical and digital linking, both outwards and between subjects, is a telling one for revealing a hermeneutic premised on one-way dissemination of information – there is no connectivity to the experience of viewing these works. One artist’s work in St Gilles (Alexia Webster) was vandalised, her portraits of South Africans scratched over with gouges and swastikas, which, aside from the politics involved, suggests that a hermeneutics of information at some level denies conversation. When an interpretation may be defiantly expressed in a negative way, it is perhaps the absence of a more positive one that has failed in the context of international promotion. In terms of local promotion however, the sense of a three-dimensional frame for each image I found quite exciting – the visual dynamic of 2-dimensional work changes when the background is a space one occupies and walks in. It gives the setting a new prominence, even agency, because we are in it and we become foregrounded. Perhaps that too is an invitation to interaction, to a more communal, conversational form of engagement with photography – seen perhaps most promisingly in the collective spirit of Shutterhub’s contribution to the show, a series of contact-sheet style images from over 70 female photographers. Here indeed, partly in the group’s theme of female empowerment, and partly in its celebration on social media, there was a sense of activating the subject-matter for new audiences and within new places.
The Pallant House Gallery is showing the touring exhibition Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by Her Artworks, until 16th September (previously at the Tate St Ives, and continuing to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 2nd October – 9th December). The display of over 80 female artists, from 1854 to the present day, nominally explores the inspiration of Woolf’s writings through artists who work across a variety of media, from film to photography, from painting to collage, from installation to sculpture. The mix presents a record of ‘the vast scope of the female experience’ and a scoping of ‘alternative ways for women to be’ (from the press release). Let’s own a bit of my own limited female experience here, by acknowledging from the outset that I know nothing about Virginia Woolf and have never read her work. I will be blogging again about her later this year, in a spirit of reckoning with those texts as they might relate to her family’s positioning on the Bible, especially in the light of her sister Vanessa Bell’s involvement with the Berwick Church murals in Sussex (and her photography for the same). That presents a more specific opportunity to relate the artistic-literary impulses of the Bloomsbury set to Christianity and the Bible, which does not run in the currents of this exhibition. Instead here, I found myself sifting lines of feminist art practice not from Woolf outwards, but across modernism and across photography and across the exhibition’s four themes of landscape, still life/the home, the self in public, and the self in private.
I confess myself disappointed in the shrinking of ‘the vast scope of the female experience’ to these themes. Where are the rooms themed ‘God’, ‘war’, or ‘technology’? When the exhibition does introduce a perspective of engagement that steps outside the framed exhibits, as with France-lise McGurn’s multi-coloured meandering lines painted across the walls of Room 10 (above), or with Eleanor Smith’s Shrimp Shell wallpaper-like embellishments for Room 13, these remain confined by a decorative, essentially harmless, tone for what is the more serious business of a serious story. And that in turn is failed by dislocated glimpses into whole lives of intentionality reduced to labelled observations of female bodies, vases, or fields. It is perhaps unfair to expect deeper, more rigorous, explorations of the female mind in such an eclectic and ranging collection of works, but the effect for me was to suggest that female experience aligns with precisely these qualities of eclecticism and reductive scatter-brained attention.
I did think, however, that photography was well-represented. In that sense, an ownership of medium presented itself through particular female artists where I hadn’t seen it before – to me, the ownership of the camera/photograph, as opposed to the ownership of painting still-life, or the ownership of minimalist sculpture practices, or the ownership of the pen, is already a very different feminist exercise. The 1920s and 1930s saw Claude Cahun pre-date Cindy Sherman with self-portraiture as a constructed get-up of identity, while Eileen Agar and Edith Rimmington take the collaged image into surrealism and the unconscious. They hustle themselves through younger conventions of the medium’s transparency, a transparency hitched to self-representation and the document and less to the objecthood of the subject. I like Agar’s dancing ‘feminine type of imagination’ (her words), and Cahun’s Judith or Salomé (not in the exhibition) become a biblical look-in before Sherman’s series of the same. A later cluster of 1970s work introduced me to Penny Slinger, Hannah Wilke, and Birgit Jürgenssen. Slinger’s series of collages over seven years, titled ‘An Exorcism’, evoke a force of emancipation that can only be expressed through pseudo-spiritual terms of release from ‘spirits of the past and other people’s ideas of them’.
Is it a mark of the museum/gallery curator practices (or funding directives) that the threads of emphasised significance, the statements about this or that art work, have to express historic value over and above other values? I felt a tension in the exhibition between historic female artists held up as exemplary for their positions in a story of emancipation, and between the contemporary female artists held up as exemplary by association with that story. The former are somehow confirmed, the latter remain unconfirmed by history, yet are pressed into that line. The former includes the small self-portrait by Louise Jopling (1877, in the gold frame, top image), a founder of a painting school for women in the nineteenth century, while the latter includes Zanele Muholi’s photographic self-portrait Bona, Charlottesville (2015, top image, right). It’s not that I think contemporary work can’t be important for history – of course it can and will be. Rather, to stress the activist, political thread here in these stridently progressive terms (Muholi brings her South African identity to questions of gender, racism, and homicide) is actually a limiting operation for what I think is the present-tense meaning of art made now, particularly photography. Recent photography categorically resists historical significance: it is life in front of us. And there is an ‘us’, into which its mode of meaning plays – not the ‘them’ of history. To speak to, or with, an ‘us’ is ideologically miles apart from the posture of ‘them’. For every expanding photographic gaze on different corners and perspectives of our world, the inscribing frame is one of collective and continuity (even if speaking of difference within it, as with Muholi). The viewing implications are of responsibility rather than influence, of a horizontal relation of humanity rather than a vertical one of intellectual patterning. As I said of another collective exhibition ‘Tribe’ earlier this year, 21st-century feminism is, I think, ‘less about feminist politicisation, more about feminine vocalisation’. We need to recognise this interactivity in the viewing and making of art in this space, and photography puts us there, centre frame.
It’s a commonplace to find photography and the Bible linked through particularly simple illustration: if you pick up any modern guide to the Bible, you’ll invariably find a book or website with photographs of the landscape of Palestine and Syria, or of its flora & fauna, or of archaeological remains. Occasionally an image might zone in on an object given particularly rich symbolic significance in the text, like a vine or a dove. Invariably, the context of the illustration delimits the use of the image, ‘this is what it says’ becomes a closed line of reference, each in collusion with the other. To me, there’s a redundancy and a poverty, linguistically, in this arrangement. Ok to establish some concretion of the Bible and world, but it doesn’t reflect the elasticity of the text itself very well. MUCH more interesting to me is the impetus of an artist for whom the linking of photographs and biblical text is a chance to change the game, to ask questions that make the relation a more open question of reference.
This piece, Quarantania, by Tacita Dean is one such exploration. It’s by far my favourite in her London take-over this summer at the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Royal Academy. She has been given a landmark triptych of shows, all of which I visited in order to write a review for the forthcoming autumn issue of Art & Christianity. There’s a lot of work, and a lot of film, this being the medium for which she is most celebrated. She is at her best, in my opinion, when the landscape and the still life (two of the gallery themes) present opportunity to engage more widely across other media, other time-frames, other ideologically separate concepts (than that of self-conferring artist portraits). And one of these is the Bible. We find it as a premise for her film Antigone, an opening reference to the sojourn of the Israelites in the desert. We find it in the curated arrangements that include a painting of John the Baptist’s head, or a communion plate. We find it in some of her chalk drawings of the natural world. And we find it in Quarantania.
Mount Quarantania is found in the desert between Jericho and Jerusalem, and is also referred to as the Mount of Temptation. It is notionally the site where Jesus was tempted by the devil before he began his three-year ministry as recorded at the start of the synoptic gospels, in most detail in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. Dean’s seven-panel work, each comprising 3 photo-mechanically printed sections, has a filmmaker’s sense of framing, even spooling, across what is a panoramic capturing of rockface and desert expanse. The lurid sky and seeping distant terrain have an apocalyptic oppression, and the only release of air seems to come from the dust of the chalk writing which scallops across parts of the scene. This breath, these whispers, are fragments of reading from/around the Bible. There are identifiers, ‘place of temptation’, ‘Satan’s Step’, ‘Judaen desert’. There are questions, ‘where are you JC?’, ‘alone?’. There are emphasised statements, ‘bread or SATISFACTION’, ‘hedonism, egoism and materialism, WEALTH’. Clustered around a scattering of pots in the fifth panel are the numbers 1 to 40, and the words ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’. Unlike a book illustration, where the texts pedagogically read the image, here the image seems to practise a reading of the text. And its ‘reading’ is like breathing, an organic reaction emerging from the cracks and fissures in the rock, not scripted around gridded lines of text. Conversation not proclamation. Hybridity not homogeneity. Imaged not written. In this sensitivity, something of an exploration is going on, in which Dean reaches for mythical/Scriptural attachment to place and uses it to inhabit her own engagement with the landscape and its representation. It is a theology of place no less, an interweaving/interleaving of Bible and world with self.
Overall winner and Photographer of the Year at this year’s Sony World Photography Awards is Alys Tomlinson for her series Ex-Voto. A British winner for the first time in ten years, Tomlinson presents a series of black and white photographs across the genres of portrait, landscape, and still life exploring the geography and legacies of particular European pilgrimage sites. In Lourdes (France), Ballyvourney (Ireland), and Grabarka (Poland), a distillation of details with carved crosses in rocks, suspended animation in forest clearings, and quietly direct faces form a study in contemplation that reaches for depth in faith and history.
It is a superlative achievement, rendered with a poise and sincerity that seemed to eclipse the noisy exuberance of other entries. Tomlinson entered in the category for professional photographers called ‘Discovery’, new this year to the competition. It appears to tap a vein of invested story-telling, something that goes beyond the documentary, externalised interest of other places and people. Also shortlisted in this category was the series Els Enfarinat by Antonio Gibotta, in which scenes of ‘the Floured’s War’ are shown taking place in Ibi, Spain every December – a flamboyant festival of smoke, fireworks, and enacted combat with reverberations in the biblical festival of the Day of the Innocents. Both Gibotta’s work and Tomlinson’s reveal ‘discoveries’ that suggest an internalised interest, a connection of world with something soulfully and historically meaningful. In this case, perhaps surprisingly, it is also Christian. Here an observant photography, far from being blind to cultural politicisation of the visual field, or blind to the global, diversifying, colour of the contemporary environment can also see the Bible, the horizon of Christian faith, and the sincerely held habits of belief in European traditions. Further, it can do so without suspicion, without irony, and with a lens porous to the visual meaningfulness of spiritual observance.
Tomlinson herself feels the attraction of simple faith, though she does not share it. Her time at the pilgrimage sites grew out of a residency at Lourdes at the Marie Saint-Frai in 2014. Her long-term project there had spanned her studies for an MA in Anthropology of Travel, Tourism, and Pilgrimage (SOAS), during which time she continued in documentary and editorial photography. But it was the contrary impetus of a world defined by ‘the peace and the space that people carve out to just sit and think’, as she has said in interview, that drew her attention. In this sense, Tomlinson’s recognition of faith is registered in images that seem to concentrate slowed time and intentionality. Her own perspective shifts in what is immersive sympathy with, and not simply conceptual accommodation of an ‘other’ community. The views in the photographs imply her own viewing directness, the near-tactility of objects, and the self-positioning of her gaze – not to mention the aesthetic of black-and-white across different focal zones. There’s a hum to the series as a whole that resists any suggestion of artful distance, instead resonating with the personal effects of a certain kind of reflective action. The portrait above bears comparison, for example, to an August Sander portrait from 1921. The frontal pose and the framing of the figure against a blurred background give the same nominal setting for the same subject, but Sander keeps the societal difference and the signs of his classification in view (as evidenced in his 1929 publication Face of Our Time), whereas Tomlinson renders at life-size an immediacy and vulnerability of person. Across her series indeed, we find this attentive and searching gaze, reflected and held in a vision that is at once photographic and spiritual.
2 weeks’ holiday on Hayling Island in April afforded me the first opportunity to go and visit Julia Margaret Cameron’s home on the Isle of Wight. Named Dimbola Lodge after Dimbula in Sri Lanka, where her husband’s business in tea and coffee plantations had taken her in the 1840s, Dimbola was her family home from 1860-1875. By all accounts, the home became her abundantly creative domain for family and photography, and it was here that she turned her chicken house into a studio for her wet plate processing (not preserved today at the site) – a time-consuming and dextrous version of photography, in which the tasks of arranging and sitting her subjects for portraiture were further extended by glass plate developing and then positive print production. In the 1860s especially, she devoted herself to this work, saying to a would-be reviewer,
I work with more zeal and rapidity than can be supposed, and this I can illustrate to you when I tell you that I took last week 35 life-sized Portraits and printed 62 in 5 days time and I work without any assistance printing my own prints – varnishing my own glasses – continuing till 2am & recommencing at 7am.
[“A letter by Julia Margaret Cameron”, Graham Smith and Mike Weaver, History of Photography 27:1 (2003), p.66]
Visiting it today, and indeed with the label ‘museum’, I found it hard to recover the vitality and energy of her story in this place. The building is somewhat tired in places, accommodating enough for tourist pilgrims needing a tea-room stop but somehow missing the dynamism of, say, Lacock Abbey as Fox Talbot’s home. Of course it is much smaller – a gentleman with a country seat (and the National Trust’s later patronage) is not the same as a society lady married into a shrinking colonial business. I found myself asking whether this effect of geographical and historical ‘outposting’ is something to do with the way UK heritage is set up to receive and commend the efforts of patriarchal success, but not matriarchal success. The museum has some wonderful prints to show, but it also gives us Cameron’s bedroom in a flurry of Victorianised domesticity with inordinate attention to furnishings (which are also proudly announced as speculative), while in the same breath elevating a roll call of those more esteemed figures with whom she was associated.
It is the creep again of the fine art vaunting of Cameron, to which I am giving more attention elsewhere, that relocates her work within a high modernist intellectual tradition – something that isolates her vision in black and white austerity and certain emulative acceptability (usually to do with male subjects as themselves, and female subjects as models). In a way, this develops reasonably enough on a body of work that doesn’t lend itself to mundane identifications of place and situation – her studio photographs (which form ninety-nine percent of her output) deliberately play to her ideals of truth and beauty, with minimised background setting, close-up framing, and painterly compositions. The strands of this more serious discourse around her tend to eclipse the possibility of finding something different about her at Dimbola. I would love to see a family tableaux vivant recreated, or her effusive letters (written at about the same pace as her print production), but the museum would rather show cabinets of old cameras. I would love to get a sense of her church life, her neighbourly interaction, whether she went to ‘take the air’ down on the beach, but instead we get a ponderous voiceover that retells what every photo-history resource repeats about her (the amateurism of her soft focus and its reception). My kids loved the dressing up room, and I wonder if they too were reaching for a recreation of JMC’s spirit here – her dressing up went beyond play, into the sincerity of assuming Christian identification with figures such as Mary and the angel at the tomb. There must be other ways to highlight this, to bring a rich, resonant, feminine, spiritual credibility to light. I think the floor is open for something new here, but it remains to be seen at Dimbola.