Just as the introduction of photography forced artists to confront the relevance of photorealist painting in the nineteenth century, the relevance of photography as an artistic medium is itself changing in contemporary art discourse. In a world in which everyone is a photographer and everything is relentlessly documented and shared on the global platform of the Internet, the status of the fine art photographer is being challenged. In a current exhibition at the PM Gallery & House in London, curator Gaia Persico brings to the fore another oft-disputed notion: of photography as truth.
A year and a half in the making, The Near and the Elsewhere presents a dialogue of contemporary metropolitan living through the medium of photography and video, bringing together fifteen international artists whose work interprets the modern-day city.
The photographs that are presented to the viewer as they enter the gallery space introduce the two overarching themes that form the axes of the exhibition: the rapid development of cities in the East, and the simultaneous financial downturn in the West, from its beginnings through to the present day. Throughout the exhibition, the unprecedented capitalist progression of Eastern metropolises is juxtaposed against the Western housing crisis, to reveal the gaps in between – ‘the spaces that are left for the citizens to inhabit’ – with the notion of the city versus the individual at its core.
But there is more to it than the façade. Secrets and subtexts linger behind closed curtains and in the decaying walls of an all-American dream home. Each photograph builds upon what Persico calls the ‘layers of expectation and promise, of what should have happened but never did.’ The impression is chilling; of crumbling, flawed or never-realised utopian visions, or in some cases, the dark realities that accompany them.
Michael Wolf’s work presents a harrowing insight into the human decline that accompanies accelerated metropolitan growth, with traces of everyday life barely visible amongst dense reams of monochrome tower blocks in Shanghai. In contrast, Noel Jabbour’s One Million Dollar Houses depicts a series of mansions in Texas that have been abandoned since the crisis. Their pastel hues are swamped in a heavy mist, dissolving their brick-and-mortar constitution into vanishing, wraith-like visions. “For me what was really important about these pieces was the idea of the aspirational, and the reality of what they have actually become; these skeletal, ghostly, menacing structures,” says Persico.
This duality of American idealism and disillusionment resounds in James Casebere’s Landscapes with Houses. The artist conducted research into the built-up areas surrounding New York and New Jersey, from which he created and photographed these imaginary, yet evocative landscapes. His scale-model houses and rolling fields present an unsettling projection of American suburbia’s idyllic cliché. As Persico suggests, it comments upon ‘the utopia of the home, with these sweet, sickly pastel colours, this low lighting. It’s almost perfectly landscaped – almost – but then when you look at the houses closely they’re just models. The scene doesn’t look quite right – not everything is as perfect as it should be.” This destabilizing sensation is heightened by the bright orange fire that smoulders ambiguously outside the perfect reconstruction of a house, and the spatterings of yellow flowers that look like flames upon first glance.
In a teasing gesture towards the conflicting notion of photography as truth, Persico inserts footage or photographs that have been purposefully altered. This is suggested in Edgar Martins’ piece, Untitled (Atlanta, Georgia) from the series This is Not a House, in which a quotidian hallway becomes a passageway to a kind of paradisal, white light. The artist was commissioned to document the housing crash in the United States by the New York Times in 2009; yet when the publication discovered that Martins had intervened with the subject matter, the project was terminated. “When they found that there was manipulation involved – which perhaps only meant moving a few objects around – they pulled the whole series.”
But as Persico exclaims, they had asked an artist not a documentary photographer – by choreographing the image, the artist makes its reality more poignant, its meaning more direct. ‘This is more truthful than truth,’ she says.
But teasing the presumption that a photograph is always a reliable documentation of reality is perhaps most pressingly insinuated in Persico’s own exhibited work; a seemingly perfect, computer-drawn rendering of a faceless building, digitally projected on a glowing screen. Yet upon closer scrutiny, it becomes apparent that hairline cracks in the exterior have been carefully drawn in. The idea of reproducing something using high-definition technology and willfully adding the faults of the subject seems a wittily subversive reaction to this notion.
And the irony extends to the title of the exhibition itself; after all, the near and the elsewhere are not so distinguished now, in this age of Internet culture and rapid globalization. If immediacy is symptomatic of our age, the elsewhere is near to us all.
The Near and the Elsewhere is on display at PM Gallery & House, London from 25 January - 17 March 2012.
Arts and Media Correspondent