Sunday, 4 September 2011

Study Visit – Whitechapel Gallery, London – Thomas Struth

On Saturday 3rd September, I attended an OCA Study Visit to the Whitechapel Gallery, where there was an exhibition of photography by Thomas Struth.  In reflecting on the event (and these are immediate reflections, the day after the visit), I want to put it into a context, and a context with a number of strands.

The event is free, which is a great benefit to be had from studying with the OCA, but in this case, of course, it involved time and money travelling from Yorkshire to London, which makes one want to maximise the advantage.  In my case, that included choosing to travel the day before, with my wife, and visiting other galleries/exhibitions – good opportunities for comparison (see later) but also some potential for ‘gallery overload’!

Then there was the unexpected context – that some right-wing group, who shall remain nameless here, chose Saturday to plan a demonstration in Whitechapel, which meant that at least one left-wing group made sure that they would also be present, and which then ‘necessitated’ the presence of several thousand police officers from all over the UK – an unusual atmosphere in which to approach the gallery on Saturday morning!

Thirdly, this was an organised study visit, which naturally implies some formal element.  In this case a representative from the gallery led us around the exhibition, presenting certain background, themes and interpretations; and taking questions.

And then finally, there is the context that one is visiting the exhibition in a group, with others, not on one’s own.  The group included both students and tutors, some of whom I have come to know over the last year or so – a bit like meeting up with old friends – and others who I met for the first time.

Actually, I say finally, but there is perhaps another context.  Independent of this study visit, I happen to have read a fair amount about Struth’s work before.  He is, of course, well respected in the world of art photography so that his work appears in, and is commented on, in many places – two images in Stephen Shore’s ‘The Nature of Photographs’, for example, and in Charlotte Cotton’s ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’.  Even more significantly for me have been the pages devoted to Struth in Michael Fried’s ‘Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before’.  I won’t claim to have fully understood everything written in the latter, but the depth of analysis of Struth’s family portraits and his museum/audience images meant that I came to the exhibition with a fair amount of pre-awareness (baggage?).

And so ... to some reactions ...

It is difficult to ignore scale as a starting point.  Monumental is a word that has been used often about much contemporary art photography in galleries, and it is appropriate here.  Without doubt, seeing the images in this format is a very different experience from seeing them on the pages of books, and entirely different from seeing them on a monitor.  Since Struth intends them to be seen in this way, it is reasonable to assess them as such – but perhaps with one proviso.  Some of us watched a film that accompanied the exhibition, in which Struth talked about his work and specifically walked around the Whitechapel Gallery as the images were propped against the walls waiting to be hung.  He described the Whitechapel space as comparable to a ‘studio visit’ (and Michael Lawton, our guide for the exhibition had also mentioned this in passing); more intimate was the implication, and it might even have been said specifically by Struth.  That makes me wonder.  The images of museum spaces, places of worship etc often look into vast spaces and perhaps, ideally, Struth would see them hanging in similar large-scale galleries.  Certainly, there has to be an appropriate relationship between the size at which an image is presented and the space in which it is placed.  I partly mention it because I heard comment from more than one person that they were uncertain whether they liked the large scale presentation (and, if I’m honest, I was less impressed by it than I expected) and it just makes me reflect as to whether they might have looked different again in a larger, even more formal gallery environment.  No implied criticism of the Whitechapel or the hanging and presentation, just a question that comes to my mind.

That takes me to another topic of discussion that came up as we looked around informally and at leisure after the formal tour.  At this size, images are not as ‘sharp’ in the print as some of us might have expected (though, and again it is just a reflection after the event, I wonder whether some of the newer images were sharper and whether there is a technical development issue – assuming the older images were printed some time ago).  Of course, in a more intimate space we get drawn more easily to look closely at the surface, but I also remember having a similar sensation looked at very large scale prints of Joel Meyerowitz’s ‘Aftermath’ (from 2002) images at the National Media Museum.  Interestingly, I don’t recall this sensation with Simon Robert’s ‘We England’ at the NMM last year.  Since arriving home, I’ve noted another ‘print/presentation’ issue.  Tucked away in a corner at the Whitechapel was Struth’s ‘National Gallery 2, London 2001’ (seen here for sale at Christies – at a price that makes you think!).  In the version on show, and behind reflective Perspex, the left half was so dark that the only thing visible was one’s own reflection.  In the context of an exhibition where many of the works lead us into the issues around viewing art, the significance/role of the viewer etc, that was perhaps quite an effective (deliberate?) notion.  However, when I then look at the print in the exhibition guide and in my copy of Fried’s book, the dark shadow area on the left includes a corner of the gallery space, just visible, and a small segment of the rope that separates the viewer from the work.  Could be I was just careless when viewing it in the gallery, but I think this was a particularly dark version, or it wasn’t helped by the light.

OK – let’s acknowledge; I’m being especially picky here.  However, as I’ve visited more and more photography exhibitions over the last few years, I find myself looking closely at the way images are presented.  As you do that, you start to observe details that do or don’t work particularly well.  The other comparison that I find myself making, after also visiting the V&A and the National Portrait Gallery whilst in London, is how effective, really, are these large ‘gallery-size’ photographic images, as works of art, when one compares them with paintings, for example.  And that comparison (and this has nothing directly to do with the Struth exhibition) gets more complex when I take into account that several of the contemporary paintings on show at the National, in the BP Portrait Awards exhibition, were ultra-realistic, ‘photo-like’ oils.  I’m engaging with a big and complicated issue here, so not a lot of point trying to ask the question about which is best!  And, I have already admitted to the possibility of ‘gallery overload’!

Something else that comes about from regular visits to exhibitions is the tendency to ask the ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ questions.  In the film accompanying the exhibition, Struth came across as a quietly-spoken intellectual, highly thoughtful and quite intense.  His art is, I think, also highly intellectual, which means that the motivational aspect – the ‘Why?’ question – is also going to be complex.  I already knew that from the Fried commentary.  I have commented before in this blog that I am increasingly conscious of the complexity and intensity that goes into the making of art.  Compare Struth with Engstrom, for example, who has also featured in here before.  Both demonstrate this intensity of creativity – but in such different ways.  Struth, as I say, is the intellectual, the analytical, with a creative process that can take a very long time (eighteen months, he said in the film, for an image of Notre Dame, Paris) to produce a single, monumental piece of work that will be presented to us large-scale, but also in the context of ‘big scale’ issues about the nature of cutting edge technology or the meaning of paradise.  Engstrom, on the other hand, emotional and personal, can sometimes fire off spontaneous images that come from the heart and combine together into a series that takes you deep into his (your own) psyche.  I’m probably over-simplifying, but these seem like worthwhile reflections as one tries to unravel one’s own direction.

Picking up on a couple of the points I made earlier about context – I’ll just reflect on the ‘formal’ and ‘group’ aspects of a study visit such as this.  It wasn’t easy for our ‘guide’ to lead a group of 20+ people around a public gallery where there were other ‘paying guests’ around; and we seemed a very large group in a relatively small gallery.  In addition, I got the impression that at times he wasn’t quite sure where to pitch what he was saying to us – whether to go for the full-scale analysis of potentially complex works or just give the edited highlights.  For these reasons, I’m not sure that this formal aspect quite worked for me on this visit.  ‘Looking’ or ‘viewing’ exhibits in a group context isn’t easy anyway.  It has its merits, of course.  You discuss and compare views; you feed off each other; you see things that you wouldn’t see on your own; and so on.  But you don’t (or at least I don’t) spend personal time looking and reflecting and exploring.  I (yes, I’ll turn it back to the personal!) find myself aware of others and less focused on the art.  A sad admission, maybe, but I might be better at attending exhibitions on my own!!  What a loser, you think!

Actually, the greatest thing of all about attending an OCA Study Day such as this one is the interaction with others.  It is invaluable to have the chance for face-to-face exchanges (actually, in an exhibition, it is often side-by-side!) with tutors and students – not just about the exhibition but also the courses, the OCA, art/photography in general, distance learning.  As I said above, some are becoming ‘old friends’ and the network builds each time you meet new people.  Some of us, just before we left, reflected again on the desirability of finding ways to enable more effective interaction and support over the Internet.  That is something to take forward in my Student Association role.

Thanks to Gareth and OCA for organising; thanks to tutors who attended – much appreciated; thanks to fellow students; and sorry that I didn’t get a chance to talk to even more people.  Here’s to next time.

(A monumental blog for some monumental art, I think!!)