Category Archives: Features

War of Images / Images of War

It’s that time of year again. The leaves are glowing crimson, the air is crisp, and out have come the chunky knits and felt coats (and, to my horror, Ugg boots, again!). Autumn has made a welcome return, and this year she brings with her the 2008 Brighton Photo Biennial.

 

That's right!

That's right!

The BPB is a high-profile event in the international photographic calendar. Showcasing images by profession and amateur photographers alike, the BPB comprises ten exhibitions held at various venues in Brighton and around the South-East coast (of England, not Guernsey, dear reader). The purpose of the festival is not only to celebrate international photographic practice, but also to provoke topical debate.

This year’s Biennial, guest curated by writer and critic, Julian Stallabrass, lives up to this aim. For the past few years, we have been bombarded by images of Iraq and Afghanistan; so much so that, in this age of spin, we have come to question the integrity of the photographic image. How much of war photography is about depicting a reality, and how much of it is heavily biased by political allegiances? Such questions are raised by 2008’s Biennial, which offers the public a look at a range of images taken and circulated during times of conflict.

 

Philip Jones Griffith's 'Vietnam' (1967)

The BPB’s focal exhibition, Iraq through the Lens of Vietnam, explores the idea that images of Iraq have conjured into public consciousness grisly memories of Vietnam. The layout of the exhibition leads the visitor to look first at Vietnam and then at Iraq. It urges the viewer to consider how the photographic documentation of how Vietnam has informed the images we now see online and in the mainstream press. One of the legacies of Vietnam is the ideologically-charged photo, and what is made its strong influence on the photographic representation of Iraq.

This is highlighted by the contrast between presentations of (apparently) heroic US soldiers in soft-focus, and horrifying snapshots of dismembered Iraqi civilians. The ‘image war’ spoken of by Donald Rumsfeld is starkly illuminated. It is made even more apparent by the depiction of children in each; on the one hand, kids are shown playing football with Western soldiers, and on the other, they are shown as the victims of cruel and indiscriminate warfare. The news editors on both sides certainly know how to attract the sympathetic public gaze.

 

Abu Ghraib detainee, from camera of Cpl. Charles A Graner
Abu Ghraib detainee, from camera of Cpl. Charles A Graner

It is this focus on how the images are used, as well as the obvious issue of what they depict, that makes the theme of this year’s Biennial particularly powerful. Rather than acting simply as a crusade against war, it probes deeper to show us how images are used by all sides to shape public opinion. Essentially underpinning this is a reflection on our own global culture, a culture saturated by image and the news equivalent of fast-food. We are forced to question our faith in the media – an act of independence which is, surely, a good thing.

Despite delving into the deeper implications of today’s images of conflict, there is one thing about the Biennial that really sticks: the undeniable horror and inhumanity of war. Photographers on the opposition may have been photographing with an agenda in mind, but their visual documentations of the ravages of war do not lie.

As the economic Winter draws in, such images are being replaced by falling graphs of the Dower Jones Index. Ultimately, in the face of this media shift, this year’s Brighton Photo Biennial is a crucial reminder of what is still tragically going on in the world. Its tone is sombre, and at times harrowing. It is also informative, and absolutely necessary.

The Brighton Photo Biennial runs until the 23rd November. For more information visit www.bpb.org.uk

Toot Sweet

XEROX Issue 3

Nice Can!

It is the last surviving relic of Guernsey’s Norman ancestry, with a pedigree of nearly one thousand years. It’s the pride of every true Guernsey home, be it a granite cottage, a farmhouse, or the fancy manor of a feudal fief. Oh yes, it’s the Guernsey Can.

 

 

Check out those cans! Okay, so the joke's getting old already

Check out those cans!

 

Its function is now purely decorative, but it was used in industry as late as the beginning of the 20th Century. The design of the can has changed very little over the years. The functionality and ergonomics of the original can cannot be disputed. The traditional Guernsey Field Can was made from tin plate steel and was soldered on the outside. It was constructed from 10 or 11 individual pieces, depending on which one of the 17 different sizes was being made. The neck of the Guernsey Field Can has a proportionally larger circumference compared to the smaller sized table cans. The larger opening makes for a bigger target during milking, and means the neck is lower down the spherical body of the can, resulting in a lower more stable centre of gravity. The can is made steadier by three domed feet, which offer maximum stability on a grassy surface. The spherical shape of the can offers a handy fit between the maid’s legs during milking, whilst minimising the amount of milk slopping out of the top. The narrow opening means that the can has an advantage over a bucket as it is less prone to being tipped by stray cows’ feet.

These design features mean that, ergonomically, the Guernsey Can is incredibly strong. Rather like an egg, it can carry the maximum amount of liquid possible using the minimum of materials. The modern half pint can is constructed from just one 8.5 inch square of half millimeter copper. Although the can does not have a spout, its ingenious design means it will pour with the precision of a jug, and yet can be hermetically sealed.

 

 

A man and his can, some years ago

A man and his can, some years ago

 

The transition from the practical Guernsey Can to a decorative feature is a point of debate. Some believe that the combination of the introduction of new materials such as plastic together with the influx of tourism during the 1950’s played a big part in the shift. Some of the oldies out there might even remember that Guernsey was also keen to embrace the introduction of the Tetra Pak closely followed by the stylish milk bag.

All in all, the Guernsey Can is an amazing legacy of Guernsey tradition, combining efficiency with aesthetics. Yet surprisingly few Guerns are aware of the cans and their rich history. Well, consider yourself informed!

You can learn more about Guernsey Cans at www.guernseycans.co.uk

Rostone

XEROX Issue 3

Hirst: The Art Market’s Pickle

Damien Hirst, currently the highest-earning contemporary artist, shocked the art world recently by making the revolutionary decision to sell his latest works directly through the auction house.

 

 

Hirst Lego love

Hirst Lego love

 

It’s not the first time he’s stirred up controversy. Hirst makes no secret of the fact that he has a workshop of artists to produce his many weird and wonderful creations – but then, why should he? For as long as art has been recognised as an industry, masters have had assistants to aid the rate of production of their work. Is this, in essence, any different? The focus of modern art today seems to lie not so much in the actual manufacture of the works, but rather the concept behind it. One would hardly be able to present such a saleable collection of works by simply employing a group of young artists to come and work in an empty workshop; there needs to be a driving force, which the artist’s concept provides.

I spoke to one employee of Hirst’s business enterprise, Science Ltd., who seemed quite content to have what is essentially his own work sold under another’s name, regardless of the price it was sold for, and even seemed to regard the whole experience as a privilege. Surely one could become slightly bitter about the whole situation, when something they have done most of the work for is being sold for hundreds of thousands of pounds, suggesting that perhaps it is just his branding that makes these pieces sell like proverbial hot cakes.

 

 

Hirst's 'The Dream' (2007)

Hirst's 'The Dream' (2007)

 

 

As I walked around his latest collection, entitled Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, there was a sense of being inside a shop, with his signature spot paintings seemingly purchasable in every colour under the sun. In fairness, that is, to all intents and purposes, what an auction house is: a place where items are bought and sold. But the fact that an overwhelming majority of these works were sold to first time buyers at Sotheby’s gives us the impression that they are now predominantly considered to be sound investments at a time when little else is. They are the latest commodity of the über wealthy.

I can’t help but wonder whether Damien is actually just having a laugh at the expense of the entire art market. There certainly is a sense of irony in the millions of pounds he will receive for work that in many ways serves to critique the pursuit or idolisation of material wealth. In this most recent collection, The Golden Calf (yet another of Hirst’s formaldehyde-pickled animals) is a Biblically-inspired reference to exactly that. Hirst’s entrepreneurial approach is pretty transparent here, making him an easy target for criticism, but you’ve got to admit that where contemporary art is concerned, he’s got vision.

Southern Fairy

XEROX Issue 3

Turnip Eyes

We’re experiencing a crisis of engagement with the Turner Prize. In many ways, maybe it’s not surprising. Since it started in 1984, it has borne the brunt of countless critiques and attacks from all sides for its undemocratic approach and often-controversial shortlists. How can the average visitor be expected to view the show without prejudice, when the media has set it up as the emblem of everything that is supposedly wrong with British art today?

 

 

Many viewers approach the show with pre-meditated contempt, unwilling to take their experience of the exhibition at face value. This metaphorical barrier might be down to a lack of confidence in our own convictions. Countless visitors to the exhibition, if not unwilling, feel inadequately prepared to initiate a personal response to the works. It is widely assumed that the Turner Prize shortlists a particular type of art, a type that uses unusual media and presents a complex conceptual message: work that is believed to
be ‘difficult’.

Many people feel that an advanced knowledge of contemporary art is required to extract meaning from the work. They are further alienated when they consult the captions on the wall, and their thoughts do not accord with the supplied interpretation. Curators can say all they want about dichotomies or questioning of the self, but by placing these assertions on the gallery walls, I think they’re contributing to the widespread disillusionment with the Prize that was only too evident at this year’s exhibition.

Goshka Macuga’s installation is an assemblage of several seemingly divergent works. A rainstorm, drawn simply in pencil, covers each wall. On top of this hangs a series of surreal scale-bending photo-collages depicting such things as an anatomically drawn hand touching the tip of a rocky cliff. Dominating the room are three large glass and metal geometric constructions with names like Deutsches Volk-Deutsches Arbeit. It’s all pretty subtle: concerted looking is rewarded with some interesting visual material, but it isn’t easy to see any connection between the works. Consult the caption, and you’re informed that it is, in fact, all about the relationships between Paul Nash and Eileen Agar and Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich. Apparently, we’re welcome to consider a political reading related to the promotion of German industry too. Well that was obvious, wasn’t it?

 

 

Goshka Macuga's 'Objects in Relation' (2007)

Goshka Macuga's 'Objects in Relation' (2007)

 

Glasgow-based artist Cathy Wilkes has installed two supermarket checkouts, female mannequins, dirty dishes and various other paraphernalia of modern life in the next room of the exhibition space. One near-naked mannequin wears a hamster cage on her head as she leans back onto the checkout, pushchair alongside. On the conveyor belt are rows of dirty bowls, some of them containing a single upright battery. What does it all mean? A depiction of a post-credit crunch Tesco? A feminist critique of women’s place in society? A celebration of the energy-giving powers of a bowl of porridge in the morning? The most interesting thing about this surreal installation is the variety of interpretations that could be drawn from its many layers. It seems pretty brutal to terminate all that before it has begun by proclaiming that it shows, as the exhibition text baldly declares, an ‘uncompromising questioning of the self’. 

Runa Islam’s films are perhaps the most visually pleasing works in the show. One depicts a woman slowly and gracefully smashing chintz crockery, the cups and saucers viewed in detail to accentuate their delicate physical qualities. However, the repetition, stillness and silence of the films, as with a lot of video art, seemed to put off many audience members, who hurried through these works after only watching for a few seconds. Perhaps this time I can’t lay all the blame on the captions or the Prize itself, but it’s certainly true that since its inception, video art has not been the easiest of media for art novices, or even art nerds, to engage with.

 

 

Runa Islam's 'Be The First To See What You See As You See It' (2008)

Runa Islam's 'Be The First To See What You See As You See It' (2008)

 

Maybe this is why Mark Leckey was so popular with the massive number of visitors, who, on the comments board in the final room, made comments like, ‘Leckey speaks to the people’. The artist-narrated video that forms the centre piece of his submission features mass culture references to The Simpsons, Garfield and the Titanic, as Leckey muses on varying subjects such as cinema and cats. I’m not trying to make out that the Turner Prize audience only ‘got’ it when they had something easily recognisable explained to them, or indeed that people liked it simply because it was the end, and they were finally offered the chance to sit in a comfortable chair. But after the ridiculously complex jargon of the exhibition’s captions, it was certainly a relief to hear some down-to-earth conversation.

It is an interesting, but not ground breaking shortlist, an exhibition in which there is plenty to move, amuse and engage the audience. Given the problematic framework in which the work is now presented, the question of whether or not the artists will get the reception they deserve is another matter entirely. 

The Turner Prize 2008 exhibition is showing at the Tate Britain until the 18th January 2009. You can learn more about it at www.tate.org.uk/britain/turnerprize

Lady Muck

XEROX Issue 3

No Island Is An Island

Tell someone you’re from Guernsey, and their reaction is one of mild pity. Small islands like ours are too often characterized as socially conservative backwaters, where those in the international art world fear to tread. However, noone can deny that the times have been a-changing. Galleries have been springing up all over the Old Quarter, and we’ve also seen the birth of Guernsey Arts Commission. Nevertheless, there is still more that could be done to develop Guernsey’s art scene.

At the recent Art and Islands Conference at Castle Cornet, this was the one item on the agenda. Important cultural figures from across the world gathered to discuss how islands could be successful settings for contemporary art.

 

Castle Cornet, Guernsey

Castle Cornet, Guernsey

 

Professor Godfrey Baldacchino (Research Chair in Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island) spoke about the inferiority complex often developed by islanders. This particularly applies to Guernsey: we might talk proudly of our butter, beanjar and beaches, but this often conceals a deeper feeling that we are a provincial backwater. However, the supposedly ‘limiting’ characteristics of island life should not be seen as a disadvantage. Islands are often run by independent jurisdictions, and islanders often become set in ways that outsiders might see as eccentric; Baldacchino argues that island life naturally produces a different type of person from life on a continent, in the same way as evolution produces uniquely adapted species in isolated places.

The popular fascination of islands as sites of myth and exoticism actually gives them a particular attraction to creative types, which Richard Florida has dubbed a ‘high bohemian index’. Mervyn Peake, Antony Gormley, Victor Hugo and Auguste Renoir have all found creative inspiration in Guernsey’s unique landscape. Indeed, the island has been a creative hotbed since prehistoric times: in the first lecture of the conference, Professor Colin Renfrew declared that the Castel Church menhir-statue is one of the earliest examples of figurative sculpture in the British Isles. He also reminded islanders that some of the earliest architectural remains in Europe can be found at the Les Fouaillages site in the Vale. These are attractions for any discerning art tourist, but the conference revealed that Guernsey has the potential for countless new contemporary arts projects.

 

Antony Gormley at the Castle for the conference

Antony Gormley at the Castle for the conference

 

In today’s expanding art world, new fairs, projects and biennials open each year in seemingly unlikely places. Over the course of the event, speakers discussed inspiring projects that have achieved success in far-flung and unexpected locations. Maaretta Jaakuri’s Artscape Nordland placed contemporary sculptures across one of the most remote provinces of Norway. Speakers also discussed Estuaire, a French biennial project in the Loire valley where artworks were installed along the river from Nantes to St Nazaire.

Nick Ewbank’s presentation on the current cultural development of Folkestone was perhaps most pertinent to Guernsey’s situation. In this Kent town, described by Ewbank as a ‘metaphorical island’, a committee has taken several steps. They have launched a triennial, opened an academy specialising in arts and European culture, and subsidised the development of a creative quarter in the old town.

Inspiring stuff, but it’s all much easier to sit back and imagine than to carry out. Funding seems to be one of the major preventative issues. A ‘percent for culture’ idea, where one percent of all financial transaction fees were given to cultural projects, was suggested. The Irish have solved the problem by offering tax incentives for writers and artists. Natalie Melton from Arts and Business focussed on the mutual benefits that can be reaped from businesses’ sponsorship of art initiatives, something that should surely be encouraged in Guernsey. Although they were invited, barely any representatives from Guernsey’s financial sector attended the conference, a sign that they might still require some convincing.

 

Dr Ihor Holubizky, a speaker from the conference, visits the Little Chapel

Dr Ihor Holubizky, a speaker from the conference, visits the Little Chapel

 

In today’s expanding cultural milieu, there is no reason why small islands like Guernsey cannot assert themselves in the domain of international contemporary art projects. There are challenges to overcome, not least the issue of facilitating communication between benefactors and stakeholders. But after spending two days immersed in optimistic discussions of culture and its place in island society, I’m feeling pretty excited about the future of art on our funny little outcrop of rock. 

This is only the tip of the archipelago – check out these websites for more on art and islands:

www.arts.ggwww.estuaire.infowww.folkestonetriennial.org.ukwww.skulpturlandskap.nowww.islandstudies.ca

Lady Muck

XEROX Issue 3