Monday, 10 June 2013

Look/13, Liverpool International Photography Festival - Open Eye Gallery


I travelled up for the OCA study day in Liverpool at the weekend to attend the Look/13 Festival. The theme for this years show, that encompassed a number of galleries and spaces across the city, deals with questions of identity and representation. Patrick Henry, the festival Director, states in his introduction to the programme guide that:

The theme of Look/13 is summed up in the question 'who do you think you are?' The festival's programme looks at what happens when we turn the camera on ourselves and others to create images of identity, subjectivity and the self. 

These are interesting and problematic questions that I have recently become much more aware as I progress through my reading list and my level two studies. I'm still coming to grips with a lot of the material and ideas around the self, the concept of 'other,' representation and how identity is defined, named, and controlled through the media.

To try to better understand some of the work and underlying concepts I thought that I ought to do some research before attending the exhibitions. I used the time in my hotel room the night before to read (and re-read) what looked to be relevant essays contained in The Photography Reader, edited by Liz Wells. I concentrated on the chapter concerning image and identity and the essays by:

David A Bailey & Stuart Hall - The Vertigo of Displacement
bell hooks - In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life
Annette Kuhn: REMEMBRANCE: The Child I Never Was

The essays gave me a starting point with which to approach the exhibitions and our study visit began at the Open Eye Gallery on the Liverpool waterfront. The gallery is the first of three that we visited with Keith Roberts, one of the OCA tutors, who also happens to be my tutor for this PWDP module. I will cover the other gallery visits in subsequent posts.


The Open Eye Gallery:

The work of Charles Freger revolves around male identity both individual and collective. He had several sets of sequences on display - each image framed separately and hung horizontally in a linear format. The first sequence was of head and torso shots of Legionnaires in two rows, one directly above the other. The top row was of younger men, bare chested. The row below consisted of older men with beards in full uniform. Freger's sequences are interesting because the images at first appear repetitious and conform to the idea of the men as a collective military group. My eyes on first glance at the sequence darted from image to image missing the detail noting that they all looked the same - even the top group in their nakedness and short military haircuts. It is only on closer inspection and with more time does the differences become more apparent. Different body shape and bone structure come through. Some sport chest hair and/or tattoos - some don't. The eyes and the way that the individual looks at the camera give clues to individual identity. Further time spent with the images reveal that some of the men are standing in slightly different poses their torsos twisted obliquely to the camera. Because of the beards, hats and uniforms, the older men were harder as a viewer to individualise. This is no surprise as controlling governments and regimes have always used the uniform to mask the inherent individual and reinforce the concept of collective identity. They do this to ultimately control and wield these forces against their own and other groups of people. Once again, it is in the eyes that the differences are most easily noted although time and again I felt my gaze drawn away from their individuality by the detail of insignia on hats, sashes and colourful medals.

I liked Freger's other sequence of boys performing the Maori Haka in their school uniforms. In each image (if I remember rightly) the boys are in pairs, sometimes with arms linked. Their faces bear the familiar Maori line-markings. In sharp contrast to this tradition they are wearing their brightly coloured school jumpers with black trousers. The primary red or blue of the jumpers sits very effectively against the green grass and blue sky that dissects the background. Unlike the 'Legionnaires,' in the 'Short School Haka' sequence, the notion of collective and individual identity is combined into single images rather than separated out. The poses of the boys are dynamic as they perform the ritual Haka dance and they appear to clearly be enjoying themselves. As a minority group the Haka images raise the prospect of the concept of "other." By showing the boys in this way a proud tradition is represented but alongside the juxtaposition of modern-day school uniforms is the artist highlighting an issue of representation and racial stereotyping?

Eva Stenram's work "Drape" was on display in the upper gallery. This work involved found imagery that has been digitally manipulated. The images appear to be of models posing in rooms furnished sometime around the 1960s or 70s. The images have been manipulated so that drapes of curtain from the background now mostly obscure the foreground model. The models (always women) are only identified by protruding arms or legs from the drapery. The images are B&W and they look quite surreal. I think the found images may have once originated from the soft porn publishing industry and by interfering with the original intent the supposed sexual charge has dissipated - leaving the viewer to contemplate the ludicrous poses formed by the disembodied limbs and highlighting the issue of representation of women as sexual objects.

The work on display at this gallery was interesting and thought provoking. I have only covered a small section of the work and in the next post will move on to another of the galleries taking part in Look/13.

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