Thursday, 26 September 2013

Curiosity - Art and the Pleasure of Knowing

Curiosity - Art and the Pleasure of Knowing is an exhibition that needs more than one visit. I went twice and thoroughly enjoyed myself both times. There was more than enough to see and I could easily go back again. Based at Margate's Turner Contemporary, the exhibition encompasses all manner of art and artifacts. These are collated around the idea of the cabinet of curiosities and collecting in general. The exhibits range from a case of beautiful glass-blown sea creatures, ethnic masks, photography, film, installation art, drawings and some stuffed animals. Personally, I have never thought taxidermy an appropriate pursuit to inflict on an animal but there you go.

Gerard Byrne - Three Connected Sites, 2001 - ongoing. And Figures, 2001 (stills)   

There was so much to take in and I will concentrate mostly on the photography. The first piece of work I want to talk about is by Gerard Byrne. His work 'Three Connected Sites' consisted of three gelatin silver prints - images of driftwood by the shores of Loch Ness contorted into strange shapes by weather and water. Byrne is interested by the matches or disparity between text, images, and reality. He has worked on a decade long project based on the stories and myths that have grown up around the Loch Ness Monster.  The black and white images in themselves are nicely done and are evocative of a cold and bleak walk along a Scottish shoreline. It is the knowledge of the intent of the artist that adds complexity. The images made me think about the strange contorted shapes and how these lumps of wood have most likely been the source of the myth of the monster. How images such as these are then represented through photography (as truth) by the media (either by accident or design). The way that the reading public is eager for such stories (regardless of truth or authenticity) and how easily myths can grow out of that is fascinating.

Incidentally, the presentation of the images is impressive. Byrne had put them inside plexi-glass boxes seamlessly fixed to the gallery wall. The effect was clean and simple and played into the exhibitions concept of collecting. There was also an accompanying piece of film 'figures, 2001' on 16mm film, again in black and white, that explored a field with a caravan and hinted at the slightly crazy concept of Nessie hunters.

Center For Land Use Interpretation - Los Alamos National Laboratory Rolodexes c.1965-78

My only analysis of a non-photographic piece of work is the collection of Rolodexes complete with business cards originally owned by Ed Grothus, a lab technician at Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico. As a set, the Rolodexes have a very strong 'Mad Men' vibe about them. They are cool objects to look at. If they weren't behind glass I would definitely have the urge to flip through the business cards inside. The cards (from the 1970-80s) are flipped open to present information about various contractors and suppliers engaged in business with Los Alamos. A slice of time is presented that engages the viewer to consider the process of Defence Spending, Industry, Capitalism, and how interconnected those forces are to powerfully affect economies and political agendas.

The exhibition catalogue 'Curiosity' gives some information about the aims of CLUI as an organisation:

The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) is a 'research and education organisation interested in understanding the nature and extent of human interaction with the earth's surface'. Since its founding in 1994 in Los Angeles, the Center has amassed a vast archive of images, data and source materials that are used to interpret humanity's imprint on the landscape as a 'cultural inscription', evidence to be read, decoded and understood. (Turner Contemporary, 2013.)

Corinne May Botz - The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, 2004

The artist has photographed the most bizarre dioramas created in the 1940s by Frances Glessner Lee. She was the first woman to work for the Legal Medical Programme at Harvard and used the dioramas, depicting gruesome murder scenes from real cases, to train detectives. The dioramas were built to the scale of one inch to one foot.

The images that May Botz has created are shot from close-up as if the camera is in the room itself - though it is obvious that we are not looking at reality - more like a dolls house. Not all of the diorama is shown. The selected scenes are lit as if real sunlight is coming through a window or a harsh shadow is cast from an overhead bulb that make the subject appear all the more real but yet unreal - almost like a Gregory Crewdson image. They are macabre. The images show the aftermath of a murder - with clues to be looked for. There is a body of a woman on the floor by an open oven - a tiny loaf of bread is visible. A cot in a bedroom with what shockingly looks like blood spatter on the wallpaper above it. The scenes were gripping but repellent. I was reminded of Weegee crime scene images but this time in full colour.

It is interesting how the context of the dioramas have changed from a tool to be used in seminars, to an archive piece that is still sometimes used for its intended purpose, and through to May Botz's photographs as a piece of artwork that sits in a gallery space.

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin - The Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement, 2013

At first glance these dual exposure Polaroids are perplexing. The frame is split into two - depicting a left and right image. The subject appears to be of vegetation although the composition is not identical. One is generally darker than the other or has a colour cast to it. On reading the artists statement I was amazed to find that the Polaroid technology was used in Apartheid era South Africa. The equipment had a special flash setting for correct exposure of dark skin and was used to make ID card images.

Looking again at the images of twigs and bits of shrubbery I tried to analyse the artists intent and came to the conclusion that I was looking at the same thing in both halves - nature. It was only the use of the technology that changed their surface appearance and made the two images appear different. In other words we are dealing with the concept of "the other."

Nina Katchadourian - A Continuum of Cute, 2007-2008. Seat Assignments: Lavatory Self Portraits in the Flemish Style, 2011

Katchadourian had a number of different pieces of work in the exhibition. 'A Continuum of Cute' showing a selection of small animal images arranged on metal tiles, placed side by side, on a long strip of metal shelf is worth a mention. The tiles are arranged from the ugliest to the cutest as categorised by the artist. It was very tempting to re-arrange the tiles according to my own ideas. I like the concept and presentation of this work. There was a dynamism to the piece showing that photographs don't have to be just mounted and framed on a wall.

'Seat Assignments' is a series of work involving the artist in-flight and using her camera phone to create art with materials at hand. The work is still growing and has several categories to the series. The one on display at the Turner Contemporary was the 'Lavatory Self Portraits collection'.

...secluded in an aircraft toilet, Katchadourian swiftly improvised mock-Flemish headgear and ruffs, and struck uncannily apt and familiar poses, which she snapped with her phone. (Turner Contemporary, 2013.)

I love the performance aspect of this work. Using photography to capture the end result of an artistic process is something that I find very fascinating and something I may pursue myself in the future. The images themselves are very effective and clever self-portraits of an artist engaged in her own individual artistic practise.

I thoroughly enjoyed looking at her work and I've made a note to take a further look.

Unfortunately the exhibition has now closed but if it resurfaces anywhere else I thoroughly recommend a visit.


Turner Contemporary Gallery, Margate, Kent. (2013) Exhibition catalogue: Curiosity - Art and the Pleasure of Knowing. South Bank Centre, London, UK: Hayward Publishing.

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